Friday, April 30, 2010

Letting Go

Who Lets Go First
Prose Poetry by Gian Lombardo
Swamp Press, 2010

Whenever I hear a phrase like “who let’s go first” I think of a very tense situation: two men aiming a gun at one another, two men releasing a rhinoceros into the wilderness, the onset of weaning, a romance on the rocks. There is drama, and there is a moral. The first person to let go is forced to assume a role they would rather not have. It is a situation that calls for a great deal of attention and personal scrutiny. Intuitions come at us with lightning speed, but judgments are often hard to form. They require reflection. Poise. And most importantly, risk.

The 64 texts in this collection are, to borrow Lombardo’s own description, “a reflection base on an image, series of images or the barest backbone of a narrative derived from reading the commentary and symbolism of a hexagram.”

A hexagram, as it applies to the I Ching, is a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines. Each line is either Yang, an unbroken line, or Yin, a line with a gap in the middle. The lines are counted from the bottom up. Each of the 64 hexagrams is accompanied with an elliptical description or event with the flavor of a moral, or parable. Lombard has included in the back of this book what he refers to as “Volume II: Instructions For Throwing A Hexagram.” There are also three coins, with inscribed with symbols and Chinese ideograms. One side constitutes heads, the other tales, though I’m not entirely sure which is which. I decided the side with the Asian ideograms would be heads. When I finished throwing the coins, and adding their value to arrive at a hexagram, I matched my pattern with the pattern of the one listed among the 64 hexagrams printed below the instructions. I got number 59.

59 is a parable of negligence, and finding oneself in a predicament as a result. It is titled “The Mother Of Invention.” I will print it below in full:

Now you are stuck. You weren’t paying attention. Both oars slipped out of their locks. They float beyond your reach.
     You curse your absent-mindedness in the same way you curse being caught in the dark without a candle.
     Try crying for help. Try putting your elbows on your knees and holding chin in hand.
     But is that a breeze crossing your sullen brow? Never mind that you’ve been taught not to stand in a small boat. Get up and unbutton your shirt. Let it unfurl from your open arms, ready to embrace whatever shore the wind casts you.

Naturally, I cannot but help read my own personal narrative into this parable. I am absent-minded. I do tend to curse a lot. I don’t use candles, but I do occasionally forget to turn on a light when I’m looking for something. I do spend a lot of time with my chin on my hand. My brow could easily be described as ‘sullen.’ Sullen suits me. And there are, wonderfully, occasionally, those “oh fuck it” moments when I give myself to the wind, and go wherever it blows me. This is an important lesson for absent-minded people. Absent-minded is actually the opposite of what is occurring. Negligence and forgetfulness are the result of being preoccupied. With having too much in your mind. If my mind were absent of the clutter usually crowding what little space I have there, I would not forget so many things.

Lombardo’s parables are both edgy and whimsical. The phrases are lyrical delicacies, well-crafted without coming across as too labored or precious, and the images are rich and timeless; they do not appear to belong to any particular epoch, and while not altogether modern, neither are they archaic. They seem redolent in many ways of the colorful and theatrical images of Tarot cards. And sometimes they have a quirky huckleberry tartness, as in this sentence from #30, “On The Cusp:” “The only thing the toaster emits is a pungent spiral.” Pungent spiral refers, I’m sure, to the electrical coils in the toaster that heat up. And when they heat up, all the crumbs and whatever slices of bread have been inserted into the mechanism produce a very strong odor. I like the way all this information gets squeezed into a sentence of ten words.

This is a remarkably beautiful book, physically. According to the information listed beneath the Colophon, “the types are Goudy Handtooled and Goudy Old Style, both cast at Swamp Press. Press work was done on a Heidelberg Windmill, and the sewing was done on an antique Smyth. The hardcover is printed on Pescia mould made and limited to one hundred copies. There are three hundred and fifty softcovers.” Which means, dear reader, you should rush out and get one while you can!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Trot-Trot-Trot. Puff-Puff-Puff.

Allan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, died last Sunday at age 82.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is one of my favorite movies. Directed by Tony Richardson, who also did Look Back In Anger and Tom Jones, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner stars Tom Courtenay in the lead role as a young miscreant and Michael Redgraves as his nemesis, the self-important Reformatory Governor of Ruxton Towers. The movie’s rollicking, devil-may-care energy had a great fascination for me in the sixties thanks to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the bluesy psychedelia of the British Invasion. The members of these groups dressed like the romantic poets whose portraits were pinned reverently to the wall of my high school English class, but produced a music of dazzling melodies and passionate rhythms. “Go Now.” “Ticket To Ride.” “Needles And Pins.” "Over Under Sideways Down."

There was more to England, evidently, than the greenswards and gardens that I had more generally imagined as the country that had given birth to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Richardson’s movie greatly intrigued me because of its spirited, black-and-white look at the struggles of a working class I thought had only existed in places like the Bronx and Detroit and Cincinnati. Class divisions were far more visible in England, but their frictions and oppressions were every bit as vicious and unjust as they were in the U.S. during the 1890s and 1930s. Not to mention our own current time and the ravages of corporate America and Wall Street. CEOs who make $200 million per year in a country where the working poor live in tent cities from Tampa to Sacramento.

The sass and bravado of Richardson’s central character, 17-year old Colin Smith, embodied a spirit that was one part William Blake and one part Eddie Cochran. He had dash and fervor and wit. He did not suffer fools gladly. I loved the movie. And yet I hadn’t read the book. I had been meaning to. It was on my list. It had been on my list for decades.

Now was the time to read it. I had just finished Kerouac’s Big Sur and was left with a whetted appetite for more raw energy, for a forceful prose bursting with attitude; something defiant and full of animal instinct and boiling contravention. Sillitoe’s novella seemed promising.

I was also interested in the book’s main subject: running. I had begun running late in life, in 1992, at age 45. I had quit drinking and smoking and began routinely running a modest course of two miles. Two friends at work, both runners, invited me to do Seattle’s shore run, a 6.7 mile run from Seward Park to Madison Park on Lake Washington Boulevard. Although for some weeks I had been running a course of, at most, three miles, I figured I was ready. Another three miles would make little difference. I could feel it in my body: an inexhaustible vitality. What further piqued my interest was the rumor that my former girlfriend was going to be running in the race with her new partner, a guy who worked in her office who I perceived as the anti-me: quiet, unassuming, and sedate. Naturally, I wanted to show my stuff. I knew I wasn’t going to win her back, nor did I want to. But I did want to demonstrate the horrendous mistake she had made in dumping me. How many Mick Jaggers can there be at age 45?

Shortly after the race began, I got a nice reality check. I was ready to drop after the second mile. My legs were leaden. I felt like the mummy from the 1932 movie starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep. I maintained a pathetic stride that was more shuffle than run. I imagined swaths of raggedy cotton falling from my ancient Pharaonic body.

After that, I discovered the joy of LSD: Long Slow Distance. I increased my distance to six, to ten, and on the weekends, 14 miles. In March of 1993, I finished the half-marathon on Mercer Island in a respectable 2 hours and 20 minutes.

The fabled high of the runner is real. Something happens to you chemically to make you feel better. Your mind clears. You feel exhilarated. Confident. Worries are mitigated. Anguish is softened. Depression is diminished.

Sillitoe describes the exhilaration of running with firm, vigorous prose, gripping the page with the rhythm of a lively inner monologue after Smith shows his pass to the guard and takes to the countryside: … as soon as I take that first fling leap out into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to whistle, I get to thinking, and that’s what I like. I go my rounds in a dream, turning at lane or foothpath corners without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without knowing they’re there, and shouting good morning to the early cow-milker without seeing him. It’s a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do or that there’s a shop to break and enter a bit back from the next street. Sometimes I think that I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours when I’m trotting up the path out of the gates and turning by that bare-faced, big-bellied oak tree at the lane end. Everything’s dead, but good, because it’s dead before coming alive, not dead after being alive. That’s how I look at it. Mind you, I often feel frozen stiff at first. I can’t feel my hands or feet or flesh at all, like I’m a ghost who wouldn’t know the earth was under him if he didn’t see it now and again through the mist. But even though some people would call this frost-pain suffering if they wrote about it to their mams in a letter, I don’t, because I know that in half an hour I’m going to be warm, that by the time I get to the main road and am turning on to the wheatfield footpath by the bus stop I’m going to feel as hot as a potbellied stove and as happy as a dog with a tin tail.

The underlying, fundamental theme of Sillitoe’s tale is being alive. Staying alive. Keeping that vital spark of divinity in us glistening and paramount. Because there are so many toxic forces that undermine and diminish us. Every time we go against our instinct to obey a rule, go contrary to our heart and intuition to do something that we don’t want to do, but must do, every time we pay obedience to someone we do not respect, we die a little. Every time we do what is expected of us instead of what we expect of ourselves, we die a little. Every time we try to adapt or conform or fit into a situation that makes us squirm and awkward and ill-at-ease, we die a little. And every time we die a little it all mounts up until there is not much left. Just enough to get drunk, watch TV, smoke a joint, do a line of coke.

It’s a bit odd admiring the spirit and sagacity of a 17 year-old at age 62. We all inherit the decisions we make in our late teens and twenties. It is rare to change course in our 30s, and a lot harder now than it used to be. The cost of an education is astronomical. The U.S. manufacturing base is all but gone. Short of getting a degree in engineering, or medicine, or law, there isn’t much left in the way of a career that will allow you to buy a house and raise a family. Life in the U.S. is far more constrictive than it was when I was 17. Sillitoe’s tale of long distance running and prison and petty crime has become more pertinent. But I wonder if the popularity of comic books and movies about superheroes hasn’t replaced the kind of yearning and redemption possible in a book such as The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. Feelings of learned helplessness are easily appeased by fantasies of flying and superhuman strength. It is harder to convince people that freedom, true freedom, can only be found inside. In our guts. In our brains. In our muscle and blood. In the privacy of our heads where there is no limit to what can be imagined or thought or dreamed.

Never kid yourself: unless you’re born rich, you’re at war. At war with a system that wants to kill your spirit. Kill your imagination. As Smith expresses it: They can drop all the atom bombs they like for all I care: I’ll never call it war and wear a soldier’s uniform, because I’m in a different sort of war, that they think is child’s play. The war they think is war is suicide, and those that go and get killed in war should be put in clink for attempted suicide because that’s the feeling in bloke’s minds when they rush to join up or let themselves be called up. I know, because I’ve thought how good it would be sometimes to do myself in and the easiest way to do it, it occurred to me, was to hope for a big war so’s I could join up and get killed. But I got past that when I knew I already was in a war of my own, that I was born into one, that I grew up hearing the sound of ‘old soldiers’ who’d been over the top at Dartmoor, half-killed at Lincoln, trapped in a no-man’s-land at Borstal, that sounded louder than any Jerry bombs. Government wars aren’t my wars; they’ve got nowt to do with me, because my own war’s all that I’ll ever be bothered about.

Amen to that, brother.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Few Curiosities

The aged and yellowed photograph of the adult Arthur Rimbaud which emerged in the news recently, and which has since been demonstrated to have been a hoax, has reawakened an old obsession. Why did Rimbaud stop writing poetry so abruptly at age 21? Why were his letters home so stark and severe? Why did he travel so far to make money? Why did such a notorious libertine suddenly devote himself so wholeheartedly to work and commerce, extremes of weather and long grueling walks in regions of unsparing desolation? My attempt to resolve these issues by bringing Rimbaud to the American west led to writing my novel Souls Of Wind, and a richly imagined existence in which a rugged Rimbaud encounters Indians and outlaws, Pleistocene fossils and Billy the Kid, learns the fundamentals of becoming a gunfighter and even begins to write prose poetry again. It was all very engrossing, and fun, and helped earn some insights and further speculations, but did not, ultimately, answer the many questions that continue to gnaw and busy my mind.

It is extremely disappointing that this picture of Rimbaud, which two booksellers ostensibly discovered at a flea market “somewhere in France,” lacks authenticity. He looks exactly as I would imagine him at this period of his life: dour, reflective, civil but distant, fraught with inner conflict. Still handsome, but far more manly and Clint Eastwood-like than his more boyish appearance in the Étienne Carjat photograph adorning my New Directions copy of the Illuminations. In Carjat’s photograph he looks like a punk, a highly intelligent, flamboyant and volatile figure, the image of the poet as rebel and intellectual swashbuckler, mischief-maker, provocateur. In the flea market photograph he is far more complex and interesting, the eyes deep-set, the expression disciplined, seasoned, and sad.

Why it should bother me so much that Rimbaud stopped writing poetry is a mystery. It would take a number of sessions with a therapist to get to the bottom. It is not a crippling problem, but neither is it merely a fascinating enigma to ponder and fuss over, a Rubik’s cube of the soul, an unanswerable meaning-of-life question. It is a genuine problem for which I hunger to find a solution. I read my own conflicts over poetry in Rimbaud’s decision to leave it behind as a foolish and distracting enterprise. I imagine the literary milieu of Paris in the 1870s to be every bit as clogged with arrogant jerks, pompous editors, and egotistical clowns as the literary milieu of the United States, in which poetry has, mystifyingly, become an actual career of sorts. “Poets now polish their CVs and grant applications as well as their verse,” writes Jamie James in his essay about Ezra Pound, “In The Gloom Of The Gold,” which appears in the spring, 2010, issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. But then, what profession isn’t full of jerks? Homo sapiens is a doomed species, an evolutionary mistake. We are far too self-aware and overburdened with consciousness not to make a mess of things in our quest for well-being. Our religions bring us war, our conveniences poison the planet, and ultimately ourselves. We are incapable of fulfilling even the simplest of bromides: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, weirdly, this hasn’t stopped me from devoting four solid decades to writing, submitting, and publishing poetry.

I often imagine what my life would have been like had I become, say, a lawyer, or carpenter? What is life like when it is lived normally? What is life like when it is lived without this driving, lunatic urge to create things out of words? When there is no overriding ambition to see those words in print? When one’s passions actually coincide with a way to make a living?

The best advice I could give to a young person passionate about pursuing a life of poetry, is to learn a foreign language, and play a musical instrument, preferably an electric guitar. As Bob Dylan has shown, the electrical guitar is the best delivery mechanism imaginable for poetry. While seduced by the whine and open D tuning of a blues guitar, people might also pick up on one or two words you put together. But poetry by itself, naked, unadorned, with no drums or guitar or harmonica, is a tough pill to swallow. People have to make an effort. They have to pay attention. They have to concentrate. And people in this day and age are utterly incapable of that.

Perhaps, in some way, I envy Rimbaud. He was able to quit writing poetry. Rimbaud, more than any other poet, inspired me to write poetry. So it is all the more ironic that the man who got me involved with this lunatic pursuit, stopped, while I cannot. Poetry has become a compulsion. The more sensible direction for someone with a flair for words is journalism. There is nothing remotely sensible about poetry. It is the least common-sensical thing in the universe. Its frenzied chimeras border on self-destruction. Culminate in magnificent barflies like Charles Bukowski.

But enough about me. And Charles Bukowski. Let’s get back to Rimbaud: why Aden? Why did he travel so far south?

His letters during this time do not reveal much, other than a dire need for money. It begs the question: what was the employment situation like in France at the time?

It wasn’t good. The French economy was heavily burdened by the Franco-German war of 1870/1871. The suppression of the Paris Commune was also highly destructive and costly. Meanwhile, the world economy had entered the second industrial revolution. The growing industries needed raw materials and cheap labor. This led to a very aggressive policy of colonial expansion. Talk of making a lot of wealth in foreign countries, particularly the poorer ones to the south, must have been a strong lure to young Frenchmen, hoping to make it big, then return home to enjoy a life of ease.

1880, the year in which the adult photograph of Rimbaud was assumed to have been taken, was the year Rimbaud left employment in a stone quarry on Cyprus and found a job with Viannay, Bardey et Cie, a French export company dealing mainly in coffee. Rimbaud was hired as a foreman in the coffee sorting warehouse for seven francs a day. This included lodging at the Hotel de l’Univers. Temperature in the warehouse was about 100° Fahrenheit. Rimbaud says “you sweat out liters of water every day.”

Rimbaud’s letters home at this time reveal a few important details. He describes Aden as a “hideous rock, without a blade of grass or a drop of decent water: we drink water distilled from the ocean.” Photographs of Aden will bear this out. It is situated in a caldera, and looks like a furnace. The Periplus of the Erythean Sea (periplus is a Greek word meaning “to sail around a place,” and is an account of a coastal voyage; Erythean Sea means Red Sea), describes Aden, circa the 1st mid-century AD, as a place of “nomads and fish-eaters.” Aden is also where the USS Cole was bombed by a suicide attack on October 12, 2000, while it was harbored and refueling. Some also believe that Cain and Abel are buried somewhere in the city.

Once Rimbaud was situated, he wrote home with a number of very detailed book orders. In the first, which he directs to M. Lacroix, in Roche, a village in the Ardennes where his mother, brother, and sister were then living (hardly a place at all; I had a hard time finding it on a map), he provides a list:

     Treatise on Metallurgy
     Urban and Agricultural Hydraulics
     Piloting Steamboats
     Naval Architecture
     Powders and Saltpeters
by Demanet
     Pocket Book of Carpentry

And in a second list, containing more details about to whom to make requests, including an M. Arbery, “builder,” he includes a request from a M. Pilter for the Illustrated Catalogue of Agricultural Machines, by FRANCO, the Complete Catalogue of the Bookstore of the École centrale, in Paris, and the address of the Builders of Diving Equipment. Here is the second list:

     Cartwright’s Manual
     Tanner’s Manual
     The Compleat Locksmith
, by Berthaut
     Operating Mines, by J.F. Blanc
     Glassmaker’s Manual
     Brickmaker’s Manual
     Earthenware Manual
     Metalforging Manual
     Candlemaking Manual
     Guide to Gunmaking

Reading these lists, one can only clasp one’s hand to the side of one’s head, and say my God, did he think he was going to learn every single trade in the world? And why? Did he have ambitions of becoming some sort of 19th century Howard Hughes, or Warren Buffet? Did he want to know the import/export trade inside out and backwards in order to shine in a career he had chosen for its adventure and travel? How much of this had to do with commerce, and how much had to do with a sheer taste for this kind of reading? Reading void of literature. Void of poetry. Void of reverie and metaphor and romance and fanciful construction. Simple, direct, fact-based information about the materials and machinery and expertise of the world. Reading in which reverie and fanciful construction are found, and no doubt abound, albeit more by accident and serendipity in the mind of the reader than by the intent of the author, which is utterly down-to-earth, practical and plain as a hammer, or screwdriver. The text within these books is presented in a very different guise than in the annals of literature, where the ambitions of the author are more evident, and the words and phrases have been finessed more for the sake of inner reflection than a mastery of raw materials. These reading lists develop a vivid portrait, perhaps not of a face, but of a soul, a psyche with a raging hunger to know everything there is to know about the world on a level of strict empiricism, the world in its brute form, as a ball of rock and salt and organisms thrashing about for survival. But also a world of complexity and fascination where things can be achieved by trigger and gunpowder, glass and brick and metal and physical forces. Capacitance, crystallinity, magnetism, diffusion, ductility, extrusion, fatigue, reflection, refraction, polarization.

Rimbaud is slippery. Right when you think you’ve got him, developed an image, you discover something else that throws you off course again. Rimbaud also developed an avid interest in photography. There is a photograph of a local Harar artisan sitting at the base of a stone column, wearing a raggedy robe, his head bare and shorn, his expression intent, a blanket spread out before him of his wares, earthen jugs and plates and bowls. The photograph has a soulful presence that is uncanny in its power. Here, one sees Rimbaud through Rimbaud’s very own eyes. A man who has turned his back on the literary milieus of London and Paris, on the golden spines and shadowy convolutions of the French symbolists, on the diaphanous veils of the pre-Raphaelites, and directed his attention to the brutish realities of the world at its starkest, its most unconditional and glaring. The world of money and hunger and weights and measures. Inadequate doctors and medicines. Pearls and ammunition. Ignorance and greed.

Terrible heat. Unutterable cold.

“We have ordered a camera,” he wrote home from Harar on January 15, 1881, “and I will send you images of the country and its people. We have also received equipment used by natural historians, and I will be able to send you birds and animals that no one has yet seen in Europe. I have already collected a few curiosities that I await the opportunity to send you.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Rimbaud quotations are from I Promise To Be Good, The Letters Of Arthur Rimbaud, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Wyatt Mason. Modern Library Edition, 2003.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Trance Archives: New And Selected Poems
Andrew Joron
City Lights, 2010

There is a tantalizing contradiction in the title of this book. A trance is an altered state of consciousness that is temporary. As the word itself indicates, it is transitory. An archive is its opposite: it is a repository of information, a place where documents are organized and stored. Joron clasps the two terms together to create communicating vessels, not in the literal scientific application if this device but in the sense André Breton intended it: a conduit between dream and reality, the marvelous and the everyday.

Joron is a poet of correspondences. Reading his work is like entering a hall of mirrors. Reflections modify our perceptions at every glance. Rhymes and half-rhymes, homonyms and homophones, polysemes and synonyms create a universe of simulacrums, a hyperreality in which images are intentionally clashed and distorted, mirrored and echoed, so that accepted notions of reality might be questioned or overturned. Joron, far more so than any other of his contemporaries, is a magician, an alchemist of words; his work is modern, has a contemporary freshness to it, yet also has an undertone of antiquity, of ivy-clad towers and ancient residues. He is a proponent of science, but evinces also a strong romantic temperament that subverts a too literal, too empirical reading of our world.

It would be more apposite to say that Joron is a proponent of zero, the cry of zero, the viscera of zero. The semiotics of zero. Zero, as a meta-linguistic sign that refers to nothing, subverts our notion of a world composed of a pre-existing field of referents. Such a world does not exist. Zero is a sign produced within, and by, arithmetical notation. It is a sign that is understood structurally, only in relation to other signs. The opposition between things and the signs of things is unmasked as a highly volatile and shifting field of infinite variability. Joron uses linguistic apparitions to negotiate this realm. A realm of signs among signs mediated by paradoxical formulations. “Thus, the idea of a horn that has been emptied of music./ An emptiness of many chambers.”

Trance Archive contains collections culled from five previous books, Force Fields, Science Fiction, The Removes, Fathom, and The Sound Mirror. These older collections are sandwiched between a small gathering of new poems.

“Untiled,” a short poem of 19 lines included among the new poems, begins (as does the title) with a pun: “Or, outside the mosaic law.” Mosaic can refer either to Moses and the Ten Commandments, or the application of a design in ceramic tile. The next line, “In leaf, relief,” is an equation voiced in rhyme, the image of a leaf as it might appear in a bas-relief. Here is the poem in its entirety:

    Or, outside the mosaic law.

    In leaf, relief
    That that pattern never repeats.
                Saturn, turn as
    Alpha laugh, omega game.

    The biggest signal
    Begins against

    For foreign rain --
                a man, amen.

    Jazz is the edge of every day, the
    Lair of all alarm.

    Static, the
                O there, other

                a sentence given to the forgiven.

As can be seen, this little poem abounds in correspondences, puns and homonyms. We see the word ‘gain’ played off the word ‘against,’ ‘signal’ half-rhymed in ‘begins,’ ‘rain’ in ‘foreign,’ ‘a man’ in ‘amen,’ and so on. It is tempting to say “and sew on,” so infectious are Joron’s word-plays. The words, once linked by sound and echo, invite semantic comparison. ‘Static,’ ‘state,’ and ‘states,’ are all related, all cognates of one another. A state is one of two entities, a geographical area as in the United States, or a condition or mode of being with regard to a set of circumstances. In this instance, it is ‘static.’ ‘States,’ as a verb, extends the play to ‘O there’ and ‘other,’ ‘given’ and ‘forgiven.’ One quickly acquires a sense of interrelation. In music, this might be referred to as a form of counterpoint, whose term comes from Latin, contra punctum, meaning “dot against dot” or “note against note.” The interplay of words bounced off of one another. The repetition of an idea in a different guise is the essence of contrapuntal thinking. Themes are turned upside down. New meanings are shaken out.

If one returns to a reading of the poem above, one sees more clearly how the words are not just played off of one another, but rubbed, chafed, scraped against one another. There is tension, visually and aurally, between ‘gain’ and ‘against,’ and ‘rain.’

I was greatly intrigued by a phrase in the first sentence of the poem “Commentary,” from Fathom. “If, in reading, we ‘invite the shadow,’ we press a word to reveal its lost priority -- ”

What the dickens does he mean by “invite the shadow,” I wondered. I was largely intrigued because it had to do with reading, and I have been greatly fascinated by some of the comments Walter J. Ong made with regard to reading as inherently hallucinatory, since reading a written text turns the individual inward on themselves. We enter a shadow world. We are referred to presences, in the form of words, that have no presences. Words are ghosts. They have no real substance. No meat, no bones. They are mere notations, sticks with tones. The images they make we make in our minds. Reading a written text is a private communion. Hence, it is an invitation of shadows.

Might a word be pressed? In some sense yes, we press it with our eyes, our vision. The attention we press to the page.

We find this trope repeated in “Trance Archive,” the title piece. “Only the fingertips of the eyes/ Can touch this distance./ It is a kind of cold fire.”

In “The Invention Of Zero,” which is from the collection Science Fiction, is the dazzling image of “the mind”: “The mind, a freezing reptile/ Sits exposed upon a ledge/ space falls away/ in all directions.” That a poet of such keen intellect as Joron might compare the mind to a freezing reptile overlooking an abyss is intriguing in the extreme. Here we have the primordial and the abyssal blended into one potent illustration of the divide between the sign and its referent. The last two lines of the poem, “flattened/ by the weight of the invisible,” hit home with uncanny precision. If, taken in its original meaning, a trance is a passage, a portal to another realm, the archives in this City Lights collections are an ardor where the mind goes dressed in a glamour of “clouds, letters, broken shapes of breath.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dickinson's Drawer: Cop Out, Or Solution?

I have long envied athletes and scientists. Their accomplishments are quantifiable. You either jump X number of feet, or you don’t. You score X number of points, run so many minutes per mile, eat more hot dogs than anyone else at the local hot dog eating competition, or slam dunk the final winning point at a basketball game. You discover a cure for cancer, calculate the rotation of a planet, map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome, or discover that a silkworm has eleven brains. There is no ambiguity. No room for subjectivity. People may hate you, your family may despise you, but you did it: you discovered a cure, won the game, or pole vaulted X number of feet and won the gold medal for the United States. Hurray!! Hurray for you!

Poetry is not like that. It is all subjective. Every little bit. A body of work sent to the ever-so-sophisticated postmodernist journal X is rejected, but later accepted by the ever-so-sophisticated postmodernist journal Y. What does that mean? How do you interpret that? The editors at X were poorly educated snotty jerks whereas the editors at Y really knew their stuff? So that even though your work has been accepted, and will go to print, or be published online (which is another matter), you continue to have doubts. But doubts about what? A poem is not an ingot of iron or gold. It does not have a specific density, atomic number, or chemical valence.

Human consciousness is baffling. If judgment precedes experience, the experience will be colored by our bias and expectation. We hunger for novelty, yet fear the unknown. Despise socialism, yet complain about bad roads. Continue to believe Obama is a progressive, although he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, transferred the country’s wealth to Wall Street, and signed a one-year extension of the Patriot Act, authorizing wire-taps, allowing seizure of records, and permitting lone-wolf surveillance.

Go figure.

Some argue that the mind is an independent substance, others that the mind is in some sense identical with neurobiological properties, but is not reducible to them. Outside of pi, the formula for finding volume, and the speed of light, the truth is a chimera. And since a poem is little more than an amalgam of words, there is no greater chimera than a poem.

Here is another scenario: you submit a body of work to the Willy-Nilly Journal of the Arts knowing the value of your work is stupendous, pure, unqualified genius, the best work seen in America at least since Whitman, since Gertrude Stein, since William Carlos Williams, since Adrienne Rich and Diane di Prima and Yusef Komunyakaa, and it is rejected. Whhhaaaa??!!! you think upon getting the rejection in your email, or snail mail. You feel like you have just been hit hard in the back of the hand by a two-by-four. Or found out your best friend has joined the tea party.

But the worse is yet to come: the journal that rejected your work has gone ahead and published work that is clearly inferior to yours, thus pouring salt in the wound, which had only just begun to heal.

Salt? Did I say salt? Sulfuric acid is more like it.

Literary rejection is a gauche subject, a violation of the taboo on self-pity. Most people choose not to discuss it. It is beneath them. It is ungainly and self-defeating to admit to hurt feelings. Most people take the healthy, well-adjusted approach, shrug their shoulders, and think of a rejection as an opportunity to improve their work and submit it again. It’s not the end of the world. I am a strong person. I will not give in to bitterness.

I wish I could be like these people. I wish I could transcend these petty feelings and chalk up the inconsistencies of judgment and value in the literary world to the vagaries of subjectivity. But I can’t. I believe it is something worthwhile to talk about. I believe recognition for one’s work is an innate human need. And we are long past a time in which a school or movement was around to provide support for a newly developing aesthetic. I believe just the opposite has occurred: that there is now so much poetry out there, and such a huge variety, that all standards seem to be lost. The flowers are indistinguishable from the weeds.

The ideal position to be in is that of Emily Dickinson. She felt a compulsion to write poetry. She lived and breathed poetry. Her life and poetry were cognate. Intertwined. But if her biography is any indication, what literary ambition she may have had appears to have been little more than a tremor. She wrote 1,800 poems during her lifetime, of which only 11 were published. Completed poems were neatly copied in ink on sheets of folded stationery which she arranged in groups, usually of sixteen to twenty-four pages, and sewed together into packets or fascicles. These manuscript books were her private mode of publication. Their careful preservation suggests that this constituted a form of publication, perhaps a substitute for the more traditional mode of publication in a book, or journal, in some form or another that would reach that fickle, errant, abstract entity called the public. Did she feel confident that her poetry would one day be discovered? Or did it matter at all to her whether they would be discovered or not? Did she feel that once she had given her poems life, they did not require feedback from the public?

I yearn to be like that. I want to follow Dickinson’s example. I want to be free of literary ambition. Free to write for the sheer joy and liberation and enlightenment of writing. The sheer enjoyment of swimming in the language, dog paddling, doing breaststrokes, or just floating. Or diving way, way down to see what is on the bottom. But as far as prizes, awards, grants, prestigious magazines, who cares? Who wouldn’t love to be in that position, insouciant as a swallow, indifferent to having an audience, impartial to praise or criticism? It is the poem in and of itself you care about. The poem has a being. You know what its worth is. That is all that matters.

Or am I kidding myself? Doesn’t a piece of writing need another pair of eyes to complete the circuit? Isn’t the medium of language inherently social? Language isn’t paint, or clay, or the whine of an electric guitar. Words were evolved for the purpose of exchange. Albeit a poem isn’t a carpenter yelling instructions at you at a construction site. It’s words set free in a kind of play. You assemble your words, it’s brilliant, you submit it, and it’s rejected. Now the poem has a taint. You feel insecure. And we’re back to square one. Why didn’t I just put it in my collection and forget about it? The secret of its genius could have been preserved, hung in some Eden, like Orlando’s poems to Rosalind engraved in the bark of the trees in the Forest Arden. Jacques: I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love songs in their barks. Orlando: I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.

Dickinson’s fascicles have become my ideal. I would love to have that consciousness in my head. The joy and purity of writing without the indignities and topsy-turvy craziness of submission. Of hungering and waiting for people to find your book, buy it, read it, and comment on it. How often does that happen? How many writers and poets (be honest now), feel real triumph when a book is published? Feel that it is making a difference. Awakening minds. Nourishing souls. Inspiring people to perceive things differently. Most importantly, inspiring them to buy your book. So that you have bona fide evidence that your book is actually reaching people and is not just languishing on a shelf in a warehouse like a stillborn baby in a jar of formaldehyde. But how can you reach the public when there is so much poetry out there, and so few people read poetry? There is far, far more poetry than there exists an audience for it. Most of the audience is other poets: people competing for the same awards, publishers, jobs, and grants. Were it not for the heroic efforts of a few independent booksellers, who allow a book to sit on a shelf for however long it takes for someone to discover it, poetry would have no avenue to the public at all.

And sometimes, you’ve got to wonder why you do it at all. Why you continue to write. There are two surefire methods to get people to avoid you: ask them to help you move, or read one of your recent poems. Ask them to do both, and that is the last you will see of them.

There is a quid pro quo in poetry: attend my reading, I will attend yours. Publish my poem, I will publish yours. It is a circular, incestuous world. You begin to feel stale and confined and foolish in it very quickly. And so you ask yourself again: why? Why am I doing this?

I doubt Dickinson ever wondered about that. She just wrote: “Surgeons must be very careful/ When they take the knife/ Underneath their fine incisions/ Stirs the culprit… Life!” And then she stuck it in a drawer, and went back to weeding, or sewing, or making bread.

I began writing at about age 14. I published a silly, satirical newspaper for my eighth grade class on a tray of gelatin which I inked with a carbon paper. By age 18, I wanted to be the next Rimbaud. An illustrious, drunken, enfant terrible with a retinue of sexy women and beatnik pals. But this was 1966. High ambitions for the kind of recognition we now confer on musicians and rock stars was not so improbable. Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso were all huge colorful romantic figures whose names conjured visions of enlightenment and joy. The difference between being a poet and a rock star was negligible. This was also long before MFA programs, the internet, blogs, Facebook, rap, slams, and Myspace. Long before the small press phenomenon, when having a book of poetry published garnered real respect, not just glazed eyes and someone lazily remarking, oh yeah, I have a book coming out next month, and so does Blah Blah, and Tina Jehoshaphat, and Bingo Ringo.

MFA graduates have a justifiable sense of entitlement about publication. They’ve taken out humungous loans to pay for a tuition that would rival the budget at NASA for a launch to the international space station. Somebody had better damn well publish their book. But that one book ain’t gonna do it. Recognition for one’s accomplishments in the world of poetry are not easily obtained. It takes more than one or two book publications to get you a coveted spot on the literary map. It helps considerably to graduate from an ivy league school, or at least have enough money at your disposal to do some serious social networking, attend conferences, give talks and readings in different cities, go to parties, host workshops, and clink martini glasses with New York editors. Sound a bit like the life of a politician? Welcome to All The King’s Men. Written, incidentally, by Robert Penn Warren.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Happy Birthday Tristan Tzara

happy birthday Tristan Tzara
a.k.a. Samy Rosenstock
a.k.a. monsieur antipyrine
a.k.a. monsieur aa l’antiphilosophe
what is it like being dead
do crabs yawn
as the sun drags itself across the horizon

of a kettledrum
go ahead, fold the lake into opium

the shape within the rock cries to be released

into a circus of words
if you cut the air into pieces you will find
quixotic emotions
details showing the digestion of experience
prayers bumping into echoes
chronicles of thunder

how would you describe death to an extraterrestrial
for whom death is a haircut

let’s go for a walk into the sky
and explore the color black
we are imprisoned in ideas
about liberty and leap year
mass is energy dreaming itself as a diving board
or goldfish
that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

there is a cloud riding in my eyes
and stilts and coffee

are fundamentally hydrogen
and even the sun

reeks of consonants
you can parachute into Denmark
like Hamlet
but can you parachute out of Denmark

like J.P. Morgan
this is why I feel a certain affiliation with collar studs
and the poetry of pain
echoes among the bones
of a blue jay hopping down for some peanuts
on the crumbly sweet earth
which is healing and particular

like coffee, for instance, or indecision
the French language has swallowed its own crisis
and hoisted it into the brain
of a glazed potato

my other leg is a stove

for the stern winds of knowledge
simmer in a stew of ovations
smelling of desire

as it bounces down the street
disguised as a present tense
if the main objective of living is to reproduce
why does the pattern of most careers follow the trajectory
of the housefly

beating against the window
of a porn shop
I hold in my hands an inflatable doll
we all feel the need to explore

which is why the movement of water
has a special fascination
and symmetry is disquieting
on a branch of visceral oboes

shape is the termination of resistance
pasta fulfills the destiny of the fork

and somewhere on planet earth
a boat languishes in the rain
dear Tristan
is there a cemetery for balloons
or must we drift through life

tasting the weight of ourselves
at the end of a string
400 miles to the west
Arthur Rimbaud feeds elephants in Norway
and shadows grip the afternoon
like an infantry of fingers
describing the medium of teeth
to a tempting democracy
dribbling ideas of freedom
I am armed with metaphors

hooks for hanging a lake
in the closet
we are nearing the border of thought
those of you who do not like to think
may want to consider getting off
at the next stop
where there are no thoughts only glockenspiels
and Montmartre drugs
yesterday I walked by the sound

of a dying god
moaning with pleasure
in the voluptuous folds of a disbelief
and found a piano
simmering in my sinew
my fingers are episcopal
they have become a hypothesis
like mountain horses annotating the undulation of the hills
blood slides into perception
threading the junction between mint and enigma
pull a rumor of heaven out of a rock
as Baudelaire arrives with a shovel
and Picasso cooks an eggplant
in the salon of a cosmic rhododendron

everything smells good when the gravity
of a goose bump calls for squalor
and a young woman folds a dollar

into a will-o’-the-wisp
there are many possible feelings of which this is one
here I am sneezing, coughing, breaking my toe
against the magazine rack
how can one evaluate the force of the wind

in a bridal gown
with a pool of words
forming the shape
of a misanthropic gong
it’s raining on the strawberries
and I don’t like gardening

I am the owner of a dry cleaning store
and today I am having trouble
with the corset of Emma Bovary
it will not stop bleeding

sometimes words happen in my head
like Minnesota minnows in a North Dakota bucket

swirling around an opinion
about April
and the meaning of free will
as it pertains to napkins
emotional outbursts and inscrutable umbrellas
here I am hunting a giant language
the last of its kind
I plan to shoot it

with a camera
made of air
the sublime shames the banality of guns
I salute the consonants of young women

as I salute you dear Tristan
what can I get you for your birthday
I am attracted by swamps
would you like a veranda
bristling with scenery

in Zurich
or an orchid in the bayou

with the face of a woman
leaning against a religion
mutate into art
beauty calls for the necessity of headlights
large emotions
a cloud rolling through oblivion
breaking the sky into little diamonds
here take this it is a limousine of straw
you can feel it ripple through your brain
as it moves from word to word
creating eyes
and a radio spitting birds
affirms the insurgence of spring

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vox Humana

It’s raining. And it’s cold. Valentine’s Day is two days away. I turn the key in our Subaru and the engine starts. I am returning a book, The Cavendish Laboratory, and two DVDs, Iron Man and Fun With Dick And Jane, to the library. Within a second or two, a voice emerges from the speakers of our CD player. The voice is rough, ragged, mournful. It is Bob Dylan singing “When The Deal Goes Down,” a song from his album Modern Times. A slow waltz, the song is wistful and introspective, gathering strength and resignation as it moves gracefully toward deliverance.

The song is about loyalty and devotion in a world of painful disillusion and ephemeral hopes. It is also about loss and endurance. It says that I will be there when you die. I will stick with you through thick and thin. Each word is growled, almost shoveled, with tender determination. Dylan’s voice encompasses a range of grit and delicacy. It is the perfect instrument for this song. A younger voice would not have the richness of timbre and emotive force to deliver the song with the same magnitude of conviction and authenticity.

Or would it? Tom Waits had the voice of a much older man when he released his first album, Closing Time, in 1973. Dylan himself sounded much older than his 20-something years when he released his first barrage of albums in the early 60s. There was distance in it, and the sweat of stevedores and ranch hands. It was uncannily mature. Unseasonably weathered. This was a guy who had been places. You didn’t need to touch or him or shake his hand or buy him a drink. You just knew it. It was in his voice.

The melody of “When The Deal Goes Down” is based on a song popularized by Bing Crosby circa 1931 called “Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day).” Crosby’s version is vastly different; the same wistfulness is there, but the voice is more robust, fuller, more varnished, lustrous and light. Louis Armstrong said that Crosby’s voice was like “gold poured from a cup,” and that Crosby was the only white singer playing on the jukeboxes of Harlem.

A journalist once described Louis Armstrong’s voice as a “wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway.” Armstrong himself referred to it as a “sawmill voice.” What created that singular voice, according to jazz drummer Baby Dodds, was a long-lasting cold aboard a riverboat while playing with the Fate Marable band in the early 1920s.

I can see the lights of that riverboat, and a man’s voice echoing over the languid water of the Mississippi like the machinery of heaven.

Our fingerprints betray our identity if we rob an estate or kill someone. But it is our voice that identifies the essence of our selves. The most obscure recesses of our being find themselves revealed in the timbre of our voice, its quiver, its exclamations and inflections.

The human voice is essentially a membrane, a muscular valve. The first person to get a good look at this little apparatus in our throat was a Spanish singing professor named Manuel Garcia.

One September day in 1854, Garcia recorded for the Transactions of the Seventeenth International Medical Congress, published in London, in 1881, I was strolling in the garden of the Palais Royal, preoccupied with the ever-recurring wish so often repressed as unrealisable, when suddenly I saw the two mirrors of the laryngoscope in their respective positions, as if actually present before my eyes. I went straight to Charriere, the surgical instrument maker, and asking if he happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, was informed that he had a little dentist's mirror, which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition of 1851. I bought it for six francs. Having obtained also a hand mirror, I returned home at once, very impatient to begin my experiments. I placed against the uvula the little mirror (which I had heated in warm water and carefully dried) and by flashing upon its surface with the hand mirror a ray of sunlight, I saw at once, to my great joy, the glottis wide open before, me, and so fully exposed that I could perceive a portion of the trachea. When my excitement had somewhat subsided, I began to examine what was passing before my eyes. The manner in which the glottis silently opened and shut, and moved in the act of phonation, filled me with wonder.

Garcia was not the first to see a larynx, or speculate on how it worked. Circa 200 AD, the renowned physician Claudius Galen, probably the most influential medical author of his time, was the first to describe the larynx with its three major cartilages and paired muscles. He compared the larynx to a flute, and correctly identified it as the instrument of voice production. In the sixth century, an unknown Italian artist created a mosaic for the Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna, Italy, that may well be the first picture of the vocal organ: just below the image of Christ the Redeemer is a depiction of the heart surmounted by the larynx, maintaining the belief that the voice come from the heart. Theologians of that time wondered what the voice of God sounded like, whether angels and/or devils spoke, or who spoke first, Adam, or Eve?

Circa the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci dissected more than 30 cadavers in hospitals at Florence, Milan, and Rome, and included several drawings of the vocal organ in his textbook Quaderni d’Anatomia. He squeezed the lungs of a goose to produce tones, speculating that the human larynx worked in similar fashion.

This goose (and goosed) postulate was further elaborated in the 18th century when Antoine Ferrein, professor of anatomy at the University of Montpelier, presented a series of articles before the Royal Academy of Science, in which he described numerous experiments on human and animal cadaver larynges. He was the first to coin the term “vocal cords,” as he postulated that the ligaments of the larynx were analogous to the cords of the violin, which were at first made of sheep gut, stretched, dried, and twisted.

Ferrein was correct in observing that the tones of the voice vary with the speed of the vibrations, but misconceived the structures of the larynx, which aren’t really cords, but folds, or lips. Seen from above, the vocal folds resemble a vagina, which gives renewed perspective to the idea of delivering a speech. When we speak, we labor to give life to an idea in a ball of wriggling words. We fill words with our breath, our pneuma, our consciousness and being. We give them ligament and motion. Circulation and shape.

In the 19th century, in 1839, the physiologist Johannes Müller conducted a series of experiments in which he demonstrated the myoelastic theory of phonation (myoelastic meaning closely associated smooth muscle fibers and elastic connective tissue) and confirmed that the voice is produced by the airstream that originates in the lungs and sets the vocal folds in vibration.

The anatomy of the larynx was well understood by the end of the 19th century, but no one had as yet seen how the folds move and ripple, contract and expand, when it is in actual use. It was Manuel Garcia who was able to achieve and demonstrate these things. He described in exquisite detail the movement of the larynx during the production of sound, noting variations of pitch and tonal register, how nuances of sound undulated through the folds of the larynx. He could see how they were shaped by muscle and ligament, how air pressure affected the supple malleability of this critical membrane.

Writing for the Royal Society of London in an essay titled “Observations On The Human Voice” in 1855, Garcia wrote: We soon discover that the brilliant and powerful sounds of the chest-register contract the cavity of the larynx, and close still more its orifice; and, on the contrary, that veiled notes of moderate power, open both so as to render any observation easy. The falsetto register especially possesses this prerogative, as well as the first notes of the head-voice. So as to render these facts more precise, we will study in the voice of the tenor the ascending progression of the chest-register, and in the soprano that of the falsetto and head-registers.

The larynx is not the only organ involved in the shaping and generation of the voice. The entire body is involved. At the outbreak of World War I, a young man of 18 years named Alfred Wolfsohn was called to serve as a medic in the front-line trenches. He witnessed unspeakable horrors, men ripped apart, bleeding, howling in agony. Broken, shattered, driven to madness by the horrors he had seen, he was hospitalized for shell-shock.

Wolfsohn felt immense guilt because of a man he had heard writhing in pain on the battlefield that he had not been able to go to for fear of being killed, and was certain that that was the reason he continued to be wracked by aural hallucinations. He could not get the voices of men howling and moaning in the agonies of their wounds out of his head. Prolonged psychiatric treatment did not help. He determined to find a cure himself. He hit on the idea of singing. He intuited that by expressing his anguish through the medium of his voice he might be able to purge himself of the pain and hallucinations.

It worked. Wolfshohn discovered a form of vocal catharsis. He not only expressed in singing the sounds of suffering he had heard on the battlefield, and the torments of his own mental anguish, but feelings of joy and exaltation as well. Strength, sweat, thirst, hunger, lust, elation and anger, everything that makes us feel alive are part of our vocal spectrum. Talking is purgation. Singing is transcendence. When we open our mouths, and shape the sound of our inner universe in words, we instantly grow lighter. Those leaden burdens trapped in our being are exploded into swifts of poetry and invocation.

A Jew, Wolfsohn fled Germany in 1939 and established himself as a singing teacher in London. Because of his discoveries, he was able to broaden the range of singers whose voices were constricted by neuroses and malignant worries. Those who took lessons with him committed themselves not only to explore the many aspects of the human psyche and look for its rapport with the body, but to have the courage to expose their inner demons in the flesh of a song, the precipitate of a sublimated pain.

I think of James Brown. I recall those electrifying performances I used to see on television in the mid-60s on shows such as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

Brown made an appearance on Shindig on September 1st, 1965, that was shattering. He sings with such power and naked energy that it seems more like a force of nature than a song. He sings “Please Please Please” with an anguish so intense it teeters on exaltation. He sings as if he is lifting the world from a mire of torment. His voice tears the air, rips it to shreds. He falls to his knees. A man appears from backstage, gently lays a cape over his shoulders and lifts him from the stage, as if Brown were too shattered and spent to stand. They begin to leave the stage, Brown’s benefactor with his arm around him, leading him away. Brown tosses the cape off and rushes back to the mike. He’s not done yet. He pleads again and again. Don’t go. Please don’t go.

Another figure I associate with that ability to pull heavy, unresolved conflicts and yearnings and desolations out of your being and use them to make something powerful and riveting is Janis Joplin. She had a voice of such total conviction and power it passed through you like a freight train.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. During high school, she developed a severe case of acne which elicited jeers and name-calling from her fellow students. That alone was isolating and painful but there were also notable differences in her personality, her candor and energy that were unsettling to people, particularly people who were more adapted to a culture of materialism and the need to “fit in.”

Joplin identified with the beats. She loved the immediacy, spontaneity, and rawness of their poetry, their heroic lunacy, their openness to experience, their hunger to expand perception, their fascination with the currents and fluctuations of consciousness, and especially their struggles to transcend a materialistic culture that imposed a Procustean obsession with wealth and commerce on everyone. It is wonderfully apt that the poet Michael McClure would one day pen the lyrics to the song “Mercedes Benz” for Joplin.

All this was in her voice. The richness of its timbre, the huskiness of its vigor, its élan vital.

Joplin is one of those people who, before seeing what they actually look like, you can imagine their appearance simply by hearing them. You know instinctively what they’re all about, how they carry themselves, how they smile, how they shine around other people or come to life on a stage. You could feel jubilance and defiance in Joplin’s voice, the hugeness of a life lived intensely and unreservedly. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the voice is its furnace. Everything pitched in its timbre warms the house of our language.

I could go on all day about voices. Nina Simone has a voice of soft sophistication mingled with unabashed intensity. Listening to her makes you feel wise, and strong. Ella Fitzgerald had a voice as mercurial and bright as Christmas tinsel, yet steady as time.

Amy Winehouse has a voice of nectar. She is the Circe of singers. She makes you feel shipwrecked and open to seductions of forbidden pleasure.

There is a crepuscular region between song and everyday speech called poetry. Here the voice is neither the familiar sound of ourselves breaking the silence at a breakfast table, nor the fullness of our spirit raised in singing. It is in the zone of poetry that our voice becomes the entranced expression of what is ineffable and strange in us.

On the evening of March 13th my wife and I went to hear Michael McClure read his poetry at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center here in Seattle. McClure read in the center’s theatre, a convivial room with comfortable seats, blue velvet curtains and the tangle of stage lights silhouetted on the architrave above the stage. Nearby streetlights tinted a row of windows on the north wall whose textured glass sparkled with a warm golden hue. McClure, now in his late seventies, still has a veneer of youth, the lively affability of a much younger man. His shock of white wavy hair contrasted sharply with his dark clothes, and his presence on the stage was gracious and poised. He held the microphone at a careful angle as it had a tendency to crackle if it weren’t held in a specific position.

McClure has an exceptionally pleasing voice, smooth, mellow, rich. He reads in a very measured manner, precise and focused, relaxed, but vigilant, according a high level of attention to each syllable, each shade and nuance.

There is an intimacy in the voice of a poet that is more sublimated and distant in the voice of a singer, or the grave tones of a politician or lawyer. The effort made toward minting coins of elemental sound imbue the voice with a luxury of nuance. Coins have images. The mind turns intaglio in its words, silver in its vowels, copper in the jingle of its consonants. The voice is allowed an extravagance that is more restrained in conversation, splurges itself in fire and amber. Its tones are raised. Its folds unfold. It becomes more spirit than flesh. More flesh than spirit. It is, essentially, the stem of the throat burgeoning in sound. One’s inner being rises and drops in arcs of ghostly vibration, pumping space with a crisis of jaw and paradise.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Poetry As Protein

Mysteriosos, and Other Poems
Michael McClure
New Directions, 2010

In 1952, a biologist named Stanley Miller tried to create life. He sealed water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen inside a sterile array of glass tubes and flasks connected in a loop. One flask held water, another contained a pair of electrodes. The water was heated to induce evaporation and sparks were fired between the electrodes to simulate lightning through the atmosphere, which was cooled again so that the water could condense and trickle back into the first flask in a continuous cycle. In such manner, Miller produced a number of amino acids that are used to make proteins in living cells. Sugars, lipids, and some of the building blocks for nucleic acids were also formed. No actual organisms were produced, but the experiment demonstrated a feasible answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries: life itself.

It has become a truism to say that life is full of mysteries. But what else can one say? What isn’t, looked at closely, intently, not a mystery? A drop of pond water holds fantasias of unicellular organisms, paramecium with hundreds of tiny cilia along their borders in a flutter of exuberant life, flagellates with their whips in a whirl of constant rotation, amoeba, all feet and protoplasm, wiggling around in a quest for food, and heliozoa, which means “sun animals,” groups of amoeba in little spheres with spikes sticking out like a pattern of sun rays. The spikes are tiny poison needles that pierce their prey. The needle converts to a straw and sucks the essence of their kill.

And then there are the lovely diatoms, eucharistic algae encased within a cell wall made of silica called a frustule, a glassy shell feathered and fractured in a dazzling array of infinite pattern.

Life, consciousness, and a charged language bristling with the mysteries of existence have been at the core of Michael McClure’s poetry for decades. Each poem is a mysterioso, an owl pellet of bones and fur and exoskeletons, a pupa of crackling metamorphosis, a sphere of crisis, an aggregate of words and tendrils alive with revelation.

Misterioso, with an ‘i,’ is a musical direction calling for mystery, such as the opening and closing theme of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, or the beginning of Aaron Copland’s “Cryptic,” from Statements, but it is most famously associated with Thelonius Monk’s album of 1958 called Mysterioso, which had De Chirico’s 1915 The Seer (or The Prophet) on the cover. “In the shadow of a man who walks in the sun,” observed De Chirico, “there are more enigmas than in all religions past, present, and future.”

Hence, McClure’s latest collection of poetry is aptly titled. It is divided into six sections, “Something Of India,” “Grahhrs,” “Mysteriosos,” “Cameos,” “Dear Being,” and “Double Moire.”

Among the poems in the first section, “Something Of India,” is an image of such stunning power I was reminded of the train in the Lumière brothers 1895 motion picture Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, frightening the audience out of their chairs and instigating a panicked exodus into the street, so real was the image of the train coming at them. This is the poem “Nagarhole Park,” which I heard read by McClure at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center in Seattle before I saw the poem on the printed page, in which an elephant charges, “shrieking in rage/ and our aged guide,/ the Anglo-Indian colonel,/ shakes one finger/ out the car window./ ‘Stop!’/ he shouts to his ‘old friend’/ and she does/ and she stares/ short-sightedly/ from wrinkled eye bags/ AND/ SHE/ TURNS/ AWAY/ from us,/ then swings back/ and bellows/ her jaw-shaking trumpet blast,/ and shuffles/ away sideways/ into the swinging branches.”

The image works so powerfully on the imagination because of the deft placement of words, economy of description, each word and phrase evoking a precisely grasped image, which the keen perceptions of the poet have captured in telling phrases, such as “wrinkled eye bags” and “jaw-shaking trumpet blast.” The thrilling contradiction between the immense power of the elephant and the frail gesture of a shaken finger sufficient to stop the charge of the animal, an “old friend.” I can feel the compassion of the Anglo-Indian colonel toward the being of this elephant, her character and warmth, her age and impaired vision, and the compassion the poet feels for both, and for the country at large, and the circumstances of their observation. The wildness of our planet is in retreat. Polar bears, giant pandas, Alaskan wolves, Asian lions, jaguarundi, chimpanzees, rainbow parrotfish, bees, and poetry itself are all victims of unchecked capitalism.

McClure has long had a strong immersion in what we term “nature,” which is in fact everywhere, not just exotic parks in India, or wilderness areas in the United States, places set aside in the commons which the Republicans lick their salivating chops over, rabid for uranium and oil, and the anemic protection these places sometimes receive from the Democrats. Nature is a finger, a thumb, a claw on your cat, a bur stuck in the curls of your dog’s fur, a glass of water, a mole, a pimple, a crooked tooth, the hyacinths growing by the window, the wisteria by the porch in hysterical patterns of leaf and twig. Nature is around us, on us, beside us, under us, and in us. “We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei,” observes Lewis Thomas in his essay “The Lives Of A Cell,” “that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.” Each of our bodies is a galaxy of intercommunicating cells. Everything is shared. Even the enzymes of grasses bear a family resemblance to the enzymes of whales.

This is the rapture, and anguish, that drive McClure’s poetry. He is much older now, but his poetry still has the ring of youth. It is jarring to see McClure with wrinkles. It is hard to think of him as being old. But the wisdom he is alert to within his essential being is ancient. “The most primitive one-celled creatures/ are more sophisticated than my hungers,” he writes in poem 4 of the section titled “Dear Being.”

Perhaps the secret to eternal youth is tuning in to what is most ancient in our beings?

McClure writes with great sensuality, a mingling of fleshly pleasure with metaphysical raptures. “SMILE. SMILE WITH THE SOFT EDGE/ OF THE MIND,” he writes in “Mysterioso Thirteen.” This poem, like most of the others in the collection, is splayed on the page in McClure’s characteristic style, center-justified, so that the lines appear to be unfolding, branching out from a spine, or thorax, in the middle. “Pliant as the lip of an abalone,” he continues, “Strong as the smallest worm in its harshest/ and tenderly nourishing realm./ NO MIND. NO BODY. GONE. GONE./ I stroke my hands over my chest/ and your buttocks/ WE/ SMILE/ INSPIRED/ by protein pleasure/ and loveliness./ So solid.”

The words ‘meat’ and ‘protein’ emerge frequently in McClure’s work. Protein is energy arranged in a linear chain and folded into a globular form. They participate in virtually every process within cells. The shape into which a protein naturally folds is known as its native conformation. If, as I do, you begin to see a natural affiliation with the form and generative structures of poetry, I would say, yes, absolutely. Who can not see that? Only the fussiest scientist would shake his or her head in indignation.

“We defeat presence or nothingness,” “Mysterioso Thirteen” continues, “All of me and all of you/ ARE/ this cameo of perfection/ with smooth polished edges.// THIS/ IS/ REALLY IT!” it ecstatically concludes. I find the use of the word ‘cameo’ of interest here. The word refers variously to a technique of engraving on a gem so that the raised surface of the image contrasts in a different hue from the background, and a brief appearance by an actor in a theatrical performance. The word has a concrete, highly tactile sensuality within the context of the poem, mingled with its connotation of brevity, a transitory appearance, so that the poem’s epiphanic ending, “THIS/ IS/ REALLY IT!” sounds of urgency, excitement, and neural éclat.

Included in this collection is a poem in tribute to Philip Lamantia, “Philip Lamantia’s Poem,” and is dedicated to Lamantia’s wife Nancy Peters.

Lamantia, who passed away in 2005, was, as many of the cognoscenti are already familiar, pivotal to the poetry renaissance in San Francisco, its robust evolution from the 50s into the 60s and beyond, but also, as an Italian-American, as a citizen of San Francisco and as a citizen of the world, he remains the poet in the United States most closely aligned in spirit and art to the French surrealist movement begun by André Breton in France in the 1920s. He was urbane, continental, and even in old age, a very handsome man, who Kerouac described in his novel Desolation Angels (naming him David D’Angeli), as “the most beautiful man, he has perfect features, like Tyrone Power, yet more subtle and esoteric, and that accent he talks in I do not know where he picked it up -- It’s like a Moor educated at Oxford, something distinctly Arabic or Aramaean about David (or Carthaginian, like Augustine)…. ”

McClure compares Lamantia to the Spanish Baroque lyric poet Luis de Gongora y Argote. “Goodbye handsome Gongora/ of San Francisco,” he begins, then, a few lines down, reminiscences on their more intimate time together, “After your adventures/ and travel we would sit around listening/ and watching the scarlet ribbons/ of your voice move in the sea-green/ foam of the air.” This deeply reverent and hallucinatory scene, with its syllables unrolling in a sensual synesthesia, beautifully captures the experience of being in the presence of Lamantia, a man for whom even conversation was a form of uninterrupted poetry.

McClure has also dedicated a section to his friend Francis Crick, the molecular biologist whose research played a crucial rule in discovering the genetic code and helical structure of the DNA molecule. Crick, who passed away as recently as 2004, contributed a beautifully written and heartfelt essay titled “A Scientist’s View” on McClure’s poetry and its importance to him for the 1975 Margins Symposium on Michael McClure. “What appeals to me most about Michael's poems,” Crick observed, “is the fury and the imagery of them. I love the vividness of his reactions and the very personal turns and swirls of the lines. The worlds in which I myself live, the private world of personal reactions, the biological world (animals and plants and even bacteria chase each other through the poems), the world of the atom and molecule, the stars and the galaxies, are all there; and in between, above and below, stands man, the howling mammal, contrived out of "meat" by chance and necessity. If I were a poet I would write like Michael McClure - if only I had his talent.”

The poems in this section, with the curious title “Double Moire,” (it is a scientific term referring to a form of optical differentiation, or refractive index) are brief poems of six lines, each an enigma as rich in data as the Murchison meteorite, a fist of words whose grip must be coaxed open by repeated reading. Each begins with a predication written large in majuscules, then elaborated in a puzzling olio of image and reflection. “ACTION IS PROTEIN,” begins the poem at the bottom of page 114. “It is politics of flesh/ and non-being, NOT nothing, not something,/ here in the face. Here in the stomach and arms./ Just a transient truth, never a riddle/ caught in the runes. Each being knows the tune,/ like the giant seals enraged and high with battling.”

Action feeds protein as much as protein feeds action. The “politics of flesh” is answerable in many ways, but certainly the issue of abortion and right to privacy comes to mind, as well as a multitude of other issues ranging from sexual oppression to obesity, all part of the spectrum of conflicts raging - as the giant seals - in the body politic. The insistence that non-being is “not nothing” is a curious assertion. This odd mingling of the negative and affirmative has a strong correspondence to tenets of Zen philosophy. According to Te-shan Hsuan-chien, a Zen master of the T’ang dynasty period in China, Zen is a philosophy of absolute negations which are at the same time absolute affirmations.

The essence of thinking is to analyze. To take apart, to dissect. To discriminate. To see how all the parts of a thing contribute to a moving whole. But Zen is synthetic, like the polymer chains that build into protein. It is a discrimination based on non-discrimination. On paradox. On contradiction. On chains of interacting forces. On twigs and stones and the luxury of consciousness. On heat. On cold. On Mysteriosos of nothingness and gold.