Selected Poems by Michael Gottlieb, reviewed by Steven Fraccaro

Michael Gottlieb’s concerns are striking in their intensity—I was tempted to write his “poetic concerns,” but they are more than that, if one may say so. In commenting on his work, the author has enumerated his themes as language, the city, and the life poets face. This is accurate, as far as it goes. But shadowing this, there’s something else, discernible but not always explicit—how none of us live our lives well, how we are all damaged, deficient, awkward, inept in the crossfire of fate. This manifests in a number of ways throughout the recently published Selected Poems, which includes work excerpted from titles published over a period of more than 40 years.

Language poetry is commonly thought to be aggressively positioned against reference. At least that was the case in its early days, the 1970s. A common criticism at the time was that Language writing was lacking in humanity, that the obsessive avoidance of the signified meant it was all just a language game, not one out of Wittgenstein, more a high-brow syntactical game.

Michael Gottlieb was among the first-generation of Language poets based in New York and was an editor for Roof magazine. His first volume, Local Color/Eidetic Deniers, originally published in 1978, might be said to inhabit the terrain of early Language writing. But by the time we get to Ninety-Six Tears in 1981, the second work included in Selected Poems, we have:

The little death, first. There is no such thing as an emergency in the poetry world …

Not your typical Language utterance. Perhaps more typical, we have,

Cause of what seems now increasingly as a sort of desert of years, it had become almost routine, to feed. to square off against, to, as it were, steel oneself against, which, now, by the slightest virtue of the decrease in ferocity …

which with its wry obliqueness may put us in mind of the Ashbery of Three Poems. Is it poetry or prose? Is that a serious question? Things will develop from here. With the volume New York, published in in 1993, Gottlieb has firmly staked out his territory. In the two long poems, “The Great Pavement” and “The Ulterior Parkways,” there can be found a muted, enigmatic acceptance of the world, an acceptance tinged with regret and rebellion:

There is another city. A shadow city. It is right here, cohabiting the same streets and buildings as the one we think we live in.

Most of us, most of the time, have not the slightest clue to its existence.

An invisible city, before our very eyes.

Several cities. A multitude. More than any one of us can know.

To my mind, this recalls Pier 34, the dilapidated and collapsing site for famous renegade art in the 1980s, also the shadow figures of Richard Hambleton from the same time:

What’s really for sale here?

Word play, but an underlying distrust of what exactly, not commerce per se, but of the entire system, the way the world is rigged against most of us. A city, inhabited by ghostly individuals, drawn from the poetry world and elsewhere, unable to escape. Nor does academia offer any solace:

It was a powerful reminder. As soon as he got up to speak, it brought to mind to all of us, immediately, exactly why he had come to be known as the anaesthetic aesthetician.

What purports to be the real world, the world where money and lack of it counts,  consistently intrudes:

When I told my parents
what I wanted to be
my father threw
the classified section at me

“Show me where it says
‘Help Wanted – Poet’?”

Still, there is the nagging sensation:

That malformed, ill-located feeling
that this is not our real life, or
it’s a practice life or,
at least, we’ll get a do-over.

With Gorgeous Plunge (1999), the issue of the poet’s place in the world comes to the fore, with various regrets, but also with the introduction of several of what I term “shady characters,” individuals who put in a fleeting appearance, then disappear. The anecdotes, hinted at, are brief, tantalizing. What Gottlieb does here is to obscure not just the individuals involved but the situations, leaving us with a residue of language. This is impressive, but somewhat frustrating. We want to know more, not in a roman à clef sense, but a trace of context might amplify the writing. We know something is happening, but we don’t know what. The experience is much like discerning what might be figures in an abstract expressionist painting.

“The Dust,” which appears in Lost and Found (2003), constitutes a shift. Here Gottlieb picks up the shattered fragments of the world and examines them. The poem was written shortly after September 11. He was driving through Elizabeth Street in Lower Manhattan, at first puzzled why the street was filled with dust. Then the realization came to him—this was the dust from the World Trade Center, dust that was formed by a miscellany of pulverized objects and structural debris but also the remains of several thousand human beings. The poet enumerates them, the people and the objects:

Sushil Solanki
Lyudmila Ksido
Coffee, regular, sesame bagel, toasted, with cream cheese
Jorge Luis Morron Garcia
Kathy Nancy Mazza-Delosh
Jayceryll M. de Chavez  

Jimmy Nevill Storey
Quarter, two dimes, two nickels, three pennies
Raymond M. Downey
George Eric Smith
Oscar Nesbitt

The piece has been performed with considerable effect at the St Mark’s Poetry Project, originally in a staging by Fiona Templeton. 

In the works after “The Dust,” specifically those published between 2007 and 2019 (The Likes of Us, Dear All, I Had Every Intention, Mostly Clearing) Gottlieb returns to his previous concerns, the word play becomes more pointed, the vocabulary more esoteric. When I first read these books a number of years ago, I found myself coming across an increasing incidence of words I had to look up. Then there were the words one thinks one knows—nugatory, for example. What’s the definition of eschaton?

What about scapegrace or eidolon? What happens in a Faraday Cage? What precisely is source confusion? Or the business judgment rule? The answers are shocking in a way, and should bring us up short.

The themes that Gottlieb introduced in his earlier work continue to develop and intensify, here in his poetry as well as in his essays. There is still the city, the memory of events long past, as well as the muted sense of comedy:

the night he got thrown put of Puffy’s
thus joining the immortals
along that stretch of Hudson St.

The in-joke here is that it would have been very, very difficult to have gotten thrown out of Puffy’s in those days. The offense is nearly unimaginable.

“The Dust” and “The Voices” (2020) have been referred to as atypical poems in Gottlieb’s body of work. That is only true from one angle. Viewed another way, they are developments of his most pressing concerns, but they reach further. Both are paeans to the city, and both memorialize the dead. In “The Voices,” we have the stirring of the city, a place of real people, people who are suffering and dying, as well as those who are surviving. Ron Silliman has likened this to Reznikoff’s later, more documentary work:

We’re all afraid. I have single mothers working for me, mothers whose husbands are about to be deported, men who are their family’s only support, men who worked during the day in restaurants, and now their only check comes from cleaning. I find my women crying. They’re tired from another job, but they have to keep working. It doesn’t matter how, or whether they’re given gloves or not. I have older people in their 60s who are cleaning bathrooms. Everyone is afraid of getting infected. But even more than being infected—it makes me sad to say it—they’re afraid of being without work.

Sounds of children yelling. Applause. Car horns. Rattles. Cacophony.
7:00 PM Eastern Daylight Savings Time. Pots banging. Trumpets. Crescendo.

If Gottlieb had written nothing other than “The Dust” and “The Voices,” he would go down as an intransigent poet of the city. The place he writes of is not the only city in the world. Nor is it the greatest, even as it claims to be. But it is the center of a swirling world, and not many poets can capture that. As it turned out, immediately prior to reading this volume, I had been rereading William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems and George Oppen’s Collected Poems. Michael Gottlieb’s work did not suffer by comparison.

Selected Poems, by Michael Gottlieb. Tucson, Arizona: CHAX, October 2021. 342 pages. $21.00, hardcover.

Steven Fraccaro is the author of two novels, Dark Angels and Gainsborough’s Revenge. His most recent work is Skeleton Keys, a collection that inhabits the space between poetry and prose. His critical writing has appeared on the Recalcitrant Press blog site and in the short volume of essays, The Recalcitrant Scrivener. 

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