Monday, September 21, 2009

Ed Ochester: Unreconstructed

A couple of months ago I was visiting my family in California. One morning I was sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee; the television was on low, stationed at CNN. My cousin, Marc, came into the room and we both stared in a half-daze at the television. The talking heads (politicos) were saying their thing, and we were falling into the drone of their voices. Marc suddenly shouted, "AMERICA, AMERICA, AMERICA," in a strange southern drawl. We both proceeded to laugh. The moment was perfectly fitting and perfectly absurd.

I thought of my cousin's words after reading Ed Ochester's "Unreconstucted," and I laughed once more. The humor in my cousin's response to CNN was the same kind of humor in Ochester's poetry. The kind I love: unexpected and a little poke-fun (at the state of things). The poet asks his reader to consider what America is. For a cheat-sheet see Alicia Ostriker's blurb on the back of the book that reads: "Ed Ochester has his thumb on the American pulse and his ear tuned to the American voice-- in all its urban-suburban-backyard-backwoods-rust belt-ad-agency and Hollywood inspired dreaming and folly."

Ochester not only asks us to question what America(n) is, instead he tells us what he thinks it is, his poetry talks to his readers about his perception of his country; he is a poet whose verse has conversational quality, not chit-chatty-over-the-fence conversation, but rather a sit-down-on- a- couch-bar stool- bench- your choice of rear-end- rest-conversation. And his verse tells us to be ready to be seated because there's a lot to listen to, yet the whole time that we are with him in conversation we are reminded of solitude. We are really sitting alone somewhere and falling into his solitude. The first poem in the collected works tells us this is going to happen, in The Origin of Myth, we get:

One reads
and perhaps believes almost anything
when one has lived alone for a while. (3)

Ochester tells us right away: this is my solitude, these words, and I'm giving them to you, but what I say may be distorted because being alone can alter reality; and what we read essentially permeates us (for a short while). We believe what we read when we are alone because it is our only way to be with the external world. This piece sets up the reader for the entire collection, it says: look, here I am telling you about myself, and how much of myself is made up of all that surrounds.

News media, music, film, literature, political history, the people we know and love = what it means to be an American. In Ochester's selection of New Poems, this is particularly true. The poet does not skim these topics, but rather peruses, and rides with the big belly reality that we are what we eat. And do I love the lines in Rewinding the Cassette of Fear City that read, "Times Square as/ electric Eden festooned with neon jellybeans,/anything is possible." (6) Ochester takes the neon and makes it candy, revealing that we are always trying to sweeten things, which is how he prepares us that "we're ready to begin again/ the essential American story."(6)

Poem by poem the poet reveals that the essential American story is also the essential everything story: reflections on war, religion, language, and how all of these components shape our present-day reality. Ochester's poetry too illustrates that Americans are not only made up of what we read and what we see, but also what beats within: somehow escaping a societal dream, and creating our own dream/ vision.

Unreconstructed made me want to try an experiment. Because I read it through a literary lens I was accepting of the writer's allusions, and mostly amused by the name drops (ie: Dylan Thomas, David Lehman, O'Hara) however, I would like to see how a casual reader (not so used to modernist tendencies) would read Ochester's work. I wonder if the weight of these allusions is taken away by the reference to pop-culture and the everyday experience of driving passed a Burger King. I would like to have a conversation on this book with an un-booky person, mostly because I was in love with Ochester's bold and humorous exploration of writer's identity, and I wonder if I was distracted by that love.

One piece in particular that had my heart going was On A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing:

Christ, while we thought each thud of our typewriters
was tough enough to puncture hearts
you heard America snapping its gum (34).

Here the poet says: this is what it's like to have someone try to make you disillusioned, don't believe it. We are what we are: what we listen to just as much as what we don't hear or digest. Yet, the poetry is not always so big, it also gives small ideas to think on, why do we give into the convenience of going to Roy Rogers and taking a few extra tomato slices in a napkin as in Packing Lunch. This is my favorite piece of the collection as it moves from the fantasy of eating fancy foods to the French and Indian wars, to Proust, to the poet making his father sick by riding on a roller coaster too many times. This poem truly reveals what identity is: a collection of memory, knowledge, family, and making all of the above mean something in a larger context.

Unreconstructed uncovers a lot; this collection of poetry pulls back the sheets that cover the horror of America. Yet the poet makes sure that the reader finds funny little things (like "two pillows in pants") in the place of dark images, which is Ochester's way of playing funny. His poetry reveals that when we are faced with terror, the best thing to do is laugh.

1 comment:

  1. Nice response, Teresa. You really get to the heart of his work. A version of this post would make the beginnings of a nice review of this book.

    I'm wondering if you got the copies of the Jan Beatty poems and had any thoughts on her poetry?