Jim Goar’s third full-length collection The Dustbowl is compelling evidence that the legacy of the New American Poetry is alive and well. The centerpiece of Goar’s rich and strange new book is the title poem, a 55-page serial work, which is reminiscent of the long poems of Jack Spicer and Ed Dorn—in particular, Billy the Kid and Gunslinger, which both tap into the mythos of the American West. Additionally, Goar makes nods to Spicer’s 1962 book The Holy Grail as well as to Spicer’s oft-cited idea that the poet is a radio which receives Martian signals in the same way that a Romantic Aeolian harp receives the wind: “Only Grail music. All day. / Every day. Transmissions from the deepest / space. A station found but not my own.” There are also allusions to T. S. Eliot as well (another poet who, of course, drew on the Grail legend); Goar’s narrator, a mysterious sojourner charged with a “singular quest-ion,” says, “Kept / The Wasteland in my pocket. Turned it over / and over. Dust as far as the eye could see.” But rather than Eliot’s wasted Europe, the wasteland here is the Dustbowl of the southern Plains populated — anachronistically — by down and out Arthurian knights: “They keep coming. Knights / from the heart-land. Never had / a chance. Each and every one. The / promise of something more.” Indeed, the cover photo suggests that this poem is a meditation on the ruins of American migrancy, on dreams perpetually in deferral.
There is, it seems, nothing to be done in Goar’s absurdist, almost Beckettian landscape. We might even interpret the absurd, surreal imagery of “[p]igs as far as the eye could see” and “[g]reen apples fall like rain” – that last image seems as if it could have been taken right out of a Magritte painting – can be references to the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, which called for the slaughter of millions of pigs to regulate pork supplies, and the fact that, by 1930, there were thousands of unemployed workers in New York City selling apples, another surplus product, on street corners for five cents apiece. In Goar’s fragmented and creatively syncretic narrative, which draws on a variety of literary histories and vernacular traditions, there is no arrival to “California [. . .] the Garden of Eden.” There is no authentic Grail to be found, only the Grail’s proliferating and ineffectual simulacra: “Pulled The Grail out of my hat. / And then another. A red balloon for you to keep.” From this perspective, Eliot, again, is apropos in that Goar seems to be putting a playful, postmodern spin on Eliot’s “mythical method” by paralleling contemporaneity and antiquity in order to articulate the futility of modern history. On a sonic level, Goar’s Dustbowl, empty and evacuated, acts as a kind of echo chamber as vagabond phrases repeat and vary, form and deform, creating a clipped but compelling music. It is a marvel that Goar can make such astringent sparseness sing: “No-thing changed. / The heart-land remained. Broken. Dust / as far as the eye could see. A black- / hole in the center of my chest. Beating.”
Read an excerpt here.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.