Pole Dancing in the Night Club of God
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.