Online Edition: Winter 2004

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The Memory Theater Burned

Damon Krukowski

Turtle Point Press ($14.95)

by Chris Stroffolino

When thinking about the rock star as poet phenomenon, one may notice that, in contrast to the Leonard Cohens and Patti Smiths of previous generations (who were known as poets before they became rock musicians), many of the names tossed around today first achieved their notoriety as musicians and songwriters: Jewel, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan, David Berman, and Damon Krukowski all fit this pattern. Berman and Krukowski are probably the least known of these musician/poets, yet they are also the best of bunch, because neither of them uses poetry as merely a spillover of the stray thoughts and feelings that they couldn't shape into the rigors the art form of the song demands. It may, in fact, be an irrelevant consideration to bring up the fact that Krukowski has been on the music scene for almost 20 years when considering his first book of prose poems, so strongly do they hold up on their own right.

This is not to say that fans of Galaxie 500, Magic Hour, and/or Damon and Naomi will not find some insights into one of the people behind the music in this book, but they should also be warned: Krukowski's seeming confessional meditative mode in many of these pieces may not be as autobiographical as it at first seems. Not that Krukowski is a mere "trickster," but the trickster does make his appearance along with "the singer, the teller of tales, and the neurotic on the couch." So even though he draws on the experience of his years as a professional singer, songwriter, and musician for quite a few of the pieces in this book, they are almost always tempered with a knowledge of language's artifice and thus never become self-indulgent. Rather, the writer's attitude to writing, singing, or performing becomes a medium through which the reader (even if not a musician herself) may grapple with basic, eternal, questions about identity and one's place in society and the cosmos.

For instance, in "Song Without Words," the speaker recounts (or fabricates) his progression from being a proficient instrumentalist (which instrument is never mentioned) to becoming a vocalist:

But as I sang, I began to think of the words I was singing—these were simple words, both sad and happy ones I had picked up from different lullabies or folksongs I remembered hearing in childhood. The words, though simple, began to affect me. I thought about them more and more often, and they began to take on greater import than I had at first realized.

The danger that Krukowski speaks of here—how words can author the author—may have specific biographical relevance, but more generally points to the danger anyone who has learned to speak must navigate. Likewise, in "Raree Show," Krukowski undercuts the Freudian creation myth by employing imagination in the service of theatre. The speaker is "a prompter at our national theater. It would be a good job, if the principal Actor and actress were not my parents—They are our nation's greatest actor and actress Because they love the audience more than they love one another, me, or even themselves." This might be the beginning of a tragedy, and certainly there's something dysfunctional about this dynamic; the speaker is reduced to the role of the prompter, a kind of "mute" or "copyist" (which, not accidentally, are the titles of other pieces in this collection). But there is a potentially liberating paradox here—for just as "Song Without Words" could be said to be, on a literal level at least, not a song and made of nothing but words, the speaker of "Raree Show," though presented as helpless to change the predetermined repertoire of "our national theatre," is perhaps able to alter our perception of the family by presenting it as high public farce.

"At The Café Detroit," sounds like it could be spoken by a Dylan, sick of telling his audience "you shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you." "A Testimonial," "Vexations," and "Bells" are excellent accounts of the impetus to become a songwriter and singer respectively, and the struggles to translate feeling into art (which, yes, is made more poignant if one happens to have a Damon and Naomi record on in the background while reading it). "Bells" in particular is a tour de force, offering a metaphorical linkage of the cosmos with a radio. There are also some shorter but less risky pieces in this collection (e.g. "Venus and Neptune," "My Life As The History Of A Town") which vary the tone and help the book move along. Other pieces, like "The Envelope," can be read as an account of the "fall" from a prelapsarian, more communally trusting time.

Throughout Krukowski is very adept at showing the possibilities an "I"-based poetry (even with an unreliable narrator) may still have for social critique in the broadest sense, but often his greatest strengths are evident in the shorter pieces, like "The Secret Museum," in which the speaker (a personified sound) squeezes himself into the horn of a victrola and is transfigured between beats. Here, rather than lamenting the constrictions of "the envelope," the speaker embraces the former confines of his art, whether musical or lyrical.

It may seem odd that Krukowski ends this book with a piece called "Poetry." Why would he put such weight on this idea?

Irrationality, by contrast mirrors our individual souls. In it we recognize ourselves, but never our friends, relations, or neighbors—it therefore makes poor material for religions and songs—and is the only possible material for poetry.

The distinction between religion and poetry is well-rehearsed enough to be easily grasped, but the implication that songs are more like religions than poetry is more novel and gives one pause. Is this distinction true in general, or just for Krukowski himself? One could write an entire book, or perhaps an album, that explores it further.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents