We might take the title Asphalt Cigar to imply that the book will simply embrace urban "edginess", to use a term beloved of those who would make not just characteristics but an ill-defined merit out of constant distraction and the resulting vague disquiet and tendency to hyperactivity. And yet it's not entirely so. This engaging if uneven book is too conflicted to be univocal. In fact, as Connolly himself points out, one of its main techniques is collage, and an internal debate results from collage's juxtaposition of elements. Cool and noncommittal irony, which is a clichéd stance and tone of this cultural moment, often seems to be a major goal of a Connolly poem, but it is just as often ironically cancelled.
Of course this tail-swallowing is also familiar-the ironist mocking his own poverty in having only irony. But Connolly has other powers that lift him beyond mere re-enactment of the type of "influence anxiety" discoverable in his poems: the typical failure of the anti-academic "urban" poet of the moment, when advancing some supposedly revolutionary attitude and manner, to escape from irony and ambiguity exactly as defined early in the century.
Three aspects of Asphalt Cigar move beyond this dilemma. First, Connolly inclines to a sort of immediate lyricism, a direct inscription of pain and aspiration, which even in strenuously fictionalized contexts has an air of almost naively personal expression. Observe for instance the last line of this stanza from the long poem "Columbus Day", about Chris, a man who starts out selling kitsch paintings on the streets of Genoa:
At night Chris piles up
the frames on the wharf,
holds up an empty one to the horizon,
watches the sun set through it,
heart in full sail.
In fact, in "Columbus Day", which in classic collage fashion superimposes upon America's discovery the rise and fall of a conquistador of North American pop stardom, direct lyricism such as this only tears the fabric of a poem whose language is generally too thin to prepare for and support it.
Second, as this passage also shows, Connolly has an interest in seeing natural things through the urban contemporary frame. And he has a related desire to squeeze realistic images of the man-made for the kind of significance that is conventionally invested in traditional symbols drawn from nature or from objects of primordial simplicity: "Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,/ bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window-/ at most: column, tower." (Rilke).
Third, Connolly constantly exhibits deep anxiety toward contemporary experience, a sense of being not at home in the contemporary city. This conflicts fruitfully with his sometimes aggressive espousal of urban experience and his love of a "cool" self-removal. He's doing far more than the simple championing of urban experience found so routinely in some circles that it has become pro forma. He has an element of "aspiration downwards" (Bergson's definition of compassion), of chosen self-identification with a sort of poverty: the dissolution of self in the modern city.
In Canada's current writing, Asphalt Cigar exists in a tension that could be described as arising between, say, Robert Bringhurst's Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (1986) and August Kleinzahler's A Calendar of Airs (1978). Bringhurst turns his face to the primordial, to the sea and the mountains and the ancients, and lets the poem's relevance emerge entirely from civilization's confrontation with it; and of course civilization avoids this confrontation. Kleinzahler, in a way close to Connolly's but more radical, insists upon total immersion in what he takes to be the given experience of most human beings: the city.
If we compare Connolly to one of the poetic founders of the latter attitude, Frank O'Hara, there is no mistaking that the young Canadian's power is darker, with a corresponding diminution of pure immediacy and enjoyment of experiencing the city. This is from O'Hara's "Today":
Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins.
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.
Compare this with Connolly's title poem (also featuring jujubes);
Oh, the heartbreak!
The mean transistor,
the incontinent sponge of faith.
A hereditary passing
from parent to offspring-
you were born with these relations,
mental leaps, associations:
the militant thugs,
the multilingual polyglots.
Similar, yet O'Hara's ecstatic concentration upon the outward, the elements of the jumbled modern spectacle, brings the human heart's thoughts in tow, whereas "Asphalt Cigar" reverses this. Its primary attention is to the baffled heart, which involves it, secondarily though vitally, in the elements of contemporary culture listed cunningly in the stanza.
The heart seems a piece of out-of-date technology, both nasty and narrow, and its poetry is that of self-cancellation: the figure of the sponge that doesn't hold water; the phrase that defines "hereditary" redundantly; the similar pleonasms of the last two lines. So, too, the next stanza begins with a "bridge over the city" bustling with "trucks and vans carrying/ baked goods, trucks delivering/ other trucks and vans" and ends with the contradictory statement that "nothing crosses over." Not simply contradictory, however, because the furious crossing without other purpose than self-perpetuation (trucks delivering trucks) is no crossing in the deeper sense, which has perhaps already been seen as debased by pop psychologism into "mental leaps".
The poem tells the reader that the "city is swollen with defeat," and that "you" have been "born with" it, have always been part and parcel of it: "you've been falling/ in this lifelong sink." But finally this poem wants to separate self from city: "At last a way jumps clear/ into your glazed lenses." And this aspiration survives even in the poem's concluding sarcastic inscription.not only survives, but gathers a meaning beyond escape, the sense of being potentially a hope to the world:
Jujubes, glop, an ardent
prayer: the sum-trickling
wealth of civilization
lies ogling your spirited feet.
Disguised in a common colloquial sense of "spirited", the spirit has been spirited in at the book's beginning.
The title points to the urban locus of the book and specifically to the most paved-over areas. The cigar suggests, among other things, the male's plight in cities, a prominent though far from exclusive subject. "The junk mail never stops arriving," writes Connolly in "Critique of Good Intentions", a savage piece on the dissolution of purpose in the flood of contemporary minutiae, and then a few pages later entitles a poem "Junkmale". Whereas "Good Intentions" is a mosaic of flashing associations glued together by theme, "Junkmale" makes approximately the same point through a basically traditional dramatic monologue, in which the aspiring young male writer mocks his own addiction to the city's repetitive distractions.
Connolly usually presents such figures objectively ("I'm afraid for all the/ slim men in empty apartments") but finally they make up a composite symbolic character identical to the self that speaks the book. Even when the speaker distances himself from these men and seems to criticize them, he also involves himself in their errors and their situation. He sees in them the poet's own mixture of aspiration, frustration, distraction, and indecision:
They don't know how to
welcome what the space
makes room for-the blue,
searching finger of the city,
the debutante swish of passing cars,
the power crouching in the sockets,
hanging on their every move.
The book is divided into six parts, the first and the last of which contain Connolly's short lyric poems, including two which-he informs us in a note-were composed using the surrealist cut-up technique (actually invented during dada). To my taste these parts are the meat of the book, entertaining and thought-provoking, with excellent pieces such as "Asphalt Cigar", "Critique of Good Intentions", "Twelve Arrests, No Convictions", "The Condemned Man", "Arbitrary Cultures", "Progress Report", and especially "The Empress Hotel".
The four middle sections are all longish poems in short one-page sections; "Columbus Day", "Notes towards a Revised Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche", "Biograffiti", and "A Supermodel's Story". Connolly notes that the poems in the Nietzsche piece "collage words and phrases from Nietzsche, recombining them to form texts whose meanings veer sharply from those of the source texts." But in "Biograffiti" and "A Supermodel's Story", too, collage is basic, if not as massively so.
Just as the four long poems share collage technique with several of the short ones, so too they share an emphasis on biography. In fact, "Biograffiti" might have been a good name for the book, combining as it does Connolly's interest in others, his tendency to project his poetic self symbolically in terms of them (hence mingling his objective and subjective concerns), and his predilection for composing these life stories by packratting shiny bits of the found, the read, the overheard, and "overseen".
These long poems indicate that Connolly has a truer idea of the "found" than one usually finds. As developed in Breton's concept of "objective chance", what is found means objects encountered, yes, but more comprehensively it denotes the contents of a person's experience and consciousness. Each thing one "happens" to express, or all the things that "happen" to one during, say, a walk or the course of a day, could be seen by an ideal interpreter to compose a unity-a sort of collage poem-that expresses one's inmost orientations and desires. Collaging what is found, in this sense, is essential to the surrealist immersion in the city and nature at once: we can adduce Octavio Paz as a current instance ("I speak of the city.lived together in streets, plazas, buses, taxis.the enormous city that fits in a room three yards square.the city that dreams us all dream"), though it goes right back to the first pages of the first surrealist book, Breton's and Souppault's Magnetic Fields (from 1920).
Though vivid, Connolly's four long poems do not coalesce, as though, wishing to write something comprehensive, he finds an ability to present facets of a theme but not the power to organize and orient them. Ultimately, these poems seem to exemplify the notion that the contemporary book would differ from the classic book in making its whole meaning repetitively in each of its parts, and not needing to be read straight through to be understood. Yet Connolly does not show awareness of this theory, and indeed appears to differ with it: the forms he chooses include a traditional essayistic or "provisional conclusion" type of completion for the individual poem and the book as a whole. I do not wish to be downright about this, though; perhaps Connolly should receive credit for seeing the question, "Was the absence of a conclusion, then, the essence?" (Yannis Ritsos).
"Biograffiti" is ten pages, each consisting of a block of type of six lines, five or six words to a line, in bold capitals. The resulting oblong-wall or cell-holds several familiar-sounding phrases, all with the ring of something taken down from a conversation or a broadcast, a wall or a magazine: "In my experience the second date is always a letdown. I think of my motorcycle as my best friend. Given a choice, I'd rather be wealthy than happy. Take it from me, love hurts." As this (the first page) indicates, the poem presents a self-awareness that poignantly emerges despite and through the clichés and pre-fabricated attitudes that are all it has with which to attempt expression.
It's about the same story with "A Supermodel's Story", in which a thinly or not-at-all veiled Monika Schnarr as heroine serves to unite Scarberia, one prominent local avatar of the asphalt cigar, with the cosmopolitan no-place of international publicity and electronic media. In this desert, Monika and her friend Brittany are surviving, rather blandly, on a thin soup of random experiencing and received, undeveloped ideas, in which float fragments of real skepticism and wisdom: "Monika says we must face our irrelevance. Brittany says irrelevance is an illusion. Each feels the other's view to be misguided, though not entirely without merit." This poem develops some beautiful passages, especially perhaps in "Chapter Four: Tractus Philosophicus [sic]", but its meditation on style, beauty, speed, and death rather peters out into Monika's elegantly phrased but commonplace idea of death as a presence that occasionally interrupts the show and galvanizes us all, actors and spectators. Archibald MacLeish has a very famous poem on exactly this image.
The Nietzsche faux-biography, which cuts up some of the philosopher's phrases, offers much of the most active language in this book. This is largely due, of course, to Nietzsche: "Contentment is a lucky accident-not peace at all, but depravity; a sick animal lacking a theologian." Or: "I want it perfect. I want it to rain beauty like a shadow, a chain withered with little fungi." The collage technique here allows Connolly to shelter his lyrical impulse from his literary conscience's demand for irony, and to present, ostensibly for criticism and revision, the beauty and intensity of Nietzschean word and image.
Such is this poem's merit. Its fault lies in its supposed "veer" from Nietzsche's texts. Here is a typical brief passage, the conclusion of part IV, "Humid, All-Too-Humid": "the genius teaches the doltish all that is loud and self-satisfied. Much is gained. Everyone walks away richer." Well, this does not differ at all from Nietzsche's satire of the genius tradition. And if it is meant to assimilate Nietzsche himself to that tradition, accusing him of being self-satisfied in his loud attack on the self-satisfied, he already saw and fully expressed that irony too.
But Connolly's "failure" to escape from Nietzschean irony and self-irony has a positive sense-indeed, one that is crucial to Asphalt Cigar. Nietzsche is after all the last peak of romantic irony, who brought it to its utmost intensity and comprehensiveness and bequeathed it to the twentieth century as one of the modern foundations. As usual with good poets, Connolly transcends the reduced sense of irony found in movements such as New Criticism and various aspects of postmodernism and goes to the life-and-death issue, the ultimate irony, the romantic irony itself: the threat or belief that nothing matters much, that life is death, all is nothing, salvation is annihilation.and that, as far as concerns us here and now, all personal will and labour towards progress, all self-differentiation, are merely repetition, cycle, unconscious imitation. Of the aspiration to be unique, to be an advance, nothing remains but the pure, incorrect assertion that one is so, and even this is identically, helplessly shared by all.
One of Connolly's most intense poems, "Twelve Arrests, No Convictions", addresses this directly. The speaker wishes to divorce himself from all tradition:
I won't crouch and mumble
with the atoms of The Greats,
scrape lips from statuettes,
connect the dots and call it home.
I won't play the gombeen,
strap peat to my head,
make a petty brushfire
of my ancestry.
Take that, John Berryman and Seamus Heaney. "I won't quietly accept," he concludes, in more subdued tone, " `to sit with a blind brow/ above an empty heart.'/ I'm not sure I need/ to know where empty is." And I think we are right to hear in the final line an attempted dismissal even of the kenosis, of the via negativa.
Yet self-satirization unto self-emptying, and identification with the "poor" in the sense of all who are struggling for a possible selfhood in contemporary confusion, are exactly Connolly's way, even if he fights himself every step of it. And this self-conflict is not unconscious, either, though at times it may fail of expression. In the best poems it is grasped and re-absorbed as part of the drama, the intense drama that vibrates beneath the flat stream of boredom and repeated disasters:
Even the rain's not very dramatic.
It couldn't put out the
fire on that pilot's airsuit.
It can't even get through
a thin wall of glass.
Still, it pushes you inside
and breathes on you,
messes up the order of a few years,
forcing a little long grass
up through the bald lawns of
what is now suburbia.
Here is the image drawn from nature, which I mentioned before, breaking through both the irony of the prescribed contemporary cultural stance and the vulgar artificiality of the urban "surround". In "messing up" the order we impose on things, it very subtly, almost tacitly acquires primordial overtones. We may remember, "Send forth your spirit, lord, and they will be re-created, and you will renew the face of the earth."
It is in "The Empress Hotel" that Connolly unites all the elements of his vision: isolated men and women (both those who endure their lives and those who contemplate suicide), ugly neighbourhoods, and natural things that retain their "dearest freshness deep down" (Hopkins) despite all ravage, the flotsam and jetsam of the streets and of the airwaves, wasted nights, desperate dog-eared reminiscences of former styles, the crumbling corners and backs of things. And the floating self, like a shadow or something glimpsed at the corner of the eye, which tells us of all this, moves freely amidst it, and yet is totally composed of it. In this poem Connolly's direct lyricism and care for the traditional but re-invigorated image find a platform that can adequately support them, for here his cultural criticism is fully immersed in sympathy for men and women, and transcends all easy irony:
Men's faces swimming in televisions,
eyes full of songs and flashes:
empty mouths and faces, vague ships
drifting in a sea of fire and iron.
Old women whispering at fences,
at hedges in the dark,
whispering: beaches and gloves.
This poem composes a complete world, and gives a universal story through hints and glimpses that unite mystery, in the sense of what we touch but cannot say directly, with the greatest firmness of outline. From a vivacious book any reader would enjoy, "The Empress Hotel" emerges as a peak of substantial achievement.
A. F. Moritz has recently published poems in the Paris Review, Partisan Review, The American Literary Review, and Malahat Review.