Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Todd Moore: Dillinger's Thompson

Reviewed by: Victor Schwartzman

Victor has never met Todd.

But there is a story about why he wrote this review.

After a review by Christopher Robin (who else?) on a book of poetry co-authored by Todd, Victor sent Todd his standard email. It is longstanding ULA Book Review Blog policy (since three months ago) to send authors an email that their book has been reviewed. The idea is, respect authors enough to let them know their book has been reviewed.

However, I was told after sending the email that Todd wondered if it was some sort of spam, was a sneaky request for money, or whatever—spam on the internet can lead us to believe that an email from an unknown person is an attempt to get our money, one way or another—either by selling us penal enhancements, the opportunity to help someone from Nigeria invest twenty million dollars, or to let us know we have won a lottery we never entered. I was offended by the idea an author thought I was asking for money, although why I was offended is hard to say, since Todd is a total stranger and my emails can be even stranger. Like that last sentence.

Anyway, I decided I should read something of Todd’s as one way of showing my good faith, and found a used copy of Dillinger’s Thompson on Amazon. My, this is a long paragraph.

Where can you find this book? It's out of print, and thus available only in used bookstores (or through Amazon's network of bookstores). I found it through Amazon.

When Elliot Ness was shooting his hot seed from his Thompson sub machine gun, was he masturbating?

Todd Moore sees the 1930s’ weapon of choice--for both criminals and police—as erotic. In seeing the Thompson as erotic, he’s making a statement about how Americans see violence and power. What counts is indeed size, and how you use it—as the narrator basically says to J. Edgar Hoover while ridiculing him, the narrator’s Thompson is bigger than Hoover’s.

This book is short. I got it a few days before writing this review. I thought I would take a look at it before going to sleep. I figured I'd glance at it. Instead, I read it through. The poetry was instantly compelling, probably because it went straight to the heart of the dark side of the American dream.

The book is 53 pages. 12 of those pages are an introduction. The rest is a single poem whose individual lines are rarely more than three or four words.

In the introduction, Todd writes of the romance Americans have had with the Thompson sub machine gun, and then relates that romance of violence to his own childhood. He did not have an easy time, a street thief living in a sleazy hotel full of “marginal underworld toughs and amiable sociopaths”, finding escape in movies which reflected his life: “I remember shoplifting some stuff out of a five and ten just to get enough money to see The Asphalt Jungle. I remember putting a scar on a kid’s face right after coming out of The Big Sleep.”

In the context of American violence, automatic weapons are erotically charged, the ultimate. They spit out the lead without stop. And, of those automatic weapons, the Thompson is the classic, both from reality and the movies. “Maybe the marriage of Dillinger and the Thompson sub machine gun is the most subversive of all American couplings. It is one of the most extreme metaphors I can think of because it depicts the dark side of this country and it is a vision which will not go away.” In reading those sentences, I thought of the the coupling of America's foremost criminal with America's foremost romanticized violence, and then I thought of the current US President, who enjoys the image of himself as a quick draw cowboy, but who would never allow himself to get within miles of a shoot-out.

The poem that follows the introduction is part of a longer work Todd has been writing for thirty years (this book was published in 2002) and, at that point, totalled 50,000 lines.

There are four main characters: the narrator (at times Dillinger, at times perhaps Todd himself), Billie (his “woman” whom he sees only in carnal terms--they don’t talk about books), and Lester (a fellow criminal). And the fourth character: the Thompson sub machine gun.

The book begins with the gun.

Todd describes the weapon in erotic terms, unable to resist it:

…I can’t or don’t
want to resist
it knows the shape
the precise curve
the tight feel
of my trigger
finger the way
my mouth knows the
geography of a
woman’s breast i
want to hold that
gun in my lap…

The lines quoted above also help illustrate why the poetry is compelling. The language is direct to the point of being stark. The lines are short, and they are broken up in a fascinating manner, with “sentences” beginning part way through a line, or ending on the first word of the next line. It is not just a way of keeping your attention or making you read. There is a remarkable rhythm the writing establishes, pushing the reader along (not dragging, not pulling, pushing).

The writing is full of stark images that do not have any affectation, a mix of poetry with prose. In one section, getting shot by a Thompson is compared with being on the receiving end of having sex--getting fucked, not making love, with the bullets entering victims like a penis enters a body. In another section, Al Capone’s Thompson is described in loving detail.

This is poetry with intent and power, not poetry where the poet is desperate for the reader to whine with her/him about her/his navel. There is a lot more that I could write about this book, but this review already feels remarkably long, given it is about a single poem from a relatively short book. But Todd’s poem has that onionesque quality: the more you look, the more layers you see. Though unlike an onion it didn’t make me wanna sob, it was way too in my face for that—this poem is not a emotional kleenex you cry about, it is a dare.

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