Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reading (part 3) The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner

Arthur . . . . . . & . . . . . . Larry

Après le Déluge   |    L u s t r a t e

This post, I promise, is mostly about Arthur and Larry – and yes, I think first names only, Vegas-style, works just fine here – but first a bit of background, before I get to the poets and the poems.

Poems in the ekphrastic mode – by which I mean those that respond to or arise from other creative works, including novels, music, TV documentaries, other poetry – are a relatively small but very interesting subset within the 3000 plus poems in The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Stanford University Press, 2010).

Eigner had a hyper-curious intelligence (“curiosity pulls me about,” he stressed more than once, adding that he was always “tantalized in all directions”). He also had – due in part to his disability, his birth accident cerebral palsy – a goodly amount of time to read, listen, or watch, and made a habit of doing all that from an early age. Atop all that, he had a proclivity (or even necessity) to communicate via the written word (his speech wasn’t good, and as a child his mother would tell him to go to his room if he wanted to respond to things by talking out loud).

Given Eigner’s intelligence, curiosity, habits of reading, looking, and communicating in writing, it’s not surprising that over the decades he wrote dozens of poems arising from or inspired by (he sometimes said “occasioned by”) other people’s creative work. The earliest Eigner ekphrastic endeavor appears to be two poems from January 1952 responding, as suggested in the Stanford edition endnotes, to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

Other examples from the 1950s include a poem arising from an account of the Donner Party ordeal, one occasioned by John Marshall’s The Hunters, a classic ethnographic documentary, another regarding the music of the 19th Century Russian composer Alexander Borodin, plus three inspired by mainstream films (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Giant, and King Solomon’s Mines, respectively).

Eigner continued to write such poems as the years proceeded. I can’t provide a complete list, but just so you might have a better sense, the final volume of The Collected Eigner, covering the Berkeley years (1978-1995), includes more than two dozen poems that per Eigner’s own in-poem notations or his typescript comments included in the endnotes respond, or were occasioned by, other creative or artistic works.

Specifically, in that volume are poems that arise from other poetry (collections or work by Vicki Hearne, Joseph Gugliemi, Robert Grenier, Ron Silliman, Claude Royet-Journod, Bob Arnold, James Weil, Kit Robinson, and Walt Whitman), music (Beethoven, Schoenberg, Schubert, and Alden Carpenter), film or TV documentaries (on the sea, Nanook of the North, Chagall, Rome, Buddha’s travels, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and The Holocaust), popular or independent films (Ecstasy (1933), The Bridge of the River Kwai (1961), movies by Stan Brakhage); and other miscellaneous stuff (e.g., a painting by Red Grooms, a National Geographic article on the Amish and Mennonites, a speech by an U.S. Senator, and a radio show on “fuzzy logic”).

Eigner’s ekphrastic-type poems aren’t anywhere near as numerous as those arising from what was outside the windows of or in the rooms at Swampscott or Berkeley in which he mostly sat and worked (there are hundreds of those, referencing matters in the sky, the neighborhood, or in and about the home). Nevertheless, these ekphrastic efforts should be highlighted because they – as do Eigner’s 30 or so poems from the news (click here) – demonstrate the range of his mind and interests. They are yet another facet, a highly reflective and absorbing one, in the gem that is The Collected Eigner.


Although most of Eigner’s ekphrastic efforts use a creative work to springboard a poem that concerns, or spins off from, the work, there are a few – and these are only among those that respond to poetry – in which the particular creative work is used almost totally as model. Eigner gets imitative, in other words, and it can be big fun.

And thus we get to – and finally! – Arthur and Larry.

The ekphrastic Eigner poem I spotlight today, titled “L u s t r a t e” (and yes the spacing is as it was written) is one that responds to – is actually labeled by Eigner as “a variation” of – Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem “Après le Déluge” (“After the Deluge”). Rimbaud’s poem, you probably know, is the first one in Illuminations, and as such holds a particular pride of place in one of the greatest prose poem collections ever.

“Après le Déluge” (“After the Deluge”) also has a particular pride of place at or very near the tippy-top of my list of all-time great prose poems. Its rush of vivid images – particularly the opening shots (to use a cinematic term) of the rabbit, swaying flowerbells, rainbow, and spider’s web – always blows my poetry-mind. Its rapid rhythmic shifts and transitions, and combinations of short/snappy and long/rhetorical sentences forever rivet attention. And its “message” (to be cheap about it, since I don’t think the poem adds up to any one thing) about the purifying and/or creative energies of the flood (or the idea thereof), and the need for the poet to have such surges, strongly resonates.

But enough of my talk. Here’s Rimbaud’s poem, in the still lively Louise Varèse translation (New Directions, revised edition 1957):

                 AFTER THE DELUGE

      As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided,
      A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flower-
bells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the
spider’s web.
      Oh! the precious stones that began to hide, --and
the flowers that already looked around.
      In the dirty main street, stalls were set up and
boats were hauled toward the sea, high tiered as in
old prints.
      Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s, --through slaughter-
houses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched
by God’s seal. Blood and milk flowed.
      Beavers built. “Mazagrans” smoked in the little
      In the big glass house, still dripping, children in
mourning looked at the marvelous pictures.
       A door banged; and in the village square the
little boy waved his arms, understood by the weather
vanes and cocks on steeples everywhere, in the burst-
ing shower.
      Madame *** installed a piano in the Alps. Mass
and first communions were celebrated at the hun-
dred thousand altars of the cathedral.
      Caravans set out. And Hotel Splendid was built
in the chaos of ice and of the polar night.
      Ever after the moon heard jackals howling across
the deserts of thyme, and ecologues in wooden shoes
growling in the orchard. Then in the violet and bud-
ding forest, Eucharis told me it was spring.
      Gush, pond,––Foam, roll on the bridge and over
the woods;––black palls and organs, lightning and
thunder, rise and roll;––waters and sorrows rise and
launch the Floods again.
      For since they have been dissipated––oh! the
precious stones being buried and the opened flowers!
––it’s unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who
lights her fire in the earthen pot will never tell us
what she knows, and what we do not know.

And now, the Eigner response, a work he calls (to repeat myself) “a variation.” The poem was written in January 1960, and is found at Volume II, page 367 of The Collected Eigner. Here it is, in the typeface (courier) in which Eigner typed it and with spacing (including between the letters of the title) similar to how he laid it out:

            L u s t r a t e

                          (a variation)

    The moment the notion of a deluge subsided, a

hare, held by the poise of a rainbow in the spectra
of woods, resilient among the veins of infinite
runners, sprawlers, grass, flowing trees, stood still.

      precious hiding stones   flower
                         lookout already
          Windows of town   mourning transparencies,
            the layers of tears.     I, mage  shapes
   Blood reaches out, and milk, whitening seal
blemish of the panes. The great dirty street where
the staging encroaches the heights and you heave
boats down to the sea, loftily carved.
                                      A door
clangs to like a hen, beavers persist, caravan,
wagons, break off madame Whatever coffins a
cleated piano home up through the alps and Hotel
Splenderous in its own mugs forks its blackwatered
ice by the polarized night and day   So the moon
hears the jackals lowering away in bared shrubbery
and eclogues flat in the orchards,   while anyone
would tell me it’s Spring.
     in the shelves of freshening forests  Spume,
clamp on the bridge, suds the woods    awnings and
organs   lightning and thunders, swirl, sorrow ..
      For ever since they’ve been dispelled ––o
the precious stones burning into the earth and the
wide sky  staring flowers!  Terrible, and the old
snore who pots and pitches the country, how should
she say what she knows and we don’t

This poem is something else, yes?! Perhaps I should keep my mouth shut and just let it be, because this one in particular LIVES. So forgive me here, as I will offer a few comments:

1. The title of Eigner’s variation seems a genius-stoke, getting right to the poem-heart while being unusual enough to spark curiosity and a run to the dictionary:
lustrate [luhs-treyt]
– verb
to purify by a propitiatory offering or other ceremonial method
Origin: 1615–25; from Latin lustratus, past participle of lustrare:
to purify, illumine.
2. Eigner’s opening lines, the way they change up while carrying forward the Rimbaud, stun. There’s still a rabbit (“a hare”) and “a rainbow,” but the clover, swaying flowerbells, and spider’s web of “After the Deluge” shift to something different, but which seems equally wondrous.

The key phrase in the Eigner variation is “the spectra of woods.” Spectra, the plural of spectrum, beautifully suggests endless arrays upon arrays (of “woods,” a large and thick collection of growing trees), but also of course via connotation also suggests the rainbow the poem had just mentioned. Eigner then further energizes “the spectra of woods” by detailing its “veins (branching rivers of life) “of infinite runners, sprawlers, grass, flowing trees,” a scene of splendorous never-ending branching growing moving life.

I mean, wow! What a riff on the Rimbaud!

But the real double, or even triple-wow here is the change regarding what the rabbit does. In “L u s t r a t e” there’s no praying as in Rimbaud, or if so, it’s prayer of a very specific kind: Eigner’s hare, “resilent amidst the amazing plenitude, “stood still.”

This emphasizing of “stood still” while true to the Rimbaud’s poem (in which the rabbit is “stopped”) seems to me pure Eigner. It seems directly related both to how his poems via words affix the world, for a moment at least, and to his physical condition, how it was to live with cerebral palsy, particularly in 1960 when he wrote the poem. As he once explained, “Especially before the cyrosurgery that tamed my wild left arm and leg – in September ‘62, 5 or 6 weeks after I turned 35 – in order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”

In other words, Eigner’s day-to-day, moment-to-moment, physical and mental challenge was to (again, his words) “sit still.” As such, I think the notion pitched in “L u s t r a t e” of a moment of repose (“stood still”) amidst the magnificent array upon array of teeming life is extremely (forgive me here) moving. Please, go back and read the poem’s opening paragraph.

3. Also particularly moving – as in rapid kaliedoscopic action – are the surreal swirl of images within Eigner’s big (third-to-last) paragraph. It can’t get much wilder than “coffins a cleated piano home up through the alps and Hotel Splenderous in its own mugs forks its blackwatered ice by the polarized night and day . . . .”

4. You, yourself, and the you that is an other can compare, contrast, and dance with many additional similarities and differences between the two poems. The final things I’ll say here upon concern the poem’s final sentence. And they aren’t too special either, so go ahead and skip to the coda below if you’d like. All I want to say is how much I enjoy how Eigner changes Rimbaud’s “the Witch” – a figure that I’ve always felt was like a Siren, someone who possesses special knowledge but can also be dangerous, to “the old snore.” Eigner’s variation is marvelously human and earthy.

Even better is Eigner’s variation on Rimbaud’s “will never tell us what she knows, and what we do not know.” For Eigner, the problem is not an outright refusal, but a challenge of communication: “how should she say what she knows and we don’t” (emphasis added). This too seems marvelous, with its implications relative to Eigner’s mode of composition, which focused always on “understatement,” “the supression of words,” and arose from his always and forevers consideration of “what’s engh sd or trop peu, how much to make of anything, to find // the weight // of things.”


L u s t r a t e, per the bibliographies, never appeared in print prior to The Collected Eigner. It stopped me, filled me with giddy joy, when six months ago I first came upon it while reading through the books. Even after I’d read all 3,000 plus poems in the four books more than once this poem stayed with me, struck me as the most unusual of the previously unpublished Eigner poems.

I mean, who’d of thunk that when Larry did Arthur, it’d turn out so great? Who’d of thunk that Eigner, known for attentiveness to thought, carefully composed lines, and observations of seemingly prosaic everyday life (cats and phonepoles, for example, are common in his poems) could typewrite up a poem that fits side-by-side with a classic by Rimbaud, the “raisonné dérèglement des sens” proto-surrealist?

Well, while I’d never of thunk it, I must point out that others -- at least one other -- most certainly did. Check out what Cid Corman, in his review of Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments (1967), wrote about Eigner’s poetry:
One perception moves upon another with the instantaneity Olson counselled in his Projective Verse essay and which Rimbaud had already picked up from Baudelaire at an earlier date.
I think Corman is right on here with his identification of a common approach -- the quick movement of perceptions -- in the poetry of Eigner and Rimbaud. And you know what? Take a look at the top of this post, the photos of the two – maybe there is also a similar intensity in their eyes, yes? Maybe Arthur and Larry, via some process of transmigration and reincarnation, are actually. . . . Well, okay, probably not. But still, “After the Deluge” and “L u s t r a t e” are still a kick, a great pair o’ poems, an Arthur-‘n-Larry combo for the ages.


Those interested in another Eigner poem occasioned by Rimbaud should check out “spectacle” at page 1300, in Volume III of The Collected Eigner. Written in December, 1976, the poem is a fragmentary versified response to “Parade” (in English, “Side Show”), which like “After the Deluge” is a prose poem in Illuminations. Per an endnote for “spectacle”, Eigner’s transcript includes a note from him stating the poem came “[f]rom scribbling on” the page of the New Directions Illuminations, in the Louise Varese translation.

For other posts on Eigner here in the glade, please see (click ‘n go):

Reading The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Part 1)
[on Eigner’s poems from the news]

Reading (part 2) The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner
[on Eigner’s poems with but one word per line]

For even more on Eigner here in the glade (again, click ‘n go):

A gathering of statements by Eigner, regarding his poetry

A gathering of statements by other poet-readers on Eigner

A post on the left-side margins of The Collected Eigner,
a coda to that post,
a post on the corrected edition of Volume III



John Olson said...

Thank you for this Steve. I had no idea Eigner had done this. It would be impossible to top the original, but Eigner doesn't compete with it so much as draw from it, use it as a springboard to a fresh occasion. Eigner's version is interesting for its compression. It is compact, staccato, telegrammatic. A jarring of words like boxcars in a trainyard when another car gets added and you hear a wham! wham! wham! all down the line to the locomotive. As you put it, "Its rapid rhythmic shifts and transitions, and combinations of short/snappy and long/rhetorical sentences forever rivet attention." This is true. I went back and read it again and again. One's eyes do not find repose there. One finds an engine rumbling in proprioceptive diesel.

Steven Fama said...

Hi John,

What a beautiful comment on the Eigner / Rimbaud poem(s). "[A] wham! wham! wham! all down the line [. . .] ". . . . an engine rumbling . . ." gets it just about exactly perfect. Thanks!