Sunday, May 16, 2010

. . . notational noetics . . .

Joanne Kyger
Lo & Behold

(Voices From The American Land, 2009)

Joanne Kyger read in Berkeley Thursday night, at Moe’s. I was curious as to what might be new. It’s been about three years since her big (over 700 pages) volume of collected poems – About Now (National Poetry Foundation, 2007), containing poems written between 1958 and 2004 – and three years as well since Not Veracruz (Libellum, 2007), a short (35 page) book of poems written in 2006. There was also in 2008 the on-line only four-page poem “Permission By The Horns.”

I’ve long been charmed and edified by Kyger’s work. Ron Silliman’s view – that Kyger is a “treasure” who’s “a master of the poem that . . . records whatever happens to be taking place right now (italics his) – seems exactly right. The title of one of her poems from 1989 – “Friday 2:44 PM” – pretty much tells how right now Kyger can be, a focus brought home in the poem’s final line:
It’s here            the moment begins.
Often enough, Kyger’s poem-moments are unforgettable. One that stays with me is the final section of her 1998 poem “Living a Spiritual Life in the ‘Woods’”–
    Anna’s humming bird

                 does its familiar dart around
            the corner of the house but its food
      the red fuschia
has just gone             has just gone to the dump
That’s a moment of keen observation, of sensitivity to surroundings, and one that was possible only because Kyger had experienced, been aware of, similar keenly observed moments in the past (she’s familiar with the bird’s habits).

This particular moment, the particular sensation of it, is right there, full on, in the words and their placement on the page: the bird in the air and bird hovering (via the first line’s separation from the rest of the text, and the separation in that line of the last two words, usually seen as a single word), the movement of the bird in space and time made via the perfect line break of “around / the corner,” and the emphasizing of both the recency and finality of the loss through the repetition of “has just gone” (with spaced break), a repetition which also echoes the quick movement of the hummingbird darting. In addition, the notched movement of the final lines towards the left-side margin reflects how Kyger’s thinking, at the moment of the bird darting, must have stepped back to when the fuschia was removed.

These lines (including in particular “the house” and “the dump”) also show Kyger’s focus on the local, which is something else that appeals to me, especially since “the local” for her is Bolinas, where she has lived since 1968. Bolinas, about 10 miles as the hawk flies – but 30 or so miles (and one good hour) by car – from San Francisco, is a fascinating place, for – among other things – its tectonics, beauty, sometimes reclusive residents, nearness to the magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore, $300,000 water meters, and very interesting role in contemporary poetry over the last forty or so years. Kyger’s been called “The” Bolinas poet (by Stephen Ratcliffe no less, himself a very careful observer of Bolinas matters) and that too seems right, given that she’s lived there since 1968 and has written hundreds of poems that bring in a bit or a lot of the place.

Bolinas, California (looking Northwest)


At the reading on Thursday night I learned that Kyger has a relatively new chapbook, called Lo & Behold (Voices From The American Land, 2009). It’s a selection of notebook entries from 1980 to 1992. There’s much of Bolinas in these entries, as the chap’s subtitle – Household and Threshold On California’s North Coast – indicates. Kyger on Thursday read almost exclusively from the book, for about 30 minutes, and it was a treat.

The notebook entries are arranged by year but not otherwise dated. Entries are sometimes as short as a few words or as long as several sentences, but most are one or two lines in length. They are sometimes lineated in the manner of verse but mostly are in prose. Yet even the prose entries ring poetic, both because of the juxtapositions in subject matter and given how Kyger arranges them (many second lines of a particular entry are, and there’s variation in the clustering and spacing between sentences. The entries for each year average about two pages in length (13 years are covered in 24 pages), although there’s considerable variation in the length of each annual section: the entries for 1985, for example, take up only half a page, while those for 1992 (the other extreme) take up almost four.

As stated above, there are plenty of local details in Lo & Behold, and most are quite distinctive or maybe even of an “only in” Bolinas type. For example, there are entries concerning or that mention septic tanks, the “People’s Store,” summer fog, utility district meetings, the beach at low-tide beach, the July 4th parade, the comings and goings of birds, winter rains, parties, green slopes above the reef, earthquakes, wild mushrooms, surfers in the water, a dead whale on the beach, and the like.

But there are also references to or comments on non-Bolinas matters, including a few about national events or politics and other places. There are also quotations from others (often anonymous), a bit of philosophizing, often Buddhist in nature including an aphoristic pronouncement or two, dream records, a touch of poetics, humor (dry and potent), and other personal opinions. Sometimes the entries seem diary or journal-like, casual and off the cuff, and other times they seem more considered.

No matter what the notebook entries concern, or the style in which they are presented, it’s all Kyger, and that’s the important point. It’s her mind, a mind (given the years arrayed page-to-page) working and moving over time. The chapbook as a whole is a collage of thought-facets, notational noetics if you please, kaliedoscoping across, down, and over the pages.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Well it is, and interesting too. The 40 or so listeners at Moe’s Thursday night seemed intently focused during Kyger’s approximately thirty minute reading from Lo & Behold. Among the attendees were a pair of young kids (probably about 10 or 12 years old) who sat just in front and to the side of me. Their attention not only did not wander but was obviously tugged hard by a number of lines. Which is to say that Kyger’s notebook entries can engage the child-wonder that I hope all of us still have.

Any particular excerpt from the chapbook, other than a very lengthy one, wouldn’t really show how it reads as a whole. The entire 1983 section can be read at the publisher’s web-site – click here – and that suggests some of the book’s energy, its movement between entries in particular. However, the year-to-year flow obviously isn’t seen there (unfortunately, I also note that the website does not reproduce the lineation and indentations of the printed chapbook).

I present below approximately twenty lines or clusters of lines cherry-picked from throughout the book (at least one from every year, I think). These particular lines are those that made me especially laugh or think or marvel. It’s my mini-collage from Kyger’s collage, designed to give you an idea of my take on the particular fun and genius of Lo & Behold, and to whet your appetite for the whole thing:

Gull just caught a crab.

Gift bumper stickers reading – “I Blake for Animals.”

Flood at the new year and then the frost got a lot of succulents.

In the junk room of dreams–old dolls, baby toys, a constant urge to pee on the floor.
Arranging and ordering objects, tired, old, used.

Just one dog barking, barking all afternoon.

“How could a so large a man have such glistening little rabbit turds for eyes.”

Candidates night at the utility district. Our government.
Is all about water and septic tanks and second units.
And yawn, why is She running, she’s so Vague.

The funky Cadillac convertible, driven in the July 4th parade by a blind surfer,
is found in lagoon mouth full of sand and beer cans. And somehow is driven away.

It was so boring, I stayed up until 4am reading it.
                           You could hear every sentence clank into place.

Language as sculpting of energy.

Serpent-scaled sky. Sit and sigh. The stove is smoking endlessly.
                                  A flock of meadowlarks appear. A rainbow disappears.

Listen to the music and dance and dance and dance.
Horrible Christmas dinner.
Now you see it, now you don’t. This is a pearl of wisdom.

The smell the skunk let go two hours ago is still really strong, really strong.

Fortunately, when we “find” our voice, we have many many voices.
Every phenomena becomes an inspiration to “sing.”

The sparrows return, on time, the first rain, and a hawk in the loquat
        empties the scene.

“Magic is the total appreciation of chance.” It’s all so brief.
      No need to dress it up as beauty.

Will I ever write anything but notations again?

Put tape recorder on the bird’s seed table. Sound of eight quail pecking.

The “American Dream” is largely a fantasy of unlimited natural resources.

Sunday, walking across the cliffs we pass 18 turkey buzzards standing together.
Sunday school, says Dave. We all think of Lew Welch, but no one says his name.

See! There’s room enough here.

Those familiar with Kyger’s work will know her The Japan and India Journals 1960-1964 (Tombouctou, 1981), republished as Strange Big Moon (North Atlantic Books, 2000), a book that in its notebook style is similar to the new chap. Lo and Behold, however, is much shorter, by magnitude of ten (the earlier book is about 250 pages long).

In the new chap, Kyger via selection distills her previously recorded thoughts and observations into something with a denser specific gravity than the source notebooks. The result is a kind of poem, and one that greatly succeeds on those terms. Although Lo & Behold is a relatively quick read its words and thoughts make a deep and lasting impression. Presumably, Kyger has kept notebooks since 1992 (the year at which Lo & Behold ends), and perhaps someday will edit and present her more recent notations as a kind of poem. If so, I’m looking forward to it, to be yet again charmed and edified by her particular take on her particular place in the world.


Joanne Kyger (2008)
[photo by Andrew Kenower]


. . . notational noetics . . .



Ed Baker said...

you re:kindle my light and whet my appetite for...

as I have not kept up with her writing
since well
-Japan and India Journals
-All This Everyday

and somehow fell into her
-Just Space
and -Patzcuaro
(I spent several months (near there) in Zihuatanejo in 1967-78
about 30 years earlier
and identified with her movement through this little book)

a 700 page collected? NEAT. Thanks terrific review/take on...

Anonymous said...

1967-68 NOT 1968-78!!! was just that I had to after reading Lorca and Paz just had to after graduating Maryland had just drop The Institution .. get to Mexico
I even drove my Chevy...slept in it alot...


Steven Fama said...

Thanks Ed, as always, for your quick reading and two responses here.

With regard to About Now, Kyger's 700 page Collected Poems -- all her poetry from 2004 and before (but not The Japan and India Journals) is in it, and its a beautiful edition, with each poem starting on its own page.

The quotation in this post from Ron Silliman, regarding Kyger's "right now" poetics links back to his review of that book, if you care to read more about it.

Anonymous said...


the Kyger Collected each poem
set on it s own page just as done in say
it should be... as things were set originally ,say, in Just Space Poems 1979-1989
as Black Sparrow "did it"
and as Blue Millennium did Patzcuaro ?

now, when I get "through" with Nin's Diaries (Journals-Notebooks) and her novels will revisit
Joanne Kyger .. well,

her work, anyway

(now to track-back via Ron's review of... via the magic of the Innhernet!

Anonymous said...

pardon me I found Ron's essay (and the comments)

this should be read again:


as an aside
I think she and the band (of Beats) made their way to Kyoto and Cid Corman

I always thought that the gal-beats were more honest then the boys...


John Olson said...

I gotta ask: who came up with the phrase "notational noetics." I love that.

Also, the sentence: "Language is sculpted energy." I cannot come up with a better definition.

This woman works in steel. Or should that be Kyger Aluminum?

Steven Fama said...

Hi John,

"notational noetics" is mine (or at least I can't remember stealing it from anybody!) -- however, I must give a big assist to Kyger on it, in that "notations" of course is her term (it's quoted in the excerpts) for her journal entries. The "noetics" part is but an alliterative riff, though I think it fits...

Curtis Faville said...

The work you quote above reminds me of Whalen, Eigner, and Alice Notley.

At her best, Kyger gives you the 4th dimensional sense of hovering above a position in space where you thought you were already an observer, but you're now looking at yourself thinking that. I don't know how to say what I'm trying to say. The not knowing is where many of the poems start, and then, somehow, they accomplish this further remove.

She gives the impression of a constantly shifting consciousness, nervous and unsettled.