Paul Cunningham, Fall Garment, Schism Press, 2022
Paul Cunningham, The House of the Tree of Sores, 2020
Reviewed by Henry Goldkamp
In her essay "Language and Madness," the Swedish poet Aase Berg probes a shift in language over time in how it has become less creative and more descriptive over the course of human history, eventually tongue-shrugging: "It's too bad language had to be transformed into a market-economy power apparatus for pleasure-opposed morons."
As much as we might hope a poet, of all professional roles, would be the natural torch bearer to blaze a trail above such sublunary, earthly desires of success within a myopic economy of USD, with the whirligig of prizes and fellowships and clans and collectives and residencies paid for in full, we typically are not as simon-pure as we might act. Not most of us anyway. "The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially today."
So says Artaud in "All Writing Is Garbage." But it's Paul Cunningham who has achieved in his poetry what Artaud theorized in his Theater of Cruelty, and "recover[ed] the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought." The capitalist logic we live by doesn't allow for such artistic poise: I've gotta get mine, you've gotta get yours, porcine teeth out. To sonically sound off on Berg, we're all oink—no boink. The problem here, besides the blood everywhere, is that this seeps into the poetics of far too many of us as practitioners (I include myself in this slop, by the way): what sells? What's hot right now? What can get me higher?
Now Artaud's way of saying it—to "recover the notion"— sounds very controlled and stringent, but the reality is more Cunninghammy than that. As he says it: "My hen coordinates gone awry." The Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Futurists even, part of their program was to challenge and overturn logic, to fashion, as Paul Eluard puts it, "the poem... [into] a debacle of the intellect." In Cunningham we certainly have a genuine swash debacle-r, which I mean in the archaic sense to flamboyantly swagger about or wield a sword. He's cutting prices. He's slashing into the deal of the century at a moment of literary decadence right around the century-mark of the Surrealists, and yeah, "the violent birds fly out when nu kultur opens its mouth," as Cunningham writes it.
One such strange bird is his book The House of the Tree of Sores, a narrative poem fueled by an IKEA manager who has trained themselves to lucid dream in a bedroom display in the store. Swedish fire children are born, the ghost of an ex-soldier ex-lover—Swedish—creeps in, Hugo Ball ballistics bomb away, and there's even a hilarious cameo from the Muppets' Swedish Chef, who I am now convinced is in alliance with Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook of 1930, which included a manifesto against pasta. Indeed, Cunningham is against this age of so-called "copy pasta," and in fact he might be the antipasta which anticipates what the next stages of American poetry can be, if only we as poets can stay true to ourselves. Perhaps we can dream our way into another language, "sing a green song a salad-mean song." Or, to render that as Muppet: "Yorn desh born, der ritt de gitt der gue, Orn desh, dee born desh, de umn bork! bork! bork!"
Cunningham's work provides a nourishment of literary experience, ambiguously reminding the reader "Subtitles are un-American." He's not going to spoon-feed you, but you're welcome at this table—so long as you don't mind his syntactically hurling word furniture around the room of speech, until you've rearranged it, until you translated the show room floor into polish or Polish or Swedish. In fact, look closely and you might notice he's made a dining table out of the American wood from its "family tree of rifles and ammunition."
Stockholm conjures the syndrome: capitalism and our success within it our captors. The decadence of late-stage capitalism, the deterioration of poetics by way of self-obsession, the zeitgeist rendered not as wind but as zeitwand, a wall with well-worn footholds on the way to the top. Cunningham tunnels underneath, Steve McQueen-style, pops out on the other side, and telegraphs what the hell is going on over there. In his second full-length, Fall Garment, the speaker declares: "i am a model citizen / (who isn't)." But he also tells us "Decadence is not the whole." Both Garment and House deal with capitalist subjugation on memories, how often we might "fall / for a hometown mirage," the sentiment therein. We are even ominously pushed toward it, at times, as "herds of / living attractions / everything is going forward / as planned." Cunningham is unafraid to let the objects bang and clatter in the back of his delivery van, fabrics, chairs, and 'isms, Reagan's Bush Sr.'s psychotic policy regarding AIDS, dinosaurs, the cinema, the camera, the film, the s*k*um on the pond, Death in Venice, and perhaps most importantly, fashion sense. If clothing, as McLuhan said, is an extension of the skin, when translated into the poetry of Cunningham: "today might be your last / chance to strike a pose."
Through the sartorial angle, Cunningham reminds us that "the quality of garments / the quality of matter / remains fundamental." While many of us poet-artists at large lose sleep over which shade of lipstick to put on our respective pig-poems, you will see Cunningham, cleaver in hand, creeping through the barnyard's shadows.
Artaud again: "People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs." Which is to say, when it comes to Cunningham, the unthinkable will happen.