Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry From the Law (part one)

Charles Reznikoff
(Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978 and 1979)

When first published (in 1978 and 1979), the two-volume Black Sparrow Press edition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony saved my poetry-reading soul.

I’d just started law school, after four years majoring in English at Cal-Berkeley. Suddenly, a relatively dreamy college-boy academic life vanished. Gone was the reading of glorious poetry and literature. Now there were law books, and nothing but law books. Huge law books filled with cases.

“Cases” as in published written decisions, typically by an appellate court, regarding various legal disputes. These court decisions for the most part were poorly written: prosaically stated facts, convoluted points of law, and hair-splitting “logic.” Law school “homework” largely consists of reading such cases. Students are supposed to figure out the key legal rulings in the cases and thereby figure out “the law.” It quickly becomes a task of utmost drudgery, one that pretty much kills the desire to read just about anything else.

In those dull seas of legal study, Testimony was a life-line, a connection to the creative. Reznikoff’s Objectivist untitled verse settings of facts taken from published court decisions were short enough to read almost anytime, and impeccably well-made: concise and powerful. That Reznikoff, after being trained as a lawyer, had gathered his facts from case reporters filled with court decisions made the poems all that more miraculous: he’d made incredible poems from the same kinds of tedious cases I was studying.

Here’s a poem from Testimony:
There were three on the locomotive:
the flagman, the fireman, and the engineer.
About two hundred yards from the man—
the flagman commenced ringing the bell;

within about a hundred yards
the engineer commenced sounding his whistle:
thirty or forty short blows.

The man did not get off the track or look around.
The poem seems simple, and is, but the writing is exceedingly adroit. In the first stanza, the isolation of “stone deaf” in its own line emphasizes the import of that fact in the narrative, and mirrors how alone the man must of seemed on the tracks. Most compelling here is the way the poem speeds to its sudden end, with a second stanza shorter than the first and the third stanza – a single line – shorter still. The poem, as the accident itself, is a rushing nightmare with a horribly abrupt conclusion.

Here’s another poem from Testimony:
The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying, “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.
There’s much, poetically, in this short vignette of awful abuse. The balance of the lines and breaks couldn’t be any finer: the poem’s flow carries attention to the end, even though the subject matter is upsetting enough to cause anyone to want to turn away.

Then there’s the way the second line describes the child’s transgression as “some misconduct or other.” That phrase (“some . . . or other”) shows precisely how trivial or arbitrary it was. In the fifth line, the first word – “crying” – is particularly well set, as it suggests both the wail of the beaten child while actually, and ironically I think, describing the father’s yell.

Finally, and perhaps most compelling, there’s the shockingly effective use of the run-on construction in the poem’s final two lines. These mirrored clauses – each beginning “and”– show how sickeningly long the battery went on, with the final act (“and stamped on him”) made thus to appear as horribly unnecessary, cruel, and redundant as it no doubt was.

Most poems in Testimony are longer (generally ranging from about 20 up to 40 or more lines) than the two poems above. But no matter the length, all have the key Objectivist (or Reznikoff-Objectivist) traits of particulars pared to their essence, stated concisely. And essentially all are narratives.

Narratives about people hurting (or killing) people, people hurt or killed by machines, and even, in a few instances, people hurt or killed by the forces of nature. Cruelty, greed, anger, racism, jealousy, exploitation of the innocent, carelessness, and/or accidents. The poems’ subject matter, especially when read as a whole (and there are almost five hundred of them) is exceedingly grim. It could be no other way, given the source material. The stories told in court, and thus the matters addressed in the court decisions from which Reznikoff made his poems, almost always involve tragic and ignoble aspects of life.

Testimony in this way does not present the sum and substance of human existence, but a part of it, though a part that Reznikoff certainly suggests must not be forgotten. I agree with Milton Hindus (a famous, now deceased Reznikoff scholar) that Reznikoff wants us to not just remember the cruel and tragic aspects of life presented in the poems, but to think, and think hard, of the unstated alternatives. Such as kindness and care and love, as opposed to aggression, hate and all the rest.

Many great essays and comments on Testimony have been published over the last 30 years. My favorite among these was written by reference law librarian Benjamin Watson. Watson’s essay (“Reznikoff’s Testimony”) was first published in 1990, and then again in 2005 in the Law Library Journal and Legal Studies Forum, respectively. It’s now made the jump from those arcane periodicals to the Web, and is available to all (click here to go).

I like Watson’s essay because he went back to Reznikoff’s working papers (housed at UC San Diego) and found notes that allowed him to match up about 150 of the poems in Testimony with the actual published court decisions Reznikoff used as the source material. Watson closely compares one court decision to the poem made from it to convincingly show that Reznikoff changed not only the names of persons and towns (as the poet had said he’d done in an introductory note) but sometimes also altered the sequential order of events from the order they were said by the court decision to have actually occurred.

The facts in Testimony’s poems, in other words, sometimes time-traveled; dialogue or events were compressed or re-arranged, presumably to sharpen the intensity of the narrative presentation, or of the emotions triggered by the story told. These changes only occurred in some poems, concerned relatively few of the facts in those poems, and never involved changing the ultimate event (e.g., whether a person was killed or maimed). To me, the revelation that there is in some poems yet another layer of imposed Reznikoff-ian reality emphasizes even further the poetic achievement of Testimony.

Watson’s essay provides a great service by including (as an appendix) a list that matches specific poems to citations of about 150 specific published court decisions. It’s incredible to compare the source material (the court decision) and the resulting poem, to see fully the dross from which Reznikoff extracted the facts that he then fashioned into his poem-treasures.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult these days to find either the court decisions or Reznikoff’s poems. The case reporters in which the decisions were published can be found only in an extremely well-stocked law library (since the books are mostly one hundred or more years old) or via web-based, subscription-required legal search sites such as WestLaw (which holds the copyright, such as it is, on the case reporters).

It’s just as hard to find Reznikoff’s poems, at least in the two volume complete edition. The Black Sparrow Testimony has been out of print for years. Used sets (the two volumes together) are rare, and even single volumes of the paperback, when available, can be priced above a hundred dollars.

Your humble blogger, however, can provide one example. Below is a particular court decision (Butler et al. v. New York, N.H. & H. R.R. Co., 58 N.E. 592 (Mass. 1900)), direct from a case reporter (I’ve cut and pasted it onto a single page for ease of viewing here), and then the poem Reznikoff made from its facts.

The court decision, it must be noted, was written by one of the greatest judge-writers in American legal history: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at the time the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The Butler decision, with regard to its writing, is far better than most. The facts are not scattered about but found in a single (albeit very long) paragraph. Also, the brevity here is exceptional: the decision is only three paragraphs long.

Nevertheless, Justice Holmes’ presentation of the facts doesn’t clearly depict what happened, mostly due to poor writing. The third sentence – the first that sets out specific details – is compound three or four times over. It’s easy to lose the narrative thread in its complexity. And I want to take a gavel and smash the fourth sentence, particularly its unfortunate double-negative (“It is not argued that there was not evidence . . .”). And of course it all gets very foggy if the decision’s two other paragraphs are factored in, with their heady discussion of legal principles and precedent. See for yourself what Reznikoff saw (please click on the image to enlarge it, in a new window: the paragraph with the facts is about half-way down the first column):

Now here’s Reznikoff’s Testimony poem from this case:
The boy was only four years old
and his mother left him on the front doorstep
with his little sister; told them to stay there
and went into the house to do her washing.
The house was about two hundred feet from the railroad track
and the boy and his sister climbed the embankment
and the boy went upon the track.

A freight train had just broken apart
and the forward part of the train had gone by
leaving about thirty feet between the forward part
and the rear cars that followed.
The boy took off his hat and waved good-by
to the part of the train that had passed.
His sister called to him to come back
and he replied,
“Why the train has gone by!”

But he was run over by the cars that followed.
It couldn’t be any clearer, or sadder, could it?

End Note: The writing and publishing history, in brief, of Testimony:

Reznikoff’s Testimony project began in the early 1930s, when for a few years he worked for the company that published the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris. The job required him to read and analyze court decisions found in case reporters. From the facts of some of the cases, he made prose poems (yes, prose poems!). These poems were first published in 1932 under the title “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” in the first two issues of Contact (a magazine edited by W.C. Williams), and that same year in the Zukofsky-edited An Objectivists Anthology. In 1934, a small book of the prose poems, titled Testimony, was published by the Objectivist Press. A scan of the front of that book ends this post, below.

Reznikoff included three verse poems based on facts from the case reports, and collectively titled “Testimony,” in his self-published 1941 collection, Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down.

Reznikoff fervently took up Testimony again in the 1960s, spending time reading old court decisions in law libraries, and writing hundreds of poems from those decisions in the verse form he had come to find most suitable for the work. In 1965, New Directions-San Francisco Review jointly published a book containing some of these poems. In 1968, Reznikoff self-published another portion. In 1978, shortly after Reznikoff’s death, the two volume Black Sparrow edition was published. Its full title is Testimony – The United States (1885 - 1915) Recitative. It includes all poems from the two collections published in the 1960s, plus all others in verse that Reznikoff wrote. It does not include the 1934 Testimony prose poems.

As discussed above, the two volume Black Sparrow edition, the only complete edition of the verse Testimony poems, is exceedingly difficult to find. Even harder to find is the volume of Testimony prose poems, published in the 1934 (pictured below). Currently, it is available only in about 50 U.S. libraries, of which less than a handful are located on the west coast.
Jumping back to the verse poems, the only realistic option at present, aside from a library, is the 1965 New Directions/San Francisco Review edition of Testimony. It contains between about one-quarter to one-third of the poems found in the complete two-volume edition; a hardcover reading copy can be had via the used book option for about $20.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Praise Song for the Day" - New World Plus 44 Mix

Pre-amp Soothe Forearm Theodolite Dazzle

Earnest dazzle weather-cock god-damned absently outer butchery,
Wallowing pataphysics earnest ought, catfishing earnest ought
Ezra orbiter notwithstanding, absently toe specify orbiter specifying.

Alley absently usufruct islet nomothetic. Alley absently usufruct islet
nomothetic anear brasserie, thrawn anear diocese, earnest
on-rush offing outer andouille onion outer toothed.

Sonic islet stockfishing uppercase abandon hemiola, datelining
abandon holocrine inapt abandon uniramous, pathogen abandon titer,
replevying theodolite thiouracil inapt negritude offing replevy.

Sonic islet tuatura toe malanders mussy sonnetize
wizened abandoned paleography offing woodwind sporty onion analects okey-doke dryness,
wizened cense, bop boysenberry, hartebeest, volley.

Abandon woodcarving anear heredity sonship walking forearm theodolite buss.
Abandon fascinator constable theodolite chapati slam-bang.
Abandon teataster scalenus, Talking outfitter yule penna. Bejabbers.

Weather-cock endless earnest ought inapt working, workings
spirogyra orbiter snakebite, whitefish orbiter decoration,
workings toe constable, recto.

Weather-cock crossroad disarticulate robins anear himself themselves marplot
theodolite wily offing songfest on-rush anear thereat ought, whorish saith
Ibuprofen negritude toe segment when on-glide theodolite ought sideways.

Ibuprofen kohl thermograph soniferous B-girl downward theodolite robin.
Weather-cock negritude toe finicky abandon whim weather-cock sagitate.
Weather-cock wallop intrigant themselves whipping weather-cock canter yokel segment.

Scalenus itinerate plane-tree: themselves marathon hawser differential forearm thorny dazzle.
Sinistrodextral theodolite napalm offing theodolite dealer whorish bruin usufruct hermetic,
whorish lamasery theodolite tranquilities, rambutan theodolite brills,

pictorial theodolite counsel anear theodolite leveret, bulldog
brig bystander brig theodolite gloriole eels
think wreathe thereat kennel clement anear work-table inspiration offing.

Pre-amp soothe forearm stuffy, pre-amp soothe forearm theodolite dazzle.
Pre-amp soothe forearm exacerbate hands-off-levanter silesia,
theodolite filleting-itinerate-outfitter athetosis klepht tachymeters.

Songfest lixiviate bystander lowbred tic neodymium ascocarp tidal,
ought bystander fishbowl document nodical harrumph orbiter talking nodical morph
thecate yuan negritude. When ikon theodolite military working islet lowbred?

Lowbred bibasic marmoreal, filthy, naturally,
lowbred themselves cat abandon wigwag popliteal offing lightsome,
lowbred wizened nodical negritude toe prelapsarian.

Inapt toilworn’s shearing spaz, thorny wirework airframe,
Apathetic thiouracil cancel beanie, apathetic septenary beldame.
Onion theodolite brittle, onion theodolite britches, onion theodolite cutis,

pre-amp soothe forearm walloping founder inapt themselves lightsome.

A note on method: Each word in Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem was looked up in Webster’s New World Dictionary: Third College Edition (1988). I then quick-counted forty-four (because Obama is the 44th president) dictionary entries from Alexander’s word (or its root), including in that tallying all abbreviations, suffixes, proper names, and the like. The word that then appeared was substituted in, unless it was an abbreviation, suffix, proper name, phrase, or the like, in which case - with an exception or two - an adjacent word was used. When – as happened with a single word – the counting to 44 would have taken me into a new letter of the alphabet, I doubled back once the end of that particular letter was reached. Sometimes I kept the plural and the gerunds consistent with Alexander’s inaugural poem, but mostly the words were allowed to fall as they may. This exercise in foolish fun owes much to Clark Coolidge and Larry Fagin (On the Pumice of Morons), Jackson Mac Low (French Sonnets), a rainy San Francisco Saturday, and anyone who has ever believed in lexical-perimentation.

Friday, January 16, 2009

(in my dreams)

The Inaugural Poem

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies. Great is Liberty! great is Equality! A vast similitude interlocks all. The brain is wider than the sky. Gitche Manito, the mighty, smoked the calumet, the Peace-Pipe, as a signal to the nations. The rocks are ringing, the rocks are ringing.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf.

The mind is an enchanting thing is an enchanted thing like the glaze on a katydid-wing subdivided by sun till the nettings are legion. The mermaids have come to the desert. Suddenly I saw at my feet, spread on the floor of night, ingots of quivering phosphorescence. What does not change / is the will to change.

My motto, as I live and learn, is: dig and be dug in return. Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul! Ashahh harr marrr gahroo yahr aye-howw tanthor rahrr.

The particular, the particular. As for we who “love to be astonished,” so do all relationships move. Now prime necessity calls for auroral intensity. Sometimes all it takes is a solid mass of sunrise to make the marigolds bloom into boisterous toccatas.

End note: By request, from an anonymous commenter, I present below the source/annotations, with year of first publication, for each sentence of “(in my dreams) The Inaugural Poem.” The sources are set out in the same order, and arranged in the same paragraph format, as the sentences in the poem. (Further note: in a number of sentences, lineated verse was made into prose, with periods added; however, all words remain in the order written):

Phyllis Wheatley, “On Imagination” (1773). Walt Whitman, “Great Are The Myths” (1855). Walt Whitman, “On the Beach at Night, Alone” (1867 revision). Emily Dickinson, “The brain is wider than the sky...” (circa 1862). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855). Anonymous Paiute, “ Ghostdance Chant” (circa 1890).

Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily” (1913). Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” (1922). William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” [
“On the road to the contagious hospital . . . ”] (1923).

Marianne Moore, “The Mind Is An Enchanting Thing” (1943). Philip Lamantia, “Touch of the Marvelous
(1944). Kenneth Rexroth, “The Signature of All Things (part III) (1949). Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers” (1949).

Langston Hughes, “Motto” (1952). Allen Ginsberg, “Footnote to Howl” (1956). Michael McClure, “Ghost Tantra # 73” (1964).

Ron Silliman, “Ketjak” (1978). Lyn Hejinian, “My Life” (1980). Will Alexander, “The Stratospheric Canticles”(1995). John Olson, “Ball of Limbs” (2003).

Friday, January 9, 2009

Holy A-E-I-O-U!

For Bibliophile Lovers
Vowel-Centric Oulipian

Come True!

Christian Bök
(Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2008)
(published 6 November 2008)
[First British Edition]
[First Hardcover Edition]
Dust Jacket
(Cover Illustration (gorgeous!) by Edwin Pickstone)
[see for yourself - click image above to enlarge, in a new window]
Wrap-around Band
(Blurb thereon by Gyles Brandreth)
Attached (aka Bound-in)


Avant spark can-can bacchanal cha-cha-cha!

Clever sweet rebel Eden.

Whirlwind spirit-writing bliss.


Purr purr purr.

(and . . . it had a nice run up the Amazon.UK bestseller charts!)
(also: click here to read How To Write Eunioa, by Christian Bök)


Monday, January 5, 2009

Yes, We Have No-War Poetry

William Everson / Kenneth Patchen / Kristin Prevallet / Meg Hamill

This post discusses two books of poems published a bit more than 60 years ago, and two published in the last few years. All four books have protest against war as the primary or key theme. Much can be said about how these poets address the theme, and I here discuss a bit of that for each book. One thing, though, is for sure: Yes, we have no-war poetry in America, yesterday and today, and some of it, including the poems in these four books, is stunningly great.


William Everson, 10 War Elegies
(Waldport, Oregon: Untide Press, 1943)

Among the so-called “greatest generation”-- those raised during the Depression who fought in World War II -- were many who rejected the war entirely. About 45,000 Americans during World War II declared themselves conscientious objectors (COs); another 25,000 became “non-combat conscientious objectors,” and thousands of others, who objected to coerced military service or were not accepted as conscientious objectors, went to prison for the duration of the war. In addition, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, via Presidential Executive Order 9066 as upheld by the Supreme Court, were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war.

Those conscientious objectors accepted as such by draft boards were assigned, for the duration of the war, to do “alternative service” at one of a number of Civilian Peace Service (CPS) camps run by certain churches. The COs were required to be placed at a camp at least 200 miles from their home.

At the CPS detention camp in Waldport, Oregon (on the coast about three hours south-west of Portland), a fine arts mini-movement flourished. Among other things, the men at the camp began the Untide Press, which published a camp newsletter, a couple issues of a magazine (The Illiterati) that was distributed among many CPS camps nationwide, and several small collections of poetry (they’d probably be called chapbooks today). Much of the matter printed by Untide concerned pacifist themes. William Everson is probably the most well-known poet among those at the Waldport camp; he both worked on the Untide project and had his poetry published by it.

All Untide Press work was done after the COs had already done a full day’s work. The camp assignees, as they were formally called, were required to work ither physical labor in the nearby forests or maintenance work at the camp itself. eight hours a day, six days a week. Waldport received 60 to 100 inches of rain each winter, and the forestry work could be dangerous (several men were killed doing it). It’s humbling and inspiring to think of those men, separated from family, toiling outdoors full-time day after day, then working on publishing projects in their “free time.”

As might be expected, much of the poetry published by Untide had decidedly pacifist themes. Untide’s first book, in March, 1943, was William Everson’s 10 War Elegies (aka, using the roman numeral, X War Elegies). The book is really but a pamphlet, a very simple production: the poems on mimeographed typed sheets with a few stenciled mostly abstract drawings, folded and stapled at the side, then glued within covers that had yellow and black typography silk-screened onto blue construction paper. Yes, construction paper, just like we used as kids, with the proviso, however, that war-time paper supplies were notoriously brittle and flimsy. As such, the 10 War Elegies is a rare book today, and the copies that can be found are often chipped and fragile.

In a short introductory note, Everson explains that the book’s ten poems were all written after the war started, including one written after arriving at the camp. He also states the the general purpose of the poems: to show the effect of war on the lives and characters of those it involves. Everson’s book struck a very responsive chord. Within months of its publication the mimeoed version of 10 War Elegies went through five printings, with about 1,000 copies published. An expanded second edition of another approximately 1,000 copies (titled War Elegies) was published the following year. Most copies were sold to detainees in CPS camps nationwide.

Although Everson’s poems are pacifist anti-war testaments, they set out or describe that position mostly in extremely nuanced ways. This thoroughness gives the poems a complexity that requires a deeper engagement from the reader than might otherwise be the case. This characteristic, plus Everson’s strong writing, probably is what made these poems so appealing when first published, and why they are worth reading today.

The book’s first poem is a good example of Everson’s philosophical and emotional complexity. The poem begins with Everson outdoors as night falls, seeking in himself “the measure of peace” that he knows “is not there.” Peace can’t be found because,“now in the east”:
The flyers high on the rising rivers of air
Peer down the dark,
See under the flares the red map of the ruined town,
Loose cargo, turn
And like north-hungry geese in the lifting spring
Seek out the long way home.

The low freighters at sea
Take in their sides the nuzzling dolphins that are their death,
Burst and go under,
Their crews lie on the rafts in the deep fogs,
And will not be found,
And will starve at last on the blue waste.
These are vivid, cinematic images, tightly edited, rhythmic, and horrifying. Everson’s equating, via simile and metaphor, of bombers and torpedoes with geese and dolphins, is nightmarish too. It shows just how wrong the world had become.

The poem then takes a surprising turn. Everson reports that he feels “an unresolvable tension” forming within himself, caused by knowing that he is “of the same breed” as those who brought on the horror he’s just described. He gets very, very specific with this thought. In his blood are “Leif the Lucky, / And Thald, and Snorre” (terrific Viking names, yes?), those who “fought all day” with “bloody beard . . . stunned eyes . . . [and] gibbering mouths . . . crazy with hate . . . .” In short, Everson acknowledges that he is, “the living heir of the bloodiest men of all Europe.” This knowledge tears through his flesh, causing him to “flinch” in guilt.

This leads to a multi-faceted declaration of pacifism. There is the expected vow “not to wantonly ever take life.” But Everson also pledges to “seek to atone” for what came from his own past, and to not only “bear the pain” but also, out of his knowledge of what he fully is, to have pity and remorse. That’s about five emotional or philosophical facets, in addition to the revulsion, tension, and guilt previously presented. It’s an anti-war position with many roots, or, if your prefer, branches.

The book’s other poems are similarly nuanced. The seventh poem in the series depicts an early morning surprise air attack on an island (Pearl Harbor, presumably), from the perspective of the attacking pilots (i.e., the Japanese). The poem insists that the pilots were victims too. After hitting their targets, the pilots “crazy with joy” seek to rendezvous “on the open sea” with the aircraft carriers from which they had taken off. But those ships are gone. The planes can only circle above the “wide waiting waste” until each pilot sees “the spent gauge caught in its final flutter,” leading to the inevitable and sad finale:
. . . straggled down on their wavering wings
From the vast sky,
From the endless spaces,
Down at last for the low hover,
And the short quick quench of the sea.
The last line’s horrible energy – its eight single syllable words perfectly suggesting how the planes knifed into the water – is extremely convincing. That’s all the more remarkable given that the end can be seen several lines before it happens. Probably not many in “The Greatest Generation,” at the time or even today, would agree that the attackers were victims, pawns in the game, to use Bob Dylan’s trope. However, Everson couldn’t have made the case any clearer.

The book’s tenth and last poem is the only one actually written in and about the Waldport camp itself. Titled “The Interment,” the poem takes– and this should come as no surprise at this point – a nuanced approach to its subject. Yes, it depicts the hard physical labor required, and reports that the detainees are “suspended in time” / Locked out” of their lives. But the complaints then stop. Everson writes that the detainees’ grievance is “slight” compared to all that obtains “Outside, in the bone-broken world.” Even more, he suggests that the detainees’ isolation permits them to better see their “place in the terrible pattern,”
And temper with pity the fierce gall,
Hearing the sadness,
The loss and the utter desolation,
Howl at the heart of the world.
That “Howl” in the last line is STRONG. I hear it, and feel it. I wonder if Ginsberg did too?


Kenneth Patchen, An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of The Air
(Waldport, Oregon: Untide Press, no date [1945])

The last book published at Waldport, as the war came to an end in 1945, was Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of The Air. It’s an exceptionally memorable book, for several reasons.

There first is the book’s cover: the title and poet’s name are printed on white paper which is then pasted over (but does nmot entirely cover) a plain black wrapper. About a decade later, these eye-catching design elements were borrowed by City Lights for its Pocket Poets series.

The book’s page design is also memorable, if way too busy. The poem titles are shown in black ink, but the poems’ number and text are in red, and all except the numbers is printed over a sort of watermark in which the book’s title is spelled out in white block letters within a grey-brown column that runs down the middle of each page. Here’s a scan of one of the pages (please excuse the slighty catta-wampus scan here), to give you an idea of how it looks (click to enlarge, in a new window):

The poems themselves – a collection of 14 new and 20 previously published works – are memorable too. All involve or revolve around Patchen’s opposition to war, as he tells us somewhat needlessly in an introductory note. The opposition to war in the poems is generally explicit, made via scathing critiques of violence and skewed social values, although there are also poems that offer, in their direct and powerful evocations of life and love, an implicit anti-war message.

And when I say explicit and scathing, I ain’t kidding. In the book’s first poem, Patchen writes of the “noble little fools” and “their war.” He declares,
the soul of the world is dead . . .
Truth rots in a bloody ditch;
And love is impaled on a million bayonets.
The poem that follows, “The Dimensions of the Morning,” contains similarly scalding language. Patchen avers:
You are wasting your lives.
You are going along with your pockets
Full of trash
You have been taught to want only the ugly
And the small;
You have been taught to hate what is clean
And of the star.
A dog will throw up
When he is sick;
Are you lower than dogs
That you keep it all down–
And cram in more?
This type of excoriating poetic denunciation, if overdone, can burn so hot that the anti-war message seems an unreal, inhuman thing, impossible to embrace. A part of Patchen’s genius is that he can push the fiery envelope of rage and cool down the message via lyrical, even romanticized images of beauty and sentiment that while just as intense sound an entirely different note. Counterpoint is a well-used tool in the arts, including poetry, precisely because it’s so effective, and it certainly is in An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air.

The first poem quoted above – with its lines about truth rotting in a bloody ditch and love impaled on a million bayonets -- nicely illustrates Patchen’s mixing of tones. Those stunning images of human failings, are both preceded and followed by an unabashed celebration of dawn. The poem begins,
The stars go to sleep so peacefully . . .
Their high gentle eyes closing like white flowers
in a child’s dream of heaven.
and, after the caustic indictments in the middle stanzas, ends on the same note:
But great God! The stars go to sleep so peacefully.
Many other poems follow this pattern. Of course, the book’s title – a striking image of mystery and wonder – also serves to balance, and thus to temper, the strong anti-war invective.


Kristin Prevallet, Shadow Evidence Intelligence
(no place: Factory School, 2006)
(Heretical Texts: Volume 2, Number 3)

Anti-war poems make up only a part of Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence. Most of the book’s 70 pages presents documentation of group activities involving poetic social protest, including much from the archives of the “Poetry Is Public Art” project (including slogans created by the group, such as “It’s so sad to love cash” and “Be American: dissent”). Of course, anti-war and social justice concerns are closely linked, as Martin Luther King explained in his tremendous 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

Although relatively small in number, Prevallet’s poems against war are HUGE. There are, for example, a set of three visual poems, of a kind. Prevallet borrows, then alters, three of the slide-images used by Colin Powell in his regrettable February 2003 United Nations presentation that, using false intelligence, made the case for war. These slides each had text in cartoonish boxes superimposed on the images, telling you what you were seeing, just as you’d expect in official propaganda. Here’s one of the slides that Powell used:

Propaganda like this, espeically when Power-Pointed as above, presents rich opportunities for subversion, and Prevallet has at it. She replaces the dangerous-sounding “decontamination vehicle” and “chemical munitions bunker,” with, respectively, “A square iron box in the middle of a cornfield” and “Off-center, it defines the parameters of the cornfield.” The box labeled “UN vehicles” becomes, in an almost dada or surrealistic touch, “arctic glaciers” and for “sanitized bunkers” she substitutes, “Some people see bombs hidden here.” Another sharp jab at fiction spoon-fed as facts is her change to the slide’s title. In Prevallet’s poem, it’s “THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO DEFINE PROOF.” This is imaginative, fun, and effective poetry. I only wish the three poem-slides, which are reproduced in black-and-white, were in color, and that Prevallet could have somehow presented simultaneously with Powell at the UN five years ago. Wouldn’t that have been something?

These reconstituted images are in a section of the book called “Shadow Poems,” in which Prevallet pays, to use her term, “(Dis)Hommage” to certain forms by borrowing and altering their structure and/or methodology. She also calls this working “in the shadow” of the source. A poem done “in the shadow” of Wallace Steven’s “Connoisseur of Chaos” is particularly powerful. Where Stevens repeatedly uses the conditional “If” to start a line, and a form of the verb to be as a confirming ending (e.g., “If all the green of spring was blue, and it is”) Prevallet does too, but in each instance (and she adds many lines with the same structure) substitutes her own first conditional, now certain, suppositions, including these:
If America was fooled to believe that a country decimated by
sanctions and bombed to pieces for 12 long years was somehow in
possession of weapons capable of eliminating the free world
       and we were.
If hundreds of thousands have been killed, wounded, maimed, gone
crazy, committed suicide just in the past year and just because of war,
       and they have.
If the memory of 9/11 is the tigers leap into the future and the future
is the present ruled by madmen,
       and it is.
Another great “in the shadow” poem subverts – twice – a paragraph taken from George W. Bush’s February 2002 United Nations speech on Iraq. Prevallet first takes the paragraph’s five sentences and lineates them, breaking the lines, it seems to me, so that they sometimes create a most critical message:
The United States has no
quarrel with the Iraqi people;
they’ve suffered too
long in silent
captivity. Liberty for
the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic
goal. The people
of Iraq deserve
it; the security of
all nations requires it. Free societies do not
intimidate through cruelty
and conquest, and
open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder. The United
States supports political
and economic liberty
in a unified Iraq.
See how the first line-break serves to make the first five words a declamation of negation? I also love, a few lines down, how “captivity” and “liberty” are become partnered, as if one actually is the other (our freedom is a prison). I also love how, a bit further down, the phrase “intimidate through cruelty,” isolated by Prevallet from its prefatory and subsequent clauses, suggests the exact opposite of what Bush asserted, and thus reads (convincingly) as the President’s actual policy. How sweet it is to jam Official Words right back up the Authority’s ass!

But Prevallet is not done, far from it. She then repeats her Bush-word poem five times, each time substituting the word “oil” for about a dozen randomly chosen words (and tweaking slightly the lineation as she does so). The aptness of the substitute word is self-evident. By the final iteration, “oil” engulfs just about oil (all) of Bush’s words. Here’s the second-to-last version, which retains about 20 original words:
Oil United Oil oil oil
oil oil the oil people; they've oil oil
oil oil silent
oil. Oil oil
the oil people is
oil oil moral oil, oil oil oil strategic
goal. Oil oil
oil oil oil
it; oil security of
oil nations oil oil. Free societies oil oil
intimidate oil cruelty
oil oil, and
oil oil do oil
oil oil world oil oil oil. Oil United
States oil oil
and oil oil
oil oil unified oil
In addition to the grand subversion of the official text, something else brilliant goes on here. When read aloud (try it, please), the mechanics of pronouncing the word oil, repeatedly and repeatedly, cause the laryngeal and/or mouth gears to jam up something fierce. Soon enough in the reciting, the reader – or is it just me? – begins literally to gag or choke on the word. A poem that causes us to actually choke on oil. How perfect is that?


Meg Hamill, Death Notices
(no place: Factory School, 2006)
(Heretical Texts: Volume 3, Number 2)

At the heart of Meg Hamill’s Death Notices are almost forty prose blocks, formatted like and written somewhat in the style of newspaper death notices. Each of these notices is about a person or persons dead from war in Iraq. There are notices about Americans, Iraqis and citizens of other nations, soldiers and civilians, the privileged and the poor, men, women, and children, the alone and large groups, warriors and the utterly innocent. Here are three examples, that happen to concern Iraqi citizens, scanned from the book (click each notice to enlarge it in a new window):

Taken as a group, the book’s more than three dozen notices do a number of things, in addition to having an extremely sobering emotional impact on the reader. The notices also mock and subvert, pay tribute, and set up a series of questions or ideas.

The death notices mock and subvert first because we, of course, never see – could never see – most of them. There’s no way our newspapers could print notices for the hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the war in Iraq, and of course there’s also no way they ever would, even if it were feasible to do it.

Hamill’s notices also subvert by making use of the formulaic structure and cliches (e.g., “in lieu of flowers”) of published death notices, and by using actual language about the deaths gleaned from news accounts. Here, the well-worn form seems new, first because it is recontextualized as poetry, and second because many of Hamill’s notices veer into the meditative, reflective, responsive or speculative material. Most of the notices don’t just report the death, they prod some about it too.

Yet the notices also honor the dead. Hamill lets us know – reminds us in a very specific way – about at least a few of the war dead, most of which we’ve never heard about, and others that even if we have we’ve too easily forgotten.

And the notices, particularly by reminding us of the scope and variety of the dead, and by including material beyond the simple (or complicated) immediate facts of death, also suggest a series of questions or ideas. These ideas and questions also arise, or are reflected as well, from the lineated verse Hamill intersperses between the death notices. Some of this verse is written entirely by Hamill, but much is “found” or borrowed, including statements made by wartime detainees (from Abu Ghraib?), soldiers, and media covering the war, which Hamill arranges into verse.

The questions and ideas raised involve, among other matters: pain and human interconnectedness, the consequences of the failure to grieve and the advantages of doing so, our complicity both in the deaths themselves and the lack of or limited mourning, the fate of world-systems where grief is limited and whether limiting grief causes violence, the role of media in what we feel, and how daily life, grief, interconnectedness and compassion might co-exist, particularly when “all the bad and all the stunning” (a phrase used by Hamill) are overwhelming.

These are critically important ideas and questions. Hamill’s interest in these matters in part arises from her familiarity with the writings of Joanna Macy (a quotation from Macy serves as the book’s epigraph and three of her works are cited in a note that ends the book), and Judith Butler (the end note cites Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, and Hamill has said she was inspired by these writings).

Butler and Macy are big thinkers. Part of what makes Death Notices such a powerful book is that Hamill’s exploration of these big thinkers’ big ideas is not heavy-handed, programmatic, or glib. On the contrary, the personal/political/anti-war/social/philosophical principles that both undergird and emanate from this poetry seem natural, sincere, and direct. I credit this entirely to Hamill’s writing and artistic skills. She shows discretion in places but when necessary lays it all on (in) the line. She mixes subtle suggestion and trumpeted themes, and neither relies too much on nor abjures entirely personal thoughts and experiences. And, as the book as a whole is a kind of collage given its extensive use of found text and information, Hamill’s touch as an assemblagist must be credited. The ordering and juxtapositions never seem clunky, even though surely many choices about ordering the material were necessary. Combine all this with the impact of the dozens of stunning and haunting death notices themselves, and it’s no wonder that this book’s a very impressive achievement..

End notes and sources:

Much information about the Untide Press and Waldport was found in “Waldport: An Interview With William Everson,” published in Imprint: Oregon, Vol. 5, no. 1-2 (Fall-Spring 1978-1979); additional information was also found in the Untide Press bibliography in that issue.

There is of course, much other poetry -- entire books, series of poems, and single poems -- that I might have written about here. If I were to include single poems, Robert Duncan’s Vietnam era “Uprising: Passages 25” would serve as an exemplar of indignant protest.

Finally, the wondrous strange image conjured by An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, the title of the Patchen book, is not unique to that poet. Reproduced below are three particularly powerful uses of that image. The Henry Miller book, with a dust jacket using a cover design very similar to that pictured below, was published in 1939. The Philip K. Dick book was originally published, as pictured below, in 1957. The final image is a painting, by Jess (aka Jess Collins), completed in 1975. The painting, which measures almost 20 by 20 inches, is a translation of an image found by Jess in a 1958 book, which in turn was based on a woodcut done in the 16th century.