Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Neil de la Flor's "Almost Dorothy" and the Generosity of Comic Imagination

Evident from almost the first poem, Neil de la Flor's amazing debut collection Almost Dorothy brims with a rare generosity. Unlike a lot of comic poets, he doesn't hoard his punchlines for an attempt at an overdetermined closure. He's too good for that. More often than not, his first line is a joke, and so is the second, the third, fourth, etc, etc. There doesn't seem to be any fear if a joke goes wrong. And from time to time, they do, as, in the case, of all brilliant comics. That's where the generosity comes in. He doesn't pause and apologize; he just keeps on offering his comic imagination. The show must go on. And the guy has more than enough pizazz to continue without much of a hitch. And when something does go wrong, we're thankful--it makes him human, and root for him that much more intensely. The comics with the most seamless routines are almost always the least funny; you cringe at hearing them make their own drum roll.

A lot of the time, de la Flor is invested in the paragraph as a formal strategy. Here's a paragraph from one of favorites "T. Williams Talks to Birds or I'm talking to Birds":

A glass menagerie, glass menagerie, menagerie of steel, stainless steel, I've stolen my lines from the great Herodotus, or Hercules, I can't remember which was Assyrian. Istanbul is a city with great glass walls erected with the sweat of tigers, lions, and bears. The mighty walls, like skin of cats, are see-through. I see through, you see through. I am done with this cat business, the 9 lives of Nineveh, or 9 Visigoths, or Vishnu nude bathing on porcelain counter tops with margaritas in both hands.

This rhetorical strategy allows for what I like to call a lyrical discursiveness--the ostensibly ceaseless talking gathers its poetic momentum from surprising syntax and diction, odd leaps, etc.

And here's another example. It consists of the final three paragraphs from “Aphorisms for Frida Kahlo”:

Some say sadomasochism is a dirty word, but isn’t dirty a dirty word and merde? A sadist is just another form of disguise, someone who holds the Bounce and Snuggle in a dark corner of the laundry room.

With a frame bolted to the head with metal pins, a cyclotron can achieve stunning success in a single session of radiosurgery. In Spain, Salvador Dali masturbated with beans. Post-operative, monkeys can blink with half their brain removed.

At age 13, Khalo joined the Communist party. Inspired by the Mexican Revolution, she fell in love with a cactus and a pig. Shortly after her death, the hieroglyphs in Egypt were decoded. They all read, Diego.

It's often annoyingly said that the stand-up comic is in pain; the desire to get laughs is a plea for help, compassion. One of the things that's special about de la Flor's book is he doesn't encourage such readings. In a weird way, his book reminds me of early Steve Martin or Robin Williams, the sheer silliness of their acts. As Martin’s and Williams’ career progressed, they appeared in those quasi-serious films, which won him mainstream serious accolades, all of a sudden elevated to the role on an artiste. de la Flor has the courage to stick to his guns, and be an often pitch-perfect comic --this determination is admirable, and what makes his book stand out, and I hope that rare, bold choice allows his work to receive the love it deserves.

In a later post, I will talk about "risk"--that horrible word used way too often to praise confessional poetry. Rarely do members from different aesthetic camps use it to talk about formal strategies, or contents that don't evolve from individual psyhology. For a new gay poet, who no doubt wants to be read, it is a risky choice to mine the unabashedly comic, especially when it doesn't emerge from camp or self-deprecation--a quality too often praised in gay or female comics. Some straight people overvalue sad, humorless gay book--it makes them feel charitable for understanding, and a lot of gay poets play directly into this desire.

This is the one of the most risky books of the year--gay or straight.

I should disclose that my book Blind Date from Cavafy came out from the same press as de la Flor’s. I can honestly say that this had no impact on my opinions. In fact, the last two books that won the Marsh Hawk Press annual contest I found to be disposable. Michael Rerick’s In Ways Impossible to Fold and Karin Randolph’s Either She Was were bewildering choices. Thylias Moss-one of our greatest living poets-acted as a judge and chose Rerick’s book, and I am still perplexed. But that's the way contests go, I suppose.

Also: I love biting the hand that feeds me. It makes me feel alive.

1 comment:

  1. I told Neil he had balls for writing this book. I don't love the formal strategies as much as I love the narrative risks, like blurring fiction and nonfiction and putting the absurd alongside the tragic, and sometimes being unable to distinguish them.