Peaches & Gravy: Selected Poems 1966-2016, by Larry Fagin (edited by Miles Champion). Victoria, Texas: Cuneiform, November 2020. 204 pages. $22.00, paper.
In free improvisation, one requires quick responses to shifting musical realities. Instinctive unity of mind, hand, mouth is required: out with the ego. You need to be quick, “on the fly,” then it’s gone. It’s about aiming for the Total Sound, heard in part. When it works: success of the ultimate dares. In this way, I think of Larry Fagin’s poems as wonderful improvisations, catching things as they’re about to disappear.
This generous selection of Fagin’s poetry contains poems that vary from those concerned with identity, the world, one’s relation to it, and poems where the thought is located in the sounds of the words: “sound as thought.” Throughout, one experiences the sheer variety of these poems, and their intoxicating strangeness.
His poems set up narrative frames and then collapse them; the narrative wobbles outside the frame and the sound amplifies in the ear; “content is a glimpse” and “costume fitting is the beginning of character development.” For Fagin, it’s not the facts that memory has worked over but the surge from and lap back into the constant blast: “Being present is improvised and temporary.” Then there’s the luminous dark: “Black is the color, more luminous than my true love’s hair.”
These poems don’t stall at the terminal, they grow up and out, where everything actuates in myriad profusion: take this passage from “I Call On Edward L. Mann,” where a filmmaker is describing his unmakeable film:
There’s a gang at first, six or seven hood types, mostly in their late twenties. They go around to bars, movies, etc. Then these two, Jack and Joe, decide to leave town and go to New York. There’s a long Greyhound bus sequence and you see how everyone, all the passengers on this bus, can do a special trick. There’s an old man who can make large bubbles just from his own spit, in funny shapes, there’s a young woman with a snake in her purse, a little baby who speaks Dutch (but whose parents are Okies), and so on. The passengers make a chorus and there’s singing, “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” “Smiles,” etc. There’s a large off-screen orchestra. Jack and Joe can’t do much, it’s frightening for them. They really go right across the land and it shows the best and worst parts, lots of dull things. The second half is when they get to New York.
The poem has no other point than the wild extended description of a film that is so strange the filmmaker is having trouble making it.
“What is the verb of this music,” Fagin writes. Imagine a culture that had no nouns, like that of the Hopi Indians. Later, Fagin quotes saxophonist Lee Konitz: “Think bed, not pedestal.” Horizonal not vertical:
Never take no
Nothing ever is
At his best, Fagin’s poems are like jazz solos, freeing the velocities of his angling line that picks up things that slower thought needs time to prepare as statement. These poems rumble up to the surface as undesirable noise to disrupt the critic’s discourse. John Cage writes, “When you hear sounds that have microtonal relations that are unfamiliar, you tend to think away from law toward nature. We’ve had the habits and proclivities and tastes of imperialists, so we’ve colonized what we’ve thought of as the ‘strong sounds’ in nature, while leaving a whole spectrum unnoticed.” Fagin’s poems are generous and open-ended, pluralistic; they aim for a “debourgeoisiefication” of the language; the “I” has been around too long; time to change things up; they are about everything and nothing at the same time; they are narratives with no plot; they are glimpses of the world in close up, or long shot. They are “out there,” sonically rich and wild, like the poem for Steve Lacy, “Stabs,” or grounded in perception of the real: “Outdoor life’s what / I mean. I pull back / these wine-purple drapes / and am relieved to see / it’s like it is.” There is no unifying theme or structure or rather many things and “ideas” converge in a single poem. These are poems in endless motion around a static point, aiming for the Total Work; this reminds me of Clark Coolidge’s “unstoppable endless volleying Everything Work.” Fagin writes “You must take it all without arguing and you can’t give it back.” The stakes are that high.
Steve Lacy once said, “It reached a point where I, and many other people, got sick and tired of the ‘beat’ and the ‘4 bars’- everybody got tired of the systematic playing, and we just said ‘Fuck it’” This could be a statement of Fagin’s poetics or at least an aspect of it; in “Dig & Delve,” Fagin writes “No strict pattern holds. We had to let go of rule of thumb. I can’t explain but you understand.” In Fagin’s poems, there are connection points, waystations, and drifting subatomic explosions in the language that destabilize our sense of meaning: “Vendible towel / Blackbird insulin theurgy moisten tyke / Vilify opposable vinaigrette.” Gravity is suspended and time, also: “My general view of life is that everything is about a week away.” There are halts, a sense of weightlessness. Then signs, signals to turn, enter elsewhere to a “sunny place of no dimensions.” Not intentionally but through a gratuitous act. That’s one definition of poetry! And that place is not somewhere above you. It’s a flat plane where “Nothing ever happens but it will – the is-ness of the is-about-to-be.” What is? That’s the question. Or is it? It is and that’s that. Fagin writes, “Meanwhile, / there is a / meanwhile, // Where / is / it.” Fagin plays with the nature of time. “Meanwhile” could be at the same time. Not either/or but both. Tune into the bird’s frequencies; slowed down you can actually hear them producing more than one note at the same time naturally. When done with a monophonic instrument, like a soprano saxophone, this technique is called multiphonics. Fagan’s poems are multiphonic; all the sounds at the same time. This is because for Fagan, “Different and same are the same.”
Forget about finding a way out of the mess of things; for Fagin “there’s no way out so go deeper,” deeper into the soundscape. But you have to “spot what don’t fit, bombs in fake rock.” And beware, “The whole thing is a mystico. Don’t go out there, you’ll freeze.” Why? Because the nether regions are cold, unfeeling. Watch your step. Change direction. There are no answers to be found there. Better to change the frame:
Because when you’re speaking inside the Hole all you see is the Hole: “When my head / goes too fast / I get out / and walk.” Fagin mentions “Seeing through the eye / Not with it”/ Lifting the hood.” This suggest a kind of mystical vision but the following line, “I yam what I yam,” deflates the potential serious interpretation of the poem. There is an ethics in all of this: “The words want to be alone together. It’s one way to put them through it. Ethics not aesthetics demands it.” For saxophonist, John Butcher, in order “for improvisers to make sense, sounds must be put to work.” The language must be put to work. And there’s no way around it; you have to “collaborate, negotiate, brawl with your demons” to gain entry to the ball.
Every poem exists in time and vanishes in time, like in alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s famous statement about the music: “When you hear music, after it’s over it’s gone in the air, you can never capture it again.” Hearing produces a poem on the fly that contains what was picked up in the act. For Fagin, “writing explains nothing, just in time.” This is time as in the measurement of time, and “just in time” as in the right time before something potentially happens. I’m also thinking of the jazz standard, “Just in Time” with a melody by Julie Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolphe Green.
Instead of tedious explanations about the world, Fagin asks what is the point of all that racket:
The point is
(birds wearing little
jackets & dresses)
there isn’t any.
Or if you prefer, the point is simply “birds wearing little / jackets & dresses.” That’s all, nothing more. Strange, isn’t it? But that’s the essence and wonder of Fagin’s poetry. And that’s all there is, by which Fagin means the whole nine yards: “I mean everything.” But this everything is endless and the Whole can only be seen in part: “What isn’t “partly”? Seen and unseen, never complete … Try to find your way out of whatever you’re in, door open just a crack.” Just a bit of light to see by in the dark.
The first poem in Peaches & Gravy: Selected Poems 1966-2016 is called “Credo”: “If you are to believe in yourself you must have the most incisive of insights, the clearest of visions. You must be entirely realistic about yourself and about the world you live in.” The evidence of the poems in this book show that he was true to this initial vision. The poems are wonderfully bizarre, sonically varied like a saxophone solo by Charlie Parker, lyrical, and precise. They move at varied speeds as they register on the mind, giving off strange emanations. His poems can be serious, dealing with the nature of the self or the world, but not so serious as to approach the academic. Finally, Peaches & Gravy: Selected Poems 1966-2016 offers us a generous selection of his poetry, with an insightful introduction by Miles Champion and wonderful drawings by George Schneeman, Joe Brainard, and a collaboration with Richard Tuttle; all together, it’s enough to spark interest in someone who has never read him before. It is my hope that the publication of this volume gathers new readers of Fagin’s work.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.