Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Book Review: Rob Plath A Bellyful Anarchy (Epic Rites Press, 2009) 302 pages
In doing research for Rob Plath's latest 2017 releases IN ROT WE TRUST (graphic poems with Janne Karlsson) and Swallowtude (novel), I noticed my 2010 review of Plath's seminal work A Bellyful of Anarchy was no longer available on BM. I wrote the review in Brisbane where I was helping a friend who was recovering from major back surgery. I repost it here for those unfamiliar with this outstanding poetry collection:
Plath is a significant figure in the American small press and I found his first full collection of poetry 'a bellyful of anarchy' to be highly accessible and entertaining. This is a hugely ambitious book written in free verse. The book is divided into nine sections with each loosely focused on a central theme exploring many of Plath’s favourite topics: death, how bent a species we are, growing up, cats, writing about his poetics and the usefulness of his middle finger in expressing all of the above.
The book’s title ‘a bellyful of anarchy’ refers to Plath’s underlying intent. He questions the illusory values of the American Dream and imagines a world where 2x2= nothing. In ‘laughing dust’ he mentions that his truest desire’ is for his poems ‘to enter the blood of/ some readers/ egg them on/ to chaos.’ In ‘verbal demolition’ he expresses a desire to write books that are ‘true pamphlets of chaos’. Plath’s revels in the chaotic and constantly challenges the reader to confront the reality of existence- to see the skeleton beneath the ‘torn flap’ of humanity. He flings the reader into the abyss and ‘like brain surgery’ buzzes the top of our heads off and leaves us flailing in a world gone wrong. Plath provides no answers but points us to where ‘the human meat hooks’ and ‘that battered ball of worms’ can be discovered. In ‘verbal demolition’ Plath concludes:
i wanna write books that make people ignite
my pages, smear the ashes beneath their eyes
like war-paint & go out to scalp
the false wig from society’s vain skull
Plath’s main strength as an imaginative writer lies in his mastery of metaphor and he deliberately sets out to carve his sentences into the reader’s flesh. In ‘Illuminations from the bottom of the meat carousel’ he aptly sums up his ideology:
these sentences are scalpels & pliers
performing body-length incisions
& peeling the trouble-making skin off
revealing the red striped musculature
then finally the shining skeleton
In his writing Plath metaphorically strips back all pretense and enters a dark world where he explores suffering and the underlying certainty of death. He appears to see everything as possessing a hidden reality and its revelation is the only thing that truly matters to him. In the compelling poem ‘incoming nails’ the speaker explains how the torture of everyday life is preferable to living the lies of others:
a lot of days I feel I am w/in
these thin walls
my flesh ripped by the sharp points
of incoming nails
but somehow it’s better than rubbing shoulders
w/the crowds of perfumed corpses
walking the streets.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is ‘pistol-whipping my angel’ where Plath furthers his nihilistic and existential views. Life to Plath is ‘mostly a murder fest’ viewed by an indifferent, taunting and sometimes evil god. In ‘mother’, reflecting on the loss of his mother, the persona of the poem, presumably Plath, morosely concludes:
a good god would have spared
us these unliftable burdens.
i stare at the umbra-
the blackest part of
it is not yr departure i see
but rather god’s eye.
jet & full of nothing.
In ‘god is a bad shoemaker’ Plath playfully mocks the concept of god and the idea that ‘god’ would have created such a tortured and grotesque being as himself. Similarly, in ‘god is a drunken tailor’ he posits:
god, yr a bad tailor
were you drunk
when you sketched
my earthly clothes?
Plath views religion as ‘the vatican lenses’, as another obstruction society throws up to shield people from realising who they really are. In ‘the cataracts of conformity’ the speaker of the poem falls into a ditch and upon looking up:
everything was illuminated
i’d found what the
world was keeping me from
i was my own god
In one of the book’s most powerful poems ‘let there be snow’ this image of the poet being a god is furthered. In describing the preparation and horrific aftermath of an abortion Plath writes, ‘just she & I alone in this universe/ two gods unmaking a life’.
Despite the dark words of despair there is always an uplifting sense of joy which derives from Plath’s constant playfulness with language. Behind the noose and the rotting flesh there is always Plath the magician juggling the alphabet, devising new and striking ways to express himself and the world he inhabits. Some of his best poems appear to work randomly, as a sort of personal quest to intuitively develop interesting combinations of words and images. In ‘for a friend who is feeling deranged’ Plath starts with a playful couplet, ‘play jumprope/ w/yr colon’ and the poem quickly evolves, skipping from one set of juxtaposed ideas to the next in a smooth transition.
Another personal favourite is ‘the universe is a rape baby’ which progresses as a series of apparently random but interlocking thoughts. In this poem Plath applies his chaos theory to the max. The result is a profound and hilarious poem. Each stanza is an experiment, flaying the air, attempting to make sense of it all. Characteristically, Plath has the answer, tongue in cheek:
the big bang was the result
of god molesting the innocent void
the universe is a rape-baby
Despite the overall brilliance of Plath’s book, the collection has some minor blemishes. For one, its size is excessive. The book could have been reduced by fifty pages or so without detracting from its over-arching concerns. Many of the poems appear to be shuffled variations of others, much like a jazz musician restating an idea through improvisation. I would have also preferred a larger font size. Like most readers I’m used to reading size 12. The font in this book is actually size 8. It was chosen by Epic Rites Press to keep the book at a manageable 300 pages. Shipping costs would have otherwise been prohibitive.
The book is filled with dozens of strong, highly memorable poems but one section ‘the solitaries & the swarming’ was particularly weak, and contributed to an uneven feel to the collection. Cats can metaphorically provide a counterpoint to the human condition, but I quickly lost interest in this section despite living with many over decades.
Plath is a talented and uncompromising poet. I admire his hatred of ambition, of capitalism, of calendars, how he sees ‘skyscrapers as hell’s erections’. I love his meta-fictional explorations into language, his clever dark plunging of the soul, his splashing of bile onto the page. But what keeps the 40 year-old New York City poet resiliently humping the alphabet? He answers this defiantly in ‘the golden zero sutra’:
so how does one keep
from being frayed alive?
how does one remain
in one’s body, untouched
by god, calendars, clocks?
but determined manhates ambition by flailing yr fists
by stabbing the air
w/ yr middle fingers
Buy it here: http://www.epicrites.org/