Monday, January 04, 2010
The Poetry of Jason Boone (1971-2008)
Justin E. H. Smith
"We are so presumptuous as to wish to be known by all the world and even by those who will arrive when we are no more. And we are so vain that the esteem of five or six people who surround us amuses us and renders us content." --Blaise Pascal (tr. Jason Boone, the epigram to his 2002 poem, "Ho There, Raise Up the Tommy Lift!")
I should no doubt begin with what these days is known as a 'full disclosure': I was a friend of Jason Boone's for a short time, towards the end of the 1980s, when he would drive up through the valley from Fresno to Sacramento on weekends to go to rock shows at a night-spot called the Cattle Club, out near Highway 50, where I wasted a lot of time back then. The most peculiar thing about him, as I recall from that period, is that he always maintained that he absolutely loathed the music he heard at the Cattle Club, every bit of it, and yet he solidly refused to give any reason why he kept coming nonetheless.
"I hate guitars," he would often announce. "I hate these flanel shirts and this whole beer and 'fuck yeah' thing." The music was mostly what would come, within a few more years, to be called 'grunge', and featured many of the bands, then in an embryonic state, that were taking shape at that time in Seattle and touring up and down the West Coast. "The worst of all of them is this opening act called Nirvana," Boone once said to me. "They open for Tad, who are almost as insufferably awful, but Tad's probably going somewhere. This is the end of the line for Nirvana. In ten years they'll be working shit jobs, installing cable TV, repairing copying machines, wishing they'd gone to college, and waxing nostalgic about their glory days. You can just sense it when you're watching these bands, you know, you can read their fates." Is that why you watch them, even though you hate them? I asked. "Yes I suppose."
It was more than anything else that halting, self-conscious "yes, I suppose," instead of a thoughtless "yeah, I guess," the elocution so much more natural in our shared milieu, that gave me a sense of Boone's own fate. He was dead wrong about Kurt Cobain, yet I was broadly right about him.
Boone lost his life unexpectedly, a little over a year ago, while travelling to Australia, where he had been invited to give a series of readings at cafés, YMCAs, extended learning centers, places like that. He was on the ill-fated Qantas flight 73 from Singapore to Perth on October 6, 2008, which in mid-flight suffered such a severe and sudden loss of altitude that it sent all unbuckled passengers head-first toward the ceiling. Many of Boone's flightmates suffered lacerations and broken bones. Boone himself, who had been in the lavatories at the time of the drop, was the only passenger to lose his life. As if that were not bad enough, to top it all off the autopsy report later revealed that he had been defecating at the fateful moment. Shawn Kumpe, a staff writer for the Fresno News & Review, would later quip: "You can't exactly say [Boone] died as he lived. Who spends their life taking shits at 39,000 feet?"
Boone's legacy might have been limited to cheap one-liners in the free weekly newspaper of his hometown, had a recent Ph.D. thesis in the 'Postcolonial Discourses' program at the University of Witwatersrand entitled The Boone Rhizome: Interrogating Space in the Poetry of Jason Boone, not sought to bring serious critical attention to Jason Boone's work. The author of the thesis, Augusta Aardappel (reported in the Fresno News & Review to have been Boone's on-again-off-again girlfriend during her undergrad studies at UC Fresno), explained in an interview on Pretoria public-access television that she wanted to "take postcolonial studies to a whole-nother level," by turning its critical eye upon "the postcolonial subject's ultimate other," namely, "the entitled, self-absorbed, totally clueless white Californian male who galavants around the world like he owns it, offering up pat explanations of everything he sees after, like, five minutes of observation."
Prior to Aardappel's thesis, what little critical reaction there had been to Boone's poetry was overwhelmingly negative. If he had any following at all, it was among students --most of his published work during his lifetime, other than one self-financed volume printed by some anarchist collective in Nova Scotia, appeared in the UC Fresno independent student newspaper, The Grapevine-- who saw in him a sort of Bukowski, but less overtly libidinous and less proudly low-class, a poet who, in the American tradition going back to Whitman, had no other goal than to sing the song of himself.
The establishment taste-makers with whom Boone struggled to gain an audience were not taken in by the song. In a very recent film, made as a thesis project by an MA student in the media arts program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (clearly on an extremely low budget: the interviews seem to have been done on Skype, using the interviewees' own webcams), a number of prominent arbiters of contemporary taste in poetry weigh in with their recollections of Jason Boone the person, and also their reactions to his work. One is Dylan Cooney, the founding editor of the Brooklyn-based McMicken's Quarterly, a journal Cooney launched with much hype in 2000 following upon the great success of 1998's Wave 'Em Like You Just Don't Care, his much-lauded, irony-soaked memoir of his years as a DJ for senior-center crab feeds, father-daughter chastity balls, and other things that don't happen in Brooklyn. Another interviewee is Michel Pupici, the Romanian-born professor of French literature and author of The Crispy Poetics of Paul Celan, who was a visiting professor at UC Fresno in the early 1990s when Boone was a student there.
A segment of the Fairbanks thesis film has recently shown up on YouTube. Again, in spite of the dismal production value, the film gives a good sense of the establishment consensus on the work of Jason Boone:
Perhaps the most striking interview in the film, which regrettably did not make it into the YouTube clip, is with the legendary slam poet Jeff Coombs, who recounts Boone's ill-advised attempt, circa 1997, to make a name for himself at the Nuyorican Poets Café: "There was like all these Puerto Rican dudes standing around him," Coombs reminisces, "and they were like totally into the whole slam thing, know what I'm saying? But Jason just looked at them like he was Lord Byron or some shit. All, like you know, delicate. And then he just starts mumbling this weird-ass shit that's half in French and seems to be some kind of lecture about not eating meat or some shit and the Puerto Ricans were all just like, dude, what the fuck?"
The poem Coombs had in mind would in fact be the one to undergo the most rigorous (Jakobsonian) analysis in Aardappel's thesis. Composed in 1996, at the peak of Boone's Francophilia, it seems to describe one of those old posters you might see in a Parisian boucherie, with the various cuts of meat drawn into the body of a grazing steer:
My cornes are only thick cheveux.
My flanc, my croupe, my encolure,
Are meat to men, but not my mufle.
My corps is the plan of a fore-doomed bataille,
Tacked to the wall of a butcher.
Now recognition in a Ph.D. thesis is not in itself a great posthumous success, and Boone might have remained only the source of one obscure doctoral dissertation, and nothing more, had Seamus Heaney not been in a hotel room in Pretoria in March, 2009, watching public access television, at the very moment Augusta Aardappel was reciting the very poem that had been responsible for Boone's Nuyorican debacle some years earlier. Heaney contacted Aardappel and in no time gained access to Boone's collected works. The Irish poet would later declare, in an interview with the Fresno N&R: "A few years ago, I announced somewhat prematurely that Eminem 'has sent a voltage around a generation'. Well, Mr. Mathers, its time to pass the voltage stick to your fallen compatriot." "Except that he didn't exactly fall," Kumpe would subsequently add to his career-topping N&R feature, unable to let go the image of Boone hitting the ceiling while moving his bowels.
As a result of Heaney's intervention, over the course of 2009 there developed a fair amount of interest in the life and work of Jason Boone. Aardappel refuses to disclose anything about her personal relations with him, but others are not nearly so reticent. We know from various acquaintances, friends, and family members interviewed for an upcoming profile on Arte, the Franco-German television network specializing in cultural programming, that he was a strict vegan who was fascinated by meat; that he often claimed that sexual orientation is a myth and a product of bourgeois ideology, but that at the same time he kept a comprehensive record of all of his sexual conquests (all female), classifying them by age, educational background, nationality, parents' professions, etc.; that he travelled obsessively with no greater purpose, as far as anyone could tell, than to add yet another obscure locality to his list of places visited. A girlfriend from Buenos Aires named Clara Zaltzburg (the daughter of two Lacanian psychoanalysts) reports in the Arte documentary that she discovered the following note in his jeans pocket during a week-long visit he made to her family home in 1999:
"To borrow a line from Philip Roth," Zaltzburg explains at one point in the documentary, "Jason seemed to like fucking girls, but what he really wanted was to fuck their backgrounds [mitschlafen was the translation chosen for the German subtitles; the slightly more accurate baiser was chosen for the French version]. He was just collecting them in exactly the same way he collected countries by travelling to them. Like he was always trying to become something he wasn't... That last part was me," Zaltzburg adds, "not Philip Roth."
We also know that he came from a lower-middle-class white American background (his mother had a record of bouncing checks at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the last fast-food restaurant around to accept this form of payment), which he would variously advertise and conceal. As a student he claimed he was going to appropriate the epithet 'white-trash' in the same way that activists had transformed 'queer' from an insult into a point of pride. Some years later, he would write in an e-mail to a Lithuanian woman he was then courting, a direct descendant of the Gediminid dynasty, that the abolition of nobility in American society means not that everyone is equal, but that each American is obligated to choose their social class in the way they construct their lives. "I choose aristocracy," Boone told the would-be princess.
In 2001 he finished a Ph.D. in sociology at a respectable Eastern university, and after that took a job at an obscure liberal arts college in Iowa. All the evidence suggests that he coud not have cared less about sociology. Former colleagues report that on more than one occasion at departmental colloquia he confused C. Wright Mills with Talcott Parsons. He made it clear from the very beginning of his new career that he had no intention of doing any research, and that he considered sociology nothing more than "a way to pay the bills."
In 2003 he returned from a trip to Russia married to an ethnic Saami from the Kola Peninsula. For the next year or so, he wrote a number of poems that he claimed were modelled on Lapp oral traditions. His widow went straight back to Murmansk after his death, and has refused to answer requests for interviews made by the Fresno News & Review, by Arte, as well as by the present author.
But what do the details of a life ever tell us about that life's work? Perhaps it is better to just stick to the poetry, and to leave it to the experts (experts in what, I don't know) to make the connections. According to Aardappel, there are at least two significant periods in Boone's poetic development, in stark contrast to Pupici's view that, as he put it in the Fairbanks interview, "it is all the same, whether you are reading early Boone, whether you are reading middle Boone, or whether you are reading late Boone."
In the first period, Aardappel argues, Boone is indeed hopelessly self-absorbed, and predictably prone to comparing his own work to that of his poetic idols. Formally, there is no attention to metre, or any prosodic elements at all, which is strange, given that Boone was well-known for the boastful quizzes he would pop on his acquaintances in the aim of exposing their ignorance of the difference between dactyls and trochees. Consider this untitled poem from 2001:
To die is nothing new,
but then again there’s nothing all that novel
in living, said Esenin in his own blood.
He’s right, but he's missing something,
I told the girls who lingered too late at the party,
as I, drunk, started my Russian-poetry routine.
On the one hand,
everything that even counts as an experience
had spilled out and evaporated
before the summer of my twelfth year.
Before I’d even begun producing all the relevant fluids.
The rest is a faint echo
in a dessicated husk:
a clumsy re-enactment.
And yet there’s something there to re-enact,
isn’t there, girls?
This particular form of the eternal return
was never selected, as far as I can recall,
as one selects pay-per-view porn,
while waiting out some goddamn pointless conference
in Rome, say, or somewhere else one is supposed to want to go,
imagining at least a bit of edification
from the pan-European slogans
at the bottom of the screen:
Fick mich zwischen den Brüsten.
Stoss mich von hinten.
Baise-moi sous le soleil du Maroc, sur la plage.
Serbia: 100% sexy!
No, fate is consolidated before
it is comprehended: in the backyard swimming pool,
mom playing mother manatee, a baby sea-calf
holding on to the strings of her top, to the
peeling shoulder of that Fresno summer,
on the cushion of her bottoms,
for dear life,
on the journey to the deep-end,
and safely back.
In the later phase, as Aardappel explained in the same interview on Pretoria public access, Boone is as self-absorbed as ever, and no less convinced that his own eventual development into a grown man with responsibilities was a singular tragedy the likes of which the cosmos had never witnessed before. But at the same time, in the midst of all this infantile wallowing, one sees glimmers of what according to Aardappel can only be called poetic talent. The literary references recede further back in history, to the epic, to myth, and the self-absorption begins to show signs of what Aardappel calls 'a universalizing sensibility'. Boone had begun to realize, Aardappel believes, that life is short, but art is long, and had begun --had just begun-- to learn how to put the accent on the second half of that old truism. Consider his "Family Reunion" of 2007:
Tell me, ô Muse, of how this came to be.
You know what I mean.
I have not come to hear of rocks and trees,
but of liver-spotted Doris, and blue-permed Irene,
who guards the key to the ladies’ room
at J.C. Penney's basement beauty parlor,
just one floor above Tartaros.
And of the many bastard children of Night,
introduced as second cousins,
once, twice, infinitely removed,
holding styrofoam cups with punch,
and paper plates with Jell-O,
acne-ridden and uncommunicative,
whose progenitors rode the dust that blew
from Arkansas to San Bernardino
when the corn angrily hid ‘neath the earth.
And where is Plymouth-driven Jim?
Just ask meatloaf-fed Helen, she knows.
He’s had one too many, once again,
at the Olympia tavern
across from the V.F.W. lodge.
His father was a bit of a tyrant, they say.
Cut off his own father’s balls while still just a runt,
and his mother, they say, helped.
I would have done the same if I’d had my wits about me,
If my mother had supplied me with a scimitar of deadliest iron,
or at least the light saber for which I’d been campaigning
at Christmastime, 1977.
But aunt Sophia of the flowing mu-mu turned out alright.
She conceived without any help,
(or so she always insisted),
as a sweetwater hydra, lonely and immobile,
might split herself in two
for the pleasure of some company.
Stranger things have happened.
Like the twins born from her left shoulder, and her right,
(the story goes):
Tristitia on the one side, Laetitia on the other.
From the one were the generations of the wretched born,
from the other all that recalls the time
before time began,
even before the race of earthborn men,
when moisture and love were the same.
To order the recently published edition of Jason Boone's collected poetry, go here:
If the link is not working, please be patient. I have been having technical problems inserting links in Typepad recently.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 12:10 AM | Permalink