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




John Olson said...

A phrase caught my attention here it is so delicious in ferocity, "maniacal emptiness." Most of what I encounter in tracts on emptiness, both as a generative abyss whose destructive force is also, paradoxically, a fertilizing energy, and as an abstraction of ineffable beauty, sublime and terrible, an original brightness void of names and forms, is disposed toward philosophical speculation. Hence, a bit dry. But this, "maniacal emptiness," has teeth and muscle. It quakes in the mind, unsettling rafters of bats and glimmers of strange eternity. The phrase makes me giddy. Alexander reads like a shamanic librarian from the ancient library of Alexandria.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks so much for this, John. It's a beautiful response you've shared.

Cy Mathews said...

Thanks for this Steven - I don't think I've ever read Alexander before, but I'm going to now. The title poem sounds amazing.

Cy Mathews said...

Just one other side comment:

I find Eshleman's suggestion that Alexander may be an "outsider artist" problematic. As I understand it, in the visual arts an outsider artist is one without formal training, isolated if not from mainstream society in general then at least from other artists and art movements. From his bio note on the Green Integer website, Alexander seems to have been engaging with poets and poetry since way back, not to mention graduating with a BA in English and Creative Writing.

I can see the parallels between the end result of Alexander's work and Watts Towers, and like the rest of Eshleman's description (that which you've reprinted here, that is), but I think "outside artist" is a term too heavily loaded with meanings that don't seem to be applicable here.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Cy,

Thanks, thanks very much, for the comments.

Your comment on the "outsider" term used by Clayton Eshleman has made me stop and think.

Great deference is owed, at least by me, to Eshleman given his work as editor of Caterpillar and Sulfur. He'd know a lot better than I.

That said, his idea can (should) be thought about or questioned. I can name at least one other American poet who should be considered a major "outsider" (as I use that term, discussed a bit below): Philip Lamantia.

For "outsider" I use Jean Dubuffet's later-in-life forumulation, which didn't require total isolation from art-world and its trends, marketplaces, and approaches, but a kind of energy (that shows in the work) that's opposed to all that (I'm paraphrasing Dubuffet).

In this regard, I think Will Alexander is an outsider. His is an iconoclastic and eccentric -- in the best sense of those words -- poetry, one driven by an interior wind of singular force, and not at all by those that blow from the institutions or others (sorry for the clunky metaphor here).

Does this make any sense?

Cy Mathews said...

Thank's Steven, that makes perfect sense. When I first read your post, the term "outsider" in the context of writing made me think of Adolph Woolfi[sic] and Henry Darger, neither of whom seemed to fit Alexander. I guess my secondary concern is that such a term risks grouping together poets in a way that obscures significant differences in motivation, background, etc. But then, almost any grouping runs that risk, and I can see the term is being used with more subtlety here.