Mark Scroggin's poems are whiplashing back and forth inside my skull. He calls them, in his new book, Torture Garden, "Naked City Pastorelles." (Buy Mark's book here, via Small Press Distribution.) They are perfectly shaped, formally elegant little explosions of violence, despair, wit, and observation, each contained within a strict stanza of seven four-to-six beat lines. The idiom within each poem ranges from overheard conversation to French philosophy, from feces and spit to classical music. This strategy, in which dark, energetic expression is confined within strict bounds, alludes to Naked City, John Zorn's experimental jazz/thrashcore band from the early 1990s,
especially their album Torture Garden.
The "hardcore miniatures" on this album are, like Scroggins' poems (with whom they share many titles), tiny explosions of chaos, some only 30 seconds long, combining genres as disparate as jazz, classical, country, grindcore and punk. In this the Naked City album is itself paying homage to an earlier Torture Garden, an 1899 French Decadent novel by Octave Mirbeau. A satirical attack on the Dreyfus Affair, the book combines found text from several different sources and features a sadist/hysteric named Clara who achieves orgasm by watching scenes of torture in a beautiful garden. Allegory, bien sûr:
"Ah, yes! the Torture Garden! Passions, appetites, greed, hatred, and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism, and religion: these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering."
This is a tradition that's all about pushing the limits, shocking us out of sentimental illusion into Enlightenment forms of disappointed knowledge. Scroggins turns the screw one more time by calling his poems "pastorelles:" "A pastourelle is a simple poem set in a rustic scene, graceful and trifling in tone, describing the meeting of a man of culture and an ingenue, generally a shepherdess." See the shepherdess on the cover of the Naked City album? Yes, that's her: "The motif of the young girl scolded or beaten by her parents...on account of her lover is most frequent in the pastourelle." To Scroggins' credit he avoids reproducing the misogyny of this tradition in his own poems, but he takes energy from its violent flouting of conventions of innocence, symbolized for him by the garden:
Luminous the division and joining
bone remains sliding screens of
landscape blanched alphabets les lumières
history revealed by pathology blesséd
art thou annunciation arrowheads catching
eyes vertical shaping water love
perdures contingencies of perception endured.
This erudite mash-up of Enlightenment ("lumière") wisdom, Christian pietism, and garden design (vertical shaping water) testifies to the failure of any of these to console us for the losses (perdures) that can only be endured. Art such as this that pulls away the curtain of artifice to reveal the powerless spectre behind it rides a fine paradoxical line; of course the careful "shaping" of the poem itself gives us a kind of pleasure, perhaps a painful one as its purposeful obscurity assaults our ignorance and its rapidly shifting linguistic registers knock us on one side of the head and then the other like an anvil dropped on Wile E. Coyote. (Naked City was inspired by the composer of many of the Warner Brothers cartoons, and the cartoon violence is apparent in Scroggins' volume as well.) Despite their attention to ugliness these poems can't help being beautiful. The final stanza in this astonishingly accomplished volume could serve as its ars poetica:
"Gob of Spit"
Repeat flip rinse fist smear
shout move twist shift grimace
wince scrub dilate disarrange dismember
ravel translate offload unravel tear
stroke penetrate gesture finger retrace
retract gesticulate lick scale gut
retrace ejaculate rage respond repeat.