JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews
Cheltenham by Adam Fieled
Cheltenham by Adam Fieled
Apparition Poems by Adam Fieled
*Tho I have the print ed of Cheltenham, Adam sent me doc versions of each book and these docs have prefaces, which at least Cheltenham does not (I haven’t seen Apparition Poems in print). I will be making use of them.
I don’t know about you, but every so often I open a book and read a poem and say dayum, he hit it. That’s exactly how I felt when I read the first poem in Cheltenham. I’ll quote it in full:
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
York Road at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
I was, and am particularly taken by ‘I got out, motherfucker. / I made it’ and how that opens out so that the wild ride becomes not just a wild ride but a sign to the ‘self-declared “artist”’ that it was time to leave Cheltenham behind, and by ‘I say “I,” and it works. But’, and how that means it’s never just “I”, it’s always we, and a historical embeddedness. As Marx famously says, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’
All the poems in Cheltenham are numbered, they are non-sequential, and the numbering does not begin with #1. Which gives the impression that Fieled has written thousands of poems about Cheltenham. As he notes in the (apparently unpublished) ‘Preface’, when he was in high school there, ‘I hated Cheltenham’. Clearly, or apparently clearly, it’s very hard to escape what we hate. The ‘Preface’ elaborates on the poem above:
As I looked at my classmates, memories came rushing back of incidents and relationships I’d forgotten. What looked dark then looked even darker in ’11. One relationship I had in high school seemed particularly significant to me in ’11— a buddy I had named Chris, who was especially close to me senior year. Chris was a mysterious person with a fluctuating identity— he waffled between sports and music, between “jock” and artistic mentalities, without committing either way. There was a tremendous darkness in him about his family— an unavailable father (who settled with a new wife several states away), a hostile mother, and a brother he couldn’t get close to. Chris expressed his rebelliousness in a manner more aggressive than I did— he stole, egged houses, drove in a heedless way, and stalked girls. By 2011, he was still leaving nasty comments on my Facebook posts. I had no idea how (or if) he was supporting himself. The important thing to me as an artist is that he was still waffling— he had never found a strong life’s purpose. Only anger and destructive behavior made him feel alive. As the first poem in “Cheltenham” runs, he could only connect nothing with nothing. When we were young, I mistook Chris’s rage for a kind of truthfulness. By 2011, all it looked like was a prop to make him seem human to himself.
I don’t believe that the ‘Preface’ is readily available, so I’ll quote more of it; tho authorial intention isn’t everything, this particular preface does serve as a key to the book:
The characters in the “Cheltenham” poems are all like that— they’re all trying to seem human to themselves. They’re rebelling against the inhumanity of the American suburbs, which is profound. The American suburbs make blandness a monster, and homogeneity a God— Cheltenham is no exception. The first third of this book are poems firmly and directly centered on Cheltenham as a locale; the other two-thirds mine similar turf in a more generalized way. The common denominator, for better or for worse, is darkness.
It’s also important to note that what in great part gives this book its power (and its underlying tenderness) is his (eventual) realization that, in spite of his alienation, he’s not all that different from he former friends and classmates:
In the fall of 2011, I discovered something in my mom’s apartment in Conshohocken I didn’t know I still had— my high school yearbook. As it hadn’t in 1994, it compelled me with emotions which ran the gamut, from curiosity to nostalgic tenderness to despair and bereavement. By 2011, I was only in touch with a handful of my graduating class, and those only online. There were some others I would sometimes see around Center City Philadelphia. The general sense I got was that by late 2011, the Cheltenham High School class of ’94 was not doing well. All of us were at the mercy of a harsh economy; those who never had a strong life purpose to begin with were tempted to self-destruct absolutely. For the first time in seventeen years, I was on the same page with my fellow Cheltenham graduates— […]
As he notes in #281 (which shows up 65 pages after #261)
A small unframed painting
of a many-armed Bodhisattva
hangs over the bed where
you imagine us wrapped, rapt
I do not deny this rapture
I make no enlightened claims
I have no raft to float you
Hard as it is for you to
believe, no mastery came to
me when this thing happened
I have two arms, no more
I am only marginally sentient
I cannot save you or her
The painting is better than us
you’re welcome to it
I used the word tenderness above. There’s harshness and anger, too. Or maybe the tenderness is the harshness and anger. But then again, the painting is better than we are. There’s not much sugar in this book.
While Apparition Poems is certainly not Cheltenham, which it preceded publication-wise by a couple years, there are certain resemblances. The first to strike me is the poem titles, which also suggest a numbered sequence (e.g. the first poem in Apparition Poems is #1056). It is impossible to tell whether Fieled simply numbers ALL his poems as he writes them, and that some were organized into one book, some into the other, or whether the two numbering sequences are only apparently related (and no, I did not make a list of all the titles in one book, and compare it to a list of titles in the other, to make sure no number was used more than once). The second to strike me is the sensibility, which is also that of someone who is very much American, and very consciously so. In fact, in the ‘Apologia’ for this book (which I will not quote at length), Fieled calls Apparition Poems an American epic. A fractured epic, but an epic nonetheless.
But there are also differences between the two books. The work in Apparition Poems is somewhat more consciously rooted in the ambiguities of language than are the poems in Cheltenham. They are also (somewhere between sometimes and often) more playful, in a sense (or if playful isn’t the right word, how about risk-taking?):
I said, “I can’t
the last time I
was excited, how
can I associate
out a gun, a tube
of oil, and an air
and it was
felt, in which we
With a poem like this, and this is what I mean by playful and/or risk-taking, much is left in the reader’s hands, to make of it what s/he will or can.
I think my problem as a reader is hearing the books separately, once I’ve read them together. This is not a fault of Fieled’s. It’s just me. But I don’t know any other way to read, say
“The condition of being kidnapped
by angels: that’s what good art must
impose on a willing audience.” Who
was this guy talking to? Are we meant
to believe this Romantic bullshit? Ah,
who cares, it’ll pass. He was walking
his dog, thinking. It was a sunny day
in suburbia. The concrete really was
(and I mean this) concrete. But this
is the thing: I do believe what this
guy says, his Romantic bullshit. I
see things, you know what I mean?
except thru the ‘I escaped but can’t escape Cheltenham’ / ‘I escaped but can’t escape anything’ lens.
In fact, I’d argue that this is one of Fieled’s strengths. He demands a certain kind of admirable honesty from himself. If (as in Ulysses), ‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, well, Fieled is facing that nightmare (that American Epic) straight on.*
*For what it’s worth. Cheltenham, according to the 2010 Census:
· Total persons age 25 or higher 25,273
· Percentage High school graduate or higher 94.5%
· Percentage Bachelor’s Degree or higher 52.6%
· Total (age 16 or over) 19,433
· Management 10,713 (55.1%)
· Service 2,169 (11.2%)
· Sales 4,622 (23.8%)
· Natural resources 820 (4.2%)
· Production 1,109 (5.7%)
Median household income $61,713
As of August 2013, unemployment was officially 7.9%
John Bloomberg-Rissman has about a year and a half to go on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project. The main other thing on his plate right now is an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press autumn 014. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).