Josh Bell, Alamo Theory, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

Reviewed by James Franco (with the editorial assistance of Mark Neely and Sean Lovelace)

[Review Guidelines]

I first met Josh Bell the same way Bruce Springsteen met his wife—while busking on the mean streets of The City. (This was before Josh's fiddle-in-the-subway thing went viral and he sold out to YouTube and Nutella). I remember thinking he was either dashing or dastardly but now that I see him again so many years later with his hair dyed blonde and committing arson on the cover of his new book, Alamo Theory, I am going with dashing (though on the back cover he's back to dastardly), but anyway, yes, I know Josh Bell (he once let me borrow his Stradivarius [1] for a charity gig I was playing down at The Forum for the Shriners) and yes I always thought him quite capable, but had no idea he was a fellow Poet.

Bell references the voice box a lot. I know why. He's also partial to discussions of phenomenology, allusions to Modernism and Greek myth, "sticky-fingered dawn[s]," and dildos. [2] The acts of penetrating and being penetrated are explored in depth, which I find quite bracing. Because he's calving a language here. I mean really. Page God speaks and first I'm all Yo What is Page God saying, but Poetry means the most before it's understood, so we're copacetic there [3], and like a George Foreman Grill frozen in a block of ice, it's not going to cook your pork chops quickly. As in: Everybody here is the go. Back with the pace. My jam is live and don't waste rosebuds or time. Off the mic with the dope rhyme. I mean to say this Poet has schooled me, as all the dashing do. And SHOW is to TELL as actual sex is to Playboy back when Playboy had nudity [4] so let me SHOW from the title poem, "Alamo Theory":

No one's darker than me. No one's
big enough for pogroms. No one's
grammar gets a pass. Can't you
hear the popping of the Karen-gun?

And later we get...

We bury a prom dress in the sand
Of every coast; sew a new prom dress
from the flag of every coast. Jesus
sat down, calmly, fashioned himself
a whip of leathern cord.

Language. This feels like my typical Tuesday: repetition, vibrant image, leather, a trip to the beach. I read "pogrom" as "flash mob" and Karen-gun is film terminology but I don't want to get too talky because then people are like, James, we can't follow your director-y jargon or Egyptian military history...) And I'm like, okay. Google "Karen-gun" and you're welcome. My point is a Poet can create a new voice box and at first we can't hear the sounds [5] but then we learn to hear the sounds if the Poet is a glow Poet.

Moving on.

The spleen of this book is a series of poems written by Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil, who I have to say is probably the better craftsman here, so not sure why his name/face didn't make the cover. [6]

The first Vince Neil poem is an homage to either the Fulton Fish Market or Ezra Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife" [7] and begins: "Back when my voice box / was a cabinet full of golden vibrators, and my hair / fell white across the middle of my back / like a child's wedding dress..." I told you the dildos were coming. The poem goes on to poke at Vince Neil's queerness. [8] Bell/Neil notes that heavy metal stars of the eighties, with their leather pants, Jersey-girl hair, pinkish sports cars, and liberal use of eye liner, looked very much like the groupies they objectified in their videos. [9] "I made love to at least a dozen girls," Neil says, "dressed up to look like me... / the back of my head and the front /appearing simultaneously / in hotel mirrors..."

When I showed my friend Winona the Ezra Pound rip-off, she said the entire poem was like a glorious Rube Goldberg machine designed to bring us to its final lines, in which Neil sends a message to Pamela Anderson, telling her, "drop by the houseboat / and I'll rock your ass as far as Cho-fu-Sa." Which okay Winona, maybe, whatever. [10]

My favorite poems are about Jean-Luc Godard and the late Tony Scott, for obvious reasons. [11] They're prose poems, which like This is the End, are the scrappy underdogs you never count on or out. As Gordon Lish said to me Sunday, dipping caviar from the shell of a baby tortoise, "The Charles Simic thing was bullshit!" Sorry Gordon, but I stay with Ray Carver and the French on this one. For instance, on page 42 we get "Penultimate Letter to Your Wife," which is yet again teaching language and is one sentence and even in prose. Anyway, let me say something about underdogs. Baby teeth and Bambi are underdogs. Minivans are. Faulkner. My brother, Dave. Pork chops. [12] Fox tails or doll heads. The prom dress is an underdog. Indiana is an underdog, as is Mississippi. Poems are underdogs, like weather balloons braving a storm over Tulsa. The Poet is an underdog. "Josh" is an underdog, walking through rows of soybeans in his clean white shirt. So part of the point here is we're all underdogs, apes in cages, child actors in a tragedy off-Broadway anticipating their cue, waiting on it.

And by "it" I mean "It" and by "It" I mean The Black Slobbering Dog (as Winona says), the Black Shadow who in Bell's poems dresses up as a Boy Scout, all eager and prepared and therefore terrifying since we ourselves are never prepared. [13] These poems remind us the big "D" will knock on all of our doors one day and try to sell us popcorn. Thanks Josh! My Monday just got a lot gloomier. [14]

Part of death of course is our leisurely march through the indignities of middle age, but this theme didn't pound me too hard, since Hollywood keeps men from suffering such indignities; I mean look at Tom Hanks/Cruise [15] who must be like eighty-four and can still knock a leading role out of the park like a knuckle ball that didn't knuckle. [16] Unfortunately, not even Hollywood can beat the tireless Boy Scout, as we know from the death roll aired at the Oscars, [17] which seems to get longer and longer each year. The good news is unlike Hollywood or Heavy Metal, the Poet beats death with the Poem. Great poems, Bell says, are "built to be sucked in a way we will never understand as [they] are works of genius and only our children's children will ever fully suck them."

All this death and dildos are slurping away via accumulation. The juxtaposition we're all in all in right now, like yesterday I saw a deer (or an elk maybe) behind Ikea just munching on some kid's lunchbox and I went over there to take a black and white photo for my coffee table book, Not So Much In The Wil(d), and the deer snorted, ran into San Fernando Boulevard and was absolutely flattened by a UPS truck. That's like a Wednesday around here. Or as Josh Bell would put it:

to follow us, the cacti and the landmarks,
as we passed them slowly by, reminding me
of the pictures of food
on laminated menus


See the mountains, their trauma halos
of power line?

Have I mentioned Vince Neil? He has some strange fantasies—he wants a mouth on the back of his head so he can kiss two women at once—but also some ordinary ones. This is the genius of Neil-Bell. He wishes, he says, "to be small enough to stand / on the stage of [his] own tongue" and sing. And of course we all have that thought, but only the Poet has the verve to spell it out.

Since we're speaking of spelling, a quick quibble. Bell's vocabulary can get weighty; haruspex and usura are words I probably wouldn't employ in a poem, and not only because I don't know what they mean. [18] But other times inspiration hits him like a beefed-up roller derby-ist, and for an instant the words glow like burning coals or a flung Frisbee, or at least like the light above the stove I always forget to turn off in my trailer.

There is, for instance, the poem where Bell's Neil changes the name of everyone he knows to James. Incredible thought! One of those moments reading where you think, why didn't I think of that? "A word on nurses," he says, "sometimes / they are men, but all of them / were James. A word on James; sometimes / they are ladies," lines which to me are majestically "relatable."

But Josh and Neil and James all seem a tad depressed [19], and we don't stay in these moments of glory for long. By the end of the book, we are back to the death thing and Vince/ Bell speaking to us from the beyond:

You won't believe it,
but I used to be alive
outside books, in a life that crossed
between two centuries.

Here the wretched ghost Neil-Bell comes to poetry's perpetual solution. The Poem is the Poet's immortality, outlasting empires, weird desert sculptures, graduate school, and even the heaviest metals. [20] Well rest in peace Vince. Rest. In. Peace. I have to admit I didn't even know you were dead though the last time we met you didn't look too good.




[1] It's worth 3.5 million dollars and interestingly 3.5 was my college degree in English (completed in two years) G.P.A.

[2] Hey now.

[3] A word coined by Steven Martin in the early Seventies.

[4] I never so much as touched Lindsay Lohan's wine glass stem, much less her body.

[5] The first time I heard the Pixies I thought I was being trampled to death by a group of large Frenchmen, for example.

[6] But believe me sometimes the worst thing about fame is your face/name so I get it.

[7] A poem which Pound himself plagiarized from Li Po, who I just looked up and seems very chill.

[8] The poem seems equally influenced by Pound and my recent chapbook, Straight James/Gay James, which in 60 pages covers at least as much ground as The Cantos and without all the headaches.

[9] Or like myself in the pink dress at The Oscars...

[10] Probably best practices here to mention we'd had a few thermoses of rosé.

[11] Four MFA degrees.

[12] I've tried everything from Kamebishi soy salt brines to quick-aging in abandoned falcon nests, and I still can't keep them from drying out.

[13] The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always, as Timberlake put it.

[14] I just Instagrammed my agent's agent if that tells you anything.

[15] I often think if my name was Tom I would get better roles, and have even pondered having it legally changed but then get bogged down in the subtleties: Tom Franco, Thomas James Franco, Tom Francisco Franco III, etcetera.

[16] I'm a Giants/Yankees/Indians fan.

[17] I did the best I could. I didn't prepare, okay? Spontaneity. Okay? I was really busy that month. 

[18] My personal assistant was supposed to look these up but she's a Vassar grad and not much good for such things.

[19] I think they'd all benefit from a quick read of "Florida Sex Scene" and "My Name is Patterson," both from my first chapbook, Strongest of the Litter (Hollyridge Press, 2012).

[20] Counterpoint: that riff from "Dr. Feelgood" will surely outlast us all.