Saturday, September 26, 2009


Ahoy, Mates!

The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, a new book of poetry by Will Alexander, is here!

The front cover illustration, by Alexander himself, is imaged above. Here’s full cover:

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time. It’s Alexander’s sixth poetry collection, his first in almost five years (since Exobiology As Goddess in January, 2005), and his first ever with New Directions, the venerable independent publisher.

I first heard of the book sometime early this year. In mid-June, publisher and bookseller Bob Arnold presented the front cover and two dozen lines on his blog, and then the book was on Amazon, listing a September 29th publication date.

In late August, an ABE bookseller listed an “advance uncorrected proof copy” for sale, which I bought. Had it priority shipped too, so it would arrive before I left for, and so I could read it on, summer vacation. And then, when I got back home in early September, a copy of the final published version was in my mailbox, sent by the publisher. I have no idea who made that happen, or how, but what a great surprise, and thanks!

So, for a month now, I’ve been reading The Sri Lankan Loxodrome. Reading and re-reading it, actually, both closely and extremely. Alexander’s book, and in particular his title poem – a seventy page dramatic monologue – is a singular achievement by a singular poet. It deeply excites and inspires. I’m certain I’ll re-read it again and again, from here on out, for as close to forever as I can get.


There are six poems in The Sri Lankan Loxodrome. The first five are relatively short, between two and seven pages each. They’re excellent, and I don’t mean to slight them, but they mostly serve to whet the appetite, to warm up the mind, for the final, title poem.

“The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” the major poem that closes the book, is as stated above a seventy page dramatic monologue. It’s in the voice of Loxodrome, a lone Sri Lankan who sails the Indian Ocean on a trawler, on a self-initiated mission to catch and de-poison sea snakes. A ghost or apparition named Gianini tries to undercut Loxodrome’s efforts, mostly via whispered accusations.

An unusual poetic premise, you say? Well, it is, and that’s not the half of it.

The sea-tale outlined above is a narrative dynamic with which Alexander explores, via Loxodrome’s monologue, matters much larger than sailing and fishing. Most vitally, the poem’s basic story gives rise to a sensational show about a super-imaginative energy and ardent spirit who remains vigorous and unyielding in a world – our world – with values, ways, systems, and people almost entirely opposed to it, and which at almost every turn seeks to subvert it.

This affirmation of the persistence of a free radical mind in a world antithetical to its existence is a tour de force. Alexander’s poem is as imaginative, stunning, memorable, and beautiful as the energy and spirit embodied by its snake-catching sailor-narrator. “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” is heroic, an off-beat but right-on and blow-you-away mini-epic. Its narrative voice Loxodrome, a poetic character like no other, will henceforth stand for all that poetry – wild purposed fierce catalytic poetry – should stand for. Loxodrome is now and forever a towering steadfast figure for the imagination, a beacon of poetic hope.


Before telling more about the poem’s substance – and laying out a few choice examples from it – a few things should be said about it and Alexander’s writing, and what it requires from you, the reader.

First, “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” is written in Alexander’s distinctive verse style, one that may challenge those unfamiliar with it. Even those who know Alexander’s work, but haven’t read him in awhile, will probably need to re-calibrate their mind’s eye and internal ear to it. I can’t resist here: to best roll with this poem about an ocean-going sailor, readers need to get their sea-legs under them.

New Directions smartly anticipates the some may be unfamiliar with Alexander’s poetic approach, given that this book may well reach a wider audience than his previous collections. Thus, the blurbs on the book’s back cover not only offer praise, but also explain a bit about Alexander’s ways with words.

Clayton Eshleman, for example, writes in his blurb that Alexander may be the first major ‘outsider artist’ in American poetry and suggests that his “self-propelled soarings evoke Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers as well as Siberian ecstasies.” This is a great capsule description, particularly the mention of the magnificent Watts Towers. Not only is Alexander a long-time Los Angeles resident, but the way he builds up accretions of words (often unusual ones, as discussed below) and lines, resulting in objects (the poems themselves) of singular almost otherworldly beauty and surprising interior strength seems exactly analogous to Rodia’s vibrant and enduring work of hand-shaped metal, concrete, colored tiles and other found objects.

The back cover also excerpts Haryette Mullen’s important nuts-and-bolts analysis of Alexander’s poetry, published in Callaloo about a decade ago, in which she states:
Alexander’s poems are unpunctuated, their expanding structures suggest that each might be read as a single very long, very complex sentence . . . a complex sentence machine turning out elaborate grammatical parallelisms, extensive series of epic catalogs, and open-ended syntax of discordant clauses and appended prepositional phrases.
This blurb doesn’t include the technical term – “hyperhypotactic” – Mullen used as a label for what she described in Alexander’s poetry. Although I understand the need to avoid such jargon in a back-cover blurb, I’ve always loved that word – hyperhypotactic – in that its alliterative oddness seemed to mirror the poetic-intense singularity of Alexander’s approach.

“The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” also challenges readers with its multitude of allusions. This too is a classic feature of Alexander’s writing. There’s much about Sri Lanka and the sea in the poem, as would be expected given its title and basic narrative. You’ll encounter, for example, Jaffna and Batticaloa (Sri Lankan cities) as well as Hydrophidae and the Mascarenes Basin (a creature and geographic feature of the ocean, respectively). Of course, and perhaps most important, there’s “Loxodrome,” a sea-navigation term which the back cover defines “as a line that crosses all meridians at the same angle, maintaining a constant compass direction, a path of constant bearing.”

But there’s also many references to matters that you wouldn’t expect to find in a poem about a Sri Lankan sailor, including geologic features of certain planets, moons, little-known constellations, obscure scientific principles, and tenets or personages related to the Buddhist, Sufi, Vedic, and Voodoo traditions, among others.

Most of these references or allusions, including those related to the sea, are VERY arcane. Larissa, pteropods, the Kerguelen Plateau, Esta Rieglio, kaferingha, Monceros the Unicorn, the Skioptic Response, Zeta Reticuli, and sila, for example, aren’t commonly blogged about or tweeted, to be a bit cheap about it. About 100 words in “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” most of them proper nouns, are asterisked in the poem, and for these Alexander provides thumbnail definitions in an end-of-the-book glossary.

On top of the glossary words are another bunch, at least a couple dozen more and possibly twice that many (depending on your vocabulary) , that you will need or want to look up in the dictionary. An extraordinary vocabulary, of course, is another long-time hallmark of Alexander’s writing. Some words used in “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” such as carking, lepton, realias, and sigil, may be familiar from his previous works, if you’ve read those. But there are plenty of others here – including for example moneran, copra, apastron, piacular, angstroms, tamasic, prokaryotics, caliginous and dromomania – that I’m guessing even fervent readers won’t know.

The many arcane references and the unusual words have a massive impact on the reader, and one that I think is key to the success of “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome.” If you are going to read the poem – and I mean REALLY read it – you must give it time and effort. It’s possible, but difficult, to rightly or completely focus on the work while toggling to the back-end glossary. Ditto if you stop every other page (on average) to look up a word or two in a dictionary. Of course, it cheats Alexander and his poem horribly to gloss over the references and words.

As such, the diligent reader will read the poem’s 70 pages more than once, maybe more than twice, and then do homework before reading it again. Such readers will learn the words in the glossary, and maybe do research on some of them. These readers will also make a list of the poem’s other unfamiliar words, and look up and learn them too.

“. . . and look up and learn them . . .”

Once the homework with the words is done, and lines can be read and pages turned without interruption, the poem comes to full life. The brilliance and inventiveness of certain of Alexander’s word choices become clear. The flow of the lines, the rhythm and music they create, plays out in full force. In addition – and this I think is key – the prepared reader, one who has put in the time and effort to learn the references and vocabulary, almost cannot help but fall into, and can surely then enter in full measure, the wor(l)d-vision created by Alexander.

When that kind of deep immersion in the text is combined with Alexander’s unpunctuated verse flow, his wave-upon-wave of words and lines, whoa wow whoa, the resulting adventure is something else.

Yep, you got it, Captain: Anchors Aweigh, Aye Aye and Very Well:

If you get your sea-legs under you, and your thought jewels polished and gleaming, “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” becomes one wondrous poem-reading experience. I devote much of the rest of this post to examples from the work, along with a bit of comment, to show you what I mean.

I am Loxodrome
whose commission is to de-poison sea snakes
to somehow bottle their arteries in clouds
all my actions being noctambulous & wary

my command
to capture them as beasts
whose colour is aurulent & xanthic
These lines, from earlier on in the poem, are the narrator, obviously, setting in place certain basics of his character and mission. Note the exotic vocabulary in the final lines of each this excerpt’s two sections.

Another excerpt, also from very early on in the poem, and a bit before the one above, suggests some of the broader and more vital aspects of Loxodrome, and how he differs from much of the world that he encounters:
I exist
not as a technical brutality
not as a monotheistic transcription
or as a terse incapable pilot splitting his axis on rocks
but the mind in its aurific degree
completely incapable of limits
incapable of forming zones of bondage
by which my tertiary compass responds to hosannas
This among other things beautifully uses of nautical-related images (pilot, rocks, degree, compass), particularly in the marvelous final phrase (allow me to repeat it):
by which my tertiary compass responds to hosannas
What a great way to tell of devotion to the fervent and holy, in the broad sense of both those words. I read the adjective “tertiary” not so much as third-rank, but in the sense used in the medical care context, where it denotes highly specialized diagnosis and treatment for the most serious conditions. Thus, the connotation here is that a “tertiary compass” is far more important and sensitive than other types.

Here’s another excerpt:
& being a Loxodrome
an incandescence who sails
it is my contention that a mongoose can love
that a crocodile is born the way virginic stars alight
burgeoning with strontium
with a perpetual form of nascence
which energizes search
In these lines, excerpted from page 33, Loxodrome tells more directly of his beliefs. It’s a classic run of Alexanderian clauses (see again Haryette Mullen’s comment above). And the images are fresh, surprising and mysterious (I don’t have to elaborate this point, unless you want to argue that others also, for example, link the birth of crocodiles and strontium burgeoning from virginic stars). Most important, I think, the lines underscore the core value, to Loxodrome (and Alexander the poet) of unusual connections and perspectives, a world far different than the one we seem to live in.

Loxodrome is so multi-faceted and fascinating that a full introduction to him and his beliefs and concerns would require approximately thirty more excerpts of a length similar to those just presented (I know because I typed them all out and just counted them). I can’t lay out all that text here in this post, I hope you understand (buy the book!). I will share a bit more below, but now I want to sketch a bit about the forces that try to subvert Loxodrome, those things that he must resist or overcome while singularly journeying the sea.


Alexander’s depiction, both via metaphor and direct statement by Loxodrome, of the entities and forces that oppose his narrator, is complex and utterly persuasive. There first is the “utter sourness” and “bacteria” of the snakes Loxodrome catches and de-poisons.

There are also the “forms of arcane treachery” engaged in by the apparition Gianini, who follows “a code of abrasive torment” and denounces Loxodrome as, among other things, “a carking public lesion” and “a leper brewed by haunted dysphonias.” This ghost, who appears and disappears throughout the poem, gives the poem some helpful tension by serving as a counterpoint to the narrator.

And also opposing Loxodrome is the world at large, by which I mean human society and culture, at least as typically found. In the poem, the locus of such opposition is sited in the Sri Lankan city of Jaffna and the residents thereof. But it’s clear that the goings on in that city, of the people there, are not an anomaly, but a kind of microcosm for the response everywhere, by most everyone, to those with the particular energies and spirit of Loxodrome.

In this regard, Loxodrome’s monologue includes within its 70 pages numerous excoriating descriptions of the limits, subversions, and ugly ways of the world. The reference in the second excerpt above to “zones of bondage” is an example. But there are many more, and they devastate when considered together. To show you, I’ve taken the liberty of lifting phrases from throughout the poem and present them (more or less) as unpunctuated prose. The words are Alexander’s / Loxodrome’s, and they concern the world, our world, of:
beclouded vibration / much like the raging of locusts didactic conundrum
the law that inverts and shatters distorted phrenic reality the reductive mental range general heresy & disjunction tedious monaural activity erroneous techniques mendacious exaggeration utilitarian connivance irregular dromomania enigmatic stratagems bloodless discourse
tenacious pageantry inclement mythos dysfunctional edicts
forms which seek to congeal obscurity imprisoning comprehension
a criminal tolerance for subterfuge vocabulary ensconced within habit
a fixed curriculum the wayward strife of the magistrates
oblivious theoretics malefically inspired fixity
confounding disaffection with being

general debility & Nystagamus
maniacal emptiness
stupefied indifference
It’s a sobering, angrifying compilation, in its totality a powerhouse putdown of the world that opposes the poetic imagination. Even lifted out of context, there’s great poetry in these phrases, most of which pair one or more adjectives with a noun.

However, the poem’s best shot to the solar plexus of our sometimes rotten existence is contained in the following line and one-half of exceptionally vivid verse, in which Loxodrome tells of the place (our world):
. . . where a broken human grammar is prolonged
by graceless deceptional roulette


I cannot end this post with an excerpt regarding “broken human grammar” and “graceless deceptional roulette,” no matter how accurately and beautifully those images convey the worst of our existence. Ending the post on such a note would be untrue to “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” since in the poem Loxodrome, the spirit-figure of super-imagination, not only stays the course despite the ugliness and uncaring machinations of the quotidian world, but thrives.

As such, I leave you with a set of lines, from page 62, that reflects the ampleness and beauty of the imaginative spirit. The first line neatly suggests two aspects of the ocean’s power, and it’s a phrase I hope to remember whenever I’m lucky enough to look at the sea. But it’s the last two lines of the following excerpt which I find especially stunning. Although the lines are spoken in the voice of Loxodrome, I think they might apply to us all, at least in those rare moments of full invigorating keen mindful poetic (including poem-reading) inspiration (and more!):
I contend that waves are both dragons & purity

a magician from the vitreous “upper waters”
a trajectory of potentia
allowing me to feel
Mesopotamian & sagacious

“allowing me to feel / Mesopotamian & sagacious”


Will Alexander
photo by Sheila Scott-Wilkinson
from back cover of
The Sri Lankan Loxodrome



Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Truly Trippy Prose Poem . . .

(Frontier Press, 1971)

The book’s arguably not poetry. It’s written in prose: a 65 page fictional travel memoir, of a kind, with elements of fantasy and sci-fi, all narrated in the first person by an imagined character named Selvage Immanuel Hodgkins.

It’s also difficult to find. Never re-printed since it’s 1971 publication (which followed a magazine appearance in 1970), there currently are only about a half-dozen used copies for sale (priced between four and twenty-five dollars). Get one, I advise, and quick. Otherwise, you’ll be left trying to borrow one from somebody’s private collection (good luck) or from a library (it’s only in about 100, all but a few associated with universities). [Note: please see the update, at end of post, regarding the availability of Cities in an omnibus collection.]

And yet despite, or maybe because of it ambiguous character given its prose, and somewhat occult status, Cities – a most fantastic work by Robert Kelly – ought to be celebrated as poetry, and more widely read. And thus the mission here today, in the glade: to show and tell a bit about Cities and its prose poetry, and perhaps encourage some to go out a find it.

For my discovery of Cities, Larry Fagin, who about four years ago included the book on his list of poetry neglectorinos, must be given ninety percent of the credit. The other half of the credit goes to Ron Silliman, who at that time published Fagin’s list on his blog, thus bringing it, and Kelly’s book, to my attention.

When Fagin listed Kelly’s Cities as a poetry neglectorino, he remarked, and I think tellingly, “I know, it’s prose, but. . . .”

The key there is the “but.” I don’t exactly know what Fagin meant by that qualifier. However, by including the book on his list even while acknowledging its character as prose, it seems clear that Fagin considers Cities a kind of poem. I agree. Kelly’s book is poetry, despite being a fictional first person memoir told in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters/sections. More specifically, it’s a prose poem, rich with heightened attention to and use of language, and passages that burn with imaginative energy.

The opening sentence of Cities, a question posed by the fictional narrator to himself and to the book’s readers, reveals much about the narrator and the work’s subject matter, but much more about the richness of Robert Kelly’s imagination and the poetic-ness of the writing:
“Where shall I take myself with my ostrich luggage and peacock pride?”
Well right away there’s poetry, yes? I mean in those two adjectives, in, between, within and arising out of those words. Yes, from two simple words poetry can flourish, and sometimes, as here, easily so.

First there’s an evocative adjective (“ostrich”) mirrored and/or echoed and/or paralleled just a few words down by an adjective (“peacock”) both evocative and metaphorical. Part of the wonder of these two words arise from being drawn from the world of ground-dwelling birds. They thus connote moving across the earth, and thus directly relate to, and reinforce, the notion of moving across the earth, or travel, the (voilà!) underlying subject of both the first sentence and the poem itself.

The adjectives also provide detail and color. Via the birds, they also suggest not only movement across land or even actual flight (as in a plane), but via association and deeper connotations, imaginative flight.

There isn’t another combination of adjectives that would have worked so well, and so poetically. I mean, it’s just a perfect freaking opening. You, the reader, sit down with Cities. You open the book. You turn to the first page, and the first sentence. And there it is, that greeting in the form of a question, and just like that, in that question, and more important, in the eyes of your mind, the narrator’s:

“ostrich luggage and peacock pride.”

W-o-w! Away we go! The “ostrich luggage and peacock pride” suggest it will be quite a trip. A journey both extravagant and outsized.

Yet notice how the first sentence plays, how the critical details are relayed by Kelly. It couldn’t be more straightforward. They are extravagant and out-sized, yes, but the narrator is disarmingly open and direct about it all. In this way, it all comes off as totally believable.

That mix of specific, vivid detail and a “I’m just-telling-it-like-it-is” tone is what gives Cities its irresistible verve. Here’s the narrator, on the second and third pages, introducing himself:
I am 47 years old, in excellent physical condition, of more than moderate wealth, of rubicund and mesomorphic physique but Saturnine disposition. I own houses in New York, London, Paris and Calcutta; lodges in Scotland, New Mexico, the Côte d’Azur, Ceylon and Darjeeling; apartments in Moscow, Tokyo, San Francisco, Rio and Cairo. I own seven cars, a ranch in Argentina, 3000 acres of Maine timber, a palace in Iran, two yachts, four motor boats, a modest old Ford tri-motor, a houseboat on the Irrawaddy, a 37-foot limestone wall richly carved with Hindu fable, a moderately powerful radio station In Luristan, a controlling interest in three small cheese companies and a middling oil cartel. I own no pets. I own three cemetery plots outright, one acre’s freehold in Westmorland, the largest dairy farm in Hokkaido, and one glass eye. Many monophthalmics own two or several glass eyes, fragile things that they are. But I unswervingly put my faith in the law of Unicity, which seems unlikely twice to rob one man of the same eye.
This is all “droll and explicit,” to use a phrase Kelly puts in the narrative in the sentence that immediately follows the above-quoted text. But of course it is also fantastic. Chiefly and primarily fantastic. As in amazing, there is no way on earth this could be true.

And yet, there comes a point in the paragraph above – for me it was somewhere around the carved limestone wall and three cemetery plots – where the waves of imagination capsize all resistance. Disbelief drowns. There’s no fucking way any of it could be real, but yet it seems as if every last thing there actually is.

This tone – essential to the impact of Cities – results in large part from Kelly’s use of (poetry alert) details. Many of the things discussed in the paragraph above are given specified quantities. Others are provided with adjectives (“middling” and “small” and “largest”, for example), that make the modified items far less abstract. There is also spare but effective use of exotic and unfamiliar place names (“Irrawaddy” and “Luristan” for example (consult your atlas) and filigree (a wall “richly carved in Hindu fable”), mixed in with the well-known (“San Francisco) and more plain (“houses”). There’s also vocabularic gems (“rubicund,” “mesopmoprhic,” “Saturnine,” and “monophthalmics”) scattered about, the kind of words that when as here used infrequently deserve the appellation poetic.

The paragraph quoted above also features a snap-to-attention rhythmic change. In about its middle, and in contrast to all the other sentences, which are compound, sometimes with multiple clauses, there is one super-short sentence, of four little words: “I own no pets.” That one seems to me a deal-sealer. Amidst all the long sentences, the mind latches onto that one, and not just because it’s a jab mixed in with a series of roundhouse sentence-punches. Kelly, I think, has a particular reason he uses the short sentence to grab your attention.

That the narrator owns no pets seems surprising, given all the possessions that have been just listed, and those that follow. But while surprising, it doesn’t seem untruthful. Quite the contrary. along with surprising, and here again is the point, it strikes one as honest. Truthful. This narrator doesn’t have everything, and what’s more, he admits it. The point is immediately reinforced, of course, by the detail involving the glass eye. These admissions of limits, of imperfections, seems admirably honest. This approach disarms skepticism. This here narrator is exceedingly incredible, but not totally so. Kelly, the poet, in this way calibrates his story-poem details so that it seems real, so that we accept that what is told is simply just the way it is, or was.

Kelly’s convincing approach is essential because this travel memoir, while passing through or mentioning certain well-known places (e.g., Moscow, Paris, Rio) is not much concerned with them. Nor is it concerned with any place that you or, really, anybody, has ever visited, or even heard about. Instead, the prose poem provides, to use the narrator’s words from a few pages in,
an account of some of the secret cities of the world.
Yes, “secret cities,” with some of them quite hidden, as in existing at and in the same time and space, and thus parallel with, some other, better-known place. And thus away, away-away, we readers go, go, go. In Cities, the reader = initiate, the poet-narrator = adept. To me, that’s an enjoyable dynamic: poet, please show me the (a) way.

It’d be difficult to properly describe or even just list all the places visited by the narrator in Cities, or the various modes of transportation used, or customs and ideas encountered. Of course doing that would spoil the fun you’ll have once you get hold of the book.

Suffice it to say that there’s lots of great stuff. In one paragraph, for example, you’ll read something related to nuclear fission that occurs in a particular city, and then just a few pages later there’s a discussion of another secret city’s published writings, which are never in prose but instead written in accord with a “rigidly observed metrical formulae.”

What, you doubt that everything in that city – its name, by the way is “New Harappa” – is written in accord with strict principles of poetic form? Well, Kelly may well have anticipated your skepticism. Once again, Kelly buttons it all down with plenty of detail. In this regard, his narrator presents (at page 18) a schemata or the verse form used in New Harrapa, described as “a distich of double lines:”

And this form is then explicated, via a description of other applicable rules, as follows:
The words marked a must exemplify alliteration and assonance, or rime, with one another, but not both. In the third foot of the first line, and only there, may occur a free number of unstressed syllables. The b rime (or assonance or alliteration) links each distich to the next. Distichs are commonly endstopped (and always in the older huënëha, ‘old man’s lullaby,’ an expanded simple narrative form involving “lays” or strophes of 50 distichs), and caesura never follows the second b rime – hence the b is the weaker, or ‘lunar’ rime in a distich (since its second part is ‘thrown away in the darkness’), while the a rime is ‘solar.’
Can somebody out there try writing a poem in accord with these precepts?

I’ve mentioned two out of probably several dozen events or explications in Cities that are likely to strike you as strange, passing strange. Each and every one of which, of course, was thought up, invented, made real through language, by Robert Kelly. And maybe that’s really what makes this collection of sentences a prose poem.

Which is to say, for all the ways language is used poetically in Cities, it might be enough to say that the book’s a poem simply because of the intensity of the imagination with which it burns, word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. It never lets up. Okay, almost never. There are a few, a very few, somewhat ho-hum details. For example, most who’ve read any amount of comic books or sci-fi won’t find much in the half-sentence about how residents of a certain city turn infra-red and become invisible.

But such pedestrian imaginings are rare. Essentially everything presented is something completely different. Reading it, I was giddy with amazement at the inventiveness, and just when that sensation was about to pass, Kelly would lay on something more. You turn the page (onto page 34, for example) and holy E-ticket here’s the narrator relating the circumstances of how he left a particular secret city:
They made me mount a brightly painted wooden merry-go-round horse, whose pommel was of thick braided gold. The chamberlain whispered a word into the horse’s ear, and I found myself high above the city, streaking through the sky. I was in Irkutsk within the hour; the horse left me at the airport, in time for the weekly jet. Spring opened its gooseflesh arms to me in Moscow.

In these few sentences Kelly gives us a string of events (the painted carousel horse, animated by a whisperer, that flys to the gooseflesh Moscow spring) that any good surrealist (cf. Lautréamont’s umbrella, sewing machine, and dissection table) would love. Or for that matter, any poetry lover (cf. Pierre Reverdy’s assertion that images are strongest when the associations of ideas are distant and accurate).

May I provide another example of the poetry, the intensity of language used? Here’s the narrator’s comment (found at page 31) about what he felt when a vast and dazzling city vanished entirely as he turned around to take a look at it from an exit gate:
There is no need to give any account of the self-evident and predictable tenor of my thoughts – write them up for yourself, reader, or assume them as delivered and signed for; we have all looked on emptiness, we have all plummeted in heart’s bathyscaph to a deep current where demonic luminescent enigmas grin at us in the pressurized cabin of of our isolate despair. I have no wish to detain you with the obvious.

“. . . we have all plummeted in heart’s bathyscaph
to a deep current where demonic luminescent enigmas grin at us
in the pressurized cabin of of our isolate despair.”

I repeat in the caption Kelly’s extended metaphor – heart’s bathyscaph, the deep current, grinning demonic luminescent enigmas, the pressurized cabin – because I find it absolutely extraordinary. When I first came upon it in the book, I just stopped, and read it again, and again, and then one more time. And who wouldn’t do the same, even though (and this is funny, and another sign of the genius of this work) Kelly’s narrator, in the sentence following the extended metaphor (and included in the excerpt above), insists he has no desire to detain us with what we have just read!

Of course, after a suitable pause to admire the beauty of the metaphor involving the bathyscaph and other watery matters, I continued to read Cities. I assure you, as unlikely as it may sound, that within a page Kelly had again blown my mind, so wondrous was what happened next and how Kelly’s words made it happen.

Yes indeed, Cities, a work about travels that is written with language that transports the reader, is one truly trippy prose poem. And really, that should be all that needs to be said.

Go seek Kelly’s book, kind readers of this here glade. Be quick, I advise, lest Cities becomes as difficult to find as the secret, hidden places about which it so poetically tells.


A Note on the Cover Design of Cities

Per the credit on the copyright page, the design of Cities, including presumably the cover, is by Ron Caplan. The cover’s striking combination of black letters on white background is similar to three other Frontier Press titles published at around the same time as Cities, including their re-print of Williams’ (as they called it) Spring & All (click here and scroll down a touch to see).

The lettering on the cover of Cities is particularly brilliant. The book title is all capitals, C-I-T-I-E-S, but with an obvious, and beautifully apt, twist: each of the I’s is topped by a dot, the kind found atop lower case i’s. They’re no-doubt-about-it dots too, so perfectly proportioned, rich and black that they dominate the top of the cover.

The blending here of upper and lower case characteristics is unusual, of course, even odd. Yet that strangeness perfectly reflects the outré quality of what Kelly tells about in Cities. And the mix of letter characteristics also fits with the hybrid nature of the work as prose poetry. In addition, the dots on the cover, as round circles, suggest planets or other worlds. Places, in other words, that might be traveled to, which again fits with the substance of the book.

Finally, the cover just looks damn good. Bold and beautiful, the kind of thing you just gotta have. Cities is one book that you could appropriately judge by its cover!


Update on Availability of Cities

Commenting on this post on the Ready-Steady-Book blog, Mark Thwaite helpfully remarks that while the Frontier Press stand-alone edition of Cities is scarce, the work is included in the omnibus collection A Transparent Tree (1985), along with several other fictions by Kelly (note: I insist Cities is a prose poem!).


Saturday, September 12, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

A loon, alone. Some Trees. A pear tart and a single shot of espresso, please. Where the big maples overhang the channel, count the shades of green. Float, preen, dance, lift-off. As he walks up the aisle to the chuppah under which his only daughter will marry, the father thinks of what Neil Armstrong said on the moon. The egg white omelet, please, with real tomatoes, not sun-dried. Millfoil tangle, millfoil thicket. Harriet has a robot that eats the stuff. A beanbag toss may sound easy, but try under-handing the thing into a five inch hole from twenty-five feet. Bianca holds a lute, right next to her mother, who looks annoyed. To stop traffic in the city, turn a twenty foot canoe upside-down, balance it on your shoulders, then jaywalk. Mazel Tov!

Lucia’s, not Chico Lico’s. By late afternoon, the foot wash basin at the top of the stairs is as sandy as the beach which it adjoins. Almost 100,000 people attend the state fair every day, and some of them line up to buy deep-fried cantaloupe on a stick. Others do the same for pot roast sundaes. Rivers and Mountains. k+ l. An oak barrister bookcase, five doors with beveled glass. The candy table. The Saint Croix has waves and divides Minnesota from Wisconsin. Origami. When paddling a canoe, keep your arms straight. That’s Van Gogh, not Birger Sandzen. The three bookshops in the airport each display a few dozen new releases, larger numbers of paperback mysteries, romances, detective stories, how-to’s and travel guides, and four shelves of “classics;” among the latter are the only three poetry books for sale: The Illiad, The Odyssey, and Leaves of Grass. A star sapphire. 100-N to Excelsior. A pink sun.

Eight men lift the upholstered white arm chair in which the bride is seated, another eight do the same with the matched chair in which the groom sits, and the two bounce and dance above the crowd that with hands joined circle around them, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, alternately surging close to then moving away from the hoisted couple. Joy-shout, foot-stomp, around, around, around around around! Hava Nagila! The white cloth napkin, held by the newlyweds between their right hands, somehow does not fall. Hava naglia ve nis’mecha! Sweat. Sweat. Sweat, sweat, sweat!

Wilbur Foshay built an office tower shaped like the Washington Monument, with an exterior of brown-yellow limestone and prodigious amounts of mahogany, marble, and bronze within, plus impressive fixtures and embellishments of the kind we now call Art Deco. He put his last name, in ten foot tall letters, on all four sides of the building, 27 stories above the street, and had John Philip Sousa compose a march for the opening, at which it was performed by a 75 piece band. Two months later, Foshay was bankrupt and soon thereafter convicted of mail fraud (a pyramid scheme) and given fifteen years in federal prison. Three years later, FDR commuted the sentence, and in 1947, Truman pardoned him. Foshay today is a luxe hotel and the trip to the observation deck costs eight dollars.

Loxodrome. If you want the tandem canoe to steer a relatively straight course, don’t have the novice paddle in the stern. Turtle Bread. Marley’s upgrade. Six feet square, alternating horizontal bands of white and the palest blue. The dog curled in the corner that looks asleep is actually a taxidermic illusion. A dead owl stuffed, the wall text claims, with tourmaline and rubies. The red divan and drapes that open on windows that look out on windows. The State wants the Supreme Court to stay the order requiring a plan. The massive old radiator, a magnificent Chrysler Building in the south-east corner of the dining room, no longer works. Fair weather cumulous clouds. After being formally announced, the two walk into the ballroom to applause and toast each other with flutes of champagne, a single raspberry in each glass. They cut the cake. A ski jump.

The smell of lake, weedy and benthic, on the bathing suit that hangs from the shower hook. A salted nut roll cures mild hypoglycemia. Every day, the green apple tempts. Absolutely no smoking, the signs say, but who can deny Argentine cigars at midnight. Room 440. First, a soft fold with a one-sixteenth inch overlap, then a hard fold, made with a scoring tool, along the same crease. Zen repeat times 125. To stop traffic in the city, have the bride, in a cream-colored Vera Wang, and the groom, in a black tuxedo, jaywalk from the grassy lake-shore to the concrete center median and kiss while dozens applaud from the second floor terrace above the street. Many call the lift bridge draw bridge. Suite dreams. There, between the branches and shrubs.