Friday, 22 July 2011

POETRY / CARTOONS: Silver Jews' frontman, and Actual Air author turns cartoonist

David Berman, The Portable February (Drag City)

Fending off the obvious questions – Why review David Berman’s cartoons? Why review cartoons at all…? – it saves plenty of time to be able to point to the article “Ten Years of Actual Air” in this month’s Believer. Ten years ago, the Silver Jews mainman published a poetry collection that ‘in poetry terms’ has sold triple platinum. So what? you might say, but as the author goes on to argue, “Who actually read Billy Corgan’s poems? Did you even know Jeff Tweedy put out a collection, at all?” Alternative-music consumers aren’t suckers when it comes to poetry, any more than Jewel’s fans.

What makes The Portable February so intriguing is that it’s Berman’s first book since a genuine landmark in US poetry; it’s his first since embracing Judaism; his first since “outing” his own father as a corporate lobbyist of the most diabolical stripe; and it’s his first “release” of any kind since dissolving the Joos. If you’re prurient about Berman’s output since his suicide attempt, you’re looking in the wrong place, but if you’ve been following the saga closely, you may be legitimately curious about how he can possibly think that cartooning is a meaningful alternative to the Joos, and how this works as an extension of his medium-transcending poetics.

So. Here are some notes I made on the book that I desperately wanted to be a sequel to Actual Air:

AA = 40% (US poet-laureate-if-they-had-one) John Ashbery; 70% Kenneth Fearing; 60% Wallace Stevens; 40% Kenneth Patchen-the-poet
TPF = 10% Gary Larson; 30% David Shrigley; 20% Pepperland; 40% Hopi Indian petroglyphs; 60% Outsider Art, e.g. Bobby Baker’s Mental Illness Diaries; 60% Kenneth Patchen-the-great-lost-US-poet, in ultra-naïve illustrator mode.
Why use percentages? Isn’t this all a bit “Pitchfork Media gives Music 6.8”? (As The Onion put it…)

When Berman’s in one-panel, Larson / Shrigley mode, he’s sometimes cringeworthy, e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, with CND button, marching in a protest, with placard that reads “US out of Transylvania”; OR, two caterpillars on a twig watching a butterfly, with a swastika on its wing, the one saying “it’s just a phase”. Hasn’t that cartoon about the butterflies already been done, by Larson or one of his imitators? (It’s a relief that the facing page to Frankenstein’s monster has a movie-theatre showing something called ‘Nightingales Imprisoned in Parallelograms © 1918’ – that’s the Berman we love.) The intriguing detail is the swastika – the joke works without it, but Berman dots them about TPF (as he did with the Joos’ artwork and lyrics), fascinated with the way that repetition nullifies but never eradicates the Nazi legacy, and/or his own neurotic tendency to see everywhere these (and other) signs of persecution / collective evil / human beings’ fondness for investing arbitrary symbols with enormous power. So, let’s assume TPF is meant to be taken holistically; it has rhythms as much as it has hooks (a tree – bird – star motif being one of the most common). Here’s The Portable February at its most quotable, sententious, self-contained:

“We start out Life having won a race AND Wind up humbled by the void”
“I lay in bed & listened to my clock radio. They played a song called ‘Sara’ every night. The lyrics went: “drowning in a sea of love, where everyone would love to drown.” It seemed evil, for someone to want to drown.” (NB – prone figure seems to have his head detached)

That’s almost it – you couldn’t put together all the text in TPF to make a single poem that might have made it into AA. That’s not to say that the two are entirely incomparable – you could (and probably should) come up with your own supply of fresh Bermania just by describing many of the squiggles – but as it happens, Berman is at his most interesting (and successful) when he deliberately departs from the syntax of the traditional 6–8 panel cartoon. Many of these are clever, even beautiful. Like a Joseph Cornell assemblage, disparate drawings or mini one-panel cartoons are slotted into unequal frames, some empty. There’s a suggestion of pseudo-scientific typologies; the three-dimensional collage that is a museum; the cognitive dissonance of stories about celebrities, murders, and the economy in the panels and photos of a newspaper’s lay-out. Implicitly, but undeniably, the puzzle to figure out Berman is the ongoing puzzle to figure out our own world, at a perceptual, pre-verbal level.

So, Berman subverts assumptions of linearity, causality, and so on, in a way that reveals the plasticity of the mind & imagination as much as it explores social mores, or whatever a cartoonist’s supposed to do. He’s not doing this all the time – there are an awful lot of zero-skill squiggles, with negligible humour – but this is meta-cartooning (or the visual branch of metafiction). One of the most linear examples connects its panels by panning in and out, focusing on a different detail from one panel to the next; taking us down a corridor, then focusing on the plug-socket, showing two-scenes through its holes, choosing the distant house in the left over the bird-tree-star scene in the right, flying through its window, and so on. Another multi-panel cartoon relates the grisly (if ambiguous) consequences of an animal visiting the butchers, flying away like a ghost or superhero, and then posits “Be Your Own Kin”, which can only have the most tentative relation to the above. All very dream-like.

Regrettably, the one thing I haven’t mentioned so far, that actually made me so excited about The Natural Bridge way back in 1995, and then AA, in 1999 (let alone TPF, in 2008) isn’t actually included here. “What is the Natural Bridge?” may be this writer’s rarest item of music-related ephemera, and certainly one of the more valuable in terms of developing a poetic sensibility. It’s hard to convey its charm, but it still makes me hope Berman will try harder if this is what he seriously means to do:

**“What Is the Natural Bridge?”**

It’s a contract between species (man brandishes paper at wild beast)
It’s science fiction without the science (tentacled creature brandishes tentacles)
It’s a rejected state capitol design (ah! So that’s what those futuristic buildings in TPF are)
It’s a promise between strangers (US flag, natch)
It’s made by your eye (two sides of a gorge with dotted line denoting bridge)
…and so on.

The best thing TPF may do is to send you back to AA with a renewed appreciation for its poetics. It’s a lot less weird than first impressions suggest. ‘Governors on Sominex’ is a traditional poem inasmuch as it patterns its sententia in a rhythmed fashion, dispersed among the “purely visual” (albeit fantastic) images; these sententia take the form of semi-abstract images (“she was the light by which he travelled from this to that”), and reveal the always-tacit impulse to console the reader in the sad realization of life’s repetitiveness – formulated through the abstract “new ways of understanding to throw at the same days”, and so on. In a sense, Berman crystallizes the essence of song & poetry alike in these lines, but the quoted lines are only successful – i.e. convincing rather than cloying – because of his deft balance between the familiar and the fantastic, showing the push from Experience to Ideal, whilst gently nudging the reader to understanding by hinting at what he’s aiming for.

Ultimately, TPF may not provide the deep immersion of Actual Air, which felt like spiritual consolation for Gnostics and Agnostics alike, in an exquisite expression of Whitmanian cultural democracy (mobilizing the symbols of your daily lives to approach metaphysical truths). In its best moments, though, and taken together, TPF approaches the inexhaustible allure of a melody; pleasurable in itself, and all the more reassuring for countering the compulsion to seek the New, to Use Once & Destroy, by pushing towards an openness of interpretation that may well be the characteristics of Art that makes it so threatening to Commerce: that you can come back to it, that it isn’t built with inherent vice, that its value is ‘made by your eye’.

No comments:

Post a Comment