MICHAEL CAYLO-BARADI Reviews
The Singers by Logan Ryan Smith
(Dusie, Switzerland, 2007)
Body of Whirl: In the sonic vertigoes of Logan Ryan Smith’s The Singers
“Your life as uncoordinated bridge-worker” (9) is the first line of Logan Smith Ryan’s The Singers; it sucked me in, daring me into that particular employee’s uncoordinated reflexes. This notion of being uncoordinated brings to mind synapses and neurons that have failed to transmit critical information to the brain. What’s wrong with this bridge-worker? Is he or she on crack? An alcoholic? Surely, one must take any available employment one is qualified, in order to survive, however uncoordinated one feels about one’s reflexes. But despite this handicap, the view down there must be exhilarating from that bridge-worker’s point of reference up that bridge, closer to the sky, above the landscape and its sea, movements down there of frenetic humanity, civilization’s desires, hectic on cars, buses, trains, and this, this bridge that would extend that frenzy, into other exhaustions. The imagination sees many things here, stimulating entities beneath, especially the unconscious, waking up sensations that only surface during moments of profound imbalance, equilibrium loss, and other gravity-defying postures. But when Smith puts our world today in that mental space, one is ushered not into a body that has the comparable nature of whirlwind or whirlpool, but something else, a body of whirl into internal rhythms dancing in music of fragmentations, inaudible repetitions, but clearly sonic, like songs one chants in meditation, intense awake consciousness, away from dreams.
This body of whirl is in the everyday, the materiality of our quotidian, especially the density of its memory. That’s why legends and icons in history walk in the streets of that everyday and is interrogated, especially “ghosts trying to sell you something” (23): “Elvis, what happened? Did the voices hurt your head?/Where you strung out strung to the bow?” (23). What Elvis has been trying to sell is his legend, and the everyday eats it like convenient fast food on a corner mall. But these icons in culture are relevant, because they seize something in time, record sensibilities, document intensities. Now remember that tax man, of short stature, trying to inch through a crowd to see Jesus, could not move through that crowd, and eventually climbed up a sycamore tree, where Jesus would see him, and the Messiah ended up being at the tax collector’s house? Yes, Smith remembers his Bible stories, and gives us Zacchaeus as signifier of a nagging bureau in our daily taxed purchases: “We count on him calling in every day” (82). But the tax collector is, indeed, just a pretext, before we stumble into Jesus. But it’s not Christ’s face we see and feel, but his left wrist: “To be the pulse in the left wrist of the crucified Christ!” (87). Indeed, Jesus Christ was the pulse of the left in his time; his crucifixion was the right’s manifestation of his extreme leftist-ness. Pontius Pilate, the sometime centrist, saw something in Christ; but his power is the people, he couldn’t stand the idea he’s the only powerful figure who saw the innocence in Christ. And so Pilate washed his hands of that whole affair, because, clearly, as Logan echoes: “No one wants to be Jesus” (87). But everybody wants the Messiah’s story, both the reason of, and resistance of conquests, and becomes synonymous with time, bookmarking civilization as B.C. or A.D.
The Singers has four parts. But the absence of title for each part becomes, for me, a pretext to view the text as one continuous song, from first to last page, especially that there are no individual titles that clearly indicate individual poems, in each part. However, these four divisions do alert the reader that there is a movement or are movements in the narrative, although these movements do not necessarily have to be viewed as progression, perhaps one determined by a structured system. For now though, I could not fairly determine what that system is; maybe I’d detect that in my nth reading in the future, months, or years ahead. But in terms of movement not as progression but simply movement, what I did notice is that the parts somehow move and float towards each other, not like clashing tectonic plates expecting explosive friction, but rather as individual masses moving into each other without one dissolving and disappearing in the world and power of the other. I think this is what sonic experience is about, in poetry and music, at least; there’s a sort of culmination of movements in the listener’s imagination, a sorting out that can evolve into a unique harmony for that listener’s experience, harmony that can then bleed into insight, force, education, prognostications, or, of course, inspiration; and if there is dissonance in the level of cognition, that cannot necessarily be a negative element but rather an indelible element towards a perception of equilibrium in the listener’s imagination.
Now while there are no indications of poem-titles in the book, one notices that at the bottom of certain pages are dedications: for Armand F. Capanna II (79), for Helen Lhim (59), for Jared Hayes (77), for Jen Rogers (76), for Lauren Shufran (61), just to name a few, including the legendary Ben Fong-Torres (71) who used to write for the Rolling Stone since the magazine’s inception. One simply assumes these names are signifiers of friendship in Smith’s life. But the names can appear to become titles themselves, not of a particular part of The Singers as continuous song per se, but rather of unique rhythms in that song, indications that one is perhaps in ‘andante’ mode or that the next is ‘allegro.’ I would like to assume these indications can characterize Logan’s bond with these persons, or the other singers within The Singers, who were Smith’s muses for his song.
In one of the book’s blurbs, Kevin Killian writes that “Music and its family of allied arts reigns high in the world Logan Ryan Smith has carved for his Singers. Dance and ritual act as counterforces to the martial law the poem has been written under, in this time of Iraq incursion that touches every aspect of our lives.” The term ‘Iraq’ continues to be a loaded term in the vocabulary of any language, in our world today. In a way, the term ‘Iraq’ seems to dominate the other loaded terms in his blurb, especially competing and overwhelming the seriousness in ‘counterforces,’ and even making the phrase ‘martial law’ a somewhat innocent, abstract idea, because its essence is still waiting to be attached to a particular proper noun. But there’s power in the tactility of the proper noun ‘Iraq,’ in our imagination, even if we haven’t been there, because what has been going on there today trickles down to us through the intricate tributaries of politics, bureaucracy, journalism, or the internet, and, therefore, pervasively penetrates our daily livelihood. Thus, in Killian’s blurb, the idea and reality that is Iraq becomes a critical point of reference, in assessing perceptions of Smith’s The Singers; in this regard, this piece can be viewed as ritual to the gods of war, peace, and resistance. It’s not a singular ritual, but rather a collection of rituals [“Gather together. Count and call” (9).], an assemblage that evolves into and revolves in calculated schizophrenia, ecstasy in frenzy, an unstoppable whirl, a vertigo that has serious propositions with infinity. Thus, when we hear in the last pages a voice that wants to let go [“Give me another turn. From here. Let me pass” (99).], we hear the tone of a plea, one that is begging for emancipation. On the other hand, one does wonder why this feeling of being trapped, enclosed, filled and inundated with forces that can only be exorcised in dense memories, where one’s sense of direction has been abolished: “I’ve got no compass and no sense of direction and so I’m already lost;/You can trust me. To begin again. Somewhere else” (99).
There were times I felt like being in different hang-outs on a weekend, club-hopping to this club and that bar, while reading The Singers; there are no puking episodes here, because of too much alcohol and such, but just the energy from one night to the other determining the narrative, especially on a Friday night dance and orgy when I feel like an uncoordinated bridge-worker, conscious I might fall somewhere beyond the dance-floor. And yes, there is a fall, a fall into the black-hole of a mouth, of fierce-lion neons, into their sonic resplendence, mixed hip-hop techno, remixed rap concertos, muted, blasted, vertiginous like an eternal mantra; the weekend days move, are lost, with no sense of direction, or rather the convention that is direction, that which characterizes the materiality of civilizations, but perhaps not the empires in the soul that do not have twilights, the immanent spirit we fall into in song.
Michael Caylo-Baradi lives in Southern California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in XCP:Streetnotes, Tertulia Magazine, OurOwnVoice, and PopMatters.com. He occasionally contributes op-ed pieces to The Daily Californian and the Los Angeles Daily News.