Uselysses by Noel Black is a collection of five, distinct, short books of poetry. The first three books collect introspective and self-conscious poems common in contemporary poetry, distinguishing themselves with imaginative imagery and a unique sense of humor. The fourth book, Moby K. Dick, is a collection of literary mash-ups, riffs on creative collisions like “Huckleberry Finnegans Wake” and “Notes from Under the Volcano.” The final book is the long, semi-narrative, memoir-like poem, “Prophecies for the Past.”
The strongest poem in the first three books is “Vija Clemens & The Case of the Nocturnal Pocketbook.” The speaker imagines reading a mystery with that title, and, essentially, writes the mystery in the course of his imagining. Moments in the poem recall Paul Muldoon’s recent collection Maggots, in which prosaic storytelling is extruded through the fluidity of poetry. Black writes, “I wish I were reading a mystery called/ Vija Clemens & The Case of the Nocturnal Pocketbook/ in which an insensitive amateur detective named Abner Badminton/ gets hired to uncover the mystery behind Time Magazine art critic Richard Lacayo’s statement:” and “The whole case hinges on the impenetrable ‘superabundance of subdued visual incidents’/ as we follow Badminton through the usual ruses, twists, & turns–.” Black begins constructing an interesting tension between the mysteries detectives solve and the mysteries poets solve, while toying with principles of art and criticism. It is a complex arrangement of ideas, building towards a fraught but fascinating conclusion. Until Black writes, “until he discovers the obvious, which is that it doesn’t really mean anything at all/ beyond sort of sounding good.” He concludes with this idea, “And everyone agrees it just sounds good.”
In poem after poem, in the first three books of Uselysses, Black declares, in an almost off-handed way, that poetry can’t do anything important. He is demonstrating self-conscious awareness of the limitations of the written word, or catering to some requirement for realism, or accepting the freedom of effort without responsibility. Though it’s probably true, “poems can’t/ make people stop being assholes, or end greed and suffering,” (p20) shouldn’t poets be writing to change that. Furthermore, shouldn’t the reader decide what the poem does or does not accomplish. This is not to say that every poet should try to save the world with every poem, or that there is no beauty in the pointless, or that the poetic voice should be messianic, monumental and monotone, but Black’s mitigating interjections disrupt whatever the poem is accomplishing, by breaking the reader out of whatever images and ideas the poem had been conveying.
The book changes course in Moby K. Dick. The inherent playfulness of the collisions seemed to free Black from the pressure to be self-conscious. The images are allowed to fend for themselves in the reader’s mind, and, as a result, are much stronger and more interesting than those written in doubt of their strength and interest. “I tell you: The truth involves innumerable shakes of obscure cheroot bullied into phantoms of the inconceivable–/ supersonic, jet-propelled, propeeler-driven dicks of truth trepanning the subconscious,” from “Lord Jim Thompson.” (p80) In “Huckleberry Finnegans Wake,” Black writes, “I’ve got only one memory: Hamlet’s yawn–/ a song to be cutting up with a pair of sissors, “ and “Male & female we unmask the ghoon to an inch of his core/ & I warn’t myself as I opened the door.” In “Farenheit 49,” we get “They stood by the luminous dial of his watch with verse in their heads/ at the end of the Holy Roman Empire amid the splendid delusions of paranoia.”
Witty, diverse, inventive; the success of these poems suggests that, regardless of the artistic inspiration drawn from Hopkins and Whitman, Black might have been more successful orienting his work towards X. J. Kennedy and recent semi-surrealist James Tate.
The best work in the collection is the long concluding poem, “Prophecies for the Past.” Here the images and storytelling roll unfettered by doubt. You can feel that, at least while he was writing it, Black truly believed in poetry.
This is also the most sensory poem in the book. There are more colors, more shapes, more sounds, more textures. We are out of Black’s mind for a while, and in the world. “The smells of lilac and Nerf football; Aim toothpaste, Margarita mix, and/ wet Spring alley dirt in Dana Heffler’s mouth.” The sensory details, the specificity of event in lines like “You’ll buy a beige Pac-Man t-shirt at a dime store in Solvang,” (p102) and “Eating plums in a tree on Nevada Avenue all afternoon with a Jehovah’s/ Witness named Jordan,” (p113) and the palpable passion for the action of poetry, make “Prophecies for the Past” a brilliant mosaic of identity potential.
“Prophecies for the Past” chases “Song of Myself” and “Howl.” It is an ambitious, nostalgic, almost delusional chase utterly disconnected from the state of contemporary American poetry. It is a throwback to times when poets were heroes, when the written word was a force of nature, when reading and writing were inherently political, cultural, and personal activism. Our poets and our nation have changed so much that we may never summit those mountains again, but shouldn’t every American poet, at least at some point in their career, try. Long poems of the stature and ambition of “Song of Myself” and “Howl” may never be written again, but we cannot accomplish what we do not attempt.
The more poetry I read and review, the more poetry begins to feel like an arrangement of personal affectations; sometimes the reader shares the affectations, sometimes the reader doesn’t, and sometimes the arrangement transcends itself into a more universal entity. It is a belittling perspective, but poets like Black spend a lot of time belittling poetry. Is the idea of “poetry as affectation,” any more dismissive than lines like “wishing they were ideas instead of similes,” (p41) and “Rusty because I hardly write/ poems anymore not that I have anything/ against them, but they can’t possibly make/sense of the world?” (p52) Black is an imaginative poet with a talent for verse and a unique sense of humor. When he releases himself from doubt, he writes intelligent, playful, and fun poems, but too often he lets doubts about the grand potential of his work disintegrate their actual achievements. In “Prophecies for the Past,” Black proves he can write towards big goals and big ideas, and, even if he doesn’t reach them, accomplish something important in the process.