The Criminal: The Invisibility of Parallel Forces
by Max Wolf Valerio
Eoagh Books, $20.00
Reviewed By Marc Olmsted
MAX WOLF VALERIO said, “Before I transitioned, I was 19 and showed Allen Ginsberg a poem of mine and he said ‘Right now, you’re a mixture of utter genius and complete stupidity.’
But Gregory Corso said Valerio was “the one, Allen, — that Blackfoot, she’s got it.'”
A mid-to-late 70s Naropa student, trained lineage-bearing first Postbeat trans poet FTM, Valerio shows his roots in surrealism, postmodern cacophony, lyric dada, and the Beats, especially Gregory Corso, with whom he particularly related. Wolf also wrote the memoir, The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male (Seal Press, 2006).
Here’s an excerpt from his “Radio Freeway”:
in the wind
in my ears
of white dots on the road
the crescents and skulls
people in their cars
going past floating
as they ride
drunk and full of the
moon or television
in their heads on the radio
or Dr. Laura…
It is likely, knowing Ginsberg’s Naropa (then Institute) teaching persona, that Max ran into Allen’s strong preference for objectivisim, the “no ideas but in things” near-journalism of William Carlos Williams. Allen had abandoned his own 60s psychedelic syntax. Max was already a surrealist, and Allen’s common objection to anyone practicing in an abstract way was “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” When Gregory’s surrealism was brought up by students in rebuttal, to say nothing of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, Allen would reply “It is very hard to do well.” But after all, Allen’s own surrealist moments in Howl had made him famous – however, we do know what he was talking about. As for Jack’s Mexico City Blues, Allen never went that far, though his own Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa called it “a great exposition of mind.” To that, Allen would agree.
There is no question it infuenced Max. Here’s a section of Jack’s 230th Chorus:
Frightening ravishing mysterious beings
concealing their sex,
Pieces of the Buddha-material frozen
and sliced microscopically
In Morgues of the North,
Penis apples going to seed,
The severed gullets more numerous than sands –
This same book blew Bob Dylan’s mind, and his surrealism can also be felt in Max’s work, for instance “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”…
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
You can feel both these poets in Max’s own phrases:
foreheads with slimy baptisms
I go to the payphone and it’s wired for disease.
all the lawyers in fish tanks
Vampires flung tongues/ at the jukebox
But a good deal of Max’s surrealism comes from sentences that are in themselves objectivist, Williams-like, but stacked or arranged in bizarre juxtapositions:
The delicate animal is starving.
I experienced a heightening of sensation in my left hand.
Flickering bald heads, the bar, the hallway, the envelope—-an attachment.
Most of these poems begin in 1984, a good 7 or 8 years after Max visited Naropa, and most of them end before Max began his transition. Max himself said that the Language Poets had an influence, but his own kind of deconstruction is very reminiscent of William Burroughs’ cut-ups, or in fact the long history of 20th-Century poetic derangement of language to cut through conditioning.
He opens an early poem quoting Arthur Rimbaud “I is another.”
There are also viscera, tissue, fluids, assaulted boundaries…Max is the American Mutant, the David Cronenberg of poetry. Calling this collection The Criminal invokes both the outsider and the outlaw.
Though many poets who have followed Max’s interests have gone into a sort of hyper-intellectual Apollonian route, Max took Buddhist refuge with the crazy wisdom master Chogyam Trungpa, and also aligned himself with chaos shaman Kristine Ambrosia. In short, divine madness, if not courted, was certainly admired, and in Max’s earliest poems the words are scattered like tossed runes on the page. Corso claimed to do cut-ups in his head. Max is definitely his disciple. According to Valerio’s Afterword, there are also phrases which are found in other books, again like cut-ups.
So here is Max’s book, elegantly produced, with a stunning photo by transman Leon Mostovoy of artist Luna Olcott for the cover. I already knew and admired them all.
There is an introduction by recently deceased Kevin Killian, who recalls Max from the “old days” – post-Naropa and, again, before transition. Killian tended to bet on a sure horse.
Still, when Max resurfaced in the 21st Century, his trans followers were not particularly interested in poetry, and his poetic audience (what there was of it) didn’t know what to make of him. The movers and shakers, the tastemakers, were nowhere to be seen. He’d read from The Testosterone Files transition memoir to place things in context, something he no longer has to do. Participating in Michelle Tea’s Radar Series in San Francisco, he still mostly didn’t read his poetry. And there was that rainy poetry night in Berkeley where no one showed at Pegasus Books even when his memoir was prominently displayed. Facebook reminded me of that event, which occurred 8 years earlier, almost to the day when Max now appeared in Portland, Oregon as a guest of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
Still, we knew why he was there. I always liked his poetry and helped where I could to get him into zines and on stage. Certainly he was published in the zines regardless of being trans, which basically no one had reason to know. As I said, those worlds weren’t intersecting yet. His surrealism reminds me of a story I heard about a still obscure Will Alexander reading in a coffee house in L.A. where he was received with total bewilderment. Now majorly recognized, Will Alexander was blurbing Max’s back cover. Certainly Will was not influenced by Max being trans or of color. Nor was I influenced to read Will because he was black. But as we know from the infamous J.T. Leroy, packaging and branding increasingly becomes everything.
As such, in an MFA-dominated time of revision-polished intellect and political correctness, Max’s trans- and person-of-color identity seem of greater interest to some than his Dionysian methods and roots. In fact, Max himself was shocked when he was invited to return and give a lecture at Naropa (now University) and find his writing mentors dismissed as “old cis-gender white men.” “European” was also tossed in there somewhere. Max also overheard some poets at his AWP reading say how tired they were of hearing “old white men.” Personally, I don’t think this separatism has much staying power, any more than it did with the Lesbian Nation and black radical movements that preceded it.
On stage, Max reads with a gravitas that is professional, often better than most of his peers. Still, it is not his accomplishment alone that made him a flavor of the year, as he knows all too well, now 62 years old and only months away from quitting a minimum-wage job at Kings Sooper market in Denver, Colorado.
I prophesize that in another twenty years, his work will come first.
alive under the scorching umbrellas holding up the sky the wolves gather together to tie up the world and gnaw at its belly