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.


Steven Fama said...

Great write-up here John, of a book that I've been reading and agree is very special.

The long poem near the end of Mysteriosos -- titled "Double Moire" -- especially interests me. A note in the front of the book explains that the first line (or so) of each of its 76 stanzas is lifted from an earlier poem that McClure wrote for Crick. Each lifted line then becomes a kind of generator for the rest of the stanza.

I agree with your suggestion here that the stanzas in "Double Moire" are "fists of words" that don't easily blossom in the mind. They are dense-packed nuggets. I've read the poem a couple times now, and am starting to not only have some of the stanza open up, but also starting to make connections between the stanzas. It is a big, rich, allusive, mysterious (thus, fascinating) poem.

John Olson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Splabman said...


This is a remarkable review. I almost want to throw in the towel after reading something so brilliant, so perceptive, so brimming with novel connections, but I received my review copy today and have a commitment from a journal to publish my review of Michael's latest.

I'm glad you're getting a little more involved in cyberspace and that you had a chance to meet Michael and hear him read.



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