Rollerdome and the Millionaire
by Fred Smith, Black Sparrow Press, 2002, 220 pages
by Dale Smith
Fred Smith’s Rollerdome and the Millionaire is the last book Black Sparrow Press will ever publish. That legendary small publisher, chiefly sustained by its lucrative promotion of Charles Bukowski, ceased all publications in July 2002, selling its backlist to several companies, including Harper-Collins and Godine. We are fortunate, however, to have this book, Smith’s first, in print, even if just barely.
Smith’s poems are mechanically sound engines built of technical know-how and the life experience of his 68 years. A student of Allen Tate, his verse is formally conscious, working primarily in lines of eight syllables. Those lines are unadorned with concerns of contemporary social analysis, mythological comparison, textual ambiguity or paratactic discharge. There’s a transparency of purpose with refreshing humor instead, the language plain as the nose on your face. What we find are compressed narratives of family conflict, Japanese portraits, fifties-era catch-22 Air Force capers or sexual realization (i.e. more conflict). "These were the repressed fifties and / sixties," he writes. "Before psychiatrists / voted to drop being queer from / their list of diseases. He thought / he had to go straight in order / to be cured."
The book’s major divisions of narrative show a progression of concerns, moving from family to friends and lovers. While the work here expresses great tenderness for the often awful situations and encounters one survives, there is a dread understanding also:
I believe life is a dubious
gift, a heavy burden of
ignorance and stupidity, passed
with enmity and vengeance from
one generation to the next.
What the Bible means by sins of
the parents to the third and fourth
even the last generation. (47)
The book's first section, "Children, Parents and Other Observations," casts a cool eye on fifties family dysfunction. Unlike short stories, these poems offer compressed vignettes, like looking through peepholes into other lives. Sadly, we discover through Smith’s blunt but subtly humorous poems, how sexual preferences or decisions alienate families from within.
When their older son came home
from the navy, he announced to
friends and family he was gay.
Friends took the news easily enough
but his parents took it pretty
hard. After much soul-searching
and consulting with the pastor
of their church, they decided to
disown him. To kick him out of
the family business. And to rally
round their younger son. What they
didn’t know was that this son, still
in high school, had asked his brother
to buy him muscle books. And was
hustling Friday and Saturday nights
on Polk Street in San Francisco. (27)
Family division broadens into disaffection for religion and other aspects of American culture. Being gay is painful for the sudden awareness it forces, but liberation from the norm also puts one at ease, permitting liberation from the past.
…After mass Father
Jeffrey asked me why I didn’t
take communion. "I no longer
believe, I hadn’t been to
confession, I wasn’t in a
state of grace." "You should have taken
it anyway, it would do you good." (53)
Other poems continue this examination of religion, social change and private conflict with public mores. While "The Millionaire" relates the story of a man who loses his job for giving money to needy children, poems from "Robert’s Book" often portray the unglamorous reality of gay liberation.
Sex was so much simpler in the
old days. All you had to worry
about then was clap and syph, crabs
and maybe scabies….
… Clean-cut young
men aren’t supposed to have bugs
on their bodies, the same way nice
children don’t have head lice but do.
Now there is herpes, the amebic
diseases, venereal warts,
and hepatitis B. Even
before AIDS doctors wrote articles
describing gay men as walking
sewers. No one said colons were
beautiful, only that they were
sexy. For Elizabethans
dying meant having sex. Now sex
means maybe dying when more than
60 percent of gays in San
Francisco are reported to be
HIV positive…. (160-161)
The advent of new diseases shortly after gay acceptance into mainstream American culture is an irony Smith considers closely. Instead of the adventure of illicit sex, discreet encounters and thrilling orgasms with strangers, gay men assimilated to yuppie value-systems to administer legal protections provided by a government that possibly engineered AIDS to kill them.
AIDS has made Kevin into some-
what of a lawyer. Or at least
he thinks he is. He brings home forms
for do-it-yourself wills, living wills,
and powers of attorney meant
to protect lovers and roommates
from family and relatives who
avoid their gay son or brother
while alive, but rush in after
death to pick the estate apart…. (162)
Smith respects the fatal boundaries ignored by the unconscious predators who peripherally plague these narrative poems. Predatory conflicts return to haunt his friends and the larger gay community. He shares Blake’s ideal for brotherhood, both indifferent to the moral labels of good and evil. You are either wise to the scene, or you’re a fool. "Men who like women are boring," Smith writes, "specially their cigars. I’ve always / felt sorry for women who have / to put up with these men, sex / and other favors." (216) Sensitive intelligence and care for others’ difference makes for sane living. A sane life amidst the terror of American social forms might be a quick reduction to pin on this book.
By roughly restricting his lines to eight syllables, Smith achieves an emotional distance from his narrative content. Such formal pressure gives access to a deeper presentation of his stories, leading him to registrations free verse forms often fail to realize. A restricted form brings focus to the depth field of language, history and personal narrative while freer forms put pressure on the writer’s subjective impetus, relying on that to penetrate the complex and competing components of the self and its psychic content. Smith’s union of native speech patterns with a tight poetic form presents an illusion of ease and transparency. This is achieved, however, with considerable care, craftsmanship and trust in the poem to find and reveal what lies hidden in his creative matrix. His distance also registers the predatory conditions that are hidden behind a smile, an out-stretched hand or behind an office cubicle. The form deflates his anger so that he finds in these life situations the recurring patterns ripe with desire, fear and love. That practice of generous observation bestows pleasure on the reader, relieving the plainspoken but dramatic tensions of the Rollerdome.
TF: In reviews of your work, Forrest Gander and Donald Revell count you among several experimental poets who have recently revitalized narrative possibilities. "Apartment," one of the longer poems in Human Rights (Cambridge: Zoland, 1998), definitely has that narrative impetus.
JL: In "Apartment," I’m trying to make experience actual in a construct of words. (I learn that phrase from Robert Creeley.) I try to critique the construction of the lyric "I"; I try to show how the lyric "I" is embedded in cultural politics. I try to explore the absence of community, to tell the story of the need for community.
TF: What you call "critique" can be associated with both the heart of lyricism and the self-critical or speculative strain within postmodern lyric. This story-telling does not supply a "master narrative" that would stymie the kind of critical challenge you speak of; partial narratives are able to produce strong effects in a collagistic field.
JL: I love collage, for example, in Jasper Johns' paintings, but in "Apartment," I think more about scene structure. This is a lyric sequence. This is deliberate. I wouldn't move the sections of "Apartment" around; they're moving, they're in motion, and together, in sequence, they create an emotional trajectory.
TF: In collage, one might say that the temporality of visual or literary reading is less important than an instant of juxtaposition. Even if I don’t read collage that way, I can appreciate how your emphasis on the flux of potential and actual emotions within "landscapes" of a fluid but somewhat identifiable socius calls for different terminology.
Various narrative moments in "Apartment" always speak to and with other poetic modes, as well as other narratives. I'm thinking, for example, of the relation between the first two sections: the encounter of the "I" and the homeless man who can’t stop talking, and the one- or two-sentence stories about unfulfilled characters in the prose section that follows.
JL: That is very close to the way I feel about the poem now and to what I was thinking when I wrote it. The different sections of the poem create/enact an emotional trajectory. Lyric structure becomes dramatic action. And that action, for me, becomes storytelling.
TF: When narrative is juxtaposed with a passage of lyric introspection or that involving a lyric "I" engaged in social address, in a sense the "emotional trajectory" from one to another "is" the story itself.
JL: The music of the poem (sequence, temporal form) enacts an emotional trajectory, makes experience actual in a construct of words. For me the process has a narrative dimension. The narrative dimension is part of the poem's capacity for critique.
TF: Lyric structure is not confined to the single, singular speaker. It allows for multiple voices, and the musical and conceptual interaction of their different perspectives presents dramatic action.
JL: Yes, absolutely. And the music creates scene structure.
TF: This kind of narrative may relate to Language poetry.
JL: Sure. I did write "Apartment" while I was working on a dissertation that included discussion of Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten. At a certain point in the eighties, Leslie Scalapino was huge for me. At its best, Language poetry draws you in. It's like dance music. I think I learned that kind of involvement—involving the reader in the dance—from Language poetry (along with other sources). Cage and Thoreau are also very important to "Apartment."
TF: Does the Orphic experience of loss enter into the "dance" of your lyricism?
JL: Yes. I do feel haunted by Orpheus. By the various versions of loss. A layer of electricity breathes in everyday life. Thoreau: "Actually the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day." Has anyone in America the leisure for a true integrity? Thoreau: "He has no time to be anything but a machine." We locate this problem inside: in our inner lives we are machines, we are blind, we have no true integrity. Or even worse: we have true integrity and we are poisoning it, wasting it, ignoring it, blinding ourselves to it. One story: the only way to be honest is to be haunted. The haunted person recognizes that s/he is cursed, recognizes that s/he has done something terrible, even if s/he has at present no idea what the crime might be.
TF: "Apartment" is certainly a poem of many honestly haunted voices. The speaker in the first section, haunted by the evidently homeless man who utters rage but can't listen, is suddenly concerned about his insight into the degree of his own relative integrity and his uses of it. To avoid dialogue, he's moved away from the talking man, but the man goes after someone else, "spraying/ a hex at him," and it's a displacement of the hex that could be sprayed at the speaker himself. After being confronted by other narratives that bespeak isolation and insufficient community in U.S. society, we can go back to this incident and ask whether it's the individual or the collective arrangement that is primarily responsible for the "crime."
JL: Ralph Ellison wrote that in twentieth-century (naturalist) fiction, American ideals collapse under the weight of history (of historical amnesia, the refusal to acknowledge racism). I would like to bring Ellison's argument to bear on Postmodern American poetry. Ellison is arguing with Hemingway, but he might as well as be arguing with Ashbery. Even when we resist what Michael Harper calls America's "historical amnesia," American poets write inside a cultural/symbolic mode. Language poetry, wonderful as it is at times, doesn't get outside that mode. I re-read The Scarlet Letter recently, and I thought of Sacvan Bercovitch saying, "There is no position outside ideology." But there is resistance.
I think we need (for one thing) to explore some of the possibilities that Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan open. Serial form tells a story slant, shatters the story and re-shapes it. Creeley is thinking about the real. He has faith in the poem even when he is questioning everything.
TF: "Slivovitz," another long poem in Human Rights, speaks directly to a faith in the attempt to approach the real, even as many versions are questioned: "The sun we see/ is not the real sun." Resisting many American Jews' relative "amnesia" about the holocaust, the poem juxtaposes narratives reflecting the direct and highly mediated encounters (and deflected encounters) of Jews of several generations with this unbearable event.
In general, in your writing, I read the lyric I's resistance to totalizing effects of dominant culture as allowing the subject its places rather than one place. Narrative involves ongoing dialogue about the implications of such locations.
JL: I love that. Places rather than place. In confessional poetry often you get self transformed into landscape—Lowell and Bishop. I think of self and places in Whitman, Lorca, Celan. There's no a central place, and there's not an end. No telos. Magic (I could have said the sublime) involves fragmentation of self.
TF: Divergent aspects of the environment keep reshaping the self's possibilities. "Magic" might be the pleasure of surprising recognitions and the effort to abide by the poetic ethics that we've been outlining.
I'd like to hear your thoughts about one of your most overtly narrative and place-oriented poems, "Essay on Addiction." For me, it's about a love relationship that must get beyond the "ghost" of patriarchy or die. In that poem, the Gothic "haunted house" is a place that must be demystified so that other, as yet unspecified places can be explored.
JL: I want the sense there of a nightmare. But even though it's known—it is becoming. And two people stumbling through a recurring nightmare. But she is the one who knows the story. And she is the one for whom it is becoming. It was very important for me to create a character in that poem—a strong protagonist. We see through her eyes.
TF: Poems like "Essay on Addiction" and "The Room" offer feminist counter-narratives. What writers have influenced you to do this?
JL: There are too many; any list is incomplete. I could start with Jean Rhys—she has a huge power for me. And Stein, of course. Susan Howe and Adrienne Rich. Definitely some of the women poets of my generation who I've been reading for years: (my wife) Donna de la Perriere, Larissa Szporluk, Laura Mullen, Lisa Jarnot. I was socialized as "male"; I try to critique and re-shape my self. It happens in a flow, in poem after poem.
Friends, for convenience, the "Possum Pouch" will now be updated in a blog format. I don't want to compete in the current blog cultural market space, so I won't update this daily. Instead, our little cyber nest will be littered with infrequent updates, reviews, articles and interviews. Anyone interested in contributing to these notes should contact me. Comments, ideas, suggestions are all welcome. This week I'll be updating this column with new and recently published material, including the fine conversation between Joseph Lease and Thomas Fink.
Clayton Eshleman's recent poem, "The Assault," ushers in our new blog era with a candid study of data that suggests US government involvement in the 9-11-01 WTC and Pentagon attacks. We welcome your comments and field reports. And many thanks to Clayton for sending us this intestigative poem.--Dale Smith
Mid-July 2001: The US government—having decided that the Taliban regime was too unstable and too hostile to serve as a vehicle for US entry into Central Asia—had planned on an Afghanistan invasion for October.
National support for such an invasion depended upon a widely-perceived direct threat. Now known “enemy attacks” used to whip up and mobilize people for war included: the US Battleship Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, Tonkin Bay. Our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the beginning of the Cold War.
September 10: Bin Laden was in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, courtesy of the ISI, for kidney dialysis (in July he met with the local CIA agent in Dubai; no attempt was made to arrest him).
September 6-10: United and American Airlines stock shares were massively sold short, as were shares at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (occupying 22 WTC floors) and Merrill Lynch (headquarters near the WTC). Insiders with advance knowledge of an approaching national catastrophe are believed to have made over 15 million. If they knew, would you tell me that Bush, The Secret Service, The Air Force, and the Pentagon did not know?
(The alleged lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, with an expired 2000 tourist visa, re-entered 3 times in 2001 for flying lessons—for which he lacked the required M-1 work visa—while under FBI surveillance for stockpiling bomb making materials)
August 2001: The FBI was informed that Zacarias Moussaoui was linked by French intelligence to bin Laden (top FBI officials blocked field agents’ requests to search Zacarias’s computer).
August 2001: Attorney David Schippers was approached by FBI agents and given the names of the hijackers, their targets, proposed dates, and the sources of their funding. He tried to contact Ashcroft who did not return any of his calls. Schippers’ informants were pulled off their investigation and threatened with prosecution if they went public (Schippers is now representing one FBI agent in a suit against the US government in an attempt to subpoena its testimony, so he can legally speak about the blocked investigation on public record).
Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) requires fighter jets to scramble and intercept under emergency conditions. No approval from the White House is required (when Payne Stuart’s Learjet pilot failed to respond to the air controller at 9:33, 21 minutes later, an F-16 traveling at 1500 mph reached the Learjet at 46,000 feet).
On September 11, Flight #11 was clearly way off course by 8:20. SOP called for
immediate notification and response.
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was not informed of an
emergency by Boston air traffic control until 8:38.
Initially, according to former NORAD Commander Gen. Richard Myers, no jets
were scrambled until after Flight #77 struck the Pentagon at 9:40
(1 hour and 20 minutes after #11 was suspected of being hijacked).
Within days, this story changed: at 8:44, we are told, 2 F-15s were scrambled at Otis
(Cape Cod), 190 miles from Manhattan.
If these jets flew at top speed (1850 mph), they would have reached the Towers in
But at 9:03, when Flight #175 struck the South Tower,
the Otis jets were unexplainably still 70 miles from Manhattan
(and why sent from Otis? McGuire, a major, active facility in New Jersey, is 71
miles from the WTC. Arrival time: 3 minutes. No planes were scrambled from
The apparent shut down of SOP on Flight #77 is even more sinister:
known to be hijacked by 8:50 (at which time it was also known #11 and #175 were
hijacked, meaning a national emergency was at hand), NORAD was not notified
and, after NORAD was notified, jets were scrambled from Langley (130 miles from
Wash DC) instead of from Andrews (10 miles away), with 2 combat-ready squadrons
(the Langley jets arrived 15 minutes after the Pentagon was plowed into).
9:16: NORAD was informed that Flight #93 had been hijacked (at which time it was
known that 3 other flights had been hijacked and that 2 had already blown up their
No jets were scrambled to intercept #93.
No one has been charged with incompetence.
After both Towers had been struck, President Bush, in Sarasota, visiting a grade
school, was informed.
He continued to listen to children read to him for 25 minutes before informing
Americans of what they already knew.
Myers, at the Capitol, was chatting (about “terrorism”) with Senator Max Cleland.
They saw a TV report that a plane had hit the WTC. “We thought it was a small
plane or something like that,” Myers said.
So the two men went ahead with the office call.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Tower was hit. “Nobody informed us of that,” Myers said.
After the Pentagon was struck (3/4 of the assault now successfully completed),
a cellphone was handed to him; finally, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs
According to Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke: “Rumsfeld stayed in his
office until the Pentagon was hit, with the excuse that he had some phone calls to make.”
A composite vision: our callow, illiterate, Supreme Court-
appointed Fool, drifting in photo-op with school children,
Myers discussing “terrorism” with Cleland,
Rumsfeld, in effect, hiding in his office,
drink debris-blocked staircased bodies.
My head shudders with
the mortification of finding Bush in my own eyes,
yes, for I do not see myself outside the male coagulate.
Part of me is a lazar born of mass guilt,
funhouse horticulture, where the decency facets
I’ve struggled to file ripple with
“Full Spectrum Dominance”
Out the window, in autumnal weak green:
tent caterpillar encampments, opaque, milky,
creating as if under camouflage deadly screens—
elected American presidents in the democracy-subverted
Bush Junior entangled with pa
crawling Nixon’s raging animus, the Nobel Carter
mottled with Khmer Rouge horror,
Johnson cloaked in “We seek no wider war,”
whipping out his big dick to reporters, declaring
“This is why we’re in Vietnam!”
Reagan as a goggle-wearing grub, chirping: “Contras are
the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.:
These nest camps where
baby Pinochets bud (Nobel Kissinger
on his knees gripping the altar-bowl
vomiting up a stomach hash of millions—
suddenly his ghost stands up through him, called
to lead the 911 investigation.
The nests enweb electronically through the American mind.
Whitman’s visionary eternal present has become
the language of TV, tending always to transfix
the audience in an eternal now.
I’m taken in, as are you, fellow citizens,
failing to instantly recall background particularities.
A week later, I come to, recalling, while reading,
details I should have brought to bear.
The mainstream media cartel
beams its needles out of the screens,
who is not injected, anesthetized by conversion-
Like a depth charge dropped into 911: 50 years of Cold War
mobilization against the Soviet Union has left the country with
“a boiling residue of paranoid anxiety.”
Greed become a crazed intoxication to redetermine history,
if the Bush family becomes trillionaires, might they,
led by angels, slip through eternity,
skipping over death?
Jackknifed bodies plummeting against
the photo-serenity of a Tower,
not Crane’s “bedlamite,” but a secretary
exploding in blue September sky
Living in America now is like being on a revised Flight #11.
The nave of this self-righteous citadel extends for miles—
section after section of our cluster-bombed Yugoslavians,
our jerking nerve-gassed Laotians, our napalmed Vietnamese girls,
our chopped- apart Guatemalans, our mowed-down East Timorese
and there’s our Sharon, in high heels, tightening
the thumbscrews on Palestinian immiseration
--and below? Right here? Bush is in my gas,
Cheney’s in my steering-wheel, Ashcroft’s under our bed!
Should 911 be seen as a 3000 body count down payment on
a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistani UNOCAL oil pipeline?
3000 dead? More like 8000—
for this figure must include the Afghanistan dead
bombed in retribution—for what?
Nothing they did but inhabit land we
--and here “we” partitions my heart—
seek to exploit.
The unutterable humiliation of 911!
Holocaust of firemen to make millionaires billionaires!
Workers, executives, of the capitalist epi-center,
but much more importantly, beloved citizens
who went to work that day
(overhearing me, bored Bush turns aside:
“Adolf, let’s go fishin.”)
In our hearts we know
In our hearts we do not know
Baby Bush now spectre-entangled in the entrails of the nation.
[November-December, 2002, Ypsilanti]
[NOTE: the compressed time-line data is mainly taken from Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed's The War On Freedom, Tree of Life Publications, Joshua Tree, CA., 2002. I was alerted to Ahmed's book by Gore Vidal's "The Enemy Within," which appeared in the UK Observer, 27 October 2002. I also drew upon material from Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, Norton, NYC, 2002, and William Blum's Rogue State, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 2000. The lyric outrage is all my own (other than when factual), and participates in the tradition of the sirvente; Robert Duncan's "Uprising," which blasts Johnson for the bombing of Vietnam and which may be found in Bending the Bow, New Directions, NYC, 1968, hovers over "The Assault," a predecessor ghost.]