Off Camera

Filmmaker Ethan Coen's new poetry collection combines small-press attitude with big-name marketability.

The relatively small, but always fascinating genre of fiction written by filmmakers-turned-novelists historically has produced results that roughly can be divided into three categories inspired by the title of Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti Western: The Good (Woody Allen's hilarious '70s novel Side Effects ); The Bad (Andy Warhol's achingly hip, but virtually unreadable, A Novel); and The Ugly (annoying-actor-turned-annoying-filmmaker Ethan Hawke's annoying slacker/J.D. Salinger rip-off, The Hottest State).

The majority of such works fall into the latter two categories. And that rocky road doesn't even include the closely related, but far less common, spurt of insidious offal known as "celebrity poetry." Track down a copy of Suzanne Somers' out-of-print classic Touch Me and you'll surely discover what the hell Dante was talking about.

So what in the name of all that's holy is Ethan Coen, the co-writing and producing half of the insanely talented Coen Brothers filmmaking machine, doing tempting fate by releasing a new collection of original poetry?

Aside from it being a potential marketing gold mine, The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way is a typically ballsy move on the part of an artist who has built a career on confounding expectations--this is, after all, a man who pulled down a master's degree in philosophy before doing a 180 to join his brother in the world of independent cinema.

Coen's foray into poetry doesn't exactly come out of left field. His well-received 1998 short-story collection, The Gates of Eden, proved that he could successfully transfer his unique vision from the screen to the page.

That collection stuck close to Coen's cinematic roots by spinning dark, eccentric, noir-ish tales of violence and black humor that adhered closely to the trappings of some of his best films, including Blood Simple and Barton Fink.

In their films, the Coens have reveled in exploiting the fine line between laughing and screaming, perfecting a unique blend of gallows humor and visual lyricism. This combination marks their works as instantly recognizable in true auteur fashion.

The poems in Drunken Driver travel a similar road, one that happens often to be paved with loose gravel and dried blood. Coen has managed the formidable task of translating the essence of his movies into poetic language, with the majority of these poems displaying a distinctly cinematic narrative structure.

As in his movies, the characters who inhabit this collection are a two-fisted bunch of mooks and skirts who have been knocked around by a world that doesn't give a rat's ass about them--social outcasts who yearn for the redemption of recognition, whether it comes in the form of love or violence (or both).

The population of Coen-ville is constantly thrust into situations that are grotesque (the heroine of "To a Young Woman, Maimed by a Reaper" not only loses a leg to a giant wheat thresher, but also subsequently loses her calloused boyfriend, who "said cripples bugged him"); violent (a tormented housewife viciously murders her cheating husband with their child's toy shovel in "I Dreamed I Left My Knapsack"); and heartbreaking (an old man in "Toppled in the Street" is doomed to contemplate his mortality as mobs of strangers gather to gape at his frail, dying body on a busy sidewalk).

Throughout, Coen's affection for tough-guy-speak peppers his stanzas like so much gun fire (as when a sky full of ominous weather is described as "ass bruise green"), displaying his dexterity at mixing the sweet and the sour. Most impressively, he is able to synthesize a wide range of literary and philosophical influences (Flannery O'Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc.) into a style that only occasionally feels derivative.

Of course, anyone who has seen a Coen Brothers film knows to expect at least a shot-glass-full of weirdo humor and highly quotable dialogue (who can forget "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" from Raising Arizona?), and in Drunken Driver, Coen's shot glass runneth over. From a bizarre imagining of Chairman Mao's constipated bowels to a young man's hilariously paranoid fantasies about how his genitals look in his only pair of job-interview pants, Coen builds up a comedic steam that tops out in a long series of frequently funny, but occasionally tedious, dirty limericks that cover eveything from "hillbilly tips on squirrel lovin'" to sacrilegious musings on papier-maché statues of the Virgin Mary. Although often clever, the limericks, like most dirty jokes, are best consumed in small doses.

While even Coen himself probably wouldn't (and couldn't) argue that this is exactly great, grand poetry, his collection is chock-full of the kind of pathos, grit and humor that makes for an entertaining read.

Ultimately, however, the major question posed by Drunken Driver is: Would this collection have seen the light of bookstore shelves if it was not emblazoned with the words "Poems by Ethan Coen"? The answer is undoubtedly "yes," but not necessarily under the auspices of a major publisher (which just so happens to be the case here).

The offbeat, curio quality of the book, regardless of the Coen credit, lends it the distinctly independent feel of a small-press product, rather than that of the typically "safer" output of a publishing giant like Random House. While this primarily speaks to the general co-opting of the underground by the mainstream, it also proves that in big publishing, nothing sells like a big name.

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