We want things to be simple, but we know they aren’t, probably never were, and chances are will get only more messy with time. What’s a young poet to do, but try and take some control? Adam Fitzgerald’s first book, The Late Parade (2013) came with blurbs from John Ashbery, Dorothy Lasky, Timothy Donnelly and Harold Bloom, which covered one corner of the waterfront. His second book, George Washington: Poems, just out from Liveright, has six blurbs: Claudine Rankine; Colm Tóibín; Eileen Myles; Samuel R. Delany; Cathy Hong Park. This distinguished and diverse group covers another stretch of the waterfront, but, as Fitzgerald must surely know, you can’t satisfy all the people all the time.
If I didn’t know Fitzgerald, this barrage of blurbs would have turned me off. I understand the dilemma: you want to be taken seriously in a world that pauses to celebrate Margot Robbie’s latest revealing number while complaining about poetry that is inaccessible. I remember a young poet who wanted me to write something he could put on the back of his first book. After I said I would, he asked if I would pronounce him “the best poet of his generation.” I demurred, saying such statements are silly and sad. The great thing about George Washington is that it doesn’t need any blurbs. It can make its own way in the world.
Fitzgerald was an interesting poet right from the start. The Late Parade is full of twists and turns. You never quite know where you will end up, which still bothers lots of people, but it shouldn’t. It’s not like you are on a rollercoaster taking you to Hell. One poem begins: “I didn’t always have this douchebag haircut.” Another one begins: “I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds.” Any book that can span such a gamut of language without stumbling over itself has got my interest. The ambition is clear, but – and isn’t this the test? – what persisted, held this reader’s attention, was the music, collisions of image and sound, low and high. Here is the opening of “To a Shepherd”:
May you have rings of coral groves, and all the bread
that proves man does not live on love alone.
In the section of “Notes” that comes at the end of The Late Parade, the reader learns:
This poem is indebted to W. H. Auden’s sonnet sequence “In Time of War” and adapts a phrase from Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage as well as a letter of Emily Dickinson’s, which begins “I hear robins a great way off,” written to her cousins Louise and Francis Norcross, circa April 1873.
Fitzgerald’s “Notes” tell us that the poems are mash-ups woven out of appropriated lines. And yet, they don’t feel that way; the seams and stitches don’t show. The poet may be appropriating lines, phrases, and vocabulary, but it never sounds that way. The poems ranged from opulent to stark, and from abstract to representational. The Late Parade was, as the master appropriator Ted Berrigan would say, a “terrific” book. Constructed as it was out of certain methodologies, the issue the poet faced about his approach was simple enough. Would he make it into a style?
Fitzgerald answers our curiosity in the very first poem in George Washington, “The Lordly Hudson.” It takes its name from the title poem of Paul Goodman’s The Lordly Hudson: Collected Poems, which Fitzgerald’s poem declares “was one/of my favorite poems, its serenade and arcane grandeur/somewhat inspiring then/Still, the replacement version/doesn’t really do much for my brain’s chronic/synaptic degradation.” The reader encounters a “Replacement me” and a “replacement self” in this poem. We live in the simulacrum, far from the everyday world that Goodman inhabited, and none of us quite know what to make of it.
The shift in tone from “grandeur” to “degradation” is one of the registers running through this book. It is one thing to uncreatively massage previously existing material, and another to make substitutions of substitutions seem fresh and even funny. The second poem “The Oregon Trail” is based on the eponymous early computer game (“SPACE BAR to continue”) which, in turn, is a weird transformation of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey,” which now seems possible only in a simulated world. Fitzgerald doesn’t lament this loss, nor does he go all nostalgia on us. In contrast to The Late Parade, in which he seems drawn to appropriating from literary texts, here he is open to using the kind of junk you find on the Internet: advertising notices; chat rooms full of disgruntled, angry idiots; an app that will make a list out of any information you feed it (Walt Whitman on LSD); trivia quizzes and game shows; blogs by hypochondriacs, conspiracy theorists, and experts on love or animals or nutrition (take your pick).
One poem, which is in all caps, begins “THIS IS WHERE THE SERPENT HIDES.” Another opens with “The lawn grows into topple flamingos and bowling balls.” This isn’t surrealism, though the poet is clearly informed by it, but realism, the America of Jeff Koons, gated communities, and coded hate speech, “where “Metroid/and Mega Man surface as a sweet debris that rusts/your summery prewar factories.” Some poems are led by sound, from mellifluous to cacophonous. There are all kinds of list poems, including one that names Catwoman, Rosalind Krauss, Gomer Pyle, and Wagga Wagga in passing. In another poem, Billy Graham and Mike Tyson appear together.
More than collaging together different forms of language – which is pretty much what computer speak has become – Fitzgerald is attuned to the nuances of anger, frustration, know-it-all pronouncements, cockamamie summations, come-ons and call-outs. The language of everyday life might be tired, recycled, shrill, familiar, deranged, creepy, and cliché, but that doesn’t deter Fitzgerald. He is determined to make it, if not new, at least unexpected. To his credit, he doesn’t try to be charming or lovable, nor does he dwell on traumas as if he were the only one who has experienced them. This isn’t the latest manifestation of confessional poetry, animated by the all-knowing, all-suffering, deeply sensitive “I.” Haven’t we gotten past that privileged position by now?
When he does write a poem in which every line begins with “I,” as in “First-Person Shooter,” the lines we read are like these:
I upchuck missionaries.
I loathe those who loathe meat.
I follow Court TV.
I slump in spandex on a patio.
I feel post-gender at the moment.
As Fitzgerald tells us in a prose poem, “Walt Whitman Shops formerly known as Walt Whitman Mall is a commercial center located in South Huntington, New York, on Route 110.” Nothing is sacred anymore, but no need to worry: “A statue in honor of the poet, along with new restrooms, automated doors as well as canopies for several bus stops on the south side of the mall, is forthcoming.” Can’t do without automated doors and canopies now, can we?