Set the Dumpster On Fire

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What Gottlieb reveals to us in this collection, is that the key to survival is the same animal desire that served as our undoing in the first place, but the degree to which we succeed in that survival will depend on how much attention we have paid to that undoing in the first place.

A student of poetry could learn more about post-modernism from reading the endnotes of Daphne Gottlieb’s 15 Ways To Stay Alive than from any given MFA program in creative writing. Gottlieb’s combination of intentionally found words and intentional mash up are shown for what they are in these end notes, where, unlike most of our current crop of academic language poets, she is only too happy to strip away the mechanisms of her process for the reader to access.

This revealing of sources however, creates an interesting tension between her original lines and her researched collages. The reader in this case is privy to construct vs. raw creativity creating a sense of continuity between crafted artifice, and the author’s raw stream of consciousness; two modernist techniques crammed next to each other. Gottlieb begs the question: which came first; the assembled corpse or its maker? Half the fun of this collection is exploring the interplay between these two processes:

– Excerpted from “to prove that I was someone”

This poem which separates yet also combines the voices of an infamous African American gang member and an anonymous browser of a White Power message board sits across the page from these stanzas from “so outrageous (for Anna Nicole Smith and all the others)” :

1. you tuned in. she’s dead. you’re sad. there’s blood on your hands.
you’re worried it might stain.

2. public redemption; recovery and could she be next did you share
a surgeon a line a dream and a texas 12-step to excess, dance it
for all the women, too loose, too loud, too raunchy, too greedy, too
-always, we come back to this: death or stand down in sensible
shoes? sit down shut up wear grey and don’t move until you die.
don’t bleach a thing, you’re too old now. keep doing it. we’ll put it
on film.

All of the voices examined in these excerpts speak with an unquestioned authority about their stations and desires, but at the end of “so outrageous” a turn toward the personal really shows how it is the heart of the book.

5. did you ever wake up put your arms around the big can of
trimpsa, under satin duvet, dog sliding off yr pillow as yr weight
shifts, the can in your arms before the first pill of the day and
think yes. this is who I am. this is who I always wanted to

6. die in a hotel

It isn’t just the voices of the living weighing in here, but the voices of the dead as well, and the reader should realize they are being taken for a ride through these passages, the undermining of assumptions is crackling on every one of Gottlieb’s original poems because of how effectively the flow from the mash-ups, and with that authority coming through as well.

15 Ways To Stay Alive> is sectioned off by quotes from prominent personalities on the sometimes absurd, sometimes profound processes humans engage in to justify not killing their spirits or themselves. While the acknowledged centerpiece of the collection (at least in the early press and Manic D promo kit) is the sweeping micro-novel “the unauthorized biography of black beauty,” more interesting to this reviewer is the section that begins with a quote from Susan Sontag (“Although none of the rules of becoming more alive is valid, it is healthy to go on formulating them.”) This particular section is the only one completely comprised of poems working without found passages. The poems found here are shockingly confessional for a poet of Gottlieb’s intellectual stature. She makes clear that restraint and nuance, so abundant in all other parts of the book, are not what she is interested in here but a return to the transgressive, punk rock catharsis of exorcising demons, a trademark of her earlier career, and which she even foreshadows with a send-up of “the scene” earlier in the manuscript (“at the punk lit show.”)

Gottlieb could not have gotten away with putting such brutal poems, entitled “high horse”, “fuck you” and “seven stages” at the front of this collection without some indie, elitist carping about merely vomiting up her pain and process all over what has come to be a standard of higher expectations and deliverance since her Soft Skull release “Final Girl.” But because her process has been consciously transparent from the very start of 15 Ways…, the “Sontag Section” is in fact, the real heart of the book. The pleasure and agony of the human id’s seductions and betrayals on display here highlight the fine line of this business of staying alive. From the poem “fuck you”:

you don’t live here anymore
not in this house of my heart
not this block
not this neighborhood
when I mean you should hand me a list of all your friends-
alphabetized – and I will fuck every single one of them
so you can feel how I feel
but I don’t say this at all
since I am calm
I am civil even if what I mean is
I remember that you whispered things to me
and they were sweet things that you whispered, not fuck you
and when I say it I mean it like a roar but it comes out a whisper
a stutter a shudder a shutter on a house shut in a heart
where you don’t live,
not like your house,
where if you handed me a list of all your friends – alphabetized –
I would fuck every single one of them on your bed
one by one in order
your room is so small it would be crowded
your house is so small
it’s like a house only smaller

In this day and age of jaded readership, there isn’t much shocking in the language of this poem, but because the reader has come to trust the authority in the author’s poetic voices laid out in previous sections, these exorcisms of the blatantly, unrepentantly personal are backed by a subliminal underpinning that arguably reinvents, in a vital and important way, the transgressional-confessional genre so frequently favored (and quickly dismissed) by talented but young and unpolished poets. What Gottlieb reveals to us in this collection, is that the key to survival is the same animal desire that served as our undoing in the first place, but the degree to which we succeed in that survival will depend on how much attention we have paid to that undoing in the first place.

Revolution
is not pretty

but I don’t care
about looks.
Set the dumpster

on fire. Break
the windows.
Don’t kiss me

like they do
in the movies.
Kiss me

like they do
on the emergency
broadcast system.

– From “sexy balaclava”


Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Neocom(muter) (Tainted Coffee, 2009) and the chapbook 19th Street Station (Full of Crow, 2011.) He once spent a night barricaded in a Vegas Circle K convenience store the night of the Rodney King riots. More from this author →