Clark Coolidge, Michael Gizzi, and John Yau with photographs by Bill Barrette and Celia Coolidge
Five artists-three poets, two photographers-make a pilgrimage to Jack Kerouac's home town in hopes of picking up a whiff, a glance, a mordant acquiescent rumble or creaky slapdash vibration of where the master came from and what he left us to carry on. The result is a document of zigzagging temporal vectors, a bygone American time capsule that enters the mind through eye and ear, quickly dissolves, and opens up new energy cells like Popeye scarfing giant cans of spinach. "Yoiks!"
Sadness. Tedium. Oppressive slate sky and humdrum daily worn grooves of routine. And out of such containment, exuberance, continuous madcap explanatory hoo-haw visions.
Clark Coolidge approaches Lowell as landscape, following Kerouac's mania for detailed description, but skewing the elements to reveal awesome complexity within the seemingly simple post-industrial New England town prospects, both spatial and social. The vocabulary is mostly spare, proletarian, serviceable-the down-to-earth tools of a heady but workmanly trade. Coolidge has long acknowledged his debt to Kerouac's prosody, and here he methodically songlines the man's natal territory. From "that grown grey warehouse of eternity and baggage socks" and "Bright old caught tongue of a town, tourniquet high all the way to his Phebe Avenue Home," Coolidge has "cobbled of these parts a still / practical Lowell."
Bill Barrette's photos possess a grainy low-contrast density, as if to picture the molecules in creosote and bricks. The cover shot is emblematic, with heavy, lowering cloud cover and stained, cracking pavement that sandwich the viewer into a flat, horizontal plane with clapboard houses, aging American cars, and looping, haphazard power lines. Straight-ahead shots show houses where Kerouac lived, his high-school clock tower, small businesses, the club where his father ran a bowling alley, and the spooky Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. Jack's grave is littered with empties in latter-day homage. The pictures are sober, respectful. There it is. Flat brick America.
Michael Gizzi's is the most joyfully Kerouacian section of the book. He has that errant New England Catholic choirboy's jocular banter rhythmically down! But with what sad sweet ole timey authentic referentiality! Historical: "Shootout on a rooftop at 6th & Boisvert," aura-laden post-pop: "Pop's Ashtray Soup & Cigarettes," biographical: "12 sheets to the wind in Firing Line where Gore Zorroed the ribbons out of em" (see incredible William F. Buckley "Firing Line" TV broadcast), preposterous: "My nose drippin' like a ferset at the font of Al's Fondelac Dew Black Crow Geek Revival Saint Phooey de France," and daft: "You got your friable LSD moving through mass time." Jack's spirit truly rises from these passages in all its hilarious, illuminated goofiness. Gizzi has more fun than a roomful of Conoco service station attendants drinking Cokes.
Celia Coolidge takes terrific pictures like a big old classroom wall clock, its face clouded with age, hanging under a shelf on which rest nine padlocks in a line, each marked with a price. Store windows provide her with subject matter-the commercial visual language of a former time stands out with a kind of bold formality through her deft framing. Unlike Barrette's stable compositions, these pictures are often animated, dramatic moments, like "Streets in Pawtucketville neighborhood," where the movements of cars stretch the picture plane deep and wide and you can almost feel the dip in the road under a bare, black branch. And "Flames, Twelfth Station of the Cross" suggests a timeless Fra Angelico, painted flames behind broken glass in a whitewashed frame. Such seeing as goes on in Celia Coolidge's photographs is a delight.
In his poem "Jack's Final Wire" John Yau has composed an elegant and baffling communiqué in minimal verse. Combining the French sensibility of the poète maudit with a razor sharp aesthetics of abstraction, Yau frames his words in plenty of space so you can actually see them in all their uncanny objectivity. At one point, he seems to enter an imagination of Doctor Sax, the consummate outsider, the weird old beckoning and perplexing one, the restless alien intelligencer. "To you / I was marsh odor," it says here, in minimal couplets. "The only good caucasian / is a blue hood ornament," it says there. Like his French-Canadian predecessor, Yau's persona inhabits the astral gown of the Other, and tells a traveler's tale of dancing through "the purple lurch of / neon stars."
When you don't know where you're going, a good first step is to try to figure out where you're coming from. Kerouac no doubt had his own reasons for relentlessly pursuing the remembrance of things past, however recently, and in so doing delivered us a nearly total sense of our own loss as he limned the fading glory of a dying era.
Returning to the source, these artists of today have brought back something new. It couldn't have existed until now, however much, or rather exactly as, it leans on its origins. It therefore brings us up to date in a refreshing and interesting way. Plus, being a pentangulation, so to speak, of different views, it carries great collaborative energy across. (The dedication to Jim Brodey adds a poignant reminder of a kindred legacy we are lucky to enjoy.) I hope these and other people will make more books like this.