Wednesday, May 23, 2007



The Bird Hoverer by Aaron Belz
(BlazeVOX Books, 2007)

There is only one reason it is difficult to be humorous. This difficulty lies in the fact that all of the things you think are funny, are not; whereas all of the things you think are not funny, are funny, except for the ones that are not. The other reason it is difficult to be funny is that funny things are only funny when they are not difficult, but rather effortless (rather effortless, which is not to say somewhat effortless, but instead, instead effortless or effortless on the contrary, meaning entirely so), which is an extremely difficult thing to be. A friend once told me that there are two things that are always funny: falling down and Something Inappropriate. Oh, and falling down in Something Inappropriate. Aaron Belz is all of these things except for one: he is humorous, funny, difficult, whereas, extremely, on the contrary, and possibly even falling down at this very moment, hopefully not in Something Inappropriate. His new book, The Bird Hoverer from BlazeVOX Books, is also effortless. Take, for instance, his sestina, “Pam,” featuring this form’s requisite obsessive psychology (see my forthcoming article, “‘Pam, a psychoanalytic reading’”), and toothpaste. “Wherever I Go” is effortless, and it’s also about marriage, which is difficult, but often funny, at least for those who are not married, which, because both funny and difficult, would seem to disprove my theory:

Wherever I go
there are two of you:
one telling me what to do,
the other what not to do.

I’m going to stab you with a fork.

Humor often relies on the element of surprise, like refried beans and some pregnancies. The surprise here lies not in the closing line, but in the immediate abandonment of the doppelgänger motif (“Wherever I go / there are two of you”). We were naturally expecting the Funny Poet to surprise us by developing the motif in some unexpected way, it being an appropriately literary motif (not to mention its pedigree in the comic tradition: think Plautus). Instead, Belz surprises us with an entirely unrelated punchline (a jab, to be precise). Since many readers of contemporary poetry -- especially the smug and self-conscious (as opposed to effortless) varieties with pretentions to the humorous, frequently encountered at poetry readings, especially in New York, and in reviews of funny collections of poetry, especially those written by people who speak French -- have grown to expect indirection, kitchen utensils may occasionally come in handy.


Not that Aaron Belz fails to provide us with the proper (dirty) Habits of Humor necessary to establishing his comic face and poetic texture. Among my favorite of these is a frequent recourse to the unusual name and the invention of characters: Mr Aptitude Barnaby Filament Drood and an acne-pocked man by the name of Good luck (“Fifteen Poems That End With ‘Good Luck’”), the aforementioned Pam, and the Revolutionary Mr. Eddy Williamson (“Seven Bastions”), to mention a few. A fascination for the trivial fascinations of large, greasy, potato-shaped, tabloid-reading individuals results in an unapologetic and ironic fascination with Stardom, a fascination which dominates the second half of The Bird Hoverer, entitled Names of the Lost -- perhaps a reference to the self-destruction to which stardom often leads, or to the ephemeral nature of notoriety, or to Belz’s occasional Biblical subtext. The Bird Hoverer features poems about Ernest Borgnine, Meryl Streep, Tim Burton (exploding), and Ben Affleck’s daughter. He doesn’t forget our “own” stars, doubtless not so different from the others: Walt Whitman, Pushkin, Louis Zukofsky. Poets or actors? One way or the other, “Life is a dirty secret / that literature exalts”, to quote the high-falutin’ philosophicalness with which Aaron Belz almost closes his collection:

For instance,
I am not wearing pants,

but that’s not all:
I never do

When I’m alone
And thinking of you [...].
(“Life Is a Dirty Secret”)


Belz’s seamless shift from a truism of proverbial flavor to Suddenly-Naked-Man slapstick à la John Cleese is a sole example among dozens of the poet’s mastery of the parodic and the burlesque (see the Biblical and ritual allusions of “A Horseshoe of Roses,” or the Melvillian exaggerations of “Michael Landon as a Melville Character”). Aaron Belz loves to collide incompatible semiotic codes, disparate stylistic registers and clashing Spiderman underpants.


Some of Aaron Belz’s poems may suffer from a certain taste for the gimmick, the procédé, such as the Mad Lib (“Ernest Borgnine Mad Lib”) or the comic effects of a predetermined refrain (“Fifteen Poems Ending With ‘Good Luck’”). On the other hand, some of Aaron Belz’s poems may benefit from a certain taste for the gimmick, the procédé, as a welcome antidote to the sometimes excessively literary, self-consciously baroque humor of a James Tate or people who speak French, for instance. On the other hand, Belz demonstrates his versatility in more daring, baroque pieces such as “That Pen,” naturally my personal favorite in the collection (and the source of its title, The Bird Hoverer):

How prosaic of you, banal proselyte in
my terrace, frog-leaping concugard.
dirt that pen, you hopper slash chanter,
without the ostentation of the upper-gard.

Here, Belz indulges in the kind of amphibian linguistic squishiness that most appeals to me as a poet, colliding a series of enigmatic punchlines without their jokes. He here reveals a more unfamiliar (to the poetry-reading public at large) Belz who crosses the buttons, pushes the line and transgresses the envelope of the comic and poetic possibilities of language. Like a jazz solo, Aaron Belz shows off in “That Pen,” while elsewhere disguising his inventiveness in favor of his usual effortless comic idiom. The two modes, of course, -- that of the performer (actor) and that of the poet, or of laughter and song -- never being mutually exclusive, but rather in dialogue with each other, much like Belz himself:

I love you, I muttered,
as if to myself.
I love you
too, I muttered back. (“Bells”)

Once again, Belz surprises here less in his doubleness than in the casual, straight-faced verbal gesture “as if to myself”. Like a line in a Marx Brothers film, it passes almost unnoticed. The best ironists are those who continually sneak up on you without ever saying, “Boo!”


Adam Fieled recently gave an “angst-inflected” reading of Aaron Belz’s new collection. I don’t agree. I think Belz’s greatest strength lies rather in Silliness: an exceptional gift, contrary to popular belief, but of a generally light-hearted, effortless and airy sort suggested by the hummingbird on the cover and the birds featured in many of the poems. But I’m perfectly happy to give Fieled the benefit of the doubt, and grant Belz the appropriately contradictory label of “gravely hilarious,” “by turns melancholic and comic” poet, as indicated on the book’s back cover. Either way, or both ways, Fieled and I certainly agree about the most important part: “It’s got heart,” and it’s endlessly entertaining, which is a rather difficult, which is not to say somewhat, but rather (which is to say, instead), quite a difficult thing to accomplish.


Alexander Dickow is glad he got through this review without alluding to Monty Python. John Cleese doesn’t count. He has translucinated several poems by Aaron Belz into French, writes poetry, maintains a weblog called Voix Off, and currently resides in New Jersey.


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