TRACT by JON LEONNICHOLAS MANNING Reviews
Tract by Jon Leon
(Available online at Dusie, 2006)
Jon Leon’s chapbook Tract was, for me, a sobering experience. The reason is that Leon’s is one of those poetries which, according to all indicators of my personal Established Aesthetic Parameters, should logically irritate my critical Inner Demon.
Briefly, I should hate Jon Leon’s poems . . . And yet I do not.
I like them.
It is perhaps a common readerly experience. It is certainly one I’ve felt before, the two most marked examples being a reluctant marveling at W.H. Auden (despite his occasional soap-boxing Manicheanism couched in conservatism), the second, even more disquieting, being my discovery that, in spite of his critical lunacy, some of John Barr’s poems are actually good.
But why should anyone display such initial cynicism towards Leon’s aesthetic?
The reason will take some telling. Before my move to the Continent some years ago a lot of people involved in Australian journal culture seemed to me addicted to what I came to think of as Cool Poetry. To my sensibility, Cool Poetry, though as gorgeous and empty as Quentin Tarantino leaning on a Chinese vase, seemed not very difficult to write, consisting primarily in:
2) Capitalized Product Names
3) Scenes from contemporary films (pref. sex)
These four elements often seemed to guarantee a pretty sure-fire positive critical response, engendering the usual: “resolutely contemporary!”, “culturally engaged!”, or “daring in its resolute contemporaneity and cultural engagement!”
To add to these four content markers of Cool Poetry, I felt foolhardy enough as to want to distinguish three dominant Cool Poet mindsets. Listed here, in least to most developed:
1) “My poems try to be cool, but I do not know that trying to be cool looks uncool. I am an inexperienced Cool Poet.”
2) “I know that couching my coolness in irony makes me look more cool, because I know that trying to be cool looks uncool. I am a more experienced Cool Poet.”
3) “I know that couching my coolness in multiple and infinitely repeating levels of irony, equally canceling one another out in expanding mandelbrots (i.e. Russian Dolls), means that the only thing left in my poems at the end is the word ‘Coca-Cola’. I am the most experienced Cool Poet.”
Now, what’s important is that the content markers listed above are all apparently present in Tract. Glitter, cinemas, condos, condoms, phencyclidine and Shirley Maclaine. There is much sex. But whereas other poets treat this material as mere cultural fodder to be gratuitously inserted, thus rendering poetry “contemporary”, Leon is, I feel, committed to something else.
For it is Leon’s approach in Tract which is so manifestly different. Mainly, instead of taking easy symbols of studded glitz and subsequently rubbing this glitz on to words, Leon goes further. His extraordinary, even extraordinarily revolting, excesses, actually end up showing how aesthetically and ideologically tame much Cool Poetry really is:
Rocks and Bottles
Burning again, cars overturned and scorched. The flat inside:
Dez, Julie, Ricardi. Coming toward the trio in leather bootcut
jumpsuit -- Travis. Travis takes his miniature ‘ville slugger and
whops Ricardi. Ricardi jets him. The white owl goes merry the
quartet. Seville in the parkway. Julie: Have a nice ride. A condo
in Bristol Heights. Sticks and stones. Julie is wearing barely
nothing. Dez: hook 'em bucko. She lies down while Travis and
Ricardi get strapped. The Onkyo blares Heavy Nova. One leg in,
two. Three cocks go round in a seated ferris. Like a hunger.
Julie dives. Three bangs in a face-hole. I'm twisted underneath.
Standing back to the wall on my head, my shooter directed at my
chin. Three licks -- gone. I take a pinky to the powder. Ricardi
bolts from the closet, a handful of rubber cement between his
nostrils. The slugger latex'd.
See, I should have hated this. We have first names, we have fashion, we have a condo in Bristol Heights. We have references to, I presume, Robert Palmer. We have cars and cinematic sequences. We have sex. We have pinkies in a powdery drug.
But . . .
How over-the-top can you go? For our characters names are Dez, Julie, and Ricardi. Their slang is not cool: it is ridiculous. “Hook ’em bucko”. If this is sex, it is anything but sexy, or anodyne: “Three cocks go round in a seated ferris.” (For importantly in Leon, the vocabulary of sex can lead to the most unsexy of atmospheres: “a handful of rubber cement between his nostrils. The slugger latex’d.”)
So, rather than inserting here and there a product name in order to cool-up suburban rhetoric, Leon takes his material and drives off into exaggeration’s crimson sunset: “Relieved from the greedy nobs I stretch out with a glass of punch, then slam it on the ground and fuck like pigeons in the gleaming shards.”
Leon doesn’t simply let his material lie back and glitter: he shows us hidden layers. Everything here is “twisted underneath.” Leon makes me realise that what bothered me in Cool Poetry was really not its content, but rather the passivity of its praxis: the way in which this content simply expected to saunter up and make some sort of impression.
But Leon travails his focus-points with untiring effort: “Ideally, I call the Goat on my T-mobile and meet three Muslims parked in a twitched sedan.” This is not Miles Davis. Similarly, just when one expects the suavity of a polished one-liner, the apparent dialogue kicks in, amusingly stilted: “Hoist me Todd.”
Some poems do seem to cultivate what is for me a less successful offhand vacuity. Like "Winter Bikini," quoted here in full:
To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light. Sweaty
mouth goes whorl on Tim. He plants him, erects him, and penetrates
him. Tim gets to sucking the pelican cock at his forehead. Surprise.
Invaginating hustlers pose as Greeks on the twin bed. Dry ice steams
in the trunk. I whistle for a condom though I won’t use it. Coruscating
terms. No shelter. We crack a Heineken and watch the bats out the
bedside window. Deepen yourself.
Death, sex, Heineken. The evident motifs are perhaps here too strong, and the praxis too impotent. The tonal contrasts could lead us to believe that we are not as far from Elmore Leonard as we thought, (though the poem is no doubt saved by the presence of “pelican cock”).
But to return to the initial, admittedly provocative lists at the beginning of this review, I have the feeling that what Leon actually displays is an acute lack of irony. There is playfulness, yes, but this is not play over Irony’s strong safety-net; rather, the material engaged with is taken to its furthest extremes. It is not protected by knowing authorial winks: “It looked like Iraq but it was only some GI’s with their necks cubed. Three guys and an electronic rodeo. Pow! And the Technics deck go like French rap.”
No sarcasm, no derision. The antithesis of the Cool? The New Cool?:
"Serial" licking the porter with Neapolitan in the cup of
his back and Joey just under his hump. Two dildos and a nose
ring. My flesh is on fire so I traipse to the ice bin. Meet up with
Linda and bring her back to Tammy. In a cleaning ladies high she
uprooted and furled. Later, chained to the air conditioner I’m
(from ""Flipped Bangs & Pentothal")
To my sense, there’s an almost weirdly baroque tendency in Leon’s embroidery here, his exaggeration, brassiness and flourish. His shamelessness. His willingness to lay everything on the line, to go all out into the workings of language as both cultural product and reflector: “Standing back to the wall on my head, my shooter directed at my chin. Three licks -- gone.”
Jon Leon probably didn’t expect to read his name next to those of W.H. Auden and John Barr. The critic apologizes. It is a bizarre list, but Tract is a bizarre book.
Gorgeous and empty? Gorgeous and full.
Nicholas Manning is Assistant Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France, currently writing his doctoral thesis on rhetoric and sincerity in post-war European and American poetry. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in such places as Verse, Fascicle, Free Verse, Dusie, The Argotist, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Eratio, Cipher Journal, CrossXConnect, Shampoo, among others. This year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.