by Mike Puican
Published by Wave Books, 2010 | 176 pages
Poetry, at its best, is a form of ventriloquism. The poet who addresses the world expects it to answer her back, even if it answers in her own voice, using her own words, and—as is so often the case— has little to add to the conversation. Yet this verbal reticence of the world has not always been welcomed by the ventriloquizing poet. It has more often been avoided, denied, or buried under varying degrees of personification and pathos. It is rare to find a poet who can admit, without losing face, that the voice of the world is often their own. It is still more rare to find one who can do so without losing our interest.
CAConrad is one such poet. His latest work, The Book of Frank, collects sixteen years worth of his semi-autobiographical “Frank” poems into one volume, which includes previously unpublished poems and a new afterword by Eileen Myles. Frank is Conrad’s alter ego in the vein of John Berryman’s “Huffy Henry” of The Dream Songs, a third person embodiment of Conrad’s psychic unease. Yet Conrad would probably resent any comparison to Berryman’s “confessional” (Conrad’s word) poetics, and Frank is no strait-forward autobiography. The book is a collection of short poems which lead us from Frank’s difficult beginnings (when he is born, his father exclaims with dismay, “my daughter has no cunt!”) to his ostensible end, as a suicide who returns to earth as a goldfish and is subsequently fed to his wife’s pet piranhas.
Like Conrad, who grew up both gay and poor in rural Pennsylvania, Frank is at war with the material world. He is a “small package” in the arms of a nurse, a daughter without a cunt. Conrad’s satirical commentary on gender identity and queerness—which persists throughout the book— is no less forceful when coupled with the absurd. Although the book opens with the hilarious reversal of a father appalled by his son’s “absent” genitalia, we are nonetheless caught off-guard when the father’s shock leads him to thus characterize a world that is and is not our own, a world that is skewed yet spinning on familiar axes of logic:
“why doesn’t my son have a cunt!?
what has happened!?
what a WICKED world!
on its one
This world is very much Conrad’s own: one fraught with Kafkaesque anxieties and comical Freudian demons. A giant consumes a park bench with her vagina. The sex organs of Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac are served for dinner. Yet such absurdities are couched in a surrealism that is unrelenting in its subtlety and emotional force. It is not weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Conrad’s surreality is always recognizable, always just close enough to its origins in the real. It is not a distraction in these poems, but a way to allow space for the world to exist in all its variance. It is, for lack of a better word, honest. At a time in which surrealism for many “screams novice” (as Myles so aptly puts it in the afterward), or even boredom with the world as it is or can be written, Conrad’s surrealism reads as an act of love. Frank’s world is strange, yet he takes great pains to anchor us in it. In one simple yet pivotal poem, we are told:
Frank hammerscarrotsall day
the earthcan’tleave us
At the appearance of the word “us,” the reader is drawn into the frame of the poem. It’s a simple technique, bare-boned in its delivery, and yet we accept it. Why? This may be the central question in Conrad’s work. He has a knack for being straightforward without being boring, for being absurd without arousing suspicion. There is metaphor at work in these poems, yet it never feels as though something is being coded or obscured. Frank hammers down the earth using carrots for pegs, and the earth doesn’t leave us. It works. Yet it occurs to us, now, that the earth could leave us, or we it. This threat persists along with others: the threat of violence from Frank’s potentially abusive parents, the threat of authority to sexual freedom, and the overarching threat of mortality and loss. And then there is his poverty.
Conrad treats the fact of poverty indirectly. It is not named in the book, yet its presence emerges in the subtle interactions between the human and material realms. There is a transactional nature to his family. It seems they are caught in a web of value, and their attempts to break free only end in a fissure in the real—a break in the very logic of the world. In one poem, Frank’s brother appears as a two-dimensional cartoon, who can’t talk because, as his mother tells him, “we can’t afford a screenwriter’s fee.” Frank’s poverty may lie at the root of his discomfort with the material world, whose demands on him are insatiable. As a child, it seems his greatest weakness is his inability to turn into an object. In one pointed yet understated incident, Frank’s father takes him to a child pornographer. No comment is made here on abuse, nor is there any allusion to the father’s motivation or the son’s reaction. The only hint of their relationship comes when Frank’s father confuses him with a five dollar bill. “After lunch,” we are told:
the five dollar bill for
jumping into the
For Conrad, who grew up helping his mother sell flowers on the side of the highway, poverty is a state which demands our very humanity. Yet Frank, the child of poverty, does everything he can to turn this situation on its head. Instead of becoming an object, he animates his world, all the while insisting on the kind of playfulness that Conrad holds dear.
“don’t tell me it wasthe wind!” Frank shouts
“THAT TREEWAVEDAT ME!”
Critics have been quick to cast Conrad in the light of an outsider artist, one who is delightfully free of academic absorption and the scourge of MFA programs. His official biography (which reads “CAConrad is the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift”) certainly supports this characterization. Conrad was raised in rural Pennsylvania and “escaped” to Philadelphia in 1986, where he quickly became involved in the gay scene and met a number of artists and writers, including writer and publisher Gil Ott, who soon became something of a mentor to him. Ott was at that time publishing writers like Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman in his magazine Paper Air, and through him Conrad quickly found his contemporaries. He is now a highly recognizable figure in Philadelphia poetry circles: hosting poetry readings, designing and leading “(Soma)tic poetry” workshops, giving tarot readings (he’s interested in the occult) and writing with and about fellow poets in the group blog PhillySound.
Conrad’s work has been getting broader public attention since the publication of his first full collection (Deviant Propulsion) in 2006. Eileen Myles describes him as “the poet who always changes the room he enters,” and Ron Silliman has named The Book of Frank as one of the few new books he “devoured from beginning to end” in 2010.
He may have begun as an outsider, but CA Conrad is no lone writer operating at the fringes of the scene. He is deeply embedded in a community of writers and artists, and believes in working closely with his contemporaries. As he says in one interview: “All my amazing, genius poet friends mean more to me than any of the dead poets so many spend so much time and money studying. I prefer the living to live by and learn from and always shall.” While this may speak to his independence as a writer, there should be no doubt that Conrad has studied–and mastered–his craft. Here is a poet who can conjure up his predecessors with unparalleled humor and precision, allowing them to open their mouths only to interject a new, living voice.
“would you signmy book Mr. Poe?”Frank asks the pile of bonesamidst shovels of dirt
“why certainly youngman” answers Frank in adifferent voice (50)
Conrad’s ventriloquism has an effortless quality to it. The voice that emerges from these poems is remarkably free of the grating tones of poetic persona, or the distracting ciphers of veiled autobiography. The poems are not, properly speaking, polyvocal. Yet one senses an openness behind them that is hard to characterize. Frank, it seems, is merely a conduit, and the voice that animates him could just as easily belong to a tree, a banknote, or a pile of bones. It could even, at times, be our own. Conrad has created a intriguing book of poems, original, lucid and accessible in the best sense of the word. To read them is to enter into his world.
Mary Wilson is a writer/poet living in Providence, RI, where she is currently pursuing an MFA in literary arts at Brown University.