There’s No Place Like Home
By Darran Anderson.
American Means, D.E. Oprava, American Mettle Books 2009
Attempting to write the Great American Novel is like trying to slam a revolving door. A noble concept but a maddening impossibility. Sometimes the phrase is employed to promote the truly great (The Sound and the Fury, Blood Meridian, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby), to be used as a bellows for the infernal (the complete works of Ayn Rand) or simply as a refuge for the scoundrel critic (this review). Ultimately, the Great American Novel fascinates because it can never be written. And maybe it can never be written because that’s what America is itself, an experiment, a terrible beautiful fiction. The old countries of the East and West have been drowning in history for centuries. Since the Civil War, if not before, America’s been writing itself into existence.
Is it the sheer vastness of the land, the cocksure birthright of its inhabitants or this desire to make history rather than to react to it that gives America this tendency to the epic? For writing poetry with ambition and brass balls? Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Ginsberg’s Howl, Gregory Corso’s Bomb. All of them reflected what America was at the time of writing and arguably contributed to what it would become. American Means by D.E. Oprava, poet and head honcho of Grevious Jones Press, follows in their slipstream, seeking to capture the zeitgeist and encourage the subtlest of nudges in direction. The book is a passion play from the heart of the new Depression, a State of the Nation Address surveying the wreck and ruin left by the psychopaths in Wall Street, a lament for “the forsaken roots of what’s been.”
Trying to take a poetic x-ray of recessionary America is an admirably lunatical ambition. Adopting the parable as the method to do so seems surprisingly arcane but it’s an astute choice; what better way to rail against the What Would Jesus Do? brigade and the Mammon-worshippers trying to hijack the nation than to use Biblical means? Approaching a subject as multifold as an entire civilisation is an astoundingly difficult task. After all, what the fuck is America? Is it the land, the State, the population, the culture, the collective experience, an idea or just the chaos peculiar to the vast area between the coasts of Maine and Alaska? Oprava choses to present the various aspects of American life, the vices and virtues, personified in human form as if some medieval drama; Vanity dancing on tables for tips, Greed who’s skipped town with all his ill-gotten gains, Sloth the half-witted child, Sage ranting that we were all warned what was coming, missing the portents in “the radio-wave sky / scorched in vapour-trail lines.” All of them are incarnations of America from the psychotic, treasonous investment bankers to the Right’s archetypal scapegoat, pariah and victim; the single mother.
The reasons for the financial implosion can be endlessly analysed, argued over and denied; the substitution of debt in place of a living wage, the artificial inflation of house prices, the cancer of risk-sharing through derivatives, the short-termism and Ponzi schemes of greedy bastard investment bankers, regulators and governments in open worship of the new religion; the Market. Blah bastard blah. All of it boiled down to the fact that illusions had become profitable. American Means tries to get the measure of these illusions and their consequences; a zombie economy and the stark daily realities it’s produced for those at the bottom.
Fittingly, the book is at its most powerful when it focuses on the personal, the human tales of those getting metaphorically shafted by the system, “squatting in their own homes,” hauled up by cops or sleazed over in bars. Oprava pulls no punches yet some of the most scornful imagery is also oddly the most touching; “her ankles awash in dust / devils skittering across a / mortgaged floor,” “lacking the will to / seize the sun she leaves rot / chained to the back gate,” the “mobile home fuelled on / bottled gas rots in weeds / nestled amongst old tires and / yesterday’s rusted wants.” Passages of impressively lyrical verse abounds, “wind in her hair, staring / through the windshield at a / frost-hove road, scarred / ground in tarmac tangents” or waking by the sea “chilblained and / crumbled on seawood stones / staring star-shot eyes hanging / below unwashed hair.” The succession of snapshots throughout the book are riveted together by the recurring double-meaning line that is the motto of the book, “the country was waste / deep in blossom and gloom.”
At it’s best, there’s a music to Oprava’s words, internal rhythms and rhymes run like currents that buoy and sway the poem, sometimes abruptly shifting for dramatic effect. Occasionally an image or scene surfaces and fixes the attention. With a simple phrase like “watching Land of the Lost on a / fifty-inch flat screen,” Oprava demonstrates an ability to nail the current state of things. It’s in visions of “Detroit decomposing,” the “reservations for the old” “a God in every musket,” “just a reflection of things gone daytime-tv wrong” or in the accusation of “God’s numerous / infidelities to humanity.” In a way, the book is most reminiscent of mid-period Bob Dylan, the sprawling surrealist songs like Stuck Inside of Mobile, It’s Alright Ma or Desolation Row, that are built from American flotsam. Oprava too taps into the collective memory we have when we think of America; Dorothy clicking her ruby heels (reiterating the mantra “there’s no place like home” particularly the subprime repossessed variety), Brautigan trout-fishing, the Okies taking to Steinbeck’s highways. And like those Dylan tracks, Oprava lulls the audience into a false sense of security, softening them up before hitting them with a suckerpunch line out of nowhere.
One such jolt comes with the sudden rage of Oprava’s pronouncement “flesh for the mill… not worth the birthdays / lost in the body bags” in reaction to the deluded Manifest Destiny of the Bush era (and maybe the absurdity of our great hope winning a Nobel Peace Prize whilst simultaneously escalating the war in Afghanistan). This sense of righteous disbelief permeates the poem, understandable given that the opposition believe health care for all is a communist idea or that dinosaur bones are put there to test our faith in the literal word of the Bible or that missile strikes are the best way to spread “do unto others”. Oprava takes it further demonstrating in several haunting passages that America is not just a dream but a pathology. One sequence features that most star-spangled of sports, the lone gunman running amok; “That sharp recoil of / hot metal thwacking into car / tree, body and ghost… she’ll watch it all on the / news at ten and barely / remember she was there as the / second amendment wins again.”
Another, distantly recalling Catcher in the Rye, is set on a cliff-top where hundreds of people are queueing up to jump, “three / thousand people a month offing / themselves… Richter thumps as bodies land / on oblivion’s floor.” Those who endure and choose life do so only by drinking or popping pills to take the edge off things in this the most heavily medicated culture on the planet. But then America’s a dream after all and maybe this is how you dream. In America there’s more of everything and that includes misery. If great poetry is that which makes you think, Oprava has succeeded.
It’s not all plain sailing. Occasionally, the very things that make Oprava’s book such an intriguing proposition are also its weaknesses. The parable form with its roots in evangelism can come across as preachy at times. The finest political writing seems to be that which mentions politics as little as directly possible. It seems best to smuggle a message in via an unexpected direction. Always go in through the window rather than the front door. Approaching politics head-on can tend to have the unintentional effect of bathos, slowing down the poem’s momentum. In other words, explicitly mentioning politics can break the spell of the poetry.
Such risks come with the territory though and the vigour and imagination with which Oprava propels the work counteracts the flaws. During American Means’ best moments, Oprava the poet wins out against Oprava the journalist and in a way even criticisms of the work come only because the book aims so high. In an age of damp squib poets, such mad ambition must be applauded. As an ex-pat, Oprava has the wisdom that comes from the outside looking in, the exile casting a cold eye over the land he hates and loves. And tempting though it might be, he largely avoids the easy shots, striking out at misplaced ineffectual liberalism as neutering, exposing the mask of political correctness and revealing the waste of what could have been “so many beautiful places in / the void, but we choose the / trailer, suburbs, mansions to / pass weeks into / years and so on until we’re / too jaded to think” not in any airy fairy hippy way but with genuine fury. Ultimately the optimism, which the book moves towards, is not something passive or natural but is instead a struggle; hope, Oprava seems to suggest, is something to be fought for otherwise it’s just another trap.
American Means is an articulate stirring elegy for the loss of America, a message of disbelief and indignation at what they’d done to the land of the founding fathers but also the desire to take it back. Perhaps it’s already too late and the words are an epitaph, maybe the banker has irreversibly replaced the poet as the unacknowledged legislator of the world in Shelley’s words. The future’s unknown but Oprava points out several routes; a decadent reconstruction of the last days of Rome, “a collision course with dustbowl again,” “neo-feudalism” or the end of it all; “bugs breathing in syncopation / the surety of knowing they’ll / inherit the world.” Or, in the age of Obama, something the world has never seen before. American Means doesn’t offer any answers, just further questions, but emerging from an age ruled by those who’ve had the answers, from Bush to Blair, Friedman to Bin Laden, its an undeniable step in the right direction.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Darran Anderson lives inside the internet. This is his house.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009.