World Well Broken, Joseph Donahue
Few poets raise the stakes as high as Joseph Donahue boldly did in his first two volumes, Before Creation and Monitions of the Approach. In those books Donahue practiced a volatile chemistry, siphoning diverse influences-Eliot's mythic architecture, John Berryman's jagged wail, and Michael Palmer's cool, elliptical dreamscapes-to give us some idea what contemporary poets might do with the long century which dogs tirelessly at our heels. Into this already heady brew Donahue then dropped a generous dose of potent pop-culture icons like Lee Harvey Oswald and Lenny Bruce. So combustible a mix still yielded an assuredly elegant result: an impassioned, oracular verse capable of drawing imagiste blood as readily as it sketched intricate tabloid palaces. With his latest book, World Well Broken, Donahue furthers and deepens this alchemical project.
In this short space, it's best to focus on "Christ Enters Manhattan," the long poem whose seven sections comprise nearly half the book. At its core is a phantasmal city where fire, ash and "obliterating light" (p.35) sift through the air and we come to see "the powers of the sky are unlocking." (p.36) as "Cosmologies gust, die out" (p.44). It is a hell badly in need of harrowing but the Messiah promised in the title never arrives.
This Inferno predicates no Paradise:In place of redemption, Donahue offers the lush, sensual spectacle of annihilation: "Seawind/ routes the funeral heat./ Ritual's end: the shovel turns over" (p.39). Rendered, as it is, with pointillist and unerring lyric grace, this threnody intoxicates us by repeatedly reenacting the final hour, each time more ingeniously than before, thus leaving us some small Beckettian cheer in simply being able to "go on." But a deeper joy follows from Donahue's lush theatricality-derived, in part from Book of Revelations"Throne a barrel of unburied bones" (p.46) as well as Times Square-"Fist Fucking, Black on Black." (p.42) Done on an epic scale, this high-voltage myth making conjures an inescapable millenarian testament for the faithless. We read it as one reads a death sentence in which every word cries out life.
Only radiance, welling here as shadow.
Only darkness, within light. Only, flung through space,
this wave of stones the color of an exploded cathedral... (p.54)
A Further Succinct Life: William Bronk's Books on Talisman House Press
William Bronk states, at the conclusion of his poem "Your Way Too," that "Things are far / more complicated than we say they are" (Manifest; and Furthermore, 7). To read the poetry of Bronk is to enter into his rigorous investigation of the complexities of the world as well as his examination of the very tools by which the world is measured-language and conceptual forms. And even though Bronk recognizes the inherent limitations of language, his world and, consequently, bringing the world into the light. Bronk's poetry, that is to say, documents his interrogation into being in the fullest possible sense. For example, consider "Left Alone," from The Mild Day (1993):
Left alone as it seems we often are,"Left Alone" accentuates the mind ruminating upon its own processes as it moves the reader into the complexities of language, epistemology, poetry, and thinking itself. Yet, after negating the possibility for a human "truth," the poem, nonetheless, annunciates a sense of peace that arrives through the poem's singing. For Bronk, the poem is the vehicle by which the limits of language are transcended, although the transcendence itself remains outside of language or any other "form." In this regard, what is unique and valuable about William Bronk's poetry is that it documents a mind rigorously engaged in the act of being in the world, and through Bronk's meticulous attention and precision, his poems "sing us up" into clarity and lucidity.
we can determine parts of our lives and the lives of some around us. More than that, we say what the world may be, how it came about and why. We give our truth. How great we are.
Something that doesn't mean to contravene us, something that needn't even know we are there, in going about its own procedures, sweeps it all away: whatever we did or said.
Sweeps us away. We are beside the point. No matter. Close beside. The seriousness of desire is a voice that sings us up and, in its singing, humbles whatever claims. (8)
The books of Bronk's on Talisman House-Manifest; and Furthermore (1987), The Mild Day (1993), and Our Selves (1994)-are the extension of fifty years of writing poetry and thinking about the world. Consequently, much is to be gleaned from Bronk's poetry: much is to be listened to and carefully weighed and measured. As Charles Olson said upon reading Bronk's poetry, "I may have, for the first time in my life, imagined a further succinct life." Bronk's poetry sings its readers into a pure, resplendent (and inhuman) light: "Equal":
This silence, this light where
nothing is heard, nothing seen is that
same silence, that light where once
splendors were heard, splendors were seen once not needed
now in the silence, the light. (Our Selves 73)
Selected Poems of Alice Notley
A Selected Poems recapitulates. Not Alice Notley's: instead, she gives us a narrative, a Poet's Progress. There's a gradual climb through early work (where she was creating her own forms of collage, lyric, and confession) to a turning point where she forsakes them for an epic. And from there on in a beautiful hell breaks loose. Sadly, "White Phosphorus" and "The Descent of Alette," the visionary poems, are only excerpted. Still, you can see her scope in smaller masterpieces like "Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice," "Waltzing Matilda," "At Night the States," and the finale, the great "Red Zinnias," a meditation on the thinghood of humans and the humaness of things. Instrument, most exquisite MRI in existence, of "Not existing/In order to see it" the six-and-a-half-page poem funnels down to such a close as tripped a hundred automatic reflexes in this reader: "The zinnias are gone I burst with crimson/Stand up and do something human/What is human Hardly anything Say something red."
Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews
[with Ed Foster] &
Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry [Eds. Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster]
"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness."During her discourse with Ed Foster, Susan Howe pauses to consider the bibliographic work of George Butterick, whose Olson scholarship is "one of the most generous gifts to poetry in [our] time." In the distribution of poetry haloes, it is equally impossible to pass over Ed Foster, whose press and journal Talisman continue to set a new table for poetry readers and writers in a difficult cultural climate. Foster brings a note of seriousness to these conversations not seen since the heyday of the Paris Review, when nervous interviewers would obviously prepare for weeks, indeed with their whole lives, before paying the visit to Williams or Kerouac.
But "EF," interlocutor, never seems nervous. The life of the book, the spectrum of interests refracted in this series of interviews-with Bronk, Coolidge, Hollo, Howe, Mackey, Notley, Padgett, Scalapino, Sobin, Waldrop, and Yau-is a function of Foster's magnanimity as a reader, and of his prophetic sensibility. His range of reference is so ample that for the most part he remains an inconspicuous presence in these interviews, prompting the unfolding of positions so intricately and eloquently wrought (Howe, Mackey, Sobin, Yau) that it is, at times, difficult to conceive of the text as completely spontaneous. The reader with any doubts can turn to the opening page of the Padgett interview and observe the two talkers back into Padgett's Tulsa origins. The ensuing pages, in all their humor and pleasure, are priceless for anyne who wants to understand how the generations of the New York School might be (self-) conceived, and what the family ties were to the older cousins in France. Foster's ability to put himself in the place of the interviewee, literally and figuratively, generates fascinating "finds," like the Greek coins sweated up by rain in the soil near Sobin's Provencal "cabanon," or the "shiny and knobby and colored" objects which Notley remembers hanging in her parents' auto supply shop in her hometown in Needles. His only quirk as an interviewer is his propensity to ask (nearly) everyone about Spicer. Which is not to say there aren't some instances of subliminal friction. Notley discusses her poem "Hurricane Belle," explaining her sense that the storm is a "valid psychic shape" for a poem; when Foster steers into a question of the variable foot, she replies, "we need something that's more than a foot or a line. It needs to be something that's more nebulous than that." Querying Howe about the "actuality" of history, her appreciation of "silence" is marked, in reply, by the real silence of women in history: "if you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies." Also fascinating is the exchange on aesthetics and politics which leads John Yau to claim that "formalism is the aesthetics of the assimilated." Foster locates all of these poets "outside the poetic mainstream as defined in standard classroom anthologies and histories of American poetry"; what unites them is "a trust in radical form, however achieved," and a resultant poem which "rises from its own necessities" and (only secondarily) "implies a truly radical politics." As Mackey searchingly puts it, "It is quite obviously and manifestly true that poetry and poetics has done and does do political work, but the political work that it does is often a consequence of more immediately political work not being doable." What Mackey's troubling formulation manifests is the doubt which Foster expresses in the opening piece of his collection All Acts Are Simply Acts: "Poetry Has Nothing To Do With Politics."
If this were true, then Leonard Schwartz's introductory positioning of the anthology Primary Trouble would not be so... troubling. The book, which opens fortuitously with Will Alexander's "Ball Lightning," is a wild and engrossing supplement to other recent anthologies of postmodern poetry (Messerli, Hoover et al.). It includes work of poets who "were born after 1933" and who emerged in the 70's, 80's and 90's; this leaves more room for adventurous and risky inclusions, though (like Talisman) the collection is best represented by its selection of poets in mid-career. Plenty of the poets in the "New Coast" O-blek, for instance, also seem to belong on the "map of poetry drawn" by the editors of this collection. Of course, extending the map would mean extending the book, which, at approximately 450 pages, is already stately plump. At minimum it would have been interesting to hear, in the introduction, some names of poets the editors regretted having to exclude. Inevitably, the decision to make visible certain affinities between a strain of New York School writing and a writing loosely associated but not coincident with "the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project" necessitates exclusions, but what does Schwartz mean when he refers to "that school's agenda for poetic hegemony"? Is it naive to be troubled by the ironic recurrence of poetry politics in this utopic context?
The gift of this anthology consists in the poems and proses, alphabetically arranged
by author, from Alexander through Lauterbach to Yau. All
open "postmodernism" to (in Schwartz's words) "prereflective panics,
angers, and ecstacies, to fresh beginnings which might momentarily hold off the
critical apparatus." It is difficult for "the critical apparatus"
to describe this ark-load of beauties. I was surprised by a Bunting/Jones legacy of
'inscription' in many of these works. The Beats (and their inchoate sex politics)
are also a ghost presence; many of the poems reach for articulations of the mythic,
the sexual and the spiritual in an anarchic and relatively unfamiliar verbal
currency. I notice that language is more often suppled toward sensual rhetorical
abstraction than plied for the plasticity of sound as sense, or place as ground.
This book wants to nudge the boat of North American poetry off some dehydrated turf
and out into the baptismal blue. When a "terrible beauty" sparks
a "terrible insomnia," as the work has in my case, the anthologists' task
has effectively been accomplished.
Selected Poems, Stephen Jonas (Ed. Joseph Torra)
Until recently the letters and notebooks of Stephen Jonas (?-1970) have lain in a basement in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Age/origin unknown, indeterminately "black" though his death certificate reads "white", sometime mental patient and jailbird, Jonas was mostly known in the streets of Boston and the pages of such magazines as Origin, Measure, and Set. This Selected brings together his small, studied, Greek-Anthology-like Exercises for Ear, and the sprawling Cantos-modeled Orgasms, as well as a number of intermediary poems such as the swinging "Cante Jondo for Soul Brother Jack Spicer, His Beloved California & Andalusia of Lorca." Jonas swallowed Pound whole, including bigotries, which his occasional madness enlarged upon. But that is only one face of a poet who took the range of attitudes-satirical, lyrical, erotic, prophetic-and made it personal theater. Joseph Torra in his introduction reminds us "In his poems Jonas sacrificed anything to get the music right." I reckon that's a vice by today's standards, so if a little sweet sin is what you're looking for, the guilty will relish Jonas.
Real: The Letters of Mina Harker and Sam D'Allesandro, Dodie Bellamy and Sam D'Allesandro
Reading Sam and Dodie's book reminds me that what Milton took from Virgil troping the death at sea of Edward King and codifying in English literature as purely artificial the Pastoral an appropriation of the Rural as old as the hills and Imperial Empires-Roman or American-"slip the garlic from your cunt and think of mother England" (p. 77), that what had to be left alone, left out, was sexuality and why?-it was already there in Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene but Milton would have to forget his own translation of the of the Satyr from Virgil's Eclogues (Comus) under the ideological pressures of writing a poem attacking Church and State and readying the ground for imagining Regicide. So this problem has been around a long time-sex and politics, repression and revolution-through a less ancient instance would be the excoriation of Tina Modotti in the communist press following the discovery of Edward Weston's nudes of her and her own nudes in turn of the young and handsome Cuban revolutionary assassinated at her side in Mexico City in 1929.
I read D'Allesandro and Bellamy's Real as an important one among a generation of writings where there begins to be brought into literature the replete, expansive dimensionalities of the social and sexualized Body, "a punk sculpture, perhaps the picture tube has been gutted and the empty space filled with an anti-nativity holocaust faces white as ice" (p. 105), and I'm thinking here how Real turns this return into a dialogue and correspondence that documents and mourns an emotion "-but that's not the point, is it-the point is to look, not in horror not in pity or even in compassion, but to look as precisely as possible at the ever-wavering presence right in front of one-" (p. 115), insisting on what's there at the same time that it's going and already gone.
In the transcript made from Sam's voice, "Travels with My Mother," the
Blue Ox that abrupts in the associative immersion of the body talking against time
is both the mythical dream-animal from the other world and surviving sign of a rural
origin (see Sam's passage on his arrival at his mother's place, p. 63, his memory of
herding cows and sheep down a dirt road) that marks this story as one among an
increasing series of migration narratives. Dodie Bellamy has had text with Sam
D'Allesandro and made with him a book opening to send a language for the experience
of a community-real or imagined, is there a difference?-physically predicated on the
free-play and insatiability of what it still means to be human, fucking
humans, "dead center the Real in every reflection . . . " (p. 93).
The Tower of Babel, Jack Spicer
Jack Spicer began and abandoned his "detective novel," which editors Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham have titled The Tower of Babel, in 1958. Even in its fragmentary state-the murder about which one assumes the plot would come to revolve only occurs in its last four pages-this is a fascinating and assured document. Spicer, like Eliot, Pound, and Auden, was an assiduous reader of detective novels (though his tastes ran to far more hard-boiled fare than the fastidious Eliot would have cared for), and The Tower of Babel shows that he had studied Hammett and Chandler to good effect. It's no surprise that Spicer writes a lucid and graceful prose, nor that the author of After Lorca has an almost preternatural grasp of dialogue. What is surprising is how straightforward and readable this novel is, with none of the stylistic tics that make so much mystery literature-from Chandler on-alternately amusing and irritating.
The Tower of Babel is also a literary satire, doing for the avant-garde
poetry scene of fifties San Francisco what Kingsley Amis or David Lodge do for the
academy. The poet John Ralston has returned west from Boston-where he has become,
much to his dismay, an establishment poet-to check out the much-vaunted "San
Francisco Renaissance," and there are parodies here of the Beat scene, the
late fifties intersection of poetry and jazz, and the Black Mountain phenomenon.
Regrettably, the book doesn't do much to cast light on Spicer's own incomparable
poetics, though there is a strong implicit contrast made between his
own "practice of outside" and Ralston's joyous production of a poem that
is "one of his poems."
-Mark W Scroggins
Heavenly Tree Soluble Forest, Gerrit Lansing
Gerrit Lansing belongs to that much-maligned group "the Olson cult," "the last all-male group in the U.S. gathered around a particular poet" (Marjorie Perloff). They are, perhaps, the most impressive array of unread writers this century. Taking John Clarke's Institute of Further Studies as their measure, I count the following among their members: John Clarke, Albert Glover, David Tirrell, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Michael Bylebyl, Anselm Hollo, John Wieners, Robin Blaser, Joanne Kyger, Ed Sanders, Alice Notley, Robert Grenier, George Butterick, James Koller, Duncan McNaughton, Daniel Zimmerman, Edgar Billowitz, and George Butterick.
Lansing's contribution to the Institute's ongoing Curriculum of the Soul was Analytic Psychology, now the final section of Heavenly Tree Soluble Forest. There we are told, "the Poem / comes in its own cocklight, / time the solitary flowering bird sings up the rising god"!
I place Lansing's work in the context of this extravagantly disparaged cult only to explain how a poet so gorgeous and original could escape serious notice these past thirty years. A unique mix of Aleister Crowley and Walt Whitman, Lansing's poetic relation to Olson is akin to that between O'Hara and Auden-important, early, and largely irrelevant so far as casual reading is concerned. Indeed, the only writer Lansing really reminds me of is that genius of science fiction and fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon. Here's Lansing:
Gone from Iowa the wild turkey, quail,Lansing's is a poetry of images, of slow but haunting music, of words that charm where another's would insist. His work produces an intensity of feeling much as a beautiful house gives occasion for a party, for a gathering of two, four, ten or a hundred friends. -Ben Friedlander
but still the dentist operates, the boy's sex stiffens, a Winnebago holds the tooth in his dripping hand. It is a pearl he gives him.
Under the pillow and it is gone
Could Olson have written that stanza? I think not.