Walter Bargen's Pole Dancing in the Night Club of God offers readers an epic
By Walter Bargen
Red Mountain Press
Dense, sprawling, polluted, crumbling with age and disuse, America in late-stage capitalism is a junkyard of cultural ideas, spiritual energy, and absurdity. Hope and despair go hand in hand in a country that welcomes violence, courts it even. Walter Bargen, former poet laureate of Missouri, delivers a book of surrealist prose poems that like Eliot’s Wasteland, or Dante’s Inferno, offer readers a journey into the interior, one populated with suffering, broken ideas, but also hope; and like an epic narrative, Dancing, offers up its share of epic heroes, mostly Americanized Biblical characters incapable of interacting with American bureaucracy and capitalism, choking on choice. Even Don Quixote, appears, as well as other cultural and popular figures as Dancing winds and wends through America.
Dancing is at its heart, surrealist, absurdist. Bargen juxtaposes imagery, often employs leaping imagery, and stylistically wields sprawling sentences and short declarative sentences, engendering the prose form’s inherent snaky prosody. Late-stage capitalism is as corrosive as late-stage communism, a stagnant, corrosive culture detached from reality. Bargen’s tone, at times, recalls Charles Simic’s work, notably Hotel Insomnia, which also glowed with Kafkaesque surrealism, where oppression from corruption is around the corner, and the absurdity of choices is a cage, not freedom, and the wolf is at the door. An appropriate tone and ethos for a book that is about aging as it is about a wasteland of ideas, things, dreams.
This is an ethos Bargen’s employed before, in sections of Too Quick For the Living, and Perishable Kingdoms, and Quixotic, but Bargen’s no preacher. He is a master craftsman on a pilgrimage through America; a witness, and from the opening poem, “Prologue, Thumbing Through the Book of Days” Bargen establishes a sly voice, one that’s both winking at the reader and also pulling off a sort of magic trick via transfiguration. In the opening poem, Bargen describes the thumb of the speaker, who is about to hitchhike into the wide world. Here the white moons of an aged speaker become clouds racing across America, the thumbs evoking a kind of Kerouacian Catholicism, a “Go moan for Man moment” where life on the road is a spiritual journey, is truth:
Take my thumbs for example; not overly long nor out of proportion with the rest of my hand, though longer fingers might have helped, if I ever followed through on racing up and down the neck of a guitar, stretching for impossible chords...their two quarter moons nailed to prehensile tandem orbits...The scattered scruf of clouds that drift slowly across their sickle moons towards the nail clippers...Even Ozymandias couldn’t find his thumbs in a vast sand sea and I have only a few days left.
From the very first poem, there’s urgency in Dancing, restless spiritual energy both seeking and questioning, energy turned inward, the action turned outward. The physical landscape also resonates with urgency, a kind of low hum, that Bargen’s diction engenders.
The absurdity of modern life keeps the tone of Dancing light, albeit a kind of exhausted lightness. Bargen’s winking at readers as he warns. The opening book, Atomized, chronicles Adam’s mishaps. Adam is everyman and a fool. He’s lost his dog, paperwork baffles him. In “Back from Extinction” wild buffalo barrel out his buffalo robe, one he hasn’t taken of for years while he reads through the book of names. The buffalo stampede and Adam barely escapes and is left naked in his front window for all the neighborhood to see. Adam, naked to the world, his follies exposed, as an apt image for America of now, exceptionalism stripped to the skin. In “Global Warming on Friday Night” Adam’s singing to:
Some say heaven. Some say hell. Some say he’s walking through the swinging doors that lead to 47 miles of barbwire, and not just the mall...No one mentions the water. Forever blowing bubbles is about to become a new theme song. Guitars turn into paddles.
By the end of the first section, Adam is drunk, arguing with Eve as Descartes disrobes as the evening sinks into debauchery. Adam’s America is one full of zombie properties rotting in strip-malls. Adam’s mostly powerless, an emotion that breeds fear and anger, two of the most destructive emotional states a human spirit can endure.
In book two, Moses takes up the narrative’s baton, carrying a “half a re-wrapped hoagie back to work on the graveyard shift”, in his head the earworm of Popeye’s mantra, “I am what I am”, which is itself a kind quasi-spiritual homage to God telling Moses, “I am who I am.” Popeye standing in for scripture is also aptly American. Bargen isn’t arguing for Christianity, per se, but rather illuminating America’s need for an authentic inner life, even if it is spun from pop culture. Pop culture, disposable, enriching, sustaining even, despite contributing to the white noise of choice, choice, choice.
And as Dancing continues, it becomes clear that Bargen is deconstructing the Bible and deconstructing American life, and mining his own cultural landscape, stripping and collaging together a world that’s broken up, searching for unity, or at the very least identity. It is a search that becomes a transfiguration into America, a move engineered by repeating emotional tones of futility, exhaustion, remorse, and loss, and contrasted with violence, awe, and beautiful language.
By the end of book two, Moses is in the wilderness, wandering lost in the tundra, before collapsing exhausted, staring across the inlet at a bus dropping off kids in front of the corner drugstore. He can’t form the words, his search for truth, snowblind, spent. In book three, New Testament characters have taken over the narrative, The Beatles and Batman make cameo appearances, Paul, contemplating the Trinity, in “Sigmund Road” gets lost on a road to nowhere (is Paul the disciple Paul or Sir McCartney--and does it matter?), Mary’s journey to Bethlehem is recast to the Allman Brother’s “Midnight Rider” as she journeys to Bethlehem’s “Fertility Clinic & Tattoo Parlor” while the angels offer “hush money”. Book four shimmers with poems populated with Americanized Biblical prophets, and the final book “Revelations”, the shortest of the sections, functions as a kind of epilogue, with Dancing ending where it began, with an aging Quixote stumbling around a world falling apart around his ears, “He can’t delay the descent, can’t stop the generous decline into flesh, which is only the beginning of another ascent into the vastness of stars.” Bargen’s speaking of a spiritual transformation, but it’s also an allusion to Dante and Virgil’s ascent out of the center of the universe where Satan lies in the middle of a vast icy wasteland.
Bargen’s wit delivers biting satire, particularly in section four, Under The Big Top, which like a circus offers a kind of thrill as Bargen juxtaposes excess and invention, absurdity and revelation in “Holy Land” and in “Local Prophet Says Everything Must Go”, where a local prophet is selling a bushel of rotting apples and weaving into his pitch steroids, used car lots, telephone poles, and bad prophecies. Esther suffers the worst, in “The Calling”, getting lost in the woods “looking for drugs” who meets a man who “keeps her married for forty years. He turns her bones to brass and they begin to ring each time she complains.” By the end, she is powerless, “clapper still under a brass sky.” Not even the mystics can hear God’s words in a world whited out with noise; could the prophets ever hear God’s words in the world? Bargen provides no answers, only questions, juxtapositions that form a Mobius Strip of tumbling inter-connected possibilities.
Dancing is dense, layered, nuanced, the prose packing the language on the page so that the prose becomes the metaphor for American excess. There’s so much, who can see through it all, or over it all, or across it all? Pick your prepositional phrase, choose your Biblical avatar and get out on the road, but you better have a silver coin to pay the boatman, mister, because the end comes for us all, and the end is now.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is the managing editor of The Broadkill Review, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His poems and stories have appeared in dozens of journals. New work is published in or forthcoming in Revolute, The Citron Review, Fourteen Hills, Gargoyle, The American Journal of Poetry & Helios Quarterly. Mulch, a novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press, books worth burning.