Of Indigo And Saffron: New And Selected Poems, by Michael McClure
Edited and with an introduction by Leslie Scalapino
University of California Press, 2011
The afternoon that I went to Open Books in Seattle to purchase my copy of Of Indigo And Saffron, there was a very fine drizzle in the air. The mist tingled on my skin. The sensation was exquisite. I felt the inside of my being and the being outside of my skin, whatever that being is, so mingle on my skin as to become one thing, one phenomenon. Pronouns scrambled. Prepositions jumbled. This, that, in, out, here, now, up, down, under, over, he, she, it, inside, outside, etc. All of it blended. Mingled. And when I felt the binding of the book, and opened to its paper, a life breathed forth.
From the time when McClure’s poetry first entered my consciousness some forty years ago or so, he has been closely identified in my imagination with a life-affirming intensity inherently contrary to the toxicity of capitalist predation and war and bayonets and cruelty. He has been an ambassador of universal biology, a life whose words are so imbued with the character of his being and the pulse of his feeling as to be synonymous with Bergson’s principle of élan vital, a dynamic soul-substance or psychic energy that is immanent in nature, and expressed in bone and flower and cloud and river with equal force and sublimity.
“Considered thus,” observed Frederic Schiller, “nature is for us nothing but existence in all its freedom; it is the constitution of things taken in themselves; it is existence itself ascending to its proper and immutable laws.”
Schiller, as does McClure, presents us with a world that is labile. Flexible, malleable, elastic. According to Schiller’s view art models freedom. It welcomes the random, the accidental, the eccentric. It leads us to an ideology of anti-ideology. It generates countercultures. Subcultures. Undergrounds and subterranean bathtub joys. Its ethic as well as its aesthetic is “play.”
Serious play. Loose, open, free-spirited activity that provides a force contrary to the constricting fictions of ideology.
Of Indigo And Saffron includes a span of work from the 50s to the present time, a generous sampling of work from some 17 different titles of poetry, from A Fist Full (1956-1957) and Hymns To St. Geryon (1959) to Plum Stones: Cartoons Of No Heaven (2002) and a book-length body of new work, a series of poems completed in 2008 titled “Swirls In Asphalt.”
Also included is an insightful introduction by the late Leslie Scalapino, who remarks on the characteristic center-justified shape of McClure’s poetry, which I have always seen as a spine with lines flaring to each side in wing-like exuberance. “McClure’s signature characteristic, of centering each line of a poem on the page without left or right border,” says Scalapino, “is akin to, and elicits in reading, this sense of proportionlessness (of reality as uncarved block), in which conceptually (that is, at once sensationally) phenomena ‘appear’ (as in) to lose conventional fixed relation, either dimension or interaction.”
It promotes a sense of simultaneity. It concentrates vision on a single moment whose parameters are elastic, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, and includes an infinite flux of sensation.
Scalapino quotes a paragraph from McClure’s collection of essays Lighting The Corners: on art, nature, and the visionary, published in 1993:
What I’m speaking of is the Taoist notion that the universe that we perceive is “uncarved block,” that all time/space occurrences of the past, present, and future are one giant sculpture of which we’re a part. It’s not as if something is going to exist in the future or that something has happened in the past, but that it’s all going on at once. And we’re in it. If we’re aware of that, there’s a proportionlessness that is a liberating state or condition. If we understand that we’re not of a particular “behemothness,” then we sense that we’re without time. When we have that experience, there’s a peace and an understanding that can come over us. We can make better judgments and more positive actions.
"Swirls In Asphalt," which is dedicated to Michael McClure’s wife Amy, begins with an epigraph by the 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji: “The limits of the knowable are unknowable.”
There is an intimacy to the pieces in this collection, a warmth and feeling of subdued lyricism, a quiet, mammalian music, the murmur of endlessness, "molecular jewels," Pacific air rustling cypress branches, and quite often a delicious elliptical dissonance that reaches outward for fresh associations and provokes the reader (or listener) into wider spheres of reverie and speculation. Each line is a gentle violation of expectancy. One will be absorbing an image and the next line will jar us out of an anticipated elaboration and provide us with a new, sometimes puzzling idea or image. Or a line or image that puts the former image into higher definition. Or stretches that image into a network of associations, a chain of dissonant entities linked in simultaneity.
“I POLISHED THE STARS,” begins number 3. in the series. The line for many, I suspect, will evoke memories of Rimbaud’s famous declamation in his prose poem “Lines,” “I have strung ribbons from steeple to steeple: garlands from window to window; chains of gold from star to star, and now I dance.” (J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse).
But the next line abruptly alters our anticipated journey into the cosmos: “I POLISHED THE STARS / off my boots. / They’re skin now.”
He’s polishing dew from his boots. Or drops from a garden hose. In any case, water. Drops of glistening water. And we see boots, old, leathery boots, the clunky, floppy, perdurable Dutch kind Van Gogh painted. But instead of Van Gogh, we find Rembrandt: “Faces of Rembrandt / and Shakespeare / on their tops / speak / to / one another.” Strange vision, indeed. But within the range of most imaginations.
The boots grow in raggedy disrepair: “Covered with / the comedy / of bruises / and torn nails.”
Do you see? How things develop in a McClure swirl? There is a turmoil in the luxury of our bones, in our movement through these lines and the terrain they evoke in our minds, those situations in which we’ve worked on a house, a construction site, and gotten involved and dirty. The word ‘comedy’ evokes visions of Buster Keaton and silent movie mayhem. Planks of wood flipped into, or over, the head. Buckets of cement toppling down. Ladders giving way. All the comedy of construction, and the kind of abuse the leather on our feet take. Bish! Bash! Ka-wham!
The field of the poem expands into a scene of sensuality and abandonment, a funky terrain of stray association and acute sensation: “Smell of lime / from the squeezed / RIND / mixes with stardust / settling around / the rusty / refrigerator / lying / on the hill.”
We seem to be in an area of considerable marginality, a landfill, perhaps, a terrain neither rural nor urban but a little of both. “We are / here / in the car roar / in / this instant / between the changing / of climates / and the love / we claim / with our / infinite / presences.”
This piece has the flavor of a love poem, though the love in this case is not directed at a single romantic presence (many of the others do), but potential for caring in everyone. That sense, as McClure informed us earlier, that comes over us when we feel everything going on at once, and that the self itself is time, and the way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. “When you are at this place,” observed Zen master Dogen, “there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of grass and no-understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time-being is all the time there is. Grass-being, form -being are both time. Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”
It is when being is constricted that it begins to hate. And shoot people.
A book such as Of Indigo And Saffron has a particular value for younger readers who might just be discovering McClure. The selection is comprehensive, and Scalapino‘s introduction goes further than many discussions of McClure’s aesthetic because of her intimacy with the subject, her own training in Buddhist practice, and the tremendous strength and originality of her own writing. But this volume is also of great value to older people such as myself who already own many of the titles listed in the table of contents. Why? Because it’s a beautiful book. I mean that in its most physical sense, as a beautiful object. The fonts. The quality of the paper. The smell of it. McClure’s pensive face on the cover (at a distance, lying on the coffee table, he resembles Thomas Jefferson).
And it’s convenient. I can jump through McClure’s career without having to get off the couch. I’m not a lazy person, but when I’m reading a poet whose career spanned a number of decades, it’s a matter of tremendous expedience to travel so handily from, say, Dark Brown to Dolphin Skull. Or “Hummingbird Ode” to “Dark Contemplation.”