1. SURREALISM, MEXICAN HANGOVER CURES, AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN SURREALIST POETRY
Andre Breton said: “Existence is elsewhere.” He also said: “I believe in the pure Surrealist joy of the man who, forewarned that all others before him have failed, refuses to admit defeat, sets off from whatever point he chooses, along any other path save a reasonable one, and arrives wherever he can.” Surrealism is a stew of paradoxes, humor, sorrow, joy, melting clocks, and exotic animals. It’s also nonsense. And sometimes that can be a good thing, for reasons I hope to show.
This is going to be a post about two of life’s more surreal gifts that have recently grown near and dear to my heart: Zachary Schomburg (a surreal poet) and the michelada (a delicious Mexican hangover cure). Because they’ve both recently grown near and dear, I was pleased to discover that Zachary Schomburg’s somewhat recent collection, Fjords vol. I— the book half of this book/beverage post—is best served with a michelada. I want to talk to you about Schomburg’s recent introduction of a new, exciting, warm, sincere, strangely moving and powerfully human breed of surrealism into the contemporary American poetic landscape. And while we talk about that, let’s enjoy a michealda or two.
2. MIXOLOGISTS CAN BE SURREALISTS, TOO: HOW TO MAKE A MICHELADA
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
Mexican beer (Tecate, Modello, Corona)
Hot sauce (NOT RED HOT, IT’S A DELICIOUS SAUCE BUT YOUR DRINK WILL TASTE LIKE A BUFFALO WING, TRUST ME, I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE)<
A pint glass
Time enough to drink a drink
WHAT YOU’LL NEED TO DO AFTER YOU HAVE WHAT YOU NEED:
Salt the rim of the pint glass. Fill that pint glass up halfway with ice. Now fill that pintglass one-quarter way up with Clamato. Add a dash of Worcestshire sauce. Add a dash of hot sauce. Add a half lime’s juice. Now pour the beer over the cloudy, icy, red base mixture. Lick the salt, take a sip. It’s some weird shit—call it surreal—but I swear to goodness that clam juice, tomato juice, hot sauce, etc. taste excellent together with beer.
3. THE POETRY OF ZACHARY SCHOMBURG and WHY IT GOES WELL WITH YOUR MICHELADA
A few weeks into my laptoplessness, I was taking a walk around Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a good friend, in extreme heat—the kind of heat that makes you feel like nothing could be worse—seeking A/C. Good to know: Bookstores are almost always very well air conditioned. So on this extremely hot day, with this A/C fact in mind, the good friend and I decided to step into WORD, a nice little bookstore in Greenpoint on Franklin Ave. In WORD, on their poetry shelf, I found Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords vol. I.<
Here’s the first poem from that volume, called WHAT WOULD KILL ME:
From the very beginning I knew exactly what would kill me. Regardless, I convinced myself that it could be anything. I convinced myself that what would kill me would be made up of any of the random things that would kill anybody else. When I walked my dog around the neighborhood, I saw what would kill me hovering in the trees. When I swam in the ocean, I felt what would kill me nudging at my ankles. At the grocery store: behind the cereal boxes. I grew old like this, seeing what would kill me on my dinner plates, in the rabbit cages. I grew old distracting myself from what I knew to be true. And then, just like I knew it would, it came late one night, booming with slowness, from the fjords.
This is surrealism. “I knew exactly what would kill me” is not the sort of thing you hear people say. This is the work of someone who does what Breton was talking about, “sets off from whatever point he chooses, along any other path save a reasonable one, and arrives wherever he can.” And the poet’s departure (I knew what would kill me) sets him going down a path full of rich questions, which I think is what all art, and in particular surrealist art, should be going for—the construction of a path of questions.
Some questions that come immediately to mind: Is this a poem about paranoia? Is the poet paranoid, too caught up with the whole impending death thing? Is this a poem about willed ignorance? An attack on the misleading adage “all men by nature desire to know”, which seems usually only to ring true if what you learn by desiring to know is something nice, not, as it is more often the case, something you’d rather not know, like what will eventually kill you? Is the desire not to know the reason for which the poet grows old distracting himself from what he knew to be always true: what would kill him? What does it mean for the thing that will kill you to be hovering in the trees, or hiding behind cereal boxes or in rabbit cages—and what, exactly, is the “it” that kills him late one night, booming with slowness, from the fjords?
One important thing about michealdas is: your friends either love them or hate them, and if they hate them then they, the drinking friends, will hate you, the michelada maker, even if only a little, for making them drink the damn thing. Another important and related thing about micheladas is: the taste (a mix of clam juice, tomato juice, hot sauce, beer, salt, lime juice, and Worcestshire sauce) is not something you should expect someone to be prepared for, even if they are fans of the “bloody mary”, the michelada’s boozy twin brother.
Consistently this strange taste causes people to make an equally strange face, a kind of puckered up, scrunched face that resembles the early stages of a sob. This pucker face either resolves to a “Oh, nice, I like it” or the pucker face turns into a glare, a “I am going to pay you back for that, asshole, and I cannot believe you like this disgusting bullshit” face. Maybe this love or hate thing is true for all of life’s most meaningful stuff: the things we love passionately are frequently the things other people hate; the things other people love passionately are frequently the things we hate; the things that are boring and “vanilla” are not usually worth loving or hating, because who cares.
Fjords vol. I accompanies the michelada nicely because it, too, is a wild mixture of tastes—some plain tastes (like Mexican beer) some in your face tastes (like hot sauce). This is the kind of poetry that will elicit either passionate love or hate, because the effect of the poetry is powerful, its mixture compelling and fresh, its approach new and bold. The very strange mixture of a Schomburg poem consists of:
Prose that is plain and understated (the title of one favorite is “SOMEONE FALLS IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE”).
The absence of “line breaks” (all of these poems are paragraphs), the absence of which seems to piss off a lot of poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike, for some reason.
Images that are jarring and sometimes violent, often moving and frequently funny, and consistently surprising (“The terrible deer that has been clawing and biting at my insides for years crashes out of me and spills onto the tiles”).
The treatment of big, timelessly human themes with a sincerity and nakedness that permits the themes to be detected by your readerly mind with an immediacy reminiscent of your toungue’s encountering the Tabasco in that first sip of the michelada (“the difference between sadness and suffering is where the love comes from”).
Poetry like this will not be received casually: people will either love it or hate it. Either they will say “Gosh I just don’t get poetry, this shit is too weird. Fuck you John, I don’t like you” or they will say “Something about this feels good, John. Thanks.” I can’t force you to enjoy the way clam juice mixes with lime juice and beer. I can’t force you to enjoy encountering a voice so strange and so familiar, so new and so somehow old school, so obviously sincere and well-meaning—so be it.
4. CLOSE READING OF SCHOMBURG’S POETRY: WHO NEEDS A REFRIGERATOR?
Two poems in this collection are about refrigerators. And as it unexpectedly turns out, a refrigerator can be profound. One of these is called “LARGE REFRIGERATOR OF THE VALLEY” and it begins thusly: “I come down from the mountains carrying heavy refrigerator parts on my back, and I build a very large refrigerator. It is the largest refrigerator ever built, roughly fifteen to twenty times the size of an average refrigerator.” Eventually the refrigerator builder finds in the valley a “woman who lives in a shack by the river.” He shows the woman the refrigerator, who bitterly asks, “Does it look like I have anything to refrigerate?” to which the builder tenderly replies, “Maybe not now…but perhaps you could see the refrigerator as a way to change your life.” Finally, the woman looks up at the refrigerator, sees it “peeking out over the trees in the distance like a low white sun”, and we get this beautiful ending:
Owwwwwooooooooooga owwwoooooga! she howls. Change has come to the valley. Yes, owwwwoooooooga I say, my strong arms around her waist, owwwwoooooooga.
Everything here is so fucking good: The “strong arms” embracing the woman who believed she had nothing left to refrigerate, nothing left to keep from rotting, nothing to save for later; the howl’s emotionally ambiguous long “oo” and equally ambiguous “ga” sounds that you can practically hear echoing in this unnamed valley, the freedom and joy and sadness of which is difficult to overstate; the “change” that has come to the valley, which for some reason I think is probably a good change. This poem is uplifting. It’s a cure for a disease I didn’t even know I’d had. It’s a letting go.
The other refrigerator poem has a less happy effect. This one is called REFRIGERATOR GENERAL and it begins:
I am wrapped only in a wet towel when the refrigerator general knocks on my door. I need to inspect your refrigerator he says. You can’t just go around inspecting people’s refrigerators I say, the cold air from the door on my flushed thighs. But, ma’am, I’m the refrigerator general he says. Well, may I see your identification? I ask.
This is odd. There’s a stranger at the door, and stranger still, the stranger is a “refrigerator general”, which is a profession I have not myself come across before, so presumably the speaker is equally confused. The refrigerator general, though, is not at all confused, he knows exactly what he has to do: “He pushes open the door a little and steps inside.” He says, “Relax ma’am, I’m a professional.” To which the “ma’am” replies, “I don’t even have a refrigerator”. “Just as I expected” is the refrigerator general’s reply.
Yes: this is absurd, surreal. Who cares if she has a refrigerator, why are we even talking about refrigerators, what kind of narrative poem has as its central conflict the absence of a refrigerator in a home inspected by the refrigerator general? But at the poem’s end, Schomburg introduces a subtle, David Lynchian emotional horror, the secret to what’s been going on the whole time, a secret whispered almost too quietly for me to pull any communicable meaning out of it, but this secret is whispered just loud enough for me to feel disturbed by a nauseating and scary familiarity in this poem heretofore tightly packed with the wholly unfamiliar:
I stand completely motionless in the corner of the kitchen and start humming. He stops writing his citation and stares at me, eyes like a bat’s eyes, the blood draining from his face. Ma’am? he asks. Ma’am? He tugs gently on my towel and looks inside. I can see it in his eyes, how he wants me to be something human.
I’m not even going to bother writing about that ending. Too good. What kind of house doesn’t have a refrigerator in it?
5. HOW TO CURE A HANGOVER AND WHAT CURING A HANGOVER MEANS
People drink micheladas to cure hangovers, and they work because they are a gentle reminder of what it was like to be (drunk) before we woke up the next morning feeling like hell had made its way up through the earth’s soil and lost itself in some corner of our frontal lobe. People read poetry for a similar reason: life is excessive, and there are times when we wake up from life’s excess feeling like shit, feeling hearts broken, feeling overstimulated by possibility, feeling lost in a world where feeling lost feels horribly lame and sentimental and a waste of precious time that would be better spent doing rather than worrying. But poets, like most of us, are worriers, not doers, and they articulate their worries using the stuff of life that is, like booze, capable of elevating the self above the dirtiness of a morning’s horrible, hangover-type dull pain; they medicate readers with the stuff of life, captured in altered form, encased in a swallowable pill, stuff like: love, happiness, sadness, joy, laughter, etc. The images in Schomburg’s poem are the salt on the rim of a michelada’s glass, the welcome mat to a reintroduction into the stuff of life—real, sober love and joy and happiness and sadness—that makes hangovers feel unwelcome. And they are the alcohol that numbs you just enough to make you feel again, uninhibited by whatever murkiness is keeping you down:
“When I walk away, flowers in my fist, I think about all the different kinds of death.” “I am at a fruit stand on the side of the road when a woman falls from the sky onto a pile of cantoloupe.” “You’re swinging on a rope over a beautiful cliff.”
After you read his poetry, after you’ve had a michelada or two and you feel prepared to re-enter the world believing you have the ability to feel again the important human pleasures that led to all this mess you now have to work through, I think the poet’s hope is that you’ll see a light at some tunnel’s end, some point where you can say (to quote Schomburg once more): “The world is as steady as if it were sewn into the skin of the universe.”
The purpose of surrealism like Schomburg’s—already this is a paradox, of course surrealism doesn’t have a purpose—is to make life more bearable and fun and interesting to look at and live in, not to mirror that life; the purpose of an AM michelada is not to facilitate a functional day, but to make the day feel less like an inferno. GO.
Buy Zachary Schomburg’s work here and explore the rest of Black Ocean’s site while you’re at it.
This article was originally published on Book and Beverage, a blog based on the following philosophy:
“When you read a good book and when you drink a good drink you’re sucked into the following strange, human project: the transformation of what’s needed to survive into what will help us feel more alive before we’re dead.”