20110601

Jean Vengua


“what is this place we are now?”: Dion Farquhar’s Feet First



Feet First
Dion N. Farquhar
Evening Street Press, Dublin Ohio, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9820105-7-0
$15.00 + p&h


Reading Dion Farquhar’s Feet First, I am reminded (uncomfortably aware) that I am a Californian, raised among its sunny and future-oriented populace; these are the people who chose the “Terminator” for governor, and still can’t seem to believe that they are completely in over their heads in economic debt. Some of this is myth; some of this is true. But it’s a trope in the book, this turning from one coast to another, casting back and forth in time, and in place.

And even though Farquhar lives in California now, the native urban New Yorker looks out on this sunny landscape with the eyes of a northerner, a survivor who won’t give up her resistant past, wonders about all the lessons not learned, and, as a mother of twins, about what we leave the following generations. The section headings in her book reveal this three-part preoccupation: “Inheritance,” “Counter Culture,” “Legacy.” I remember the era her poems continually return to—but the East Coast has been for me mostly a foreign country. In “Fifties,” her memories return to nostalgic objects of childhood and the irony of adulthood:
All I remember
(being younger)
is reading comic books
and trading baseball cards.
What put me over the line
was bomb shelters—
your parents and
siblings together
in one room
eating canned food
for years.
Brigadoon.
Generations for her are measured out in products: GameBoy and Playstation, Junior Mints, Life Savers, “The candy was fabulous. / Something had to be…” in a past that seems long ago, and yet the mystification, the schtick, still animates the products and icons of the present.

There were similar products in my childhood; later they morphed into candles, hallucinogens, and music that lost its 5 ½ minute strait jacket and sailed off into extended play; the alternative inventions and interventions of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which many of us ditched for corporate boardrooms, cubicles, mortgages, families, and babies—our own version of the “Fifties.”

What goes around comes around. In “Meta-Local I: 1964,” she watches history’s all-too-familiar repetitions, looping through her present day life like a tape recording (the void, silence gaping between events) “rows of cops with plastic shields                snarling dogs,” the dichotomy of her parents’ lives, reading Readers’ Digest, Ellery Queen, while the “world ripped wide open." Like me, she read her way through it, accompanied by Hendrix, Joplin, and Joan Baez. How else to navigate those dissolving roads?

New York was home, yet also a “cemetery.” She doesn’t fall for nostalgia; Feet First rushes headlong into now, even as the past leaches into present and future tenses, each poem scattered across the page (the lines exploded, flung), as in “Overdetermined: 1968”:

                I past
                                                             threw my present                               so fast
margins        mistaken
                                                                                           for prairies
the future                positioned
                by twenty
                          a double-edged                          heritage                           of negation

                                                                    (though still tied to time and place)
Always a loss, the indignity of having been “fucked by capital: Tampax.” NYC is after all the home of “Mad Men,” city of cynical hype, commerce, and a dogged work ethic betrayed. Farquhar’s words could be an indictment against Whitman and Olson’s confident, expansive interface, the magic of national cathedrals and “ecstasy of overproduction”—she’s not buying it. Yet, in “Interface” her words string out across the page, words parsed and stitched to her own beat, carrying news, or the sound of it: “like Bach at Buchenwald / past, present, and suture.” And somehow finding herself living on the other side of the continent, the West; she joins its multitude, but with a jaundiced eye:

                                              what you can’t stand
                                                                                                          in Sunny California
                excuses:
                                                                                           They did the best they could.
1969: the year my son was born; the year she met her friend Peter in a protest march. 1996, the year I began teaching, the year I learned Middle English; the year her friend, Peter, died; friendship, love, folded into the broken, searching lines. By this time, she’s married, and living in California. The solidarity of friendship, the void of death, of language. In “Vocabulary Drill” she counts more losses as words are trimmed, hacked, “charing on the spit of bellicosity” in the name of “education,” each word ranked and filed.

Let’s backtrack a minute, to the Serpent’s entry in “Eats of Eden”:
In the end, she carries
the apple aloft, observed
in mid-sentence, mid-section
multiplying meanings
like gods
                (“the man is become as one of us”)
fruitful free play
against the grain
the ground of work.
Around this serpent and its gifts, my perception of the book revolves, and hopes, while Farquhar plays with, reverses creation stories, monotheists in “Dog Gone,” all the “nomads                with books” hauling out their authoritative texts.

Her language spews out the burgeoning, relentless energy of the media, of hype and narrative—I can barely keep up with it—as in “Running Commentary,” “ferrying us along fast and fictive / many tiny crafts, blacks in dashikis / women in pants, graffiti tags our cities / parties to difference, endless mingling / coursing ahead, running commentary / into the breach.” Yet I follow, remembering now a common language spanning two coasts.

Further along, we are well past “the middle of our lives,” in the midst of families, floating on a “cybersea” and watching horror films. Bela Lugosi calls for zombies, or worse, according to George Orwell: “We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves” (1984), the horror of economic collapse, as “the Invisible Hand bitch-slapped the economy.”

I think of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, his attempt to shock his audiences back to base reality, and to find witnesses; Farquhar simply narrates the scene before her eyes: the shock and awe, the jumpers, the torture rooms, the President’s qualifying statements, “there will be setbacks.” Yet in the midst of “Collapse” there are heroes, too:

resistance fighters in the Holland tunnel
hackers fanning out from Silicon Valley
shooting the locks off doors of foreclosed homes
a situationist general strike spreading north
               solidarity sans essence
Friends and food, solidarity and wine. The good things: theatre, Bloody Marys, feasts, even love and home.

Time is prominent in this book, which is to say, loss, the sense of things slipping: past, present, and future. The language reaches out, sometimes painfully, sometimes in ironic humor, to span the mind and heart’s grasp of change, the engineers’ machines and their inevitable attraction to organism, body, and blood, to colonize. Farquhar has seen and experienced much; still questioning, disoriented, angry, she looks on, a jaded Cassandra, in “Time of Oughts” (“1. Before Nine Eleven)”:
The past’s a mixed bag
aristocrats (versus elites)
                                                                            not the glory that was Greece
                                                                            or the grandeur of Rome
                                                                            but there are gains—
                                                                                           better sound, better dope
                                                                                           though engineering rules.

Eleusinian mysteries (versus fundamentalism)
what is this place we are now?
Homeland Security State
and state paranoia
From Silicon Valley, from the Bay Area, home of The Whole Earth Catalogue, I hear again her scorn: They did the best they could, dribbles out. We’re trying…are we?

The book turns on choice, in my opinion. In “Choice Bits,” Farquhar asks what real choice do we have, as women, as men, among the propagating products, and “amidst endless care-taking / the old, the young, the sick / and daily life speed-up / shop, cook, clean, care”? How to survive, let alone thrive, amid so much that is useless, detritus? Her words expand, contract, drop out of sight, hug the left margin, as if here, on the page, there is, at least, some choice, a white space, blank page, on which “like gods,” to engage in “fruitful free play / against the grain.”

Choice is everywhere and nowhere
                               diet or regular
                               DSL or dial-up
                               ATM or credit
                               anti-depressants or libido

The Time of Oughts
the next millennium
is here and we’re in it
up to our eyeballs

. . .

So let us open the door
to the undead of our desires
antiphonal swing
a solidarity forever
living full the lives we’re in

with all the horror
                               & the beauty
                                                             & the loss
be cheered by other things:
                the choice bits
& loves and passions
                               big and small
and friendships
                surrounded
by Sisyphian smarts
Is it disingenuous of me to end on an optimistic note, Californian that I am? Do we both have our own versions of a utopia in mind? Like Farquhar, I’ve pushed that boulder, would like to think I’ve developed some “smarts” on the road, and that I will land “feet first,” but nothing’s guaranteed.


Jean Vengua has a Ph.D. in English from U.C. Berkeley. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Prau, and a chapbook, The Aching Vicinities. With Mark Young, she co-edited the First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. In the mid 1990s, Elizabeth H. Pisares and Jean Vengua formed Tulitos Press and published and edited the Debut: the Making of a Filipino American Film by Gene Cajayon and John Manal Castro, and The Flipside, by Rod Pulido. Her poetry and essays have been published in many journals and anthologies. She currently lives and works in Elkhorn, CA, near Salinas. She maintains a website, and several blogs, including http://jeanvengua.wordpress.com.
 
 
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