Murat Nemet-Nejat

Mao & Matisse
by Ed Friedman

Ed Friedman's Mao & Matisse: A Decorative Poetics, Pleasure, Ideas
and Rebellion
Hanging Loose Press,
93 pp., $ 12.00 paper.

1) The Space of Pleasure

There is a Turkish joke: "What happens to the waning moon when it disappears? It's clipped and made into stars." This zany, Zen saying dogs me as I try to come to terms with the multi-faceted enigma and delight of Ed Friedman's new book Mao & Matisse. In a way, the dislocating, lyrical wit of this poetry is described as clearly and succinctly as one can in Ron Padgett's lines: "It's as if the poems in Mao & Matisse were written by several people whose second language is a floaty, slightly dislocated (italics my own), and thoroughly amusing English, from which there emerges a new lyricism that provides a rarity these days: pure pleasure."

Questions, nevertheless, remain since nothing in the book seems in its expected place. For instance, which Matisse, "terrific to look at," the icon of pleasure in the book, one is referring to? Of colors, Fauvism, or of the later cut-ups, of shapes? The answer is ambiguous. Though Mao & Matisse is permeated with a vocabulary of hues, the primary fauve colors are replaced with the euphemisms of interior design, vogue, cross-dressing, with "cerise," "mauve," "silverdust green," "teal," "rose pogonia and thread-leaved sundew," etc. The "sauvagerie" of fauve is replaced with the "savagery" of Paris Is Burning: "Tom, your frock has too many puffs. Puff puff puff. Obviously he thinks he's a magic dragon with flounces, belts and epaulets..." ("What They Are Wearing").

This is one subtle dislocation in the book: a revolution in color, fauvism, becomes a rebellion in fashion. Implicit in the book is an attack against classical French taste. Fashion (including clothing, fashion photography, poster advertising) as a visual medium is very close to language. Ed Friedman's book takes the extra step and completely verbalizes it; in one sense, the book involves a translation, a total verbalization of a visual language. That is why, the voices in it seem to speak in a second language, with accents. A startling assertion underlies Mao & Matisse, that there is a continuity from the tropical jungles of Rousseau to the Mediterranean/North African palm trees of Matisse, to Cambodian palm trees, to the vegetation on Hawaiian shirts, to deserted islands on T.V., to a vision of Bora Bora in a travel poster in Francis Coppola's One From The Heart, etc. The originality of the book lies in this poker faced, equalizing continuity; the hierarchy between high and low, pure and applied arts disappears, which is the reason for the mixture of visceral pleasure and anger the book may simultaneously produce.

As a radicalist of pleasure, Matisse's first step involved asserting a connection between painting and decoration, which "flattened" the painterly surface. Ed Friedman's style in Mao & Matisse must be called a decorative poetics, the first consequence of which is the "flattening," equalizing of the poetic surface. Decoration is a secondary, contingent art in the West; while in the East, from the Islam to Central Asia to China, it is primary, serious, a religious and philosophical activity through the eye. Matisse's decorative art starts with a contact with the Islamic East. Both his development and Ed Friedman's decorative poetics can be better understood with a more intimate understanding of Eastern decorative art, the nature of its "flat" space.

Not a product, decoration is a process, a continuous, open-ended conflict between fullness and emptiness in the East; decorative field abhors emptiness and needs to be filled with a super-abundance, excess of shapes, colors. On the other hand, emptiness resists being wiped out, insists on its presence. Every design is a temporary, snapshot resolution of this conflict, in which one side tends to dominate. In other words, decorative space is flat only from Western perspective; its sense of depth is the tension between motifs and the emptiness in which they float. The meaning (and power) of a design is the strategic location of motifs in the empty space, which they partially fill.

Two impulses, as polar extremities, coexist in Eastern decorative art. The impulse to fill is centrally Islamic, the world of the classical Persian rugs and manuscripts, the majestic Selchuki gate designs of mosques and caravanserais (opening to austere interiors) and the defensive, hot house, interior design modularities of the Alhambra. The added-on (the shape, the color) here is the focus of attention, the fuller, the more exuberant, the more paradisiacal the better. The other is the impulse to clear the emptiness, make it tangible. As one moves further east to nomadic Central Asia, to Buddhist Nepal, to China, this impulse dominates. This design instinct abhors fullness; more than defining themselves, motifs point to the emptiness surrounding them. Experience of design turns into an intensified experience of space. For instance, the 2nd century Chinese Han pottery has few motifs, only a rough grained texture of color. The transparency of classical Chinese poetry too is an experience of emptiness, inherent in the Chinese sense of time (having nothing to do with Western realism). The Eastern decorative art is utopian, a continuous attempt for a visual rendition of the ideal, virtuous space. In Islam, the ideal is a vision of abundance, paradise as a pleasure garden. In Buddhism, it is of nothingness, emptied of desire.

(The conflict of Asiatic decorative art echoes uncannily the conflict in American culture between the Puritan and the neon, the spirituality of a 1950's Detroit car and the obscene heat of a Shaker staircase. Las Vegas, the gaudiest spot in America, is one hour's drive from Death Valley, its emptiest spot, barest of vegetation. That's why a decorative American poetics, based on Asiatic space, is relevant.)

Matisse's growth as an artist follows the fault line of Eastern decorative process. Drawn to Islamic art, in his earlier work the activity of filling is paramount. Colors, often eroticized as vegetation and wall decoration, etc., around the female figure, organize the empty space. The development of Matisse involves a progressive movement East. In his gigantic cut-ups, motifs are strategically placed cool figures -colors flattened, deeroticized- whose main function is to point to the emptiness in which they float. (The 1992-93 MOMA retrospective of his work is emerging, artistically, poetically and intellectually, as one of the two seminal events of the last ten years, the other being the 1993 Met exhibit, The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century.) In the same way, Ed Friedman's decorative poetics lies in the distinct way his images function. While they are fauve, full of piss and vinegar, in combination, their affect seems cool, flat. The meaning and power of a decorative image lie not in itself but in its echoes, occurring in a decorative depth. The following is a characteristic passage from Mao & Matisse, on which I will practice an experiment. The lines in italics are my own interjections:

            A cruising cop car
            protrudes from the lush vegetation.
           What animals grow here?
               (La Rêve)
           How might we survive in the great banyans
               (Gilligan's Island)
            is not something I worry about.
            In fact it's so hot
            I can hear every time Lori re-crosses her legs
                         (Bud - dha)
            behind me on the bed
                (Oda - lisk)
            where she's combating erroneous tendencies within the party
            on the question of agricultural cooperation
            and rectifying the party's style of work.
            (Mao)                                      ("Living Under")

The initial key to this decorative field is visual, aural and conceptual echoes spun by words. This is a private, mental space, a mixture of ear and eye, into which the reader must participate. Its flatness is deceptive. It is also a rebellious space because the decorum of taste based on a hierarchical division of genres has disappeared. Even more radical, the "erogenous" is porously interchangeable with the ascetic strictures ("erroneous") of radical politics. Mao often appears at the service of, overwhelmed by Matisse's pleasure principle. In another poem, "Fuckin Banshees," the proletarian dictatorship becomes ruling one's own body. (The wit of this book, reflecting the defeat of Communist ideology at the end of the Cold War, even echoes the Romans who used their captive warrior enemies -in the Hollywood version, at least- as objects of entertainment in the circus.) This is the ambivalence, the range of dislocation, even obsessive melancholy and sense of failure which underlie the wit, the transparent ease of the poems:

            A melodious tune circle
            spins in the vista

            Hasta la vista.                                                 ("Living Under")

            You appraise me with blue vacant eyes
            Very shallow, very wide
             Nothing stands still for two-toned shirts
             That mirror the design of your car radio
             Why even my well-practiced blank expression
             Dissolves at the mention of fresh grazing
             I am Mr. Cow now and Mrs. Free-swimming Jellyfish
             Undulating across the tangerine linoleum
              Petroglyphs verify our continued grooming.      ("New stirrings of                                                                               sensuality and dynamism")

              "Consider the Red Army's bootstrap approach
               and then the bareness of your own feet."
              "Baroness of my own feet"                                 ("Fuckin Banshees")

Can erotic pleasure (and experimental poetry) also ever be radical politics? This is the repeatedly asked question, the quest underlying Mao & Matisse. In the words of the book itself: "Wouldn't Mao have loved an Henri Matisse there in his headquarters as he planned the final assault on Chiang Kai-shek's reactionary regime." The book's answer is: "Probably not. Unless of course I was there to explain it to them" ("Mao & Matisse"). The poems in Mao & Matisse are series of "explanations," repeatedly trying to make present in the space of a book an event which did not take place. Decorative poetics as utopian politics. The quest underlying Mao & Matisse ties to the polar impulses of Eastern decorative process: a conflict between fullness (paradisiacal pleasure) and emptiness (ascetic draining of pleasure) representing ideal virtuous states. Mao is Buddha, the Buddhist field. Buddha - odalisk. Matisse (of the odalisks) is the plethora, vogue, verbal extravagance of pleasure. In the book they try to become one. Mao is present as melancholy absence, defeat, as utopian yearning. The empty field of "snow... white wake" in the penultimate poem in the book, "Presence," is the empty presence of Mao throughout the book.

2) Mao, the Melancholy Space of Absence & Yearning

The phrases, slogans, Marxist-Leninist syllogisms of Maoist revolution permeate, obsess, weave like nervous tics into the language of Mao & Matisse. But, because of the end of the Cold War and at least partial repudiation of Mao even in his own country, this language has lost some of its historical urgency, is flattened, becoming an encyclopedic treasure trove of faded language: "planting season," "bumper crops," camouflage radio," "20-year plan," "jujitsu experts of unaligned national fronts," "poems from the Nomadic System of Mongolia," "what is struggle?" "On Contradiction," etc., etc. Pried loose from its historical urgency, this language permeates the poems like debris, like a melancholy, neon-shimmering junk yard of bumptuous, sumptuous fifties cars piled at random, mixed with equally functionless neon signs, advertising nothing but themselves. One can see here, once again, another dimension of decorative image (and decorative politics). On the surface, in historical time, the Mao language is flattened, functionless, adrift; but in its compulsive and variegated reappearance, insistence to attach itself to, hang with images of the senses, colors, etc., it gains an aura, becomes a delineation of continuous yearning, of absence and emptiness. Mao becomes a presence in the book as far-eastern decorative space.

In this decorative space, value is decoupled from success; failure and the functionless--Mao as junk--become positive, yearned for objects. The politics of decorative imagery is utopian (rather than historical ), interior (rather than communal), individual and rebellious (rather than revolutionary), longingly melancholy and almost bathetic (rather than tragic). It is a supremely American creation, subverting, while participating in, American commercial culture, by detaching its products from their motor energy, which is greed and money. Sentimental, gorgeous and shimmering. Greed becomes yearning, winning a utopian absence, money a scintillating constellation of words (poem an economic nonentity). The flattened Mao language in the poems, detached from its historical urgency, is the verbal equivalent of Matisse's motifs in his cut-ups. Drained of their earlier colors, color ceasing to be the focus point, they become relay points to a disorienting emptiness in which they float.

The spiritual father behind Mao & Matisse is the American artist Francis Coppola, not of the Godfather movies; but of his profligate, multi-layered failures, One From the Heart and Tucker. The dreamlike treasure junk-yard of discarded objects and signs in One From the Heart (pierced by the siren-like voice of Crystal Gale) is the Maoist language in Ed Friedman's poem. Tucker is the tale of of a visionary capitalist creating one ideal car, so attuned to human need (a perfect American Maoist car), that not one unit of it gets sold: a capitalist object of production pried from its economic function becoming a utopian object of beauty. Both Tucker, rebelling against major auto companies, and Coppola himself, rebelling against the behemoth Paramount by spending his own money to gala his movie at the Radio City, are quintessential American visionaries of failure, both in love with and subverting the American, capitalist dream of success. In one secret corner of American psyche, rebellion, failure, junk and beauty coalesce (on the other hand, Godfather I and Godfather II form the multi-layered thrilling, soul annihilating American fable of success).

The language of Mao & Matisse taps this secret nook of American psyche: the illicit attraction to failure of a culture wedded to success. Failure--the dysfunctional becomes erotic as the erotic is attached to a sense of yearning, absence. That is to say, Mao is interiorized (radically privatized) with all the implications of this paradox. In the words of Mao & Matisse, a revolution "for several billion people that in a million tangible ways each day makes life better" ("Mao & Matisse") becomes a revolution of the plenitude of the senses, of pleasure, a private, personal revolution. Mao transplanted becomes Coppola as Fauve transplanted becomes Vogue, lurid travel posters, neon.

Mao & Matisse is about a meeting which never takes place, a utopian meeting between Matisse reveling "in the discipline of of the People's Liberation Army" and Mao, with a Matisse hanging in his headquarters, planning " "the final assault on Chiang Kai-shek's reactionary regime." It is a series of "explanations," creating a verbal utopia based on decorative poetics. Its transparency is of emptiness, not of Cartesian rationality. The revolutionary in American society often reveals itself as utopian (VISIONary), from the Massachussetts Bay Colony to Brook Farm to the ascetic Bruderhof and free-loving Oneida communes (a kitsch synthesis of the last two: "The pride of excess is equal to the pride of self-denial. Private bad taste is a special kind of grace.") described by Andrei Codrescu in Road Scholar. The Michigan militias belong to this line. The utopian in America is patently both nihilistic and in bad taste (watch the monstrous vulgarity of the movie version of The Scarlet Letter, filled with the gorgeous cinemascope body of Demi Moore), as artists from Francis Coppola to Andy Warhol to Andrei Codrescu understood. The pleasure filled, kitschy wit of Mao & Matisse is one aspect of an intellectual austerity. Mao & Matisse is a Pop work only if Andy Warhol can be seen in totality, not only as the creator of Campbell soup series, etc.; but seen as the great moviemaker who looked unblinkingly at the phantasies of gay life, at a sleeping man or at the wall of the Empire State Building during the length of a movie, draining the image of its glitz: Warhol as Buddhist emptiness, Mao, the transparent mole who also flattens the icons he loves and celebrates. The final work of Warhol is also his saddest and most disorienting, the auction of his belongings, full of chatchkas--junk, really--inhabiting flatly a life, fetching crazy prices, image in conflict, surviving even its emptiness in true American fashion. A conflict between decorative fullness and emptiness: Mao & Matisse is Pop in that sense.

Every poem in Mao & Matisse is an idiosyncratic, renewed attempt to create a Hegelian synthesis in words between Mao & Matisse. The poems constitute a series of linguistic strategies. In one case, the utopian union occurs in the shape of a Detroit fifties car seen in terms of Marxist dialectics. In another, Mao appears in a sequence of poems where American experience is shaped by the aesthetics of Chinese poetry. Or, in another, the lover's legs are associated with the cultural revolution. Mao sometimes is in the titles of poems or in the sound echoes of words. In another poem, a Queens scene is imagined as the spot where a future revolution will start, etc., etc. The varieties are endless, the hallmark of Ed Friedman's poetic imagination, the sureness of his ear, finally, what make the poems perennially fresh and disturbing:

   ... -- as the big luscious contours, chrome bumpers, radiator grills, hood ornaments and headlights, all molded for motion, ready for voluminous space travel along suburban roads, with the loveliest tilt towards futurity.
               Aerodynamics, plushness and progress.
               This superstructure, that struggle, those contradictions.
               A revolution embedded in these trillions of broadcast images
               so metonymous and meek.              ("Rocket to Stardom," italics my own)

               People ask, "Dim? Him?"
               And I must be
               Like a man drowning out the crickets
               With his car radio
               To have so underestimated your love.

               To forget
               Is little
               To remember
               Is like the grasses
               With wind all through them.

               I've always admired the party
               and Lori's legs
               lanky, bronzed
               dusted with dried peat in planting season. ("Living Under")

               Here is my 20-year plan.
               Wake up, roll over, play dead.
               Be thinner, rise to power.
               Caress 20 fascinating lovelies and have Lori not be jealous.
               Bowl 300, change my underwear,
               and lie down
               with the people on all sides of me
               singing with great abandon
               poems from the Nomadic System of Mongolia
               spellbinding and with great heartbreak.
               Their hand motions
               a universal tongue.                  ("What is Semiotics?")

              "On Contradiction"

              "Cooperative Ventures"

               With two jujitsu experts
               Of unaligned national fronts      ("Camouflage Radio")

              "Hop-Sing" is not a Chinese chef on a 1800's Wild West plantation
              It is our roving anthem and merry exercise routine ("Sanction currency and                                                                                                     commemorate value")

               Elevated above Queens mist gathers
               in the treeline. Fifty years from now
               this could be where the confusion dissipated and
               the revolution knew itself ...              ("Heading for Manhattan by Train")

The meeting of Mao & Matisse occurs only in the filigree peregrinations ("explanations") of each poem; as each poem ends, the union disappears, like a camera obscura constituted of words being turned off. And the attempt has to be restarted and repeated again and again, driven by an inner compulsion of failure, of a historical white space which must be filled with words. The form of the book is repetitive, not climactic. All the formal references in the book point to that fact and meaning turning into design, decorative movement : "colors are not things that have definite progress" ("Rapture"); "those impressive alphabets during the period of Russian Constructivism"; the open-ended precisions of "Busby Berkeley" routines ("The Blown Ones"). What remains is the aura of Warhol's profusion of chatchkas, Coppola's melancholy treasure house of discarded neon, the glittering language residues of Maoist ideology, the telephone exchange Busby Berkeley routines: the flat empty space of the American dream, and the obstinate glow of half-life emanating from it. What happens to the full moon every time it wanes? It's clipped into stars, a Han pottery, a Matisse cut-up, pointing to the immensity of emptiness surrounding us.

               Pressed in us
               Are deep still pools
               That flow away
               Beyond the moon
               Setting in cold
              The color of easter lilies         ("Presence")

How can one fuse the individualism, sensual rewards of capitalism with the puritanism of social revolution? This is not only an American dilemma, but also Chinese, in fact of every country and culture shaken by the second coming of capitalist enterprise. Mao & Matisse is exquisitely attuned to this historical moment. Its texture embodies the cultural minutiae of its time and its issues. Its easy transparence crackles with them. There is no greater compliment I can give a book. I recommend everyone to read and re-read it, letting its magic take every reader wherever he or she may.

Hanging Loose Press must be congratulated for adding Ed Friedman to an impressive list of poets which also includes Paul Violi, Kimiko Hahn, Donna Brook, Tony Towle, Gary Lenhart, Sherman Alexie, and Charles North.