Thursday, April 22, 2004

Just back from my first trip to the Danny's reading series, which came about through a fortunate pair of events: first, an email a few weeks back from Joel Sloman telling me he was coming to town to read, and then an offer of a ride from a U of C professor who happens to be an old college classmate of Sloman's; part of the way down was spent marveling at what seems to be a renaissance of poetry events in Chicago, with the Danny's series having become something like the marquee event of the new wave.

Danny's itself is a bar that seems to mirror its upscaling Bucktown environs: once apparently a genuine dive, it's now more of a "dive," dark and adequately smoky but with cool little tables and low cushioned stools placed sparsely in its back rooms. The readers were positioned at a DJ station just past the bar, so that in theory one could view the reading through the cutout between the bar and the back room without even leaving the bar itself.

I don't know what I was expecting in terms of turnout, but the room was just comfortably full, with people sitting on the floor story-hour fashion and about ten more slightly less engaged people hovering around the bar; Chuck Stebelton and I ended up listening to the reading standing up against a brick wall, nursing beers.

Joel Sloman worried to me beforehand that the dark would make it hard to read. At the mic he was engagingly nervous and modest, clearing his throat frequently and assuring us that he would inform us of the ends of poems by grunting. He described what he would be reading simply as "short lyrical poems," and indeed the affect of the reading was one of intense lyric introspection (heightened by Sloman's habit of lowering his head as he ended a poem, so that the final phrase at times escaped the mic and seemed almost to be spoken to himself) and close observation of nature: precise renderings of flowers and plant life, yet with curious diversions and metacommentary that produced a sense of what Sloman himself called the "familiar alien." It surprised me a bit to hear Chuck refer to Sloman's humor afterwards, but looking at Sloman's book Stops when I got home I realized Chuck was entirely right; on the page many of the poems Sloman read had a whimsy and verve that Sloman, in person, declined to play for laughs. What had struck me as simple images of nature turned out to modulate into something much more constructed and ambivalent, with the botanic blurring into the human blurring into the artificial--

Dogwood's poised salmon petals enunciate calmly.
Leaves at fewer and fewer dpi slowly dissolve spring.

--moving across registers confidently and at great speed but without hiding the seams. Sloman doesn't shy from metaphysics, either, but a poem like "Self and Self" breaks it down pragmatically, funny and direct:

Thank you for the sea.
It goes "woo woo."

Mark Strand, the evening's second reader, was far more at ease in the space, leaning his lanky frame over the microphone, reading deliberately, and apologizing with a wink to those in the room who might have heard him read a particular poem "too many times." While Sloman downplayed the humor in his poems, Strand had no fear of the punchline, opening with a well-turned ballad, "The Couple," that might well have been described as rollicking were it not for its ironic flourishes (woman and man meet, have sex, and die tragically all while waiting on a subway platform). Perhaps since it's been some time since I've read Strand closely, the selections seemed to highlight to me not only what's distinctive about Strand's work, but what gestures and influences Strand shares with his contemporaries: the taste for surreal plot and details, the short deadpan line, and the metafictional turn that undercuts potential self-seriousness. "Cake" compressed Dante into the story of a man who gets lost (in a dark wood, of course) on his way to buy a cake; the perfect apparition of "Man and Camel" is disrupted by the mere gaze of the poem's speaker, who is reprimanded, "You ruined it!"; "2002" features Death reflecting, "I'm thinking of Strand" and then delivering the poet to an adoring crowd in the afterlife that cries frozen tears.

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