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Ode to an Outlaw : DILLINGER, By Todd Moore (Primal Publishing, 107 Brighton Ave., Allston, Mass. 02134; (617) 787-1318: $8.95 per volume, paper; Book I, 139 pp.; Book II, 151 pp.)

August 16, 1992|Grover Lewis | Lewis is a Santa Monica-based journalist and critic

American culture has taken some bruising blows in the decades since mid-century. While trendy aesthetic forms such as performance art and music videos have proliferated and continue to flourish, contemporary poetry, among other cultural perishables, has faded to marginality, reduced to the equivalent of blank ammunition for a generation of MTV-eyed kids.

Against such a melancholy backdrop, Todd Moore's "Dillinger" cycle appears as a welcome and audacious surprise. It's a mammoth, sprawling, obsessive vision of the Depression era's most flamboyant bank robber and gunmen, Public Enemy No. 1. Written in the free-flowing tradition of Whitman and the Beats, the 35,000-line lyric narrative--presently at about the midway point of publication with two volumes out--is accessible, hard-edged, alternately moving and scary, and rich as any novel in its weave of event and character.

Todd Moore, a high school English teacher from Belvidere, Ill., has been for many seasons now a prolific mainstay of little-magazine circles, where he is well-known for his short, blunt and often violent poems (see "Helping My," Page 6). The author grew up in the same region where Dillinger jumped bank counters during the 1930s, and his work reflects the edgy ambivalence that still colors the desperado's legend on his home ground.

Written in different voices--real and imaginary, male and female, innocent and corrupt--"Dillinger" paints an almost pointillist likeness of an outlaw who was both patsy and holy terror, a man who ultimately chased his fragmented identity, as Moore sees it, to the infernal side of the American Dream:

he is all mystery

one he wishes he could solve . . .

passing his face in department

store windows

steps back


hitches his trousers

stares into the face

the mystery face that face

w/so much

mystery in it the face he hates

the face he loves the face he hates

to love

& loves to hate

That's from a section titled "Dillinger's Faces," in which Moore takes off from Dillinger's eerily mercurial appearance to explore the subterranean link between lawlessness and the high-holy iconography of American celebrity, money and family ties. The theme is extended and deepened in "Dillinger's Keys" and "Kodak." In the latter, the hunted Dillinger plays games with a camera at the Chicago World's Fair--a camera he's stolen from the seat of a car and boldly offers to a strolling policeman to snap his picture. Meanwhile, the outlaw is also scanning the midway crowd, hoping for a glimpse of his screen idol, Jimmy Cagney.

The fugitive is always striking poses, romantic and savage by turn, as he searches for his real or symbolic coevals--Cagney or other movie stars or even Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who eventually will gun him down outside the Biograph Theater in 1934.

"Billie F" unfolds from the perspective of Billie Frechette, Dillinger's sexy "moll" and female doppelganger. In "Robbing a Bank," we get Dillinger's sensations during the course of a heist with Baby Face Nelson, who is convincingly portrayed as a psychopathic gunsel. Throughout, the component poems remain firmly grounded in vernacular speech, with only the rhythms concentrated and intensified. It's vers noir , primitive and powerful, rendered in starkly cinematic images.

With Books III and IV still to appear in Primal Publishing's handsomely produced series, "Dillinger" takes shape as a work of soaring ambition and signal accomplishment--not to mention being a remarkable feat of creative concentration. In that sense, the cycle ranks with Ginsberg's "Howl" and the late Thomas McGrath's "Letters to an Imaginary Friend" as one of the premier long poems of our time.

With passion, biting style and a ruthless vision of the void, Todd Moore has fashioned a painstakingly pure and vivid piece of hard-boiled art--one work of poetry, I suspect, with a long and potent shelf life, and one well worth searching out.

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