A Complex Bravery by Robert Lipton

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sharon Dubiago's thoughts on "Complex Bravery"

Rod Lipton’s poems are “like a wind/blowing through a
bombed-out house” and he knows “who that bomber is.”
He writes from the consciousness of the bombed and
“the living narrator.” World weary, grieving,
cynical, ironic, raging, from the real to the surreal,
A Complex Bravery is of the drek of our world gone
mad, “the features of erotic despair.” “This is where
I keep my mother’s love.” But “[e]ven after all
this/there is singing about paradise.” “Not Me in
Nablus” is one of the important poems of this era.
Sharon Doubiago, Hard Country, Body & Soul, etc.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A note on Complex Bravery from Ilya Kaminsky

This is the book of childhood, love and war. Lipton’s
poems are a gang that takes no prisoners: his voice is
direct, his tone is clear, his diction is ironic—but
his irony is earned and felt-through. The manuscript
is a book of elegies that refuse to go mourning
without at least a little bit of protest. Whatever his
loss is, Lipton’s voice's always quirky and alive,
always ready to report the world straight to us,
without patronizing, for “this battle is parent by
parent / and I have homework to do.”

The battle begins in childhood with teenagers who “had
kittens / and large noble gas filled balloons” and “
would tie the balloons / with hemp twine / to the hind
legs of each / kitten and release the completed /
unit.” We watched, the author says “We watched / as
long as we could.”

Mother is a heavy presence in this book. The speaker’s
relationship with her is that of almost unrequited
love – passion, contempt, adoration, pity. And, yes,
irony. Irony, in Lipton’s hands turns into something
different than a mere device used by many of his
contemporaries. Searching to define himself, Lipton is
writing his family poems in style and time of what
must be now the fourth or fifth generation of
first-person narrative confessional or
post-confessional (or whatever you wish to name it)
poetry. And yet, something is utterly different in his
own brand of it. This is not your regular “Shit
happened to me when I was a kid. I healed. I write to
you about it now” kind of a poem. Instead, Lipton
seems to tell us: “this is what life is like in
America today, in a private family unit in the middle
of suburbia; I give you this life on a page; you do
with it what you want”. This sort of honesty of
narrative action in itself becomes larger than simply
one man’s story.

In the best poems (“Water Shed, Step Mommy,” for
instance), Lipton exposes “the grammar and discipline
of boredom” of contemporary American life. But in it,
he is also able to find passion (“This is the
iconography I can worship on all fours “) of tone. And
as far as his tone is concerned, Lipton rarely
hesitates. His portraits are both surreal and
strangely realistic. His characters clearly over-react
(“He would have shot / his dick off/ shot grandpa's
dick off/ an entire platoon/ of grandpas’ dicks”),
they turn into symbols (“A complex bravery/ lighting
him /like a Christmas tree), and yet they remain
strangely, grittily recognizable and believable. We do
not doubt their pain; we know it. Our “knowledge” is
dependent on his honesty of tone, yes—but also on the
angle from which his visual camera moves. Thus, we
observe his mother, a victim of stroke, the way she
would observe herself: “noticing her food like a poet/
her one good hand elegant in its motions / her frozen
right side, watching.” There is a certain sense of
foreknowledge to his remembering. He does not just say
“this happened” – he says: “I am given 75 years to
escape / while Grandma Lena bakes / chocolate chip
cookies / with walnuts in a kitchen / stage left.
Audience members / are allowed a bathroom break /
although no one leaves.” Indeed, no one leaves.

For the fun is just beginning. What we first thought
was a collection about the lost childhood is suddenly
a sequence of pieces on love and war. Here you meet
gorgeous “Doña Margarita” who (as the narrator tells
us) “finds a female scorpion in my shorts / cuts it in
half with a garden shovel. / Pressing the subjunctive
I tell her / that unlike tomorrow / this will be the
best of all days.”

In this wonderful sequence of love pieces—including
“False Analogy,” “The One Who Answers the Door,” “Food
Instead of Allegory”—Lipton introduces us to “the
woman who you want to see / is wearing a bird /
walking on pumps made of dictionaries / where all the
adjectives / have been transformed into "yowsa". And
then, after a dozen or so lines, we learn:

This is the official story:
the man will recount his flavor
the dictionary will find a poet
and the bird will be shot from the sky.

A poet of love, quirky, playful, ironic and tired but
tender, he admits: “I want her without the words,
without the headache of attaching myself, like
successful breading to chicken…. I am afraid of such
facile connections.” Why? Because

“we do not cook the way we make love
we do not thrill to the simple strips of similarities
that bind, unbind and flour is not a film of sweat
earning its presence, its purity
by the rubbing together of our skin
the clear failure, the features of erotic despair.”

This is the point of emotional desperation where irony
turns into wisdom. This sense of wisdom is deepened
further in the book by a different sort of
desperation: that of a man witnessing the modern
warfare. To understand its depth, the following poem
needs to be quoted in full:


His picture was pasted to the living room wall
The mother smiled with her daughter on the couch
Omar ate pita and chicken with Zatar
I stared at the 50 caliber machine gun holes

The mother smiled with her daughter on the couch
The Merkava tank gunned its engines, spewing smoke
I stared at the 50 caliber machine gun holes
Omar said his brother was too young to blow up

The Merkava tank gunned its engines, spewing smoke
A parakeet twittered by the kitchen door
Omar said his brother was too young to blow up
The mother was crying as her daughter sang

A parakeet twittered by the kitchen door
The soldier was coming up the stairs
The mother was crying as her daughter sang
He was young, about the same age

The soldier was coming up the stairs
A Tom and Jerry cartoon was going manic on TV
He was young, about the same age
We all watched the mouse smash the cat with a nailed

His picture was pasted to the living room wall”

Yes, at this point, the irony of this collection comes
to the full emotional circle. The private voice
witnesses the utterly public events. The Jewish man
who grew up—before our eyes, as the book proceeded—in
contemporary America, now faces the realities of
occupation in the Middle East. The narrator who
struggled to define himself throughout the book, now
at the book’s end is suddenly able to define himself
by what he is not:

Not Me in Nablus

I wasn’t the boy shot through the hand
as he walked along Sal-hedin street
idly brushing his fingers against the concrete market
His hand, not mine
would sometimes throw rocks at the tanks
smoking up the streets near the school.
…and how could I be my uncle
hung by his feet in Ariel
until blood bloated and blushed his head.
nor am I the blasted body of a mother
cut in half by her bedroom door
as soldiers triggered a shaped charge.
The differences are obvious

My hands are whole
and I use them to make Italian pastry chefs
British pensioners, and French jugglers laugh
at my pantomime of soldiers hiding in tanks
shooting at my friends with shirts on their heads.
….and it is not my smile stuck to my face
like a paper donkey’s tail
I am still telling this story
an insightful, and more to the point, living

If Robert Lipton can define himself by what he is not,
then perhaps we in today’s comfortable America should
be defined--and even judged--by what this poet has
seen in the war-torn areas of the world. He tells us
what he wanted, and what he saw: “I wanted a blessing
for the children / I saw burning tires by the burned /
out VW on the street in Ram Allah / where army tanks
marked the road / …the stoning was casual.” But he
wanted blessings. The poet always wants blessings.
Bless him.