Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn (Nightboat Books) comes wrapped in brown paper. Underneath, on the cover, is a porno mag collage done by Halpern and Tanya Hollis—mostly ripped in ways which hide graphic details. “Porn,” Halpern writes, “brings to light, permits, and publicizes, just as it darkens, prohibits, and privatizes.”  Split into nine movements, Music for Porn is a linguistic symphony of the fetishization and politicization of the body of the soldier and an exploration of intimacy and desire. It isn’t the light-hearted “bow-chica-wow-wow” of 70s porn music that the title could suggest. Halpern’s work is rooted in the atrocities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alternating poetry and prose, and guided by varied literature notably the ecstatic Walt Whitman Civil War poems and the terse, spare work of George Oppen.

There are shifts in diction and style throughout Music for Porn from tercets to philosophical essays to academic renderings. The poems emphasize the body and identity (“Being made of iron and linen, asphalt and glass, my imagination dissembles a soldier’s fat, and I get hard just thinking about his hair, completing the circuit of my autopoiesis”). If “real intimacy” is “impersonal as porn,” so is poetry in its artifice, in a way, as the soldier figure is “hardened into allegory.” The first section is an expressive introduction to Halpern’s poetic stance (“My poems don’t make more than the dimmest light…” though “darkness consoles…”) while the end attempts to summarize (“… bodies I’ll never see but whose lack of being over there has been contracted to my well-being here”). It’s an interesting, ambitious approach to see Halpern lay out his groundwork and his obsessions.

He aligns the soldiers of war, the objects of his lust, to the “fate of bodies constructed by money and the potential disruption of this fantasy.” The striking comparison of the porn industry to the military is further examined in the final section as well (“… the US soldier’s body becomes a perfect pornograph when it’s a dead body casualty of finance, guarantor of my pleasure a body whose image has been legally withheld, removed from public circulation, just as its autopsy report has been classified in order to preserve the values that body died for, values transfigured in the soldier whose hard muscle materializes our common resource, first rendered as sacrifice purity of waste and then withdrawn from view”). In “Imaginary Politics,” Halpern’s poems feel disembodied, as they probe lust and the loss of passion (“a mind without sex, a shudder with no reference”). Throughout, Halpern makes arresting stylistic choices. In some of the poems, I found the italicized final lines to be effective, a sort of funereal effect–as if they are trying to nail a coffin shut. I deeply appreciated the linguistic skill, power and the intensity of Halpern’s book especially in the section entitled “Memoranda.” I dog-eared many pages here, going back to lines I found powerful (“You can put anything inside me, I want to say, anything to amplify these feelings of pity and shame, whatever it takes to help get me off”; “Even the dirt of his humanity adds an inexplicable glow to the national sum, such allure to the skin”).  By chance, before reading Music for Porn, I had read the debut novel The Yellow Birds, a moving, no-bullshit account of a former soldier’s anguish by poet Kevin Powers.  What I believe will stay with me are his and Halpern’s complex insights which capture the many contradictory feelings invoked by war and living within a militarized country.

 

Music for Porn
by Rob Halpern
Nightboat Books
Paperback, 9780984459896, 176 pp.
April 2012

 

 



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  • Michael Craft

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