By Ryan Adams
Akashic Books, 286 pp.
Early on the afternoon of March 24, North Carolina native Ryan Adams joined the amassing legion of 5 million or so people who broadcast their lives through the social media site Twitter: "Currently listening to Bach and my wife's voice—so thankful," Adams wrote later that night for his fourth tweet (the Twitter noun and verb of choice) in less than six hours.
Exactly two weeks prior, Adams married entertainer Mandy Moore in a small ceremony in Savannah, Ga. His tweets—brief accounts of songs he's hearing, foods he's eating, sights he's seeing—sport the general glow of a successful artist who's in love and relaxing during a bright spot in his life: He's boasted of turning in his second book, Hello, Sunshine, due late this summer. He's live-tweeted the Country Music Awards from his cell phone. He's raved about The Velvet Underground, pizza.com and the culture-rich herbal tea kombucha. Not unlike the personal Twitter accounts of many regular folk (and Shaquille O'Neal), it's quixotic, referential and often very amusing.
The tone of Adams' Twitter page, then, veers markedly from that of his first book, the voluble poetry collection Infinity Blues, released April 1 in hardcover and trade paper by Akashic Books, a Brooklyn publishing house and record label run by Johnny Temple, former bassist in the D.C. post-punk band Girls Against Boys.
As its title suggests, an engrossing melancholy marks Adams' literary debut, which behooves someone who, in 1997, memorably sang with Whiskeytown, "I was born into an abundance of inherited sadness." In 144 poems (a handful are actually paragraphs or small essays), Adams roars through his daddy issues, girl woes and artistic misgivings with non-filtered honesty. Crude, mean and unflinching, Adams spews his life onto every page, looking to shock with abrupt proclamations—"my money goes to old fucking men in chairs uptown"—and grisly images—"a bottle of seltzer/ some cotton swabs/ a cutting razor/ band-aids/ a piece of flesh-colored tape/ cut/ cut/ cut/ til it feels like it did when you would make yourself sick/ and vomit."
In its emotional fits and starts, Infinity Blues is occasionally provocative and sometimes witty. In general, though, it only confirms the fact that Adams—despite his celebrity as a prolific, popular singer/ songwriter—is only another 34-year-old with personal problems. As a celebrity, however, he has the spoiling luxury-of-the-rich in time to write those problems down, and the platform and lack of filter necessary to air them. But why should we care?
In four or so words, the titles of Infinity Blues' works proclaim mostly everything you need to know about the occasionally rhyming, sporadically punctuated poems that take their names: "I Fucking Miss You," for instance, ends "i am so sorry/ so sorry/ i fucking miss you." After jumping over little gems of lines like "I fucking hate you" and "i lost my glasses/ like two summers ago/ and I can't fucking see/ for shit," "Goodnight Little One" arrives at a one-line fifth stanza: "So goodnight little one." And, pardon the spoiler, but "i think i thought i loved you" concludes, well, "i hate you/ I hate you/ my god/ once/ once in a while/ i think i thought i loved you."
All said, Infinity Blues is mostly one big mess of misses. The poems are petulant, myopic and petty, as their star is either whining about the unbearable torture of life and love or regretting something he once felt. Any hint of resolution or grace quickly washes away to the idea that his problems are bigger than his hope, that his issues are more important than reconciling himself with the world. "I am not your feelings," he proclaims during the short "babydoll," taking his solipsistic stand and reinforcing his unwillingness to bend for anyone.
What's more, Infinity Blues chokes on its lazy, lavish use of postmodern devices: Adams tosses around unorthodox forms, line and character spacing, indulgent repetition, and inconsistent capitalization so often that they accomplish nothing except to render an exhausting read. Adams writes like an undergraduate who picked up volumes of Charles Bukowski, E.E. Cummings and William S. Burroughs at the used bookstore last semester, and now—back at home and missing his girlfriend—is trying those oversized clothes on for size over spring break: "i am writing it out/ i am writing it out/ i am writing it out/ i am/ i will/ i was/ i know/ THAT DOOR IS CLOSED/ THAT DOOR IS CLOSED...," he spins during one particularly egregious passage. (By the way, that's his ellipsis, not ours, though the poem doesn't stop there.)
"I refuse to edit/ I am but a single life," begins the nine-line "I Refuse." Its footnote, from publisher Johnny Temple, explains, "This poem was originally 32 pages long." Aside from reaffirming Adams' island mentality, "I Refuse" verifies that he, indeed, has an editor. Otherwise, you might guess no one read these prolix pages before ink met paper on the printing press: There's so much chaff here that, try as I might, I still can't make it from cover to cover in one straight line. Rejoice the occasional bit of wheat, though: The lyrial phrase inversions that open and close "to flame"; the metaphor of bones and dice, both unlucky, in "SOS Searchlights"; the calm, clueless admission of "c'mon, let's go." To put Infinity Blues into perspective, William Carlos Williams' definitive collection, Selected Poems, contains only 25 more pages of work. The 2002 Ecco edition of Charles Bukowski's Love is a Dog from Hell bears just 26 more pages. It's thrice the length of Colossus and Other Poems, the first stateside volume from Sylvia Plath, the namesake of a 2001 Adams song. Either Ryan Adams is the most important poet to cross any desk in a century or, well, you know.
If the material were alluring, that would be one thing, but I can barely read a poem without laughing or wishing I was anywhere else. A quagmire of over-indulgence, Infinity Blues loses its points in endless slipstreams of details. Associations run wild, though Adams ultimately leaves nothing for the reader to take away. It's a lot of work for next to no payoff.
But there must be thousands of bad poets in the world, right? What's more frustrating here than Adams' copious missives isn't that he (a songwriter taking a chance and turning that "inherited sadness" into something other than songs) or his editor (if Akashic didn't release this, someone else would have, given the author's fame) let them into the world as is. Rather, the worst part of it all is that I care enough to review a terrible book and you care enough to read about it simply because the spine says "Ryan Adams." Penned by anyone else, Infinity Blues would likely have been another vanity collection, perhaps published at the Lulu.com office on the same Hillsborough Street Adams used to pace. It would have been ignored by most of the world because, honestly, its contents aren't much more interesting than the diaries, journals or blogs of every other average depressed teenager or young adult. It's twitter.com/ryanada_ms, with the colors reversed.
As a society, though, our celebrity obsession has grown progressively reckless. Now, when our favorite singer tweets about his lunch destination, we can have the news instantly forwarded as a text message to our cell phones. Some stars inform us of their constant whereabouts with real-time GPS updates. Shaq buys fellow "twitterbuddies" lunch. In the acclaimed Age of Information, the capability to learn anything you didn't know even existed—the life cycle of the fascinating microscopic animal known as a tardigrade; the intricacies of the Facial Action Coding System; the global implications of the continuing Second Congo War—is but a few keystrokes away. Still, we're more concerned with what our favorite starlet is wearing or who our favorite heartthrob is seducing.
After all, the Twitter account of Ashton Kutcher—a goofy guy famous for wearing trucker hats and saying, "Dude, you got 'punk'd'"—became the first to claim 1 million followers last week after a highly publicized wager with CNN's Breaking News feed. That is, in an exponentially growing field of Internet users, more people demand updates on what's happening in Kutcher's life than what's happening in their own world. Of course, maybe Adams will use that electronic avenue to tell us when something bad happens in his life. At 140 characters each, those tweets will be much easier to read than, say, 286 pages of poems that are, by and large, "a hopeless swarm of bad ideas."
If only Adams had found Twitter before March 2009.