Taking a Sledge Hammer to American Culture:
Straight Jacket Elegies
poems by Alan Kaufman
review by Ron Kolm
Straight Jacket Elegies
poems by Alan Kaufman (Author)
Last Word Books & Press (1 Nov 2015)
$14.00 USD pbk
We live in tepid times — a kind of faux-fifties. There is a hysteria afoot; a fear of being different in any meaningful way. If you stopped to take a photo on Fifth Avenue and then compared the result with one from 1957, you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference: the hairstyles are mostly similar; short hair for the males and long, straight hair for the women; the suits and dresses are reminiscent of that era, too.
This overlay holds true in the literary realm as well; the sun-bleached style of the Franzens amd Safran Foers is a throwback; it’s non-life-supportive. Flimsy plots and tons of description do not a meal make. Same for the music. Pop, with its generic lyrics and manifold falsettos, is nothing more than rehashed Beach Boys and Four Seasons. Some of the brothers I know are even dissing the taming of rap; that particular revolution has become predictable and meaningless.
There is so little nutrition in American culture in general that we are all starving. I keep looking for the ‘Beats’ – not the original Beats, but a new iteration – poets and writers with blow-torches and sledge hammers. And I think I’ve finally found some of the anger and focus I’ve been looking for in Alan Kaufman’s new collection of screeds and rants, Straight Jacket Elegies.
He gets on the bus angry, observes what’s going on in the heartland, then exits the bus, still angry, but sad, too. His words are much closer to Ginsberg’s than Kerouac’s, though he prowls the same back roads as Jack. Kaufman lives on the continuum that starts with Whitman, and then travels directly through Ginsberg – all three of these writers are encyclopedic chroniclers of their times — and all three see through the cant and obfuscatory tactics of the purveyors of the Imperial Wet-Dream: everybody buying crap and wasting their time while standing in line, uncomplaining.
Kaufman knows the low-end of life in these here United States. His poems are inhabited by strikers, junkies and so many sad-eyed ladies looking for love.
He tells us, in the poem ‘Anonymous,’ that he has done away with his feelings:
People would ask:
Why don’t you write
about your feelings?
But I don’t have any
I’d say, I drove
the little bastards
But that is obviously untrue – his poems are all about the feelings he has for the dispossessed and the down-trodden. And he definitely has strong feelings about war and the senseless killing that continues to surround us. He is a man of peace, but a man who can’t forget about the past: the Holocaust, the American adventure in Kuwait, and so many other shoot-em-ups.
You realize, by the time you get to the last poem in the book, ‘Just So Long,’ that the straight jacket Alan Kaufman is talking about in the title of this necessary book is the one our culture is wrapped in; one he has done his best to tear off – this last poem points towards freedom; his own, and ours. UG
Copyright © 2012 Arthur Kaye
Ron Kolm is a member of the Unbearables, and an editor of several of their anthologies; most recently The Unbearables big Book of Sex! Ron is a contributing editor of Sensitive Skin magazine, and the editor of the Evergreen Review. He is the author of The Plastic Factory and, with Jim Feast, the novel Neo Phobe. A collection of his poems, Divine Comedy, has been published by Fly By Night Press. His most recent collection of poems, Suburban Ambush, was published in 2014 by Autonomedia. Kolm’s papers were purchased by the New York University library, where they’ve been catalogued in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group.
Alan Kaufman is an American novelist, memoirist and poet who was instrumental in the development of the Spoken Word movement in literature. His novel Matches was published by Little, Brown and Company in the Fall of 2005, and was published in the United Kingdom by Constable and Robinson the following year.His memoir — Jew Boy — was published by Fromm International/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and Foxrock Books, imprint of Grove Press publisher and founder Barney Rosset. Kaufman is the editor of the bestselling ‘The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Basic Books/Perseus). He is also co-editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Literature (Thunder’s Mouth Press), alongside Barney Rosset and Neil Ortenberg. His other books include The Outlaw Bible of American Essays (Thunder’s Mouth Press) and The New Generation: Fiction For Our Time From America’s Writing Programs(Anchor/Doubleday). Kaufman has written for The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Salon, Evergreen Review, and numerous other publications. He is Dean of The Free University of San Francisco and a co-founder Clayton Patterson of The Acker Awards, which are named after author Kathy Acker and given to authors and other artists in New York and San Francisco. He is currently a New York Public Library Affiliated Scholar.