Four Way Books
Tuesday, July 15th, 2008
You can read David Lawrence’s Lane Changes through in half an hour, starting with the remarkable content of the flat first lines, “I remember getting hit so hard in the head / That the gray canvas turned into / An albino snowstorm,” or instead working from the bio note at the back:
David Lawrence has a Ph.D. in literature from CUNY Graduate Center and taught at Hunter College. In 1976 he went into business and within five years became the CEO of several large insurance brokerages on Wall Street. During that time he became a professional boxer and fought on television in venues like Vegas and Atlantic City. He made a movie of his fight career, “Boxer Rebellion,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival. In 1993 he didn’t pay his taxes on a few of his accounts, losing his multimillion-dollar businesses and ending up doing a two-year bid in a Federal Prison Camp. Prior to, during and subsequent to jail he became a rapper and did three albums.
There is more, but why spoil it. The important thing to know is: he’s not kidding. The poems flesh out each of these lines, taking as much relish in insolent physicality and lean intelligence as his namesake D.H. Lawrence ever did in his poems. He’s often as winningly direct:
I like real people like my brother
And the way that he thinks it matters if the sun rises,
The morning engenders frosted flakes.
I relax reading most poetry that grounds itself in first-person assertions, and this happens to be a specialty of Lawrence’s. Among his declarations: “I am discovering the pleasure of burning my own hand on an imaginary match head”; “I am the inner tube / In blackness’s tire”; “I am the homeless man / For the MTA ad”; “I am the binocular unhappiness that stalks / The tarmac beneath the airplane wheels”; “I lie down on the beach and pretend I am a mollusk / Waiting to celebrate my reincarnation / At high tide.” As statements of feeling go, these are specific, bleak, and inviting.
Lawrence’s poetry does not stop at the borders of the self, or confine itself to the past, present, or future. He works the ubi sunt like Villon, though with a taste for cold address more like Robert DeNiro conjuring Jake LaMotta:
You were wired that night at the Japanese Restaurant.
You looked like tuna wrapped in seaweed.
Your hands were at your sides
Like you were pickpocketing yourself.
There are issues. His weakness for simile will likely put off sticklers for clarity. Outside the boros his clipped New York diction comes off asthmatic. And then there’s the gender thing — this particular brand of machismo has tended to either go famously or flop. (These are all qualities his work shares with Eileen Myles’s, by the way.)
Your tickets to the ballet insult me. Opera is a migraine. I sit on the edge of the world with a stick poking holes in your Master’s degree. Then you put on a strip tease that turns the afternoon to denim high jinks. I admit that you have intelligent skin.
Where Lawrence breaks entirely with the recognizable is in his main monstrous quality, his contempt. What comes through is that he really couldn’t care less for the opinion of readers whose senses of scale and importance were formed in academia:
The critics make me laugh.
They think he was a big shot.
I spent more on clothes than he earned.
He wallowed in middle management’s
Wide waist like a belt.
I hired and fired insurance men
T.S. Eliot was not a CEO.
Bankers lack imagination.
There’s no money in banking
Unless you’re the bank.
I owned a whole floor on Wall Street.
(“Poet and Businessman and…”)
This boastfulness runs counter to what refined critics label “restraint,” and generally does not find the air and diamonds it needs to survive outside of the entertainment businesses. But poetry was after all once an entertainment business. If former academic Lawrence does not have an actual tattoo of Eliot’s line about aspiring to the condition of the music hall comedian, he might as well. And while I haven’t heard Lawrence’s albums, his prosody’s not as strong as his gift for self-mythology.
It is not difficult to see how poets might come to write with a bias either for objectivity or subjectivity, choosing to describe the relations of objects in the world, or alternatively to excavate the living sensual interior of dreams and secret meanings: these are both excellent ways for a poet to set him or herself apart from the rest of humanity, and if the art is good, to speak to every reader’s private wish for exaltation. Besides, if the art’s indifferent, who’ll know, and how many of those few be rude enough to say? Whereas when a poet bets the colossus on personae, writing poems as much to merchandise a character as to say something wonderful and memorable, the writer becomes a monster. Everyone in the checkout line automatically gets to feel superior. (Cough) Bukowski.
Lawrence says toward the end of the book, “There were so many things that never happened that are real,” and it comes close to a poetics. But Lexis-Nexis says otherwise about the things he says happened – the business, the hard time, the boxing, the movie, etc. This is his first collection. He’s sixty. He better not wait as long with the next book.