Literary Criticism

Reading Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say

Of late Anthony Madrid seems inextricably linked with Michael Robbins, whom he met at the University of Chicago where both attained their Ph.D.’s. Robbins has been one of Madrid’s high profile boosters and for good reason. They obviously share common interests and pedagogical roots, as well as a similar sensibility. However, from a historical point of view (yes, I think we need to say that what is happening here is significant for poetry), their relationship is more important for their poetic language, which has become the most obvious example of new post-modernist poetry in the U.S.
The poetry of Robbins and Madrid reflects, on one hand, the world-weary view of the skeptic that is on guard against any type of psychological ploy that attempts to seduce one to a slavish follower of the received toilet water that passes for the holy sort, and on the countervailing, anomalous other hand, an unchained melody of unrestrained emotion in quest of meaningful human contact, sometimes known as love (or great sex), and other times just mutual respect (which must admit of the realistic possibility of its attainability even as it acknowledges its inherent temporality). Its prosody veers from didactic hauteur to acid sarcasm and from the goofball romantic and the bathetic to the ineffable, sacred heights achieved by the greatest writers, sometimes all in a single page, stanza or sentence. This psychological attitude had its first inklings in detective and science fiction (and their subsequent translations to film) and eventually became incorporated into the styles of the hip wise guy literature of Jack Kerouac, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and others who are now considered among the vanguard of postmodernism. In U.S. poetry, the attitude is reflected in the work of Charles Bukowski, John Berryman, Frederick Seidel, August Kleinzahler and Michael Gizzi, as well as poets of the Beat (an invidious term) and New York schools (certainly, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), all of whom, in their own unique ways, reach the dialect (and dialectic) in which Robbins and Madrid are now fluent.

The genesis is not as important as the fact that both Robbins and Madrid use a similar poetic grammar to elevate a conceptual framework beyond the commonly used strata of meaning and import social and emotional attitudes previously unattained by our expression. They do this, in part, by employing a conversational tone that is first impregnated with inventive, far-flung metaphors and symbols (just the opposite of John Ashbery’s more subtle figurations and intimations), usually replete with cultural touchstones (whether popular personalities, current affairs, music, movies, books or film), which are then invested with dramatic hyperbole, amply blown-out of proportion, or inverted, in order to make a calculated gesture toward oblivion, where the background presence of death (of all shapes and sizes) wears the grunge facade of normality. We live in a dangerous time and the poets, who are our most sensitive antennae, know it. Despite this gesture, their styles have no obvious fixation on the gothic or macabre, and in this way their poems avoid being weighed down by the Reaper’s ominous specter.

Here is Madrid (from “Most Living Creatures Leave No Ghost”):

Most living creatures leave no ghost, and even if they do it’s totally useless.
Whereas, one can knock a hole in a brick wall with the ghost of a material object.

20 January 2001. A leafless little tree full of egg-shaped sparrows.
And every egg has a dot of blood; every dot, a nebula of extending branches.

In Mexico City, I saw a crushed dog skeleton into the alphabet.
The flesh had all turned to tar in the side-splitting sun. . .

Anything that’s the product of ten years of misery deserves respect. That’s why I
Respect this Rorschach grave, these sticky bones . . .

*      *       *

Praise is due to Mother Nature at this, the start of her new fiscal year.
Silver maple’s printing money again; box elder’s opened its offices . . .

And even MADRID is putting out a few timid tender leaves.
A poem or two to be recited in the presence of the infant Mira.

Here there is neither the Romantic nor the Modernist recoil at death. Instead it is used instructively; more like the Latin classicists would approach mortality, as a lesson on why we should live our lives to the fullest, and for ourselves. We see the denial of any lingering human presence after death; no Marley in chains here, although the conditional use of “most” leaves some things up in the air. The inauguration date of George W. Bush’s first term serves as fitting reminder of the way all dreams (or illusions, even that of the pax Americana) die, as they did in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The microscopic explosion of the images of the tree, sparrows, egg, blood dot and the embryonic branches of blood vessels, as well as the word “nebula” as metaphoric connective tissue, depicts a universal life cycle. The 9/11 tragedy is juxtaposed to the correlative disintegration of the dog’s skeleton in Mexico City, abetted as much as witnessed by the “side-splitting sun,” with its combined figuration of mirth and pain, is again consistent with Madrid’s viewpoint. The grave is merely a vehicle for a Rorschach projection of our personality, without an invested symbolism of its own. In true capitalist fashion, Mother Nature’s “fiscal year” begins, with leaves as its currency and trees as “offices,” which return to the image of the poet putting out the contrasting classical image of the “tender leaves” (although clichéd, quite appropriate here) of his poems and preparing to recite them to the infant. The decidedly uptempo lesson, even as it is populated with images of life and death, is that life is what we make it.

In my earlier essay on Alien vs. Predator, and particularly the poem, “New Bridge Strategies,” I noted that Robbins’ conveyed a feeling of ironic detachment that subdued the unsettling juxtaposition of the war, Ghostface Killah, the Pizza Hut in the Baghdad’s Green Zone, the fate of the Yankees, and the poor blacks in Minneapolis. While Robbins’ vision tended to expose a disturbing psychological void projected upon the national psyche, Madrid’s poem serves as a new order of carpe diem, a 21st century extension of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “A Postcard from the Volcano.”

A number of the poems from Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say have seen the light of day in a variety of literary publications (both on-line and print), but having an entire volume of his work is the only way to understand the commitment he brings to his art, the suppleness of his technique and the fundamental classical foundation of the subject matter he treats. Unlike Robbins broad cultural sweep, Madrid’s approach seems more local (but thinks global), clearly inclined toward a romantic’s tendency to woo and proselytize those he can and condemn the rest of the world to their bankrupt future. But that puts him in good company, for Madrid often works in forms and subject matter that Ovid, Horace, Wyatt, Villon, Shakespeare and Pound would easily recognize, even though Madrid’s prosody is distinctly steroidal and stratospheric compared to the earlier writers.

When I refer to Madrid’s commitment, I am really talking about the absolute command Madrid exercises over his material and his bold assertiveness within the virtual form of a ghazal. There is no pause for self-reflection or second-guessing within the concept of the poem. Even though the poetry often lacks a straightforward linear progression (typical of the autonomous couplets of a traditional ghazal), the purpose of the expression is being fleshed out into other dimensions. This has the effect of instilling a corresponding confidence in the reader. We never pause and say to ourselves: “Is that what he really meant?” If anything, we search for and usually find the connection later in re-reading. The ghazal also enables Madrid to interpose the oversight of a superego that provides comment on the poetry and the poet, much in the fashion of Roman poets, like Catullus, which gives the poem perspective without confessing to error, or being exhibitionistly sentimental or inviting too much sympathy.

Madrid seems to have passed from the malingering discomfort of the modern sensibility into one of pragmatic acceptance for the way life is, therefore we don’t feel the tug of the undertow so much as in Robbins’ poetry. Even the implicit evils of the capitalistic society that Robbins satirizes and finally grudgingly resigns himself to, Madrid finds a way of deftly negotiating. Madrid has more of a problem solver’s personality, and so his volume brims with pedagogical fervor, thus the references to aspirational predecessors, the poet teachers, Sa’adi, Kālidāsa and Hafez, as well as contemporary ones, like Srikanth Reddy, and texts like Valmiki’s Ramayana  and the Sutra of Hui Neng. It is also the reason why the couplet form works so well for him here, which disposes itself to inventively constructed aphorisms, anecdotes and parables, without the need for prologue or elaborate exposition. In this way, Madrid follows the great tradition of classically trained modernists, like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, by sewing his art with threads derived from the fabric of others which then become part of the foundation for culture and the cultivated individual.

James Joyce was disappointed by the reviews of Ulysses, in part because his reviewers failed to appreciate how funny the book was. I won’t make that mistake here. As well as Madrid writes, he does so in a way that makes it very enjoyable to read. Madrid is smart, witty and funny with an exceptionally contemporary sense of humor, which rescues the didact from becoming too overbearing. However, most of all, I think I have to add that the poetry has a lot of heart, a genuineness that makes Madrid’s work ultimately charming. There are many hills and vales, rivers and malls, classrooms and bedrooms, but the journey is always illuminated with a fresh sense of the way things could, nay, should be.


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