canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Jill Kelly Poems
by Alessandro Porco
ECW, 2005

Reviewed by Zach Wells

Ubiquitous as the presence of mass media pop culture is in our daily lives, it should come as no surprise that more and more poets seem to be writing about professional sports, musicians, fast food, movies and television. When everyone’s selling something and every second phrase in the public sphere is trademarked, the artistic dilemma for a poet who wants to exploit pop culture allusions for poetic ends is—or should be—how to do it without becoming annexed to the commercial machine, just another slickly packaged faddish ephemeron. Where does one position oneself between the poles of shrill condemnation and semi-conscious celebration and still maintain one’s integrity as an artist and an individual?

In his debut collection, Alessandro Porco goes whole hawg on popular culture. His poems are chock full of references to pop music, pro sports, television, film and, especially, pornography (the Jill Kelly of the title is a porn star). Porco strikes an iconoclastic pose with poems that celebrate such rebels as the rapper Eazy E and literary cum film character Rambo, with diction that is unapologetically foul-mouthed and smutty and with poems that poke fun at the staid conventions of Canadian "poesie." Porco puts on display a wealth of technical skill, a good ear for the erotic rub of word on word and a cheeky wit. But you don’t have to look very closely at his poems to see that bad boy bravado and bravura versification are not on their own sufficient conditions for poetry.

The problems start before we even read the title of the first poem. The first section of The Jill Kelly Poems is entitled "Bad Boys." This gives us a preview of the iconoclasm to come, but it also establishes a paradigm of rebellion rendered tame by packaging—"Bad Boys" being evocative of the recently sequelled Hollywood comedy of the same title (starring Will Smith, whom Porco derides as "Big Willy" in the book’s first poem) and the theme song for the popular reality TV show "Cops."

We encounter our first bad boy in an elegy for the former NWA gangsta rapper Eazy E. In Porco’s portrait, E is uncompromisingly authentic, no "mass sucker," never going "in for/PG rated big-pimpin’ or gettin’ jiggy" and "if he were alive today,/he’d hard-knock life Jay-Z back to reality/& send Big Willy’s willy styles back to west Philly." Even though he’s on the brink of death, E is "defiant to the end, he refused to wear/the regulation hospital-blue gown. Rigged-up/in Raider gear instead." "Rigged" here seems to convey an unintentional irony, since E’s defiance allows him what? A unique personal expression? No, it allows him to advertise merchandise until the day he dies. E’s rebel image in life was essentially merchandise itself. The feuds between members of the disbanded NWA generated untold millions of dollars in revenue for the rappers and their labels, selling Compton ghetto "hard knock life" to white kids in the suburbs, for whom the gangsta life of "real G’s" provided an exotic fantasy to alleviate the boredom of identical houses and manicured lawns. In his earnest tribute to Eazy E, contrasting him with the supposedly phony sellouts of today, Porco indulges in a retrospective nostalgie de la boue, and mistakes the bluster and bombast of a nonconformist image for the real thing.

But perhaps it is misguided to be looking for the "real thing" in this book. The publicity information accompanying it proclaims that it contains "a poetry of surfaces" written "in gonzo fashion"; clearly, what we are to expect is an unholy hybrid of John Ashbery (who wrote in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" that "the surface is everything") and Hunter S. Thompson; both revolutionary writers in their own way. It seems especially likely that Porco would align himself with Ashbery, since he quotes the American poet twice in the book, going so far as to say that "A randomness, a darkness of one’s own sent me on my way." In a programmatic triolet, Porco insists "This poem includes the word somnambulist/Because I like the way it sounds./There’s no meaning to be derived by formalists." And in "Ode to Balzac," the speaker reveals that the poem is not about the French novelist at all: "I just get a kick out of saying Balzac,//emphasis on the homophonic entendre. Ball. Sack." The eschewal of substance and depth, of "moral imperative[s]," in favour of slick surface and parody is Porco’s aim, so we should evaluate his book, if we are to evaluate it at all, on those terms. And there is a strong case to be made that all poetry should be, first and foremost, read according to the Ashberian/ Porconian prescription, because poetry will always succeed or fail on the strength or weakness of its surface qualities.

But it is precisely Porco’s felt need to tell his readers how to read his poems that signals his failure to live up to his own superficial ambitions. Ashbery presents his ars poetica obliquely, through an ekphrastic interpretation of a painting by Francesco Parmigianino. His crucial statement is a paradox the complexity of which enacts the hall of mirrors he sets up by writing a warped poem about a painting done in a warped mirror:

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.

Ashbery eschews attempts to access depth, but affirms the creation of the illusion of depth, using the "laws of perspective," highlighting Parmigianino’s "extreme care in rendering/The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface …/So that you could be fooled for a moment/Before you realize the reflection/Isn’t yours." Porco, by contrast, is far more blunt:

…my title’s

a smokescreen, a MacGuffin, man without country, poem without subject—


"There are no lions in the highlands of Scotland!"

The aphorism delimits a theory of suspense put forth by Hitchcock—

it would be a shame not to … Hitch. Cock.

—where style is visible substance, some invisible hand


pens The End in elegant cursive, but

by then no lesson’s learned—crisis averted—no moral imperative imparted

Whereas Ashbery’s paradox complicates the relationship between reader and poem, Porco’s simplifies it. The result is precisely what he says poetry should not be: didactic; not true to surfaces, but to the author’s intentions. Porco would do well to heed Ashbery’s observation that "works of art [are] so unlike/What the artist intended." Instead, the overwhelming impression this book gives is of a poet less concerned with what and how he is writing than with what and how he is not writing. Theory’s in the driver’s seat, praxis riding shotgun.

Both poet and publisher insist that we read The Jill Kelly Poems as a provocative backhand to the face of the poetry establishment. Besides the author’s resolutely foul language and frank depictions of sex acts, we have a trio of jacket endorsements. David McGimpsey opines that "Alessandro Porco vitalizes contemporary poetry with timely smack." Sex columnist Josey Vogels—whose blurb was no doubt solicited to show how this book can be a "crossover" hit with appeal to non-traditional poetry audiences—calls the book "A daring, bright and downright smutty collection." And Mary di Michele gushes: "Not since Irving Layton has poetry of such erotic gusto and music both dazzled and disturbed me. The Jill Kelly Poems is not for "vegans nor Marxists nor Puritans." Alessandro Porco will surprise and shock and seduce readers with his "darlings of xxx lingo.""

The story these blurbs really tell us, however, is not one of brash nonconformity, but of chummy coteries and academic fads. McGimpsey and di Michele, both of whom are thanked by Porco in his acknowledgments, are faculty members of the English/Creative Writing Department at Concordia University, where Porco obtained his MA. His acknowledgments are chock-a-block with the names of professors and fellow students. Porco has also recently extended this collegial camaraderie beyond the bounds of his first book by publishing praiseful essays of his friends Carolyn Smart (the director of CW at Queen’s University, where Porco studied as an undergrad) and McGimpsey. The question begs to be asked: What would Eazy E think of all this mutual congratulation and institutionalized favour-trading?

Furthermore, Porco’s preoccupation with pornography and other staples of popular culture, far from being risqué, is standard currency in the trade economy of contemporary academic discourse. Of the preoccupation of many scholars with "shocking" sexual topics at the most recent Modern Languages Association conference, John Strausbaugh writes in the New York Times, "There is, in fact, something achingly 90's about the whole affair. The association has come to resemble a hyperactive child who, having interrupted the grownups' conversation by dancing on the coffee table, can't be made to stop."

This sort of coffee-table tap dance (or perhaps lap dance is more apposite for this collection) is precisely what characterizes The Jill Kelly Poems. What is unfortunate, however, is not what Porco is writing about, nor how he is writing about it, but how little he does with what could be powerful and provocative subject matter—had he only locked horns with it in an authentically committed manner. The title sequence, for example, is not really, as it suggests, an engagement with Jill Kelly as a character, but uses her as a glossy pinup to ornament poems that are for the most part only nominally concerned with her. If Porco is playing at being Catullus, then Jill Kelly makes for a pretty two-dimensional Lesbia. To borrow from Ashbery again, Porco’s "way of telling … intrude[s], twisting the end result/Into a caricature of itself." Granted, Porco is not striving for Parnassian heights with this book of blue verse, but a comparison of this work with the multi-faceted oeuvres of some of the poets he alludes to and quotes—including Catullus, Herrick, Campion, Ashbery, Sappho—only reinforces how one-note the tune Porco plays on his pan pipes is (with the notable exceptions of "MacGuffin" and "Solarium," a version of a poem by Quasimodo, which poems give a glimmer of what Porco might be capable of should he relinquish his apparent need to strike a pose). di Michele compares him with Layton, but it is with Layton the shock-jockey alone that this comparison is valid; Porco’s work doesn’t hold a candle to the intellectually and emotionally magisterial poems of Layton the maestro. Porco follows Ashbery’s lead as far as not "affirming anything," but missing is the "pure affirmation." The "exposed core" of his surfaces is regrettably hollow, difficult to distinguish from the detritus of mass media entertainment.

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