Sunday, February 27, 2011

Adjust Your Set by Linda Stitt

It's been a long time since I tried to review a book of poetry, which I don't think was ever my strong suit. As a matter of fact, in 2010 I didn't even read a single book of poetry, so reviewing one would be impossible.

As regular readers know, I'm trying to change that here in 2011, with a goal of reading roughly at least one poetry book a month. I'm aided in this by my pile of random poetry books that I grabbed over the past few years. Whenever I found them for a few bucks here and there, I'd peek at a few pages and see if the lines looked interesting. If they did, they ended up in my shopping basket.

This is not the best way to get excellent poetry, as I've discovered. It does, however, expose you to some interesting books. Adjust Your Set is pretty typical of the three I've tried so far (one of which was terrible and I stopped reading it). There are some awesome poetical moments, but the overall feel is just too uneven to make it a keeper.

Linda Stitt is apparently an older poet who has a few books out prior to this one. At the point this book is collected, she's reflecting on her life and what it means to be an older woman in society. When she's doing this, the results are often quite insightful. She talks about how she's less interested in sex or how she lived her life according to the rules and that it didn't get her anywhere. Other poems discuss her ex-husband (who presumably left her for a younger woman) or coming to grips with the ravages of time.

The concepts are perfect fodder for poetry. The problem is that Stitt tries too often to force her ideas into rhyme schemes, which take the good idea and torture it like humans do with a cat and a laser pointer. Like the cat who can't ever catch the bobbing light, Stitt can't capture the right feel when the seriousness of the verse is undermined by the need to Seussify her thoughts. The rhymes work okay when it is simply a stanza-long idea, but anything longer than that loses me in the sing-song nature of the words.

That's a shame because her free verse is quite good. In a poem about being forced into technology by her children (My New Literacy), Stitt discusses how her very poetry becomes stuff in the act of making it conform to the new computer she can write on. "The Matricide" is far too heavy-handed for my taste, but in the free verse format, Stitt clearly shows she can make allusions via her verse (in this case, that humanity is killing Mother Earth).

"Artifact" is a good example of what I mean:

I was offered a paint-by-the-numbers life
of circumscribed colours and designs,
with traditional patterns, nice and neat,
but I couldn't stay within the lines.

So I scribbled outside my social class,
my duties as mother and wife,
and I scrawled my name on experience.
It may not be art, but it's my life.

And often it stirs me into the crowd
and sometimes it sets me far apart.
It spatters my sense with splashes of bliss
and dashes love's pigments into my heart
and I am quite content with this
untidy life, my artless art.

That's a great way of artistically saying you didn't quite fit the mold. Unfortunately, there are also poems like "Forewarning" which starts thusly:

Look away from beauty,
beauty is to fear.
Beauty grabs you by the heart
and hauls you over here.
Beauty grabs you by the gut
and hurls you over there;
beauty shatters you to bits
and spreads you everywhere.

That seems like the chorus of a 1980s power ballad by a lesser hair-metal band, and the rest of the page-long poem doesn't get any better.

Overall, the good and bad match up roughly equally, making it hard for me to make a final judgment on this book. I think whether or not you'll be interested depends just how much you like rhymed poems. (I once knew a person who only liked rhymed verse, and considered anything else chopped up prose.) If you like or tolerate it, Adjust Your Set might be worth seeking out if you find a copy somewhere. If you are not a fan, then there's going to be too many pages you'll want to skip. I fall somewhere in-between. Adjust Your Set was good enough to finish, but I don't know that I'd actively look for more poems by Stitt.

Want to sample some of Adjust Your Set? A few preview pages are on Google Books.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hail, Hail, Euphoria! by Roy Blount Jr

I think it only fair to open this review by saying I have a strong bias in favor of the Marx Brothers. I never thought Karl was as funny as the rest of them, but it's much harder to get humor right in book form, so I think we can forgive him.

I've been Groucho Marx for Halloween, wooing a former girlfriend in his trademark patter and manic zaniness. I will shamelessly pick up any book I find to be affordable on the subject of this amazing comedy team that, if anything, had its best years in moments never captured on screen. Groucho died a little less than nine months before I was born, a fact I like to bandy about in mixed company. Though never when a food processor is involved, as I can't stand it when things get dicey. Give me hand-whisked company anytime.


Roy Blount, Jr. is also a Marx Brothers fan. How can any American humorist (note I did not say comedian) not be? As a frequent panelist on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, Blount is no stranger to making witty remarks that often border on the risque. This book is his love letter to the best of the Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup. Like any true fan, he lavishes praise on the film, perhaps going just a bit too far in places and leaving some lesser moments to hide while he talks about how good the movie it. That's okay, though. When the book's subtitle is "The Greatest War Movie Ever Made" you know you're not in for a critical analysis.

As a matter of fact, Euphoria! reads an awful lot like a person live-blogging the movie, only with unlimited time to add in notes and asides and a bit of additional research. I don't mean that as a bad thing, but it's the best way to describe the way Blount approaches the subject. After a brief introduction to why he has such an attachment to the film, Blount then proceeds to put the movie on his computer and write out his thoughts as the story unfolds before him. He encourages readers to do the same, but I don't need to. Duck Soup is a movie that is indelibly burned into my brain with about a 90% accuracy.

The style of writing has some awkward moments, like when Blount pretends to be talking to one of the Marx Brothers. The boys' banter needs to be read aloud to work, and when Blount tries it on the page, the whole thing falls flat. There's also a definite lack of criticism going on here, which is okay once you understand that this book is a love letter, not a history. Rather ironically, unlike the layered nature of Marx anarchy, this book is quite straightforward. Blount thinks this movie is awesome (and he's right!), and this book is going to tell you why.

Unfortunately, I think in his desire to talk about how damned funny this movie is, Blount misses the chance to also show that Duck Soup has a lot of political commentary in it as well. Think about the premise: A rich widow uses her money to buy a new leader for the country, who is absolutely and completely corrupt. The leader does nothing to help the country, and ends up getting it embroiled in a war, which seems like fun until the shooting starts. Sounds all too plausible, doesn't it?

And hey, what about the way this movie sends up the other movies of its day, culminating in a huge musical number that butchers every possible genre of song it can? The mock patriotism? The idea that many small states run by dictators end up embroiling their citizens in needless conflict? You can easily take any one of these ideas and run with them, all harping (no pun intended) on the idea that the completely chaotic Marx Brothers, when at their best, are tearing down the most serious parts of society. Karl would have been proud, had he lived to see them in action.

I really wish Blount had spent more time going over some of these ideas. If they do come up, it's like Blount is afraid to talk about them, for fear of offending someone. That's this age for you--never say something that might make someone angry. Pointing out the money in politics angle might make some of his conservative readers angry, so it can't be discussed. I'd love to know what Blount thinks about the subversive nature of Duck Soup, but alas, it's not to be. Groucho feared no one, or so it seemed. Blount apparently fears a lack of sales.

Perhaps I'm being too cranky about that omission, but to me the reason why this movie sings to my heart is because it's not just silly slapstick, verbal bantering, and watching the Brothers be mashers. This is the movie where they showed that comedy can be extremely subversive without being preachy. We don't get Jon Stewart without Duck Soup. It's a link that Blount misses, I think. It's also what makes this movie better than the rest of the Marx Brothers films, which tone down the tendency to destroy authority. Blount correctly notes that the Marxes will never again be this anarchic on screen, but I think he misses the true reason why: Comedy like this might just make people think.

But that's enough being serious! Let's talk about what Blount does well, which is describing why this comedy is so good. He correctly notes that it's one of the few 1930s comedies without dead spots, as the Marxes work their way across the screen at a frantic pace, with even the slow-burn set-ups having plenty going on to catch the viewer's eye. Descriptions of things like the Lemonade Stand, the Mirror Scene (always imitated, never duplicated), and the huge musical number towards the end are crafted with the loving care of a man who's watched this movie over and over again, and isn't ashamed to admit he's still noticing new things about the film, even after all this time. These moments are touching, and any Marx Brothers fan will find themselves nodding in agreement as Blount shows just how good these scenes were--and are, even today.

Where Blount really shines, however, is in the moments where he shares details about the making of the film itself. Duck Soup's creation will remind you of the adage about sausage. The original story was, quite frankly, crap. It would never have worked as a Marx Brothers vehicle. (Groucho as an arms dealing looking to start war and bloodshed? Give me a break!) Luckily, much of it was scrapped. As we "watch" the movie with Blount, he provides snippets, so we can see just how close we came to having a disaster rather than a classic.

Who made Duck Soup the movie we saw today? It's almost impossible to know for sure, if Blount's information is correct. Certainly there was ad-libbing from the Marxes, but after reading this it seems that director McCarey took some of the best ideas he used for W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and adapted them for the insane four men he was trying to corral on the screen. It seems like this soup had an awful lot of cooks, and for once, it didn't spoil the broth.

Blount also provides a few asides about the Marxes, sprinkled in here and there as the story warrants it. Margaret Dumont is compared to the Marx Brothers' mother, for instance. There is a set of vignettes about McCarey to give us an idea of the type of person he is. Each brother has some story or the other shared, whether it's that Zeppo might have gotten himself killed had he not joined the act or that Groucho wasn't afraid to tell everyone about his own personal faults. Some of these were new to me, some were quite familiar. It shows that the Brothers at a certain point really did adapt the persona they used on stage, after awhile. The line between Julius and Groucho blurred somewhere along the way, and now pulling the two apart is as difficult as trying to recall why the youngest brother was called Zeppo, anyway.

Do any of these notes really have much to do with Duck Soup? Not particularly, but that's okay. This book is a long-distance conversation between friends sharing a passion together. Blount didn't write this book to get people to want to watch Duck Soup. He wrote it for people like me. He wrote it for people like my friends Drew and Bill, who once accidentally turned Duck Soup into a Rocky Horror audience participation experience, performing the lines and songs from our seats without even knowing at first that we'd done it. (Best of all? The crowd in the packed theater loved it, and not a single person told us to stop.) He wrote it for the Roys, the Robs, the Drews, and the Bills, who are taken to see this movie at an art theater and fall in love, generation by generation, with this amazing film.

Duck Soup may not be the greatest war movie ever made, but for me it's certainly the best. Any fan of the Marx Brothers owes it to themselves to join Blount here in celebrating it.