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Thomas M., Meet Tom
Posted By David Yezzi On September 1, 2008 @ 9:18 am In Featured,Reviews,September 2008: Tom Disch Memorial Issue | No Comments
Thomas M. Disch. The Priest: A Gothic Romance. Alfred A. Knopf 1995. 352 pp.
Tom Disch. Dark Verses & Light. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1991. 144 pp.
Tom Disch. Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poems. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1989. 112 pp.
Thomas M. Disch. The Tale of Dan De Lion. (Drawings by Rhonda McClun.) Coffee House Press 1986. 25 pp.
Thomas M. Disch. Camp Concentration. Carroll & Graf 1982. 175 pp.
Thomas M. Disch. On Wings of Song. Carroll & Graf 1979. 359 pp.
Tom Disch. About the Size of It Anvil 2007, 157 pp.
As Reviewed By: David Yezzi
The artist’s task is patiently
To stalk it. Catch it, classify.
(from “For Marilyn Hacker”)
If the artist’s work is to classify, then at least, Tom Disch suggests, he should do so patiently, pinning and labeling his scarabs of insight in careful taxonomy. Such cataloguing and grunt work, the artist-cum-scientist hopes, may on a good day garner the highest prize: discovery. On closer inspection, the common silverfish yields up a surprising, aberrant strain and carries from then on the finders’ names in the field-books. Because there’s very little new under the entomologist’s sun, such breakthroughs are rare; likewise in literature. Writers construct personal taxonomies, similarly labeling and ordering their subjects. Breakthroughs carry their authors’ names: Jamesian syntax, Joycean portmanteau, Herbertian typography. Short of creating new feeling, writers chart sensations only dimly present to us because we have no words to express them. The Adamic poet’s moniker gives to airy nothing a local street address. Since Stevens’s mysterious “mind of winter,” attention turns in a snowy wood more readily to “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” a sense somehow more palpable for his having named it. Here, riotously standing Joyce Kilmer on his head, is Disch on the subject:[private]
I think that I shall never read
A tree of any shape or breed-
For all its xylem and its phloem-
As fascinating as a poem.
While trees just grow, a poem explains,
By precept and example, how
Leaves develop on the bough
And new ideas in the mind.
A sensibility refined
By reading many poems will be
More able to admire a tree
Than lumberjacks and nesting birds
Who lack a poet’s way with words
And tend to look at any tree
In terms of utility.
Kilmer’s earnest chestnut from the pages of Poetry, admired by Yeats, is here admirably cracked and roasted, but not wantonly so. Disch’s point comes clear: Each poet classifies “ideas in the mind”; each idea’s unique expression is “new.”
While one measure of a writer’s work should be the perspicuity of his classifications, as well as what Disch refers to as “the scope of his collection,” booksellers (and often readers) pigeonhole each fledgling title. Lumping authors under the restrictive rubrics of genre, they offer the standard menu: fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, drama, horror, poetry, humor. To consign Disch’s poetry and prose-Thomas M. is the novelist, Tom, the poet-to one of these various Barnes & Ignoble spin-rack categories sorely reduces them. Crudely speaking, Disch has written in all of the above forms, but he is a science-fiction writer, for example, to the extent that Patricia Highsmith is a “mystery” writer, which is to say almost not at all.
Ostensibly, there are similarities. His sci-fi novels are set in some not-so-distant future, employing strange customs and technologies extrapolated from our own, but the imagination behind the stories forces such trappings to dress stage while the characters’ lives hold focus. Disch infuses the popular genres of sci-fi and horror with a restless literary sensibility. Other genres, such as the Bildungsroman or the prison memoir, vie for the foreground in the same novel. Disch’s sci-fi heroes readily allude to Dante or Dr. Johnson. Polonius, for all his buffoonery, captures this genre-bending spirit with his spluttering introduction to the players-”tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.” Describing a Disch novel or poem, we might say, “tragical-comical-futuristical-historical-horrifical-satirical.” While all of Disch’s work variously combines these elements, that last, satire, binds the lot-poetry and prose-with a cinch knot very few of his subjects escape. Pedophilic priests, 1970′s workshop poetasters, doctors, businessmen, and canonical novelists all blunder under his scrutiny.
Disch’s satiric scimitar on the first pass smites with comedy; the second pass, however, levels its subject with a deft snick, and Disch can play both the laughs and excoriation to the hilt. The title of a later collection of poems, Dark Verses & Light, underscores this tonal chiaroscuro that evinces, alternately, hilarity and dread. For what follows I would like to begin in sun and move into shadow, though Disch’s work is dappled throughout with gradations of light and shade.
Kingsley Amis, in his introduction to The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, reports a scarcity of light verse in contemporary poetry:
Light verse in the late 1970s consists almost entirely of . . . exercises in the styles of the dead or the aging, for the most part in competitions in weekly journals; and limericks, I cannot see the situation improving much.
Largely responsible for this decline, he suggests, is free verse, or, more specifically, an abandonment of the most traditional formal concerns on which light verse depends. As Amis points out earlier in his introduction:
[L]ight verse is unimaginable in the absence of high verse . . . . Light verse makes more stringent demands on a writer’s technique. A fault of scansion or rhyme, an awkwardness or obscurity that would damage only the immediate context of a piece of high verse endangers the whole structure of a light verse poem.
The abandonment of forms in contemporary poetry has left light verse without its stanchions. Part of the pleasure derived from the confection of the light lies in the play of the form itself, in meter and rhyme. How many poets these days labor to contrive a real thigh-thumper of a rhyme or a savage metrical substitution? Superfluous, most would argue, when so much confessional earnestness weighs in the balance.
The loss, of course, is great, when you consider the pleasure in even a brief passage from, say, Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière. His masterful pentameter versions of the original Alexandrines keep perfect pitch; cadences and rhymes in themselves become punch-lines. The turns in the verse’s music raise laughs beyond those won by the characters’ foibles.
Given Amis’s assessment of light verse as dependent on high verse, it follows that British poetry, which has preserved-more than American poetry-its ties to traditional forms, should produce the best instances of contemporary light verse. James Fenton, Sophie Hannah, and Wendy Cope are prominent examples. More than a finger exercise or the oddball product of idle noodling, light verse has become a strong, and, with Cope and Hannah, almost dominant, strain in these poets’ work. In the United States, however, Disch’s light verse has less company. Despite such magazines as Light Quarterly, that currently uphold the standard of humorous verse, light verse gets trampled beneath the expansive sprawl of free verse, or is interjected like a guilty admission, among selections of more brow-furrowing, “serious” verse. The following send-up of literary cliquishness, “A Call to Lost Members,” shows Dish’s facility in the form:
Return, amici, to the monthly meeting,
Or soon the Secretary’s stern, deleting
Ballpoint shall strike your name from every list.
Rejoin us now while yet your voice is missed
And your advances give us cause to wonder.
The younger lions who would steal your thunder
Already prowl the velvet-curtained lounge
As quick to vilify a friend as scrounge
A cigarette from your old editor.
Be present, entre nous, as predator
Or, if you will extend your holiday,
Your name and novels are predestined prey.
Prove by a letter, at the very least,
That though you’re absent you have not deceased.
In a similar vein, “Bookmark” deals another scathing bit of literary fun:
Four years ago I started reading Proust.
Although I’m past the halfway point, I still
Have seven hundred pages of reduced
Type left before I reach the end. I will
Slog through. It can’t get much more dull than what
Is happening now: he’s buying crepe de chine
Wraps and a real, well-documented hat
For his imaginary Albertine.
Oh, what a slimy sort he must have been-
So weak, so sweetly poisonous, so fey!
Four years ago, by God!-and even then
How I was looking forward to the day
I would be able to forgive, at last,
And to forget Remembrance of Things Past.
Examples of Disch at his tightest, these two sonnets show how form brings out the humor. The multiple “m”s in the first line of “A Call” make a humming mouthful, coolly cut by the sibilant Secretary of line two. Conversely, when the music falters so does our enjoyment a bit. In lines 3-6 of “Bookmark,” the enjambment obscures the rhyme; the ear flounders for the rhythm until the turn at the top of the sestet. Disch intentionally mars the form to reflect his speaker’s plodding gate: “I will [breath, line break] slog through.” Queered meter in a light verse poem plays like a comedian struggling to regain his timing. Compare the sestet to the octave; in the more regularly end-stopped last lines, the rhythm and rhymes work more fluidly together, driving the comedy home. The delay in the couplet between “forgive” and “forget” is just the right note; “at last” postpones the reader’s recognition of the familiar coupling (forgive and forget) and provides the rhyme as well. The kicker comes with the wry juxtaposition of “forget” and “remember.”
“A Call to Lost Members,’ while it lacks the big finish of “Bookmark,” keeps the soufflé from falling throughout. The delightful use of French and Italian lends the speaker just enough smarmy self-satisfaction. The Secretary’s ruthless Bic smacks of the tyranny of clerks. Beyond its formal pleasures, what distinguishes the poem-and not just here, but in much of Disch’s work-is the way irony explodes a serious issue. The recipient of the “call” faces the harrowing prospect of having his name wiped from the literary rolls unless he can keep producing novel after novel. Disch both mocks and acknowledges this bitter end.
Strictly speaking, light verse makes up only a fraction of Disch’s poetic output; it serves as a useful starting point, though, in that it informs the spirit of the rest of his work. Less metrically regular, a good portion of his poetry might better be called comic verse. His hilarious parody of 1970′s workshop poetry, “The Joycelin Shrager Poems,” from Dark Verses & Light, extends the satire and wit of the light verse in a necessarily different direction. Shrager’s poetry is shatteringly bad; the music we listen for is not Shrager’s but the overtones of Disch’s parody.
Disch sandwiches a chapbook of Shrager’s poems smack in the middle of Dark Verses & Light. Pessoa-like, he creates an entire persona for his fictional poet. A short story detailing Joycelin’s courtship with Donald Long, a projectionist and publisher of the underground film magazine, Footage, serves as background. Here, Disch provides a less flattering portrait of Joycelin, a poetaster and underground filmmaker. Donald Long, glimpsing his future wife for the first time, beholds “a damp, large, lardy girl in a vinyl poncho with a Bolex Rex-4 pendant from her neck like a giant ankh.” As she reads a display in the lobby of the movie theater, Joycelin’s “mouth and eyebrows ticked an unceasing commentary of pouts, sneers, frowns, and grave suspicions. ‘Disturbed’ was the word that came to mind.” Scathing is the word that comes to the reader’s mind.
Disch’s fictional introduction to the Shrager poems is written in the voice of Joycelin’s workshop leader, and former teacher of “awareness” at the Naropa Institute, Andy Lowe:
Hi and Hello from Andy Lowe, here to introduce a mighty-fine new poet by the name of Joycelin Shrager, whom a few of you may already know as the guiding lite at moonchild press & who was a leading underground filmmaker before that . . . The workshop had been running for a couple of weeks already when Joycelin showed up one night in November . . . . To me she was just another depressive overweight teenager & the sheaf of poems she read aloud that nite confirmed my first impression. Sloppy sentimental bilge jingling with lovey-dovey rimes, like some Victorian Rod McKuen . . . . [G]etting Joycelin to write in a non-aleatory way from the center of her spiritual energies was not an overnight job. The one major feeling she was directly in touch with turned out to be self-pity, and self-pity is a tricky theme for anyone but a really disciplined poet like Plath or Lifshin.
Disch’s “Introduction” misses no opportunity to lambaste a whole school of American poetry, right down to the self-conscious use of ampersands and Lowe’s precious “lites” and “nites,” his “mighty-fine” and “lovey-dovey.” Reference to the spiritual center of the poet’s “being” and the “moonchild press” enlist these poems for the vapid ranks of the New Age. The jaw-dropper, though, comes with the unfortunate coupling of Plath with Lifshin, as if Plath hadn’t suffered enough indignities.
The self-pity attributed to Shrager cleverly saves the satire from utter heartlessness; not that the tone becomes less pointed, but where Disch risks downright ferocity the reader rises to Shrager’s defense. Just as we’re wondering if it has all gone too far-aren’t we all in touch with self-pity to some degree?-Disch gives us Shrager’s poems, poignant in their extreme awfulness. Underneath our ridicule, we perceive an almost melancholy twinge of conscience:
i am just a plain poet
the way pete seeger
is just a plain singer
no frills about what I do
you don’t need big deal critics
to tell you what my pomes mean
(from “i am just a plain poet”)
What’s wrong with Shrager publishing this dreck if it makes her happy? Disch’s venom for the poet’s foolishness finally staggers its subject, as when Joycelin attempts a sonnet in her characteristic lower-case, unpunctuated run-on:
my assignment this week is a sonnet
fortunately it doesn’t have to rime
as long as its exactly 14 lines
it’ll be ok my teacher andy lowe
who edits dial-tone in addition to
teaching says he honestly wants to
vomit when he sees rimes in a modern
poet tho there is no one who respects
the great tradition of english poetry
more than andy take yr daily life
andy sayd & put it under the microscope
of poetry write a kind of newsletter
about yr inner secrets & yr friends
& if you’ve got more to say than
there’s room for in 14 lines or not
enough don’t worry the basic unit of
modern poetry is the human breath divine
(“my assignment this week is a sonnet”)
Shrager’s assignment dutifully completed, even the barest length requirement for a modern sonnet is overrun by solipsistic glee. Worse than netless volleying, this is tennis without a ball, and Disch smashes it home. (Only a poet in control of the laughter-producing rhythms of light verse could have included that hilarious caesura in line ten. Laugh here, it invites-the “great tradition” indeed!)
Through the Shrager persona, Disch widens the scope of his scintillating scorn to encompass an entire poetic school. Thinly encoded, Disch’s sentiments are easily guessed: Whatever Shrager likes, we are tempted to assume Disch does not. Shrager is friends with Rod McKuen. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review. Her candidate for the greatest American Poet is Naropa’s Anne Waldman, of whom she says McKuen is also a fan. Disch’s work is to classify as accurately as possible a particular species from the Natural History of poetry. Finally, an all-too-recognizable, pervasive 1970′s bathos comes up for examination:
bowling has been the great spirit
ual experience of my life
i never thot i’d be able to do
anything physical until my friends
bonnie and donna took me to the bowling
alley just four blocks from where i live
& taught me to bowl
how to run up real fast
to the foul lines & let rip
without thinking of where
the ball would go exactly
but just imagining the SMASH!
(from “bowling has been the great spirit”)
The undercurrent of the poem surfaces if, for “bowling,” we substitute the word “poetry.” For the likes of Shrager and so many real published poets, Disch implies, poetry is a thoughtless letting go: one has only to imagine the SMASH of the perfect poem and keep lobbing toward it.
As ballast for these scrappy satires, the bulk of Disch’s poetry weighs in with greater seriousness. While many of his poems employ free verse, Disch wisely follows his own prescriptions for poetry. The poems, though often metrically irregular are neatly ordered, avoiding the persistent self-regard of, what Shrager might term, the “i pome.” The humane, often tender voice of Disch’s serious verse contrasts with his bilious satire. In his previous collection, Yes, Let’s, Disch forecasts a familiar concern:
When the wells of song were sweet
In the childhood of the world
And tambourines jingled and bagpipes skirled
And drums would beat with the beat
Of the heart, there was no art that hands and feet
Didn’t perfectly understand.
And wasn’t life grand?
O, life was grand.
But the wells of song grew foul,
And no one who heard them knew why
The hautboy would scream like a jet in the sky
And viols would seem to howl
And the harpstring’s sound was the cry of an owl.
No, no one understood
How songs so lovely could
Cease to be good.
(“A Concise History of Music”)
The sentiment is a less acidic version of the vitriol behind the Shrager poems; Disch attacks the same literary phalanx from a different angle. In this fanciful consideration of the poisoned wells of song, where even the instruments produce horrible screeches, we may read the fate of much contemporary poetry. By using musical stanzas, with their triple rhymes, Disch insists on the necessity of song even as he bemoans its loss. Where he shifts into a higher register, the same sense of play that animates the humorous verse helps to maintain an inviting tone. “Skirled” and “hautboy” enliven the diction, as does an art that hands and feet understand. This serious play, a kind of ubi sunt for the music in life and verse, complements the extremes of the Shrager poems.
In all of his verse, dark and light, Disch’s protean sensibility delights in the range of poetic devices and forms. His collections offer villanelles, sestinas, sonnets, nonce forms, cautionary tales, a masque, children’s verse. Not surprisingly for a poet who has written many cadences of an unnamed bureaucrat in the Poetry Division of the Department of Mediocrity; a tax accountant holding forth in Anglo-Saxon hemistiches; an insane governess on the brink of breakdown; a rapist stalking his victim; a cow musing on the big mysteries; a blindman’s bitter subtext for his “Thank You” sign. Such a variety of voices bespeaks a novelist’s obsession with character. Certain of these portraits fall in with the harsher treatment of the Shrager poems; however, his tax accountant employs a quieter irony:
It is then, at the hour
of the aperitive,
That I allow myself one
Prelude of Debussy
By way of accompaniment
to a rote prayer of thanks.
Thanks, Lord, I pray,
for the fictions of today.
Bless my heart, and bless my house;
make me docile as a mouse
Rescued from savagery
and taught to serve
As entertainment for
some possible Messiah.
Such a child as now descends
from the springtime of his toys
Into my arms and through my blood
whose deepest mystery
I’ve ceded him. Lord,
whose deepest mystery
I’ve ceded him. Lord,
what’s for dinner?
(from “Psalms of a Tax Accountant”)
The mock asceticism of that one Debussy Prelude, the prayer as aperitive (we hear “apéritif”): Disch includes these among the fictions for which the accountant gives thanks. The clanging triteness of “house” and “mouse” plays up the prayer’s hollow ring. Earlier the speaker asserts that “My work is my prayer.” The mouthed piety and requisite Selahs barely mask the rapaciousness behind the accountant’s glozing self-deception: A nice T-bone would, no doubt, take off the accountant’s God-hunger. Similarly, in his fiction Disch invests many truly frightening results. Numerous characters in positions of power-priests, prison wardens, businessmen-either commit murder or are party to it, and all in good conscience. Where the aesthetic critic speaks through Shrager, the social critic speaks through the likes of the tax accountant. As with much social satire, the target of “Psalms of a Tax Accountant” is not so much the misdeeds of the well-fed speaker as the complacency and atrocities of wealth and power. The novels, as well as the poems, take on various aspects of the system: governments, institutions and their minions, and the control they exert over the individual.
Nowhere does Disch’s satire cut as deeply as in his novel The Priest. Subtitled A Gothic Romance, the book cleverly explored the genre in a modern context. Long on ghoulish detail, the narrative vaults back and forth in time between perversions of the contemporary parish hall and the rank dungeons of the Inquisition. (Chapters in the present are introduced by headings using standard Arabic numerals, while the chapters set in the Middle Ages receive Roman numerals.) The eponymous cleric, Father Pat Bryce, an alcoholic with an illicit liking for altar boys, travels between eras. How this time-travel comes about, Disch tantalizingly withholds until the end, though Borgesian excerpts from a book by “A. D. Boscage,” a crackpot science-fiction writer, appear to offer a solution and infuse the narrative with a bit of fantasy. Father Bryce, under threat of blackmail for his perversions, undergoes an extreme mortification of the flesh in the form of a tattoo inked from his nave to his chops. Bryce stinging from his body art sounds like Tartuffe at a NAMBLA meeting:
After mass, he was thankful that there was no altar boy on and that he could remove his vestments without having to keep up his stoic front. He could wince and flinch and grimace as the different customary motions of disrobing provoked different uncustomary pains. The wadded gauze bandages taped to his chest and abdomen protected his raw flesh from the direct abrasion of his clothing as he lifted his arm, or bent over, or turned sideways, but the pain was now more than skin deep. He felt as though his flesh were being roasted, as though he were covered with Ben-Gay that had gone nuclear . . . . But his sex life might not actually change that much. It was not something he cared to think about right now (it was his sex life that had got him into this situation), but the thought offered some faint comfort even as he tried to fix his attention elsewhere.
He went to his office in the rectory, where there was a thermos of coffee waiting for him and a plate of Oreos, as, thanks to Mrs. Daly, there was every morning after Mass.
As in the poetry, sprightly detail lends the harshest portraits a sense of play, though, of necessity, the payoffs occur less frequently in the prose. In the novels, Disch’s out-sized jibes and sly sarcasm resolve themselves in different time. The mousetraps of plot and characterization in the prose are more painstakingly intricate than the poems; they snap shut after elaborate and subtle set-ups, but one misses the felicities that poetry in particular lends to Disch’s voice. The hyperbole of a fissionable athletic rub, though, lends the passage the necessary torque, pushing the tone delightfully over the top. The expectation of Oreos soothes Father Bryce’s troubled thoughts of sex. (One wonders if Bryce twists the cookies open to scrape their tender insides.) And that’s just Disch clearing his throat, as the narrative winds from humor to violence.
While a less prominent character than Father Bryce, Alison Sanders, an unwed mother impressed into the Church’s Birth-Right program, serves as the moral foil to the priest’s turpitude. Birth-Right, the Church’s highly secretive detention center, incarcerates reluctant mothers-to-be until their pregnancies are brought to term. (In Birth-Right Disch concocts a devilish triple pun: right to life; the correct thing to do; a political affiliation.) Disch’s frontal assault on the abuses of power by men of the cloth and the inhumanity of the right-to-lifers engenders his most slashing commentary.
Aristotle notes that satire grew “out of ritualistic invective-out of satiric utterances, that is, improvised and hurled at individuals by the leaders of the ‘Phallic Songs.’” More than mere censure, the utterance sought to drive out evil influences. For Disch, the Church has long been a candidate for exorcism. Disch’s irreverent play on ecclesiastical hypocrisy, The Cardinal Detoxes, became the subject of a controversy when it was produced in 1990. An archbishop, detained for a drunken driving incident in which a pregnant woman is killed, delivers a half-hour haranguing monologue against the Church’s position on abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, and drugs. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, it turned out, owned the building that housed the theater and tried to block performances of the play, at one point even attempting to change the locks. It’s a Dischian tale. Such skullduggery and threatened censorship on the part of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and its lawyers seems to have only fanned Disch’s invective to a white heat.
After a handful of murders and a recounting of Bryce’s rampant pedophilia (he later learns he is more precisely an ephepbophile, a lover of young men as opposed to pre-pubescent boys) the action converges on the shrine that houses Birth-Right. Trapped in locked rooms several stories underground, some lashed in restraints, the helpless young women await either miscarriage, labor, or death at the hands of their captors:
When the door to the elevator opened, Alison stepped out of the cage with an unspoken but heartfelt Thank You Jesus! She knew that the gray dome overhead represented only a larger prison cell than the one from which she had just been released and to which she might have to return. But there was real summer sunlight streaming in through the high, narrow windows, and a feeling of space. Not freedom. But at least here freedom was visible.
Father Pat was right behind her, and in her delight and thankfulness she could almost have given him a hug. Mary Tyler had already managed to warn her, by whispered hints, that the guy was some kind of a lech. Even without Mary’s signals, Alison had got that message.
(from The Priest)
The phrases “real summer sunlight” and “could almost have given him a hug” read like snippets from a tacky novel. Ever conscious of the popular forms, Disch tweaks their tone. Alison’s innocence owes as much to Harlequin as Gothic Romance. As a saving grace, the invocation of Christ drips dramatic irony, since it’s in the name of Christ that Alison’s captors detain her.
The sense of helplessness in the face of confinement plays a role in a number of Disch’s novels. In Camp Concentration, Louis Sacchetti, a poet jailed for dissidence, keeps a journal of prison life, his personal House of the Dead. Here, too, Disch strikes a balance between playfulness and dire circumstance:
I encountered one of the spirits inhabiting this circle of my new hell, the first circle, if I am to go through them in a proper, Dantean order-and he, stretching the analogy a bit further, would be the Homer of this dark glade. Dark it was, for the fluorescent fixtures had been removed from this length of corridor, and as in a glade a constant and chill wind swept through the pure Euclidean space, some anomaly in the ventilating system, I suppose.
Sacchetti succumbs to an instinct for labored metaphor, dryly attributing the corridor’s chthonic breeze to a glitch in the air conditioning. The novel, in the form of Sacchetti’s journal, shows Disch’s facility with speech that enriches character. Sacchetti’s rather turgid musings reveal the pent-up creative steam of the poet; his confinement forces his prose into nervous flights of literary allusion. Aware of his own excesses here, Sacchetti pulls back with his tossed off “I suppose.” Like Alison, he is held several stories underground, the pawn of a sprawling organization. A private corporation (not the Church in this case) owns Camp Archimedes; the inmates function as guinea pigs in a lethal experiment. Both Sacchetti and Alison are innocents: a man of conscience persecuted for draft dodging, and a young woman whose only crime is teenage pregnancy. The women’s treatment at the hands of Birth-Right surpasses Camp Archimedes in its daily cruelties. Alison’s fellow prisoner, Raven, cannot eat her own birthday cake because of the tape across her mouth; another woman is mauled by a guard dog. Brutality always lurks in the wings, as nervous laughter gives way to outrage and disgust.
In On Wings of Song, a novel of the near future like Camp Concentration, Daniel Weinreb also spends time in prison, this one called Spirit Lake. Daniel’s experience of the 21st century resembles Sacchetti’s more than glancingly. Where Sacchetti faces the certain death of chemical warfare beyond his prison walls, Daniel’s isolated Iowa lives in fear of the unnatural practices and violence “back East.” In rebellion against his provincial surroundings, Daniel is arrested for selling copies of a culturally subversive newspaper. Imprisoned at Spirit Lake, he fends off starvation with fast-food hamburgers sold by the prison at prohibitive prices. As compared to Sacchetti’s and Alison’s, Daniel’s prison serves more as a trial he must endure and overcome, than as a catastrophe he will barely escape, if at all.
Clearly, incarceration plays a defining role in the life of a certain kind of Disch hero. Wrongful imprisonment underscored the characters’ righteousness and, by contrast, clearly delineates the villains. Social satire cannot operate without these opposing forces. Alison, Sacchetti, and Daniel represent outsiders set against a backdrop of morally twisted, fascistic bureaucracies and the dupes who do their dirty work. Government, the Church, and super-stringent sexual and social mores threaten his various characters, who want only to live free from such constraints.
In a far lighter vein, a further example of Disch’s fascination with the plight of the downtrodden takes the form of a delightful, rhyming children’s book, The Tale of Dan De Lion. Dan, a hearty, defiant weed, leads an uprising against the “autocrat rosefancier,” Miss Belinda Buttertoast, and her poison-wielding gardener, Thwaite, just when the two believe they’ve eviscerated all but their precious blooms:
. . . Miss Buttertoast has planned
Something really rather grand;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All is in readiness: out come the shears.
The tent flap is lifted; Belinda appears.
“And now my pets-” But when she chokes,
For there before her, a book of jokes
At her expense-a sea of yellow!
The Dan De Lions lift up there heads and shout “hello.”
“We gobbled up your 2,4D.
It was a luscious recipe.”
Belinda shrieks and wrings her hands.
She fires Thwaite-and then demands
He set to work with spade and hoe.
But Thwaite replies with one word: “No.”
And thus have Dan and all his kin
Survived to ring the new years in.
With broad strokes and great immediacy, the couplets’ brushwork covers the same thematic canvas as the prose. For Buttertoast we could substitute Birth-Right, Spirit Lake, or Camp Archimedes; Dan serves as the children’s-rhyme equivalent of his namesake, Daniel Weinreb, Alison, or Sacchetti. The outsider weeds are staking a claim in the garden. The roses, chosen for their superior beauty, have no more right to the garden than Dan’s relatives, and no less. For Disch, such multiplicity, the roses and the dandelions, serves to fuel his satiric fires. The irony, of course, is that in a world purged of its ills, the satirist would have to file for unemployment. More than the spice, variety is the meat, and the observant writer can just sit back and salivate.
Necessarily, the satirist finds his place at a distance from his subjects, From an outlying promontory, Disch may take in the panoply of failings to which his characters fall prey. The reader fills this gap alternately with laughter and horror. A poem from Yes, Let’s, whose speaker visits Earth from another planet, describes beautifully the satirist’s relationship to the world:
It’s hard to believe
we have our source in this nightmare
tangle of vegetable matter and stone,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yesterday I visited Italy: Rome,
Florence, Venice, and the famous church
museum. There was little I missed.
But tomorrow, thank god, I go home.
(from “A Vacation on Earth”)
In order to expose Earth’s multifarious demons, the satirist uses humor to sneak in under the reader’s radar, showing us the “nightmare vegetable tangle and stone,” offering by inference a world free from such detritus.
Disch’s voice is the quirky, sometimes crabbed, sometimes querulous voice of the true outsider who refuses to flatter or mince or demur:
Would you write and be respected-
Reviewed, remaindered, paperbacked,
Sales in millions, poems collected?
Yes I would, as a matter of fact.
Then tow the line, do what’s expected,
And let your middle name be Tact.
One gets the feeling from reading Disch’s most recent book of poems that he has paid the price for his particular iconoclasm. By my reckoning, About the Size of It is his first full-length, widely available volume since Dark Verses & Light from 1991. After this substantial hiatus comes a volume the size of two or three collections. (His delightful A Child’s Garden of Grammar, which includes such instructive and hilarious gems as “The Agreement of Predicate Pronouns,” appeared in 2002.) About the Size of It has been brought out by the English publisher Anvil, which published Disch’s earlier collection, ABCDEFG HIJKLM NPOQRST UVWXYZ, with help from the British Arts Council (available through Amazon ). One wonders why an American publisher didn’t bring out a slim volume of Disch’s poems years ago.
The apparent neglect (have I imagined it?) of Disch’s poetry is a shame, for it is outstanding in its ability to provide sheer pleasure to the reader. In their buoyant musicality, their humor, and their reluctance to over-poeticize experience or mystify the reader, Disch’s poems stand apart from current fashion. They do not suffer sentimentalists gladly. His full-throated satire ranges from the catty to the majestic, from the heartsick to the ludicrous:
Love had moved to another coast;
Her calls to him were all refused.
Sorrow was a parent’s ghost,
Pity a child who’d been abused.
While pallid Anger sat and stewed,
Fear dogged her steps from street to street.
Joy rarely laughed (she thought it rude),
And Ennui lived to overeat.
Every July her feelings met
At a kind of family reunion,
And she would stay at home and get
Drunk in blissful self-communion.
(from “Three People and Their Feelings”)
Auden was another poet for whom comedy could be deadly serious, adapting the light style for even his most ambitious subjects, such as death and the failures of the body. Disch’s serious fun plays in the same register. His amused ruefulness can snake though well-turned stanzas or loosen into garrulous free-verse paragraphs, as in “Slouches”:
How sweet, by contrast,
The slouch of the couch potato taking its ease
Before the horrors of the Six O’Clock News,
Comfortable within a cocoon of cushioning
Ironies, certain of the meal ahead and then
Of whatever sitcom fate has ordained
Before the time for bed and the Sealy
Posturpedic’s irresistible solicitation
To the slouch that even the stiffest D.I.,
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, succumbs to
When the cards are down, the slouch of sleep.
In Disch’s hands (as in Auden’s) the light style can open abruptly to admit deep feeling: “My idmost wish is not to live.” A few of Disch’s poems in the peripatetic mode of “Slouches” might, to my mind, be tightened a little: at their weakest, they’re chatty. But maybe that’s the point. This quibble is less serious in Disch’s case than for others: his voice is always companionable (even when it’s tart) and intriguing in its movements (even when he natters on a bit).
A pleasing, almost Wildean contrariness glitters from a number of his finest poems. (Kay Ryan is another poet whose rueful humor stands expectation on its head.) Birdsong-that selfsame tweet that stirred poets from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Keats and Hardy-strikes Disch in a very different way. In “Birdsong Interpreted,” the bird hectors:
Leave! or I will have a stroke.
I will! I kid you not. I’ll sing
My heart out, pop a valve, expire:
This nest will be my funeral pyre.
I’m warning you: if songs could sting,
If trills could kill, my dear sweet thing,
You wouldn’t linger long here.
Jug, jug, pu-whee!-now, disappear!
Far from broadcasting, in blast-beruffled plume, the end of an era, this bird wants to let us know that it actively dislikes us. If songs could sting indeed. The poem’s wry and anti-Romantic stance refreshes like an ice-cold martini. It’s also a little sad-for what does it say about the speaker that he is the only one in millennia of poets writing about birdsong to have gotten the brush in this way?
Many readers will dismiss Disch’s mordant humor as slight instead of slashing, merely comic instead of witty in any deeper sense. But his sensibility displays an affecting melancholy at play. In a contemporary Arden, Disch is our Jaques. I wonder if readers mistrust lyric poetry with a satiric edge because of satire’s relation to feeling, far different from the earnest interiority that now holds sway. Sleeve-worn feeling has become the badge of “authenticity.” A poem can dispense with almost everything else-reason, humor, music, rhetoric, prosody, etc.-so long as it carries its badge of exorbitant emotionalism.
I recently came across a striking quote by the British actor Ben Kingsley on the nature of drama. “We’re held in balance,” he said, “by our social behavior, our values, our family, whatever you want to call it. What’s dramatically beautiful about film, or any form of theater, is that we like to examine what happens when the balance goes. We’re fascinated by it. The imbalance of being passionately in love, of being passionately angry-we’re fascinated by it. We ritualize looking at that imbalance from a safe distance.” Increasingly, it seems to me, art has begun to focus on this state of imbalance for its own sake. Balance is boring, runs the thinking. But without it there can be no tension in art. In order to sustain the interest of imbalance, one needs to whip up greater and greater imbalances, an ultimately self-defeating enterprise. Extreme imbalance has been with us since the Greeks, who left us precious little room to expand in this regard. Satire takes its power from a fierce (often moral) critique of imbalance, which never loses sight of the balance that has been lost. It does not do well in an era of delicate sensibilities and excessive toleration (in themselves both excellent targets for satire), which might go some way toward explaining its lack of popularity in poetry today. As we down the medicine, sweetened with Disch’s comedic sugar, it’s pleasing to remember it’s for our own good.
Editor’s Note: Parts 1 through 4 of this essay first appeared in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (Volume 20, Nos. 1 &2, 1995); part 5 first appeared in The Yale Review (January 2008).[/private]
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