[Spurl Editions; 2019]
What are the uses of snobbishness? When it’s distinct from elitism, when it’s a principled disdain – could there be a noble snob or even a good snob?
Cass McCombs thinks he’s too good for almost everything but that’s not as bad as it sounds. He loves common life, revels in associating with the underworld of carelessness, drugs, violence, anarchy. His is a moral pretentiousness: he sticks his nose up at comforting lies and abusive authorities: in other words, meaning.
Toy Fabels, his debut collection, alternates between poems, prose poems, and sketches, mixing odes to freedom with jabs at cops and Catholics. Throughout, McCombs’ refrain centers on meaninglessness: “your ‘fate,’ even consciousness itself, is just a gimmick” (“Dialogue of the Shadow and the Echo Belonging to Sade: A Duet”); “however deviant, it’s all a game / no way to justify except that I love to roam” (“We Made Our Mops”); and so on. For someone who finds life so meaningless, McCombs is an oddly earnest writer, which suggests he does have certain loyalties that verge on being meaningful beliefs.
For example, McCombs is serious about hatred: specifically, his hatred of injustice. The below snippet from “Tagging a Church” captures the righteous sneer that drives his jeremiads.
who is the largest owner of real estate of the world?
who takes money from the poor to buy real estate?
who institutionalizes violence toward children?
was I raised catholic?
I was raised nothing
Balancing out his bitterness, McCombs later includes a paean to his heroes, “A Public Mural.” Each figure (from Malcolm X to Gandhi) is an activist fighting for justice.
Archbishop Romera eucharist bullets for the poor’s pastor
Pancho Villa cockroach’s triumph over the schoolmaster
Martin Luther King the voice that can carry….
Che Guevara beloved buddy and hungry argentinian
The list goes on for two pages. Admirable as a poem like this is, there’s something impersonal about it; “Mural” is more a series of toasts than anything else. McCombs achieves a true and sustained tone when he writes about freedom, as he does in “A Free Song,” the book’s best poem.
This song is free
I mean it doesn’t cost a thing
And you can’t buy it
Because it’s not for sale
This song is worthless
Got no practical value, no msrp
And it could easily disappear forever
Because it is free
Fulfills no vital purpose
Doesn’t earn anybody a single dollar
And if it was never sung a second time
Nobody would care
And that’s free
Free as can be
Free from all money
Free Free Free
When there’s nothing to manufacture
Then there’s nothing to defend
And you won’t need to be starting war
Because you’d be free
This song says nothing about anything
Because there’s nothing worthwhile
To sing about when you have nothing to prove
And nobody to fool
Don’t even need to try being free
It’s easier than breathing
As easy as turning around
In a world where everything is in motion
He desires a release that’s different than death, which is freedom, uselessness: one’s squander-potential. Equating freedom with nothing, McCombs espouses a dirt-bag vitality: freedom is never freedom to do anything, it is always freedom from some burdensome system (money, war, identity, becoming). Hence his sympathy for misfits and rebels. The way this poem embraces limitation, emphasizing only what freedom isn’t and what it won’t serve, illustrates McCombs’ passionate belief that freedom is an infinite set of limits forever collapsing together to form the smallest possible point.
McCombs is playful, not joyful; trolling, shitposting, ironic past the point of pleasure so that his poetic pranks approach the state of undisguised hostility. His diction lurches from the aggressively pedestrian to a curlicue excess, finding no center. That’s the point. Life for him is a sad game from which you’ll win nothing. His contempt for those who refuse to recognize this truth is nothing less than a pro’s impatience with an amateur. The way to get through life is with a sense of gamesmanship: a healthy remove from all proceedings. Hence his snobbishness: if it seems like McCombs looks down on us, that’s because he’s got some perspective.
This snobbishness doesn’t always land but in the best moments, we see what he means when he says “I gave me a kiss and said a prayer / to protect me” (“The Truck Driver and Malverde”). The contempt is protective and an extension of love for his lonely life.
McCombs emerges in his first book as the child of Charles Bukowski and Wallace Stevens who sometimes wishes Allen Ginsberg were his real dad. In this first outing, McCombs struggles toward spiritual frenzy, struggles toward total casualness, struggles toward artificial grace – yet he successfully inhabits none of these registers. Instead, he’s free.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey. He writes about opera for Hobart. His Twitter is @_______Michael_.
This post may contain affiliate links.