Cairo Traffic by Lloyd Schwartz. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau
It would seem, after several generations of practitioners, that the American poet’s appetite for the spare, vaguely surrealistic, free-verse poem is limitless. After all, the composition of such poems takes no particular technical skill and does not make “excessive” demands on its readership (or authorship, for that matter); it is authenticated by the sincerity its author displays through his indiscriminate elimination of artifice and his empathy for the outcasts, losers, and dispossessed that populate the margins of society (empathy being a far better ploy than pity, for ultimately, we are all estranged and isolated). The ability to “confess” from the depths of mental illness or drug addiction is a bonus. It seems tired now because, well, it is; however, in their infancy, the movements born from this approach to poetry were fresh and disturbing, and they ennervated what had become a pretty stolid scene in American poetry.
This method of writing–and the sensibility from which it springs–has proven more adaptable than one might have imagined fifty years ago. It can accommodate a great many subjects and modes, from dry, academic exercises in language that only Bahktin could love to downright sentimentalism. It has become the Impressionism of contemporary American poetry, a movement started as an attempt to disorganize the senses devolving into middle-American bathroom art. The perfect “form” for contemporary America, it is both anti-intellectual and hyper-intellectual; comfortable, self-satisfied, and yet unfulfilled; yearning to contain multitudes, yet essentially solipsistic; obsessed with dysfunction and enchanted by illogic (such as the kind that obtains when image and ideation lack connective tissue à la Surrealism).[private]
For those readers eager to find something fresh, Lloyd Schwartz’s Cairo Traffic unfortunately will not satisfy. Almost parodic at times in its usage of plain speech (one poem is entirely composed of malapropisms, which is fun for about 6 lines), Cairo Traffic relies most heavily on its simple and direct approach derived from a thoroughgoing earnestness, despite the all-too-familiar, wink-wink gestures toward acknowledging the interstices of meaning present in even the most simple of language. In the volume’s first poem (“A True Poem”), Schwartz writes:
And this poem says exactly what I think.
What I think of myself, what I think of my friends, what I think about my lover.
As if the title and deceptively direct manner didn’t already alert the reader to a tongue-in-cheek moment, the one-word line is added so that even the literarily-challenged may enjoy the joke. And of course, the poem is about the poem, for ultimately, the speaker is “working on a poem that’s so true, [he] can’t show it to anyone,” and “Nobody will ever see it.” The conflation of sincerity with poetic self-consciousness is at best confusing, and at worst, it ruins the whole endeavor, for it is the supposed sincerity of the volume that underwrites its simple language; bring that into doubt and much of the volume sounds like exercises pulled from an ESL workbook. Granted, the poem is all play, and there certainly is no harm in playing, but some poets play better than others.
Throughout the volume there exists a faux riskiness that attempts to disturb, to jar, or to reveal; however, more often, these episodes, when viewed within the context of contemporary American poetry, don’t really risk anything. Rather, they are the application of practiced and ready-made gestures that many readers will find as familiar as a favorite recliner or mattress. For example, in “The Two Churches (A Dream),” Mr. Schwartz poeticizes an imagined homosexual encounter with “a round / ugly little man, with a face like a rubber ball” inside of a Baroque cathedral. The encounter is brief and unconsummated (mercifully), and the poem ends by repeating its initial quatrain (with a space introduced between the third and fourth lines), this time in italics, in case the reader missed the significance of what seemed to be mere reportage the first time around:
Before circling back, the poem’s main action concludes with back rubs and kisses that one supposes are meant to humanize the participants after such a powerful and incongruous display of libido; however, it comes off as a curious mixture of silliness and syrupiness, recalling the comedy skit lampooning encounters in gay pornographic movies that invariably begin, “Looks like you could use a back rub.” Indeed, upon repeating the quatrain, the strange dream world of the poem degenerates into a locus for vague moralizing, leaving the implicit sense that all of those dogmatic, conventional parishioners in the other, locked church are hopelessly repressed, lacking in self-knowledge, so forth and so on. Simply put, to use such simplistic language in the service of such bland and overt intimations is hardly “risky.” Instead, the poem lumbers to its predictable conclusion in its predictable way.
Elsewhere, Mr. Schwartz refines his skill at aestheticizing the seedier aspects of sexuality. In “Pornography,” a triptych of stock pornographic images, the poet’s use of street slang (referring to the penis as “his Fenway Frank; his juicy / all-day sucker”) coalesces with high-culture religious references (Rembrandt) in the hopes of having the qualities of rarified spirituality rub off on the carnality depicted by the pornographic images. The poem concludes by describing the participants of a ménage à trois:
but nothing about them
hard, or hardened yet;
not yet past taking pleasure
in whatever pleasure they
receive, or give.
This gospel of pleasure recalls Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous proclamation at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution that “the orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment.” The mixed legacy of liberation notwithstanding, of more concern here is the speaker’s projection of a thoroughly uncomplicated world onto the images he views. Neither in Paradise nor the Inferno, the men and women who people these images exist in a kind of pleasure vacuum, and thus enter the realm of fantasy. And the speaker seems quite intent on allowing them to languish there; therefore, the concluding observation is more sight than insight.
The rest of the volume doesn’t stray far in style or substance from the foregoing, despite the presence of two interestingly rendered translations. In addition to some tedious poems focused on the poet’s aging mother, there is a long title poem that mixes travelogue, straightforward prose and poetry in a further exploration of the spirit/body duality of which Mr. Schwartz is fond. But little in Cairo Traffic recommends itself to those readers seeking an escape from the easy verities of contemporary American poetry.[/private]