Wednesday, February 14, 2007



Blood and Salsa / Painting Rust by Jonathan Penton
(Unlikely 2.0, 2006)


An encounter with Jonathan Penton’s new double chap book, Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust, powerfully challenges the illusions of genre, reality, eroticism and the boundaries of human experience. These books don’t merely invite engagement with his poetry or suggest activism: they demand both. This poetry crosses borders, and you will consciously decide where you choose to be. Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust are an entanglement with Penton's passion, pure and direct, but never simple. He offers no justification or apology and requests no absolution.

Poetry reviewers attempt to place poetry within a particular genre, school or style. Jonathan Penton intentionally defies formula and rebelliously crosses the lines drawn by pedants. He deftly expands the confines of and mocks assumptions about Realism, Romanticism, and Confessional poetry, approximations of his unique blend. You’ll wonder whether a particular poem is a likely or unlikely story, and perhaps such distinctions bleed into one another. He seems mischievous and teasing, yet painfully earnest. Penton adds a unique dimension to Confessional poetry, a subtle proposition which questions just exactly who is initiating which reality. His own take on it is more universal than solipsistic. He isn't concerned with the relativity of realities but rather their source and flow. Confession implies connection, and there is no empathy without it.

In her essay on Confessionalism, Regan Good suggests

“It may prove worthwhile to restore the term, if not to its original definition (which was coined by a critic and is misleading in its emphasis on the Catholic ritual of absolution), then to a positive identification. Thus we might again speak of a kind of poem that is self-mocking and dead serious, metaphysical and secular. These are not poems of "self-expression" or personal epiphanic resolution. Rather they articulate moments of primary existence: a graph of language, time, and identity such that the resulting artifact--the poem--is indivisible. The best confessional poetry uses detail from life to position the poem's speaker in psychic moments from which truths--hilarious, grave, desperate, terrifying, fraudulent--are spoken … But to reject the confessional mode as passé or reductive would be to reject a kind of poem that has a great capacity to humanize.” (1)

from Painting Rust

She asks me what she can do to help
               I tell her that any problem worth solving
               is beyond the human capacity to solve

I am wrong. She gives me love, love gives me sleep, and
sleep gives me dreams
Dreams give me a few hours with the dead

It’s not much, but it’s as much as I got while they lived

David Yezzi believes

“Confessionalism is a question of degree. What makes a poem confessional is not only its subject matter—e.g., family, sex, alcoholism, madness—or the emphasis on self, but also the directness with which such things are handled ...What they have in common, what sets them apart from other poems that incorporate details from life, is their sense of worn-on-the-sleeve self-revelation and their artful simulation of sincerity. By relying on facts, on “real” situations and relationships, for a poem’s emotional authenticity, the poet makes an artifice of honesty. Confessional poems, in other words, lie like truth.” (2)

What does Penton himself think about Confessional poetry? In his previous book, Last Chap (3), without mentioning Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, he wrote:

On Romantics and Liars
The “confessional” school of poetry was made up
of two greats, both of whom hated that term

“I lie a lot,” one said, in an attempt to refute her reputation of
And when a poet that great
admits to being a liar,
it feels like the end of the world.

But if it was,
the world ended
                                             a long time ago

Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust abound with apostrophes and ars poetica that aptly demonstrate the difficulty for artists in separating their work from their life. But why should they? His allusions are generally very contemporary, and this also encourages immediacy and engagement. In some instances Penton reaches back beyond his own generation, but all his references reinforce his method of questioning human motive.

On the many things I do not understand

He speaks of a passion, strange and wonderful

I think of Joanie Vollmer
I study her death beside Tupac’s and Cobain’s
I wonder at the precise size
                                 of the hole in her forehead

I think of writing, this attempt to force others
to spend a moment with the thoughts I think every day

Hashem, Jesus, and King James's Sexy Legs

                                         It's a crock and you know it
                                        an ancient tyrant's power play
                                       the very oldest trick is The Book

Third Crush
After David Mamet

One day I met a woman with eyes like a Townes Van Zandt song
                                      She told me I looked like Jesus, or perhaps Adam
                                         We got along like dykes and dogs but

               I knew it wouldn’t last
so I decided to love her leave her                and spend the rest of
my life writing poems
               about how much I missed her
That way, I could enjoy the pain of losing her and not have to
listen to her voice

Yet Another Letter to Bill Burroughs
Your wickedness
ran deeper than mine
and offered you more inspiration
a better vocabulary of hatred

a richer way to spread pain

and call it art

Is it worthwhile
to push oneself past one’s limits
to experience horror, cruelty and hatred
just to learn how to write?

Ah, but Bill
we both know

anyone who asks
is destined to find out on their own

In Universal Heartbeat, Juliana Hatfield sings, “Beauty can be sad. You’re a proof of that ... A heart that hurts is a heart that works.” We tend to label sadness as a negative emotion. With each poem Penton avoids my own temptation to alleviate sorrow which is beautiful in its “always already.” In their möbius relationship, love and anger, desire and death, are merely a heartbeat from one another. His poems are bleak, angry and ooze loneliness, but he isn’t hopeless.

I try not to publish anything I don't consider life-affirming. I consider hatred, anger, and despair to be life affirming subjects for poetry. I love poems about hopelessness, since true hopelessness does not write poetry.

Deep Throat Nihilism
Never forget that beauty is destructive
and poetry is its most destructive form

Penton's poetry is very accessible because it’s concise, lucid, and utterly lacking garnish or gilding. A horrible example of metaphor was aptly expressed by Orphan Veli. “The death of 10,000 people in Warsaw isn't like a carnation with red lips.” The battle for realism requires vigilance. Contemporary Realism is Romanticism through the mediation of Plain Language. In a rare instances, Penton uses appropriately violent metaphors.

Oddly enough

I remember truth as a gun
Fantasy as a bomb
And lies for every possible purpose
I remember the alcohol that couldn’t help me forget

I remember which details can be abandoned
And which memories can’t be lost

There are simple, sad realizations.

Watching You Say Goodbye
I am learning about my father
I am learning about him when I see the love in your eyes
mixed with the fact
that you can never trust me again

Melancholy doesn’t need embellishment.

all I want
is for you to grab hold

of my sin

from the inside

from that vantage

you can squash it forever

leaving me free

to truly love

all the
women who aren’t you

These poems are bold expressions of passion. They’re devoid of abstraction, deeply psychological, and not easily dismissed. You’re bound to react to Penton’s poetry, but eventually you will thoughtfully respond. He relentlessly returns to an emotion with fresh vigor. Penton's blunt portrayals may shock you, but this forces you to examine your own, similar experiences. His poetry doesn’t allow you to flee the scene unscathed: you either enter it and suffer or let your disbelief destroy the possibility for empathy. He photographically describes universal experience, snapshot by snapshot, pointing the camera in both directions. His poems reflect like unavoidable mirrors and demand that we gaze into them. This poetry disturbs me and causes me to suspect that how I perceive myself is a choice. If, as Andrei Tarkovsky believes, “The aim of the poet is to awaken emotions in the soul, not to gather admirers,” Jonathan Penton greatly succeeds.

A nearly unbearable loneliness and persistent disappointment permeate Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust. To live is to dip our hands in blood from birth; and because we live in a complex political economic system, we will, at one time or another, also participate in blood shed. The other flowing hot red substance is salsa, our desire for love and connection. Shari Nettles' cover photography evinces the stark feast-or-famine essence of relationship. She superimposes color on negatives which depict a table, lamp, and a human hand reaching into a bowl of tostadas. You literally have to flip Blood and Salsa upside down before reading Painting Rust. These wonderful effects enhance our involvement.

The wicked humor that suffuses Penton's poems will help you survive the read.

The Rules of Attraction, Poetry Style

If you crave violence
and I crave violence
is it then cheating to stab you in your sleep?

This is poetry of the moment. Penton once asked how anyone could envision or anticipate their work surviving their death:

The quest for literary immortality is a conceit and a delusion, but we're all guilty of conceits and delusions, no sweat there. I have no interest in that particular conceit. Why would I want people to go on misunderstanding me after I'm dead? If I write about love and death, it is because the subjects have forced their attention upon me. If I write for others, let it be about the issues we share -- let it be communication, not lecturing from the grave. May my immediate descendents remember me fondly. That's living more than long enough.

Yes, universal themes have uses beyond the misguided desire for immortality -- it's always nice to be able to reach people who are outside of one's immediate frame of reference, while one is still around to say "I didn't mean quite that."

In any case, artistic isolationism is an interesting phenomenon . . . The artist who chooses to share their work with others is attempting to communicate. The artist is attempting to communicate a thought, feeling, or process for approaching thoughts and/or feelings, that has not yet been entered into the domain of human consciousness (otherwise he/she is a plagiarist). This is extraordinarily difficult, and more often than not, we are mistaken when we think we've succeeded. People misunderstand us. If our work survives the generations, they misunderstand us homicidally . . . Therefore, it is preferable that our art not be remembered past the point when we can discuss them, or at the very least, not past the point when the cultural context for them has dissipated.

Penton invites us to cross borders within ourselves; between him and us; and between us and our world. His political poems provoke me. We must, at least on the principle of solidarity, speak out against one another’s persecutions. His intensity disturbs me and accuses me of apathy and fear, but I need that.

Post-Coital Depression
Today I ponder                the role of an artist
at the close of a war
                                             and the dawn of an empire
And what it means
               to believe in something
in a time of blind faith
                              in blind and stupid leaders

Today I am an artist and a businessman

so I look over my projects

what is due, what is due me, what will be due soon
what must be achieved today so that
other artists will still consider me important

so they will come to my rallies
and come to my readings
and thank me for my politics
and thank me for my energy

Today                               at home
I think of the best way to relieve the burden
of living, writing, and voting in the country
destined to conquer the world

Today I think of stacks of burning bodies

dictatorships established in the name of democracy

and the motherless sons who will come back to America
and do everything they can to bring it down

and what does that mean to anyone,

Penton’s poetry is erotic because he contemplates love, sex, and death as a natural and powerful dynamic. As Georges Bataille contends, “Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism -- to the blending and fusion of separate objects.”

It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea. The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity. Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self. Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals. Possession of the beloved object does not imply death, but the idea of death is linked with the urge to possess. If the lover cannot possess the beloved he will sometimes think of killing her; often he would rather kill her than lose her. Or else he may wish to die himself. Behind these frenzied notions is the glimpse of a continuity possible through the beloved. (4)

The implicit vulnerability of desire is terrifying, but so is the despair of its nonexistence. Yearning and sex are similar to eating or devouring; disappointment so like death; and obsession so like murder. Which then is worse, the fulfillment or absence of desire? When we realize we can’t pursue our longing without the experience of loss or failure, we continue amidst the damage, hopeful and actively engaged with life. This is what Penton means by Painting Rust. We are powerless to possess the objects of our affection or control our desire without dying a little.

from Painting Rust
I don’t care
your existential tragedies

Come to me naked or avoid me altogether:
Leave your facades for those who think in words.
Show me the silence
your mouth and body language

                              We are in a room
                              too small for movement
                              Dance me with your stillness
                              or shut up

My encounter with Penton’s work resurrects some phenomenology I once contemplated. What is the wellspring, the source of an original thought or emotion? How does it flow? Through language, physical places in our brains are sharing thoughts and emotions with others. If there is no dualism of the brain-body, and thought-feeling is shared, why would our bodies be excluded from this transcendence? The reader and the poem travel along a continuum of specific words, and meaning is the intersection of two or more observers. If we can share moments of similarity and familiarity, is there really a boundary between bodies and language? Words are information packets, like photons passing through the screen of our brain, left as fixed points or particles, but then also flowing onward as waves. Words are fixed and fluid. Language is the now of the past and future. Through language, we can transcend the physical boundary of separate bodies. In terms of poetry, this is how language put us on the same page.

Carefully chosen words result from an excruciating poetic process and then transcend the page to initiate engagement. Great art has the power to behave mimetically, to secure its place in an other. Jonathan Penton practices the difficult art of what not to say in order for a poem to provoke empathy. Images and emotions are co-created, a result of the reader’s visualization of the narrator and his/her own simultaneous identification with the poem. Aware that this is a possibility, the poet creatively draws on memory to share the future engagement of the reader.

In the Company of Them (Painting Rust)
So I’m sitting here in San Fran
In another used bookstore
On another hipster block
In this fuzzy hipster town
And I’m browsing through the bookstore
And I’m looking through the comics
There are shelves of graphic novels
And I think they must be recent
From the flashy well-done covers
And the hip PoMo technique

So I grab some graphic novels
And I’m setting on the benches
And I’m getting up, and walk around, and find a comfy chair
So I lean back, and I’m comfy, and I open up the comics
Which are trendy, which are clever,
Which have lots of lit-techniques
There’s this one with the stone giant
Who starts out as a hero
Who might be old King David
or George Washington Carver
and he bests the evil villain
who was belittling his race
but now he’s getting bigger
and he just keeps getting bigger
and pretty soon he’s enslaved all the creatures all around
the metaphor was obvious
though the subject imprecise
He might have been Israel
Or maybe Nashville, Tennessee
But the book was tortured, troubled
And so exquisitely drawn
The artist must’ve worked
As long as Karen Hughes been ugly
It was twenty-eight dollars
U.S.                                            dollars
with                   proceeds                   going to                                                                         charity

And I’m looking at these novels
And I’m looking at the shelves
’Cause there’s dozens of these comics
Dozens of these graphic novels
’Cause there’s dozens of these artists
Dozens angry tortured artists
Who sort of kind of made it
In the graphic novel world
But if you walk down through the Mission
Past the chickenhawks and junkies
You’ll find hundreds of these artists
Who will never, ever make it
Though it’s hard to see the difference
Between the published and the losers
Because every artist’s screaming
Every artist’s fucking screaming
Every artist wants to warn us
Of all the evil that we do
They’re all warning and they’re screaming
And they’re bringing up the issues
With their hip PoMo devices
And their so unique techniques

And besides the hundred artists
There’s a thousand folk musicians
With their lyrics tried and tested
And their chords so true and blue
And besides the thousand singers
There’s a million sock-drawer poets
Who’ve put down their San Fran paintbrush
To write of what will happen
To warn the world of what will happen
If we let a madman rule us
If we let the wealthy lead us
If we sign away our neighbors for another cup of Starbucks
And the artists are all drawing
And the folkies are all singing
And the poets all recite their angry lines at open mics
But there’s no one really listening
No there’s no one really listening
And the few who clap politely never do a goddamned thing
But the days are getting hotter
And our lives are getting shorter
And the Fertile Crescent won’t be fertile for four billion years
While MSN reports on Fox News
CNN reports on Slate
CBS reports on Sharpton
And Al Sharpton studies Fox
While the talking heads keep talking
And the bloggers keep on blogging
And the artists keep pretending there is something left to say

Bound and offered together, Blood and Salsa and Painting Rust make evident the greater violence or apathy which directly connects to personal acts and omissions. There is no hard boundary between the individual and society, only a membrane that leaks blood and fails as a rust inhibitor. Penton scathingly suggests that some traditions and rootedness perpetuate borders instead of loosening them. The implicit function of a boundary is to enable observation, transference and interaction. Awareness of border should fascinate and draw us across to expand our experience. Jonathan Penton is a revolutionary poet because he insists on inclusion. He proposes that boundaries be seen for what they are -- artificial and temporary. Better to consider them doors we open and close through conscious decision; because in order to overthrow the behemoth of boundary, profit and control, we must rebel, one by one.

(1) Confessional Poetry: My Eyes Have Seen What My Hand Did by Regan Good (Fence Magazine - Vol. 1)

(2) Confessional Poetry & The Artifice of Honesty by David Yezzi (The New Criterion - Vol. 16)

(3) Last Chap by Jonathan Penton (Vergin Press 2004)

(4) Eroticism by Georges Bataille (Marion Boyars 1957)


In a former life, Mary Jo Malo worked as a sales, marketing, and advertising coordinator for a manufacturer of large electrical power apparatus. In 1993 she was disabled in an auto accident in the Rocky Mts. of Colorado. Never fully recovered and forced into early retirement, she’s had abundant time to pursue the poetries and philosophies of cosmology and evolution. She prefers to read than write, and you are most likely to see her name when she has found a way to combine the two activities. She is a frequent contributor to Galatea Resurrects; host and moderator of the 'new and improved' Company of Poets, a poetics mailing list/discussion group; and currently a staff reviewer for Unlikely Stories.


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