by Ed Friedman
Ed Friedman's Mao &
Matisse: A Decorative Poetics, Pleasure, Ideas
Hanging Loose Press,
93 pp., $ 12.00 paper.
1) The Space of Pleasure
There is a Turkish joke:
"What happens to the waning moon when it disappears? It's
clipped and made into stars." This zany, Zen saying dogs
me as I try to come to terms with the multi-faceted enigma and
delight of Ed Friedman's new book Mao & Matisse. In
a way, the dislocating, lyrical wit of this poetry is described
as clearly and succinctly as one can in Ron Padgett's lines:
"It's as if the poems in Mao & Matisse were written
by several people whose second language is a floaty, slightly
dislocated (italics my own), and thoroughly amusing English,
from which there emerges a new lyricism that provides a rarity
these days: pure pleasure."
remain since nothing in the book seems in its expected place.
For instance, which Matisse, "terrific to look at,"
the icon of pleasure in the book, one is referring to? Of colors,
Fauvism, or of the later cut-ups, of shapes? The answer
is ambiguous. Though Mao & Matisse is permeated with
a vocabulary of hues, the primary fauve colors are replaced with
the euphemisms of interior design, vogue, cross-dressing, with
"cerise," "mauve," "silverdust green,"
"teal," "rose pogonia and thread-leaved sundew,"
etc. The "sauvagerie" of fauve is replaced with
the "savagery" of Paris Is Burning: "Tom,
your frock has too many puffs. Puff puff puff. Obviously he thinks
he's a magic dragon with flounces, belts and epaulets..."
("What They Are Wearing").
This is one subtle dislocation
in the book: a revolution in color, fauvism, becomes a
rebellion in fashion. Implicit in the book is an attack against
classical French taste. Fashion (including clothing, fashion
photography, poster advertising) as a visual medium is very close
to language. Ed Friedman's book takes the extra step and completely
verbalizes it; in one sense, the book involves a translation,
a total verbalization of a visual language. That is why, the
voices in it seem to speak in a second language, with
accents. A startling assertion underlies Mao & Matisse,
that there is a continuity from the tropical jungles of Rousseau
to the Mediterranean/North African palm trees of Matisse, to
Cambodian palm trees, to the vegetation on Hawaiian shirts, to
deserted islands on T.V., to a vision of Bora Bora in a travel
poster in Francis Coppola's One From The Heart, etc. The
originality of the book lies in this poker faced, equalizing
continuity; the hierarchy between high and low, pure and applied
arts disappears, which is the reason for the mixture of visceral
pleasure and anger the book may simultaneously produce.
As a radicalist of pleasure,
Matisse's first step involved asserting a connection between
painting and decoration, which "flattened" the painterly
surface. Ed Friedman's style in Mao & Matisse must
be called a decorative poetics, the first consequence of which
is the "flattening," equalizing of the poetic surface.
Decoration is a secondary, contingent art in the West; while
in the East, from the Islam to Central Asia to China, it is primary,
serious, a religious and philosophical activity through the eye.
Matisse's decorative art starts with a contact with the Islamic
East. Both his development and Ed Friedman's decorative poetics
can be better understood with a more intimate understanding of
Eastern decorative art, the nature of its "flat" space.
Not a product, decoration
is a process, a continuous, open-ended conflict between fullness
and emptiness in the East; decorative field abhors emptiness
and needs to be filled with a super-abundance, excess of shapes,
colors. On the other hand, emptiness resists being wiped out,
insists on its presence. Every design is a temporary, snapshot
resolution of this conflict, in which one side tends to dominate.
In other words, decorative space is flat only from Western perspective;
its sense of depth is the tension between motifs and the emptiness
in which they float. The meaning (and power) of a design is the
strategic location of motifs in the empty space, which they partially
Two impulses, as polar
extremities, coexist in Eastern decorative art. The impulse to
fill is centrally Islamic, the world of the classical Persian
rugs and manuscripts, the majestic Selchuki gate designs of mosques
and caravanserais (opening to austere interiors) and the defensive,
hot house, interior design modularities of the Alhambra. The
added-on (the shape, the color) here is the focus of attention,
the fuller, the more exuberant, the more paradisiacal the better.
The other is the impulse to clear the emptiness, make it tangible.
As one moves further east to nomadic Central Asia, to Buddhist
Nepal, to China, this impulse dominates. This design instinct
abhors fullness; more than defining themselves, motifs
point to the emptiness surrounding them. Experience of design
turns into an intensified experience of space. For instance,
the 2nd century Chinese Han pottery has few motifs, only a rough
grained texture of color. The transparency of classical Chinese
poetry too is an experience of emptiness, inherent in the Chinese
sense of time (having nothing to do with Western realism). The
Eastern decorative art is utopian, a continuous attempt for a
visual rendition of the ideal, virtuous space. In Islam, the
ideal is a vision of abundance, paradise as a pleasure garden.
In Buddhism, it is of nothingness, emptied of desire.
(The conflict of Asiatic
decorative art echoes uncannily the conflict in American culture
between the Puritan and the neon, the spirituality of a 1950's
Detroit car and the obscene heat of a Shaker staircase. Las Vegas,
the gaudiest spot in America, is one hour's drive from Death
Valley, its emptiest spot, barest of vegetation. That's why a
decorative American poetics, based on Asiatic space, is relevant.)
Matisse's growth as an
artist follows the fault line of Eastern decorative process.
Drawn to Islamic art, in his earlier work the activity of filling
is paramount. Colors, often eroticized as vegetation and wall
decoration, etc., around the female figure, organize the empty
space. The development of Matisse involves a progressive movement
East. In his gigantic cut-ups, motifs are strategically placed
cool figures -colors flattened, deeroticized- whose main function
is to point to the emptiness in which they float. (The 1992-93
MOMA retrospective of his work is emerging, artistically, poetically
and intellectually, as one of the two seminal events of the last
ten years, the other being the 1993 Met exhibit, The Waking
Dream: Photography's First Century.) In the same way, Ed
Friedman's decorative poetics lies in the distinct way his images
function. While they are fauve, full of piss and vinegar, in
combination, their affect seems cool, flat. The meaning and power
of a decorative image lie not in itself but in its echoes, occurring
in a decorative depth. The following is a characteristic passage
from Mao & Matisse, on which I will practice an experiment.
The lines in italics are my own interjections:
cruising cop car
from the lush vegetation.
animals grow here?
might we survive in the great banyans
not something I worry about.
fact it's so hot
can hear every time Lori re-crosses her legs
me on the bed
she's combating erroneous tendencies within the party
the question of agricultural cooperation
rectifying the party's style of work.
The initial key to this
decorative field is visual, aural and conceptual echoes spun
by words. This is a private, mental space, a mixture of ear and
eye, into which the reader must participate. Its flatness is
deceptive. It is also a rebellious space because the decorum
of taste based on a hierarchical division of genres has disappeared.
Even more radical, the "erogenous" is porously interchangeable
with the ascetic strictures ("erroneous") of radical
politics. Mao often appears at the service of, overwhelmed by
Matisse's pleasure principle. In another poem, "Fuckin Banshees,"
the proletarian dictatorship becomes ruling one's own body. (The
wit of this book, reflecting the defeat of Communist ideology
at the end of the Cold War, even echoes the Romans who used their
captive warrior enemies -in the Hollywood version, at least-
as objects of entertainment in the circus.) This is the ambivalence,
the range of dislocation, even obsessive melancholy and sense
of failure which underlie the wit, the transparent ease of the
melodious tune circle
in the vista
la vista. ("Living
appraise me with blue vacant eyes
shallow, very wide
stands still for two-toned shirts
mirror the design of your car radio
even my well-practiced blank expression
at the mention of fresh grazing
am Mr. Cow now and Mrs. Free-swimming Jellyfish
across the tangerine linoleum
verify our continued grooming. ("New
stirrings of sensuality
the Red Army's bootstrap approach
then the bareness of your own feet."
of my own feet" ("Fuckin
Can erotic pleasure (and
experimental poetry) also ever be radical politics? This is the
repeatedly asked question, the quest underlying Mao &
Matisse. In the words of the book itself: "Wouldn't
Mao have loved an Henri Matisse there in his headquarters as
he planned the final assault on Chiang Kai-shek's reactionary
regime." The book's answer is: "Probably not. Unless
of course I was there to explain it to them" ("Mao
& Matisse"). The poems in Mao & Matisse are
series of "explanations," repeatedly trying to make
present in the space of a book an event which did not
take place. Decorative poetics as utopian politics. The quest
underlying Mao & Matisse ties to the polar impulses
of Eastern decorative process: a conflict between fullness (paradisiacal
pleasure) and emptiness (ascetic draining of pleasure) representing
ideal virtuous states. Mao is Buddha, the Buddhist field. Buddha
- odalisk. Matisse (of the odalisks) is the plethora, vogue,
verbal extravagance of pleasure. In the book they try to become
one. Mao is present as melancholy absence, defeat, as utopian
yearning. The empty field of "snow... white wake" in
the penultimate poem in the book, "Presence," is the
empty presence of Mao throughout the book.
2) Mao, the Melancholy
Space of Absence & Yearning
The phrases, slogans, Marxist-Leninist
syllogisms of Maoist revolution permeate, obsess, weave like
nervous tics into the language of Mao & Matisse. But,
because of the end of the Cold War and at least partial repudiation
of Mao even in his own country, this language has lost some of
its historical urgency, is flattened, becoming an encyclopedic
treasure trove of faded language: "planting season,"
"bumper crops," camouflage radio," "20-year
plan," "jujitsu experts of unaligned national fronts,"
"poems from the Nomadic System of Mongolia," "what
is struggle?" "On Contradiction," etc., etc. Pried
loose from its historical urgency, this language permeates the
poems like debris, like a melancholy, neon-shimmering junk yard
of bumptuous, sumptuous fifties cars piled at random, mixed with
equally functionless neon signs, advertising nothing but themselves.
One can see here, once again, another dimension of decorative
image (and decorative politics). On the surface, in historical
time, the Mao language is flattened, functionless, adrift; but
in its compulsive and variegated reappearance, insistence to
attach itself to, hang with images of the senses, colors, etc.,
it gains an aura, becomes a delineation of continuous yearning,
of absence and emptiness. Mao becomes a presence in the book
as far-eastern decorative space.
In this decorative space,
value is decoupled from success; failure and the functionless--Mao
as junk--become positive, yearned for objects. The politics of
decorative imagery is utopian (rather than historical ), interior
(rather than communal), individual and rebellious (rather than
revolutionary), longingly melancholy and almost bathetic (rather
than tragic). It is a supremely American creation, subverting,
while participating in, American commercial culture, by detaching
its products from their motor energy, which is greed and money.
Sentimental, gorgeous and shimmering. Greed becomes yearning,
winning a utopian absence, money a scintillating constellation
of words (poem an economic nonentity). The flattened Mao language
in the poems, detached from its historical urgency, is the verbal
equivalent of Matisse's motifs in his cut-ups. Drained of their
earlier colors, color ceasing to be the focus point, they become
relay points to a disorienting emptiness in which they float.
The spiritual father behind
Mao & Matisse is the American artist Francis Coppola,
not of the Godfather movies; but of his profligate, multi-layered
failures, One From the Heart and Tucker. The dreamlike
treasure junk-yard of discarded objects and signs in One From
the Heart (pierced by the siren-like voice of Crystal Gale)
is the Maoist language in Ed Friedman's poem. Tucker is the tale
of of a visionary capitalist creating one ideal car, so attuned
to human need (a perfect American Maoist car), that not one unit
of it gets sold: a capitalist object of production pried from
its economic function becoming a utopian object of beauty. Both
Tucker, rebelling against major auto companies, and Coppola himself,
rebelling against the behemoth Paramount by spending his own
money to gala his movie at the Radio City, are quintessential
American visionaries of failure, both in love with and subverting
the American, capitalist dream of success. In one secret corner
of American psyche, rebellion, failure, junk and beauty coalesce
(on the other hand, Godfather I and Godfather II
form the multi-layered thrilling, soul annihilating American
fable of success).
The language of Mao
& Matisse taps this secret nook of American psyche: the
illicit attraction to failure of a culture wedded to success.
Failure--the dysfunctional becomes erotic as the erotic is attached
to a sense of yearning, absence. That is to say, Mao is interiorized
(radically privatized) with all the implications of this paradox.
In the words of Mao & Matisse, a revolution "for
several billion people that in a million tangible ways each day
makes life better" ("Mao & Matisse") becomes
a revolution of the plenitude of the senses, of pleasure, a private,
personal revolution. Mao transplanted becomes Coppola as Fauve
transplanted becomes Vogue, lurid travel posters, neon.
Mao & Matisse is about a meeting which never
takes place, a utopian meeting between Matisse reveling "in
the discipline of of the People's Liberation Army" and Mao,
with a Matisse hanging in his headquarters, planning " "the
final assault on Chiang Kai-shek's reactionary regime."
It is a series of "explanations," creating a verbal
utopia based on decorative poetics. Its transparency is of emptiness,
not of Cartesian rationality. The revolutionary in American society
often reveals itself as utopian (VISIONary), from the Massachussetts
Bay Colony to Brook Farm to the ascetic Bruderhof and free-loving
Oneida communes (a kitsch synthesis of the last two: "The
pride of excess is equal to the pride of self-denial. Private
bad taste is a special kind of grace.") described by Andrei
Codrescu in Road Scholar. The Michigan militias belong
to this line. The utopian in America is patently both nihilistic
and in bad taste (watch the monstrous vulgarity of the movie
version of The Scarlet Letter, filled with the gorgeous
cinemascope body of Demi Moore), as artists from Francis Coppola
to Andy Warhol to Andrei Codrescu understood. The pleasure filled,
kitschy wit of Mao & Matisse is one aspect of an intellectual
austerity. Mao & Matisse is a Pop work only if Andy
Warhol can be seen in totality, not only as the creator of Campbell
soup series, etc.; but seen as the great moviemaker who looked
unblinkingly at the phantasies of gay life, at a sleeping man
or at the wall of the Empire State Building during the length
of a movie, draining the image of its glitz: Warhol as Buddhist
emptiness, Mao, the transparent mole who also flattens the icons
he loves and celebrates. The final work of Warhol is also his
saddest and most disorienting, the auction of his belongings,
full of chatchkas--junk, really--inhabiting flatly a life,
fetching crazy prices, image in conflict, surviving even its
emptiness in true American fashion. A conflict between decorative
fullness and emptiness: Mao & Matisse is Pop in that sense.
Every poem in Mao &
Matisse is an idiosyncratic, renewed attempt to create a
Hegelian synthesis in words between Mao & Matisse.
The poems constitute a series of linguistic strategies. In one
case, the utopian union occurs in the shape of a Detroit fifties
car seen in terms of Marxist dialectics. In another, Mao appears
in a sequence of poems where American experience is shaped by
the aesthetics of Chinese poetry. Or, in another, the lover's
legs are associated with the cultural revolution. Mao sometimes
is in the titles of poems or in the sound echoes of words. In
another poem, a Queens scene is imagined as the spot where a
future revolution will start, etc., etc. The varieties are endless,
the hallmark of Ed Friedman's poetic imagination, the sureness
of his ear, finally, what make the poems perennially fresh and
as the big luscious contours, chrome bumpers, radiator grills,
hood ornaments and headlights, all molded for motion, ready for
voluminous space travel along suburban roads, with the loveliest
tilt towards futurity.
plushness and progress.
superstructure, that struggle, those contradictions.
revolution embedded in these trillions of broadcast images
metonymous and meek. ("Rocket
to Stardom," italics my own)
ask, "Dim? Him?"
I must be
a man drowning out the crickets
his car radio
have so underestimated your love.
like the grasses
wind all through them.
always admired the party
with dried peat in planting season. ("Living Under")
is my 20-year plan.
up, roll over, play dead.
thinner, rise to power.
20 fascinating lovelies and have Lori not be jealous.
300, change my underwear,
the people on all sides of me
with great abandon
from the Nomadic System of Mongolia
and with great heartbreak.
universal tongue. ("What
two jujitsu experts
unaligned national fronts ("Camouflage
is not a Chinese chef on a 1800's Wild West plantation
is our roving anthem and merry exercise routine ("Sanction
currency and commemorate
above Queens mist gathers
the treeline. Fifty years from now
could be where the confusion dissipated and
revolution knew itself ... ("Heading
for Manhattan by Train")
The meeting of Mao &
Matisse occurs only in the filigree peregrinations ("explanations")
of each poem; as each poem ends, the union disappears, like a
camera obscura constituted of words being turned off. And the
attempt has to be restarted and repeated again and again, driven
by an inner compulsion of failure, of a historical white space
which must be filled with words. The form of the book is repetitive,
not climactic. All the formal references in the book point to
that fact and meaning turning into design, decorative movement
: "colors are not things that have definite progress"
("Rapture"); "those impressive alphabets during
the period of Russian Constructivism"; the open-ended precisions
of "Busby Berkeley" routines ("The Blown Ones").
What remains is the aura of Warhol's profusion of chatchkas,
Coppola's melancholy treasure house of discarded neon, the glittering
language residues of Maoist ideology, the telephone exchange
Busby Berkeley routines: the flat empty space of the American
dream, and the obstinate glow of half-life emanating from it.
What happens to the full moon every time it wanes? It's clipped
into stars, a Han pottery, a Matisse cut-up, pointing to the
immensity of emptiness surrounding us.
deep still pools
color of easter lilies ("Presence")
How can one fuse the individualism,
sensual rewards of capitalism with the puritanism of social revolution?
This is not only an American dilemma, but also Chinese, in fact
of every country and culture shaken by the second coming of capitalist
enterprise. Mao & Matisse is exquisitely attuned to
this historical moment. Its texture embodies the cultural minutiae
of its time and its issues. Its easy transparence crackles with
them. There is no greater compliment I can give a book. I recommend
everyone to read and re-read it, letting its magic take every
reader wherever he or she may.
Hanging Loose Press must
be congratulated for adding Ed Friedman to an impressive list
of poets which also includes Paul Violi, Kimiko Hahn, Donna Brook,
Tony Towle, Gary Lenhart, Sherman Alexie, and Charles North.