Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Peter Culley’s The Age of Briggs & Stratton

A Tree (Leamington, Ontario)

        . . . where rising fuel costs
temporarily trump
the fear of creosote & coalsmoke

to re-enable the choking fogs
that had disappeared
with the industrial base—

that all of this is safely tracked
from space, indeed,
to be lost is ultimately

economic, those people
under the rubble assumed
their cell phones

would save them, an island
held in place
with mirrors, they

can hear you, they
can see you, they
just can’t help you.
That’s Peter Culley (with probably the spookiest 9/11 ref one’ll ever see or need) in the second half or so of a piece call’d “The Fourth War,” being the twentieth part (of twenty-three) of a sequence titled “Dowsing for Dummies” that leads off Culley’s phenomenal new book, The Age of Briggs & Stratton (New Star Books, 2008). Just to lodge the words into place within an even bigger—quietly and astutely burgeoning—structure: the book’s subtitle is (Hammertown Book 2), and continues, thus, Culley’s terrific 2003 book of that name. The back cover of Hammertown pictured what seem’d a crude and corroded gear-wheel, with each of its teeth flinging off a title in a centrifugal fit: in the wheel’s center one read: “Writer and art critic Peter Culley lives in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.” Terribly apt design for a poem or series of poems that here, in its second “installment”—the mind behind the writing is too restless and indefatigable and curious for the word—seems suddenly and absolutely capable of most defiantly rippling out through the various juggernauts of the twentieth century’s collapse and into the present to encompass the brute history and giddy trials of a whole finicky continent, and beyond. And Culley’s range of cultural reference and keenest renegade curiosity seem clearly up for the task.

“Dowsing for Dummies,” with its dedication “in memoriam / Robert Creeley” and epigraph touting the raw-boned White House misfit Andrew Jackson—in Albert Gallatin’s words “. . . a tall, lank, uncouth looking person, long hair hanging over his face, a queue down his back tied with an eel skin . . .”—explores recent (and not-so) American history with the tamp’d down precision of Lorine Niedecker, the rumpled reach of Charles Olson. Look at the pleasures (and truth-talking) here in the tenth part, “Last of the Mohicans”:
Good country this
for lazy fellows

(wrote Wilson from

Kentucky); they plant
corn, turn their
pigs into the

woods and in
the autumn feed upon
corn and pork.

They lounge about
the rest of the year.

But sometime between

then and now,
despite flip books,
Jack Spicer bootlegs,

Miltown, Motown, Milton
the race of tavern
loafers, customs-house flaneurs

wall holder-uppers
& Virginia eye-gougers
died out, wagons

full of keeners,
enthusiasts, stereoptical
estimators & paint-chip

matchers darkened
the passes, planting apples
for roughage not cider.
Which is affable and just. Which strikes one “of the era” (Culley, b. 1958; Latta, b. 1954) as full of honorable deft (“right”) particulars. An unprepossessing and various sampling is integral to Culley’s work. He’s a magpie, a devourer (and savourer), undoing the tatter’d embroidery out of the dull’d back panels of Time, retrieving the shiniest threads, the brightly color’d. Though the work is not by any means so programmatic as suggest’d by the note to “Homage to David Holzman,” an eight-part sequence, it partakes readily (and pertinently) of the info-glut. The note reads:
In Jim McBride’s 1967 fake documentary DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY there is a scene where Holzman (L. M. Kit Carson) mounts his 16mm camera in front of his television sometime before the evening news, firing off one frame every time the shot changed until sign-off. On film this lasts for a second or two but slowed down on VHS it became a clickable photo album of mid-60s TV. These timed readings are offered in that spirit.
As that “spirit” is discrete (“one frame”) and ambling (end-stopped only by “sign-off”), so Culley’s riffs. An inventory uncovers “the head of Greer Garson / acidly advises Joan Crawford”; “Michener’s coffee-table USA”; “Let me put a dime / on the tone arm of / that for you, dad”; “Ektachrome gullies”; “riot footage / with nosegays of rifle fire / & wreaths of red wire” (all out of “26.04.06           1133-1147 HRS”). In another sequence, “Life History,” Culley works up material out of Arthur Cleveland Bent’s great ornithological Life Histories, the standard studies of North American birds, put out by the Smithsonian between 1910 and 1954. So, one reads (under “Eastern Sparrow Hawk”):
                    . . . sometimes
      with a precise adjustment

to the force of the wind,
      it stops the beating of its wings

and hangs as if suspended
      in complete repose and equilibrium,

seeming to move not a hair’s breadth
      from its position.
Which balances and hangs said kestrel itself by the lines’ own deliberately placed pinions, above the field’s own plow ruts of (rework’d) prose.

The cover of The Age of Briggs and Stratton pictures a shabby looking vehicle, what we used to call a “dirt bike,” a sputtery thing about the size of a beagle, or a little bigger, one pint-sized boy after another’d straddle and crouch and rev to buzz around the gravel pit. And, verso, other—“small gas engines” is how they call’d it in the schools—remnants of a two-stroke paradise (or hell, there’s a row of lawn mowers, too) for kids, pre-electronic everything, pre-Game Boy, pre-“organized” everything. The heart of Culley’s work is elegy—and how quickly it is needed!—that is to say, how change’s own pure animal velocity knocks the wind out of us, leaves us either blindly welcoming the “new” as it broadsides us, or, more grandly, trying to take the measure of what’s gone. Culley is constantly noting what’s “gone” (“who remembers Bobby Sands / & Frederick Forsyth paperbacks // & Walken / in the snow”; “Dimes for the parking meter / in bolwls at the Bank of / Montreal downtown (now / gone, the Harewood branch gone) those little dusty mints / as we left the taverna / just as everyone’s back was turned”; “the age of Laing gave way to / the age of Foucault / while we slept”; or, “a song we all know / encourages wordless grunting / suffused with emotion & / the heavy wine of childhood.”)

The Age of Briggs and Stratton is a big book—long and with the sense of some big drafty echoey structure, a grange, a firehall—though its parts move with a lithe grace, neatly filling up and out, using the available floor showman-style. Which is to say, look how Culley cuts a figure (in “Crazy Rhythm,” out of “Pages from the Children’s Encyclopedia”):
To speed up
or slow down at will
like that
like Anita no matter
the lyric’s ‘arcs’
or who you’re playing with
or in what vehicle careering
depends on the services
over decades
of a drummer—
Roy Haynes & Sassy
would be another
example—capable of lowering
six whirring brushes
onto a linseed-darkened
dream sideboard
while defending a perogy
supper from a platoon
of gibbons—imagine
having such a pedal to press!
messing with the band
would just be the start—
to feel the tin-pan-alley world
snapping like a green twig
but how tough after
negotiating now that speech
is king again the cabless dawn.

Peter Culley
(Photograph by Ben Friedlander)