Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Preacher's Blues by Ben Lowenkron

Preacher's Blues - by Ben Lowenkron, published by Ampersand Books

Augustine claimed, “when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter.” * He would have had an interesting time reading Preacher’s Blues,’ as most of what is said figuratively can be instructively taken on a literal level, and whichever way you choose to look at it, can be appropriately understood in a carnal manner that circles back into the literal/figurative discussion. That the process is akin to the death of the soul would come as no surprise to Lowenkron, as death is always the pre-requisite for rebirth, and the possibility for rebirth looms large in the landscape of his work..
The book opens, for instance, with a short piece called ‘Bone River.’
As much as we are
love death
cling to each
move through the river

‘Move through the river’ is meant, metaphorically, to refer to our movement through the river of life into death but it also reflects a literal concern with a literal body of water, with its rising and falling water levels, with the way it effects the lives lived in its proximity. The river is also expressly a ‘carnal’ metaphor, and a ‘carnal’ reality. Centred in a Louisiana landscape devastated by hurricane the poems provide a visceral glimpse into that reality. The levees that hold back the river also keep back the rot and corruption it carries. ‘Bone River Hymnal’ asks:

Down by the levee how many graves

Apple Pie Moan’ makes the carnal – (relating to the physical and especially sexual appetites; of or relating to the body or flesh; bodily; worldly or earthly; temporal) connection even clearer –

I climb the levee’s crust
rise above bubbling rot
I need to sink my teeth in to what simmers beneath
the drooling sun

‘My River,’ on the other hand, makes explicit the sexual connotations of the river. It is both the ‘dwindling puddle’ of Preacher’s own bodily fluid – ‘how sickly I’ve been/ stagnant and receding/ since last rain’ - and the physical manifestation of his lover’s sexuality.

breach the levee
call your waters home

feed your currents
swallow me in your tide
I kneel on the shore become your waves
spread muddy legs
and I wade in

The Preacher himself is a questionable guide through a spiritual wasteland, a thoroughly unreliable Virgil arranging our passage through, not over the river. “naked he wades/bony waves…/ curses drip/ the tide blisters/ night rises from the deep.” We first meet him in ‘Terminal Three.’ “Preacher’s got the gin/ second linin’ down the moving walkway.” He’s a denizen of darkness who will teach his parish ‘to fear first light,’ a man who equates the ‘bloated dawn’ with the death of dreams and with death in general – “sun rise the end of days.” The rising sun is a ‘rising tombstone/that heaves and heaves/ and will not let go,’ and a sky spider that sucks him ‘to a brittle crop.’ He believes “everyday the levee lies and would see us drown,” yet he sits there “and plays his harp to the river/ calling each wave closer to shore.” Bone river, he warns or promises, “takes us/ as Bone River does.” His so called ‘sermons,’ a rambling stream-of-consciousness collection of impressions drowned, at times, in alcohol and despair, have much to do with ‘The Fire Sermon’ in ‘The Waste Land.’ In Eliot’s version of desolation “the river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends/ or other testimony of summer nights.” Lowenkron’s river carries all of that and more, the detritus, not just of summer nights, but of all the nights the preacher is so keen to have us follow him into. Eliot’s narrator claims that “at my back in a cold blast I hear/the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” The Preacher has heard the same rattle and understood it as a message. ‘The Fire Sermon’ takes it’s title from the fire sermon of the Buddha, where he preached that ‘all things are on fire, with the fire of passion, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation, with birth, old age, death and sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief and despair are they on fire,” and that “the disciple must conceive an aversion for the eye, for all the senses, “for impressions received by the mind, and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the mind,” so that he may become divested of passion and hence be free and know that he is free and that “he is no more of this world.” **
Preacher’s ninth sermon, ‘Gravesinger,’ acknowledges the Buddha’s metaphor and the truth behind it.

every dream turned against you
every wing stitched to earth

nothing from over the tree-line but fire

Preacher’s Blues ends with an afterword sub-titled ‘Upanisad.’

“Together a pyre.
pleading for a spark,
our tongues a song of fire.

Harmony’s tinder,
we are smoke rising
in-between words,
over our ashes.

In the beginning
there was nothing here at all.

Eliot’s ‘What the Thunder Said’ ends with ‘Shantih shantih shantih,’ a formal ending to an Upanisad. He claimed in a note that ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ is our nearest equivalent to the word.’ If you reach the end of Lowenkron’s chapbook still looking for an explanation for Preacher’s ambivalent attitude towards us, his readers and spiritual charges, Upanisad, provides this one – You are the day placed in front of the word/ I am the night placed behind. By extension, the poem is the thing between us, the river he would have us wade through to get to some freer, more peaceful place. Or, as he put it in ‘The Recoil’ -
the river goes nowhere I cannot
these shackles are free

*On Christian Doctrine
**Notes on The Waste Land

A Conversation with Ben Lowenkron

T.T. - The river plays a key role here, showing up everywhere – in nightmares, in sexual exchanges, in ordinary observations. It’s a metaphor, a speaking entity that taunts him with his weaknesses and a body of water responding to rain and the moon, held back, or not, by the levees. Tell me about it. Is there an actual Bone River behind the poetic representation? River memories? Rivers play a large role in the mythology and literature of the country. What about in your own mythology?

Ben - Bone River does and does not exist. How's that for a non-answer? As far as I know there is no physical river named for our hardened cores. Bone River is a spin on the metaphor of the river of
life, but one that blends death into the mix, while expressing the flow and churn of a physical river, a powerful body that brings life and death equally.
In many ways Preacher's Blues is itself a river, a confluence of tributaries. One of those tributaries is Louisiana herself, a land where everything looks like it is back from the dead. I moved to Louisiana in the summer of 2005, just in time for Katrina and Rita. Timing was never my strong suit, I guess. I split my time between an apartment in uptown New Orleans off St. Charles, and a ghetto shanty in Baton Rouge, in the bottoms by the Mississippi River. The experience of living through those hurricanes (and later, Gustav) and their aftermath greatly influenced my voice, and the voices of my peers in the MFA program at LSU. One of those friends was the poet, Eric Elliott, who was also my roommate in Baton Rouge. He and I spent many nights on the levee, watching the Mississippi - it is such a powerful and important heart of our country. Goods are shipped up it, while the river itself is a second line, a funeral parade carrying America's body, the land and waste itself, out to sea.
On one of our nights on the levee, Eric and I discussed this magnetic hold that Louisiana has on the artistic and on those who see death's sickle and hang shiny plastic beads from it. Not only does everything and everyone in Louisiana look as if back from the dead, but there is a feeling in the land, in the air, in the burgeoning swamp that there is a conversation going on that is thousands of years old. This
conversation is about death and life on the most serious and the most light-hearted terms. It is a conversation that begs participation, one that is felt in the history of the region and heard in the blues. It
was a conversation calling our names.

T.T. - Influences?
Ben - I owe Preacher's Blues in many ways to Rodger Kamenetz and Andrei Codrescu. In one of Rodger's poetry workshops, we were given the task of writing a research poem. The research could be done in any manner we wished, and we had two weeks to complete the poem. I chose to listen exclusively to blues music - Delta Blues and old Texas Blues mostly: Lightning Hopkins, Skip James, Son House, Big Joe Williams, R. L. Burnside, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and the comprehensive George Mitchell Collection (which I received from Vince, and consists of almost an obnoxious amount of old blues). The result of those two weeks (and, truthfully, I have kept most of the artists in my rotation since the research experiment) was "Apple Pie Moan." Rodger hated the poem (rightfully so, it was told from the point of view of a dog, and simply did not work), but the voice of Preacher's Blues was born from that poem and would be honed the following semester in Andrei's workshop.
Andrei's workshop was designed around the idea of oracles. He assigned each of us a poet, and we were to pick one as well. These were to be our poetic oracles. Each week we would ask our oracles questions and then open one of their books to a random page. The first one to three lines our eyes fell upon was our answer. We would then take our q and a and use it to inform our poem for the week. I was assigned the amazing Mina Loy and chose Frank Stanford (whom I regard as the best American poet this side of Walt Whitman. He also was passed along to me by Vince, who found a dusty copy of Stanford's, "Crib Death" in the stacks at LSU). As the class progressed, I picked up a third oracle, Jeffrey Miller, whose poems, as Andrei pointed out, are written as if from beyond the grave. The majority of the poems in Preacher's Blues came from my intense discussions with Mina, Frank, and Jeff. You can still find examples of the oracle correspondence on the Equisite Corpse website, corpse.org.

T.T. - I like the picked apart etymology of the word ‘Upanisad,’ as it relates to the collection as a whole, as well as to the poem that uses it for a title - upa- (nearby), ni- (at the proper place, down) and sad ("sitting down near", and the put together implication of sitting near a teacher to be enlightened.
Ben - As far as ‘Upanisad’ is concerned, it is almost Preacher's guide to the book. It is spiritual in nature and in existence, as it was written while I was reading The Upanisads. The words closely mimic the actions and set up of the beginning of The Upanisads, where the cosmic man sacrifices his body to create the universe. The notion of sacrifice to creation is the core of Preacher and the spirit of the book itself. Its expression is the bony hand.

T.T. - Death seems to be the other big player throughout the work – gestured at by the numerous tombstones, the rot, the skeletal bits, the frequent quest for oblivion on the part of the cast. More personal mythology or is it related to the devastation of the landscape? Or perhaps the devastation of the landscape has worked its way into the personal mythology.

Ben - The character of Death comes mostly from Frank, though it owes a lot to Louisiana herself - if Death had a vacation home, it would be somewhere down River Road. In reading and communing with my oracles and in listening to a mammoth amount of the blues, death became more and more prevalent (not to mention the first hand encounter with so much death in the aftermath of the hurricanes). I wanted to write a murder ballad and from this desire, Preacher was born. But as draft after draft piled up I realized that while Preacher may or may not have nefarious intentions, the real antagonist of the poems was the sun, the entity of responsibility to all that distracts from our dreams. In our dreams we are most alive, and the sun is God's flashlight, tapping at our window, demanding we pay or bill and move along.
The birth of the evil sun idea came out of my own battles with severe depression and with bipolar disorder. In my darkest times, I would literally lie in bed, shaking uncontrollably with the overwhelming
fear of the coming day. I have always been drawn to the freedom and possibility inherent to night, a time with no time markers besides the departure and reappearance of the sun. Even in mythology, I prefer
Bacchus to Apollo 150 times out of 100. Questioning the logistics of those numbers is exactly what the damn Sun would do.

T.T. - Formal Consideration? And what about the book as an object, with its occasional pages that appear to have been typed with a ribbon past its prime, and illustrated by someone armed with a stump of charcoal and a vision of the world that vacillates between hope and despair?

Ben - The Sun wants left-justified poems. The Sun wants articles. Fuck the Sun. My poems are a rebellion against this, but also a nod to the river, to waves. Each line or couplet takes the shape of a wave. The book itself is supposed to be an artifact, something that might have been found in an old box by the river. I owe an incredible debt to Jason Cook and Ampersand Press for making a book that is a perfect expression of the work within, and that is more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

*** Second line is a tradition in brass band parades in New Orleans. The ‘main line’ is the main section of the parade, or the members of the actual club with the parading permit; those who follow the band just to enjoy the music are called the ‘second line.’ The second line’s style of traditional dance, in which participants walk and sometimes twirl a parasol or handkerchief in the air, is called ‘second lining.’ It has been called “the quintessential New Orleans form – a jazz funeral without a body.” (Nick Spitzer, "Rebuilding the 'Land of Dreams:' Expressive Culture and New Orleans' Authentic Future" Southern Spaces, 29 August ) - wikipedia

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