Unlocking The Exits: Poems by Eliot Katz
Coffee House Press
As I write this, American politics currently looks as shoddy as it has ever been. The 2000 election campaign was so overflowing with politically correct sentiment that it was impossible to tell the difference between the two candidates, other than one seemed to know where Canada is and the other didn't. Then the election fiasco, with the close results pointedly described by Arianna Huffington as "the great national shrug," and the Florida recount, which had a country without a President-elect for a month. Now this past week, in one of the more addle-brained, hypocritical quotes of this early year, Senator Orrin Hatch has said he was "shocked and dismayed at the gratuitous amount of violence and profanity" in Steven Soderbergh's film Traffic, even though Hatch made a cameo appearance in the anti-drug policy movie. In his book Unlocking The Exits, Eliot Katz briefly writes in the voice of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in New York's Museum Of Natural History, saying, "One day I looked around/and I wasn't there." He might have been talking about the American public. With all the fencesitting by politicians afraid to get the people excited, their slamming of the arts simply because it's an easy target, and thousands of uncounted ballots in Florida, it does seem that the voice of the people doesn't exist anymore, let alone matter. Unlocking The Exits proves, though, that the Voice Of Dissent is a long way from dying.
Consisting of poems written between 1986 and 1997, Unlocking The Exits serves as an excellent fin de siecle State Of The World Address. Katz's political poetry is aimed at two specific targets in this volume: the plight of the homeless and the Gulf War, led by Bush The Elder. His language, in the great tradition of fellow New Jersey bards Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, is pointed and direct. In 'To The NJ Department Of Social Services', an account of a meeting between advocates for the homeless and state government officials regarding drastic changes in welfare regulations, Katz uses his direct style and short, staggered lined to drive the point home: "How many ice ages/before the next species calling/itself human/arises from a Big Melt/to provide/something it can call/'human services'/without lowering its eyes/in shame?"
Katz's other big target, the Gulf War, is both a commentary on the inanity of the fact that America was fighting an army it had helped arm a decade earlier, as well as the overwhelming wave of patriotism that blocked the real facts from the public for several years. This person wasn't fooled by all the yellow ribbons, but at the time he was in the extreme minority. Katz writes, "Despite horrific repression, Bush armed Saddam against all/reason& now refuses any compromised nonwar alternatives./Bush's all-or-nothing thinking would be called/denial-filled psychosis on any analysts's couch." Later on he remarks dryly, "They [Congress] decide the fate of nations yet not one/can pronounce Saddam's name correctly" and then describes the propaganda machine at work: "Since TV's corporate pundits have proven capable/of mesmerizing/America's yellow ribbon majority/such naked viciousness provides quite/the popular thrill." It may have taken a film like Three Kings to convince many people that Bush's actions were greatly flawed, but in his brilliant condemnation of the situation, written while it was happening, Katz proves he knew what was going on long before that.
Unlocking The Exits isn't all bitter complaining, though. One of the other good qualities of Katz's writing is his sense of humour. None of his poems convey a serious message combined with raucous humour as 'Ode To The Car Keys', the story about how the act of locking his keys in his car while trying to help a homeless woman find an apartment became a mental crisis of epic proportions. It's a similar situation Charles Bukowski described in his poem 'The Shoelace'; all it takes is one innocent mental lapse, one small accident, to put a person over the deep end. Katz describes his predicament with self-deprecating wit: "O keys, how brilliant your bright stunned reflection/through the passengerside window!/O shit" Katz's tone turns from embarrassment to panic and then to rage, as he launches into an impassioned diatribe about the Government's treatment of homeless people, but at the end is brought back to earth by the jangly keys staring at him through the car window.
The final third of the book, the epic 'Liberation Recalled', serves as the climax. By far the most ambitious poem in the collection, it is a meditation on the many human atrocities of the twentieth century and the hardships Katz himself had seen people go through, all built around the central narrative of Katz's own mother's harrowing story of her internment in World War II concentration camps. His mother's incredible story adds a very personal, human touch to a poem without which wouldn't have had anywhere near the same effect. Without his mother's story, Katz's poem would have seemed sterile, but then again, this brilliant poem probably would not have been written if it weren't for the inspiration his mother's story provides. The combination of poetic history lessons, Katz's mother's story, his own experiences, and the where-do-we-go-from-here reflections combine to create a masterpiece whose power is undeniable. Katz succinctly writes near the end, "To understand you have to go through it/you cannot ever understand/yet you must understand." 'Liberation Recalled' is angry and bleak, yet heartwarming and hopeful, proof that pure, raw, human determination an overcome anything.
In his fine Ginsberg tribute 'Elegy For Allen' Katz praises Ginsberg's poetic efforts, writing, "How you practiced sanity, candor, intelligence, kindness, and boundless imagination as your weapons!/How you mixed humor and information, utopian yearnings and minute particulars!" Katz might as well be describing his own poetry. He took Allen's torch and ran with it, and in fact, his political poetry in Unlocking The Exits is stronger than Ginsberg's own political poetry in the 1990's, consisting of poems that contain sociopolitical commentary, word-bomb spontaneity, and great belly-laugh humour, all written in an easygoing, economic, vernacular style very similar to his fellow New Jersey poet-gods W.C. Williams and Ginsberg.
The book's perfect combination of vernacular language, political writing, honesty, and humour is proof that the Voice Of Dissent is far from dead, and in fact, is loving life in the meantime. In his 1993 poem 'A New Warning Poem From The Chicken Pox Coop', Katz writes, "Christine's favorite bumper sticker said:/'Clinton will make you sick; Bush will kill you.'/From this chicken pox coop, I'd say that bumper sticker/was one hell of a prophet." Seeing the news clips of the inauguration of Bush The Younger today, at the dawn (dusk?) of a potentially dark period for America, I'd say the same about Eliot Katz.
© by Adrien Begrand