Philip Larkin’s noted poem This Be the Verse harpoons familial sanctity.
“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself.”
Not solely an angry poem, This Be the Verse is a recalcitrant force. In reality, Larkin’s fucked up benefaction is as much a sly smirk as it is contemptuous memorial. Along the lines of that anonymous dictum, it takes one to know one.
What Larkin has been to the anti-familial, John Tottenham strives to be for the anti-marriage set. Tottenham’s second poetic issue is Antiepithalamia and other Poems of Regret and Resentment, from Penny-Ante Editions. The epithalamia the title sets itself against is an obscurity and so is defined on the back- epi-tha-la-mium n., pl. –miums or mia: A song or poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom. Right from the start, the book winks at its reader, for it is a screwed up invention about what it perceives as a screwed up invention. As the first line of the book’s first Antiepithalmium stresses “At last their smugness is united.” Quite.
Tottenham brushes off the Larkin influence, “best not to emphasize the connection, other than him being a poet I like and our shared pessimism.” True enough the English ex-pat, who has called Los Angeles home for years, links more deliberately with Ambrose Bierce, the long dead and oft forgotten American grouser. Blending a hybrid of the two, Tottenham decants his own lachrymosity with a taunt in Regrets,
“I always knew I’d end up feeling this way:
It was a setup. Regret was something
I worked towards, something I felt I had to earn.
And now, naturally, I regret that too.”
Tottenham adds he claims no influence at this stage —a vanity only in that he is not lying. His jaundiced eye and merciless wit combine with his staged acrimony to summon dereliction. His assaultive take on marriage informs the tumorous self assessments that come after the antiepithalamiums much more than Larkin, or Samuel Beckett, or Frederick Exley; all writers who have concerned themselves with exhuming demise in the face of valor, all three writers Tottenham respects.
For all of his torment Tottenham flecks hope into Antiepithalamia’s poems. Well hidden, and quietly seeded, it arrives with a sneer. This sneer allies with Bierce’s own take on regret, and operates much like a brothel, where aspiration and faith are supplanted by rouged cheeks and tawdry implications. Or, as Tottenham writes- I saw the sun rise by accident, it was a horrible sight. But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, hope is hope is hope.
The hooker’s golden heart thumps beneath the ruthless cynicism of Passing Wind, Passing Water,
“…the lava flow of night traffic pours
into a dying shade of blue,”
And there it is in the delicate appreciation of On the Road Again,
“A good humor man nurtures a roadside weed
with water from a Dixie Cup.”
The hammer strikes most fully in Desire and Desirability,
“my heart swells
at the prospect of being desired
by someone desirable.”
No matter he lets that swelling heart become septic. That it swelled in the first place is the point. As with the crabby ardor of A Year Since Sunday,
“If I could only see you again,
it might dull these pangs for an hour or two.
Of that… maybe not.
Either way, please hurry.”
It makes sense, his forbears tilled this same land. Tottenham’s grousing equals his predecessors, fanning all hope into the smoky haze of his unemphatic harrumph—in another writer this stance would wrinkle in pitifully demonstrated shrugs of the shoulder. Tottenham hands over his failure with too much pleasure. By which I mean to say—this book is a winner.
At the book release party Tottenham paid strict attention to a rather striking detail. Delivered as comedic routine, he bribed the assembled crowd to his side by declaring that the reader of his poems (himself) was different than the writer (also himself). Laughs bounded through the packed house. But this is a prescient nod to the lives these pages have outside of him. Tottenham is a performer, and once heard aloud, his cycle of crypto-defeatism is more solidly cast. On the page, they vary. Enlivened by performance, the dimensions reduce. Hear them and laugh, read them and steep. In print, they come through slaughter more abruptly.
As phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote to his friend, poet Hugo van Hoffmanstahl, “the intuition of the pure work of art is taking place in a strict cancellation of each existential stance of the intellect and each stance of the feeling and the will, which presupposes the existential stance. Or better: the work of art puts us in a state of pure aesthetic intuition that excludes this kind of existential stance.”
This existential bone isn’t the bone Tottenham raises repeatedly over his head, and yet, Husserl’s comment fits. Tottenham represents the here and now, a purely aesthetic form—if you use applied phenomenology. If you skip through his hoops, and they can be small hoops, you will be rewarded, as in My Last Spurt, a nudging wink to onanism.
“This death, as opposed to my other deaths,
feels dangerously like spring.
A catastrophic waste of time,
But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Nor should the reader. Antiepithalamia delivers in theatrical asides. Stuffed between the endless miasma that grounds each “act” is the same buoyant gloom of Samuel Beckett’s resignation from academia,
“Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning.”
Yes Antiepithalamia settles into its own class with a nod and limp wristed salute to those who trod here first. Importantly, where his previous book, 2005’s The Inertia Variations, sheltered the singular negative, this new collection radiates a wider scope. Elation may center on a hand to prick conversation; it is still elation.
Tottenham douses that elation and expectation from the very start. Why not? When you strip the paint off of a house, you predicate a future on the demolished past. Poem titles explore lack of innovation (Parasitology) distrust (Pricksand) and desperation (Artists Only.) Each features the peculiar vigor of the presumed irremediable. Then, the chest cavity opens. Like Bierce writes of faith in his Devil’s Dictionary, “ Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” So the scythe cuts in Antiepithalamia.
Tottenham dangerously balances fabricated words with archaic ones, a practice that often brings with it self-destruction. It doesn’t here because of Tottenham’s parsing skill. And so he beckons despite whatever tongue plants in his cheek.
The dagger to the heart is the poem Suicidal Hit Parade, a paean to self-offed poets that provides surprising grace instead of the philosophical opprobrium of Camus and Sartre. This is his monument, a “hierarchy of suicided poets.” Certainly it is a no brainer that oven cleaner Sylvia Plath snatches top billing. John “bridge jumper” Berryman follows. Berryman’s fellow alcoholic Hart Crane finds purchase on the list as well. But beside well-known poets Anne Sexton and Randall Jarrell are more recent additions -Marc Penka (O.D.) and Sarah Hannah (heredity.) This precision of inclusion patterns Tottenham’s circuitry. The robust language of his morose visions merely serves as kindling to the complex fire of his concern. “Scratch a cynic, find a romantic,” he admits in a phone conversation. He repeats this again in the poem,
“Suicide is a dying craze in the world of Poetry:
the patina of tragedy enhances a legacy,
capping a lifelong brush with obscurity.”
Tottenham warns this is his last poetry collection. Too bad. He’s hit his stride. His regret bared for all to see, sure, but also celebrated for its nudity, like Titian’s Venus de Uribino, or Goya’s La Maja Desnuda. Call it magical cynicism. But what about the broader context, where else should Husserl, Titian, and Beckett set up shop as Larkin and Bierce slip tender volumes from the shelves but here in the pages of a former art student whose work has shown in New York and Los Angeles galleries?
Summing up his own work, Tottenham suggests sculpture or surgery, framing the creations with physicality, steering them to completion. As he says of the process, “ It’s no good to create a substantial body of work that sheds valuable light on the human condition if it exists in a medium that automatically dooms it to obscurity.” Yet, here we are, sloughing along with Tottenham as jaded guide, hand on heart. Taken specifically as short offerings not all at once, like any good medicine, these poems work much like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor should. Remember though, these are poems, not Celexa, Prozac, nor Zoloft.
If a weakness should be explicitly diagnosed, it is that over its course Antiepithalamia can be too cleverly dismissive.
In the end Tottenham harangues himself with a pithy epigraph-
the time has finally come
to take myself seriously
but I don’t have the energy.