More than two decades ago, I found myself in a somewhat testy exchange with Allen Ginsberg about the autobiographical nature of his poetry. Despite the fact that he had called the chronologically assembled work in his Collected Poems "an autobiography," Ginsberg insisted that his poems were more like deeply personal "flashes" than autobiography, at least in the strictest sense; some of the most important moments in his life, he stated, hadn't been recorded.
I figured it was largely a matter of definition. One would naturally expect all the important events of a life to be included in an autobiography, but I wasn't sure then, any more than I am certain now, that a move through one's interior landscape, in an effort to define one's Self, necessarily demands the cataloging of every important event.
Ask Dylan: his decisions about what to include and exclude in Chronicles were interesting, but I'd argue that he came as close to defining himself as any biographer will ever get.
I thought about all this when I read (and re-read) Gordon Ball's Dark Music (Cityful Press, $12.00), a book labeled "poetry/memoir" on its back cover, and certainly a volume that encompasses Ball's interests in poetry and filmmaking as vehicles for self-expression. In his prefatory note to his readers, Ball explains that "Dark Music seeks the shape and sound of life discovering itself, the rush of rhythm and tone and theme hidden for decades lit by later instant's reflections."
Ball cites Ginsberg and James Joyce as literary influences, and you don't have to read long to feel their imprint on the many brief entries in the book, yet the actual arrangement of the entries, with their quirky yet sensitive juxtapositions of event and thought, also reminded me of the thought process of Jonas Mekas, for whom Gordon Ball once worked, or even Garcia Lorca, whose unexpected juxtapositions could stop you cold, mid-poem, for reflection. To be effective, the images have to be as clear as photographs (or brief scenes from movies), yet they also need to offer the unlikely combination of familiarity and surprise:
Red, blue, yellow, green, the hurled paper streamers unroll toward
grasping hands below varnished railings; boat pulls out through
dark green. A week later we dock under Honolulu's Aloha tower,
brown boys turn from light, dive for bright pennies from soft pale
By keeping all entries in the present tense, Ball maintains a sense of urgency and immediacy to every fragment, even as the entries leap back and forth in time—and, when dreams are recalled, in consciousness. Ruminations on love and death flash by; commentary on politics and social issues accumulate. By the time you finish Dark Music, you feel that Gordon Ball has let you in on everything important that you need to know about him, yet you also know that his memory has been delightfully selective.
As it is, I imagine, with any individual's truth.
I enjoyed Ball's earlier 66 Frames for the details that he chose to include in longer, meatier passages covering a shorter period of time. In Dark Music, he has chosen a simpler yet, in many respects, more demanding path through memory, but his vision remains clear and concise.