With a post-Beat outlook, this volume of poetry considers difficult truths about a declining civilization.
“Once I was a beatnik,” declares the opening line of “The Smell of Polynesian Capital,” and in some ways Haliday (Young American Blues, 2012) still is. Much of this collection recalls works by such writers as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Like them, Haliday employs long, loose lines; unexpected phrasing; wordplay; and musical rhythms. And like them, he defies the conventional and mainstream. For example, “Polynesian Capital” plays with chiming phrases like “Zoot suit riot or grapefruit / diet?”—which could be parsed as “Protest or conformity?” Long lines of pressured speech follow: “Mix the two maniacally for a stale-free sunrise / routed toward that inner state of tumultuously / unstraightened affairs frozen in hot light of loneliness,” concluding with “Where has significance gone?” Despite today’s “betrayed delusions,” the poet nevertheless finds causes for satisfaction, even in fakery itself, like a street magician’s “smokescreen, / velvet top hat tipped to a magic afternoon on Haight. // I can’t surrender the cosmos, / nor San Francisco absurdity, / assistant in lace more lovely / than the magic.” Beneath the misdirection and patter, there are grace and beauty, whether of the afternoon, the assistant, or even the hat. Many poems wrestle with civilization’s horrors and the speaker’s unwilling complicity. “The Empire Builder,” for example, takes its name from a passenger train operating across formerly Native American land—an image of an empire’s nature and cost: “Riding smooth iron scars across a cold American night, / effortless, except for the coal pumped, / except for history travelled upon.” As with other works, the piece can become baldly didactic (“our righteousness / that Natives were slain for / and the Slave’s blood was traded for”), but the piece’s emotional basis comes through strongly. While many poems show cause for despair, the speaker also sees reason to hope: “Waves may consume the highway, / but some path will lead on.”
Celebration and elegy underlie these poems and their deep engagement with America’s turmoil.