The Polemical Forensics of Beauty: Review of David Herrle’s SHARON TATE AND THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY

Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy
David Herrle. Time Being Books, $15.95 paperback (198p) ISBN: 978-1568092225

The black and white photograph shows an elegantly dressed and coiffed blonde of about thirty sitting at the wheel of a convertible with her head tilted slightly back and a gaping wound where her left eye should be.  A hand belonging to someone unseen is applying lip gloss to her half-open mouth with a brush.  There’s a disturbing contrast between the subject’s composure and the gruesome condition of her face – or at least there would be, if you didn’t recognize right away where the image came from: it’s a production still from Chinatown, and the woman is actress Faye Dunaway, in the role of the widow Evelyn Cross Mulwray, in the final scene when she gets shot by the LAPD while fleeing with the teenaged child of an incestuous union with her father, corrupt businessman Noah Cross, played by John Huston – while private detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, helplessly looks on, panicked and dismayed.  It’s generally agreed that the film’s grim conclusion captures a real sense of the spirit of Los Angeles – and not only in 1974 when it was released, but enduringly.  And that’s especially significant because Evelyn and her sister/daughter escape and drive off to freedom in Robert Towne’s original draft screenplay, whereas director Roman Polanski fought to give the ending its present pessimistic finality, creating what would become an LA neo-noir classic, his first American work after several years away from Hollywood and out of the country altogether.
            The story is well known: Polanski had left the US following the grisly 1969 murders of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several of their friends at their home by members of the Manson “Family.”  Returning five years later to make Chinatown the Polish auteur saw the city clearly, exactly as those who reside there know it to be, a sun-blasted wasteland, the place itself one enormous boulevard that evaporates into the atmosphere taking people and dreams along with it.  In a worldwide marketplace of attention, the multinational corporations of the contemporary global entertainment industry take the Hollywood of bygone days as a precondition of present-day spectatorship, building upon the films of yore to produce images that will have an archetypal blockbuster appeal for a new mass consumer audience living anyplace at all where market research can reach.  And one of those archetypes is a new Beauty that must appeal to the modern moviegoer, concertgoer, magazine-reader, and so on.  Our preconscious association of physical comeliness with goodness and innocence causes us to register a deep shock, and to recoil in horror, when beautiful people are destroyed under any circumstances, and that’s the dark side of the old Tinseltown glamor, just as it will be the dark side of tomorrow’s dispensation too.  This conflict in human nature is the subject of a new poetry collection by David Herrle entitled Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, an exceptionally ambitious book whose theme is the relationship between poetry and popular culture in an anxious Now that’s crammed with immediacy and alienation.
            In Herrle’s interpretation of the facts on record, the slaughter of those toney LA hippies at the Polanski home offers us a recent and nearby analogy for the massacre of the ancien régime during the Terror in the French Revolution and the murders of five Londoners in the late nineteenth century by Jack the Ripper, among many other instances of a struggle that’s instinct with humanity itself.  The poet’s perception of the singular timeless conflict embodied by such occurrences is organized in this book according to his highly developed sense of the differences among their contexts.  Herrle’s milieu is forensic, and when he writes about the past he’s obliquely addressing his contemporaries, of course; so one of his own contexts is a condition that’s peculiar to our present moment: the rediscovered simultaneity of culture under globalization – an everyday experience, fraught with hi-res intensity and disastrous, categorical omissions.  The text of Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy images the poet as the reluctant protagonist of a plot that unfolds in a visionary mode that’s endowed with considerable insight and humor, encumbered though it is, quite self-consciously, with the burdens of its time and place:

I look out on the infinite spaces and tremble as Pascal trembled.
Doubt and anxiety rise in me when I regard nature’s manifest denial
of I and Thou, Shadow of Light, so save me from Darwin and Skinner,
from tooth and nail, let me earn my stripes, don a cape, heroize!

Give me August 9, 1969.
Let me into the fin de Sixties.
Let this be restitution for Queen
Antoinette, for ripped Mary Jane Kelly.

That night: Sharon stabbed sixteen times; Jay stabbed seven times
and shot once; Gibby stabbed 28 times; Voytek shot twice, beaten
13 times and stabbed 51 times.  A week later, Aquarian children
united in universal love and peace at Woodstock.

Peeking through the cavern’s narrow chinks has turned me into
the loneliest man on the planet, a migraine for my wife, an insane
raver in an airless, deaf wilderness.  But look on I must, or my madness
will be cured by a madder Pollyanna madness, an ignorant bliss.

If horror is aestheticized atrocity, then a densely-packed array of perspectives, such as Herrle’s limpid prosy lines afford us in rapid succession, testify to an instrument that’s admirably suited to his subject matter: sensitive yet self-possessed.  The seriousness of this poet’s immersion in his material is evident throughout, particularly in a running historical parallelism among those lonely figures down the ages in whose preoccupations he recognizes his own, or in whose predicaments he can make out clues as to what our present moment might be made to mean.  His sense of scale is fascinating, as for example when he weighs the Terreur of savagely repressive Catholic France against the LA murder of the Black Dahlia Elizabeth Short in a licentious age whose authority is more securely centralized than ever before, and whose homiletic cautionary tale is a pageant of vice played on an unbroken loop by lurid tabloid media:  

Blonde bombshell Princess de Lamballe, former Superintendent of the royal household, bravely returned from England in solidarity with the monarchy, ignoring friend Antoinette’s warning against throwing herself “into the mouth of the tiger,” only to throw herself into the mouth of the tiger — no, the rabid sewer rat — and become one of thirteen hundred slaughtered: head cut off (tossed in Anna Grosholz’ lap) and limbs hacked (“wrath in death and envy afterwards,” as Shakespeare’s Brutus said), a pubic-hair mustache adding cherry-on-top shame for this depetalled white dahlia.

The key that unlocks all of this detail – as a reference to Julius Caesar indicates in the above excerpt – is the fact that among all the other modes of inquiry available to us, only poetry possesses the wherewithal to coordinate the bewildering diversity of human experience and present it to the multitude in a form which feels complete yet isn’t oversimplified: it’s only poetry that can hold reality and justice in a single thought.  This is evidenced by the concept of Herrle’s project in Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, and by its execution for the most part as well.
This book marks another crux in the development of modernity with “Hail Snobbism!”, a poem about the mid-twentieth-century political crises that saw the ominous buildup, the world-altering calamity, and the tragic aftereffects of World War II.  As Herrle stridently implies, sophisticated democratic societies worldwide reacted to the ascendancy of totalitarianism in Machiavellian fashion by absorbing its practices within their more accommodating political systems, meanwhile disclaiming its doctrines as outmoded, if not inhuman.  For artists living in the postwar socialist-capitalist Western nations during the ensuing Cold War, a consequent leveling of distinction amongst competing aesthetics – handed down from on high in the form of New Deal preferment and proto-EU subsidy – resulted in conditions that still obtain today: 

The First World’s favorite dictator, FDR, democratized art
so that books, films, plays and visual works could address
and edify the common man (the U.S.’s “heart and soul”),
the ordinary workaday world, rather than idle in snooty
galleries and thrill the eyes and ears of only the uncommon.
“Everywhere people are painting, building, writing poetry,
singing and acting” is not from a speech written for FDR but
a boast by true-believer Goebbels, foxy Magda’s trollmate.

Homeless bum and art failure Hitler tramped the Vienna streets,
seeking purpose and honor until recruited by one of the biggest
bunch of activist optimists ever to have bruised history: Nazis,
who preached that it takes a village to raise brave new men
and a democratic, nature-sopped art to express “the beautiful
and lofty,” the People’s “naïve and unbroken joyousness” when
dazzled by the kitschy ideal of saccharine landscapes, florals,
wildlife, Spartan men, plain-vanilla and ungussied-up females —
and literally and spiritually lame Goebbels’ favorite: Farmer Venus.

Poppycock and puritanism!
Art must shine through a cultured prism.
Debbie Harrys must walk angelically among pig-pen punks!
Vogue, voguer, voguest: Save the haute from the Folk.

How has this leveling tendency in modern life conditioned us to recognize art?  Or, to put it another way: what kinds of art can take our measure “through a cultured prism” that refracts not only beauty, but also the full spectrum of human behavior, including homicide?  Herrle’s reply to this unasked question reveals an imagination that revels in creating a web out of interconnection and coincidence.  Plus he loves pop, which is great:

Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor lived in the Polanski house and named his recording studio Pig, after the bloody word Atkins left on the door (the door he later relocated to his new Nothing Studios), and a sign on the door read “COME IN HERE AND BE KILLED” the night of his housewarming party, which was attended by Butthole Surfers’ lead singer, Gibby Haynes, whose first name is eerily the same as murder victim Abigial “Gibby” Folger.  What was recorded at the Pig studio?  Marilyn Manson’s (ahem!) Portrait of an American Family and Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral albums.

Handled with due gravity, albeit in a spirit of fun, these citations from the low culture canons bring us just about up to date, by breezily pointing out that the Sharon’s theme flows through the very stuff of our recent lives.
            Herrle’s historical parallelism climbs aloft in an analysis of two philosophers: Edmund Burke, the Irish MP, aesthetic theorist (author of Reflections on the French Revolution and On the Sublime and Beautiful) and French monarchy sympathizer; and B.F. Skinner, American academic and apologist for an administrated existence devoid of that unnecessary illusion, free will.  An implicit contrast between these two thinkers urges into the reader’s consciousness a devastating critique of the present American moment, with its callous domestic enforcement of brutal imperialist policies, sweetened into the craven middlebrow platitudes that embalm the tongue of every cruise missile liberal on the block.  Here is Herrle’s nod to Burke, in “Unchained Malady 2”:

Oracular Edmund Burke warned of France’s folly in his Reflections
(which was really a prediction, not a looking back), prompting Tom
Paine to rant The Rights of Man: Paine who almost fell under Saint
Guillotine but for the fantastic grace of his unmiraculous God.

Aside from his political works, Burke spieled on the nature of Beauty,
rejecting the notion that it relied on proper proportions of parts,
mensuation, utility or fitness — for there are countless examples of
irregular, idle, unfit hotties who may be hotter because subpar.

When Apollo’s away, Dionysos must play, so France danced in frenzy
to Rousseau’s blind melody while Burke preferred the Versailles glide,
claiming that chivalry had died on the day that ten thousand swords
slept in their scabbards instead of leaping out to defend the Queen.

He found beauty in littleness, smoothness, unangularity, delicacy and
fair color, so no wonder he thought the Queen a “delightful vision.”

It’s also to Herrle’s credit that this poem is a sonnet – its fulsome lines reminiscent of an English poet’s homage to the French Alexandrine, perhaps – especially when one reads it alongside “Skinnered Alive,” whose clipped directness, by comparison, strikes one as an evocation of midcentury urban postmodern American poetic speech:

Beyond freedom
and dignity: no
freedom and dignity.

to man

“Like gods!” Hamlet marvels.
Pavlov gasps, “Like dogs!”

B.F. Skinner drowns Thoreau in Walden Two.

It’s clear that to Herrle a falling-off has occurred, or at least, that a cost must be counted when societal progress secures individual liberty at the expense of cultural refinement.  The poet has made it his task to produce such a reckoning, and when we consider how unpopular that task is, his choice strikes us as a mark of his courage – a quality he admires, as we notice when he proceeds from assessing philosophers’ positions to considering how artists of the past have moved through their times and places.  Here is Herrle on the painter David, in “Artist / Bonapartist”:

Painter Jacques-Louis David
rubbed Max Robespierre’s elbows,
apocryphalized proto-Che Marat
and won accolades for his uncool
neoclassicist portraiture and singular
commitment to manifest (perfectly)
dogmatic, political thought.

He served as resident Romanophile
and the Terror’s propaganda party
planner, then the Emperor’s First Painter
(Napoleon’s own interior-decorating Albert Speer).

I can’t forgive his deliberately crappy
sketch of condemned Queen Antoinette
awaiting Saint Guillotine’s karate chop,
so I imagine Charlotte Corday’s ghost
steering the carriage that killed him.

But perhaps his final work was a heart
change, a clue to realizing that art
mustn’t march in army uniforms or sport
Caesar’s laurel crown, that feminine nudity
should soften all armor: Mars Being Disarmed
by Venus and the Three Graces.

Changed or not, his heart wasn’t buried with his body.

In this poem, the painter’s instinct for self-preservation (or else his earnest engagé political commitment) backfires, as is so often the case, and he is exiled when the Bourbons return to power, ending his life in Brussels, hit by a carriage in the street and killed, his heart buried in Paris.  The poet informs, instructs: we recognize that an artist’s relationship with the times is nuanced, unfixed, troubled.  And again, there is the twentieth-century version as well, as the unwitting agents of a propagandistic age bring the repressive violence of a belligerent General Will to bear upon Beauty by bringing death right to the artist’s door:

Born-hack artist Valerie Solanas shot through Warhol’s
spleen, liver, lungs, stomach and esophagus with a
.38 snub-nosed revolver.

After he blew off the script she gave him, how did she
avenge her bruised (sh)ego?  Fed his oeuvre: awarded
him a motif for his popular gun screenprints.

This balancing of times and places against each other has a demonstrative propulsion and a polemical vehemence that lend a new impetus of epic grandeur to writing in English; these aren’t characteristics one finds elsewhere at present.
Herrle portrays the author of Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy as an artist whose engagement in the endeavor has brought a predicament of his own down upon him.  Not the remote, Apollonian maker, this poet, but an anguished practitioner:

Shadow of Light, you know my private
dirges: you are the cantilever that holds
me safely over Apocalypse, you are
the Frank Lloyd Wright of my spiritual
estate, a Philippe Petit guiding me from
tower to tower, the Shadow-caster
in agon with Gomorrah’s false sun.

Since in our world there ought never to be a person to whom the poet cannot speak, this fictive author addresses even the cowed, the sedated, the dupes of these wretched days, invoking the spirit of confrontation by way of a challenge to candor:

Do me a favor and close your scriptures, fold your pamphlets,
turn off Mister Rogers, mute “kumbaya, my Lord” and face me
face to face, bare wire to bare wire: confess that you’ve faced
the Abyss and saw nothing look back, that when you called into
it you heard no echo or reply — only sound vanishing into airless
space, that your prayers seem to die in mid-air, that you feel
the presence of absence in “intimate” exchanges.

One disarming and often debilitating upshot of the leveling of distinctions in a global bourgeois landscape is the lack of response which all but the most widely publicized artists experience.  And artists reckon with this, as with all else, by fictions – that is, by conventions.  And the handling of those conventions is the measure of craftsmanship.  Herrle’s awareness of these facts comes across in his constant citation of touchstones chosen from among the galleries in his imaginary museum.  These high points possess an Existentialist / Romantic bent and direction.  For example:

The Cool comes: the wintry summer, the sub-zero fire.
My half-empty cup runs over with Keats’ Negative Capability:
juggling contradictions without forcing wholeness,
without stuffing the world into a proper box.

We witness the poet’s representation of an experiential progress through his provisional trying-out of ideas, the development of a sensibility through its stations, upon a stage that privileges poetry as a motive force of peoples, a governing, organizing position, sanctioned and mandated:

Kierkegaard wrote that poets are necessary to sing
praises to crucial heroes and transform the sounds
of sorrow and pain into beautiful music with their
verse despite inherent unhappiness.

I take that a step farther: the poet as hero, for without
romantic heroes we’re doomed to despair and anti-life.

The conception is bardic – the poet a statesman of the spirit – and the aesthetic is cosmic in its scope.  The implications are to be followed all the way, even unto their logical ends:

In The Grand Design Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
estimate the existence of 10ˆ500th universes, so I march forth
in defiant denial of time’s restraints and forward-onlyness, taking
a sideways leap of fate, intent on iterating the infamous Tate
event in another dimension with a Herrlean plot rather than
the only one we know, the one in which banal devils win.

It’s here, in the poet’s squarely facing of the conclusions of his exploration, answering its challenge by the creation of a character – David Herrle, poet, author of Sharon Tate and the Daughers of Joy – that one finds simultaneously this writer’s breathtaking ambition and the limitation of his effort. 
A poet’s heroism, necessary in defiance of his time and place, results for Herrle in a plot twist that overreaches its mark in the closing pages and causes the book to descend into bathos.  But before that can happen, Sharon herself must appear, of course; and yet, pitiable pretext that she is – although somewhat sympathetic, and certainly blameless, if not innocent – it’s beyond even Herrle’s skill to make her come to life, as the shallow stream of her half-bored consciousness dwells one-dimensionally on her unborn child, her friends, her husband, her surroundings.  Then there are some wonderful diaristic interior monologues, for example Gibby Folger’s, as the tragic events begin to unfold:

I bought a yellow bicycle this morning.  Earlier this evening
I told the shrink that I’m sick of Voytek’s shit and I want out.
Phoned Mom while stoned (I still can’t hide it from her)
and snuggled up with a book in bed, under that tacky
stuffed rabbit mounted on the wall.

Then, after midnight, I wave to familiar mousy hippie girl
who passes by my bedroom door.  She returns with a knife
and forces me into the living room where a handsome but
beastly man and a girl who looks like Peppermint Patty are.
(Have they partied here, swum in the pool, sold us speed?)

And soon, there is a tete-à-tete, as the poet enters the scene to put things right.  Intervening into the course of events as a time-traveler, he breaks it down – not for Charles Manson himself, but for one of the madman’s followers:

“Simply put, your dear leader is a Beatle wannabe.  Everywhere Charlie turned in his desperate quest for fame and rivalry with the pop-culturally well-hung Beatles a door slammed in his face, not by cold and intolerant bigwigs, but by himself.  Though the music industry and even Hollywood courted him, his dupes eventually realized his banal flaw, and he spit in the very eyes of the people who were willingly blind to his crimes and bullshit.  No matter how far from his wretched origins he ran, he was tracked down and beaten by self-hatred.  Like young Hitler, he tramped the streets, waiting for a miracle rather than refining himself.  Assaults and battery don’t train such losers to bob and wave, they just build calluses around their hearts, and then the bums mistake the calluses for armor and reckon themselves righteous knights on singular quests for fate-ordained success.  They find other crustaceans who long to coup against Atlantis, who are tired of the status quo and need an illusory reboot.  But these losers are losers despite the cults or wars they start.  Behind callus-armor quiver thin-skinned runts who covet actual attractants, envy genuine progenitors, effectual creators and Perfect Ten beauties.

“You saw Charlie kiss Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s feet at their initial meeting, and temporarily bewitched Wilson let you bums shack up at his pad until your bullshit and STDs made him kick you out.  But were you in the studio when Charlie made a fool of himself and proved to not be the promising star he thought he deserved to be?  Were you there when he bugged the shit out of Rudi Altobelli and Terry Melcher even after it was evident that they wanted nothing to do with him?  How about when he thought he’d murdered Lotsapoppa, who’d been mistaken as a Black Panther, and shat his pants with worry over imaginary Panther retaliation, so he used the Helter Skelter mumbo-jumbo to prime the Family for violence?  You surely were at the ranch when his eyes finally looked down the path of no return, when a lifetime of degradation compelled him to lash out as the wild animal he claimed society turned him into . . . . ”

Magnificent though this is as writing, brimming with psychological insight, the poet-character’s appeal to the cultist-character’s faculty of reason is where things begin to ring false for the critical reader.  A poet’s agency simply occurs otherwise than this, one feels – and that nagging suspicion prevails through this crucial scene’s conclusion, wherein the bard frees the captive beautiful people while holding their now-would-be-murderers at bay:

I wave the sword from left to right as if squirting them with a hose.

And who arrives to join forces with him at the conclusion but Marie Antoinette herself:

“Let us make haste.  Poor Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, needs our aid not very far but quite a few years from here.  Then we must be off to that scared communist town in the Guyana jungle.  Then to the New Reich Chancellery and then to — ”

It’s hard to account for this drastic slippage in tone except as being part and parcel of the very conception of the book, and therefore to write the whole thing off; and yet there is the sense here too – as one sometimes feels while reading grand works that but for a single (albeit rather damning) flaw strike one as altogether wonderful – that what we have in Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy is the groundwork for a truly comprehensive and fully accomplished work still to come: one which will perhaps build upon these foundations and rise into the epideictic air, addressing us as we live, here and now.
No poem will deserve a reader’s attention that does not acknowledge the human condition in all of its breadth and depth, in the molecular structure, the tone and energy of the work, if not in the subject or the theme.  There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” poetry.  And yet it is rare to read work which issues from such an acknowledgement.  David Herrle asks all the right questions: “Is the kiss the indubitable answer to Inquisitors?”  It doesn’t matter what answer he comes up with, or even if he comes up with one at all.  It’s curious to note that, post-High-Romantic though this poet is in his inclinations, his instinct for (genre-bending) plot resolution manifests itself as a reaching after fact and reason, certainly, very much in contradiction to Negative Capability – not irritably, but affably, however.  And that warmth of his is redemptive finally – for, as the poet notes:

Whatever its nature or supernature, art and Beauty are melancholy:
we can’t separate them from That Empty Feeling, from shortfallenness.

In Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, David Herrle has done that rarest of things: supplied us with a work of the imagination which meets a real need.  (January 2014)

Purchase Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy HERE.

Reviewer bio: Erik Noonan is the author of the poetry collections Stances (Bird & Beckett, 2012) and Haiku d’Etat (Omerta, 2013).  He lives in San Francisco with his wife Mireille.