by Peter Baroth
In his book, “Over Here,” (Factory School, 2009), Philadelphia poet Frank Sherlock invites us into a unique verbal and visual world. It’s one structured around phrase and space with a graphic as well as literary quality that probably owes as much to Marcel Duchamp and his Constructivist approach to art than to any one poetic influence.
To use Sherlock’s own words from his piece “XOXO,” it is a world where: “The word / liberates then requires / then connives.” And in reading these words, we are lifted into a peculiar yet profoundly flowing, even cascading, realm of potentially higher truths.
The building block of this work is the phrase. Phrases, or axioms, occur in so many parts of our culture, from the underground milieu of the graffiti artist, to the scrolling headlines on CNN, to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, to sentences uttered in the context of economic forecasts or political speeches. Certainly, in our post-literate world, the phrase, or the sound bite, could be thought of as all – powerful.
By masquerading behind the authority of the printed word, Sherlock subverts our faith in all sorts of phrase – producing sources in our culture by juxtaposing words from all corners of our balkanized and sometimes authoritarian realms and re-assembling them for a sometimes profound, sometimes absurd, sometimes surreal effect:
There are religious orders
that care for the souls of dolls
Each offering for a different
wound for potential portals
(“Wounds in an Imaginary Nature Show”).
The phrases lie scattered across the page, reinforced by varying spaces between them. But Sherlock here is more than an adolescent graffiti artist. His calculation with words is agile and mature – and multi-faceted. Some phrases invite a freewheeling skimming, such as, “the joint would become a rathole disaster” (“Wounds in an Imaginary Nature Show”). Others require careful rereading such as this passage from the same piece: ‘These are the jealous desires to hunt / or even be chased.” All of them convey a seriousness of purpose and liberating mission that questions the nature and weight of the printed word. I was sometimes disturbed by his phrases, such as this one from “This Season”: “executions are kisses / plunged into plywood mouths.” This phrase could be a mere play on words. But it could also be a dire observation about the dehumanizing qualities of our penal system. Which is it? My guess is that Sherlock is deft enough to be conveying both meanings at once.
So here we are in a world that undermines our suburban norms: “Before / we wash / the names from our sheets” (“XOXO”), or “get down get down,” (A catch-phrase from some R&B music party from our youths?) from “Wounds in an Imaginary Nature Show.” Words are combined from high culture and low, present and past, personal and world history, leading back to birth or genesis, shocking us, edifying us, entertaining us. Sometimes he is soberingly linear, sometimes chillingly non-linear, and through his stream-of-consciousness our minds are pointed to injustice, hypocrisy, obscenity.
In “Daybook of Perversities and Main Events,” Sherlock separates his succession of quasi-platitudes and cold truisms with pages blank save for the word “gunfire” in brackets. This piece has me thinking that Sherlock’s intention is more than obtuse. At this point, he is doing his best to doctor and administer to a culture, and language, in crisis. This absurd and accusatory guise reminds one of Dostoyevsky’s antic torrents in Notes From the Underground. For I think that Sherlock believes it when, in his final piece, “Over Here,” he states: “The words free & love have not… / been obsoleted.” Thus, however bullet-riddled, words and ideals still convey meaning.
In his final passages and “Over Here,” he states that “…even at the end the land remains a place to fall in love,” and “The oven’s been exploded / the bread is still expected this is for you let’s eat.” If the ovens of the horrific fireball awaiting the end of our culture have been exploded, I believe that Frank Sherlock has done his best to influence this outcome for the better. In “Over Here,” even as he toys with complete Dada, Sherlock still believes in beginnings, middles, and endings; still has ideals and believes in meaning. Frank Sherlock’s “Over Here” is instructive and liberating, and his masterful use of phraseology, space, and punctuation I found to be divertingly habit-forming.