Of Molotov cocktails, grenades, and poems

Mark Scroggins, Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles (The Cultural Society, 2011), 42 pp., $15.00;  Red Arcadia (Shearsman Books, 2012), 82 pp., no price listed---Scroggins takes no prisoners in these two books that collect some of his most incinerating blasts (I also recommend Anarchy, his 2003 Spuyten Duyvil book). Although John Zorn is the putative inspiration for Torture Garden, the rancor, to say nothing of the volume, of these tight, compact poems (five words per line, seven lines per poem) belie their size and remind me of some of the soundscapes of John Giorno. But there is more than rancor here. Like Ralph La Charity, Scroggins is attentive to the consonantal force of American English, especially its Anglo-Saxon line, and exploits it with relish. Here are the last four lines of the title poem: “crumbling cinders forearms hands and knuckles/of shadows with hollow eyes/crowds against the bounds white/flesh diamonded against chain-link fencing.” (p. 16) Uncluttered for the most part by articles or prepositions, these quartz-hard poems, dedicated to critics, poets (full disclosure: including yours truly) and friends, offer sustained criticisms of our policed and self-policed states. “Speedfreaks,” one of his New York City poems, sums it, which is to say us, up: “Panglossian crystal six-sided world breath/ blooms white in the air/open herringboned cobbles hyperexpensive rattle/of baby carriages dogs forced/into jackets wedged in cabs/four-to-a-seat Horeb or of Sinai/sirens Hasidim on cell phones.” But those American towns and cities that are not New York do not escape Scroggins’ merciless scrutiny. If the title of the first poem in Red Arcadia, “Dawn, New and Improved,” doesn’t make clear Scroggins’ rage against the near-total commodification of everything, the poem does:  “Logos as logo,/ descending/dove whose feathered breast touches/ your lips for one aching/moment before the darkness falls/ and endless credits scroll…” The poems in Red Arcadia constitute, if you will, the expanded edition, a more narratized version of Torture Garden. Here, Scroggins is much more concerned with telling, not so much showing (yes, as with any book dedicated to formal constraints, Torture Garden is a bit show-offy), and so the hits are direct: “…Nature is after all culture,/or springs from self-same/roots…” Or how about our increasing, if disturbing, accommodation to organized violence: “The war is the crawl/ at the foot of the television/display, body counts ticked off/in pixels and automatic Nielsen/Ratings…” Amid the madness that passes for the quotidian, who among us would say no to, turn away from, the last poem in Red Arcadia: “…the poem as vicious animal, the poem as/tumor, bulbous and unclipped umbilicus. No more poems/ as consolation. I want the poem as damage.”