The Loneliest Ranger on Amazon

Reviewed: The Loneliest Ranger, by Joe Green. Publisher: MadHat, 3/15. Paperback $19.95, 298pp.

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Home // July.21.2017 // Alexandra Kulik

A World of Horrible Jokes

I imagine Joe Green a young boy sitting pretzel-style on an old carpet, eyes wide and transfixed on a black and white box television. Some show featuring cowboys and Indians is on. Joe is happy; he revels in the unaware campiness and melodramatic plot, and plays along—giving a startled jump with every shot of his hero's revolver. Outside, the older boys are smoking Pall Malls and drinking Pepsi-Cola and looking for girls to flirt with or candy-shop owners to pester. Later in the evening, after the final episode of The Twilight Zone, Joe—or “Dooley,” as his friends call him—dives under a blanket with a flashlight and the latest gloss-coated magazine of monsters and miscreants. It is 1950s America, the world hasn't yet swallowed the reality of World War II, and Joe lives with his family in Coatesville, Pennsylvania: a small town individuated by the apparent omnipresence of steel mills.

I imagine Joe a young adult, thrown out of college and hauled into the Army during Vietnam, a mindless war he doesn't understand. But, again, he plays along. Under the pillow of his bunk, he keeps a notebook and pencil; and while everyone sleeps, he scribbles down all the funny and absurd episodes of the day. Tragedy is kept at a minimum, merely a shadow to the farce. Then he wonders seriously about his old friends in Coatesville and writes about them too.

It can't be presumptuous of me to assume these visions if Joe asked me to. It can't be desecrating to the art of criticism that I refer to him by his first name instead of his last if, after all, he asked me to. And in his latest mélange of poems, The Loneliest Ranger, this is exactly what he asks the reader to do: know me, question me, laugh with me, be here with me. He insists that the reader abandon any attitude or predisposition to aesthetic detachment or subjective distance from the work; and therefore what he develops—what he hopes for—is in some sense more than art, it's a friendship based on the celebration of this shared experience we call life. Perhaps, for our friend Dooley, this is all that art is, or needs to be. In The Loneliest Ranger, Joe Green takes us on a journey through time, beckoning us into his abounding life. And how lucky we are.

 

What makes this collection of poems captivating is that, at a basic level, it is novelesque in its storytelling. Not regrettably, we don't always know which parts of the story are true. Joe likes to play games. That, too, is part of his revelation of identity: the unreliable narrator. So we play along, sometimes knowing when truth has gone comically astray—as in, for example, the absurdist poem “Old Father:”

Baby Belly Butter Little Face
I had a terrible childhood.
I had a problem with Pope Pius XII.
[…] I beat him drag racing.
He drove his 600 ft. long gold and white Popemobile
[…] The next day nuns descended on sports desks all over the world.
What you can read is: “Pope Beats Smart-Ass Kid” (123)

Other times it is not so clear. Did his mother really lock him out of the house on Christmas Eve while getting drunk with his Uncle Joe (25)? Did Ernie really fall into a furnace (43), and did Steve really jump off a Boston bridge just to discover that he was a homosexual (34)? Joe has chalked a game of hopscotch with truth and fiction; the reader skips along and is smiling the whole way.

But it isn't merely a game. Joe's work presents a serious meditation on the nature of reality, perception, and our existential freedom to revise the phenomena of everyday life according to our liking. As a prologue to the somewhat redundant, “About the Author,” Joe frames his own personal, stylized bio. Having imagined achieving an amount of success that, based on what we know of him, he would never actually desire, Joe sets himself up for an interview with Orson Welles. The piece is stirred humorously with fantasy, surrealism, and of course embellishment, but when Joe admits that at some point early in life he “stopped looking at the usual reality and made up [his] own movie” (257), we know it is true. Perhaps the reader's task, then, is not to ponder what is real and what is fiction, but to alter her understanding of the meaning of reality—that is, not as that which is in accordance with fact, but rather that which is in accordance with the creative realization of experience. Our friend is demanding from us not a suspension of disbelief but a reconsideration of the divide between so-called truth and make believe; or, between what we perceive and what we can imagine.

Needless to say, readers of The Loneliest Ranger are left with many unanswered questions. The confusion of truth and fiction aside, the work is set to boggle our sense of time (and it's really no secret, seeing as the first poem in the collection is called “The Sense of an Ending”). There is, for one thing, a lack of clarity about when these poems were written. Ordinarily having a sense of chronology would not be of much concern for readers of poetic works, but it does seem to affect us here. Perhaps this is because we attach the storytelling aspect to narrative linearity and Joe rather sends us on a twisting maze. We crave an unscattered puzzle-picture of his life, but we forget that, after all, this is not something we are passively looking at; it's something we are in. And in this maze through time, the only arrows we get are broad settings and the eternal and universal language of pop-culture: e.g. Famous Monsters, Jimmy Stewart, Rin Tin Tin, etc. Through the broad settings, we can categorize Joe's life in essentially three (hazy) phases: 1) rebellious catholic-school adolescence, 2) Vietnam, and 3) a nebulous and eccentric adulthood. The cultural references serving as primary symbols of time convey the idea, and remind us, that the evolution of an individual's life and the ever developing character of his culture are undeniably entwined. The passageway through is the same. Joe's poetry, rival to the obscurity and pomp of the cerebral, remains always in the concrete; always in the palpable images and icons of our shared world.

Perhaps this question of chronology also hits us because we recognize that the poems were not written in real time. Most of them are noticeable flashbacks: an adult voice superimposed on an adolescent's moment, often reflexively. And since the voice is resoundingly, almost vulgarly, adult—and undifferentiated from the voice used in the poems presenting adulthood—what seems to develop is a dissonance in our sense of time: a dissonance resulting from the combination of Joe's inarguable mastery of style with the crudeness of youth. Look, for example, at “Another Christmas Poem,” a piece recalling a string of actions that took place one Christmas Eve, when our friend Joe was ten years old:

And on Christmas day must place a wreath
On a snowy tomb. You lack belief
That your mother's mother buried there
Is somehow winging through the air
[…] You can hear your heart and feel your breath
And everywhere is death, death, death.
[…] And my father drives and my mother smokes.
This is a world of horrible jokes:
You live and then one day you die. (41-2)

The reader wonders if the sentiments here presented are the matter of cynical, adult reflections, or the peculiarly dark mind of a sensitive child. By making this unclear, Joe essentially contracts the past and the present into a singularity. And as such, The Loneliest Ranger manifests as a work exploring the continuity of self and consciousness in spite of, or transcending, our limitations of language.

But what we also notice from this poem, among many others, is the fusion of “you” and “I”—a plasticity of identity which axiomatically reminds one of Whitman. While maintaining a continuity of self, Joe speaks of his experiences as if they were universal nature; as if there were a specific process to the unfolding of human experience which binds us together. Despite referring to himself as the “loneliest ranger,” Joe does not think of himself as alone—the island poet, isolated in his own overgrown mind. The unifying principle, he declares, is life itself. Our supposed individual experiences are in fact universal poems. Consistent with Whitman, poetry is taken as a truly democratic force.

Sometimes the character behind the “you” is so amorphous, so curiously unclear, that it becomes simultaneously nobody and anybody—a disembodied experience left for the reader to fill. Thus the reader becomes the poem, or the poem the reader, and in such a way the experience is not reduced, but greatly expanded. We see this vague tracing of a “you” in, for example, “The Snow:”

The next morning when you awoke,
The new snow had come.

And your father's footprints
And your mother's and
Yours and everyone's were all gone.

But the new world was still
So lovely all in the new snow. (15)

Maybe it's in simple part, too, of his bashfulness. Joe doesn't much enjoy talking about himself, at least not directly. And this helps us understand not only the evasiveness of his work, but the unfortunate fact that he has willfully remained out of the public eye for the entirety of his literary career. As Philip Nikolayev remarks in the introduction, Joe has “never submitted a poem to a magazine uninvited.” Why else should this be, if not that he lacks a soliciting ego, if not that he sees a greater purpose and impulse to the conception of poetry than a hope of recognition.

 

It is an honor to be reviewing Joe's work not only because I am among the few to do so, but because in the process I have developed a great respect and admiration for his style, and because I've discovered that—as a poet myself—Joe has something to teach me. In some ways, he is very much a postmodernist, especially in his use of media-based images, his sense of humor verging on irreverence (see the hilarious “Oh, Donna”), and his taste for challenging the reader's expectations, abandoning elitist language, and mocking modernist creeds (see “Alienation Effect,” a parody of Shklovsky's cry for “defamiliarization”). And yet at the same time his work escapes any definite system, proving that the art of poetry is much more than the definitions and imperatives we apply to it; and that the best poetry, perhaps, comes not from the writer's ability to withdrawal into her own intellect, but to be a happily present player in the everyday world. To look at the simplest things in life and say “ this is my poem.”

Indeed, his verses are part speculation on the ambiguity of what exactly a poem is. Throughout the collective work, there appear peculiar ruptures between the poem and the composition itself, maybe implying that there is a distinction between the two—that poetry is more than feelings or thoughts molded into a metered structure. It has a special ontological integrity in his work. At times, the “poem” appears a character in the text, a subject of the verse, and not the verse itself. One example of this is “Night, Fog, War,” where he writes: “‘You, sir, are no gentleman,' / My poem said. / I lit two cigarettes / One for me, one for him” (197). In another, Joe's “poem” is personified as an elusive, unpredictable woman—possibly one of his true loves:

‘Let's go, please' my poem said.
[…] ‘You sure you're not too old
For the Merry-Go-Round?' I asked

But I loved it and she knew.
And so we went and I watched her.
The solemn look on her face as she rode. (167)

Joe reminds us that life is not merely a chain of events, but of poems. That poetry is nothing less than the indelible imprint of simple, authentic moments. That it doesn't belong to some elected few; that it persists on its own and notwithstanding our capability to perceive it. So the term “poem” takes on a twofold meaning and its equivocality affords new games for Joe to play. In “Ok, Then… So We're in Fredonia,” a piece reminiscent of the whimsical irrationality of Shel Silverstein, Joe interrupts himself to ask the reader “when will this poem get started?” as if displacing the poem, dismantling the reader's assumptions, or preventing any inclination of taking the work too seriously. And we are certainly better off, Joe advises, not to take poetry or life—which, of course, are the same thing—too seriously.

 

It is imperative to give special consideration to one of the lengthier pieces in the collection, “The Diamond at the End of Time,” owing both to its distinguishing brilliance and its corresponding retention in Joe's later works. The poem tells the madcap story of ranger Joe on escape from the Mexican feds, time-traveling to the 16th century and finding a tattered Shakespeare—who believes Joe must have been sent by Ezra Pound—and saving his career with the gift of a Parker pen and some literary advice; the two of them jumping into the future, a “greeny star,” Wrigley Field at the 1932 World Series in the sky, where together they witness Babe Ruth call his hit. They turn and see God in a “tan raincoat” sitting in the stands, “grinning with his little devil beard,” blissfully ignoring a self-destructing world.

The movie playing inside Joe's head certainly does not lack in originality. “The Diamond at the End of Time” is the most consummate and imaginative work in The Loneliest Ranger,partly because it seems to encompass all that Joe, as a poet, is. It is fantastical, impious, erratic, wildly visionary, and darkly humorous: “Ok I said you always callin' people whoresons in your plays, Bill / Why don't you just say motherfucker means the same thing / And he laughed and wrote it down and he admitted yes” (49). It is the precise mixture of nonsense and high genius that renders it seriously meaningful but guarded against being taken too solemnly. The most dazzling, holy truth is not some vague concept or metaphysical conceit, but a moment on a baseball field—the crest of America—that, for an instant, held the universe in suspension.

As seen in “The Diamond at the End of Time,” which is part criticism of God's careless absence in Germany during WWII, Joe's work carries a heavy undercurrent. Sometimes it is granted matter-of-fact, as in “That:”

I knew a man who could have lived, but then
He shot himself and I remember when
His brother told me he, himself, felt dead.
“He killed us,” is what his brother said.
Finished his drink and then went home to bed. (170)

More often, humor is courageously found in spite of his (our) deepest human struggles—loneliness, grief, terror, hopelessness—and is used as a veil, or antidote, to lessen their otherwise paralyzing force. Our friend has discovered the secret known only by the sharpest comedians: that tragedy, takes to its extreme conclusion, passes into comedy; or at least becomes so unbearably real that the alternative—the movie created in the shelter of our mind—seems a necessary retreat and the kindest offering. And perhaps for Joe, as with all great comedians, this involves some sort of self-sacrifice; which is, we might conclude, why “The Diamond” ends on such a somber, desolate note: “And I…knew again why I was the Loneliest Ranger. / God gone. The Nazis closing in. And Shakespeare had my mojo.”

 

I am not sure how to imagine Joe Green as he is today. In the loose progression of The Loneliest Ranger, his identity becomes more and more protean as he accustoms himself to assuming roles. It's as if the main character in a novel suddenly stopped narrating. Certain readers like myself will find this rather unfortunate. Something is lost along the way: the invitation to be with him, perhaps. To call him our friend. To hear his stories. We might regret that his poetry appears increasingly less involved in this world than in his personal mythos. Perhaps he just got too deep in the game.

What I do know about Joe is that he is a man of contradiction and ambivalence. He venerates ordinary life, but finds it necessary to habitually escape from. He asks the reader to step in, but always keeps the lights dimmed. He utilizes traditional poetic formulas and systems, but doesn't take them seriously. His work is at once extremely personal and absent of ego. I know, also, that Joe is an unsung hero and it is likely, due to his own choice, that he will remain so. Perhaps this is what makes him “the Loneliest Ranger.” Or maybe it isn't his choice at all. Could it be, instead, that he has simply left his destiny as a poet in the hands of his reader? If he will not shamelessly spread and proclaim his work, then shall we? It is worth it.

The Loneliest Ranger is a meandering drive through sixty years of Joe's life, packed with odd characters, real episodes, and fantastic visions. He even provides a mixtape for this drive: poems set to the moaning rhythm of blues. And on this trip we see, too, the indestructible pillars of America, a kaleidoscope of our shared culture, the real thoughts and feelings and joys that make us undivided. In spite of all his contradiction, in spite of his many masks, Joe is an implacably honest poet. Which, I suppose, is yet another contradiction.

The game keeps building. It's a delightfully horrible joke.


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