Friday, October 23, 2009

¡Viva Lamantia! (His Birthday, 2009)

Philip Lamantia
at about age 15
circa 1943

Today marks the anniversary – the 82nd – of Philip Lamantia’s birth (October 23, 1927, in San Francisco). Since Philip’s death in 2005, these Lamantia birthday celebrations – and I do party – also involve trying to tell others about Philip and his poetry.

Simply said, I try spread the word about a poet whose poems I love. As you may remember, last year I wrote, here in the glade, about a few of the many things I learned from Philip.

This year, it’s something different. Today, I survey some of the poems that have been written for, to, after, and/or about Philip Lamantia. Some of the poets who have written such poems, if you know anything about Philip, will be very familiar, perhaps even expected. A few though, may surprise you greatly.

Taken together, these poems written by others for (or to, etc.) Lamantia show something of the reach he had among his fellow poets. More than that, I think they provide an opportunity to see Philip in a wonderful way. The poems make for a sort of many-angled portrait of Lamantia, a portrait painted, so to speak, in or by poets themselves, through their poetry. I know that sounds a bit screwy, but after writing up and then re-reading this post, which of course included reading and re-reading the poems by the other poets, I swear I SAW Philip arise from and within the poet’s words. And Philip, in this way, was beautiful!

Here follows what I’ll in shorthand call Lamantia poems by Robert Duncan (1956), Michael McClure (1961), Clark Coolidge (1963), Ransom Lomatewama (1987), Penelope Rosemont (1992), Garrett Caples (1999), Will Alexander (2000), Lisa Jarnot (2001), Donald Sidney-Fryer (2003), John Olson (2006), and Eileen Tabios (2009). The parenthetical dates are the years the poems were published, except in the case of Coolidge, where it reflects the date the poem was written.

Given the numbers – it’s eleven poets and their poems, for goodness sakes – this post is a l-o-n-g one. It proceeds chronologically. I’ve tried to keep each section snappy, and each has an image or two illustrating the source book for the poem discussed, and in some instances a relevant book or two by Lamantia. The strongest part of each section, of course, is the poetry itself. The poetry is generally excerpts, but still, or at least I hope, those excerpts are sufficient to allow you, if you have the time and inclination, to learn a bit about Philip and some of the poets he touched. Happy Birthday Philip!


Robert Duncan’s seminal collection Letters, first published in 1956 and collecting poems written between 1953 and 1955, is notable for many things, not the least of which are the gorgeous orange marbled paper wrappers on the original Jonathan Williams - Jargon Press edition:

Letters is also notable for the fact that many of its poems are dedicated (in the table of contents) to various poets, including Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Helen Adam, Robert Creeley, James Broughton, Mike and Jo Ann McClure, and – yes, here we go – Philip Lamantia. The poem “for Philip Lamantia” is the second in the book, and is titled “Distant Counsels of Artaud.” It’s a poem of almost three dozen lines. It has, to say the least, one hell of a vivid start:
Three chimneys burn
continual sewer-torches, fahrters,
a vestal fire, devastations
of the secret city, continually burning;
           the rivers
choked with turds, sperm, condoms.
Enter the sea ancient sea like snakes,
crawling upwards, . . .
In a 1978 essay on the artist Wallace Berman (included in A Selected Prose (1995), Duncan remarked that Artaud’s 1947 radio play, To Have Done With the Judgment of God, had been in the early 1950s “preached by Philip Lamantia [and] had become an underground text for us in San Francisco.” Obviously, this comment explains much regarding the dedication of the above-quoted poem. There’s not only the Artaud reference in the title, but Artaud’s play, similar to Duncan’s poem, has more than a fair amount of sperm, shit, and the like.


Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia knew each other very well, particularly in the years following the October 1955 Six Gallery event at which they both read. The two read together at least again in San Francisco in 1956 or 1957. Lamantia wrote an advance announcement for McClure’s Hymns to Saint Geryon, and McClure did the same for Lamantia’s poem-book, Ekstasis, both published in 1959 by the Auerhahn Press. Lamantia in Ekstasis includes several direct references to his poet-friend, including a short poem titled “Michael McClure.” The two also corresponded during this time period; Lamantia was out of the country, chiefly in Mexico City, for much of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1959, Lamantia published two books – Ekstasis and Narcotica – that rock with his celebratory manic spirit, deep depressive doubts, and fervent (fevered, even) searching, including via religious and other traditions.

Ekstasis, for example, includes lines concerning “golden light,” “jewels of the air,” and “a glow to the wind,” to cite a few signs of the marvelous that appear. But the book also includes poems such as “Main Is In Pain,” “Interior Suck of the Night,” and “Dead Smoke,” whose very titles suggest a quite different mind set or emotional state. As for searching, or seeking, consider please the following lines, in “Fragments From An Areoplane,” the second poem in Ekstasis:
I’m here alone
                         Where is HE, God of the PSALMS?
Where’s the way to the garden at work within the rose?
I hardly ever look at rose any more, haven’t for years in fact, without thinking of that line – “Where’s the way to the garden at work within the rose?” by Lamantia.

As further evidence of Lamantia’s seeking, take a look at the still-to-this-day shocking juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, the religious and the injectible, on the cover of his 1959 chapbook Narcotica (photos and lay-out by Wallace Berman):

All this, of course was seen and read at the time by McClure, who also corresponded and presumably talked with Philip during this period. In his 1961 collection The New Book / A Book of Torture (1961) – pictured here –

McClure dedicates a section of one poem (“A Small Secret Book”) to Philip, and another poem, one I think relates significantly to which I’ve discussed above, is simply titled, “For Lamantia.”

“For Lamantia” runs, and vigorously, for fifty plus centered lines. McClure in the poem relates, to be a bit cheap about it, a crisis, a continuing one, of interior or spiritual identity, asking among other things (this from the end of the second stanza):

why do I cry falsely? why do I smile in pain?
And move in clouds of hated falseness.
No sparks sent from me. Sunken eyes.

Even in this short excerpt the concerns expressed by McClure can be seen as very similar to those of Lamantia’s more doubting poems in Ekstasis. More explicitly, within “For Lamantia” McClure mentions Philip’s name three times, and at points it seems clear that McClure is directly addressing his poet-friend:

Await beauty find perfectness in H. Clouds
stripped away. Oh Philip Lamantia – magnetic
hungers. Our dream! The beasts’ perfection. . . .

Here follow the final lines of “For Lamantia”. They are powerful and beautifully written, an expression of shared anguish, of the shared belief in an alternative to that pain, and of one poet’s hope for his poet-friend. Again, I assume McClure is the “voice” – the “I” of the poem, is McClure:

The sharks within me tear myself. The air

I breath is poisoned gas. The life I live
is half of it.
I cannot lie to it. I’m torn between
the ends of beauty. Eye ears, nose.
Ripped out like a rose and packed in petals.
No hope. No love. Already gone.


for Philip.


That Clark Coolidge wrote a poem dedicated to Philip Lamantia might surprise some; it did me. “Vision Shot Night” with its subtitle / dedication “For Lamantia” is a relatively early Coolidge poem, dated, “17I64” [i.e., January 17, 1964] . It’s uncollected and unpublished, except on the internet, where for several years it has been available on the Coolidge website at the Electronic Poetry Center (EPC).

“Vision Shot Night” is almost 100 lines, most long and prose-like. It rocks with wild accelerating energy, syntax-left-in-the-dust. Here is one of its stanzas; it’s typical of the form and style of most in the poem. Please fasten your seatbelt:
Wake up plastered and hire intelligent human guns and future cities the
   crispy racket of breakfast crackers going over the toaster-radio
   radioactive jellies the hissing palate intent on holy crunching
   absorbing finality of whiskered whispers of troglodyte stare
   wondering where death blackened money tunes playing the lysol organ
   high in perfume vapor of death gasp in horror the space of finger
   snap chained to charred wall pyres of staked out city nursing
   from the last falsie human tit removed from hierarchy time
   capsule lounging millenia under moon of steel tons--synchronized
   crack of mind plunger pushed--laughing crowds of mobile eggs
   encrust torn fabric cement found the boiling red lake
   habitation of crustaceans screaming eyeless
The January, 1963 composition date of “Vision Shot Night,” as well as its style, strongly suggest that the poems of Lamantia’s incendiary 1962 collection, Destroyed Works, with a cover reproducing a black and white photograph of an assemblage by Bruce Conner –

– probably were the texts which inspired Coolidge to write and dedicate his poem to Lamantia. Lamantia, In the author’s note with which Destroyed Works ends, writes (remember here, please, the title – “Vision Shot Night”– of Coolidge’s poem):
For me it is the Vision in its density and the truth of what I see
the breath is in the Vision and I come to the rhythms it is above
all a question of MY VISION . . . .
And here are three stanzas from “Fin Del Mundo,” a poem in the book. The similarities here to the poem subsequently written by Coolidge are very strong, including in particular the within stanza indents and line lengths, and the wild energy of the language:
What wave mantic eye what wave cutting chairs of my soul what wave
   claws forth psychopathic night and vomits lungs and keys wave
   sucking silent wave thru demented cities

[ . . . ]

I wake up I vapors antediluvian climates circle my room I’m twisted
   in a sea of motion I break out forms of antique script 20 leaves
   fall in leaden blights OH MUDDIED MIRES OF MY TIME!

Destroyed works walk out of walls into me into the poem saying it is
   an ogre’s hand rocks my living tables it is a vast cloth
   of cotton folds my body it is heart of sleep I live Visage
   in atomic night of dark triumph where walls of the poem are
   fixed in fire at the flying dragon’s emanation throughout space.

In the early 1970s, I believe, Lamantia along with his wife Nancy Peters, and – if I have my facts straight – Donald Allen (the editor) took a trip to the Southwest, including the Hopi nation. In 1972, Lamantia first published, in a magazine, his poem “Oraibi,” which I’m fairly certain arose from those travels.

Oraibi is the village on the Third Mesa in Hopi, and is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in what is now the United States. Lamantia’s “Oraibi” is difficult to excerpt from, since it relies on a decidedly non-rational flow that is best appreciated whole. Lamantia tells of “peering from invisible windows” with “the wind masked as a moon.” There’s also an “obelisk at dawn” and “magnetic leaves of aurist fingers.” The poem ends with “What’s written on the obelisk’s petticoat,” something – exactly what is not said – that:
ventricles of wind hide
and reveal
                  at the sovereignty of turquoise
intercepting great impossible cities
becoming visible
through the roads of the turquoise sun
“Oraibi” was subsequently included in Lamantia’s City Lights Pocket Poets title, Becoming Visible (1981), a book with a striking cover in black, purple, white, and grey:

At some point in his travels in the Southwest, Philip and Nancy met Ransom Lomatewama, a Hopi poet who has over the years published four books of poetry (he more recently has also taken up glass-blowing, an interesting to me combination of old-world craft and art with his own traditions:

Lomatewama’s 1987 book of poems, Ascending the Reed, pictured here –

– includes a poem titled “Shadows” that is dedicated to “Philip and Nancy.” The poem is about three pages long, and in the main relates a story of a dream of looks down upon and then stands next to a man:
I stood next to this man
whose black hair was the rain.
He gazed at the earth
and made it warm.
He was a breather of clouds
and sweet aroma
of mountain tobacco
swirled into heaven.
I can’t say for certain that “this man” in the poem is Philip, although I’m tempted to, remembering as I do many hours spent with him – a chain smoker – in which it did certainly seem that the “sweet aroma / of mountain tobacco / swirled into heaven.”

In the poem, the man of the dream – “this man” – looks up “through eyes of obsidian” and tells of wondrous events of long ago (e.g., “Once / the moon drank nectar / giving birth / to winter nights”). The man then tells, at the poem’s end, of “floating upon / misty pulsations / of time and space,” of being “carried by mystic waves / from star to star,” of:
being immersed in seas
of lucid
and undefiled love
letting my soul escape
the plane of human sensation

becoming now

becoming free

becoming visible!
Well, that last line, with those two words straight outta Lamantia’s poem “Oraibi” and of course also from the title of his 1981 book, is a certain signal, I believe, that the “man” in the poem, the man who among other things floats on pulsations of time and space, and escapes the plane of human sensation, is Philip. If so, Lomatewama nailed it.


In 1992, the Chicago poet (and publisher) Penelope Rosemont published Beware of the Ice, a collection of 45 poems. Rosemont writes in the surrealist tradition; she and her late husband Franklin were for years at the center of the Chicago surrealist group. Starting in about the mid-1970s and continuing for – depending on how you look at it – a good ten, fifteen, or twenty years, Lamantia was directly and sometimes deeply involved with that group, including its publications. He knew the Rosemonts well, and vice-versa, even as his direct involvement with the group diminished over the last approximately 15 years of his life as he retreated into himself and exercised clearly his independence as a person and poet.

In Penelope Rosemont’s Beware of the Ice, “The Art of Conversation,” a one page poem, is “for Philip Lamantia.” The title immediately brings Philip to mind. He was – as will be stated or indicated in other poems discussed in this post – a talker par excellence, particularly in a one-on-one situation, where he could go off on associational tracks literally all night long. And yet he could and would listen, engaging easily or, sometimes, stubbornly, in the back and forth of conversation.

Rosemont’s “The Art of Conversation” has 21 lines, each of which is unpunctuated and very short (six are but one or two words long). It describes (if I may literalize the poem, hopefully fairly) a changing conversational dynamic between a man and a woman. Oh, heck, let me just share it with you (capitalization and font presented as in the original):


               For Philip Lamantia

Her eyes
alphabetically arranged
branch like a chill
end to end

Their glances
remote divisions
of temperature

He holds up
a piece of music
by Diderot

She ciphers the territory
by the image

At last their voices
to the center

From the ends of the Earth
dustlike spores of frogs
very softly
Decades after the likes of Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret wrote, non-rational images such as “eyes / alphabetically arranged” or “dustlike spores of frogs” might strike some as tired, or even trite. Not me. Rosemont’s automatistic images seem fresh. Part of it, at least in the poem above, is that even within Rosemont’s concision the images are not piled one atop another, and so do not seem overdone.

But the key to this poem, the reason why its images seem crisp and everything seems to work so well, is Rosemont’s superb sense of balance. She put downs the words and arranges the lines such that even though the images are wild and irrational, the poem, as an entity and in its various pieces, rests easily on the page, on the tongue, and in the mind.

Somebody probably could explain it technically, but what I’ll say is that the lines in “The Art of Conversation” do not clunk at all. They flow, and when Rosemont wants, they can do more. In this regard, note that the four single word lines all contain – as its single word, and that the word is a verb. In each of those instances, the verb – see, for example “bend” and “fall”, respectively, in the final two stanzas – serves as the pivot-point for the stanza in which it appears; everything leads both to and from those words. It’s simple, it’s neat, and it’s just about perfect.


I’m not sure exactly how Garrett Caples and Philip Lamantia first met. However it happened – and it took place in 1998, if I remember right – it clicked. Garrett and Philip were close. One example of this would be that Philip entrusted Garrett with the task of bringing into print the almost mythical manuscript of poems by John Hoffman, whose work Philip had read at the October 1955 and whose manuscript Philip had held for more than 50 years. That job was done, and done well, first in a small private edition and then, after Lamantia’s death, as a City Lights Pocket Poets book.

Another example is seen in the last poem written by Lamantia to be published in his lifetime. “TRIPLE V: The day non-surrealism become surrealist” was published in 2001, in the journal untitled (issue # 2). The poem has three numbered parts, and its second section, “How I became a poet,” has as a dedication, “For Garrett Caples.” After Lamantia died, Garrett helped organize his papers, finding along the way the “lost” manuscript of Tau, written by Philip in the mid-1950s. Garrett subsequently edited the manuscript when City Lights published the book.

Caples, in his 1999 collection, The Garrett Caples Reader

– dedicates “Assassin Raising Scalpel”, a poem in the book, “à Philip Lamantia.” Of course, “à” is French for “to.” As such, the “I” in the poem should be read – or at least I read it – as the voice of Caples, while “you” and “your” refer to Lamantia. The poem runs, like a stony gazelle, for a page. Here are the first two sentences, which are spread over five lines:
I read dawn into your later sky like beauty nodding through rough
of light rinsing titled pools. You continue your tale
in the language of tails, in a salt of air salons
we exhale over our shoulders.
The single word line “presence” is powerful. It reminds me of Philip’s presence, how powerful it was, how he seemed to stand apart even while surrounded by many or much.

Another line in “Assassin Raising Scalpel” gets in its poetry the precise energy in the air, or that one felt in the air, talking all night with Philip, leaving his apartment as day began:
Dawn lights its cigarettes from a match you cup in your hand and
     drinks its fire from that cup
I love the interlocking images there, and how it all centers around the cupped hands of Philip. Beautiful!

Caples also has at least one other poem that has, as a dedication, “for Philip Lamantia.” That poem is titled “Written on Ecstasy.” First published in 2002, it was more recently included in Complications (Meritage Press, 2007). It’s a wild little poem – the title alone tells you that, yes? – and I urge you to seek it out.


I recently wrote, with great pleasure and joy, about Will Alexander’s just published long poem, “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” (click here to go the post, if you please). Of course, that isn’t the only long poem Alexander has written. There are also, for example, the poems “Asia” and “Haiti,” published together by Sun & Moon Press in 1995. Each of those is over 60 pages long.

Philip Lamantia closely read and was greatly loved the poetry of Will Alexander, and the two knew each other well (Philip once told me the two met in the mid to late 1970s). Lamantia’s library, which in the main went intact to the UC Berkeley Bancroft library after his 2005 death, includes essentially all of Alexander’s books, including his all but impossible to find these days first book, Vertical Rainbow Climber (1987); most of those books (including the first) are inscribed to Lamantia by Alexander. In February, 1999, Lamantia and Alexander appeared together at Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles; there was a reading at night and then, the following afternoon, a long seminar in which the two talked and answered questions.

In 2000, the magazine Faucheuse, edited by Jeff Clark, printed a long ( approximately 60 pages) poem by Alexander titled “The Brimstone Boat,” with the subtitle (as you can probably anticipate) “For Philip Lamantia.” Here’s the two page title spread, as it appeared in the magazine:

The remarkable thing about “The Brimstone Boat” is that not only is it dedicated to Lamantia, it is essentially entirely about him too. Alexander’s poem – in his marvelous style of unpunctuated phrases that accrete into stanzas, page after page – illuminates his view of various facets of Lamantia’s poetic spirit and approach. The poem’s addressed directly to Philip, and among other things, Alexander tells him:
the boatsman
the great poet
the being who amalgamates birds

[ . . .]

For you Philip
always the astral pathway
always the electrical solar vista

[ . . .]

Not strategy by electrical rote
but great longevity by inclusion
by absolute cobalt telepathy
in the living migrational body

[ . . .]

. . . the life your works reveal
is an “inner psychophysics”
which scorches fleeting insulin gates
then tropical ratio as an oscillating power
The above excerpts, although among the less allusive in the poem, show well the ardent fervor with which Alexander regards his friend and fellow poet. I’ll end with a passage that not only says even more about Alexander’s view of Lamantia and his poetry, but which also requires – and if you read it you’ll understand why – that I offer nothing further in the way of commentary. Remember, Alexander is addressing Philip:
you agitate the philomaths
in that your phonemes blaze
your gerunds seduce & embolden
allowing me to simply stare at what you write
never incited to dissect your optic feathers
or plant an asterisk or code by your name
“The Brimstone Boat” needs to be re-published in a full collection. In the meantime, the issue of the magazine Faucheuse in which it appears (at pages 224-286) is available on-line, if your machine can handle a 7.7.MB pdf (click here, let it load, then forward to page 224 et seq).


In her collection Ring of Fire (2001), Lisa Jarnot includes a poem titled, “The Song Between” for which she states, just below and to the right of the title, is “after Philip Lamantia.” Here is the first of the poem’s four similarly sized stanzas:
Break your bird on your beak, bird, with a title known as bird,
with a bird sound called a bird, with a bird, being birdlike,
being all bird, in the shallow water, being all water in the shallow bird,
being the shallow sound of the bird spray in the wing, being the wing
of the sound, bird, being where you are, being all, and the water
is the shallow of the sound inside the bird, a shadow
in the window of the man . . .
I think there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “after Philip Lamantia” that Jarnot uses at the top of her poem. First, there’s the obvious, in which “after Philip Lamantia” means that the poem is “in the manner of,” or perhaps more cheaply, “in the style of” Lamantia’s writing.

In this regard, compare the rhythms, cadences, and repetitions of Jarnot’s opening stanza with those in Lamantia’s prose poem, “Inside the Journey,” first published in 1953 and re-printed most recently in Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems 1943 - 1993 (City Lights, 1997):

Here’s the first paragraph of Lamantia’s “Inside the Journey”:
Quickly, I rocked between the waves. Quickly, I got the god on the
wing. Quickly, I picked up the tarn from the twirling top. Quickly
and quickly, and faster, faster : for the kill of the body’s anger,
for the win of the lost child, for the fall of wizards through
fall sheets of snow.
No, Jarnot’s isn’t a rote transference of Lamantia’s poem – it’s her own creation, after all – but there are obvious similarities in tone, pace, repetition, and energy between the two poems. It’s a no-doubt-about-it match, I hereby declare.

My educated guess is that the phrase “after Philip Lamantia” also can be taken literally. Specifically, my hypothesis is that Jarnot wrote her poem after she saw and heard Philip read at the Poetry Project, New York City, on April 21, 1999. I was there, and yes, Philip read “Inside the Journey,” and it was sensational that night. Jarnot was one of the Wednesday Night Coordinators for the Poetry Project at the time (per my copy Project’s newsletter for April/May 1999), and yes, Lamantia’s reading was on a Wednesday night. So my guess is that she was there has some basis in fact.

What I do know for certain is that “The Song Between” is part of the “Heliopolis” section of Ring of Fire, but was not – as were many other poems in that section – in the chapbook titled Heliopolis that Jarnot published in 1998. I don’t have to go too far out on a limb to suggest that Lamantia’s NYC reading in 1999 – which took place a year after the chapbook and two years before Ring of Fire appeared – was the germinating force for the poem.

By the way – and this is more than an aside – the many uses of the word “bird” in Jarnot’s poem also probably can be traced back to Lamantia. As I recall, Lamantia said a few things at his Poetry Project reading about Charlie Parker, aka Bird. In addition, many of Lamantia’s later poems, and in particular those in Meadowlark West (City Lights, 1986) (he read poems from that book at the Poetry Project too) are drenched in ornithological allusions and references.


Donald Sidney-Fryer is a poet like no other, especially today. Sometimes called – per a website devoted to him that emanates from France – “The Last of the Courtly Poets,” Sidney-Fryer, who has long lived in California, specializes in the medieval romance and epics, and the traditions of the early 20th Century California romantics. I’ve heard him recite a long section from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and play (not at the same time) a chitarrone, and liked both a lot. Among his many other literary accomplishments, Sidney-Fryer has translated and published Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, generally recognized as the first modern prose poems, and wrote a stellar introduction to the mid-1960s Arkham House (fabled publisher of Lovecraft and all else weird) collection of Clark Ashton Smith prose poems.

Sidney-Fryer met and became friends with Philip Lamantia, I believe, as a result of a common interest in Clark Ashton Smith and via the connection of Fritz Leiber, a master-writer of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. In the mid-1980s, Sidney-Freyer and Lamantia took part in a ceremony at the Auburn (California) Public Library, dedicating a plaque honoring Clark Ashton Smith (Smith was an Auburn native).

In his book, Songs & Sonnets Atlantean: The Second Series (2003), Sidney-Fryer includes a poem, “Strength of Dreams,” stated to be “For Philip Lamantia . . . by way of tribute to him both as a poet and as person.” Lamantia, according to Sidney-Fryer in his poem, is “as one with” hawks, greater vultures (“huge birds that have long hung / Unmoving until blown by wind and rain”), and eagles. Lamantia is also said, in the poem, to be “more fierce” and “more manifold” than the mythological Zeus and Proteus. Sidney-Fryer, in the final lines of his poem, declares about Philip:
The lightning bolts of thy mind’s eye to furthest ends, like la-
      ser beams,
Leap out at once, with all the depth and weight and height
      and strength of dreams!
This, I admit, is keyed-up. Yet having myself known Philip and his poetry, I understand EXACTLY why Sidney-Fryer simply HAD to write “Strength of Dreams” as he did.


I’ve written before about how I came to the poetry of John Olson directly from Philip Lamantia, who in early 2001 told me that Olson’s poems were “extraordinary.”

Olson, as is probably true for all of the poets discussed here, had long known of Lamantia’s poetry. Among other things, he had reviewed Lamantia’s Bed of Sphinxes (City Lights, 1997) for Sulfur, the magazine edited by Clayton Eshleman.

In May 2001, Olson received a phone call, unsolicited, from Philip, who introduced himself, said he was traveling to Seattle (where Olson lives), and wanted to get together for a visit. The two, along with Olson’s wife Roberta, did meet. Olson later called it “one of the most pivotal events” of his life. They also spent much time together over Labor Day weekend in 2001, when the Olsons traveled to San Francisco.

Shortly after Philip died in March, 2005, Olson wrote a prose poem, “Philip Lives: A Lament for Lamantia.” While the poem is included in Olson’s most recent book, Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Black Widow Press, 2008), it was first published in Olson’s The Night I Dropped Shakespeare On The Cat (Calamari Press, 2006):

Here is how Olson’s poem begins:
Philip is gone. Philip is dead. Long live Philip.

      Philip lived and breathed poetry. He called poetry a miracle in
words. Which is precisely what it is. A miracle in words. Rhapsodes of
pain passionate wavelengths tortured minerals sublimated into bubbling
autonomy. Delicious anomalies paradisiacal pancakes morning prayer in
the bowl of dawn. Fireworks in Mexican villages. The aroma of
dragons. Analogues parallels pantisocratic parakeets.
This is sensational writing. The paragraph that follows the opening proclamation combines both things Philip had said (“poetry a miracle in words, ”in a published interview) and written (“morning prayer in the bowl of dawn” from his poem “Native Medicine) with Olson’s own energized language.

Here are two more paragraphs from “Philip Lives: A Lament for Lamantia.” They are taken from about the middle of the poem. The mention of Philip’s curiosity in the first paragraph that follows, and the references in both paragraphs to Philip’s addiction and ability to talk, are quite appropriate. Both statements are factually correct, completely so, and were key parts of Lamantia’s character. But more than that, those traits of character also echo the very mode of composition Olson uses in his poem, and in these paragraphs. Specifically, Olson seems to constantly seek and try all kinds of words to describe his friend Philip, and uses language – particularly in the final excerpt below, a one sentence paragraph – such that it just goes and goes and goes:
      Philip was a regular at the eternal smorgasbord of mood and
penumbra. He astonished us all with his granite balloons his sensations
and hurry his addiction to talking his elevators and hardware his
opinions and theories his immense curiosity his ceaseless thermos of
romantic green tea. His beads his buds his beans his occasional beards.

[ . . . ]

      He reminded me a little of Peter Lorre he could talk for hours emitting a reddish glow of crocodiles and ethereal escalators a poetry of X rays and telepathic plumage a piece of weather reflected in the sheen of ocean sand fairyland teeming with diamonds the convulsive variety of curbs in Pakistan the anatomy of any flavor sunspots radio waves crackling the rumble of palominos on Colorado dirt.

Eileen Tabios met Philip Lamantia in mid-2001, and the two spent a good amount of time visiting that summer (I shared a meal with them once, and sat with Eileen at a reading Philip gave that year). At that time, she wrote a poem for Philip, and I think published some of it on her blog. But the poem in its entirety has been published for the first time only this year, in Tabios’ Footnotes To Algebra, published by BlazeVOX just a few months ago.

Tabios’ Lamantia poem is titled, “Triptych for Philip”. As that title suggests, is a set of three poems for Lamantia, written by Eileen Tabios. The three poems are collectively almost seven pages long.

I love “Triptych.” As I wrote a blurb for the poem (that appears on the back of the book), it “burns with love” for Lamantia, and is “rich with taken-from-life details” arising from the summer of 2001, when Tabios first met Philip.

The first of the three poems, dated June 15, 2001, is centered on Tabios’ first encounter with Philip, a visit made with two other poets to his apartment, at night. Tabios tells – and having myself visited Philip in his apartment many times, I can vouch for her accuracy – of his “corridor raucous with paintings and mask” and of “every book ever published (and not) stacked vertically / and horizon / -tally to trip / angels . . . .” She recalls the Kachina doll hanging on Philip’s wall (it was above his writing desk) whose “turquoise [. . .] is color of sunlit ocean embracing Greece while you explored Mexico.” That’s a wonderfully compact and poetic way to embrace certain key international and cultural components of Lamantia’s experience.

Tabios also tells of Lamantia reading a poem, saying he did so “decadently” and “appropriately” “between cigarette puffs” that “add[ed] to the room’s dusk,” all of which exactly describes how Philip would read. Tabios also collages in a few choice words or phrases (“opulent / opalescence”) remembered from Lamantia’s poem. The verve and impact of hearing Philip read a poem is probably best captured by Tabios’ lines about what happended when he finished. The three poets who’d been listening, she writes:
                        . . . applaud with the fervor
            of all poets ever birthed,
            the ghosts of those who died,
            the foretelling of those to come,
            those both (and neither) dead and alive
Near the first poem’s end, Tabios comes right out with it; a declaration of love and respect, addressed to Philip, that is beautiful and apt:
To meet you is to recognize
             I have spent 40 years moving towards you
             You, the angel Michelangelo sensed within veined stone
                           who can choose among a multitude of churches for Home
The second part of “Triptych” collages passages taken from a journal article related to early agriculture, cereal, and human development. Tabios in an end-note explains that Lamantia gave her a copy of the article, from Australian Biologist (how’s that for an uncommon source?!). I too remember Philip’s enthusiasm for this particular article (I still have the copy of it he gave me), and find it grand that Tabios makes an entire poem via excerpts from it. Some of the statements are startling enough that, similar to great lines of poetry, they start one’s mind on a journey, an idea-trip that would otherwise not ever begin:
Groups led by Ziodrou and Brantl found opioid activity in wheat, maize and barley (exorphins). Researchers found the potency of exorphins comparable to
morphine and enkephalin, producing effects such as analgesia and reduction of anxiety.

Chemical reward was the incentive for the adoption of cereal agriculture in the
Neolithic. Regular self-administration of these substances facilitated the
behavioral changes that led to the subsequent appearance of civilization.
The final poem of the “Triptych,” titled “Alchemy At The Maykadeh” concerns a dinner Tabios had with Lamantia at a Persian restaurant located near his North Beach (San Francisco) home. She is in the restaurant, waiting, and she writes (again, addressing Philip):
I see you enter the blue frame of glass
bordering the blue door into Maykadeh
where you suggested we meet
for “they do wonders with tongue.”
How perfect is it, how exactly consistent with his surprising perspectives, that Lamantia endorses a place because “they do wonders with tongue”?! Perfect too are the lines of Tabios near the poem’s end, telling of how she anticipated Philip’s hand “pushing open the door / into another conversation with me / into a night of nerves melting fearlessly.” The last line there – “a night of nerves melting fearlessly” – catches much of what it was like to spend a few, or several, hours with Philip, or, for that matter, to spend such time reading his poems.


That, my beloved readers (if any there be), is it. All I can say is thank you for coming along. And of course, Happy Birthday, Philip!

Philip Lamantia
Reading at Beyond Baroque
Los Angeles, February 1999
photo by Michael Hacker


Saturday, October 17, 2009

I have seen the future of poetry on Blogger . . .

and its name is . . .

[collage of Stephen Ratcliffe poem post and blog headers]

Yes, my headline above shamelessly riffs off (read: rips-off!) Jon Landau’s well-known 1974 pronouncement about having seen the future of rock ‘n roll whose name was Bruce Springsteen.

And yes as well, the headline’s assertion has a large measure of bravado. Who am I, the humble keeper of this here glade, to arrogate the ability to know the future? Or to presume to know what will prevail, in anything? And how can I, or why should I, or anyone, saddle someone with the label of being “the future” of anything?

So Stephen Ratcliffe, accept please my apology. And you readers of this post, please hear me out. For you see, I really mean it: I’ve seen the future of poetry on Blogger – and its name, yes indeed, is:


I can’t quantify it, but there is a lot of poetry on Blogger. Not blogs about poetry, but blogs that are nothing but or mainly poems, written by the blogger who posts them.

Some of that poetry – maybe most of it – misses the mark, and widely. One type of poem that seems especially abundant is the greeting card inspirational, with final stanzas such as:
We all have choices in life - do
yourself some good and choose love
- you will never regret it.
This does NOT send me anywhere good, even (especially) when (as you can find) the poet sets the words in brightly colored type and borders them with images of pastel pink frilly lace, an iridescent butterfly, and an over-sized purple ribbon.


Of course, there’s plenty of great poetry on Blogger. As an example, consider please the series of Dance Poems that Mark Lamoureux has posted this year. He’s put up sixteen so far, five each in April, June, and August, and another this month (yet another appears in the current issue of EOAGH, an on-line magazine). These poems, as the series’ title suggests, are written by Lamoureux while watching live dance (generally, each poem arises from a different performance). They are in this way similar to his Film Poems (2005), which he wrote while watching experimental or independent movies.

I could write a lot about Lamoureux’s Dance Poems, but a full report must wait until he finishes his project (and I hope he finds a publisher for a hard-copy collection). I love the spontaneity of them. I love also how each poem is an object (creative work) unto itself, without regard to how it came to be, but that each also– via the use of spare lines (generally only a few words each, sometimes just one), a spare page (lots of white space), and a varied vocabulary – reflects the movement of Lamoureux’s eyes, mind and spirit while watching the particular dance which gives rise to it. Of course, each poem also naturally reflects something of the particular performance itself. Your humble glade-keeper highly recommends that you slip on your ballet shoes and check out them out (examples are linked to in the paragraph above).


Great as they are, Lamoureux’s poems have been posted more or less occasionally, not daily. Although Blogger accommodates any posting frequency, the daily post seems its ideal use. After all, Blogger’s default template stamps the day and date at the very top of each post, similar to where such information would be found at the top of the page in a daily newspaper. Bloggers who can manage a daily post (I can’t), assuming regular readers, can very much expect people to check in as a kind of daily ritual, similar to how many habitually read a daily paper or three, or check the weather forecast on the TV or radio.

If – as really can’t be argued – Blogger works the best with daily posts and daily readers, then Stephen Ratcliffe is the perfect poet for it. As you may know, Ratcliffe for many years has written poems every day. For example, the poems he wrote each day from February 9, 1998 to May 28, 1999 were published in Portraits & Repetition (The Post-Apollo Press, 2002), and those written each day from March 17, 2000 to July 1, 2001 were published in REAL (Avenue B, 2007).

And the two books cited above were but the start of Ratcliffe’s diurnal poem-writing. His daily poems from July 2, 2001 to October 18, 2002 are collected in CLOUD / RIDGE (available on line only, as a 479 page pdf (click here!)). Those from October 19, 2002 through July 14, 2005 – that’s 1000 consecutive days – are in HUMAN / NATURE (also available only on-line, as a 1003 page pdf (click here!)). There then followed, per a note I’ve received from Ratcliffe, the not yet published Remarks on Color / Sound, which comprises poems written each day from July 15, 2005 – April 8, 2008. As you can surely anticipate, on April 9, 2008, Ratcliffe began another series of daily poems, one that earlier this year he began sharing, each day, on his blog.

Each of the above-mentioned sets or series of daily poems has its own particular form and/or focus (foci), although the uniform nature of each still allows plenty of day-to-day variation in content. But the point here is that they are day-to-day, with mostly fixed forms.

Has anyone else published such daily, essentially fixed-form poems, or at least so many of them, covering such a long stretch of years? I can’t think of anybody. Ratcliffe, to paraphrase another rock-n-roll tag line (promoter Bill Graham’s, about the Grateful Dead), is not only the best at what he does, but the only one who does what he does.


Bolinas, California
(overview, looking Northwest)

Ratcliffe’s daily poem-writing routine was reported on about two years ago by the Point Reyes Light, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper published very near Ratcliffe’s home in Bolinas, California (in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge and north of San Francisco, for those not familiar with the town or area). Here’s what reporter Sasha Wolf wrote:
Every morning at the crack of dawn, Stephen Ratcliffe goes downstairs to his kitchen and makes himself a cup of coffee. He sits at his kitchen table and looks out the window at the sewer ponds in the meadow behind his French cottage-style Bolinas house. Then he gets up and walks around, inside, outside. Carrying a small black and red notebook, he writes down what he sees and what he thinks about what he sees. Once he has written notes in the small book, Ratcliffe writes a “finished” poem in a larger notebook, identical in style and color to the smaller one. Finally he types the lines on his computer using the Courier font . . . . It generally takes him 30 minutes to two hours to complete a poem.
Ratcliffe’s current series of daily poems is titled (if I understand correctly a comment he made on another blog a few months ago) Temporality. I’ve become a stone-cold addict of these poems. I MUST read each new poem every day. If I miss a day, I CRAVE until I go back and catch up. Poem-junkie Steve, you can call me.

One reason Ratcliffe’s Temporality posts are addictive is that every poem, each day, has the same basic format. Each has a three line opening stanza, followed by section consisting of two indented couplets, and then a final, justified-to-the-left margin, stanza-couplet. Each of the three sections has a particular focus, which remains the same day-to-day, and all poems use the distinctive Courier font with lower case letters, and have the same between lines (and between stanzas) spacing. Here’s the poem “5.15”, published (as you’d expect) on May 15th:

first grey light in fog against invisible

ridge, birds calling from branch in lower

left foreground, sound of wave in channel

      more to what extent and why,

      “translate” means here

      picture frame whose edge is,

      image, exact dimension

tree-lined canyon of ridge across channel,

white clouds in pale blue sky above point

And so you can see how the look of the poem, and the format and focus of each section, remains the same, here’s “10.7”, from (natch) October 7th:

first light in sky above plane of black

ridge, waning white moon above branches

in foreground, sound of wave in channel

      “unconceal” the “unconcealed,”

      words in strict sense

      approximate height and width,

      effect, toward center

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,

whiteness of moon above sunlit branches

The three-line opening stanza of each poem, as you can deduce from the examples above, always present details about the outside (out in nature, I might say) world seen and heard. Even more specifically, the stanzas’ first phrase concerns what’s seen at some distance, generally at a ridge line that sometimes can be seen, at or just before dawn. The second phrase generally presents a matter closer at hand, and the third involves, typically, some particular sound heard. The latter typically, almost but not exclusively, involves “the channel,” an area of the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Bolinas lagoon.

The particular details in Ratcliffe’s opening stanzas, as you might also deduce from the two examples above– and which I can confirm based on my daily reading for the last six months – often vary only slightly day-to-day. This is only natural, given that Ratcliffe (per the newspaper report above, and by the evidence in the poems themselves), gets up and looks and listens at about the same time every morning. This almost repetitive routine is both comforting – no matter what goes down, Bolinas a la Ratcliffe always stays just about the same – and capable of great surprise.

Imagine my surprise, for example, one particular day a little more than three months ago. For weeks, the final phrase of each day’s first stanza had involved – or was – the “sound of wave” (or “sound of waves”) “in channel.” But then, on July 3rd, I woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, looking up I noticed I was late . . . but still I turned on the computer, hit the bookmark for Ratcliffe’s blog, and read an opening stanza that looked oh-so-familiar, and included details similar to those I had read before, until its final phrase:
grey whiteness of fog across shadowed

green ridge, crow calling from branch

in foreground, sound of car in street
I swear, the sound of that car, after I came to it in the poem, was the loudest thing I heard that day! What a change up! And yet, I’m quite confident that’s just how it went down in Bolinas that morning. Instead of hearing the waves at dawn, or having the hearing of waves dominate his mind as he made the poem, Ratcliffe that day heard a car, or had the hearing of the car he had heard most in mind when he that morning wrote the poem.

Although it is not uncommon for Ratcliffe to repeat particular words in the opening stanza day-to-day, that stanza has never repeated itself in toto. There’s always some thing, and generally a number of things, new, within the uniform structure and similar focus of each constituent phrase. In this respect, the change on July 3rd from waves to a car is but the most dramatic example of what happens day-to-day to you, the reader.

This day-to-day perceiving in Ratcliffe’s poems of differences within that which is otherwise quite similar is, of course, a very apt model to what it’s like when encountering the world each day. Ratcliffe’s poems thus very effectively train or hone the eyes and mind. This is another addictive quality.

As you know, those who exercise daily get both an endorphin-rush “runner’s high” and undeniable benefits to general health. Similarly, when reading Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems, and in particular when reading the similar but not always identical details of his opening stanzas, I get a daily mental work-out. That work, I swear to Jack LaLanne, releases something in my head that permits me to better see, to more precisely distinguish one thing from another. I become, in other words, more open to the poetry of daily life.


The middle section of Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems present a mental exercise – and have a mental effect – of an entirely different kind. Whereas the opening stanzas present details, a la the Objectivists, that cohere into distinct seen or heard images, the two indented couplets that follow present phrases concerning mostly abstract matters, fragments that often seem lifted and placed out-of-context, and which hardly ever (read: never) cohere into any unified whole. Please see here the middle sections of the example-poems above; or the following, the middle section from “10.14”, posted by Ratcliffe just a few days ago:

          therefore motions of light,

          which can be formed

          also defined, moving point,

          that is in relation

The contrast between the concrete opening and more abstract middle sections is stark, but delicious. After being focused on particulars for three lines, the reader’s must – no, gets to – shift into a different mode. Lock-down focus on particular matters is now impossible, and the mind travels, via Ratcliffe’s middle-section phrases, in two, three, sometimes as many as four or five different directions. As with any good work-out, the middle section allows a profound, and many-faceted, mental stretch.


The closing section in each of Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems is always a couplet, fully-justified to the left margin, which returns to the particulars of landscape with which the poem begins. However, the perspective has changed. The final lines find Ratcliffe, I do believe (based on the words of the poems) down at the ocean, or nearer to it than the opening three lines. He now sees the channel, and often mentions or alludes to “the point” where land meets sea, or the “GROIN sign” that marks the end of a structure, located at or (depending on the tide and season) near the water-line, designed to interrupt water flow and limit the movement of sediment. Here are the final lines of “10.14”:

grey rain cloud against invisible ridge,

whiteness of waves in windblown channel
I find Ratcliffe’s poem-closing approach brilliant. The change of scene implies movement across time as well as place, yet also anchors the poem back on earth, and on the page, after the middle section’s flights of abstraction. And it is two lines long, as opposed to the opening’s three lines. This too is smart, like the playwright who makes the closing act shorter than the first, knowing both that audience attention tends to wane after intermission, and that quick often means more dramatic. Here, Ratcliffe brings his poems each day to a conclusion that seems, comparatively, snappy or peppy.


Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems probably are an acquired taste, and not for everyone. Within the poems, you will not find humor, poetic devices such as metaphor, language gone wild, references to current events of the kind you’d read in newspapers, or the strum and drang (or unmitigated joy, for that matter) of human relations. The absence of such may make the poems seem dull to some.

However, and of course, all that is not included in the poems means that Ratcliffe can focus all the more on that which he does include. It’s an old story, but sometimes constraints spark incredible creativity and make for compelling and enjoyable work. I think that’s the case here. Ratcliffe’s a master at what he’s doing, and what he’s doing – day-in-day-out, week-after-week, month-after-month – is very special, and the best use of Blogger poem-posts that I can imagine.


Stephen Ratcliffe


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kate and Sarah, Kate and Amelia, Kate and Kate . . .

While surfing two months ago – on the internet, alas, not the ocean – I came across a poem that blew my mind.

Titled “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” and written about a year ago by Los Angeles poet Kate Durbin, the poem takes a potentially tired or trite main subject (hint: not the number 23 or erotic dreams) and makes something amazing.

As the visuals just above suggest, Durbin’s “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” is a Denali of a poem, a growling grizzly that mauls the former governor’s (and now best-selling author-to-be and future who-knows-what) “vote-for-me I’m from Alaska, a woman, and sexy” persona, and the media/public’s considerable role in perpetuating all that.

The poem consists of twenty-three quasi-sentences (each ends in a series of ellipses), each of which begins, “I dream of Sarah” and then end with a variety of matters that Durbin imagines, or perhaps actually dreamed, about Palin.

These dreams, these sentences, are w-i-c-k-e-d. Wicked as in nasty, rude, unruly, and – and this is largely what makes this poem great and memorable – subversively smart, whip-smart, in almost every sense of that latter word. This poem is intelligent, clever, brisk, and (especially) sharply severe. It’s a most convincing pin-her-to-the-tundra take down of Palin, and of the disturbing stereotyping that surrounded the woman.

Here, from near the poem’s end, is a sequence of four of its twenty-three one sentence dreams:
I dream of Sarah with guns.......................

I dream of Sarah stuffing an owl she shot herself.......................

I dream of Sarah licking the stuffed owl.......................

I dream of Sarah shoving the owl’s beak up her asshole.......................
I love how these lines take-it-one-step-at-a-time until it breaks, gloriously, into that space where the gravitational forces of decorum and politeness no longer reign. The first two lines, about the guns and stuffing an owl, are quite plausible visions given that we all were told that Palin hunts and can field dress a moose. The second one though, is surely a step beyond the first: more vivid, a more pointed dream-shot of its subject’s personality.

The third line is another step further still. Although weird animal fetishes such as stroking a rabbit’s foot good luck charm have their place, licking a stuffed owl is quite unusual, shockingly so, I’d say, when a visual is overlaid on Durbin’s words.

The final line, a fevered licentious image that’s hilarious too, takes the big step, an oooo-oh-wow one-giant-leap-into-orbit. An orbit of sublime transgressive outrageousness. And it gets there through what I must call a great poetic use of momentum, in which images accelerate atop one another until, as said above, it all breaks free.

The four lines above, I kid you not, are among the most mild in Durbin’s poem. “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” is a riotous and libertine read. It is also a great critique of the Palin persona, and the over-sexualized frenzy of the media and public. Judge for thyself, if you please. The full poem – the four lines above, plus nineteen others – is right here: it’s just a click away, it’s just a click away, a click away, a click away!


Reading “23 Erotic Dreams” I quickly asked, “what else has Kate Durbin written?” And so I sent away for her very recently (in August) published book of poems, her first perfectbound collection, The Ravenous Audience.

Kate Durbin
The Ravenous Audience

(Los Angeles: Black Goat c/o New York: Akashic Books (2009))

I was not necessarily expecting to find in The Ravenous Audience poetry precisely like “23 Erotic Dreams” (that poem, by the way, is not included in the book). Creativity, no less than personality, has – or can have – many facets. A writer need not work on nor present to the world but one angle or face. Having loved Durbin’s Palin poem, I bought and read her book, to she what else she might do with words. This here – the remainder of this post – is my report.

The Ravenous Audience has about three dozen poems. Eight, as Durbin writes in the notes that follow the poems, are “variations on the films” of the French Director Catherine Breillat. Two others are also informed or inspired by films, and a half-dozen others arise from, are informed by, or were sparked by the creative work of others. There are two poems about Marilyn Monroe, arising from published biographies or magazine articles about the icon, and three very short poems that respond to advertisements in 1950s Vogue magazines. There are also about fifteen additional poems.


One of those fifteen other poems – “Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot” – is at thirty pages by far the longest poem in the book. Underlying the poem is the theory that the pioneering aviator and her male flying partner, who vanished in 1937 while flying around the world, crashed near an isolated South Pacific atoll on which they survived for several days. To this theory, Durbin adds the premise that Earhart throughout her life, including during and after the crash of her final flight, kept a diary of sorts, that she tucked her final entries, covering the flight and post-crash days, into her shoe, and that these were later discovered.

(The theory underlying Durbin’s poetic premise is not entirely far-fetched. In recent years, bits of a woman’s and a man’s shoes dating from the 1930s, along with what may be pieces of an airplane, have been found on Nikumaroro, a small, uninhabited coral atoll in the Pacific. Some now hypothesize that Earhart and her flying partner crashed and survived there. Among many Earhart books published in recent years (the resonance of the aviator and her story remain strong in the culture at large) is Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, which discusses this theory.)

Durbin’s poem, then, takes the form of excerpts from that imagined diary, and more specifically consists of a series of very short sections, one to a page (each having a one word title), with the text almost entirely in very spare prose. It’s a poetic Earhart interior over time monologue, of a kind. “Channeling Amelia,” if you will.

Here are two consecutive sections from early on in the poem, in which Earhart (the voice of Earhart, of course, written by Durbin) recounts two of her first experiences with flying (note: the initial “F” is used to denote Fred Noonan, Earhart’s first instructor and flying partner, and the solid line indicates a page break):


When the little red plane at the stunt-flying exhibition swooped
down on us girls, I imagined I could see a smirk on the male pilot’s
lips. Watch the girls scatter!

That bold redness hurtling at me, a fireball from heaven. And the
wind, that heady roar —

That pleasure. That fear.
Staying my ground.



F took me up in his plane one indigo morning. At 100 feet, ground
shrinking, blue increasing – I felt the pull of earth, the solid home.


At 300 feet, I knew I was meant for indefinite sky.

These excerpts, I caution, are not fair to the poem. There is much in Durbin’s “Amelia Earhart,” recurring words or images, or appraoches to words, that echo between its thirty sections. The resulting reverb and reflections create sonic, emotional and intellectual depth that can’t be heard, felt, or seen when passages are presented outside the poem’s whole.

Still, the sections above do show some (though not all) of the key themes or concerns of the poem, as well as some of how Durbin goes about her writing here. Obviously, there’s Earhart’s independence, commitment and assertiveness, particularly in the face of male arrogance, her sensuality, and her love of adventure.

I see a parallel, or imagine one, between Earhart love of adventure here, and anyone’s, including Durbin and her readers (and thus my own) mad love of poetry (writing or reading it), and/or of the rushing desire of lust-love. The terms Durbin/Earhart uses (“heady roar”, “[s]oaring”, “indefinite sky”) apply equally to all flights, be they aerodynamic or creative or romantic. The perseverance of the young Amelia, “[s]taying [her] ground” as “a fireball from heaven” hurtles at her, similarly transfers: think of the poet as an auditory receiver, her mind firm as bursting bolides of thought rush in.

Durbin’s method in these sections, as throughout this poem, is not minimalist but almost so. The text is spare. The narrative and its poetic task are advanced by relatively few words. This has the advantage of leaving lots of space – and there is literally lots of blank space on each page – for the echoes and reflections mentioned above to do their thing. It also almost entirely inoculates against over-writing, and the false or cloying notes that are an inherent danger when imagining the inner life of well-known person.

The spareness also makes for good, as in sharp, writing. There’s a lot conveyed by Durbin, concerning the spectrum or mix of emotions, in the line, made of two sentences and but four words,
That pleasure. That fear.
The signal example of Durbin’s brevity in the excerpts above, obviously, is the one word second paragraph of “SKY”:
That’s one great verb, and the only word she needs right there. It not only denotes the unfettered upward flight Earhart experienced, but connotes freedom and grace, as well. There’s also the (coincidental?) with the overlay of the final “r” of the verb’s root with the “ing” suffix/gerund – and thus “ring – suggesting celebration in its sound and meaning.

Durbin’s “Amelia Earhart” explores other facets of the aviator’s personality or concerns, including her love for her husband, domesticity, and blood (including menstruation). Of course, there’s the story, of the crash and the struggle to survive. It’s a tribute to Durbin’s writing that the end is effective and moving even though how it all turns out is, of course, well known.

Durbin’s poem was originally published earlier this year as a stand-alone chapbook, Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot (Chicago: Dancing Girl Press, 2009). That book has a tremendous cover, with a little red plane in a woman’s hand against a sky-blue background:

I prefer this chapbook version, and greatly so, frankly, because of its smaller size. As mentioned above, white space is important so that the text’s echoes have room to ripple out, but in The Ravenous Audience, with great gulfs of blank space at the bottom of each page, seems to have too much of it for this poem. More pleasing to the eye and mind is the relation of text to page in the Dancing Girl Press chapbook, where the page bottom blank space is about half of what it is in the larger collection. Plus it has that cover!


Another extremely effective poem in The Ravenous Audience is “New Creature.” It’s a six page, fifteen section prose poem, although as in “Amelia Earhart” some of the sections are very short. The subject matter is serious: a father rapes his daughter in a barn; the daughter then flees, naked, into a forest. It’s a narrative poem, and Durbin tells it, superbly, in a way that makes it kind of a myth. As implied by the title, there is in “New Creature” a transformation (buy the book, read the poem, and see what kind). As such, and not to put too much weight on the poem’s shoulders, but I see it as a kind of modern supplement to some of the tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Durbin’s poem-myth, in its taut telling, has plenty of vivid here-and-now details that bring the reader into the story. Here in its entirety is section III (again, of fifteen) of “New Creature”; the girl, having escaped from the violent sexual attack, is now deep in the forest. Note the tautness of Durbin’s writing, her cinematic approach and animated details:
There is wind on skin. There is the moon, its mercurial shining. Dirt
underfoot. Her steps slowing. Her breath also slowing.

Sounds grow louder and more varied. The nightingale’s trill. The
gossip of rodents. The crunching of twigs. In air the sleepy, heady
scent of growing things. Faintly familiar. Recalling childhood, her
long-dead mother.

It is here in the forest’s dense secrecy that she knows she is meant
to die.

When she is too tired to lift her feet, she stops to feed on berries,
which glow wine in starlight. She drinks from a midnight pool. Her
reflection startles her – red hair surrounding pale face like a Christmas
wreath, nipples rigid and pink as the noses of barn mice.

She falls asleep, one hand dipped in silvery water.

Ripples go out from the tips of her fingers, where tiny fish come to

The first part of The Ravenous Audience is bracketed by two complementary poems, “Learning to Read” and “Unlearning To Read.” These prose poems show, I think, something about Durbin’s different-than-most folks way of seeing the world, or at least the world of, and the world made by, words.

“Learning to Read” is a presumably autobiographical piece concerning exactly what the title says. There are many variations when learning to read, I think. It can be a long struggle, for example, with the child taking two steps forward then one back, tutored by parents and/or teachers, gradually building vocabulary and slowly learning how to put words together.

Durbin in her poem’s first sentences tells us she doesn’t “remember learning how” to read, Only not knowing, then knowing.” That moment, beautifully told, came while in the car her mom, when suddenly billboards, or the over-sized words on them, suddenly came to life, with Durbin reading them “first with pleasure, then fear as I began to realize this wasn’t a television I could turn off . . .” After giving examples of what was coming at her, Durbin writes:
The words howled at me, insistent, like my cat stuck on the
windowsill outside my room in a night storm. I listened to his cries but
was too afraid of the wind whipping the soggy hairs of the willow
against my window to get out from under the covers and let him in.
Afraid of him, too – all yellow eyes, melting fur, bones.

The billboards, more than I could count, rushed past. Still howling.

I said to my mother: I can’t stop reading. How do I?

She laughed. That’s what happens when you learn words – you can’t ever go back!
Ha! Words as a howling nightmarish horror that never ends! Now that’s a unique take. It reminds me of the late great artist Bruce Conner told, of being first taken to the movies as a child, being told how wondrous it would be, but then in fact getting scared as all hell by the GIANT twenty foot tall moving images of Shirley Temple on the screen of the darkened theater. I find the kind of out-of-kilter, off-the-norm reactions of the kind related by Durbin and Conner to be fascinating, and sometimes key to subsequent creative work.

The complementary prose poem “Unlearning To Read” – I think that title phrase is meant to obversely suggest learning to write – surely shows some of Durbin’s particular approach. It’s also a powerhouse of writing, the poem in The Ravenous Audience closest to the remarkable start-to-finish energy of her Palin poem. After epigraphs from Kathy Acker, the Bible, and Antonin Artaud (“All language is pig shit”), the poem begins thus:
Words, dreams, rain pissing on leaves, gorging gutters, blood
congealing in a toilet bowl in a thick dark mass, two dogs banging
in the dirt, a human heart swelling –

A rat gnaws a dead doe. Years later the same rat will sink into the
black soil of the forest floor. Ripe cherries will drop from the tree,
embedding into the tender corpse. Rain will fall. Another tree will
grow, thrive.

What does it mean for the word to come alive? Built by bone,
stitched together with skin?

Abraham stands above Isaac, knife slicing the sky . . . .
This just sends me. It’s fresh, surprising, vivid: rain pissing, blood in the bowl, dogs fucking, knife slicing the sky, and all the rest, and all put down in rat-a-tat-tat bursts of words.

The poem – which goes for about a page and a half, including the epigraphs – ends Durbin declares her approach to writing, proffers a kind of theory of language. It follows well from the Acker/Artaud epigraphs, but is Durbin’s own, and like the poem’s first paragraphs (quoted above) is unforgettable, I think you will agree:
                                    . . . I shit words; vomit them like someone else’s bile
out of my mouth. Crap them from my pen. Rub them into my hide.
Paint them across my lips.

These, my monsters. Makeshift. One-eyed. Three-limbed. Built
of old bones, feces, dirt. Set ticking with some ancient, nameless
creature’s stolen, still-throbbing heart.
This way of writing, this vision of words – and the way it’s all told, with those short, taut sentences – is more than enough to make me come back to Durbin’s book, and all that she writes in the future, for a good long time.


I should but will not – as this post already seems fairly long – discuss other of my favorites in The Ravenous Audience. I’ll mention one, though: “36 Fillette”, a series of statements, made by men to a young girl in the Breillat film of the same title, presented by Durbin one-by-one across and down-the-page, forming a word collage of male misogyny, exploitation, objectifying and arrogant assumptions of power. You can, courtesy of the Drunken Boat on-line ‘zine, read “36 Fillette” here (click through, if you please) and/or listen to Durbin read it here (again, click through).

I should also discuss, in some overarching manner, Durbin’s takes on gender roles, as many of the poems, as I’ve indicated when mentioning or discussing them above, have matters important to being a woman as a central concern. The publisher on the back cover asserts the book is a “feminist revisionist text[],” but one done on Durbin’s terms. As the publisher puts it, she “throws the reader, and the poet, into the cauldron.” Sometimes these back cover pitches are but puffery and hype. Not here, not at all. Check it out, I strongly recommend, and you’ll see what I mean.


Kate Durbin

Update: October 12, 2009:
An interview with Durbin about The Ravenous Audience
has just been posted by her publisher
(click here to go)

Note: although Durbin’s editor/interviewer and I
have the same last name,
we are not, to my knowledge, related
(though we probably are, distantly)
and have never met or corresponded