Poetry by Michael McClure
114 pp. Ekstasis Editions, 2017
When I want surrealism, I go to André Breton. When I want Dada, I go to Tristan Tzara. But when I want to sharpen my powers of observation and heighten my senses, I go to Michael McClure.
Why McClure? Why him specifically?
Easy: his poetry has always been about the exquisite delicacy of things combined with a deep sense of cosmicity, the idea that at the base of all the myriad things in the universe there is but one reality, that discriminative oppositions are a necessity for a dynamic unification, that a single reality creates itself through differentiation from the small to the large, and that the qualia numinously surrounding and interpenetrating a phenomenal event or living being is intrinsic to consciousness. The artist Marcel Duchamp coined a term for this heightened capacity to appreciate the subtleties of sensation, an acute percipience he termed the inframince, which translates into English as infrathin. It refers to a barely perceptible sensation among phenomena, a maximal amount of precision, of subtlety, of nuance in our perceptual field. What McClure likes to term our sensorium.
“When tobacco smoke is also sensed in the mouth when we exhale, the two odors are married by inframince (olfactory inframince),” observed Duchamp.
“The possible is an inframince,” Duchamp states. “The possibility of several tubes of color becoming a Seurat is the concrete ‘explanation’ of the possible as inframince. The possible implicates becoming - the passage from one state to another has a place in the inframince.”
“Allegory,” he adds mysteriously at the end, “of oblivion.”
The difference between a pony and a horse is a form of inframince. The main distinguishing feature is height. The horse is generally 14.2 hands in height. A hand is four inches. Horses and ponies are measured from the ground, just beside and behind a front foreleg to the top of the withers. The withers is the ridge between the shoulder blades of a quadruped; on a horse or pony, that would be the third, fourth and fifth vertebra.
But size isn’t the central criteria. It’s temperament. “Ponies,” writes Terynn Boulton, author of The Wise Book of Whys, “are typically much stockier than their horse relatives. They also have thicker manes, tails, and coats, so are better able to endure cold weather. They have proportionally shorter legs, wider barrels (body of the pony that encloses the ribcage and all major internal organs), heavier bones, shorter and thicker necks, and short heads with broader foreheads. They also typically have calmer temperaments and a high level of equine intelligence which can be used to a human handler’s advantage.”
McClure may have had the Caspian horse in mind when he arrived at this title for his recent collection of poetry. The Caspian is a small horse breed native to Northern Iran and is believed to be one of the oldest horse or pony breeds in the world, descended from the small Mesopotamian equines. Caspians have a short, fine head with a pronounced forehead, large eyes and short ears. The body is slim and graceful. The legs and hooves are strong. Louise Firouze, an American born Iranian horse breeder, described them as “kind, intelligent, and willing. Spirited but without meanness.”
Isn’t that what we like to see in poetry? Spirited words in a stride without meanness.
Herodotus wrote of the Caspian horse “There is nothing in the world which travels faster than these Persian couriers. It is said that men and horses are stationed along the road…a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time, neither snow, rain, heat nor darkness.”
The Caspian horse has great endurance, great heart, great intelligence.
An apt name for a book of poetry. But I have strayed far from the inframince.
“Quantum,” the poem on page 52, refers to the “ninety-seven senses / in the heartfelt nearness and dearness / and distances of a galactic flood / of qualia which they shape.”
Like inframince, to which it is strongly related, qualia designates the deeply subjective nature of experience; it alludes to the indefinable uniqueness of experience. It is central to an understanding of consciousness. The taste of an apricot on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of winter in Berlin or the “…voluptuous / consciousness / of elephants, killer whales, / and caterpillars” constitute a “quantum of endlessness / that is never felt or reasoned.” It is felt by the being feeling it, but cannot be felt in the general sense of a feeling. It’s not a generalized sentiment that can be packaged in a tidy equivalency, particularly when it belongs to an entirely different species, a consciousness utterly foreign to homo sapiens. It resists analysis. It is never felt because it is felt in a way that eludes common analogy. Qualia, like inframince, are intrinsically irreducible. The experience may be got at only very clumsily in language. It expands the capacity of poetry while forever remaining out of reach. It’s too thin, too subtle, too ephemeral for words. The best we can do is find images, a similitude in syllables.
“We must step outside / the words that handcuff us / and live as angels / and cupids / in new music,” McClure states in “Alive as Cupids.”
And what could be subtler than “Soft rain on nasturtiums,” or “light in the Junco’s eye / gleaning seeds / from the rainy deck,” “An antelope’s breath / scented with wet grass / on / a / taut drumhead.” Things don’t get much more inframince than that.
“Experiences / are nanoscale / and / vast / as / the disappearing / Anthropocene,” writes McClure in the Author’s Preface. The nanoscopic scale is so infinitely small that it corresponds roughly to the subjective. It is subcellular and so miniscule that the division between the objective and subjective begins to blur. Reality at the subcellular level doesn’t resemble the cleanly delineated patterns and forms at the macroscopic scale. It’s a field of constant interaction, a flow of energy. Isn’t this what poetry is? Isn’t it, after all, a continuum of perspectives shot through with lightning inspiration?
Paul Nelson expresses these ideas succinctly and eloquently in his introduction: “McClure’s poetic courage plumbs the depths of perception, achieves a precision of luminous details, a striking originality, and a range of expression from the cosmic to the microscopic.”
McClure is a wizard of sensation. He is able to communicate verbally sensations so singular, so exquisite they hurt.
Take Shakespeare’s rose: you know that rose, the one that smells as sweet by any other name? In “Shakespeare’s Rose,” McClure chooses as subject a “rose without scent,” “a canker rose,” a dog rose.”
Why? One good reason is to rid the poem of the clichéd and predictable. Another is to invite recognition of what is plain and unadorned with the usual seductions. Let's praise the original in things. Let's explore the enigma of Being. Let's open our senses to what is unveiled and guileless, of what is open and direct and speaks to us in its own terms, its own voice. It’s the way he ends this poem that leaves you with something far more exquisite than a fragrance: he leaves you with a strong tactile sensation, a little pain. “Everything needs / the glory of leaves / rich green leaves / and tiny thorns / leaving a memory in the eye / of my thumb.”
“Only the liberation of the natural capacity for love in human beings can master their sadistic destructiveness, observed Wilhelm Reich. This is pertinent.
Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychiatrist who famously invented the term ‘orgone’ with reference to what he perceived as a universal life force, seems very close to McClure’s sensibility, which has long been one of cosmicity and acute attention to what Paul Nelson referred to as “luminous details.” McClure does shift back and forth seamlessly between the microscopic and macroscopic, to the degree that they lose their duality and we - like the poet William Blake - can “see a world in a grain of sand.”
Even in old age (McClure is now 85) the erotic is always present. It is a creative substratum that is very close in spirit to Henri Bergson’s élan vital or Franz Mesmer’s animal magnetism. All the elements in a McClure poem have interrelations, oscillations, pulsations. Size is elastic. The microscopic and macroscopic interweave. It seems utterly natural to find “neurons lighting the waves.” Waves of consciousness, waves of frequency. Waves of density variation. Waves of orgasmic orgone.
Or consider the bones on which we ride a pony of extraordinary instinct, as in the poem “Greeting.” “Love invented by nights on horseback / and infinite senses in the saddle / - this myriad trail / IN / ALL DIMENSIONS.”