‘Motor City’ needs a glass of water and a Tylenol
In the next week, the Book Review will be featuring works from Gimmick Press, a independent publisher of niche literature and art based in Plymouth, Michigan. Gimmick was established in 2015 by Josh Olsen and Katie MacDonald with a commitment to diversity and inclusion of both subject matter and voice throughout all aspects of their work. Gimmick publishes digitally through “Worthless Treasures” and calls for printed chapbook and anthology submissions throughout the year. They’re currently accepting submissions for an anthology of creative nonfiction about pop culture obsessions.
I find it necessary to preface this: I don’t have much experience reviewing poetry. I’ve spent most of my time with nonfiction, the remainder with fiction and poetry only when a particular poet has been introduced to me within a larger academic context or a stroke of luck brought me their way. So I enter this reflection on Mark James Andrews’s “Motor City is Burning” by defining it as exactly that — a reflection, not a review. Which is fitting, in the end, because this collection is much more about evoking a sense of place rather than challenging and advancing the contemporary canon. And that place is the grimy, beatnik basements scattered throughout Detroit during the ’60s and ’70s. It is the rock ‘n’ roll, blues-laden scenes and rioting in the streets that lit Detroit on fire during a tumultuous era in our country’s history.
We identify and recall beat poetry based on its distinct, mythologized features and the lifestyle it inspired: a dirty and progressive use of language, the flagrant abuse of drugs and alcohol and a privileged assumption of anti-materialism and counterculture ideas. Andrews’s collection is reminiscent of the beat style, and self-aware in its endeavor: In the poem “Words Can’t Describe,” Andrews writes “I lifted my pages off the green felt and began to chant / my own personal Howl / derivative to be sure but I was pure and sincere / and the young crowd was with me.” Most of the poems unfold like this, following a stream of consciousness rhythm, written as if Andrews couldn’t get the words out of his mouth and onto the page fast enough. They all contain this performative air, meant only to be read to an audience at Dick’s Bar or Samsara Lounge — settings for many of these poems.
Often enough though I find that it’s easy to confuse good poetry with a confident speaker. And much of a beat poet’s allure is in their delivery, their undeniable style. This is what I think about when I read Andrews’s poetry, how, were I seated before him at Dick’s Bar listening to him perform in a daze of smoke and a cloud of alcohol, I could be swayed by it. But on the page, in 2019, these poems seem anachronistic. Even when he’s talking about current events, a suicide on Belle Isle Bridge, the language harkens back to a style and demographic from which poetry has distanced itself. And it’s one reason I cringe when reading some of these poems.
I’m not sure sincerity is enough to compensate for the derivative nature of them, the feeling that, because I’ve read Ginsberg and Thompson and Burroughs, I’ve read Andrews before. And I’m not sure sincerity makes the heady sexual imagery of some of these poems any easier to swallow. Perhaps one of the most explicit examples of this is an excerpt from the poem “Rusty Cage,” which seems to take place in a strip club or cabaret: “I’m waiting for the next one / a stunning amazon / lanky, goofy, sneaky pretty / bare midriff top. / I hope her gig is a belly dance / or anything with a little bravery.”
Given the opportunity to briefly glance over the collection, anyone can notice the prefuse objectification of the female body employed in many of these poems (I gave it to a co-worker and they commented on it, unprovoked). Because, of course, with the tradition of this era and its poetry comes the tradition of extraneous sexual imagery, often to the detriment of the female body (The poem “Revolution” opens with the statement that “Revolution was about pussy / more pussy / strange pussy / better drugs”). The narrator dismisses the ’60s revolutionaries in this poem, as he gazes upon the Occupy Detroit protesters in the park. But with the employment of over-sexualized language and a kind of bebop rhythm, he still romanticizes this era and draws us back to it.
“Satan bebopped into Detroit / with a wad that would choke / The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse / with a Saturday Night Special,” begins the poem “Boom Boom.” Each poem in the collection is dedicated to a different rock or blues musician. “Boom Boom,” dedicated to John Lee Hooker, is more straightforward in its dedication than the rest, seeming to narrate a bit of Hooker’s importance in the Detroit jazz scene. But this connection between dedication and content is hard to locate in many of the poems. Most serve a symbolic purpose, anchoring the poem in time and memory, making them only accessible for those familiar with the musician or a specific historical instance. His use of allusions do this as well, especially in “Boom Boom” where the substance of the poem is weighed down by references lost on me and, I’m sure, other readers.
The strongest poems in “Motor City is Burning” are the ones that both speak to a unique experience and don’t sink under the weight of history. “Looking at You,” dedicated to Wayne Kramer & MC5, is one of these. Recounting the night he saw MC5 play The Magic Stick, Andrews moves from a party on one end of Detroit to the crowded floor beneath the stage, and captures the rush of excitement and adrenaline that pushes a night forward from one place to the next before ending, in this case, “with a mic upper-cut popping my chin” as the narrator stood in front of the stage. There are moments in this poem where the sincerity Andrews speaks of in “Words Can’t Describe” break through gauzy descriptions and reach the surface. Moments like small children waving “as if our passing was an event / and I felt foolish just for a minute.”