Nietzsche declared that God is dead, and maybe he is—in German. In English, as Jack Kerouac observed, God is dog spelt backwards. Sure, Kerouac’s statement (in Desolation Angels) seems goofy in retrospect, if less so when recast as a bebop lance in the bubble of literary and religious pretentiousness from the vantage point of his intense engagement with a world beyond the established orders of church and academe. Paul Fericano has similar aims. His 1980 statement of intent, The Condition of Poetry in the Modern World: A Stoogist Manifesto, suggests that despite the Beats’ flirtation with Zen Buddhism in the 1950s, American poetry never quite lost its attachment to bourgeois materialism. Put another way, the God of poetry may be dead, but this knowledge alone is not only “insignificant and insufficient, but also very boring.” To Fericano, a poet has no option other than playing the joker, the result of living in “a jester’s paradise,” and the form itself must purge itself of all “masturbators, metaphysicians and MFA candidates.”
Since 1971, Paul Fericano’s poetry and prose have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in various underground and aboveground literary and media outlets. The Hollywood Catechism collects old and new poems in three parts: “The Book of Shemp,” which contains many Hollywood-focused poems; an excellent parody of Howl; and the mixed bag third section, “The Reason I Am Here.”
Fericano has a notable history as a prankster. In 1982 he awarded himself the Howitzer Prize for “Sinatra, Sinatra” (reprinted here), an honor that spurred other writers to seek grants before the hoax was revealed. Four years earlier his poem “The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party” (also in this collection) had been held up by Republicans as potentially libelous to John Wayne and read on the floor of the California State Senate as part of an argument to abolish the state Arts Council. Over thirty years on, it is difficult to understand how the poem could be singled out, despite the dark slapstick humor’s sudden turn to violence when Wayne is cast as a hapless victim and beaten by an acid-dropping Glen Campbell and friends.
Silver screen icons permeate The Hollywood Catechism as the gods of a modern age, making it a timely release in the year of the big screen adaptation of Hollywood love-in Entourage. Fericano’s catechisms are interspersed throughout a collection where actors become holy figures, with acting their religion: Halle Berry is “fool of none” and “blessed among catwoman” (“The Halle Berry”); Fellini “Art in Carney/Clooney be they name/Thy King be Kong/thy Penn be Sean/in Bert as it is in Ernie” (“The Director’s Prayer”); and James Dean, Rock Hudson, Sally Field, and Tom Hanks make cameo appearances in “The Actor’s Creed.” The catechism device is eventually pushed to the limits of its form in “Prayer of the Talking Head,” which asks “Lord, make me an instrument of my baloney.” This is absurdist humor in the vein of the Surrealists, but in direct language that at times assumes the dimensions of jabber, blabber, and gibberish.
Fericano is the founder of Stoogism, so it is no surprise to encounter the Three Stooges as a recurrent and ultimate motif: “if the choice is between eating the pie of destiny and throwing it, the Stoogist will choose the latter every time.” In moral and spiritual bankruptcy, a sense of humor is proof of being alive, even if Fericano’s love for the Stooges began with a different premise: “Their insanity is an inspiration./They encourage me and my brothers to seek perfection” (“An Actor’s Life For Me”).
Yet the Three Stooges faced their own ‘boy band’ problems, having been lumped together as a fixed collective and rarely considered as individuals. “The Book of Shemp” considers the solo career of Shemp Howard, the third and least Stooge, in a plainspoken factual tone that expertly creates a cinematographic hard-boiled noirish tone:
He plays along with the gag.
He goes home at night and pours a drink.
Deep cuts don’t show where the laughs
keep coming no matter what he does.
Overall, The Hollywood Catechism reflects a world in which film stars and celebrities are royalty, where traditional values are usurped by the secular and materialistic. Fericano has nothing to lose but his shirt by turning Jesus into a gambler (“The Three Stooges Meet Charles Bukowski in Heaven”) “on his knees in an alley shooting dice.” The poem’s hip, streetwise Beat rhythms emphasize the son of God’s bad boy charisma.
Importantly, Fericano succeeds in making the reader understand that Hollywood stars are (mostly) human, despite often being removed from the mundane and ordinary. These gods can come down to earth with a bump, and Fericano elicits our sympathy for their sometime desperate circumstances. A standout is “The Peach Seed Man,” a masterful evocation of Robin Williams using first-person speech and powerful imagery to re-create his voice in the last days of life.
The focus, however, is not entirely cine-centric. Fericano’s poetic universe also confronts gender, childhood, racial dynamics, and the ins and outs of poetry itself. His poems on child abuse are particularly powerful. He takes on technology via an early morning encounter with “the iPhone’s irritating/18-note marimba default ring-tone” (“Shoot All The Bluejays You Want”) and imagines that he wins an award for Best Supporting Poet at the Academy Awards (“My Life In A Coma”), although Ginsberg rushes out from behind a curtain to steal the prize. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, but in the real world, for the time being, The Hollywood Catechism will just have to be classed as a fine collection of poetry.
Publisher: Silver Birch Press
Publication Date: 20 MAR 2015
FIRST PUBLISHED MIRAMAR MAGAZINE (ISSUE 6)