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 David Herrle reviews Stephen Gyllenhaal's Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood


published by Cantarabooks 2006





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(This review can also be seen at Cantarabooks' official site.)




                                                          The heart is a muscle,

                                                          its message methodical,

                                                          pushing and pulling,

                                                          a Viking at the oar

                                                          in full battle regalia.


                                                          It's no mistake

                                                          it's attached to love.


                                                          - "Tender," Stephen Gyllenhaal




All poetry is claptrap.  But what glorious claptrap.  Sometimes poetry's not about what is said but how it's said; sometimes what is said is paramount.  In avalanche or against gun, poetry's no shield; amidst holocaust and Depression, it is profoundly deathproof.  Artists excel in claptrappery: offending collectivists with their "superfluity" and singing against Vesuvian lava.  


A lone poetry book scribbled by a Hollywood director may be considered insignificant next to all the production stakes, celebrities, premieres and film festivals - just as the Bolshevik scourge loomed over the lonely poesy of Pasternak's Zhivago or any big thing eclipses the personal.  Despite a lengthy television and film repertoire, celebrity elbow-rubbing, and famous parenthood, director Stephen Gyllenhaal has dared present his personal claptrap to the collective, volcanic culture in a debut poetry collection called Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood.  This project is not adaptation of another's work performed by actors.  Here he is pure auteur: screenwriter, director, actor - and self-critic.  According to Claptrap's intense subjectivity, I've a hunch that this relatively tiny book may be Gyllenhaal's own proudest and most important achievement to date, and I wouldn't blame him for thinking so. 


Perhaps Notes From Hollywood is a somewhat inappropriate subtitle.  I disagree with Trinity College Professor Emeritus Hugh Ogden that Gyllenhaal "depicted the 'glitz' so well."  I don't sense Hollywood - what lovely Jamie Lee Curtis, who wrote the book's introduction, calls "the mindfuck capital of the world (if you don't count Washington, D.C.)" - in this book.  Or, rather, Hollywood's presence is so diminished by Gyllenhaal's internal concerns that it seems absent.  The subtitle misled me.  I expected poems bitching about the glitz and limelight, Brandos and Streeps.  The un-Hollywoodness of Claptrap relieved me.  Though Stephen is "part of It" as far as his elbows rub and his art is esteemed, his poems grow shy of the limelight and hidden from the glitz.  I do agree with Professor Ogden that Gyllenhaal shows "the human condition behind it," however.  Though stars and The Biz pop up occasionally, "ordinary" folk and private observations rule the foreground.


Stephen Gyllenhaal's wife is esteemed screenwriter Naomi Foner (Gyllenhaal), and their children are Jake and Maggie of Donnie Darko/Brokeback Mountain and Secretary/World Trade Center fame, respectively.  How proud their children must be.  His directorial resume includes the intensely touching A Dangerous Woman, "The Shield" (I'm a big fan), Paris Trout, "Twin Peaks", "Felicity", "Everwood", and Waterland.  


So, of course this guy gets a book deal handed to him, right?  Hell, Jamie Lee Curtis did the intro!  Big shot!  Well, as much as I clap my trap about granted opportunities to networked people, this project is different.  Gyllenhaal seems to have carefully navigated his publication, associating himself with an idealistic, author-respectful press: Cantarabooks, whose motto is "BEATING OUR TINY FISTS ON THE BIG HAIRY CHEST OF THE CORPORATE LITERARY WORLD".  (Don't take the chest description to heart, Robin Williams.)  My hunch tells me that Stephen is "all about" the book, and so is his publisher.


While most films are based on books and/or screenplays by artists other than directors, I think the spirit of the stories integrates with directors - or the director's spirit integrates with the stories he/she translates to film.  Directors take second- or third-hand creations and mold them into creations of their own, either honoring or ruining the origins.  So I give much credit to directors as being "part" of the film's story whether they wrote them or not.  Something of the director comes out or something of the story goes into the director, therefore identification of film story and its director is warranted.  Only the metaphysically dishonest would invest so much in an idea or story.  


If direction choice is any clue to a director's sensitivities, Gyllenhaal is a softie in the most complimentary sense of the term.  "In person, Stephen is a charming and modest man," says the book's Editors' Preface.  The protagonists in his films tend to be likewise.  His films portray goodness set against evil, honesty set against deceit.  And brutality is not kid-gloved.  If glory can be dramatized, so must sin (therefore I adore Kurosawa).  Directors choose material to work from, so Gyllenhaal deserves much credit - as much as he may not dig the term with its typical implications - as a moralist.  His poetic eye sees both glory and injustice, beauty and ugliness, and such valuation needs values, needs moral sensitivity and indignation.


A Dangerous Woman, adapted to screen from Mary Morris' novel by wife Naomi Foner, and Waterland, end up raising the importance of life.  Life, even unintended life, is not treated as easily expendable or as an uncomfortable yet minor decision.  Though Waterland is less affirmative and, as I understand, Graham Swift's novel is more pessimistic if not nihilistic, the film's ending allows belief in potential healing.  Pregnancy and birth are metaphors for potentiality.  Potentiality celebrates non-determinism, free will, creativity.  


Though I tend to avoid films with titles comprised of a present-tense verb and a proper noun, I must say that I was moved by Losing Isaiah (1995), screenwritten by wife Naomi and featuring homerun performances by Jessica Lange and Halle Berry.  A black baby boy abandoned near a garbage dumpster by a crack-junkie mother, Khaila (Berry), is rescued by the Lewins, a white family, and later legally fought over when the redeemed and clean Khaila decides to regain custody.  Arguments about racial significance, though sometimes heavyhanded, are evenly presented for the most part.  The film closes with a child building with blocks: creating and joining instead of ruining and dividing.  Life-worth is the central theme, and both the white family and redeemed natural mother are angry and crushed out of genuine love for precious Isaiah.  What a rally call for parents!  And how profound Isaiah's biblical namesake is: "[A]nd a child shall lead them" (Isaiah 1:6).  We'll see later that reverence for parenthood is crucial in Gyllenhaal's poetry.


Debra Winger's role as "slow"-but-profound Martha in A Dangerous Woman  surpasses Tom Hank's Gump, and Gabriel Byrne delivers his best work next to Miller's CrossingWaterland's Jeremy Irons succeeds in portraying a past-captivated husband who heroically decides to attempt salvation of his wife from the maddening regret of a child who should have been.  Both films show great dysfunction and pain, but they offer hope (see endnote*).  


Paris Trout focuses more on treatment of life as cheap and as means to ends rather than end.  The film features my favorite Dennis Hopper performance, though his character is as irredeemably ruthless as Simon Legree and lacks the lighter touches of Melville's Ahab or Alex from Burgess' A Clockwork Orange novel.  (Trout is a hybrid of Blue Velvet's Fran Booth and Land of the Dead's Kaufman.)  The basic plot: an infantile small-town tyrant savagely guns down a black mother and her daughter in a sudden tantrum for not being paid owed money.   Four key scenes - which must be saved for another review - froze me with dramatic intensity.  In everything I've seen by Gyllenhaal, his composition and tone excellence is evident and he allows the best work to flow from his actors.


To Claptrap.  Again, this collection strikes me as Gyllenhaal's true forte: his (until now) unsung calling - not that he's necessarily more suited for poesy than film direction.  For me, there is only so much poetry I can take, then it's off to some Kierkegaard (who shares the cool double-A's with Gyllenhaal), Berdyaev or Ripperology or...a cool film.  And film is where the author has consistently proven and continues to prove himself as artist.  Claptrap's editors were right to highlight his modesty, however.  In "Success" he boils his career down thus:


My victories were never my own

just mistakes gone wrong.


And in "Strategy":


I thought I would help my father

by becoming famous.

A fool's errand.


I don't know Gyllenhaal's heart.  He may decide to retire to full-time writing someday.  I look forward to more productions from both paths.


Having said that I don't know the author's heart, I must say that readers can leave the book partly knowing it - but only enough to realize how much is unknown.  Granted, this could be said of all artists/claptrappists.  Claptrap can be traced back to their hearts.  If we keep claptrapping, maybe loves won't leave, blood won't be spilled, poetized sorrows or fears won't scar, and shit will fertilize flora.  Maybe poetry or art in general is a key to transcending the brute and the tribe, "redeeming us from all this horror," as Gyllenhaal writes.  In "Axiom":


A rhyme

a day keeps

the monster away.


In "Greenwich Time":


Give me, please, the perfect

of the eye lid just before decay sets in,

or dazzling Keats with his perfect urn 

of lovers frozen, ultimate in truth is beauty foreplay...


Gyllenhaal tends toward the esoteric.  Ciphered pieces or passages may frustrate or alienate.  That's the danger of confessional poetry.  I've low tolerance for poetry to begin with, so I tend to take poetry in small doses.  Finishing a poetry collection in one sitting is rather difficult for me.  I'm pleased to say that the author didn't lose me, and a second read of Claptrap revealed more than I'd initially absorbed.  Remember Curtis' description of the work: "complicated and scary," but still providing "a path."  Some passages drop into a haze:


cap cocked

thumbs jammed waist high

sweet jaunty stride...


...slap the fly on the back happy

every happy, any happy, every single

kind of happy on this day (today)

happy, every day completely happy

(even though it can't) happy

(never will, I know) happy...


Other passages are as stark as black and white:


All is well until


the screams.  It's him.  Flailing.

Nurses trying.  His hands stutter.

He's calling.  Wailing.

I know it's for his mother

but he can't find that word.


The opening poem, "Careful There, Pardner", worried me.  I'm not a party man (Republican or Democrat) - hell, I don't like mass consensus even when I agree with it - so I tend to cringe when buzzwords appear.  I crave mind and soul, internals, artifice and philosophy, not justice for the imaginary "Common Man" or the "General Will" or genetic squabbles.  Like Auden, I'm "bored to death with the idea of the Common Man."  Give me first love over Enron bitching; give me metaphysics and fear of death over social evolution; give me epiphany over systems and -isms!  This isn't to say that some externals aren't important or appropriate for art, but white guilt is just as bad as white pride: it's collectivism.  Next.


The poem's narrator is making detailed assumptions about the driver of a Cadillac ahead: "retrogressive", rich, surely white, fan of Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne.  (Wait.  John Wayne?  Dissin' the Duke?)  As a McDonald's billboard bearing the face of a black male child comes into view, the narrator is certain that the Caddy man must be "[h]ating the African American boy's joy".  Weary of partisanship, I read on with a sick feeling: Is this going to be a book of "liberal" saints and white, "racist", "conservative" vipers in a world where all blacks vote Democrat and all gun-rack inbreds vote Republican and think like Paris Trout, etc., etc.?  The narrator's car is about to pass the Caddy: "Get a good look...Sends contributions to Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft."  The Caddy man must be sneering at the black boy on the sign.  Uh oh...


Just as disappointment with an apparent easy-as-shooting-dead-fish-in-a-bucket-of-frozen-water political generalization (no matter how correct or inaccurate) was about to turn me off, Gyllenhaal blew me away and gained my trust for the rest of the trip.  I'll show the rest of the piece:


And the racist steering wheel

as the

sun flashing,

unblinds me,

pulling up even

(the creep)


a peek

and I see

the man


is black

and old

and content.


Bravo!  Assumption shattered, party righteousness humbled.  "Careful there, pardners": Look closer before you leap.  Everyone has the capacity to be a certain way despite his/her race.  Who knows?  The black dude in the Caddy might be a jerk, making the narrator partly accurate!  (By the way, I dig John Wayne!)


Claptrap shines best with its personal, apolitical, non-racial poems.  This seems to be Gyllenhaal's comfort zone, and his self-dramatization is never lukewarm.  He can be whimsical as well as intense.  Perhaps his oddest and most playful piece is "Court Jester":


You are the royal we

to the left of Mohammed

and the right of queen bee...


Nothing important exists

outside you...


some studies indicate

the moon's gravitational pull

is affected by your breath.


This has not been

conclusively proven


though children do dream you

playing pick up sticks.


Gyllenhaal adds weight to the conclusion.  Despite being such a fascinating and honorable figure, the Court Jester's importance is "a heavy burden to carry."  


Themes of spousal, paternal, and family love repeat throughout Claptrap.  He plainly states in "Strategy":


nothing is sacred,

everything is up for grabs,




my wife and kids


Claptrap itself is dedicated to Naomi, his wife.  "Confession" seems to flirt with her despite years of familiarity ("It's to your knees.../that my eyes fall.../The part of you/you say you like the least.../And, yes, your shoulders too").  "Shoe Polish", one of Gyllenhaal's best-sounding pieces, reveres his grandparents and finding his father's WWII artifacts ("Even now my chest warms/with the whiskey of that memory.../A hero, my Dad, one of those/who never quite recover from the slaughter").  The most touching moments involve awe and affection for his children.


"At 25", a piece that pushed me to the precipice of weeping, is probably about his son Jake, as a baby and as an accomplished man.  What pride bristles in this father-poet's verse:


At birth you were blue

I witnessed you suck

that first breath in and turn

as white as snow on top

of Everest.  Pure.  Pure.

Goodness and Mercy.


...I remember holding you, screaming

with good rage in a Sea Ranch night.

Taking you outside under the moon

and the giant pines - screaming, screaming.


And I guess "Opening Night" is for daughter Maggie (who bit-parts in many of his films, starting with A Dangerous Woman, I think), debuting in an early production of Oliver Twist:


I remember (as if it were yesterday)

my poor father (your Grandfather)

in New Hope, New Jersey.

The Music Man!

"Wish one of you

kids would go into show biz."

He'd said, full of beer, I'm sure.

I'd never seen a professional play before.


And then -

you stepped onto the stage, my darling


I didn't breathe.

I couldn't breathe.

I didn't need to breathe.


I'm reminded of a brief scene in Losing Isaiah.  Home after her daughter's school performance, Margaret Lewin curls up with her daughter at bedtime and whispers, "When I heard you sing tonight?  I thought there's Hannah doing something I can't begin to do right.  It gave me such pleasure."  (I'm getting misty just typing this.)


One of the more mysterious and frenzied pieces is "Watching You Strip/My Daughter."  Could this be a coming to terms with daughter grown into woman/sexualized actress who is exposed before men and cutting critics?  This is a provocative look at  puberty's and maturity's shock and the tricks, jerks, and slings and arrows of adult life:


never did I dream

of how full you'd unlock all

the heart/lung/liver

wildness wilderness

blood flow of asteroids -


(It's like driving a fucking Maserati, babe,

is what it is.  Shit!!) - never did I dream this...


Life doesn't wait.  Daughters, too, fall into the flow:


This is the stream that moves to lakes and rivers...

The future stretches out her nasty reach

and you can't hide.  The growing hurts - remember

sudden ten year old long arms knocking down a

glass? - and now you move in heels and silk

with grace that takes our fear away.


According to the parent/child importance in most of the Gyllenhaal-directed works I've seen, coupled with such obvious love for his own family, I wonder about how deep and dark (in a non-psychotic sense) his experience with childbirth is.  When I came across two poems, "Vertigo" and "Confession", my mind flashed to the attempted/successful abortion scenes and later pain in Waterland and the jail visit scene when Martha ignores Mackey's call for an abortion of their accidental pregnancy.  "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" issues aside, the subject involves potential life or final loss.  And loss definitely quakes in miscarriages as well as regretful abortions.  Passages in these two poems seemed to hint at a haunting child loss:


Holding your aborted hand

in the anesthetized (nearly

30 years ago hospital)



...we lost

our first forever infant

to the total void of pitch black

middle of the universe


For you metaphor diggers, unwanted or unprepared-for pregnancies can be as the Jester's burden: too important to bear.  Confession impregnates the listener's ears and the reader's eyes, reproduces secrets, pains, sins.  Another birth-loss clue is dropped later in "True Love":






I see,




I carry


(baby inside me

that will never come out

never cry, suck, piss or whimper

as I did,


this one will stay inside

what ever there was I was supposed to be...


"Grammar" rejoices in the potentiality of birth:


The beauty of what's you I knew when you arrived

in blood and tiny fingers, reaching blindly at it all

for I was father to your joy that you'd survived

and blossomed, one from two, into this flesh...


And "To Kate" (shown here in its entirety) explodes with joyful life celebration:


I wish you a happy birthday.

Birth you on this day here. For you dear.

Just you. You! I wish you so happy on this day.

On each day. On everyday.

Wishes for birth of an everyday kind,

every minute birth, second birth,

deep as contractions. An infant and cake kind.

And icing. And candles.

Every instant those eye flames more guttering

and gathering as each year's cake breathing

brings mothering kind more here

than fear and pain kept here when we see

what goes on here as each birth

that's born anywhere turns to so unclear

until in the next breath

we undo the hard death

and reborn the infant and mother and father

on each day and everyday

the moments of birthday,

a kind day, a wish day

on your day,

this birthday.


The life force clasps hands with the death force: the rightness and YESness and will to know of life and the "something's not right," the NOness and unknown of death.  The tension intensifies living or urges the Reaper according to our self-esteems, circumstances, worldviews.  Somehow life seems to be death's conjoined sibling.  So, as Gyllenhaal writes: "[T]o have joyful births, there must be joyful deaths."


Ah, but does that require cooperative deaths?  Sure, otherwordliness attracts the ahistorical mystic or the disgruntled apocalyptic, but must death be acceptable and even welcomed?  We sense that something's amiss in the universe when we face decay and demise.  Sense of God's absence stems from an obscured - at least desirable - Presence.  I don't subscribe to the "death is part of life" bit, though I appreciate the consolation.  Death is part of death.  To die is to die.  As Joey Ramone growled, "I wanna live!"  Even depressed artists who bitch to hell and back about tearful life betray deathwishes by fuelling life with their expression, exercising potentiality and creativity by their very blues.  Some of us go from life joyfully, some reluctantly, some kicking and screaming (like...a newborn infant, strangely and appropriately enough).


Gyllenhaal kicks and screams - though dignifiedly - about mortality in "Greenwich Time", my favorite piece.  I've written scenes of imaginary showdowns with Death before, so I'm comfortable with the subject.  There are many approaches to mortality.  Ingmar Bergman's Skat, trapped up a tree by Death, tries to make a cowardly compromise while Antonius Block is defiant; Paris Trout hates life and ends it as he lived: in an ugly way; Peckinpah's Wild Bunch dives enthusiastically into doom; The Exorcist's Father Karras invites destruction for the sake of a victimized girl.  Perhaps most of us are in between.  The "Greenwich Time" narrator admits desire to stay on the mortal plane.  Though he mentions "the proper time/for each of us/to go" in "Cure", he insists, "I will not disappear."  His affection is aesthetic, to the point of associating Rembrandt with "the perfect" of a museum mummy:


a glorious Rembrandt still,

still life still gleaming,

beautiful in leathery limbs

of Midas gold and granite pure


And he seems to offer a concession in exchange for extra time: relegation to a TV career rather than film:


so make me TV here forever

and for cinema purists caught

in magazines deep stored

in backlit wily files.


Then comes the crux.  What I call the Kilroy (from WWII-era "Kilroy Was Here!"), our mark.  For the existentialists, it is the tiny scratch we leave on the puzzle board before oblivion; for the collectivist, it is the single push of one cog in the wheel of society; for the life-affirmer and/or the God seeker, it is the intended inclination, the unique participation in creation.  Or combinations of them all.  Some of us feel compelled to leave our Kilroy, our mark.


I will not leave

this perfect place

without a mark...


It has been said, sung, scribbled countless thousands of times before us, and it will continue to be the common complaint.  But each instance is somehow profound.  Poets tend to dress theirs, to soliloquize.  Who else behaves so in the face of death?  If we're not careful about the significance of our exclusive suffering under foreknowledge of demise, we may envy the beasts and inanimate objects.  Of course, using them as metaphors for death acceptance is sometimes useful.  Gyllenhaal does this in "Cure", noting that the birds, rocks, and plants - the entire (non-human) earth - "believe" alike in the natural process.  They've "no hesitation"; the earth is "full of faith" as the galaxies and black holes do what they do, "never thinking twice."  I would say "never thinking once" or "never thinking."  And poetic license aside, I'd say faith and belief need imaginative, conceptual subjects to exist: namely, we silly and amazing humans.  As Pascal stressed, if we were only material, we wouldn't know anything.  Even to doubt we must know.  


I don't envy the dumb rocks or the chattering birds, though I may marvel at them.  But the marvel is one way.  The rock or bird cannot, or at least does not, marvel at me.  Oscar Wilde wrote, "Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative."  The abyss, with apology to Freddy Nietzsche, does not stare back.  That's what makes it abyss.  Non-human nature is profound because of the human denominator.  We interpreters stir meaning from the thoughtless wild.  There is, to use Stephen's words (from "To Kate"), "more here than fear and pain".  And through creativity and love "we undo the hard death".  The heart is more than a muscle.  "It's attached to love."


"Should I think twice?" asks the narrator.  I answer, "You couldn't stop thinking twice or a million times if you wanted to.  It's not who you are.  Especially you, Stephen, judging by your passionate art and evident love."  To really choose unthought is to cease to be human, to make the final, free-willed human choice and murder the mind.  Then again, the unthought is negated by the thinking that proposed the unthought in the first place.  We end up thinking about and boasting attempted unthought.  (I'd make a lousy Chan Buddhist.)  Enough of this.


"Cure" touches me deeply.  And I was thrilled to make an instant connection with another artwork when I came to this passage:


Make us all immortal. Make

us worth a dollar or a million

dollars. Or a billion. Not this

heartbeat rotting ticking

of my dying dancing

look out at these reeling fingers weeping

gleeful dumb and instant dreams

so fluttering leaf down,

ruining the endless molecules

of spilling unthought


Can anybody out there guess the other artwork?  I'll give you a hint: the hero had a big nose.  No, not Pinocchio.  Cyrano.  Gyllenhaal's image of the leaf fluttering down triggered the closing scene in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.  Cyrano makes his final visit to his beloved Roxane before he dies.  She doesn't yet know he's dying.  A wind loosens some leaves and they fall from the trees.  Roxane says, "What color - perfect Venetian red!  Look at them fall."  Cyrano replies:


Yes - they know how to die.  A little way

From the branch to the earth, a little fear

Of mingling with the common dust - and yet

They go down gracefully - a fall that seems

Like flying!


As death accelerates in him, he gains defiant energy:


- Not here! -

Not lying down!


He braces for swordfight.


Let the old fellow come now!  He shall find me

On my feet - sword in hand -


[All clips translated by Brian Hooker, 1923.]


Almost one hundred and ten years later, Stephen Gyllenhaal, accomplished director, elbow-rubber with Hollywood stars (and father to some), wields his little pen (his sword) and scribbles monumental interpretations, memories, fears and loves.  And he, like so many before and after, adds his "no" to death to the mix.  Is is claptrap?  Of course it is.  Remember my opening line: All poetry is claptrap.  But what glorious claptrap.


Yes, in a sense we are like Cyrano's leaves, however, we tend to rebel against gravity or we trail the air with desperate claptrap.  We are claptrapping leaves, falling, falling.  Show me a leaf or a rock that can claptrap like the worst of us, let alone the best!  See?  We claptrap, claptrap, claptrap - of births, deaths, family, enemy, sex, and, in Dr. Suess' case, even socks - all the way down.





- review by David Herrle 10/2006



*This difference is also shown in the contrast between George Romero's original masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead and the despairing 2004 remake: Francine rejects aborting her pregnancy in Dawn 1978; the baby brought to term in the remake comes out as a hideous little zombie that is shot to bloody pieces immediately.  In 1978, some characters escape to live another day; in 2004, they arrive on an island infested with zombies that will destroy them.





(This review can also be seen at Cantarabooks' official site.)







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