Review: Gargoyle 51: 30th Anniversary Edition


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.

Gargoyle 51: 30th Anniversary Edition,
eds. Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody
(Arlington,VA: Paycock Press, 2007), 358 pages, $15.95
Review by Jim Feast

Amiri Baraka (writing as Leroi Jones) remarked in Home that it's an open secret that Harlem Renaissance poetry is much weaker that the hype surrounding it. Whatever the merit of that claim, for years I've felt the same about jazz poetry. From Kerouac's Mexico City Blues to many present-day productions (with a few rare exceptions such as the works of John Ferris, Yuko Otomo or Steve Dalachinsky), this poetry tries to make up for with fervor what it lacks in sensibility. I begin this way only to say that the current issue of Gargoyle (#51) proves me wrong, not once, but repeatedly.
Which is not to say jazz poetry is the main feature of the journal. There are a number of strong veins worked here, but before mentioning them, let me simply highlight a couple of pieces in the poetry section that take jazz as a theme.
Reuben Jackson's "my old school" evocatively describes a high school clique, which harbors a love (for a certain type of music) that dare not speak its name, in that if other students knew rock wasn't their preference, they would be mocked, even stoned (in the Biblical sense). So,

those who loved Ornette Coleman
or Mingus
were discreet as runaways

gathering in small bands
to marvel at a swatch of muted whispers
sweet as an order of chicken and waffles.

Then there's Bruce Jacobs' "Saxophone," a poem that covers the same ground as much shrill "jazzoetry," that is, it describes how an instrumentalist transmutes personal sorrows into music, a theme that's been worked till its threadbare. Jacobs, though, like a jazz craftsman (or woman) who animates a songbook dinosaur, making it a living beast, puts new wings on this cliched theme. Take this marvelous run of metaphors:

the sound of your lover's goneness
caving you inward. you a straw
Sucked flat, shitting its emptiness.
you being taloned & squeezed, wringed out

I paused over these two poems, not (by any means) to indicate that they stand alone in this volume, but to suggest the high quality generally reigning throughout the poetry section, which also includes a wonderfully fluid, amoral, Henry Darger-like romp by Laura Chester, in which nubile, forest-dwelling children, the Violet Girls, battle Blue Meanie types. Here one also finds a piercing allegory about "a suicidal piano" by Jennifer Bosveld and a lovely, purposely meandering piece by Toby Olson that loops over itself in a deliciously delicate memory of an abruptly terminated adolescent infatuation.
Turning to the fiction in this Gargoyle, the reader will find something that is notable by its absence in most literary journals these days: full-throated humor. By that I mean not the creation of wry smiles, the ones fleetingly wrung out by the odd, offbeat juxtapositions found in so much Language poetry-influenced work, but the guffaws generated by the incongruity so prevalent in human situations, especially those encountered in bureaucracies or in the reaches of lowest-denominator popular culture.
Or perhaps I should say lowest demon-inator, in that one of the highlights of this section is Nik Houser's "First Kisses From Beyond the Grave," in which he picks up a B movie theme -- that of a teenager accidentally assigned to a high school in Limbo, which is packed with vampires, ghouls and zombies (and those are the teachers) -- to construct a side-splitting but also a trenchantly accurate view of adolescents at a time when hormones run wild, even if, in this case, they are spilling out of a slashed vein. Equally humorous is Toby Barlow's "The DMV," which tells a wacky tale of love at first sight. It's not between a couple, but on the part of a whole office of the Motor Vehicle department (both men and women) that becomes simultaneously smitten by a beauty who comes to renew her license. And there's the less emphatic, but equally deft piece by Elizabeth Oness ("Spillover") in which she wittily describes how a tightly wound lesbian, who feels she has nothing in common with her hetero, serially monogamous mom, gradually sees herself adopting some of her mother's more self-destructive coping strategies.
Let me end by using a phrase to mean something it usually doesn't. The rest of Gargoyle contains "more of the same." I don't mean, as the phrase often suggests, the journal continues with a dull monotony, but that it is filled with other, often funny, always psychologically and sociologically acute, electric prose and poetry.