Three chapbooks by Jack Henry
reviewed by David McLean
the downtown café 40 pp.
buy at Erbacce Press
a garden of flies 26 pp.
buy at Scintillating Press
(released February 2009)
buy at Kendra Steiner Editions
This is a review of three books recently produced by the prolific LA poet Jack Henry, and is produced as a three in one review, being, taken together, maybe a snapshot of his present development. the downtown café, the obvious centerpiece, is longer, but the other two are excellent productions in their own right, and unities themselves, not mere footnotes to the longer work.
Generally, these poems all came to be relatively recently, and they stay true to the vision Jack has earlier presented in his works. The world is one stamped with anomie and lack of autochthonousness, which is like a feeling of rootedness and belonging. It's the modern malaise that is what Heidegger was among the first to identify, we are not part of a team. It's why he was briefly a Nazi, he thought that offered belonging and identity, though that proved, as we all know, I hope, to be spurious and, fundamentally, a radically evil illusion.
In these poems, the characters and the character who speaks, who is maybe Jack himself, the poems' voice, is himself a modern consciousness who (and this is not unusual in contemporary US poetry) is almost nostalgic for the stupidity of the Christian spirit-seeing and soul-inventing society that tried to destroy him and make him a conformist. But Jack is non-conformist enough to not conform to the other non-conformists, like the Goth kid who refused to refuse to dance for South Park, but Jack writes poetry better than the Goth kid danced.
His poetry balances first the external situation of the characters mentioned, that of agents reacting in a world where the capitalist or neo-liberal dream is confirmed and there is no compassion, no true sense of community, and individuals do not truly relate, but pursue selfish ends, crawling over each other like lizards in a cage, using each others bodies indifferently for leverage or a resting place, but never really touching, as Acton once said.
at noon i eat lunch at a deli
counter in the international
marketplace - no one cared if a
little white kid wanted to buy a meal
Los Angeles never cared about much
(“At Seven”, the downtown café)
It balances this with at the other end of the scale an internal despair and sense of abandonment to match this external desolation and actual abandonment, acts of abandoning. As in a poem to “a starving man” where the repetition of the recurring line “i see him” contrasts the poet's (and hopefully reader's) response with the societal act of rejection. The concluding “which is almost worse than not seeing him at all” maybe suggests that even our treatment of the starving and oppressed is no better, since the individual cannot help every other individual, only the state can do that. Nobody starves where I live unless they are starving themselves for aesthetic effect, and it is chastening to contrast Jack's truths about LA life with the picture America presents of itself to us through the Hollywood and TV ideology machine and the more conventional poetic ideology machine, where the focus is on frozen lakes and nasty animals who may or may not be endangered. The plight of the noble redwood while Jack's poor fucker is rummaging in the trash.
At the other internal end of the balance of abandonment we have the individual who is obliged to accept that the piety and faith which drove his predecessors does not work for him, and a nostalgia for the innocence of church and all that it brought with it, giving up childhood. (All American writers have problems with nostalgia for an innocent childhood and wanting to “go home.” I assume that this is their way of expressing nostalgia for presence and permanence and an ontological sense of continuity. You can't go home again because there is no “home” in the relevant sense.)
Like Sartre says, answering his teacher Heidegger, there is no fundamental we as subject. just so Jack cannot be like his father's generation of baseball and apple pie and innocent kids with bruised knees. the kids blow priests in alleys for coke, as Jack writes elsewhere. But there is an “us object” for the earlier Sartre - we can unite as oppressed and see an identity as victims, maybe, for the later Sartre change things with left politics. But Jack's word (and mine) is one where love and unity is fleeting, an unbearable nostalgia for decency and glimpses of better possibilities in a world where we are lizards in an indifferent cage.
The journey home to a simple world of faith is one you don't want to take, but the ultimate solution that gets the individual through the day is simple physical pleasure
i stand - walk a couple of blocks
drink down my rent money
and pass out in the street
(shift end, the downtown café)
A feeling most people know, I hope, and the old values and faith no longer work for anybody.
alone in my father’s castle
built on Sunday morning
i pray the lord my soul to keep
but that might take too much effort
(Scabbard's Claw, empty houses)
As Jack says in the title poem to this little chapbook empty houses, “i know the shame of living, the/ sorrow of survival”
listless shadows used
to linger outside my
window as sirens chased
phantoms of indiscriminate
There are MANY passages in poems in these chaps that make me, and I am pretty arrogant, desperately envious of Jack's accomplished poetic voice and his startling imagery.
The tone in empty houses, another first rate little chapbook, is one of quiet desperation in the desolation that is any city. The first poem, “Last rites” depicts a suicide who apologizes to “god and his team” before dying in a letter nobody reads - not priest, not god. Here is the earlier mentioned nostalgia, there should be a god up there if the American dream is to be true, not just an ideology of self-righteous self-satisfied complacency. Optimism and all shall be well, all shall be well, at least when the smack comes on Friday. In the end all manner of thing shall suck, but that's just empiricism on my part. Evil empires have, historically speaking, always been a bit evil but the evil American empire will be good.
But this chapbook is less concerned with the external desolation than the internal disintegration, strong in its depiction of Jack's character finding himself smaller than his father, especially in the title poem. It's a powerful poem rich and restrainedly competent in its invocation of religious imagery. Religion doesn't work, churches are declining parasitic and extraneous to real life, but hell is here, the devil, who doesn't exist, is here, the soul we do not have is burning.
The theme of garden of flies tends more towards that of the poem “death by increments” - the inevitability of going where flies assemble to take our meat as a tasty little snack. Here, as elsewhere in Jack's work, the only weak link is found in the mercifully few poems, only one here, that strike poses against what the self-so-styled underground identifies as “bad writing” and attacks a “canon of taste” that it regards, maybe rightly, as repressive. This is a boastful and loud-mouthed American thing, but Jack is at any rate able to do it in a way that is not self-contradictory like most people who make these self-refuting assertions of poetic superiority. He is good and better than run of the mill straight poets, I just don't see that that's for him to say, it's for me and others who review him.
In the downtown café, from Erbacce Press, what strikes me is the continued use of the motif of seeing. Jack sees the various victims, the starving and the suicidal, and emphasizes the ineffectiveness of seeing, that he does not, cannot, help them. And this is because it is not a question of everything being alright is enough people want to help "them", it is a question of the larger social whole, not society but the so-called state, helping them, not because it wants to but because that is what states are supposed to do, for fuck's sake. And of course the individual wants to help all the downtrodden, thus the despair and alienation, thus the contemporary popularity of Buddhism, nihilist religion of despair and cowardice, and thus the necessity of political action, but, really, that's probably not going to work, maybe we are fucked in principle, who knows? If we are not fucked in principle, it will be because of the humaneness of humanity, and because of poets like Jack Henry who express that humanity and teach us to remember the humaneness.
All of these books are excellent, start with the chapbook the downtown café, but don't forget to buy the others though. Clink the links above to the publishers, the link highest up or this link to Jack's blog.