Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: “Petroglyph Americana” by Scott Ezell (Empty Bowl Press)

Disclosure: The author is a friend.

Scott Ezell’s Petroglyph Americana is a narrative poem that weaves together contemporary ephemera and deep ecology; marries history and politics to topography; projects the personal against the general, and challenges the simplicity of surface culture with the depth of intelligent observation. All of this is done with a sense of humor; with language that has a cadence and rhythm matching the subject matter; with efficiency and with love. It is no small task, but the author has risen to the challenge.

Blue ink petroglyphs
on a wall of pages, I am
anthropomorphic design
scored into the face of cities,
a mineral blank
extruded through a die of
freeways, factories, and conduits
into a myth of home.

America, like the poet Walt Whitman himself, is alive with contradictions and Ezell explores these, taking them as they come. Together, the imagery presents a compelling collage revealing how America’s depth, cultural heritage and history can become occluded by the surface tension of contemporary life and its rather constant plays for our attention. It is a story about freedom and how such a notion takes place in this country and the potential influence of our domestic dynamics elsewhere. Ezell chooses to look closer; to examine both the innocence and the ignorance of this place. What America is often hinges on our collective ability to ignore history and invest in the open-ended freedoms of the frontier, where consequences may be sorted out later—by those who care to do so—or perhaps just left to historians, to poets, or later, to God.

On the tv screen,
between hairspray ads,
a correspondent
with a microphone
stands between two piles
of rubble—

soldiers say
the greatest challenge
is to engage an enemy
indistinct among civilians—

the bargirl turns the channel
to a stock car race.

One can criticize American foreign policy without seeing the roots by which this stance has come to be. One can survey contemporary culture without seeing any connection between American values and how choices we make impact other people and places. Most of the time, anyway, Ezell chooses not to address the layers of this onion with an overtly critical voice, but rather to allow these larger questions to flow through personal experience, to let the contradictions speak for themselves. Ezell engages the texture and intimate nature of his own experience to create a larger space for these inquiries to be examined in the reader’s mind. This point of view is Taoist in nature, as it includes the non-divisive notion that so long as one burns oil one is part of the forces that extract and refine it and, thus, are married to its existence. As such, there is no cover; one cannot stand detached and fling arrows at The Beast if those arrows are instead boomerangs that return scathingly to the hand that threw them. Whether it’s reading Hamlet in a bar where football is playing on tv or recognizing the timelessness of bristlecone pines, even in the gloom of his disappointments, Ezell can sometimes manifest a small point of redemption, a hint of beauty to lift out of the superficialities:

American road motel,
Polyester blankets, microwave machine,
50 channels of tv,
Centrally located near casinos, restaurants, and department stores,
Piss bowl
Ringed with sediment
The color of horizons—

In the best segments of Petroglyph Americana, Ezell’s esthetic is a patchwork of blameless, constructive engagement and sharp observation. These passages recall some of Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsberg’s best work, where a perspective comprises details that derive from a painstaking observation that does not funnel its terms toward an end-game of judgment. I have long held that this is a fundamental difference between art and ideology. Poetry raises questions that identify a dynamic and explore it, without proffering an absolute conclusion or solution. At the same time, the juxtaposition may be strong enough to suggest imbalance or injustice, much as Ezell’s better passages resist these overt labels. The imagery does that, instead:

Doctors found a blue, bulging sack with a silent heart inside.

‘Into your hands O merciful savior, we commend your servant…
A sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock…’

Outside the tent, a Marine Sgt. Cocked his M-16
And stood guard beside the body.

The questions resonate from the page, always keeping in mind the larger conceit of how oil has shaped America and our approach to every aspect of our lives.

How can the same country produce jazz and Wal-Mart? How can such beauty coexist so seamlessly with such ugliness? In what ways do we lie to ourselves? How can we wrap our consciousness around how peaceful the high country feels with the higher proportion of rural soldiers dying in Iraq? Further, how can we reconcile the deep wound of unacknowledged genocide and whole ways of being which have been lost with the distracting (and comparatively empty) pleasures of golf courses, air-conditioning and Las Vegas? How did we get here, what do we do now, and what happened to the natives? What media forces limit our ability as Americans to see more clearly how our decisions affect the rest of the world? They are hard questions to answer, and ones worthy of our consideration.

Larger questions unfold rightfully in poetry, and the contradictions of our nation are given full play in Petroglyph Americana. Buy it. Read it. Send it to your friends as a gift. Scott Ezell has added his name and poetry to a tradition that includes Whitman, Twain, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Vonnegut: voices whose work we should read if we seek to understand America.