Saturday, August 29, 2009

Norma Cole, Joseph Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge

Mint, Mnemosyne, And Metal:
Making Language Tangible

-- An Essay by John Olson --

Introductory Note:
Today the glade – this here blog – presents an essay by John Olson.
This is the essay’s first publication.


Norma Cole was recently in town (editor’s note: that’s Seattle, where Olson lives) and I enjoyed her reading and bought her book, Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008. I have had a special fascination for Norma’s work for some time now and this is why: the words have a shiny, tangible brilliance, like knives. Not ordinary knives or hunting knives or those bizarre commando knives I sometimes see in the windows of the Army Navy Surplus store downtown, but Japanese knives, those beautifully balanced knives with linen textured resin handles and blades sharp enough to cut a proton in two.

The key word is ‘tangible.’ There is a peculiar sense in reading some poems that the words have three-dimensions, like rocks or gems, and that the phrases have been soldered together, so that their structure resembles the filigree of brooches or pins. This is not new. There has been a notable drive toward this presentation of words since at least Chaucer, in the western world. Its most salient address appeared with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, nearly a hundred years ago, in 1914, and Sherwood Anderson’s famous description of their effect on him as “rattling words one can throw into a box and shake, making a sharp, jingling sound, words that, when seen on the printed page, have a distinct arresting effect upon the eye, words that when they jump out from under the pen one may feel with the fingers as one might caress the cheeks of his beloved.”

I don’t know how to describe this phenomenon neurologically -- that would take the expertise of an Oliver Sacks -- but the sensation is acute, quite real.

What is the importance of this? Does it have any importance? To this day, Gertrude Stein is not generally the part of any college curriculum. And poets who choose to focus on the materiality of the language as opposed to its emotional charge or ability to convey sentiments and ideas still find themselves marginalized in the hapless alleys and lonely shelves of the small press ghetto.

Words, like money, are intended to symbolize ideas and experience so that we don’t have to lug around sacks or wagons full of objects we might want to assemble in order to make a sentence like “I want to marry you” or “I would like to eat that meat you are cooking.” It would be a complication to try to communicate the beauty of a sunset with two shoes and a rabbit pelt. So what is the point of setting one’s immediate feelings aside to communicate the very medium you rely upon to communicate anger, love, or hunger?

I don’t know. I just find it fascinating.

My real inquiry is focused on how poets like Cole are able to achieve this effect. In “Nano-Shades” the effect is apparent in her coupling of images and the way she delicately coerces attention on the individual words. It is pertinent that a “nano” means “extremely small.” A nanosecond, for instance, is one-billionth of a second. And we are talking shades here. The shade of a nano, which would not be sufficient to cool a Death Valley gnat, much less play in the retina of an attentive reader.

Or would it?

Here is the poem:
the male deliberately positions himself
over his lover’s fangs

the key is gravity
blankets, personal items

and clothing, extra-solar planets (class M)
like our sun, the memory

of history, empty or full
scared the daylights out of the name
The extreme dissimilarity between the first pair of lines, the male poised over his lover’s fangs, followed by the brusque non-sequitur (nano-sequitur?) “the key is gravity,” which itself is followed by the illogical blankets and personal items, generates a circuitry of hectic and broad associations. The human mind craves meaning, and will look for meaning where none apparently exists. So that in a situation such as the one created here, where the circuit is not, and cannot, ultimately be completed in any way that would satisfy the tenets of mathematics or logic, the process is ongoing. It is a virtual perpetual motion machine.

It’s important to point out that this would fizzle were it not for the artistry in its making. A lot of poetry I find online and in the few magazines and chapbooks that have made it to print attempts to imitate this structure, but is rarely successful, because it’s either too affected and obvious, or too oblique to work. The reason “the key is gravity/ blankets, personal items” works is because we can immediately see the folds of blankets, have felt blankets when we folded or slept under them. Blankets have a strong association with gravity; we are generally supine in relation to them. “Personal items” is a little more teasing, a little less obvious, but here I see perfume bottles, a can of shaving lather, little handheld mirrors, a set of keys, pocket change and combs, all arranged on a bureau, or bathroom countertop. These things may not pop into Stephen Hawking’s mind when he thinks about gravity, but I see a vivid relation there.

“The memory/ of history” is funny. Aren’t history and memory pretty much the same thing? Or has history disappeared, leaving a nano-shade of itself in memory? What a peculiar thought.

“Scared the daylights out of the name” is pretty funny, too. Is a name alive? Is a name an organism? Does it have scales? Cells? Cytoplasm? Are syllables cilia? The cartoonish character of a name (and what name? Jim? Martha? Galicia? Clarksville?) having the daylights scared out of it adds a comical and hallucinatory dimension to this curious work.


Another poet who is superb at promoting the materiality of language is Joseph Ceravolo. I remember the intense joy I felt when I first read “Drunken Winter” sometime in the 70s.
Oak! oak! like like
it then
   cold some wild paddle
so sky then;
flea you say
“geese geese” the boy
June of winter
of again
Oak sky
What I like immediately about this poem was that it was just so completely GOOFY. It sounded like speech, but who would ever begin a statement by shouting oak! oak! and follow it with like, like? Oak is hard. ‘Like” has no substance whatever. And here they are linked, as if there were an actual equivalence between the two.

And there is. They’re both words. Oak (the sound of which is strangely compelling as it begins with the open-o and ends with the hard velar ‘k’) is a sign, not the actual wood, though that is what immediately pops up in the mind, the weight of it, heft of it, smell of oak. It’s grain. It’s gnarly trunk and big star-like leaves. Then, ‘like.’ Which frequently has the habit of weakening a statement by comparison. “My heart is like a red red rose” is not as firm as “My heart is a rose.” Or, as a predicate, “I like you” does not have the same force as “I love you.”

“it then” is just plain silly.

As is “cold some wild paddle.” And yet I see, feel, hear, a paddle smack the water in the wild woods of northern Ontario.

“so sky then.” I would like to say that to someone sometime. “so sky then” you fool.

“flea you say” I hear in return, as if in some Dada-like fusion with Shakespeare.

“‘geese geese’ the boy” sounds like something out of a North American Indian tale.

“June of winter” could be a balmy day in mid-December.

“of again” makes sense but I could not tell you why.

“Oak sky” completes the ring cycle of this mini-opera.

I was not surprised when I discovered that Joseph Ceravolo had made a living as a civil engineer. Many of his poems, as Norma Cole’s, feel constructed. Assembled. The syntax is always a bit off, or sometimes way off, as if the construction were not yet complete, or Ceravolo wanted us to feel the torque in the metal supports, the tensions and strains that exist in grammar.

Added to this is an opposite effect, spontaneous, emotional outbursts, such as “O targets!” or “Yet prize!” or “conch of frolick!” Ceravolo’s wikipedia entry links him to the conversational style of the New York poets, and there is some of that, certainly, but how many times do we say in conversation “Be world to any apples!” or “O candy for our sore” or “How many steps to take to mud around, across, Ixtapalapa green canal?” If we could enter into conversation with fire hydrants and dogs, I imagine that these are the kinds of sentences we would be examining in the parliaments of our minds.


Clark Coolidge is, perhaps, the Santa Claus of this genre, the ultimate cornucopia, horn of Amalthea. He is abundance personified. He mints words with the solid determination of the coin dies in the Denver mint. The words have the tangibility and beauty of bone. Yet they read smoothly. They do not have the delicacy of Cole, or the engineered torque of Ceravolo. Their energy is different, more like bebop, or drumming.

In “How To Open,” from Own Face, one of his earlier books, Coolidge cleverly reverses the usual “window to the world” quality of most writers who want us to see through the words to the adventure, the drama, as if transparency were greatest virtue writing could possess.
the twig has hug from the whole porch a season
a break in the bottle of amberhood sauce
a gleam without a cleavage or a typer to trammel it
here is the window that there are the words.
In the first line, Coolidge has robbed ‘hug’ of its properties as a predicate and given it the quality of a noun. ‘Hug’ is a pun on hung, but far more interesting than a mere pun because a literal hanging is not as metaphorically charged as feeling the energy of ‘hug’ in that twig. It is not just hanging. One feels as if it has been fully and firmly encompassed by its surrounding on the porch.

“Typer” is redolent of ‘typewriter.’ Own Face was first published in 1978, when writers used typewriters. Those old enough to remember using typewriters remembers how noisy they were, the clackety-clack-clack-clack of the metal keys striking the paper wrapped around the platen. Writing had real solidity then.

It astonishes and baffles me that the younger writers are content to read their work online. I’m slowly coming around to the idea that publication online is as meaningful as publication on paper, but the lack of tangibility is disturbing. I enjoy the fact that work is so much more readily accessed electronically, at least by those privileged enough to have access to computers, but I am able to see a linkage between the kind of unrealities our economy has taken with the pixilated giddiness of virtual reality. There is a potential for harm there.

I should be happy, too, that so many graduates of the MFA programs have chosen to go in the direction of Cole, Ceravolo, and Coolidge. Yet so much of it seems slipshod and precious when it should be hot with intention, as if the soldering iron had just been taken away and the sentences were still smoking.

What is the solution? Miners were able to distinguish true gold from fool’s gold (iron pyrite) by biting it. True gold is malleable. A tooth will leave a dent. You can’t bite words, but you can assay their quality in other ways. Have sex with them. Cook them. Eat them. Incorporate them into your living. It is a personal matter, not a science. Subjective, not objective. And therein lies the frustration: how to give palpability to what is essentially a mental, intellectual experience?

“There’s no way out but in,” writes Coolidge in “The Cave Remain,” “Grunt and compare the stretched body to rock in its literal sluice.”


End Notes and Sources

Norma Cole’s Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 was published this year (2009) by City Lights.

A podcast of Norma Cole reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, on May 18, 2009, can be heard via a mp3 file that will play simply by clicking here.

Sherwood Anderson’s comment about the writing of Gertrude Stein (“rattling words one can throw into a box . . .”) was first published at page 7 of his Introduction to Stein’s Geography And Plays (Boston: the Four Seas Company, 1922).

The most readily available book of Joseph Ceravolo poetry is The Green Lake Is Awake (Coffee House Press 1994), a volume of selected poems. This book includes “Drunken Winter,” the Ceravolo poem Olson discusses in his essay.

Clark Coolidge’s Own Face was first published in 1978 by Angel Hair, and then reprinted in 1993 by Sun & Moon. New and used copies of the re-print are readily available (click here to see).

John Olson has published numerous reviews and essays on poetry. Examples on-line include his recent essay on experimental poetry (click through here); a short essay regarding poetry as
Lightning on Paper” (click here); a review of Clayton Eshleman’s Everwhat (click here, if you please); and a longer essay on Bob Dylan’s Tarantula (go via clicking here). Olson’s most recent book of poems is Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008).


Saturday, August 22, 2009


Amuse Bouche
Adeena Karasick

(Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2009)

Amuse Bouche is a new book of poems by Adeena Karasick. It’s also a term that’ll be familiar to those who dine at fancier restaurants. There, Amuse-bouche is “a single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre” served for free as the meal begins to excite the taste buds and “offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” Given this meaning, Karsick’s book can be read as a collection of poem-treats in which she, the poet-chef, shows her way with words.

Amuse Bouche came to me via the kindness of Robert Kasher. I don’t know Kasher. A few weeks ago, in response to my post on comma crazy poems (click here to read, if you please), he left a comment suggesting I check out an illustrative comma poem in Amuse Bouche. He also wrote that if I wanted a copy, he’d send me one.

Well I did, and he did. On Amuse Bouche’s acknowledgments page, Karasick thanks Kasher for his “tireless dedication.” I like dedication to poets. There should be more of that in this world. So thanks Robert Kasher, thank you very much, for the book, and for helping a poet.

As Karcher wrote, there is indeed a comma poem in Amuse Bouche. There’s also, as it turns out, a few dardanic prose poems – poems that use a well-established, typically non-poetic, form or style. As you may remember, I like those kind of poems too (click here to read). I write below about the comma poem, a few of the dardanics, and one or two other poems in the book as well.


“Commatery” is the final poem in Amuse Bouche. The poem has ten un-numbered parts, each of which takes up a single page and has near its center an oversized image of a comma or commas. These images are generally positioned such that the comma’s head and curved tail are not aligned as it would be when traditionally used in a line (see the second and third examples below).

Each page also has a line of text across the page bottom. These texts mostly pun on the word comma, and relate to the image(s) of the comma(s) on the page. For example, the first of the poem’s ten pages/parts features an image of a cracked, disintegrating comma that’s also shedding tiny dollar signs. The text at the bottom of the page: “crumbling eccommanomy.”

Most of the poem’s ten sections – and again, each section is a single page with an over-sized image of a comma or commas – are clever. They do amuse. The pun-ology is fun, and fun too is the way Karasick’s imagination wields the comma, or maybe it’s the way the comma yields to her imagination.

I’ll share just three of the poem’s sections, starting with the plainest comma of the bunch, which sets a sort of baseline for the others (I use commas in parentheses to separate each page here):

(, , ,)

This next section/page is a full-on flirt. The commas, turned on their sides, become a pair of art-deco eyebrows, perhaps, with one raised, but also maybe two stylized birds. Two birds winging towards that part of your mind that falls, and falls hard, for poems, poems that suggest and imply. But to return to where I began, this section is about the flirt, the seduction, the allure:

(, , ,)

The final example needs little from me. To paraphrase the ditty from the Beatles’ White Album, “Why don’t we do it on the page?” Why not indeed? Here you go, have at it:

Now, that’s one hot comma poem!

(, , ,)

The ten parts of “Commatery” are preceded by a four and one-half page lineated poem – “And Without (for all the commas)” – which the book’s back cover describes as a “exploring commas as the mistresses as language . . . .” The poem has a repeated refrain, “she will meet you,” and the pronoun therein refers to the comma. Karasick thus personifies (womanifies) a punctuation mark not often (ever?) invested with such qualities. That’s wacky, but it’s fresh and invigorating to see the comma that way.

Karasick’s poem suggests the comma will turn up in all sorts of circumstances, which of course, across the broad expanse of writing, it in fact does. Here are two excerpts from “And Without” (the poem includes about a dozen similarly developed sets of lines):
she will meet you,
through the accumulation of sweeping intervals,
saddled all sly and sumptuous seeping through
the sprawling hysteria of
mystery, misery, mastery

[ . . . ]

And with unmitigated anguish
she will meet you
on the edge of aching torment,
wisped rasps, gasps
groping orders,
borders, pleasure
ports, portents, pitted against
screaming silences
Nice, yes? I really respond to the allusiveness of these imagined encounters, and love as well their looseness. Karasick luxuriates in the play of words, in their rhymes and alliterative similarities. Because each “she will meet you” set of lines is relatively short, but also seems to flower fully, the poem both moves quickly and holds attention deeply.


Let’s turn to the dardanic prose poems in Amuse Bouche. The first text or work in the book is such a work. It’s titled “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide : Criteria For Readers.”

The poem takes it’s form and style from the aircraft guide / passenger safety information card or brochure found, as the flight attendant says, “in the seat pocket in front of you.” These cards/brochures typically describe the plane’s features using ultra-slick, full-on hype mode prose combined with demonstrative visuals, and of course set out the safety information in a comprehensive but ultra-clear manner.

For the airplane in the source or model text, Karasick substitutes her book. The passenger, of course, becomes you, the reader of the book. The poem thus concerns the book and what the reader may encounter or experience while reading it. The text of “Reader Safety Information” is printed in an over-sized font, which I think mimics the look of the card or brochure found in each airplane seat-pocket. Karasick also intersperses graphics in the text, similar to what you’d find on a plane.

Here’s the first of the poem’s eighteen pages (please click to enlarge):

That’s pretty marvelous. The poem continues in this style, and lexically rich tone, for its entire length. Probably if it were trimmed it would be better; the poem does get repetitive. Other dardanic prose poems might serve as object lessons here. Scientific research reports, for example, drone on and on, but J.G. Ballard’s classic Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, which uses such reports as its model, only consists of seven very short sections. Similarly, when Harry Crosby used a telephone directory as a model for a poem, he presented only about twenty entries, not an entire page of them.

That said, most of Karasick’s “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide” kicks serious ass. Particularly fun are the sections modeled after the super-confident prose that hypes a particular airplane’s features, with zippy verbs to persuade you that both the plane is something special and that so too are you, just for being a passenger. Here are a few sentences from about the middle of Karasick’s poem (italics in original, but illustrations and fully justified spacing omitted):
But, there’s much more to today’s Amuse Bouche. Aporitic & interstitial
transports wing their way through otherness & verfremedungseffekt. Through paratacticism, patagramaticism, juxtaposition and slippage, with AB you are able to fly away and into destinations of confusion and desire – where dreams come and go; where imagination of prospects, possibilities, displacement, investment, excess and liaison all remain a vital praxis.
Karasick’s “Reader Safety Information / Care and Use Guide” is available on-line in its full, and fully illustrated, glory (click here). I recommend you go read it. But first, please return your tray table and seat back to a fully upright and locked position.


Another dardanic prose poem in Amuse Bouche is titled “Rules to Text By or Rules of Textual Engagement.” The model here is the prose-mode from the best-selling 1995 book, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. In Karasick’s poem, the advice is pitched not to women looking for men, but readers engaging creative texts. In the book, the poem is printed in a curlicued italicized font, and the text is presented atop an image of an old-time scroll (as used in religious traditions), all of which I assume comes from the original best-seller.

At points, “Rules of Textual Engagement” works fairly well, as at the very end, when Karasick advises:
For goodness sake, the text is not just after

A One Night Scan

The text wants something real. Lasting.
That only YOU can offer.
It wants
a fully metonymous relationship.

For life.
The substitutions here are just about perfect. “Scan” for “Stand” is so neat the change is almost hidden, a trick that makes me giggle. More obvious, yet subtle still, is “metonymous” for “monogamous.” Of course, the sounds of those two words are very close, and in terms of the message being conveyed, I like that “metonymous” connotes “associational,” which in fact is a good way to relate, long term, to a text.

Even better, “metonymous” can be read (how meta is this?!) as being used metonymically. See what I mean? The word “metonymous” here stands in for, say, “poetic,” in the same way that the term “the White House” can be used to denote “the President.” For me, a great text deserves precisely what Karasick’s “Rules” say it wants: a fully poetic (“metonymous”) relationship, “For life.”

However, Karasick’s “Rules” are sometimes less convincing. Specifically, I don’t like lines like the following, in which the “play hard to get” advice from the original The Rules is transformed into what seems to me very odd advice to readers:
So, to keep a text from getting too much too soon,
don’t read it more than once or twice a week
for the first month or two.
These lines, true enough, skewer the cookie-cutter directives of the original (in which of course “man” took the place of “text” and “see him” for “read it”). But still, Karasick here seems to suggest the we limit our reading of poems. To me, the fiery all-consuming initial reading of a poem is one of the great privileges of being alive.


The title poem of Karasick’s book is sort of but not quite a dardanic. “Amuse Bouche” (the poem) is organized under headings of the kind found on a fancy restaurant menu, and is printed on pages with borders that mimic the florid look of the worst of those things. The poem mixes menu and food terms with words and phrases from current (or not-so-long ago) events, mostly of the militaristic-terror-world politics kind. There are a dozen pages of text, plus a title and and end page, both of which also are done up to look like a menu. Here’s one of the early pages of the poem’s text (click to enlarge in a new window, if you please):

This poem isn’t dardanic because it proceeds in free verse; the text, in other words, is not arranged in the manner of menu listings. That’s okay, although given the set-up (with a menu cover and the illustrated border) it surely would have been a great way to write the poem. In any event, there are moments of inspired word-play in “Amuse Bouche,” daggerish mash-ups of food, culture, war, and current events, as when the poem declares,
Oh just suck the savory juice of this unilateral lexicon and
the lingering zing of your saucy

imperialism laced with a tapenade of
terror . . .
But there are also points in this poem where it seems that Karasick flogs the conceit, trope, or form too hard, where the concept (a mash-up of food and events) seems the only thing that matters and the whole thing becomes (sorry, a bad pun myself here) overdone. In particular in this regard, Karasick’s puns on food names – and there are many, seemingly one every other line and sometimes more than that – often seem a bit too much.

I’m a poem pun-lover of the highest order (click here for proof). I can be, in other words, a willing glutton for word-play. But in “Amuse Bouche” the portion of puns is super-sized. It sometimes feels as if the entire jumbo load is getting force-fed through the eyes and brain, sort of similar to a poor goose getting fattened for fois gras. After a few dozen similar puns or allusions in the first several pages of “Amuse Bouche,” I’d had more than enough by the time I came upon, near the poem’s end, puns such as “Islami sandwich,” “Iraqi road,” “frozen madhi pie,” “don’t pull the rugallah / out from under my feat” and “Just tagliatelle it like it is.” Some of those are really good, don’t get me wrong. But after having already consumed so many others, I just had to say, É troppo molto!

The other odd thing is that the puns I quote just above all appear in the final menu section, which is titled in big bold letters, “Fromages and BonBons” (roughly, “Cheeses and Sweets”). What the heck are puns that refer to lunch-meat, a leafy green used in salads, and a pasta doing in the menu section for desserts? There are similar mis-matches between the puns in the poem’s other menu sections and those section’s titles. Again, it just seems as if the concept was over-exalted, maybe at the cost of the poem itself.

Well, and anyway, I’ll give Karasick the poet-chef credit here for trying to (er, um) cook up something new, even if it isn’t totally delicious.


There are about a dozen other poems in Amuse Bouche, in addition to the poems mentioned above. Some work better than others. Two poems – “I Got A Crush On Osama” and “Hotel Kaballahla,” – are take-offs on well-known song lyrics (the viral video-tune “I Got A Crush On Obama” and the Eagle’s “Hotel California,” respectively). If these are clever – and that’s arguable since re-doing song lyrics just ain’t that hard to do – they are clever only the first time they’re seen or read.

Karasick’s “I Got A Crush On Osama” is particularly goofy, in that she went and made (more accurately, made with others) a music video of her poem. And when I say music video, I really mean it. The thing looks as if it cost lots of money, or lots of people lots of time (or both) to make. The video has the general look of the original “I Got A Crush On Obama,” with Karasick singing her substituted words to the original tune.

Here’s the video, have a look, although be warned: if you, like me, have specific memories of the World Trade Center such that the 9/11 murders act as a rusted ripsaw that jaggedly shreds emotions, you may be more puzzled or troubled than giddy that images of that destruction are used to, among other things (and in Karasick’s words) “pok[e] some gentle fun at Osama . . . .”:

“I Got A Crush On Osama”


What’s also a bit goofy is that Karasick posted her video just this past April. That’s almost two years after the original “I Got A Crush On Obama” swept through YouTubia. That Obama video, in the words of a website that tracks and comments on these things, “is pretty old news by now.” Generally, the half-life of a viral video is shorter than a New York minute is quick. A satire or parody of one of these things needs to happen fast, real fast. Maybe it’ll all seem simultaneous when the waves of Time slosh everything together, but Karasick’s take on this one seems more than a little late.


One of my favorite poems in Amuse Bouche is “Sure Plays A Mean Pin Ball : A Syllabration.” It’s a 25-liner (a bit more than a page) that directly descends from, or copies, Christian Bok’s marvelous “Ubu Hubbub.” Bok’s poem voices the bombastic bluster-blather of a full-of-it imperial authority. Here are its first few lines, as transcribed and lineated from a sound file (keep in mind, Bok when he reads the poem aloud screams it, insanely, as if he were a methed-up King Ubu crossed with a snarling-Dick Cheney):
Ubu hubbub
blubbering rubber gut a rutabaga
tuba blurb gluttonous kettle drum
cumbersome gummi bears of bourbon.
Karasick’s poem similarly rattles and hums wildly through assonance and dissonance. Here are the first several lines of her poem, plus a set of three (with spacing preserved) from near its end (notice, if you please, how Karasick acknowledges Bok, both in the first line, which adapts the title of his poem that she uses as inspiration here, but also in the last line quoted below, the first word of which refers to the most well-known of Bok’s poems):
Pingpong singalong
Bhranga singsong trickster tagalong
Tictac flogalong suck my dickalong
Headstrong dipthong
Succulent truculent opulent
Bingbang googlegänger bling slinger gangbang

[ . . . ]

Nascent plascent
puissaint raison maison liaison fraison firsson ease on

eunoia blockade memory marmalade.
In contrast to Bok’s poem, which must be seen and (especially) heard as a critique of the authoritarian bombast it voices, Karasick’s poem has no agenda other than its own big fun. The the poem’s title, taken from the great Who song, suggests amusement and games, and the poem’s subtitle – “A Syllabration”– underscores the point. “Sylla” as in syllable, yes, but also “Silly,” and also, of course (looking on the entire word) “celebration.”

I’m not bothered, at all, by the absence in Karasick’s poem of a purpose other than big fun. Quite the contrary. The ludic in poetry is essential, and this poem brings it. Brings it big time. When I read Karasick’s poem, particularly when I read it out loud, I see and hear the silver ball b-b-b-b-boun-bouncing between the bumpers. Ditto ringing bells, blinking lights, flippers flapping, the coil of the spring wrapped tight on the plunger. Let’s play!

I even salute that the poem is totally derivative. In this regard, I actually, really hope that Karasick’s a trend setter. Every poet should write something a la Bok’s “Ubu Hubbub.” What a mad anthology that would be!

The big fun that is “Sure Plays A Mean Pin Ball” also serves to remind me that big fun might be the over-riding characteristic of Karasick’s poetry, at least as I read it in Amuse Bouche. And that’s a quality I celebrate.

For all my kvetching in the paragraphs above, I’m pretty certain of one thing, and happy about it too: if today or in the future I were to knock on Karasick’s poem-door, and ask (assuming appropriate familiarity),
“Can Adeena come out and play?”
I have little doubt that the answer would be,
and that right quick she’d be out on the porch and just like that she’d lexically skip and cartwheel down the street and around the corner, heading right to wherever it was that the words promised the most fun that day.

I’d happily try to keep up with Karasick, just to see where she went and what kind of fun she got into. Even if she stumbled a bit, or took a wrong turn or two along the way, I’m sure it’d be, for my mind, a real good, a most interesting, time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nice to Meet You . . .

. . . Now Get The Hell Outta My House!

An Introduction to the Prose Poem
Edited by Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham
(Firewheel Editions, 2009)

So sorry and fair warning: this here’s a rant.

It’s a rant born of love, the love of prose poetry. I’ve several shelves here full of books made up entirely or predominantly of such poems. I generally read from one of those collections every day. Prose poetry sends me.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem – a 300 page book containing almost 150 examples of the genre, and which uses the work of about 140 different poets – ought to enthrall me. I bought it immediately upon laying eyes on it yesterday during my lunch hour, and started reading it on the BART ride home. I read last night too, finishing (and re-reading) in the early hours of this morning.

And as I read, I got mad. Not mad-love mad, or mad with glee, just mad. Really mad. You see, despite having a total of approximately 30 pages of prefatory material, the book’s editors say nothing about why they selected any of the writers or poems. And so, when it became clear that the book extensively omits classic and key works and poets of the genre of which it purports to be an elementary primer, I began to puzzle.



And, in short order, conclude.

There’s no polite way to say this. An Introduction to the Prose Poem wrongs, and deeply, the key poems and poets of the genre it tries to serve.


An anthology or gathering of poetry ain’t worth anything if it doesn’t include some explanation of how and why the selections were made. Ideally, an anthology will also acknowledge its limitations, including who was left out. The great poetry anthology editors do one or both of these things. For example, Donald Allen has a four page preface to The New American Poetry (1960) that at least tries to explain how the selections came about.

Even better are Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, whose A Controversy of Poets (1965) includes dueling post-scripts that shed considerable light on their selections. Kelly also appends a roster of three dozen poets not included in the book. He specifically directs attention to those poets, stating an anthology of comparable merit could be derived from their work.

Revolution Of The Word (1974), Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology of American avant-garde poetry from 1914-1945, similarly offers both a detailed editorial philosophy and a supplementary list of 30 poets that could have been included in the book. There’s even a brief supplement to the supplemental list, concerning the poets of the blues tradition.

Finally – and these are just examples, please remember – Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree (1986) includes in its lengthy preface a very precise accounting of the selection criteria, an explanation of why certain poets were excluded, and a list of dozens of poets and writers from which “a volume of comparable worth could be constructed.”


Okay, let me turn directly to the matter at hand: the editors of An Introduction to the Prose Poem write absolutely nothing about why they chose the poems they included. Nothing in the seven page preface, nothing in the two-dozen pages of section introductions scattered throughout the book.

Absolutely nothing!

How can this be? Authoritarian arrogance? Cowardice? Disrespect for the buyer and reader of their book? Something to hide? All the above?

I dunno why, and don’t care to guess. All I say is that the editors here swung and missed. One-two-three strikes you’re out. “Hello, good-bye, and grab some pine, meat,” as the baseball announcers sometimes say.

Every anthology omits. Without a stated editing philosophy – and without any editorial acknowledgment of what was left out – an anthology’s omissions immediately raise questions. Questions of competence, bias, and motive. If the omissions are extensive or obvious enough, those questions can sink a book, and quick, drowning it with doubts.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem, in this way, sleeps with the fishes.

Here are some of the omissions, discovered just by perusing a couple shelves of books here at home: everything, I do believe, from the 19th Century, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Andre Breton, Robert Creeley, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Jackson Mac Low, Philip Lamantia, Barbara Guest, Octavio Paz, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Kenneth Patchen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin, Lisa Jarnot, Steve McCaffery, Harryette Mullen, Bernadette Mayer, and Juliana Spahr. (Two more shelves of books of prose poems here could be gone through, and would, I am certain, yield many more names.)

We could argue, I suppose, about some of those listed, but for the most part, each of these poets has written flat-out no-doubt-about-it great, tremendous, essential prose poems. And NONE of these are included in this Firewheel Editions gathering.

An Introduction my ass!

Some of the anthology’s omissions have been pointed out by Dale Smith (click here to see; he names Williams, Creeley, Kerouac, Silliman, and Hejinian). But Smith, whose work is included in the book, cops out completely on this failure, writing “who can blame the editors, there’s just so much out there . . . .”

Well, I can blame the editors, and so should you. There’s no editing philosophy asserted, so for all a Dale Smith or anyone knows, the editors weren’t simply overwhelmed choices, but are ignorant of the work left out. I’ll blame ‘em for that. Or maybe the editors know that work, but consider it no good. I’ll blame ‘em for that too. But even if the choices were overwhelming, I’ll blame them for simply throwing up their hands and taking whatever was easy or close at hand. Unless you just want to give the editors a total pass, there’s no excusing not including work by so many great prose poets without a word about what you’ve done.

And what do you say about a so-called Introduction to the prose poem that includes one by John Ashbery, but not an excerpt from his Three Poems (1972), perhaps the seminal book of prose poems from the last fifty years?

I say get outta here!

I don’t care that the book is simply An Introduction, with the indefinite article maybe implying that it’s just one of many possible approaches. That’s true, but no “introduction” to the genre worthy of that label, no matter how elementary, can leave out so many greats, so many essential examples of the genre. Especially with no explanation of why that was done.

I further reject that the works which could be selected was in any way limited by the categories (e.g., “Object Poems,” “Flash Poems,” “Surrealistic Imagery,” “Monologue,” “Prose Poems about Prose Poems”) which serve as the book’s organizing principle. First, there are two dozen freakin’ categories. That’s plenty of pigeon-holes to insert just about any square peg, if you catch my drift. Secondly, the editors could have – should have, if they in any way wish to exalt the imaginative in writing – added another category, called something like “Prose Poems That Just Are,” and used that to include the classics that perhaps are (to their everlasting credit) unclassifiable.

Nor would I agree that the editors strategy of focusing on types of prose poems somehow justifies ignoring so many greats of the genre, or not explaining why the examples chosen were included. The book’s title isn’t An Introduction to Types of the Prose Poem.

I probably should mention that according to the small print in the “Acknowledgments” section in the back of the book, more than one-third of the book’s selections (54 of 141) originally appeared in Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics. Perhaps you know that ‘zine. Its editor is – oh wait a minute – the same as one of the editors of An Introduction.

Nothing in particular against the poets, all contemporary, that have appeared in that 'zine – I greatly enjoy some of their work (for example, Susan Briante = yes!) – but what a coinkidink! And the publisher of An Introduction – here we go again – is the same as that which publishes Sentence. Double coinkidink!!

So anyway there’s plenty from Sentence, and also, how about that, nine pages of poems by the editors, but no excerpt from The New Spirit, no Ketjak, no My Life, no Soluble Fish, no Illuminations, no Coolidge, no Waldrop, no Duncan, no . . . oh no oh no oh no.

I also need to mention the curiously limited history of the prose poem that’s a part of the preface. The editors actually assert that a 1976 anthology edited by Michael Benedikt “established a history and tradition for the prose poem,” and imply that such work has taken off ever since.

Hmmmm. By which I mean, as my Nonna (grandmother) used to say (please here imagine her beautiful sharp, rich, loud Sicilian-accented voice): “Wake Up!”

Specifically, no mention is made of the Charles Henri Ford edited “A Little Anthology of The Poem In Prose,” a wide-ranging 70 page gathering of prose poetry, both historical and contemporary, that closed out New Directions 14 (1953). That annual was perhaps the stellar showcase of its era. Nor is one word written about “The New Sentence” and associated prose poetry. Have the editors ever read, or even heard about, Barrett Watten’s This, in particular issue 6 (1975), entirely given over to such poems?

And as I’ve already mentioned, there’s Ashbery’s Three Poems from 1972. And long before that, the modernists, including among others Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), Williams’ Kora in Hell (1920), and the many prose poems published in the late 1920s by Eugene Jolas and Harry Crosby, ex-pats in Paris.

Later, in the early 1960s, Karl Shapiro published The Bourgeois Poet, a collection of prose poems, and by that time both Kenneth Patchen had published, and Russell Edson was starting to, write what I'll call prose poems of quirky vignettes. Philip Lamantia published prose poems in the 1950s and within his 1970 book, The Blood of the Air. There are certainly other examples. My point, here and via the two paragraphs immediately above: for those who looked about even a little, and to those actually writing poems, there was a history, tradition, and practice long before the mid-1970s anthology deemed crucial by the editors of An Introduction.

Look, there are great prose poems in An Introduction to the Prose Poem. Poetry (usually a single selection) by Francis Ponge, George Kalamaras, Joe Brainard (a very short excerpt from I Remember, plus one other), John Yau, Russell Edson, Rachel Loden, Christian Bok (snippets from two chapters of Eunoia), Gertrude Stein (“Susie Asado”), and John Olson, for example. Each of these writers’ prose poems are an almost constant presence in my (reading) life. Hey, go buy the books of these poets, or get them from a library. Do the same for the books of some of the others in An Introduction, and the books that have the poems, the great, key prose poems, that the editors left out.

But please, don’t buy An Introduction to the Prose Poem. I paid twenty-six bucks for the book, plus tax, and I regret it. The editors’ silence regarding what they did, and the book’s omissions, shouldn’t be rewarded. Not at any price.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Reading Report . . .

Rachel Loden
August 6, 2009
BookShop West Portal
San Francisco

Oh what a wondrous story! This past Thursday night (August 6th) here in San Francisco, Rachel Loden – author of Hotel Imperium (1999) and Dick of the Dead (2009) – gave her first public reading in – wait for it here, please – more than thirty-five years!

And she was magnificent! It was as if she’d never missed a beat, as if her last public reading had been just a few days before, not back in the early 1970s. There were about forty of us who witnessed this grand event, filling the folding chairs (with some standing in the back too) in the brightly lit bookstore located just west of Twin Peaks in the City, on a street that serves as the shopping hub for a couple neighborhoods. San Francisco poet D.A. Powell was also on the bill, and he must be given a huge thanks here, for as Loden explained it was he who invited her to read.

As I think you’ll agree from my report immediately below, the fact that Loden is reading again in public is great news if you love to hear poetry. This is particularly true for those in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, where Loden has scheduled additional readings later this or in the coming months (dates and links are provided at the end of this post). But first, my report.


Loden began her reading Thursday night with “Miss October,” the first poem in Dick of the Dead. The poem has 36 lines, in nine stanzas of four lines each. Loden in the poem sharply pokes at the cultural myth of the playmate and its avatar Hugh Hefner. And yet it is more complicated than just that, since there is an overlay, to say the least, of death and desire. Through it all is the exuberant play of Loden, a sparkling, brainy-in-the-best sense, beautiful older woman, voicing a poem titled “Miss October” that begins,
If I have to be a playmate
in my time on earth
I want to be the girl
Of drifting leaves . . .
I mean, it’s a turning-of-the-tables delight of the highest order. Loden (or the speaker in her poem) is the antithesis of the air-brushed, fabricated and dumbed-down for the male masses Playboy centerfold. From the poem’s first lines, the audience tuned in to this twist, turned on to it actually, and zoomed away with Loden and her words.

We went with her all the way through “Miss October,” including especially in the following very barbed lines, from near the poem’s end:
Soon all Hef’s dreaming

Will be ash, his favorite pipe
And smoking jacket,
Last vial of Viagra
Safely under glass

At the Smithsonian

This got a big laugh from most in attendance. And who wouldn’t bust up? That’s one funny image, or series of them. The idea of the jacket and vial in “the Smithsonian” perfectly suggests the depth of our cultural acceptance of all things Playboy. And even more, it’s a scary-funny image, in that while it seems absurd at first, that thought (of how impossible it seems) is quickly followed (at least in my mind) by the idea that Hef’s shit might actually end up entombed at our national museum.

Please also note the stanza break (the double space), and thus the slight pause that heightens the comedy, before the “Smithsonian” punch line. And the music in the phrase “vial of Viagra.” Loden nailed the reading of these lines, the timing of and the alliterative spark in them. It was a great opening poem.


Loden next read “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” also from Dick of the Dead. This is one of her by now, at least to readers of her poetry, almost famous Nixon poems. Here, the voice in the poem is Nixon himself. He muses aloud to former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, or more precisely to the broken statue of Brezhnev while in the Moscow-area monument park referred to by the poem’s title.

The Loden-Nixon voice in the poem, as read last Thursday night, was dead-on. I – and the others audience it seemed to me, given the reactions during the poem – especially latched onto the couple of lines that include Nixonian expletives. In this regard, here are the two couplets with which the poem begins:
Sometimes I like to think about Leonid Brezhnev
whose white marble torso stands here dreaming

in the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments. Leonid,
I say, it’s Dick. Where are your goddamn legs?
That last sentence is just irresistible. Or at least it was to us at BookShop West Portal the other night. Notice also the ground Loden covers in these four short lines, the concision and elegance of the set up. It’s one-two-three-four and just like that we have the speaker (Nixon), his addressee (Brezhnev), the locale and the musings (voiced aloud, of course, by Loden in her reading) of Mr. “I am not a crook” himself.

That kind of full-on approach, which if I were to label (complete with hyphens) I’d call let’s-not-waste-time-here-there’s-a-lot-to-say, fills “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments,” with rich details. Here are the last four lines, which when read the other night by Loden, just killed (remember, the poem’s voice is Nixon):
I’m late to catch an Elks convention shambling
through my library in Yorba Linda, California,

laden with cheap “Elvis Meets Nixon” keychains
and a queer uneasiness they cannot place.

Hearing these lines read aloud, the mind travels, more like zips, from the Elks to Yorba Linda, to those goofy keychains and the queer uneasiness, all of course in the company of Nixon and Loden. It was invigorating fun.


Loden next read five poems from Hotel Imperium, her 1999 collection for which she, as she remarked, had not read from in public when it came out or since. I’m not going to detail each poem here (the “set-list” is appended below). However, I will mention two of them, and use the two to discuss what I feel are a couple important characteristics of Loden’s poetry and her approach or style when reading aloud.

The first poem Loden read from Hotel Imperium was “My Exchange.” It’s a scathing, smart, and somewhat prescient take on things economic (the poem’s epigraph is Alan Greenspan’s comment, regarding the markets, “irrational exuberance”). The characteristic I’ll emphasis here is Loden’s voice. The sound of it. It is musical and natural and just works perfectly with her poems. When Loden, near the end of “My Exchange,” read aloud the sentences/lines:
                        Oh irrational exuberance,

you make me weak! Let me lie among
the fallen orders, vermilion petals at my feet.

the satire was utterly convincing and – here’s my main point here – the satire was delicious, as Loden’s firm, clear, nicely ranging voice made it seem the lines were almost sung. This effect, of course, was helped by the near rhyme of “weak” and “feet” in the lines.

But let me say more about Loden’s “ranging voice.” In this poem, as throughout the reading, the tones and timbres varied. It wasn’t sing-songy at all, but was musical and nuanced, so much so that sitting there listening I leapt to the conclusion – which Loden confirmed to me after the reading – that she’d done some singing (in fact, she said as a child she wanted to be a singer). In my opinion, she has an innate skill for sounds, a great ear for how the words will sound aloud.

The last of the Hotel Imperium poems Loden read – “My Test Market” – serves to highlight a couple other characteristics about Loden’s work that came across Thursday night: it’s smart, and it can be hard. “My Test Market” is a short poem (18 lines) – now imagine you’re sitting there, and it’s Loden’s beautiful voice you are hearing – that includes the words “Olestra,” “qanisqineq,” and “Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.”

Wow. Now, there might be other poems in this world that include the two words (the name) “Vigdís Finnbogadóttir,” but I’m pretty certain none of them were being read aloud within let’s say a couple thousand miles (at least!) of BookShop West Portal.

The only hint about this and the other strange words in Loden’s “My Test Market” was in the poem’s first line, which begins, “Let’s fly off to Finland . . . .” But even with that tip, the unusual words as Loden spoke them were a mystery to me. And as I’ve written before, mystery is not a problem for me, and in fact is a mark of something special, because, as the title of the old radio serial puts it, “I Love A Mystery.”

I loved that Loden read “My Test Market” and other poems with similarly challenging vocabulary or constructs. Part of a good poetry reading is getting one’s head spun, and Loden’s work delivers plenty of that kind of action.

Especially interesting are poems – and here “My Test Market” again serves as a great example – that not only spin thy head via the unfamiliar or mysterious, but also have moments of great beauty. Consider please the deep, yearning, I’ll suggest elegiac glory embodied in the question spread out over four lines that come just about in the middle of Loden’s poem:
                                                . . . Where
are the snows that make no sense

so early in the morning, when the snow
is blue and blowing on the steppes?

Snows that “make no sense” and snow “blue and blowing on the steppes” (the latter of which works equally well if only the homonym “steps” is heard) stuck with me for a long time Thursday night, and since; these images drift and stick in the mind.


After “My Test Market” Loden then returned to her just-published book, Dick of the Dead, out of which she read for the rest of the night, a total of eight more poems. The first of these final eight, let me say it just like this, was an almost unbelievable Jesu Christu rip-snorter.

That poem, titled “A Redressed Poet That Seems Living, How to Make Him Sing” consists of eleven relatively long-lined couplets. Loden explained it was inspired by reading an on-line recipe (the word “redressed” is borrowed here from the vernacular of the kitchen). The poem details just exactly what needs to be done to make a poet sing; Loden mentioned it was for all cranky and bitter poets out there.

“A Redressed Poet” is grotesque (read: hilarious), appalling (read: rollicking), and often downright disgusting (read: priceless). How is the poet who seems living, made to sing? Here are the first three of the twenty-two lines in Loden’s poem:
First, thrust a Quill into his brain from above, or else
slit his throat, as is done in Jerusalem. Cut his skin

neatly from his Tongue unto his Rump and pull it off.
And folks, I kid you not a whit, the poem from this point only gets wilder, by which I mean the things advised to be done to the poet to make him sing proceed steadily to all-hell-breaks-loose crazy! For example, “an apparatus of Iron” appears, along with the directive to “shove this through” the poet’s spine and legs, and even that Sadean shocker ain’t the end of it, not even close. May I make a suggestion? You gotta buy Dick of the Dead, if only to read this poem, really!

Loden read “A Redressed Poet” in a mostly deadpan fashion, as if she were almost just giving a recipe to a friend, but key here please on the “mostly” and “almost.” You see, while she read the poem essentially “straight,” her voice knew exactly what it was saying, and what the words when heard would do (induce rollicking hilarity) to the listeners. Loden’s voice had a full smile in it, a mischievousness exactly perfect for the delivery of (and listening to) the poem. The impact, on me at least, was strong. Almost pee my pants strong!


Loden next read “Affidavit,” a very short and powerful poem based on a police detective’s official account of a murder. I recently posted an essay about this poem (click here to go, if you please). Loden on Thursday night very kindly mentioned my name and the post. Not only that, she was kind enough to ask me before the reading (I showed up early to say hello, having never met her before) if she could mention the post.

That sort of consideration, I think, stems from a careful awareness, a sensitivity, that seems to mark much of the work of poets whose work I love. That awareness, I believe, is reflected fully in “My Cupboards,” another poem read by Loden in the last half of Thursday’s reading. Loden explained that “My Cupboards,” is “about writing poems, or not writing them” (my quotation may be a bit off, but the essence is correct).

“My Cupboards” is a compact thing (six couplets, with almost every one of the twelve lines only three or four words long). The conciseness serves its subject matter: it’s about how sometimes writing is hard, how the hoo-doo magic of the muse(s) sometimes, when it comes to making a poem, can seem a ridiculous fantasy. I love the title too, with its associations of domestic life, a trope that is developed in the poem itself.

What I love most in “My Cupboards” is the language and images, which are rich in connotations of the un-magic. I was going to type some excerpts here, but heck, it’s so great, and tight, I can easily do the whole thing, and it’s the only way to do it justice:

No tincture of seahorse.
No cloudberry poultice.

Don’t look there
when pixels spill

over the drawers, blow
loose letters

down the stairs.
Bare, as they say. No

one to sweep
the word-hoard

into Saturday. No
broom. No sorceress.


Loden ended her reading with the title poem from Dick of the Dead. As might be surmised, it’s a poem in the voice of Nixon. The poem has seven couplets, and each ties together, to be a bit cheap about it, the badness of Nixon with – at least as Nixon imagines it – that of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and similar contemporary figures.

Hearing Loden read “Dick of the Dead” was a revelation. The couplet form gives the poem a nursery rhyme quality, an effect greatly enhanced by Loden’s musical voice. And yet the words themselves have an edge, a very spooky, scary and at points raw edge. Here are the first three couplets, (remember: the voice is Nixon; the italicized lines, I believe, should be “heard” as Nixon speaking to himself):
Sent out the crows to the four corners, did I?
     Cheney’s heart is skipping for me.

Swept sandstorm with the dead ones, did I?
     Rumsfeld’s spectral legions know me.

Prayed on the White House floor with Henry?
     Dr. Rice is kneeling for me.

The final four couplets have a similar tone and involve, among other things, a black candle at a door, the sedating of Martha Mitchell, the Lincoln bedroom, a strapped-on lie buggering heaven, Colin Powell’s balls, and, in the final couplet, a return of the crows seen (heard) in the first line. The strap-on buggering and the balls certainly give a charge, especially when heard aloud, that wickedly contrasts with the poem’s nursery rhyme feel.

Hearing about the crows – and hearing, strongly, in Loden’s voice the sense of a good-witch who knows well, very well, her way around all things wicked – made me think a bit of Helen Adam. Adam, a great Bay Area poet from the 1950s (and after), renewed the grand tradition of Scottish ballads and musical verse in poems that sometimes (often) involved quite horrifying matters – goblins, human-eating crows, woman who kill off men, etc.

Adam’s ballads and other poems are far more narrative than Loden’s, but both poets share some of the same vital and, to me invigorating spirit. A spirit full of piercing intelligence, a very wide worldliness, a willingness to mix it up with the down, dirty, and wicked ways of the world, and a very musical way with words.


While she inscribed and signed a couple books after the reading, I told Loden how much I enjoyed hearing her, and how it didn’t at all seem she’d not read for decades. Loden explained that she practices, a lot, by reading poems out loud not only to herself, but to her husband, daughter, and grandchildren (the latter a toddler and an infant).

That folks, is one family I consider mighty blessed! Similar to how I consider myself blessed to have been present, on August 6, 2009, for the re-appearance in public, after so many years, of Rachel Loden’s poetry.


Rachel Loden
August 6, 2009
BookShop West Portal

San Francisco

(in the order read)
from Dick of the Dead:

Miss October
In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments

from Hotel Imperium:

My Exchange
Premillennial Tristesse
Variations on a Theme by Woody Allen
Revenge, Like Habanero Peppers
My Test Market

from Dick of the Dead:

A Redressed Poet That Seems Living, How to Make Him Sing
My Subject
Lapland Not Actually the Country of Lesbians
The Richard Nixon Snow Globe
My Cupboards
My Night with George Costanza
Dick of the Dead

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Golden Anniversary Time Travelin' . . .

A Trip Back
. . .
Fifty Years Ago

. . .
Four “Little” Poetry Magazines
San Francisco


Fifty years ago I was about to turn three. So this here golden anniversary celebration of four “little” poetry magazines from 1959 San Francisco is not a trip down memory lane. It’s an attempt to time-travel, to re-animate a few moments from back then, and salute a few do-it-yourself poetry ‘zines from the late ‘50s Frisco. Okay? Seat belts buckled? Let’s go!


issue number 4
(November, 1959)
8.5 by 11 inches
editor: Jack Spicer

Little poetry magazines, mimeographed ones at least, are rarely as striking – gorgeous, I say – as this: J (yes, just the letter “J”), issue number 4 . The “secret” of the beauty here, I submit, is the hand-colored cover. The rich greens and blues make it sing, and sing sweet.

And there’s text on that cover too, almost hidden, cleverly disguised as part of the illustration, with key information about the magazine hidden further still within the repeated and sometimes swerving lines and clusters of “J”s (the cover image above can be enlarged by clicking on it).

Here’s a close up of the hidden information, taken from the right side of the cover:

Do you see, or at least see that even when magnified as here it’s still hard to see, how the information (the magazine’s name, issue number, and submission directions) is displayed? Here’s the text of the cover excerpt above, with the pertinent data highlighted:

Now that’s an occult presentation!

As nicely told by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian (at pages 164 et seq. of Poet Be Like God), the magazine J was a major project for Jack Spicer in 1959. The issue pictured above, J-4, is generally dated November, 1959, so it is actually the latest of the four depicted and discussed in this post.

There’s much great poetry in the issue, including by Robert Duncan, a poem by Spicer himself, an excerpt from George Stanley’s prose poem “Tete Rouge,” and others. My favorites, when I look through the issue as I write this up, are three short poems by Richard Brautigan, printed on a single page.

The first of these Brautigan poems is classic Brautigan, which means I never seem to tire of it. There’s concision and whimsy, dead-pan fantastica, a scene surreal yet matter-of-fact. The poem reads as a simple Objectivist-style report and a most impossible tale. Careful, and outlandish.

All of which, of course, makes it mighty funny. Funny and unforgettable.

Here it is, as it looks on the page in J-4, with yellow paper and black mimeographed typography (click to enlarge, if you please, though I hope it’s entirely legible as is):

Oh yes oh yes oh yes oh yes: it must be Halloween in the sea!


The Anagogic & Paideumic Review
issue number one
(September, 1959)
8.5 by 11 inches
editor: Sheri Martinelli

Sheri Martinelli, particularly in the late 1950s, was a friend and supporter of the Saint Elizabeth-ed Ezra Pound (that’s a drawing of him on the mimeo-ed cover above). She also had connections stretching to the late ‘40s and early ‘50s Greenwich Village and the likes of Anais Nin, film-maker Maya Deren, Charlie Parker, Marlon Brando, all the Beats (particularly Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and Philip Lamantia), and Bukowski. She also wrote (poetry and prose) and painted.

Here are two photos of Martinelli: the first is a composite, taken in 1946 by a member of Anais Nin’s circle; the second dates from the mid-1950s (all per Martinelli biographer Stephen Moore):

Sheri Martinelli (1946)

Sheri Martinelli (mid-1950s)

The Anagogic & Paideumic Review – which ultimately ran a total of six issues – states it was edited out of 15 Lynch Street in San Francisco. That’s a small street, running parallel to the Broadway Tunnel, just up a hill from North Beach.

The half-dozen or so poems in this Issue One of The Anagogic & Paideumic Review are decidedly “non-beat,” and don’t seem particularly memorable today. The exception is Sheri Martinelli’s own “Trees ‘n Seas.” It’s a fifteen line poem (with most lines containing only a couple of words) printed down the left side of a full page, within an illustration of a wave (all initialed “SM”), which is then followed at page-bottom by a reported colloquy between Martinelli and Pound concerning how the poem came about and what Ez said about it once it was done (click to enlarge in a separate window):

The poem’s final four lines:
Sea mists.

Wood burns.

Once kissed

ever yearns.
are in part discussed in the end-of-the-page colloquy. Martinelli reports (in a line barely visible on the magazine page, due to faint printing) that when shown the poem Pound stated, “The last two lines . . . (silence) . . . poetry.” On this point, I can’t argue with ol’ Ez.

The magazine also includes a few essays, of interest because they reflect certain key interests or concerns among some San Francisco poets of the time: economic exploitation by the powerful, the corrosive power of the state, and the influence of Asian traditions.

Specifically, there’s a review of Brooks Adams’ The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895), a bracing theory of history and critique of capitalism that had been re-published just a few years before. The reviewer – one “Lady Lee” – points out that in Adams’ book, “every historical episode given makes it all the more clear how economic influence operates and drives out the imaginative mind.” As Lee puts it, “General Electric and the Ford Motor Company still exist today but there is no trace of the spirit of Edison or Ford in them.”

The magazine also re-prints Pound’s “Bureaucracy: The Flail of Jehova,” first published in 1928 (and re-published since, including in New Directions’ Selected Prose). Although Pound gets (no surprise) crack-potty, the essay has some great lines, including the simple declarative ain’t no-doubt-where-he’s-coming-from opening sentence, “Bureaucrats are a pox.”

There’s also a two-page essay on Confucius, by one “Lee Lady” (yes the reverse of the name of the reviewer mentioned above, suggesting it’s perhaps a pseudonym (for Martinelli herself?)). The essay details certain Confucian principles, including emphasizing the importance of a person’s “individual nature, which is never exactly the same for any two” people.

The essay on Confucius also discusses three of the English translations then available, notably calling the one by Pound “the most precise” but sometimes “confusing and obscure.” The following wise advice is given, advice I think equally applicable when reading poetry rendered into English from a different language: “[I]n the case of any difficult text which one must study in translation, one should have the benefit of several translations to compare.” I endorse that approach, but also suggest having at hand the original text and an appropriate dual-language dictionary, to translate a bit yourself.


issue number 4
8 x 9.5 inches
Editor: Wallace Berman

There’s enough on the web – click here or here, for example, such that I don’t need to say much about the great artist Wallace Berman or his art-mail / poetry magazine Semina and its wondrous run of nine issues over ten years (1955-1964).

Issue four (pictured above), as with many of other issues of Semina, features a set of hand-printed inserts on pieces of paper or cards of various sizes, all tucked loose-leaf into a pocket glued to the inside of the folded cardboard covers. The poems, per the information printed on the front of the pocket, were hand-set (by Berman) in San Francisco, 1959 “on [gotta love this next adjective] beat 5 x 8 Excelsior handpress.” That little handpress would have looked something like this:

That’s almost a poem, a poem-object, onto itself, yes?

The front of the inside pocket on this Semina also states that Berman took the photo on the cover, titled “Wife.” It also has printed on it Berman’s guiding principle, in italics, such that it looks very similar to this:
Art is Love is God
That is an inspiring slogan: O Creative Imagination Made Real = ARDOR / RAPTURE = Holy Absolute Infinite!

Of the approximately two dozen poems in this Semina, the familiar names include Blake and Yeats, and (contemporaries of Berman) Stuart Perkoff, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bremser, John Weiners, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Ron Loewinsohn, and David Meltzer. Throw in a bunch of other poems, and a small brochure with black-and-white stills from a Berman film, and it’s a very solid issue.

My favorite poem in the issue is an untitled one by Philip Lamantia, with the first line, “Ah Blessed Virgin Mary”(it also appeared in Lamantia’s book Ekstasis, published in 1959 too). Here’s an image of the poem, scanned from the small sheet insert in Semina 4, followed by the text:

Ah Blessed Virgin Mary
pray for me I live in you
to sleep in God
and die in God
to praise His Holy Name

O Blessed Virgin Mary
ask Jesus to embed in me
a sword of sorrow
to kill my sin
my sin that wounds His Wounds

Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven
as I look to you
         Queen    mirror
of the heavenly court
This poem, as I remember from talking to Philip in 1999 or 2000, has a harrowing mid-1950s incident in Mexico as one of its back stories or starting points. Lamantia was stung by a scorpion, and had a severe reaction.

For several hours a high fever raged, and off and on a semi-coma settled over him. Lamantia levitated off the bed on which he lay, actually or via his blistered imagination (hey, I wasn’t there). When he would awake, a cry from within would arise, though from precisely where he could not tell, and he would call, repeatedly, “Madonna.” He had never called “Madonna” before, and in fact had been entirely anti-Catholic since rebelling against the tradition years before, as a young boy.

Of course, none of this story is told in the poem, which simply and directly invokes the Virgin Mary. However, the poem burns with the intensity of la picadura del escorpión. Nowhere is this intensity more dramatic than the first line of the last stanza, in which Lamantia asks Mary to:
Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven
which is a most memorable statement of resolute religious verve. And via the equivalencies of Berman’s guiding principle, it might be read too as reflecting a determined passion for love and creativity too.

In this regard, several years ago the UC Berkeley Art Museum exhibited work by Jay DeFeo, a great artist from San Francisco and the Bay Area who first received public notice in the late 1950s. One of those wall-mounted information cards at the museum explained that DeFeo had the above-displayed Lamantia poem (a manuscript or fair copy version, presumably) at her side in the late ‘50s while she worked on her huge (four feet tall by eight feet long) graphite on paper drawing titled, “The Eyes.” Although this drawing did not appear in Berman’s Semina (though DeFeo and he were close friends), I can’t resist sharing here an image of the work, at the close of my discussion of Berman’s magazine, given that its intensity matches almost precisely that of Lamantia’s poem, and of Berman’s precept that Art is Love is God:

Jay DeFeo
The Eyes


issue number nine
(September 18, 1959)
8.5 x 11 inches
Editors: Bob Kaufman & Bill Margolis

How’s that for a funky cover drawing, even if it does depict – as it states at the bottom – the Coffee Gallery, a popular North Beach spot at the time?

Beatitude began in 1959 and in its original incarnation ran 16 issues until 1960 when it went out (until it returned in a new version) in relatively grand style: a perfect-bound anthology published by City Lights. A preface to that anthology explains, “[t]he original Beatitude magazine was conceived by Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman and John Kelly or someone at Cassandra’s coffee house in May 1959.” That preface also states the ‘zine was a:
weekly miscellany of poetry and jazz designed to extol the beauty and promote the beatific life among the various mendicants, neo-existentialists, christs, poets, painters, musicians and other inhabitants and observers of North Beach, San Francisco, California, United States of America . . . .
Issue 9 also includes a report or preface by the editors, and it’s so . . .well, it seems so much of its time, I just have to paste it up right here (please click to enlarge on a new page, if you can’t fully make it out to red here):

There are many great poems in the issue, including Philip Whalen’s “Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” an important and substantial poem that gloriously fills four full-sized pages and incorporates, among other things, quotations from Heraclitus, Empedocles, Buddha, the poet’s father and grandmother, a sign seen on a street, and an unnamed child apparently overheard in a train car. The other poets in the issue who probably would be recognized by most today include Ginsberg, Brautigan, Lamantia, Meltzer, Ron Padgett, Peter Orlovsky, Glen Coffield, and Bob Kaufman.

The poem by Kaufman is especially noteworthy. First, I don’t believe it has been re-published, ever. These sorts of “almost lost” poems (one of the Lamantia poems in the issue similarly has not yet been re-published) fascinate me; it’s like finding a dusty box in the back of a drawer: it might hold a treasure, or at least something really neat.

The Kaufman poem is also shaped, the only one in the issue and not that common in general (though Lamantia had published some in Ekstasis in 1959). The configuration of Kaufman’s poem, I think, is particularly significant, as it reflects again the religious instincts, or the use of religious iconography, that seems to have been common among San Francisco poets at the time.

The title of Kaufman’s poem is the single word, “Five.” It presumably comes from the number of sections within the poem. It’s plain and humble, deflecting almost all attention to the words of the actual poem. And the words? Well, they seem . . . well, you know what, I’m just going to put it out there, and let you see (click on image of the poem to enlarge on a new page, if you please):

You know what reading this poem makes me feel like? It makes me feel just about like this:

Mount Davidson
(at 925 feet, the highest point in San Francisco)
(with 103-foot cross at its peak)


Dear readers, our little time-traveling trip has come to an end, at least for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the visits with J, The Anagogic & Paideumic Review, Semina, and Beatitude, vintage 1959. Thanks much for coming along, and here’s wishing you a great do-it-yourself time!


Golden Gate Bridge ------------Thelonius Monk (circa 1959) on a cable car------------Golden Gate Bridge