the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Philip Lamanta Day --- 2022


“Touch of the Marvelous” may be the best known of Philip Lamantia’s poems.  It’s certainly one of his earliest.  It was written in 1943, at age 15 (!)  and published—as seen above—in the February 1944 final issue of VVV, the surrealist magazine edited in New York by David Hare with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst.  The issue also included two other Lamantia poems, an ardent letter by him to Breton (“To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets!”), a striking cover by Matta —  

— writings by such luminaries as Benjamin Peret, Aimé Césaire and Leonora Carrington, and art by, among others, Carrington, Enrico Donati, Duchamp, Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, Jacqueline Lamba, Yves Tanguy, and Dorothea Tanning.  

Even among the stellar array of writings and art in VVV no. 4, “Touch of the Marvelous” shone bright, and still does today.  Here again is how the poem looked on the page (go ahead, read it again!):

The energy in this poem is—yes, I will say it—marvelous.  I wrote about it about ten years ago, when it appeared in the lead off spot in Lamantia’s Collected Poems (University of California Press, 2013).  

But I’m compelled to write about the poem again today, on —yes, I said yes — the 95th anniversary of Lamantia’s birth, in 1927, in San Francisco, because I recently finished—

The Penguin Book of Mermaids (2019), “a treasury of . . . tales about merfolk and water spirits from different cultures, ranging from Scottish selkies to Hindu water-serpents to Chilean sea fairies,” as the publisher puts it on the rear cover.  Edited by University of Hawaii professors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, the book’s a delight, including the general introduction as well as the head- and endnotes for the sixty tales (some are excerpts), including 20 translated into English for the first time.  These editors know their stuff, and share it extremely well.

Reading The Penguin . . . Mermaids, I got to thinking on Lamantia’s mermaids in “Touch of the Marvelous” and how they fit with, extend, or differ from the centuries-old folk and literary traditions about the sea-creatures.  Shall we, er um, swim around in that for a bit?   

Lamantia’s poem fits the folk and literary traditions in its depiction of what Bacchhilega and Brown call “a fleeting interspecies encounter,” which they identify as one of three a common plots in merfolk tales (the others are the taking of a mer(maid)-wife, or the abduction of a human into the water.)    In “Touch of the Marvelous,” the mermaids arrive, they depart, and despite trying to hold on to one, the speaker–who I’ve always considered to be Lamantia—ends up “lost in the search to have,” “looking for,”  “recalling memories of,” and “looking beyond the hour and the day to find” the mermaid.     

However, different from essentially all traditional mer-tales, Lamantia in his poem encounters mermaids not in water or at its edge, but in “the desert.”  A desert with a camel” and sands,” details which make it seem genuine, and also of course very dry, with all that such metaphorically evokes in terms of—as I read it—a desiccated creative zone.  This bringing of sea creatures to dry land suggests the kind of resolution of opposites the Surrealists (and others, including Heraclitus) explored and pondered.  It’s  also a compelling visual image, and that it happens in the first line of “Touch of The Marvelous” is a high-power verve-charge.

Lamantia’s mermaids also embody the traditional notion that such creatures’ are able to transform themselves; as Bacchhilega and Brown say, “like water, they are shape-shifters that resist being contained.”  In “Touch of the Marvelous” the ch-ch-changes begin almost right away, with mermaids described with “feet of roses” instead of the typical tails.  But it is with BIANCA, first named in the fourth stanza, that the shape-shifting becomes a tour de force—or is it a chef-d'œuvre? (I say both).  The mermaid first turns into two giant lips and then, in the eyes of the poet who seeks her, “the angelic doll turned black,” “the child of broken elevators,” “the curtain of holes / that you never want to throw away,” and, ultimately, “the first woman and first man” (italics added, to emphasis the shape-shifting).  These transformations reverie-rev the imagination.

“Touch of the Marvelous” also reflects the relationship between mermaids and Sirens.  Professors Bacchhilega and Brown remind that Sirens, in Homer’s Odyssey, and on ancient Greek vases and funerary monuments, were human/bird creatures, with “the power of their song and music— rather than their appearance” their primary trait.  Over time, Sirens morphed into human-piscine beings, the professors teach, based on their power, shared with mermaids, to seduce; thus, as early as the 14th Century, Chaucer, as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote “[t]hough we call them mermaids here . . . Men call them sirens in France.” But while both seduce—“lead astray, divert, lead elsewhere,” Bachhilega and Brown clarify that the Siren’s lure is not entirely sexual, but “had to do with life and death, or knowing the future . . . .”

Only “mermaids” are explicitly mentioned in Lamantia’s “Touch of the Marvelous,” but I believe “Sirens” are in the poem too.  First, BIANCA is said to turn “with the “charm of a bird;” this invoking of the avian leads me right to the bird-women Sirens of antiquity.  And I hear the seductive song of  Homer’s Sirens when Lamantia writes he is looking for the region where BIANCA’s “eardrums play music . . . .”

In addition to those semi-direct associative references, Sirens are intuitively evoked given that Lamantia’s pursuit of BIANCA is not simply a desire for physical contact, although the references to “boudoir” in the early stanzas do point to a sensual experience, as does the “the mermaid’s nimble fingers going through the poet’s hair.  He wants “the secrets,” to go to a yet unknown region where there conflagration, ascent (“where the smoke of your hair is thick . . . climbing over the white wall”) and music.  He believes BIANCA might be found out past all time (“beyond the hour and day”).  BIANCA may be a named mermaid in the poem, but she attracts, as do the Sirens, with knowledge and much, much more.  

If I had to give BIANCA’s allure and essence a name, I’d say “creative energy”—but of  a certain kind, one that’s directly related to Lamantia’s poetics: that which brings on or allows access to “the Marvelous.”   In this regard, consider what he wrote in the magazine Arsenal Surrealist Subversion (1976):

I have always dreamed of the ultimate triumph of the Sirens who, it was said, were ‘defeated’ in their poetic combat with the Muses, and who can be deciphered to typify imaginative freedom from the restraints of rationally controlled poetry, whose spokesmen, like all good bourgeoisie, must always recommend that we ‘plug our ears’ against the enchantresses heard by the inspired poet on his voyage to the unknown.

Roman mosaic: Odysseus and the Sirens (Bardo National Museum, Tunis, Tunisia)



Saturday, June 4, 2022

Harry Crosby Day!


Today's the 124th anniversary of the birth (in 1898) of Harry Crosby and yes yes yes the day's well worth remembering and celebrating, as we look towards -- natch -- The Sun.  

This year it's especially important to celebrate Crosby, I think, because exactly a century ago -- 1922 -- he began the diary entries that would eventually become Shadows of the Sun, which almost surely is his crowning literary achievement.  It first appeared in 1928-29-30 in three gorgeous volumes, published by his and his wife Caresse's Black Sun Press in Paris, then again in 1977 in a beautiful unexpurgated version edited by Edward Germain for Black Sparrow Press.

Crosby, as Professor Edward Brunner has neatly shown, worked hard to jot down daily events in vest-pocket notebooks, then expand upon those in ruled notebooks, then transform the latter into dated diary entries "in longhand . . . written with an eye toward seeming as if [they] had been sketched at white-hot speed."  The end result is an extremely readable, sometimes irresistible account of 1920s Paris and Crosby's travels in that decade.  It includes appearances by people such as James Joyce, Hart Crane, and Kay Boyle, plus lots (lots) of alcohol, drugs, and carrying on.  Best of all, it's all animated by what editor Germain rightly calls Crosby's "active curious mind" and reflects his many enthusiasms, including reading, poetry, horse racing, woman, art, jazz, death and -- natch again -- The Sun.

There are many, many stellar entries in Shadows of the Sun.  These include a description of Lindbergh's late night landing near Paris after his trans-Atlantic solo flight (5/21/27), and Crosby's bibliophilic joy when he received and unpacked an inheritance of thousands of rare books (5/4/28).

One hundred years ago today -- June 4, 1922 -- Crosby, in his Shadows of the Sun diary entry, wrote [translation of the French provided in brackets]: 

To the Chateau de Madrid.  Changed clothes with a waiter (tenue de soirée de rigueur [evening dress required]) so that I could dance.  Dancing and then to bed in the Chateau and the plaintive music of the tango and the coolness of linen sheets---and I am twenty-four years old to-day and we bathe in the forest and at midnight gaze into the Red Sun.  C'est Kefalin qui gagne![Kefalin wins!]
This sounds like a majorly fun birthday!  The Chateau de Madrid was a grand jazz club about three miles from Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne, where you could dance and if necessary rent a room for the nightThe Chateau had magnificent gardens with "lush and tall deep-blue green trees," and was also near the Longchamp race track. Kefalin was a horse quite successful in the 1922 season, including winning the prestigious Grand Prix de Paris.

But giant exploding X-class solar flares, let's further celebrate today with a Shadows of the Sun entry that showcases an episode of Rimbaudian derangement, shall we?  Harry loved Arthur; Crosby in 1929, the last year of his life, declared "I believe that Rimbaud is the greatest poet of them all . . . ."  (Shadows of the Sun, 4/1/29.)

The following diary entry, dated 11/14/26, recounts what Crosby writes was his first real experience with kief, the substance Wikipedia describes as a "pure and clean collection of loose cannabis trichomes."  The experience described is perhaps relatively modest  compared to other mind-altering experience Crosby wrote about, involving prodigious amounts of hashish, opium, and/or ethanol.  But this one is still a, er um, high point:

Last night for the first time really experienced the kief, and saw strange but clear visions, not vague as in a dream, but chaste with colors of pure gold and sun shining through green water and a fountain under the sea spouting jets of silver fish and an autumn-gold forest with a path leading into infinity (I have never seen such a depth of perspective) and white bodies of fauns and nymphs appearing and disappearing, copulating and uncopulating.

Hell yes, pass the kief and stone me.  More than that, I dig the poetry here.  And not just the cavalcade of gold, sun, silver, autumn-gold and white, or the rhythmic rush of the prose, nice as those are.  The tippy-top poetry here, for me, is Crosby's use of the word "chaste" when describing his visions.  They were "not vague as in a dream, but chaste . . . ."   

Now, Crosby does not use "chaste" here to suggest there was a  sexual purity to his visions, which might be assumed given the primary meaning of the word.  Any chance of that being the case is obliterated by the orgiastic mythological beings at the visions' end.

Instead, Crosby uses "chaste" in its lovely figurative sense, meaning, to borrow from the Oxford English Dictionary, "undefiled," "stainless," and "pure."  This use of "chaste" is not particularly common in literature (but see Shakespeare, Othello, V.ii.2), but it's exactly perfect here, given that kief, as said above, is a "pure and clean" substance.

An unalloyed true immaculate -- a chaste -- vision looks mighty fine  to me, and it certainly was for Harry.   May you have the same, if you want it.  Regardless, here's to the literary work of Crosby, who Philip Lamantia memorably called "a true dandy of explosively Promethean desire," on the anniversary of his birth.       


Saturday, October 23, 2021

Philip Lamantia Day -- 2021


Yes I said yes, it’s the 94th anniversary of the birth (in San Francisco, on October 23, 1927) of the great poet Philip Lamantia – so Let’s Celebrate, and Cerebrate!  

How about we read and think about one of his many fine poems?  This one is from Lamantia’s Becoming Visible (City Lights, San Francisco: 1981 [Pocket Poets Series No. 39]):


There is a wind torturing bats
there are the scorched feet of dead suns
the city spun into the sea
where the gulfs of the pterodactyl beckon
there is a whorl of terror livening my mind
there’s the hum-whirr of the skeleton of solitude
where angry corpses flower in a bottle
and red weapons vanish into mirrors
I look back by the blade of my double
there flies— through its eye— The Hanged Man
where a pyramid of water hovers in the dark victuals of the inner life
Clark Ashton Smith’s observation  – “Explanations are neither necessary, desirable, or possible” – fully applies to this poem, I suggest.  But since we’re celebrating (and cerebrating!) perhaps you will permit me a few words.

Read silently or aloud, “Vibration” seriously moves, or, more precisely, oscillates.  All sound is vibration of course.  But here, particularly propulsive TWANGS are felt with and from the repeated line-starting word “there” (five instances) and, to a lesser but still felt degree, its rhyming echo “where” (used twice).  Each “there” functions for me as both am adverb and, especially with its repetitions, an exclamation.  

More specifically, each “there,” as an adverb, fixes what follows in a particular place or position.  Each also – this the exclamatory angle – signifies or discharges with each recurrence a kind of audio-verbal shimmer of amazement or shock.  In this regard, the final italicized use of the word in the next-to-last line seems by that point almost preordained.   

As I read the poem aloud, I naturally find myself emphasizing each “there,” and enjoy doing that!  Give it a try!   Doing that reminds me that Robert Kelly, in Caterpillar 5 (October 1968), described Lamantia’s “high excitement” during public readings.  I definitely feel that in this poem.   

Vibratory movement is also referenced in – or reverie-ed from – the third line’s “spun,” the fifth line’s “whorl,” the sixth line’s “hum-whirr” (and what a wonderful compound word that is – did anyone use it earlier?), and even the final lime’s “hovers” what with the way it brings to mind a hummingbird’s delicate wingbeats.

“Vibration,” to me, comes from, or is about, an emotional / mental state, one with frightening even terrifying elements but which is ultimately good or positive and even necessary for Lamantia, the poet.   It’s the sensation, I feel, of the oscillations or surge of creative energy.  It’s intense, VIVID, and scary – yet necessary for imagination’s vision.

The scary, frightening, and terrifying parts here are easy: “a wind torturing bats” “scorched  feet of dead suns,” [t]he city spun into the sea” “the gulfs of the pterodactyl beckon[ing],” “a whorl of terror,” the exactly perfect “hum-whirr of the skeleton of solitude,” “angry corpses” which “flower in a bottle,” “red weapons” which “vanish into mirrors,” “blade” and “The Hanged Man.”  It’s a kind of horror scene to me, a place of suffering and anguish.

And yet, the “whorl of terror,” Lamantia writes in the fifth line, is “livening [his] mind.”  And, in the final line, a pyramid of water hovers “in the dark victuals of the inner life.”  Here, while the “victuals” (an archaic word, usually pronounced “vittles” and meaning provisions or food supplies) are “dark” they are, inherent in that definition, nourishing.  They sustain the “inner life” – which I take to be the creative imagination.

I’ll leave to you to think on how the terrifying and the creative imagination must co-exist.  I’ll end here by remembering that Allen Ginsberg, in the first sentence of his Preface to Charles Plymell’s Apocalypse Rose (Dave Haselwood: San Francisco, 1966), referred to Lamantia as an “American vibration artist.”  Indeed!
Happy Birth-Anniversary, Philip!

¡Viva Lamantia!


Friday, June 4, 2021

Harry Crosby Day!


Among those who love the writing of Harry Crosby (born this day in 1898), the big news over the last 12 months was the publication of a Selected Poems.  The book, announced by MadHat Press as available in June 2020 (and paid for then), arrived in early 2021.  I’d hoped it would nicely showcase Crosby’s poetry.   

Alas, while the book has some positives, its major problems are, unfortunately, the main story.

Here’s the deal: the primary criteria used to select the poems – everything that happened to be published in magazines and anthologies in or just after Crosby’s lifetime  –  is unconvincing, and in part botched.  As a result, this Selected includes nearly a dozen pages of work that ain’t poetry, and another dozen pages or so of, I kid you not, essentially duplicate texts.  Ugh.  Further, due to either uninspired or uninformed editing, a dozen or so essential Crosby poems are not included.  Ugh again, and let me explain.


About two-thirds of the book – the  first 100 or so of its 150+ pages– is given over to what is  said, to quote the introduction and back cover, “the whole of” or “all of” Crosby’s contemporary magazine and anthology appearances.  This was done, the editor asserts, so we can read the poems seen at the time, and have a historical record of what was submitted by Crosby and printed by others.  

That reasoning doesn’t make sense.  At the same time he submitted poems to magazines, Crosby self-published , or prepared for publication, several volumes of his poetry.   I would think the work he chose to collect and publish himself would be the starting point for any selected poems, as well as the poems not included in those books but which appeared elsewhere.

Said another way, the right way to compile a selected poems is to consider EVERYTHING  a poet wrote, then, focusing on the work itself, fashion a collection that  reflects the breadth or characteristics of the poet’s achievement, or some other angle intrinsic to the work.  Discarding all that for an extrinsic and rather arbitrary factor such as where poems happened to first appear, especially when the magazine and anthology poems are greatly outnumbered by the entirety of the poetry, devalues the work as a whole, and thus the poet’s legacy.  In this way, much of the MadHat selected Crosby is wrongly compiled.

The book, by the way, fails in it’s on its own terms. Contrary to its claims, it does NOT include the “whole of” or “all of” Crosby’s contemporary magazine poems.  O editor and publisher, get thee to Poetry, Vol. XXXIV, Number 11 (May 1929), at pages 78-79 (“Fragment,” a 35 line verse poem).  I wonder what else was missed?  Oh yeah, the key series of question and answers, first published in transition 14 (Fall 1928),  that Crosby published as the prose poem “Enquette” in his Mad Queen.  This tremendously entertaining four-part word-rush reveals much about Crosby’s vision of himself, including as an expatriate outsider.  “The End of Europe,” a short visionary and apocalyptic prose-poem in transition 16-17 (June 1929) is also not included.  

And while these poems were missed, the editor includes a straight prose work, “Observation-Post,” which appeared in a magazine.  It’s an essay in which Crosby critiques a magazine essay dismissive of poets that Crosby considered “the True Dawn.”  That this is not a poem is obvious.  In addition to being closely reasoned, the essay quotes liberally from the work of a number of poets, including the entirety of Hart Crane’s “O Carib Isle.”  The editor does not explain why this essay is included in a book of poems.  It takes up 11 pages and is a big mistake.    

Also, the misguided decision to include ALL magazine and anthology results in – I kid you not – approximately three dozen poems being repeated – one three times – because they appeared both in magazines and then later in an anthology.  Most of the repeated poems, which mostly all appear in the book’s first 90 pages, are duplicates of each other.   In the others, there are minor – very minor – differences, such as additions of a title.  Can you spell s-i-l-l-y and a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g?  This Selected is not supposed to a variorum edition. The poems  as Crosby finally published them himself should have been used, period.  The duplicates here, which collectively take up about a dozen pages, are another big mistake.

I’ll do the math: between the prose essay and the duplicates, there’s almost two dozen pages of text that’s either inappropriate or unnecessary.  

All those wasted pages are a shame given the poetry that is not included.  There’s almost nothing from Crosby’s first two books, Sonnets for Caresse and Red Skeletons.  The editor implies that the work in these books is not Crosby’s “mature period.”   While that is true – the poetry’s  largely derivative in style, tone, and subject – there are a few gems in those books not included here (the homage “Baudelaire,” to name one) that would rightly shine in a selected poems.  Devour the Fire, a Crosby selected poems published in 1983, managed to do so.  It’s strange to that so few poems from these books are included, while an 11 page prose essay and at least that many pages worth of duplicate are.

Triple-alas, many stellar and essential “mature period”  Crosby poems are missing. These include the dardanic masterpieces “Stud Book,” “Sun-Testament” and “Telephone Directory,” the scintillating “Photoheliograph (Self-Portrait),” the hyper-fervent Boston-excoriating “Target For Disgust,” the marvelous Egyptian travelogue in verse “House of Ra,” “Sunrise,” a mini-epic of witnessing, the super-short but important late-life list poems “Beacons,” “Vocabulary,” and “Library,” in which Crosby sets forth, respectively, his tippy-top people, words, and books, and the brilliant manifesto-like prose poems “I Climb Alone” and “The Ten Commandments.”  All these, as I count, would have fit on the pages wasted on the long prose essay and the duplicate poems.  

I’d also have put in certain short verse poems which, while perhaps not Crosby classics, charm and stir reveries in ways that the short verse poems that are included don’t: “All That is Beautiful” (it’ll delight any gardener), “Beyond” (the powerful pull of erotic desire), “Roots” (“And the root of a tree / Dark-fingered / Thrusting into / Infinity.”), “New Every Morning” (a quick set of similes and metaphors that invigorate the dawn), and “Alchemy” (about the “madness we require” and the “sudden alchemy of splendor” that, I believe, Crosby says poets must embrace and harvest).  

Okay, the editor here swung and missed lots.  As a result, and sadly, this Selected Poems is far duller than it should have been.  The book simply does not showcase the full splendor of  Crosby as“a true dandy of explosive Promethean desire,” to use Philip Lamantia’s  characterization in “Poetic Matters” (1976).  

To be fair, the book does some things right.  The introduction winningly includes the Crosby diary entry about his inheriting a huge library of rare books.  This passage, a de facto prose poem, will make bibliophiles swoon.   The book proper includes “Illustrations of Madness,” a prose poem in ten short sections that since its initial 1929 magazine appearance has only appeared in an extremely limited edition of uncollected Crosby poems published about five years ago.  (That publication winningly included an additional sub-part to the poem that the magazine apparently edited out).  The poem is exactly what its title implies; certain sections memorably disturb, in the way great art sometimes does: “I continually feel hurricanes of magic storming into me as wild as eagles catapulting themselves into the sun.”

In addition, the book includes about a dozen Crosby classics, mostly because they happened to have been originally published in magazines or anthologies..  Among these are the disturbing and breath-taking “Hail: Death!,” the Joycean (cf. Episode 17 of Ulysses) “The Sun,” the marvelous manifesto-like “The New Word,” the stirring and inspiring rejection of the past, “Trumpet of Departure,” the middle-finger (and more) to businessmen, “Scorn,” the beguiling “Short Introduction To The Word” (albeit an edited version that lacks the full power of the original), the erotic quick five-line verse poem “Kiss,” and the breathtaking revolutionary spirit of “Assassin” (“I am the harbinger of a New Sun World.  I bring the seed of a New Copulation.  I proclaim the Mad Queen.”).  

That said, all the poems listed in the preceding paragraph, except the five-liner, are included in Seeing With Eyes Closed: The Prose Poems of Harry Crosby (Quale Press, 2019).  That book also includes most of the essential Crosby poems mentioned in the paragraph above that begins, “Triple-alas.”  And there’s a lot more in that book as well, including all of Crosby’s Aphrodite in Flight, a series of aphoristic poetic prose meditations on the correspondences between airplane flight and love.  Even without any verse poems, this collection is far closer to a representative selection of Crosby’s poetry.

So I celebrate today the poetry of Harry Crosby, but not so much the MadHat Press Harry Crosby Selected Poems.  And I dream of a complete collected Crosby, with not only all that Crosby published, as he and his wife Caresse published it, but with some of the work currently only available in archives, not published by Crosby or others in his lifetime, and only in very limited editions since then. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Philip Lamantia Day -- 2020

Gather ‘round people, a shelterin’-in-place (or not), as today’s the 93rd anniversary of the birth – on October 23, 1927, in a home on Sanchez Street, San Francisco – of Philip Lamantia.

1917 Sanchez Street, San Francisco: “On October 23, 1927, a midwife delivered 
Philip Lamantia in the garret of this two-story wood-frame house.”  
Don Herron, The Literary World of San Francisco & its Environs (City Lights, 1990), at 141.

So Yes! and Hey Now!, Let’s Celebrate, and Cerebrate!  How about we read, and think a bit about, one of his many fine poems?  Here we go:

After the Virus

Am I happy? Were I happy!
Zoos of happiness converge
on horrors which is a wide paw
of who calls first from
the lip’s underscore
Happiness not a constant state
The field of man’s gore
makes bones shine further
to the suicide machine
We make the sacrifice tree grow
for its necessary leavens
burnished with an ecstatic smile
of pain — the oscillations escalate —
not a moment of happiness but
contradicted by the black undertow
What, then, is coming to be
from undergrounds too fast
in their bright plumages
flailing our brains
with the gash of birth?
Something storing mercurial islets
and fungi of being . . .
and sold for altars
pitched to the stars!

“After the Virus” – a title that for obvious reasons caught my attention while re-re-re-re-re-etc-reading Lamantia during the present pandemic – was first published in the “Secret Freedom” section of Selected Poems (City Lights, 1967), along with fourteen other previously uncollected and mostly unpublished poems, all written, per the book’s Table of Contents, between 1963 and 1966.  

All this work, of course, is also available in The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press, 2013).

There’s a winning verve and singular (if I may say it like this) unusual-ness to all work in “Secret Freedom.”  With regard to its unusual-ness, one of the poems is titled “What Is Not Strange?” while another has an one word exclamatory title – “Gork!” – followed by, count-‘em, an eighty-five word sub-title.  As to ardent enthusiasm
– remember here William Blake’s “Exuberance is beauty”  –  consider the fervent way-out optimism of the inspiriting declaration in “She Speaks the Morning’s Filigree”: We can play host to the marvelous / and have it burn us to the salt of memory / where an invisible stone contracts all thought / to draw out our words / that shall crackle your sleep / to wake us up beyond the Pleiades”.

Also, a fresh mid-1960s wind invigorates the “Secret Freedom” poems.  Tellingly, one of them, “Astro-Mancy,” first appeared in a 1967 issue of the quintessential hippie-era newspaper, The San Francisco Oracle.  In that poem, Lamantia, quite in tune with those heady times (or did he play the music to which others then sang?), foretells “essential changes”  including The Realm Apart (italics in original) where among other things “poetry [is] the central fact.”  There are also plenty of esoteric allusions, some of which  t can challenge, including because they are in part imagined, such as the reference to “the Giant Chairs of Tartesos” which I take (this largely a guess) alludes to Tartessian BCE thrones, which, so far as I can learn, have not survived but are known to have been supported by two foot tall bronze sculptures of winged felines

Finally, and probably most important, Lamantia during this period returned to his surrealist roots, so there’s an authentic automatism in the poems.  Parts of “After the Virus” show this, I think.

As I read it, “After the Virus” concerns the emotional and  physical state, as well as the psychic mindset, just after an illness or perhaps while still sick but trending towards recovery.  The nature of the illness is not specified – see conjecture below – but the poem’s opening question – “Am I happy?” with its almost rueful self-answer “Were I happy!” clearly indicates that Lamantia – the presumed speaker here – is not 100 percent well, to say the least, although that the response comes with a mark of exclamation suggests there’s some energy there as well.

The memorable lines that follow suggest more specifically what’s going on: “Zoos of happiness converge / on horrors which is a wide paw / of who calls first from / the lip’s underscore”.  The words connote a state that’s wild, varied, penned-in as well as frightening, nightmarish, frantic, immediate, and well-entrenched or emphatic.  It’s quite an image, or series of them.

There then follows a broader philosophical suggestion –  “Happiness not a constant state” – which is given a stunning visceral twist by the lines:

The field of man’s gore
makes bones shine further
to the suicide machine

Lamantia’s suggestion that happiness is not always with us, especially when coupled with  images that suggest blood, skeletons, mechanized self-harm and death–, reminds me of the  scene in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, in which the title character envies life in Europe but is counseled by his guide, Imlac, that “[t]he Europeans . . . are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”  

The poem doesn’t go as far as Imlac’s pronouncement; Lamantia seems to suggest not that sorrow almost totally predominates, but that joy and sorrow co-exist, are ever-present companions, always in tension.  In this regard, the poem a  few lines later, references “. . . an ecstatic smile / of pain . . .” (does Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa come to mind?) –

– and then, a few further lines down, directly declares, “not a moment of happiness but / contradicted by the black undertow”.

The repeated, emphatic insistence that “horrors,” “pain,” and “the black undertow” co-exist with happiness or ecstasy may well reflect that Lamantia, to borrow the words in “High Poet,” the magnificent introductory essay to The Collected Poems, “struggled with a lifelong manic-depressive condition” marked by periodic “intense manic episodes” and “cycles of depression.”   This mental health condition is reflected in many of Lamantia’s poems, and he occasionally explicitly references it.   In “Invincible Birth,” for example, published in Meadowlark West (1986), he speaks of “my frenzy mantic mania,” and the late 1980s “No Closure” includes, “[f]or I have, as the poet Cowper, known 3 cycles of  “depression” cursed by my own line /  “. . . fallen into the goblet of suicide . . . ”.

Given all this, perhaps the “Virus” in “After the Virus” is not a submicroscopic infectious agent, but shorthand for the manic-depression which plagued Lamantia.  It seems quite possible.  It’s also possible, I suppose, that the  “virus” of in the poem is something that infects society at large.  Lamantia never held back his strong views of the ills of the world; other “Secret Freedom” poems, for instance, indict the “monster metal cities / and their billion, bullioned wheels of chemical death” (“Voice of Earth Mediums”) and declare that “[t]he old civilization / that rolled the dice of Hitler / is surely bumbling / into a heap of catatonic hysteria” (“Astro-Mancy”).  

But perhaps in addition to the personal and global, an actual viral illness was involved here too – or solely so.  Ah, I wish I could ask Philip, but alas, he’s now gone – this seems impossible – 15 years.  

The powerful exploration of the relationship of happiness and pain in the poem’s first fifteen lines is followed by nine concluding lines in which Lamantia, as I read it, prophesizes what’s to come from where he’s at, a state in which “oscillations escalate.”  This prophecy is told in a question-and-answer format:

What, then, is coming to be
from undergrounds too fast
in their bright plumages
flailing our brains
with the gash of birth?
Something storing mercurial islets
and fungi of being . . .
and sold for altars
pitched to the stars!

That is one far-out Socratic dialogue, or perhaps better said, one very deep or may I suggest one very high and surreal catechism.  In the end, what Lamantia asks and answers – what he sees – is probably one of those matters for which “[e]xplanations are neither necessary, desirable, or possible,” to borrow the words written by the early 20th Century California poet and weird tales author Clark Ashton Smith, whose work Lamantia knew and liked, see Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave Books, 2018) at 127.  

While a definitive explication here is beyond the reach of reason (and hurrah! for that), the combination of images beguiles and intrigues.  To say it another way,
the “Something” that is “coming to be” – with its suddenly and unpredictably changing small islands (or does “islets” refer to biologic cells?) and ’shrooms of existence, which then are sold as a  ritual furnishing aimed at the titans of the universe (and remember, Lamantia was a star-lover of, er um, stellar dimensions) enchants.

I say, let Lamantia’s “Something” come to be!

The last four lines of
“After the Virus” are a particularly formidable  reverie-generator, and as such you and I – us readers – create in a way similar to Lamantia when he wrote it.  The images also remind, to quote Gaston Bachelard, that “great poets teach us to dream.  They nourish us with images with which we can concentrate our reveries of repose.  They present us with their psychotropic images by which we animate our awakened oneirism.”  The Poetics of Reverie (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) at 158.  

Happy Birth-Anniversary, teacher, nourisher, and animator, Philip Lamantia!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Harry Crosby Day!

Yes, today’s the anniversary of Harry Crosby’s birth (June 4, 1898).  He’d be 122.  He died in 1929, age 31, alas (and alas) by his own hand in a double-suicide or murder/suicide (the other person was his  lover).  And a further alas can be voiced as well, I think, in that these deaths were consistent with Crosby’s deadly serious desire to die on his own terms, an impulse (read: obsession) that surely stemmed in part from (alas yet again) a near-death experience while driving an ambulance on a World War I battlefield.  

Nevertheless, despite the shocking and grievous circumstances of his death, much of what Crosby did while alive can deeply inspire.  He was, to use Philip Lamantia’s riveting assessment, “a true dandy of explosively Promethean desire,” who “left in Mad Queen [1928] and elsewhere, signs of a ‘Sadean’ magnanimity in the realms of mad love . . . .”   In addition to his poetry – more on that below –  there’s his remarkable diary of the 1920s, Shadows of the Sun.  He also had world-class reading habits, a high-motor autodidact drive, independent and often enduringly correct critical judgments, a top-flight work hard / party hard ethos, an adventurous spirit, and the desire and ability, greatly helped by his wife Caresse, to publish beautiful books by stellar writers at the Black Sun Press.

And oh yes there’s above all his hyper-focus on and worship of the Sun.  I’ve put up a commemorative post on Crosby’s birthday the last few years, and the tradition now continues for (natch) another slightly oval trip ‘round our nearest Star. 

Without a doubt, the big Big BIG Harry Crosby news in the last year was the September 2019 Quale Press publication of Seeing With Eyes Closed, which collects all of Crosby’s previously published prose poems.  Per Quale, Crosby was “the first poet writing in English to produce a significant body of work in prose poetry” and the first poet to strongly show the surrealist influence on American poetry.  I think those things are true, and that this collection is a great grand opportunity for adventure.

It’s also a great grand opportunity to get the poetry for relatively little cost.  While some have been re-printed over the years in anthologies or two collections of Crosby’s work (one published almost four decades ago and now scarce, the other, more recent, poorly done), much of the poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed has been available only as originally published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, either in a few issues of transition magazine, or in several of the Black Sun Press collections of his work: Chariot of the Sun, Mad Queen, Sleeping Together, Aphrodite in Flight, and Torchbearer.  Those fine well-made limited editions are highly valued by collectors.  It would likely cost upwards of $5,000 to get them.  Gulp.

Not only that, one of the books – Aphrodite in Flight, a collection of 75 very short comparisons of   romance and airplane flying (“observations on the aerodynamics of love” is how the sub-title neatly puts it) – is essentially unobtainable.  Black Sun Press published only 27 copies of the book, all hors commerceAt least 13 of those are in libraries (and rare book rooms at that).  The nearest of those to me in San Francisco is almost 1,000 miles away, in the McDermott Library at the (yes, believe it) U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

As such, the 200 plus pages of poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed – which retails for $19 – seems an extraordinary poetry-bonanza bargain, even in our current exceedingly difficult times.

The book includes the Crosby prose-poems that adoring moi has previously highlighted here in the glade (click poem titles and scroll down to see): “Stud-Book,” “Sun Testament” and “Telephone Directory,” all from Mad Queen, as well as  the marvelous declaration of lexical adventure “The New Word” and “Empty Bed Blues,” no doubt inspired by the great Bessie Smith song of the same name, plus of course indeed most certainly yes the wonderful “Madman” aka “The Sun,” modeled after the equally wondrous answer to the question “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” in Episode 17 of  James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Seeing With Eyes Closed is also neatly designed.  The typeface looks very much like that used in the Black Sun Press original publications, and it’s a very cool look, sharp and alluring, redolent of the roaring ex-pat Paris of almost a century ago.  Combine that with generous margins – no text falling into or crawling out of the gutters here – and starting each poem on its own page and voila! it’s a remarkably elegant and strong publication, showing what print-on-demand can do when done right.   The only mis-step is the printing of “The New Word” without an extra space between the paragraphs, as originally published.  The editors acknowledge the emendation, and it appears to have been done so the poem could fit on a single page.  If so, I’d have voted for using a larger page size, since . . . well, just look how gorgeous  and powerful the poem’s prose-stanzas are when each has a bit of space to shine (this from transition, June 1929):

How about two more poems, to entice you to buy and read the others in Seeing With Eyes Closed, and to allow me to write a bit about Crosby’s craft?  I love “Seesaw,” one of about five dozen dream poems from the endearingly titled Sleeping Together (and yes, my slightly angled photo here is purposeful!):

What do I love in “Seesaw”?  The primacy of child-play, that font of fecund creative energy: plus, to borrow from J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (English translation, 1950), the charm of its temporary abolition of the ordinary world’s laws and customs.  The fantastic enlargement of the play, scaled such that the participants reach the cosmos.  The Winsor McCay Slumberland-like interrupting of the dream by the ringing of the phone.  And the convincing pulled-from-the-hypnopompic logic with which the poem ends.  A dream true indeed.

Completely different is “Collision,” from Torchbearer:

This is no dream.  It’s a 37-word maxim-poem, I do believe, one in which Crosby declares, teaches and ultimately challenges the reader.  He uses analogy to illustrate the anagogic: Dust in the Sun = Thoughts in the Mind.  I love the focus on the noetic and the possibility of marvelous chance encounters, the latter expressed via an allusion – “orchestral magnificence” that directly suggests the complex musical splendor of poetry.  Then there’s the last phrase, a challenge that brings the poem to life.  That phrase – “he who has ears to hear let him hear” – also corresponds with Andre Breton’s often made point, perhaps most directly stated in the 1946 essay Golden Silence, that “Great poets have been ‘auditories’ not ‘visionaries’.”

Seeing With Eyes Closed also includes fantastically assiduous notes on a number of the poems and three essays – a foreword and two afterwords – that discuss or explicate various matter related to Crosby and his work.  The essays are fine, with the exception of the foreword’s baffling naming of someone other than Philip Lamantia as the “best practitioner” of American Surrealist poetry.  But that’s a minor quibble, and ultimately the editorial material, even when excellent, is beside the point. Crosby’s poetry is the (Sun is a) Star here.

So, yes, and especially today, the anniversary of his birth, Bravo Harry Crosby!  And Bravo Quale Press, for Seeing With Eyes Closed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Philip Lamantia Day -- 2019

San Francisco

– say it LOUD, say it PROUD –  

– yes, my friends, FRISCO! – 

Hey now, today’s the 92nd anniversary of the birth (October 23, 1927) of Philip Lamantia. Let’s cerebrate, and celebrate!

Lamantia was born (on Sanchez Street) and raised (the Excelsior District) in San Francisco, and for most of his life called The City home. Perhaps not surprisingly, his poetry – see please The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press, 2013, with a paperback edition published – hey now – just this month!) – occasionally alludes to places in or features of The City. His poems also contain many references to The City’s name. Almost all these allusions and references are found in poems written after approximately 1970, when after various world travels Lamantia returned to and settled back in San Francisco (the North Beach neighborhood).

Now, there’s no Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars, Transamerica Pyramid, or Golden Gate Bridge in Lamantia’s poems (though there is “Golden Gates” (“Revery Has Its Reasons”) and “Goldengate” (“Last Days of San Francisco”). But the allusions to specific places in The City include, for example, Coit Tower (“Redwood Highway,” “America in the Age of Gold, ”and ”Other States”), Crissy Field (“Birder’s Lament” and “Diana Green”), Lombard Street (“Sweetbrier”), the Lombard Steps (“Shasta”), the Cliff House (“The Mysteries of Writing in the West”), the Shrine of Saint Francis (“Seraphim City”), Guerrero Street (“Deamin”), Market Street (“Meadowlark West” and “Reached the Turn”), Mission Street (“Virgo Noir”), Union Street (“Shasta”), Telegraph Hill (“Poetics by Pluto”), Grant Avenue (“Flaming Teeth”), Columbus Avenue (“Seraphim City”), the Embarcadero (“The Romantist”), the Presidio “Death Jets”), North Beach (Altesia or the Lava Flow of Mount Rainier”), Alcatraz Island (“Flaming Teeth”), Jimbo’s Bop City (“Time Traveler’s Potlatch” and “Bird: Apparition of Charlie Parker”), and Mission Dolores (“Fourth of July,” “Altesia or the Lava Flow of Mount Rainier,” and “Invincible Birth”).

There are also references in Lamantia’s poems to more general features of The City. These include “slanting parks” (“Flaming Teeth”) and “seven hills” (the number traditionally said to exist in San Francisco). There are also – and these are obviously more pointed and critical allusions – “solemn melancholic towers” (“Tonight Burned with Solar Slime”) and “buildings of monolithic glass” (“Once in a Lifetime Starry Scape”). Another example are allusions to fog, both direct, as with “[t]he patch of summer fogs [that] screws the ears of the forest city” (“Other States”), “[r]ed fog in the night” (“In Yerba Buena”). and “enveloped by grey moist density” (“Recall”), and metaphorically, such as “On a hill . . . / the gothic spread of the mantle” (“Irrational”).

In addition to the allusions to certain places in and general features of San Francisco, Lamantia name-checks his hometown in about two dozen poems. The name-checks are particularly interesting to me – and I hope to you – because of a shift in nomenclature that Lamantia made in the work written after approximately 1980. Before then, in nine poems published between 1959 and 1970, Lamantia exclusively referred to his hometown as “San Francisco” (see list below).

But that formal appellation disappeared – was never used again – starting with the poems in his collection Meadowlark West (1986), most likely written over the course the previous five years. In five poems in that book, and then again in five poems written and published thereafter, Lamantia when referring to his hometown chose to use not “San Francisco” but the contraction or nickname “Frisco.” And he not only chose to use that term, but used in often: it appears seventeen times in those ten poems (again, see list below).

As you probably know, many consider “Frisco” very wrong, gauche, a rube’s giveaway, a term to be assiduously avoided. This view has been espoused for decades, and in the last approximately half-century was primarily and quite solidly reinforced by the long-time San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen (1916–1997), who in 1953 published a popular book about The City titled Don’t Call It Frisco.

Caen’s title served as a commandment, and most obeyed, although there were exceptions including perhaps most popularly the lyric, “Left my home in Georgia / Headed to the the Frisco Bay” as sung by Otis Redding in his 1967 smash (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.

Lamantia rejected the cultural taboo on Frisco, using it repeatedly in his later poetry. Best I can tell, he first used the word in print in a short prose work, “Alice Farley: Dancing at Land’s End,” included in the anthology Free Spirits (City Lights, 1982) and republished in Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave Books, 2018). Why this shift in names occurred is, I think, interesting to consider.

Around 1999, when Lamantia and I became friends and he was relatively socially active, the term “Frisco” came up in a conversation. He told me he liked it partly because of his contrarian nature, given that it was a term despised by many. But more important, he strongly disagreed that the term was inappropriate, recalling its use by old-time dock-workers and others when he grew up (1930s and early 1940s) , as well as by those in the jazz and drug cultures in the late 1940s and 1950s, and people he met on his travels in the 1950s and 1960s. He thus used the term proudly, including declaring “my native Frisco” in the late poem “No Closure.”

In addition, the word “Frisco” appears to have been embraced in the late 1970s by a subset of the ecologic counter-culture that interested Lamantia. Specifically, Reinhabiting a Separate County: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California (Planet Drum Foundation, 1978) includes an essay on the Bay Area by the otherwise anonymous “Frisco Bay Mussel Group.” As explained below, Lamantia’s was highly attuned to Planet Drum precepts, particular regarding bioregions.

Lamantia also appears to have known of the findings regarding “Frisco” published by Peter Tamony, a self-taught collector and investigator of colloquialisms and slang. In 1967, Tamony published a short article, “Sailors Called It ‘Frisco’” in the journal Western Folklore. He conjectured, convincingly, that Frisco derives from “Frith-soken,” which meant “refuge” or “sanctuary.” In the words of journalist Lynn Ludlow, from whose writings I learned of Tamony, “[b]ecause San Francisco Bay is just such a haven, sailors called it Frisco Bay.” I don’t know if Lamantia actually read or knew about Tamony’s research, but it would seem so, given the line “a true Frisco, ‘haven in a storm at sea’” in his poem “Once in a Lifetime Starry Scape.”

In addition, I believe Lamantia enjoyed the consonantal and vowel crispness of Frisco. Admittedly, this an educated guess, but after all, as a poet Philip was intimate with the wonders of language, and there’s no doubt of the fricative, sibiliant, plosive power of the word’s consonants, to say nothing of the big round “o” with which it ends. Atop all this, of course, the word’s relative concise.

Finally, it seems to me – and this seems important – that “Frisco” fits best with a kind of alternative, re-imagined or prophesied locality and region that Lamantia alluded to in the poems in and after Meadowlark West. This alternative place included what he called “Calafia” (and related terms such as “Calafian landscapes”), an allusion to the fictional (from a16th century Spanish novel) Amazonian Queen from whose name probably comes “California.” Lamantia may have first heard, or been reminded of, Califia when it was used as the title of a very diverse Ishamel Reed edited poetry anthology, published in 1979 and which included two of Lamantia’s poem.

Calafia, as depicted in a painting in the Mark Hopkins Hotel
In Lamantia’s poetic world, Calafia seems to be a place encompassing all the greater bioregion of northern California and southern Oregon. This notion presumably stems in large part from Lamantia’s study of and belief in bioregionalism as developed in the 1970s and championed thereafter by Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft of the Planet Drum Foundation. Lamantia’s friendship with those two visionaries and their principles is mentioned in “High Poet,” the detailed and beautifully written introduction to his Collected Poems (see page liii therein). More directly, Lamantia’s brief Contributor’s Note in the journal Caliban, No. 7 (1989) discusses the ideas of Berg and Goldhaft, characterizing the two as among the “central minds” of the Planet Drum Foundation. This poetic and re-imagined place certainly includes his hometown: in the late poem “Egypt II,” Lamantia specifically names “Frisco, Calafia.” That particular appellation makes clear that Lamantia has rejected, and wishes or foresees that others too will reject the dominant, ingrained political and cultural labels, paradigms, and structures.

Other elements of Lamantia’s alternative world include “Ohlone” and related uses such as “Ohlonian spring” and “these Ohlone shores” (the latter phrase appearing in “Redwood Highway,” the long opening poem in Becoming Visible (1981)). This, I believe, refers to the Bay Area or some part of it; as Lamantia put it in the Caliban Contributor’s Note cited above, “my specific re-name for the micro-bioregion I am re-inhabiting, OHLONIA.”

Lamantia also references “Shasta,” by which, to quote the poem with that title, he appears to reference an area “from Suisun Bay north to the Rogue River,” and which he implies is adjacent to “Frisco,” which, in turn, is a “diplomatic zone between [Shasta] and southern empires of regrettable memory.” This too presumably derives from the Planet Drum worldview, as that organization (and Peter Berg in particular) used the appellation “Shasta Bioregion”often, including in the mailing address for its San Francisco post office box.

More specific to Lamantia, I believe, is his re-imagining of Telegraph Hill, on whose slope he lived during the last decades of his life, as“Bear Hill” and “Avian Hill” (see “Once in a Lifetime Starry Scape”). The names imply a hoped-for return of animals and birds of the kind found there before arrival of European: a prophesied Frisco, one as different as the names Lamantia uses to describe The City and its place in our world.

Addendum: After reading the above post, Nancy Peters, Lamantia’s widow and editor of his Bed of Sphinxes (1997) collection, provided the following comment regarding Lamantia’s use of “Frisco”:
Philip didn’t believe that . . . Frisco was actually derived from the old Icelandic.  But he was familiar with Tamony’s findings, and he loved the coincidence.  That the word and the sound would have been used so long ago and that it referred to a refuge, sanctuary, safe harbor.  His own Frisco!
I thank Nancy Peters for the clarification and additional information.  Her her last sentence, I think,  should be emphasized: by using the nickname, Lamantia created “[h]is own Frisco!” For me, that’s a singular and beautiful poetic act!

A panorama of Frisco, Ohlonia, in the Shasta Bioregion, with Bear Hill aka Avian Hill in the foreground


The Lamantia poems that include “San Francisco,” the name of the city, with date of publication, are: “Immediate Life” (1959) / “Last Days of San Francisco” (1962) / “U.S.S. San Francisco” (1962) / “Destroyed Works Typescript” (circa 1962) / “From the Front” (1962) / “Crab” (1962) / “My Athens Terrace Ruins” (1965) / “Altesia or the Lava Flow of Mount Rainier” (1970) / “Flaming Teeth” [two mentions] (1970) / “Tonight Burned With Solar Slime” (1970).

The Lamantia poems that include “Frisco” are: “Invincible Birth” [two mentions] (1986) / “America in the Age of Gold” (1986) / “Irrational” (1986) / “Other States” (1986) / “Shasta” [three mentions] (1986) / “Poetics by Pluto” [three mentions] (1986) / “No Closure” (1989) / “Once In A Lifetime Starry Scape” (1990) / “Unachieved” [three mentions] (1997) / “Egypt II” (1997).