Showing posts with label Besmilr Brigham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Besmilr Brigham. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Besmilr Brigham

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Like George Stanley’s forthcoming selected poems, A Tall, Serious Girl, Besmilr Brigham’s selected short poems, Run Through Rock, derives its title from the final poem in the volume. The book has a spare, almost austere beauty to its design. The front cover is a color photograph printed in landscape format about two-thirds up the page, behind which runs a vertical band of gray that holds (above the photo) the book’s title and (below the photo) subtitle, author & editorial information. You can just barely discern that this pattern forms a cross. The photo itself is of a rock atop some exceptionally dry & tire gouged red clay earth – in the deep background, so soft focused as to be open to interpretation, are either clouds or hills underneath the deep blues of a storm sky.

The back cover presents the same pattern – the photo is now a color negative – as the front. Underneath the photo, printed in the grey column (that same subtle cross) are some lines from one of Brigham’s poems.

Run Through Rock is a careful, professional project in book design – its only flaws (& you will see that I’m reaching to find any) a couple of lines here & there that are ambiguously leaded, making it not quite clear whether or not a new stanza is upon us. As is equally evident with its 2000 reissue of Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Lost Roads has become one of the premier publishers of American poetry. Every attention to the detail of the book is taken & the eye to presentation is exact.

The cover of Battlefield uses black, white & red very carefully to achieve a message of visual power. An African-American male stares out from behind a black foreground that is shaped with just enough of an angle to suggest a book that has been opened (it may be a public monument of some sort). Atop this monument or book, which takes up a little more than the bottom half of the cover, just to the left (and to some degree in front of)  of the young man is a metallic ball, just slightly smaller than a basketball – if you pay close attention, you will see the photographer reflected in the ball, the background behind her – the photographer being Lost Roads publisher C.D. Wright’s sometime collaborator, Deborah Luster – suggesting a farm field.

Thrusting up from the bottom of the front cover – I’m choosing my words carefully here – is the same sort of column that appeared beneath the photo on the Brigham cover, with the author’s name dropped out in white toward the bottom and the book’s title above it as the column moves from black to a rich deep red.

The back cover has a small square photo centered roughly three-quarters up the page: two toddlers, Caucasian, playing with a slightly older African-American boy in some kind of camp setting – there is a tent in the background. The boy on the left, it turns out, is the author. The photograph is very much a retro snapshot, almost surreal in its fuzziness. It’s surrounded with a thick bright red border against the otherwise black field of the cover. Below, as with the Brigham volume, a few lines of poetry &, at the very bottom in a different type, the ISBN data.

As moving a graphic design as the cover of Battlefield is, it may be tame in comparison to the one printed on the 1977 first edition of the volume, back when Lost Roads was the name of a magazine – Battlefied was technically issues 7 through 12, all in one volume – and the publisher was then called Mill Mountain.

The books aren’t even the same size: the 1977 edition taking up 542 pages, the 2000 edition offering the same number of lines in just 383 pages. While the two volumes are different dimensions – the 1977 edition is more squat – the primary difference is that the earlier edition is typed & not typeset.

If the interior of the 1977 edition looks rough, it’s nothing in comparison to its cover – the same color ensemble as the 2000 edition, but used to radically different effect. The background is white, not black, the typeface all in lower case red – another way of emphasize the rawness of the book. And the photograph. Well, the photograph. Uncredited & perhaps lifted from a newspaper, it shows a stack of corpses half covered by a tarp, all Vietnamese women & children, their faces bloodied, eyes open seeing nothing. Cowering in the upper right hand corner of the photograph are two other women overcome with terror & grief. At the upper left, a single leg (foot pointed away from the bodies) to suggest a larger context – someone is still paying attention to something else. The verso says only “Photograph taken the last day of the war, Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, April 29th, 1975.” Of the 4,000 volumes of avant & post-avant writing I have lying about the house, none – not even the Clay Fear collection of Kathy Acker imitations with the blow job on the cover – comes close to this one for its evocation of an involuntary visceral response.

Frank Stanford was still alive when the first edition of Battlefield was issued & it may even be his design – no credit is given. The cover of this edition foregrounds the word “battlefield” in the title, where the 2000 edition is more ambiguous & points to that ambiguity established by a noun phrase that includes not only “battlefield” & “love,” but also “moon” & the possibility of address.

There is something so extreme about a 542 page book that is typed rather than typeset – its characters equal in width, the page unadorned to the point of a stark ugly beauty. The design of the first edition accentuates everything about the text itself that can be called raw. This is worth noting for a couple of reasons. One is that by 1977, when this book was coming out, Stanford had been in college for several years & was well on his way to writing pretty standard MFA mill poetry. Committing to this “early” work was much more than playing on his precociousness as a teenager, it meant admitting the legitimacy of this completely Other vision of what poetry could be. In 1977, there was nothing you could find even remotely close to what Stanford was doing – the surrealist scene around Franklin Rosemont, for example, or the Beat variant around Philip Lamantia, are both quite tame in comparison to Battlefield. Further, in the age of the internet, after Bill & Hillary, & after Lucinda Williams & C.D. Wright, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine just exactly how removed from mainstream literary culture Arkansas was in the 1970s.

The 1977 design of Battlefield appears calculated to make the book leap out at the reader from every possible angle. 25 years later, in an era when college students in Western Massachusetts conduct daylong readings of the entire volume, the 2002 design may very well be the right one to permit readers to pick up new threads & possibilities in this dense work. Each edition shows why it’s a wise book that understands its cover.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

In 1969, Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Society published a volume of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry entitled T&G. The book’s subtitle was The Collected Poems (1936-1966). Unpaginated, the text ran all of 60 pages, a number of which were devoted to A. Doyle Moore’s plant prints. Thirty-three years hence, it seems stunning that we can now have a book entitled simply Collected Works (University of California, 2002) whose gathering of Niedecker’s poems and prose totals 362 pages, with over 100 additional pages of notes and indices to lend the volume heft.

In my mind, I had linked Niedecker with Besmilr Brigham, connecting the pair to a larger Dickinsonian tradition of women writing in isolation. But now I think that the parallel feels forced. Brigham & Niedecker share two important dimensions:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Each lived precariously on the economic margins at a considerable geographic distance from major literary centers
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Both held a visible relation to the Pound/Williams tradition – more to Williams than to Pound – and connected to the scene primarily through the mail. 
Beyond that, though, they are profoundly different poets. Part of it may just be generational – Niedecker was ten years older, having been born in 1903, with her earliest poems have been written in the 1920s and her connection to Zukofsky and the Objectivists dating from the early 1930s. Brigham may have been a late starter by comparison – her first publication in El Corno Emplumado in 1966 occurs when she is 53 (although apparently telling people that she was ten years younger).

It’s worth considering what the curious history of the Objectivists meant not just to Niedecker but to all of the writers usually associated with that rubric – active and working together in the early 1930s, but not quite jelling in terms of public response, followed by an erasure from public view in the 1940s & ‘50s, only to return again, this time triumphant, in the 1960s. For one thing, Niedecker’s own position vis-à-vis the participants in the famous February 1931 issue of Poetry & subsequent anthology had changed by the mid-1960s. Fully mature as a poet, she was in no way outside the circle by the time of their collective re-emergence.

Furthermore, Niedecker had benefited from the long silence as did several of the Objectivists as they became a far more disciplined and cohesive group of poets than they had been in the early 1930s. Without any wider audience for so many years, the Objectivists had only themselves and a few others as readers for nearly 20 years.* The work that came out of the long silence was more spare than that which had gone before. Consider the florid tone of this passage by Carl Rakosi, which actually led off the Objectivist issue of Poetry, the first stanza from a piece entitled “Orphean Lost” from a larger serial poem called “Before You”:

The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

This overwrought text, which initiated a revolution, is not to be found in Rakosi’s Collected Poems.** If anything, the text reflects a love-hate relationship with surrealism that shows up both in Poetry, which included two Rimbaud translations by Emanuel Carnevali as well as a little symposium on the “gratuitous and arbitrary” poetry of Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, and in the anthology where Zukofsky literally rearranged the lines of a Kenneth Rexroth work in seemingly random order, to the latter’s considerable vexation.

All that deliberate excess is gone by the 1960s. Thus we can identify a second factor separating First and Third Phase Objectivism*** – a new emphasis on a spare, unadorned style not always evident during the 1930s. This was reinforced by the return to writing of George Oppen, who had had the most austere aesthetic during that first decade.+

Niedecker may have been isolated geographically, but she was integrally part of this literary cabal and it is this community that created the foundation for her broad acceptance, especially after her death in 1970. Brigham never had this – the poets with whom she is said to have corresponded, Duncan & Creeley, were already famous by the 1960s. Older than either of them, Brigham never made the transition from correspondent to peer. While the work of those two men was associated with Black Mountain College, where each had taught, they had always been completely different poets and, by the 1960s, each was evolving according to impulses and demands that had little to do with one another, regardless of their mutual admiration. So it turns out that it is Brigham far more than Niedecker who was truly the Outsider poet.

This is true in other ways as well. Place is important to both of Niedecker & Brigham, but Niedecker inhabits the Wisconsin of her poems with a sense of its presence, very nearly its omnipresence++  compared with the far more tentative landscapes the peripatetic Brigham confronts in Mississippi, Texas, Mexico & Arkansas. I sense Niedecker truly in her environment whereas Brigham carries the perspective of someone who appears to have been an observer more than a participant, regardless of the context…just passing through, taking notes.

My impression of this is heightened by the fact that Brigham is a poet of the eye, whereas Niedecker thinks and proceeds by ear. A distinction like that is simply a part of one’s human chemistry – it’s not a question of right or wrong decisions – but the distinction plays out in important ways for poetry.  There is a tonal logic in Niedecker’s work, as there is, say, in the poetry of Larry Eigner, which is extraordinary to read. The poetry as a result possesses a cohesion that communicates as total life prosody – you are never in doubt that you’re in the presence of a major poet with Niedecker. Brigham’s poems are no less intense or intelligent, but tonally they’re more diverse – the range is from straightforward narrative, rather like the piece I quoted on September 25, to highly enjambed. You can see & feel all of her directions, but never quite sense that presence of an overwhelming unifying force.

On the other hand, a true Collected Poems of Besmilr Brigham might tell as different a story as Niedecker’s Collected Works does from T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-66).

* & even this overstates the case. Oppen had dropped out almost entirely, working as a political organizer, fight in the Second World War, then choosing exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Bunting, more of a sporadic than a prolific poet, was off in the Middle East occupied with espionage.

** Two of the four sections of “Before You,” have been preserved: “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” and “Unswerving Marine,” both of which show up in the section of the Collected entitled “Amulet,” albeit not in the order they appeared in 1931. All four sections can be found as separate poems in Poems 1923-1941, Andrew Crozier’s admirable excavation of Rakosi’s work from Objectivism’s First Phase.

*** See “Third Phase Objectivism,” Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, “George Oppen Issue,” Spring, 1981, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, pp. 85-89.
+ The noteworthy exception to the austere style is Zukofsky. To a significant degree, the commitment to “A” pushed his own poetry in different directions than the rest of the Objectivists, although his shorter pieces often reflect the stripped-down aesthetic of his cohort.  A test of my thesis about the impact of “disappearance” of Objectivism in the 1940s can be seen in the work of the two younger poets from that issue of Poetry who continued to write and publish: Rexroth and Ted Hecht. Their poetry evolved in ways different from the core Objectivist group as well as different from one another – neither adopted anything like a spare style.

++ Interestingly, when Niedecker turns to place as Other, in the four-part poem “Florida,” she too emphasizes the eye – both opening and closing sections focus on the visual aspects of the state – the birds, the older women wearing slacks.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

I feel a similar sense of poetry’s great reach when reading the work of people whose own life experiences seem radically different from my own. Frank Stanford’s childhood in the deep South would be one instance. Lorine Niedecker in the woods and small towns of rural Wisconsin is another. Besmilr Brigham is a third.

When I first began publishing poetry in the mid-1960s in little journals such as Meg Randall’s El Corno Emplumado, Brigham was one of the other poets whose work one could expect to see. The poems were spare, with a ragged, Creeley-esque line and evidenced a familiarity with such things as farm animals that indicated a life more rural than my own. Brigham was one of those poets whom I expected I would someday meet. But I never did. There was one book from Knopf in 1971, Heaved from the Earth, but at some point toward the end of that decade, I stopped seeing the poems in journals and then nothing but silence. Brigham had apparently joined poetry’s legion of disappeared, those poets whose work, though eminently worth reading, goes out of print never apparently to return. There are many poets (including several in the Spicer circle, such as Harold Dull, Ronnie Primack and James Alexander) whose work deserves to be read but which simply can no longer be found.

All of which is to explain why I felt such joy to find, finally, a volume, Run Through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham, edited by C.D. Wright and published by Lost Roads in 2000. Wright is also the editor who rescued Frank Stanford’s great long poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, republished by Lost Roads the same year as the Brigham volume.  Maybe Brigham’s work would not have stayed lost forever had not Carolyn thought to take this project on – Brigham’s son-in-law is the Southwest poet Keith Wilson – but in the publication of poetry, there are no guarantees.

The poems are much as I remember them, both wonderful & modest. Like several other poets of that period – Cid Corman, Ted Enslin, James Weil, Simon Perchik – Brigham’s shorter pieces understand the virtue of never trying to accomplish too much. Where they differ from the more austere programs of some of these other poets is in their openness to detail and their commitment to the eye. It is the eye that connects her to another poet of this period: Larry Eigner. Where Eigner’s poems initially appear light and airy on the page, only to reveal the intense epistemological concerns that drove him, Brigham’s poems are more notational and relaxed even when they’re also in the same moment dark & disturbing. A good example might be “Man Found in Chiapas Woods”:

hung up in the tree
a thing that did not grow there
his body stayed for seven
rank moons
until the priests found him

            what he brought
            climbing to the limb fork
until no rope could strangle it

pushing the tight words
deeper than the heart’s rush
(the few

who saw him after
a bauble blowing in the wind
ran from the soul strung up:
a cadaver of flesh without a cross
and crossed their souls in silence

he swung alone
except for the big caw parrots
that passed bush-deep from rain
and hot birds
shaking their feathers thick under leaves

flesh sucked out with sun
a dried leather covers his bones
stuck watery
like old clung bark
breaking and gummed to the dying sap

though there was a time
when wind
sucked under his clothes
before the cord sandals fell

and the faded old pants danced
a wild bird
caught in their crotch

The poem as a whole is terrific and Brigham gives it ample time to develop. Yet it is precisely the gradual pacing of development that lets in what I hear as overly hokey lines: “pushing the tight words / deeper than the heart’s rush” (the lines also sound great which may have kept them there – the added syllable in the second line is actually the third one – “than” – pushing “the” further out the line and giving a slant to the parallel noun phrases). Ultimately, I trust the decision to keep these lines, even as I suppress a shudder. The willingness to go anywhere is part of Brigham’s commitment to the reader.

In addition to her short poems, Besmilr Brigham also worked in sequences & serial poems, none of which are collected here. Hopefully another volume will appear in the future.

*Wilson himself has a collection forthcoming from Chax Press that hopefully will get his work out to a wider audience than it has had to date.