Larry Goodell: Co(s)mic Clown by Gus Blaisdell
Headdress of candle flames or engorged coxcombs; muscle-shirt rolling and bopping with bulges; and his cloth phallus thrust and wobbled by his raunchy hunching hips, Larry Goodell steps out upon the stage, possessing and invaded by his own poetry and paraphernalia. In the course of his caperings the stage becomes a charged piece of this whirling planet as he enacts, incarnates, and embodies in performance what poetry must have once been like before it was expurgated categorically into epic, which was tribal and gave to the bard shaman-like powers; into lyric, in which a single voice, sometimes masked, sometimes naked, hymned his friends, mourned them too, or celebrated Olympic as well as battlefield victories; and into tragedy, where the polis gathered to see itself confessed in the tension between the good sense of community and the overweening individual desire for knowledge or personal justice.
Goodell’s poetry is more ancient than these first, classic, Aristotelian resolutions. It is antediluvian, the seed and essence out of which these later categories will grow, twistedly—so twisted that the root and origin will be forgotten. And his poetry is also deeply comic, in a sense so attenuated as to be nearly unremembered: it is the work of the clown of power who ridicules as he celebrates the absurdities of being and existence, who probes Dasein, if you’ll permit that lugging term, with a hard-on, who stinkfingers existence, and who in his lightest and most powerful moments seduces the young woman, who is also being, into playing Doctor in the backrooms of bars like the now archaeological Thunderbird in Placitas, Goodell’s home. It was in the T-Bird that Goodell gave some of his most memorable performances to a wonderfully drugged and drunken audience willing to be gathered together by the powers of his poetry; making cohesive and momentarily coherent a disparate, desperate bunch of discrete creatures all tottering on the edges of every imaginable variety of unconsciousness, bloatedly expanded consciousness, and violence; and for an hour or so magnetizing the iron rings in them all, connecting himself with the ironic and co(s)mic sources of his own art, until not only the audience but the whole bar was, like the planet upon which it all spun, rocking and rolling through spaces public and private.
Obviously this is not the poetry of page and podium, book and lectern. The page is the speaking poet; the podia are quite literally the poet’s own dithyrambic feet seeking a measured rhythm in the midst of riot; and the book has become a score, the lectern tossed aside so that the poet, bedecked, can enter into the very medium in which he works: poesis dramatized. Here drama is a form of incarnation rather than performance, and it dilates the present to metaphysical proportions.
Antediluvian, I said, and by that I meant some prelapsarian time well before the Flood, when a being like Goodell could be both bird and snake, when these two powerful avatars shared a single phylum and before we separated them into specialized species, dividing essence as we do labor. The metamorphosis in Goodell’s works, speaking still in avatars, would be that one in which a snake sloughed his skin, shed scale for feather, and emerged surprised in radiant plumage readied for flight. In the peacock, for example, one can clearly see the snake. But in his plumage, in the hushed fanning out of his tail, one sees far beyond the peacock. As his eerie screams transform into the metaphysical, peacock becomes phoenix. Beyond the phoenix is the demigod, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Beyond the demigod? Only the Sun itself.
Goodell is pre-Choric, a single manic creature wrestling with making sense out of being. His is a poet’s tongue, untwisting the commonplaces that tie it so that he may speak out clearly, the poem enveloping him; and as he speaks it out, dissolving the membrane, it becomes an action best represented by a breathless flame unraveling upwards, climbing higher for more air, more light, until the air thins and, subsiding, the consuming flame is extinguished. A priapic clown, shoving it up the world, he is exploring and inventing existence with hoots and a virile member. Locally, in the ancient Pueblos, this clown would be a mudhead, a creature still confused with the earth and blood into which he was thrown from the between piss and shit of his birth—anciently obscene, secular, profane as dirt, autochthonous. This is a creature like those wonderfully androgynous beings in Aristophanes’ contribution to The Symposium: creatures who sought each other, one always in need of the complement of the other, and who seemed to think they might put back together the sundered halves of the world by fucking each other crazily, restoring the anciently divided essence—whether of snake or bird, man or woman, being or nonbeing. Silenus Goodell! A creature who just can’t get enuf of it!
Poet as dancer, as chanter or singer who compels assent and prayer, he is the one who steps out of the poetic swamp, or slithers out, who rises above his own storming and confusion. As high as he can get on his oddly jointed limbs, he rests briefly above his work, his head coiled in feathers or lifted above rustling cool coils of scales. His body halts momentarily atop the locked joint of a single extended leg, the other tucked up below. Out of the nesting feathers of the body the head lifts, the eyes beady with concentration, the craning neck serpentine. Then the uplifted leg descends into the waters of the slough; the neck slides over and down, and as the talonful of rich muck is raised from the bottom, this creature either minutely inspects its contents, listing the details and making a poem, or else, dissatisfied with the results of his analysis, hurls this mud rich in restorative virtues into the roaring faces of his tipsy, toppling, soaring audience.
Truly to laugh with Goodell, to understand his Old Comedy, is to see revealed the weakening prehensile underpinnings of common sense; it is to see laid bare our uncommon prejudices and the contingency of what we commingle. On whirls the world: on the poet’s fingertip or, transformed by his rhythms, upon the nose of a seal—that sea lion of being that Hart Crane evoked from the beach once and for all, writing beyond himself: “Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” This fleeting glance beyond is also the clown’s roaring, rapturous disillusionment with being.
I have used extended figures to explain the work of a man who is essentially a mixed metaphor. My purpose has been to evoke in the reader a feeling of Goodell. Yet the point implied throughout the preceding, and the point most worth making, is that Larry Goodell is a natural—a category that academe either explicitly denies, actively discourages, or has forgotten. Goodell is the poet fully gripped by song, the man who must dance, just as a goat must leap or make himself attractive to other goats by pissing down his throat. The natural is today treated as the aberrant, the freak, the perverted, and the consequence is that poetry now is only muttered up and printed on the page. Yet there is in art, as there is in sport and mathematics and chess, a prodigious category, full and exuberant and youthful. It is the category of the natural—swimmer, shortstop, painter, poet, or jazzman—and local examples include Goodell, Bill Pearlman, and Kelly Robertson. They are not shamans because they are unsponsored by a group and because they are not representative of a collective mind. They span only themselves. Free in their creations, which come from the isolate powers of their singular imaginations, they are their own centers, single points eccentric to academic circles. The sources and wellsprings and powers they display are not held in common. They are their talents themselves, all alone out there, dangerously ventured in their own originality.
Without this category of the natural, art of any kind is impossible. Because? Because against what academe teaches, theory only succeeds art—in a quiet, active meditation on work done by oneself and others. And art, if it is genuine, is a response of the whole individual to being-in-the-world, and it is not, not primarily anyway, the dramatic solution to an anteriorily posed critical problem. Having chosen not to deal with the natural, not to groom or train or nurture it, academe is left with only its own accomplishments—the brilliant but gelid genres of the modernist novel and poem, achievements somehow against the grain—and that turgid confusion of filched formica laurels, an arbitrary criticism that seeks to usurp and absorb its object and thereby, by digestion, to gain autonomy. But food digested, though it nourishes, turns to shit. –Well, but doesn’t everything? Ultimately, I mean. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’d better keep on reading. (The proper question is not what survives but rather what does not turn to shit.)
Insofar as Goodell’s work is not academic neither is it part of the current late modernist movement of conceptual or performance art. Performance art is reactionary and self-conscious and offers its antics as a solution to a critical problem. Performance art is a dramatic response to what the performer believes cannot any longer be done in painting or sculpture. It is hysteria caught up and wedged between the slowly contracting walls of the two-dimensional and the three. In Michael Fried’s term it is theatrical—a bedecking of despair in which the performer simultaneously mocks himself and his work in the hopes that his ridiculed audience’s reactions to his own display of failure will, in complicity, acknowledge that to fail is really to achieve. It is as if Hemingway’s hideously painful gut-shot hyena in Green Hills of Africa were performing his death in order to win his killer’s approval. The shortest version of all this is the unexamined axiom of much bad modernist thought: that a vanguard precondition on having a subject is to declare the impossibility of a subject matter to be your subject matter. Yes, if you are Mallarmé, Bird or Trane, or Creeley. Otherwise the result is John Ashbery, a latter-day reincarnation of Wallace Stevens’ “muttering king,” who maunders among the shivering hinds of his verse like Elliot Gould’s overly murmurous, throwaway Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—an endless investigation of the erosion of imitative form by what it imitates.
Though natural, what is superb about Goodell’s enactments is that his is a naturalness re-achieved and against odds. His achievement of Old Comedy occurs in his unabashed willingness to say what comes to mind and, while avoiding the theatrical, to become, if needs be and the world demands it, the mouthpiece of ventriloquil being—by turns dapper Charlie McCarthy or bumpkin Mortimer Snerd—where a burp can become oracle, a Delphic choking or gargle, and a pratfall can jar loose the world. Goodell’s achievement gives credence to the comic’s ancient retort to How do you do it?—I just make it up as I go along. (And I am always going along!)
Certainly the priest’s vestments are nothing more than one resolution of the clown’s motley—just as the arithmetical norm called meter, the justice of the written poem, is merely a resolution of the poet’s own heartbeat in his jarred-loose response to an outtakilter world. A commodious vicus of recirculation: the poet in flight, or meditating, thinking down into the scales and pinions of himself, coiled to fly or strike or struggle. And once the recirculation begins within him and then passes to the audience, the measures of the poet keeping it all balanced just this side of frenzy—well, then the line comes inevitably to mind, filling something like a mind now held in common: “The light foot hears and the brightness begins.” (The line is a whole poem, Robert Duncan meditating on Pindar.)
I’ll close my prosaic anacreontic with a reminder in the inspired words of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed:
“For poetry is so out of the ordinary that it could not appear unless the world itself wished for it. Not alone the poetry of poetry, but the poetry of prose—whenever the time of saying and the time of meaning are synchronized.”
[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of ARTSPACE: Southwestern Contemporary Arts Quarterly, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1976 (where, unfortunately, inexperience left it riddled with typographic errors).]