This Can’t Be Life
reviewed by Dan Magers
In This Can’t Be Life, after a reading Dana Ward gives, he writes, “a man told me my writing wasn’t poetry.” Ward’s work is talky, often given to prose, less concerned with concision, brevity, or the integrity of the individual line—all traditional hallmarks of poetry. In the context of the book, the complaint is a bit of a straw man, though no doubt Ward must hear things like this from time to time. But admirers of Ward’s work (and I am one of them) recognize a set of concerns that make This Can’t Be Life feel particularly vital in this moment in contemporary poetry, with its canny use of the “I” and filtration of emotion through popular culture and entertainment while also being cognizant of the political underpinning of life and art and the tension that this builds. Some will see the influence of Bruce Boone, whose “My Walk With Bob,” Ward calls “central to the poem you’re now reading.” In Boone’s seminal work Century of Clouds, he says,
My theme probably has most to do with a very strong feeling that telling stories actually has an effect on the world, and that a relation is achieved between the one telling those stories and her or his audience and history. Consequently, it’s necessary to be truthful, responsible, and so on, but if you lie in tiny places, you had better be ready to accept the effects that flow from this. Because they will certainly come back to you. Writers who think they can ever get off scot-free will pay for this by becoming superficial people. And then after a while they even stop caring about that. They don’t care that they don’t touch an audience anymore.
Ward’s first book is a difficult-to-parse blend of lyric and memoir, prose and poetry. It's been said that the nature of John Ashbery’s work makes it hard to recite from memory. Similarly, it is difficult to quote snippets and small passages from Ward’s work, or to isolate components of a poem or passage for scrutiny. This Can’t Be Life draws so much of its power and poignancy from the buildup of interacting passages within a poem, or that reoccur in later poems in the book. The twenty poems contained within 131 pages contain multitudes, and many of the poems, especially “Typing ‘Wild Speech,’” could be productively reviewed or annotated individually. There is an excess and messiness to the book that is appealing, and sometimes frustrating, but which reconfigured how I think about writing.
The untitled opening poem fuses prose lyric and memoir as he offers a 1,216 word account of a day in Buffalo to give a poetry reading. Spending the day with two fellow poets, Ward integrates poetry and life, performance and being:
I began to feel that our performance had started that morning when Mike came to pick me up & I squeezed into the back seat while Tisa sat in front. It was without a doubt some inaugurating space, & what startles of course is one follows it back through a hurtling star-scape to the moment one comes into the world, & performs the role of infant, shitting & crying & pressing at speech with such natural elan one seems born to the role.
So situated, all actions become aestheticized, often couched in the language of reverie:
We took pictures with our arms around one another’s shoulders, new friends in the sunshine, falls roaring behind us, beyond them, the Canadian side which seemed to have drank from an alien mildness
or in the quotidian thoughts of a younger poet, as when he’s visiting the late Robert Creeley’s house:
Michael said that Creeley had kept his library hidden. It was enormous & he didn’t want anyone to think he was putting on airs. I admired his modesty though I have to say I’d have rather seen the books if I’d gone in. In fact it would have been the first think I’d have looked for & I would have felt cheated not to find them.
Later on, the actual reading is an afterthought: “Finally the part of the reading where we held pages or books filled with words & we used our voices & mouths to say them aloud took place in another little bookstore.” It would be another day in the office, so to speak, except for
a man told me my writing wasn’t poetry. That it had formulations within it which were ‘poetic’, the thinking was ‘poetic’ but the writing itself, the long lines, the occasional prosaic sounds, these things had corrupted it completely. Poetry was vertical he said, & compact, & not full of messy articles or haphazard prepositions. It was funny to hear this announcement from Parnassus right there on the Buffalo streets. We actually had an exchange that went like this – “I like it, but it’s not poetry,” he said, “Yes it is” I said, him – “No it’s not” me – “Oh it totally is” “No it’s not” he repeated & I said to myself in my head ‘well fuck this’, & smirked at him or glared, & despaired of his parsimony for life’s sake then we all went to get some beer”
The tone of Ward’s writing is maybe the most unique aspect of This Can’t Be Life, and is what drives it. Ward seems fully aware of Boone’s caveat about truthfulness in writing, and cultivates a story about Dana Ward and his friends. The word “memoir” feels inadequate to describe This Can’t Be Life. The popularity of mainstream memoir lies both in its earnestness and fetishism of accuracy. In “Dogs of Love,” Ward writes, “Brian Wilson has died & my mother,” and then later in the poem, “My mother is alive, Brian Wilson is alive.” This gesture near the front of the book, as well as Ward’s predilection for reverie and fantasy, makes the reader question the veracity of any statement he makes. There is also a pervasive and sustained combination of irony and sincerity that proves impossible to separate.
The result of both these elements is that the reader is at once pulled forward and pushed away in the same gesture, and the author in that way wants both to establish a trust with the reader while always being ready to denigrate or mock it. This has a very engaging effect, but can also be maddening and psychologically taxing on the reader – especially given the investment of time needed to read some of the longer poems. It feels more appropriate to call This Can’t Be Life pseudo-faux memoir – the two prefixes negating each other, but also highlighting the messiness of truth and reality in Ward’s writing. This Can’t Be Life requires attentive reading, and will reward it, but the tone of the book is such that it can be off-putting if one is not in the right mood for it. The admiration and jealousy and frustration I feel for the book meant there were times This Can’t Be Life gave me a strange contempt for the book and myself.
Among the many comparisons between Century of Clouds and This Can’t Be Life, one is that the current edition of each has a nearly identical font type, and the same tiny font size. But the trim size of Century of Clouds is 5-1/4” x 7-1/2” while This Can’t Be Life is “6-1/2” x “9-1/2”. The difference is significant: while a given page of the Boone book will be about 350 words, Ward’s book can over 600 words on a given page. The narratives in both books will often be off-kilter, with an uncertain sense of momentum and tangents that can go on for pages. The larger trim size of This Can’t Be Life allows for the longer lines of some of Ward’s lineated poems, and is a reminder that the book is not straight-up prose. The tiny font against a seemingly too large canvas actually compliments Ward’s weighty, unwieldy and sometimes ponderous poems, and highlights the density of This Can’t Be Life.
The centerpiece of the book is “Typing ‘Wild Speech’”, which is literally and figuratively the heart of the book. The 26 page (mostly) prose poem is a about mortality, love, and friendship, crystalized as a remembrance and reflection of Ward’s friend Geoff who committed suicide. On the couch with his partner Sarah, Ward is watching Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, and Ward notices, but does not say out loud, the eerie similarity between the character Ian Curtis and Ward’s friend.
It was revealing how much it upset me…Ian Curtis looked strikingly like my friend Geoff. Or the actor portraying him did. I couldn’t while spellbound by this likeness, recall what Curtis’s face had really looked like. What had drawn them together in my mind, beyond their shared dark hair & lanky frames, was the fact they both took their own lives. Each had suffered an abiding existential depression decorated by dark gems they mined from their guilt.
This rumination connecting his friend with the iconic singer, mediated through an independent film, is the engine that drives "Typing 'Wild Speech'" as he recounts and mythologizes his dead friend, “To amuse me \[Geoff would] affect a deep croon...I could take this voice to Martin Hammet \[sic], pour it into his aural cathedral-slash-factory, wet it with reverb & it would be Ian’s.”
Wards thoughts and emotions are filtered through a spectrum of popular culture and entertainment throughout. Audaciously, the poem begins with David Larsen’s “Wild Speech,” laid out in courier font, replicating the version manually typed out that Ward produces to become “more intimate with the work I had so adored”. Recounting when “Steph first read me the poem when she & David had newly fallen for each other,” Ward examines whether he feigned “a kind of reluctance” for it, either to impress Steph or to devalue something he loves. “Did I ever do the same to Geoff, in envy, play the snob to deflect the crush of seeing what I most desired effortlessly won by him?”
Speaking of Larsen’s book The Thorn, Ward displays the simultaneous combination of sincerity and irony that characterizes the book,
Most importantly, I returned to David Larsen’s ‘The Thorn’. Allow me a moment to recommend this book to you. It’s an extraordinary work in which we see our fears & our abjection framed amid myriad cultural signposts from the ancient world of hip-hop. Endearingly for me he quotes AZ, a terribly underrated MC whose records I can also recommend. The book is very fierce & diverse….It changed my life to a degree, & you shouldn’t be surprised if its \[sic] changes yours too, at least a little….Wait, did I just write a blurb?!?!
After a few more pages, the poem, and the book, hit a higher register, “There must be more, still other, better thoughts. That’s the faithful thing to say….& if I have devised a program wherein violation has been made into something like a star, I will already have begun to panic, my heart might already be breaking.”
Ward’s poem moves languidly among other works and fantasies to filter his thoughts and emotions—reading Notley (“to become involved in the deepest prosody I could imagine”); Arendt (“on the rise of the bourgeoisie as a political class, to see something of my origins”); the Pretenders’s “Back on the Chain Gang,” (“in hopes I could dwell forever in its indelible universe of memory & rue & gentle spite & desire…”); the 2005 film Election, (through a wildly elaborate description of the film that ends in Ward telling of a flirtatious game he plays with Sarah called Couch Cobza, based on a joke in the film); a fantasy involving breaking into Tiffany’s at midnight, which culminates and combines with a short poem called “A Valentine” for Sarah; a fantasy he calls “Ballad of Zoe” about a wealthy Cincinnati art collector named Andy and his doomed daughter Zoe.
There are more, but it feels prosaic to list all of them out. Yet all create an emotional tenor when introduced and then as each passage is interwoven together, Ward creates a powerful sense of momentum as he goes through so many cultural touch points that feels like it will culminate into something significant. In this, the poem is not unlike Andrew Mister’s Liner Notes.
Like the similarly death-haunted Liner Notes “Typing ‘Wild Speech’” is populated with the people that Ward loves: Sarah, Geoff, Geoff’s family and grandmother (“He & Irene were so gorgeous together”) and as the poem moves forward, they become intermingled:
Thus my elemental terrors find their wellspring in these memories – my mother in tears on the night my father died, & Geoff’s mother sobbing after learning of his death – two fountains connected by an underground river. Boats move leisurely over its surface. They are a rare, uncomplicated happiness. Geoff’s half asleep on a deck chair…The word ‘time’ feels odd, has no meaning anymore, its relation to being wrung dry.
As the poem continues, threads of elaborate fantasies of the people of Ward’s life, known and unknown to him, weave together,
When Elizabeth Peyton painted Geoff’s portrait the light of the world rushed into me, almost like a heart attack, & god I nearly died. When she painted Ian he sneered while he sat, but she saw contempt & love could be wed, & her painting was a painting of that marriage.
When contempt & love were wed, Elizabeth Peyton came, & Zoe, & Andy, & Geoff & I, & Ian & Sarah. Their vows were contentious, Utopian & glamorous. The lyrics of popular songs were included, as were quotations from Marx & O’Hara. Everyone happy, everyone drunk. It would seem we were meant to be together.
Things never get quite maudlin, as Ward also writes in a way that is both at once ridiculous and also filled with sincerity:
I gesture to prurient phonics with my smile for I think that they are grenadine but Ian they are blood & the Genius of Water will run green with Hatorade Seeing her velveteen lipped Kurt Cobain.
The thirteen poems leading up to “Typing ‘Wild Speech’” give the book an uneven but undeniable escalation towards the book’s centerpiece. The successes can be weighed on a micro-level, calling out the cool archness to the first two lines of “Michael Jackson” (“You’re more obsessed with death than god / & you look pretty young in that wheel-chair.”), or how all his main concerns seamlessly cohere in the three page prose poem “Press Release”. One night a friend drunkenly told me that “Typing ‘Wild Speech’” is better than anything in my book Partyknife. I can’t quite get with such a sentiment, true as it may be, but I can say that “Typing ‘Wild Speech’” moved me more than any other piece of writing in 2012.
After the high point of “Typing ‘Wild Speech’,” the book feels considerably slower, with the next three poems (of five remaining) each being at least ten pages. A maybe less charitable way of describing Ward’s work is that it takes him a long time to say the things he wants or needs to say. This feels especially true in “Between Here & There,” (12 pages) “It’s So Easy,” (10 pages) and “The End of the Far West,” (11 pages) At the beginning of “End of the Far West”, Ward writes about how his friend John is “tired of his life as such in New York” and that he sends Ward “links over Gchat to villages nestled in the gorgeous Tuscan hills” or “retraces a trip he took to Venice by using Google Earth.” Along with a reflection of his lack of interest in a poetics convention at Columbia, we start to feel that we’ve heard these things before. The poem kicks into a higher register as these reveries move to his relationship. “Despite all that sex we didn’t conceive, & by then we’d been trying for a year.” Reading this line snaps attention back, and it moves to discussions of potency, and of having a first name most thought to be feminine. “But one has to be ready for these things to move at a shoe gaze pace. The book picks up towards the end, and even the aforementioned three poems are a significant, if not essential, part of the book, and much of their power is derived from reading what has come before these poems, and I would not prefer for them to have been cut.
The aforementioned “Press Release”, besides seamlessly weaving so many of Ward’s concerns into a relatively short poem, has the added virtue of Ward being able to sneak into it a very bad poem. Ward is with Paul Coors (whose work appears on the cover of the book) in a bar, discussing a collaboration, and is about to read a product of this project, when the drama is heightened as friends enter as Ward is about to read the collaborative poem. All of them hated it: “Fine” I said. “I’ll kill myself.” He adds that there is an epigraph by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (“The social content of capitalist production contradicts its own semiotic framework. It produces a system of misunderstandings, contradictory injunctions & perverse juxtapositions. Therefore, it’s a great joy to have intercourse with people of excellent taste.”). With his friends' seeming toleration of this rather clunky gesture, Ward writes:
This absolution in extremis made me wonderfully happy. To be forgiven for disappointing someone you admire is a special, almost grubby kind of pleasure, especially when you know that they secretly hate you. & I had a feeling Gilles hated me though I never finally took it to heart. Open secrets are like that when their surface is disgust.
Friendship is a powerful saving grace in This Can’t Be Life. It seems to be the one real thing that Ward can rely on. And it shows another aspect of Boone’s influence. From Century of Clouds, Boone writes,
If someone asks about friendships like this, I sometimes say it’s like being in the army. People often feel close like that, though they can’t say why. It’s also like political life — in its group basic, it seems to me. If a person works with someone on things they believe in or care about, they form very strong ties with that other person. The ties remain, even if it happens you come no longer to ‘believe’ in what brought you together. They are still important, and the friendship persists. Ideology, one might say, has been a pretext for discovering friends. It’s a very romantic or fateful story, because just as often as not one destiny or fate will supplant another.
Swap out “ideology” for “poetry” and this could describe the sense of intimacy and camaraderie and generosity Ward displays for his friends named in the book. Ward, like Boone, is also sensitive to the interplay between friendships and alliances, and for all the political theory that pervades the book, it is where he is closest to treating politics. In “To the Sirens”, Ward even refers to his political ideas as “baby-faced.” Ward seems to have read a lot, but his interest seems less engaged in active revolutionary activities or poetics, an example of which would maybe be Anne Boyer’s Art is War.
For all of Ward’s inclination for fantasy and reverie that occurs in the book, it is striking that there are no, even brief, imaginative depictions of what a revolution would look like, or revolutionary depictions of a future utopia. The focus is more a kind of self-satisfied gaze, sometimes adoring, sometimes smug, upon popular culture and entertainment filtered through Marxist criticism. He is most effective at evoking an eerie alternate political present, rooted in family history:
Sarah’s mom was saying last night over dinner that really, by now, she expected to have died in a nuclear war, & her metabolism, emotional & otherwise, behaved a certain way, because she’d conditioned her body on the basis of, & surety in, that horrific expectation. For her the doomsday clock had made an object of biology, & really it was super long past midnight for the body, so her response to this for years had been laissez-faire, I guess they say ‘boomer’, consecration of indulgence, where acquisitive desire felt religious. This distinguished her body decisively from all the younger bodies at the table that achieved their maturity blissfully free from this one existential threat.
Ward’s life, as he acknowledges when mentioning Arendt, and as he describes it, is a bourgeois one. The tension created by his love of popular culture and entertainment, mingled with the dismissive irony that arises from his understanding of the political and economic underpinnings of these cherished things are what fashions the tone of the book, or as Ward puts it, “When contempt & love were wed.” The political discourse arising from this dynamic seems like just another stream of information or entertainment to be embraced or abandoned when appropriate. Politically, this tone and dynamic feels less revolutionary, more decadent. Not that decadence is a bad thing; it is in fact probably what appeals to me so much about the book.
Perhaps unknowingly, it is through his writing about his friends that has the keenest sense of the political. Ward’s friends clearly mean a lot to him, but thinking back to the Berardi quote, one also gets the sense from the book (I do not know Ward) that his love of his own taste also extends to his friends (at least those he chooses to mention in his book). Going back to the opening poem, the tenderness Ward feels for his new friends, and nearly everything around him, is contrasted with the sense of disdain he feels for the man who calls his work “not poetry.” One gets the sense also that Ward is aware of the cache of name-dropping these particular poets. He would lose a lot of cache by writing, “On our way to lunch in town we drove by Mary Oliver’s old house.”
The above sounds more like the makings of an aesthetic argument, but the mixture of cooperation and competition Ward describes is also an economic one (and thus political). For what else is contemporary US poetry but a classic example of a vertical market, with a customer pool in the high hundreds or low thousands? Boone characterizes the nature of friendships and alliances as being in the army with a strong political component. The stakes are less high in Ward’s writing (Boone sets the stakes high), saying his “new friends in the sunshine” are also “a certain working group” with Tisa and Mike in the beginning of the book.
It makes little sense to write poetry for money, but that doesn’t mean economic bonds aren’t set in place once you publish or interact with other writers, friends or not. But it stays in the background, and in the foreground is friendship, or at least friendliness, and a sense of insularity, both comforting and exclusive. This Can’t Be Life bonds the idea of friendship and alliances together with a strong sense of romanticism and destiny, despite the irony, which are always beating away the existential crisis that creeps up to unravel these illusions that lay bare the material suffering that is the occupational hazard of writing poetry. Despite the irony, this gives the book a deep sense of tenderness. This idea of illusion shoring up one regular bourgeois life is less memoir, and more of Dana Ward’s Pateresque Imaginary Portrait of himself, fueled by a constant appraisal of the present, everything, artistic and otherwise, becoming an art object of the eye.