The Synoptic Gospels of Albert Russo, A Review of The Crowded World of Solitude, Volume Two; The Collected Poems, Reviewed by David Alexander
To ascribe to a poet’s work, however commendable, a description of Biblical, even religious dimensions, might at first blush seem feckless.Amazon USA
To ascribe to a poet’s work, however commendable, a description of Biblical, even religious dimensions, might at first blush seem feckless. Yet there is nothing overtly irresponsible or even sacrilegious in the attribution. The adjective “synoptic” simply means to present a summary or general view of a whole, and, according to the dictionary, is frequently found in ordinary usage. So it also goes for the noun that succeeds it -- a gospel is not only a written body of religious teachings, but also an unquestionable truth and a doctrine of great importance; nor is another meaning, that defining a form of spiritual music kindred to Soul, wholly unrelated to its employment in the title of this review. Albert Russo’s collected poetry, composed over a lifetime of single-minded dedication to the craft of writing, represents all of these constituents.
Good poets, like good poems, are born and not made, and Russo has been endowed by circumstance and pluck with a unique perspective on an increasingly globalized, increasingly technological and increasingly dehumanized world society. His poems are something like snapshots of the haphazard movements of a UFO in flight or the glimpses, in vagrant flashes, that someone imprisoned in a pitch dark room might get if he had nothing else except a book of matches with which to light up his surroundings well enough to see by. The assembled memories of what was caught in each fugitive glimpse might be enough to create a coherent understanding of what had befallen him, or at least give him a sense of his predicament. Where am I? What’s happened? What do I do now? Each poem is a glimpse of the world in a vagrant flare of match light. The problem for the reviewer is that, since understanding the early glimpses requires a grasp of those at the end as well as everything in between, choosing some poems from this large collection to cite above others is an exercise in futility. The best I can do is mention those poems that have resonated with glimpses I’ve caught of my own existential prison cell.
It also seems to me that the poet often needs to be considered as much as the poem. Albert Russo, who lives in Paris not far from the Place de la Concorde, is situated at an excellent geographical and psychic crossroads to appreciate what can happen when society is at war with itself. Russo, who was born in Africa of Sephardic and Italian stock, attended school in Brooklyn, and has lived in Paris for much of the last three decades, began writing in English and has wound up composing in both English and his adopted French with equal verve. As might well befit someone as quintessentially polyglot as he, Russo is also inveterately footloose. He rarely stays put for long. His globetrotting has paid off in fresh insights that you can’t get from watching the news on television.
Like all poetry, Russo’s work chronicles his inner life and his outer existence in society, but unlike many other poets’ works, Russo has a gift for making statements of simple clarity in a few lines that might well be prose and not poetry but for the fact that in their fine distillation of nuances of meaning they embody the essence of the poetic. This may explain the many haikus, or faux haikus (for many of them are far longer than conventional haikus) and haiku sequences, found in the collection.
One such sequence, Second Thoughts, for example, tells the story of a street mugging that became murder when the assailant, bitten by pangs of conscience, went back to where he’d left his victim with “second thoughts” about what he’d done, only to end up killing him. Were the killer’s second thoughts of compassion, as is our first impression, or were they in fact darker subconscious ideations that are intimated just beneath the surface tension at the outer skin of the poem? Aiming straight at the reader’s guts, Russo concludes in a series of staccato stanzas:
when he saw the youth
tottering in his direction
he became livid
his brain cells went bang
knocking the boy to the ground
he finished him off
The poem is not only characteristic of Russo’s deadly simple yet manifestly powerful style of versification but its theme – that of the process of societal victimization of individuals and groups – is one that is returned to time and again throughout the collection. Russo seems to be saying that the scapegoating process is a hidden clause in the social contract. The killer instinct rides close to the surface in the human mind. It’s cellular, genetic, inescapable – a main engine of history. That never well-defined set of central organizing principles called civilization, like the killer’s original set of “second thoughts,” is but a gauzy veneer for less pleasant principles that are buried below.
In another poem, Tales of a Pianoforte, a successful author is destroyed in a ruinous relationship with a woman who first introduced herself as a fan of his work. In the end it’s the fan who usurps the now washed-up, and discarded, author’s fame, having used him as a steppingstone to a lucrative writing career of her own. Russo cautions us that the poem is based on a true story.
A byproduct, or end product, of the victimization process is, of course, the production -- better still -- the mass-production, of outcasts. The satanic mills of the social machinery turn vicious if invisible lathes. Once on the conveyor belt of victimization human beings are rapidly ground down into nothingness, The besotted, beguiled, maltreated and discarded author of “Pianaforte” is one type of victim-outcast, but other types abound throughout Russo’s oeuvre.
In Degradation, a type of individual that used to be called a Bowery bum in New York and a clochard in Paris, and other names in other places, but is now almost universally referred to as “a homeless person,” is encountered on a Paris street. He’s a metaphor for many other forms of victims, which are juxtaposed against each other in the poem. Russo seems to have watched the passersby as much as the derelict, for he writes:
look through him
as if he were nonexistent
as if his face were transparent
as if he were not even an object
you could contemplate
or even dismiss
with a sigh of annoyance
no, he doesn’t even deserve
the semblance of your attention
indifference is your way
of measuring yourself to the gods.
Russo’s concern for and preoccupation with the victimization process naturally leads him to ponder its arch exemplars, the Nazis, and to write poems dealing with the Holocaust, contemporary anti-Semitism and neo-fascistic outbreaks. Among these poems are Sad, Savage, Society, Forgetting Auschwitz, A Friend’s Qualms and Angel Face.
Russo’s personal background of Sephardic and Italian ancestry, and the Holocaust experiences of family members, must surely have been a powerful motivation behind these and similar poems, but Russo would probably be as much concerned about the world’s persecuted without this background, for Russo is a contemporary moralist and ethicist, and this fact alone places him outside the loop of mass culture in an increasingly machine-oriented, machine-obsessed, machine-controlled, machine-standardized, machine-globalized planetary civilization. Then too, he lives amid a unique milieu in which the results of techno-insanity have led to a state of affairs that pits the native French on one side and masses of unreconstructed immigrants on the other.
Even those of us geographically distant from the slowly building turmoil in Europe live in a global society increasingly peopled by amoral hedonists in which machines are already doing much of the thinking for their human creators and operators. In 1964 historian Daniel Boorstin coined the neologism "apathetes" -- after "aesthetes" – those nineteenth century cultural rebels who preached and practiced art for art's sake. Apathetes, as defined by Boorstin, live by a credo that Boorstin called "me for my own sake."
More than forty years after the coinage, it’s lamentably apparent that the apathetes seem to have taken over the world and that the Hobbesian "battle of each against all" as set forth in Hobbes’ philosophical work Leviathan appears to have become business as usual. Social critic Theodore Roszak has called our present society a "procedural republic," i.e., one in which culture and legalities favor individuals pursuing their own selfish ends rather than being ethically motivated to serve the cause of the greater good. To put it in cinematic terms, in the 1958 film “A Night to Remember,” heroism was depicted by passengers on the doomed Titanic who gave their lives so others could survive the disaster; in a 1997 movie based on the same theme, where the sexual conquest of a demimondaine by a shiftless dockside drifter formed the sole basis of the gossamer-thin plot, the sort of heroism that marked the earlier movie was considered an object of mockery while narcissism was idealized in its place.
In short, things have degenerated far beyond even the “me generation” of yesteryear. What we’ve got here, to misquote another old movie line, is not just failure to communicate, it’s the “mere anarchy loosed upon the world,” of Yeats’ Second Coming, and the core of Russo's intellectual battle is precisely against those anarchic forces in culture and human interactions that society seems to have surrendered to with the same ease as almost the entirety of the Peloponnesus surrendered to the hordes of Cyrus and Xerxes in the years prior to that first great “battle of civilizations” known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The Hellenic Greeks called the process “medizing,” which was a general term for casting your lot with a barbaric, greed-driven system because it was easier and frequently more profitable to bring the conqueror a gift of water and earth (this being the token tribute) than to risk all in fighting its unholy power.
Russo’s work is, in some ways, almost a sociological case study of the causes, effects and results of what might be called the techno-medizing of the new world order. He sees -- in his very bones, seems to feel -- that it’s evil, deadening, homicidal, diabolical, and there is not only a righteous anger that comes through clearly in his verse, but also a profound sadness that we’ve come to this sorry pass. Russo’s anger is at the trap we're in and the inescapability and inevitability of it. The heart and the soul of humanity, he seems to be saying, is ebbing away under the irresistible onslaught of the machines. Indeed, among the volume’s poems is one called Trailblazing, commemorating the discovery, in 2000, of a lost Jules Verne manuscript, Paris in the 20th Century, in which Russo allies himself with Verne, whose original dystopian vision of a dark technological future was changed by Verne’s publisher into that pusillanimous artistic posture familiar to generations of school children who’ve read the Verne classics.
In Addictions, a commentary on the so-called information age, Russo makes the poetic statement that:
there was a time when plastic
had a negative connotation
caught now in the fire of a myriad pixels
I feel as vulnerable as a Sarajevan
more like a wax figure
melting away during a sudden heat spell
The dystopia into which an over-dependence on technology has plunged all of us has become a land where synthetic opiates grow on plastic trees, available over-the-counter like those that addicted the savants, artists and rogues of past eras. Will our age of pixel and plague eventually turn us all into post-industrial “Sarajevans?” The use of the term in this context is telling if one reads in the word a synonym for the outcast end product of the victimization process referred to earlier.
Finally, Albert Russo, arch-outcast that he is, is also a poet of love, and indeed many of the poems that make up this collection could be classed, in the best tradition of this form of versification, as love poetry. Those poems like Falling Out of Love and The Soul Carrier reveal Russo as a romanticist who does not consider love a dirty word. Strange, though -- since looking up the word "love" in Roget's thesaurus turns up at least fifty negative associations, including “frig,” “fuck,” “hump,” “bang,” “screw” and “have it off.” In fact, it seems that the more you search, the more negative rather than positive connotations you'll likely find for “love,” at least in the English language, where preponderantly love most certainly seems a “dirty” word.
But to Russo love is not just, as the song goes, a four-letter word. Love is a necessary and natural concomitant to possession of a human heart and soul. Whether it sometimes hurts or not it’s one of the things that sets people apart from the rampant forces of techno-medization, in fact. Those toxic forces create a world populated by drones who, like the mindless saurians of previous world ages, spend their lives preying on one another within the context of a social order whose central organizing principle is predation.
As necessary as love is the ability to see clearly and look reality straight in the eye no matter what form it takes or what terrors it reveals. It’s even more necessary for poets, at least honest ones. In Joy or Not Joy Russo seems to be saying this when he writes:
what can I answer to such comments
that the instant I face my computer screen
the heart is ready to split
that it can’t wait for me
to liberate its fill of angst
that if I dare think of paradise
my lungs begin to wheeze?
Clear seeing. Clear thinking. We live in a world where these may have become vices instead of virtues. Yet Albert Russo’s collected poetry reveals him as a unique poet who is as much chronicler as scribe, as much seer as writer. This would, I think, tend to make Russo a major threat to the crushing forces of the totalitarian Orwellian futurity that awaits us. When the all-devouring World Machine supplants the final human mind, uproots the final human spirit, and crushes beneath its iron heel the fragile lotus petals in which the sleeping Brahma dreams a universe peopled by beings with souls, don’t be surprised if the poetry of Albert Russo becomes one of the first things, like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, that it programs itself to erase.