Saturday, May 29, 2010

Eshleman’s Energy

“Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe”

a poem

Clayton Eshleman

from his new

(Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010)

Vigorous. Intense. Potent.

That’s the kind of energy you’ll find, what I found, in Anticline (Black Widow Press, 2010), the latest collection of poems (at least his sixteenth) from Clayton Eshleman, whose first book was published in 1962 and whose poems, from what I read here, seem strong as – heck, stronger than – ever.

Anticline has approximately 175 pages and sixty poems, divided into three sections. The centerpiece – it occupies the middle of the book, between two sections of shorter poems – is “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” a single 25 page, 13-part, approximately 750 line poem that comes with another 15 pages of supplemental prose (including an introduction and five appendices). The poem’s an opulent – deluxe, sumptuous – take on Hieronymus Bosch’s early 16th century triptych painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Eshleman’s poem takes its title from his term for a particularly rich image (it’s reproduced at the top of this post) found in Bosch’s painting. Atop a tavern in a hollowed out bone-orb there’s a small flag depicting – yes, indeed – a scarlet bagpipe; the flag-image echoes an identical-looking actual, large-sized instrument atop an adjacent disc. “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” is a cool sounding place, I gotta admit, and seems appropriate too as a title in that Eshleman in the poem suggests, among other things, that Bosch’s image concerns the:
Artist as tavern aslosh with the lightning of Dionysian over-reach,
    pickled melancholy . . .

“Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” its prose introduction explains, stems from Eshleman’s decades long fascination with Bosch’s painting. He saw the triptych in person in 1979 at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and ever since has hung reproductions on his workroom wall. He’s also collected and read books and articles on Bosch.

In late 2004, Eshleman enjoyed a month-long residency at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, on Lake Como, specifically to study The Garden of Earthly Delights via reproductions and secondary texts. He generated close to 100 pages of notes. Thereafter, he created almost 700 worksheets while writing and shaping the final version of his poem.

Eshleman calls this project “the most challenging thing” he’s ever taken on. Now that’s REALLY saying something, given that in addition to writing many books of his own poetry, Eshleman’s translated all of César Vallejo and (with others) Aimé Césaire, studied for decades Ice Age cave art and early human imagination (see his almost 300 page Juniper Fuse (Wesleyan, 2003), and for years edited the top-flight poetry journals Caterpillar (1967-1973) and Sulfur (1981-2000).

This whole deal – the decades of study and thinking, intense weeks of focused even extravagant wood-shedding, pages and pages of notes and worksheets, a motherfucker of a project finally coming to a finished creative work – is a most appealing kind of crazy, the kind of thing that can really put the poetry in a poem. Sure, sometimes a poem’s as easy as opening a floodgate and letting the waters flow.

But other times, it seems to me, it’s something entirely different. Materials must be gathered and aged, considered and mixed. Equipment, including flasks, beakers, funnels, pipettes, and condensers, plus heating and cooling apparatuses, must be obtained, set up, and tested. And then the experimenting and actual work begins, and only then, slowly over time, do ideas and language condense and distill into the words of poem.

1: Heat source / 2: Still pot / 3: Still head / 4: Thermometer/Boiling point temperature
5: Condenser / 6: Cooling water in / 7: Cooling water out / 8: Distillate [the poem] /
receiving flask / 9: Vacuum/gas inlet / 10: Still receiver / 11: Heat control
12: Stirrer speed control 13: Stirrer/heat plate / 14: Heating (Oil/sand) bath
15: Stirrer bar/anti-bumping granules / 16: Cooling bath.

O holy time-taking diligent (al)chemical poet obsessions!


Eshleman in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” takes many approaches to, with, and from Bosch’s painting. He details many particulars, putting into words the awesome rush of the Garden’s visual imagery. He speculates, via assertions and questions, about what goes on in the work. He brings into the poem matters from outside the triptych, including a few events from recent times (for example, Salvador Dalí and Donald Rumsfeld appear), and imagined voices (Bosch himself speaks in one section), and much that’s self-reflective or of special concern to him. At a few points, Eshleman even puts himself right in the painting!

Eshleman, in short, writes of and about, into and out of, calling and responding to, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The art acts as subject, spur, and mirror. The poet gives life to the Bosch’s work, the work gives it right back to him, and we, the readers, ride the energy on both sides and in between. Eshleman gets close to what I’m saying, I think, when he writes at the end of the poem’s eighth part (which concerns the “Apocalypse” wing of the painting):
This flash frozen nightmare. It is the onlooker
who puts motion into Apocalypse. Expressionless males faces, dots
    or blotches where eyes should be. Who are they? Who am I?
This vision is a kind of mirror facing me, likewise a mirror.
                                                                 Between our banks
a drama surges, ripe with circular cease and wheel.

Ultimately, “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” presents no overarching conclusion about The Garden of Earthly Delights, because that’s just not possible. As Eshleman states in his introduction, “there is no core meaning to uncover” in Bosch’s painting. Or, as he elaborates in an appendix, “Bosch’s stupendous inventiveness plays havoc with an all-over theory. Spontaneous moves abound.”

The poem has a lot of this same feel. As the variety of its approaches – including the descriptive, speculative, inventive and reflective – suggest, Eshleman’s “distillation” (yes, that’s the word he uses, in the first section), contains much. Although the poem’s tightly constructed – each of its 13 parts pertains to an identified panel (or portion thereof of the triptych (including the reverse sides of the wings) or the painting as a whole – but within and across this architecture it sprawls. Sprawls as a healthy, vigorous plant or bush does, with branches, leaves, and flowers that extend, grow and bloom in ways not entirely predictable.

I can’t possibly, at least not right now, fully write about “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” There’s lots in it, and I’m still digging Eshleman’s words and ideas (see the Addendum at the bottom of this post for some of what Eshleman himself sent my way after this was published). So today, I play - -for you, dear readers – a few choruses of “these are a few of my favorite things.”


I love first the poem’s many purely descriptive lines. They are concise and vivid. They bring to life Bosch’s jam-packed painted wonderland(s), the work’s multitude of hallucinatory, otherworldly dream-particulars. I could pair an image from the painting and Eshleman’s corresponding description, but instead I’ll just give the poetry because in this case the words are enough.

The excerpt below – it’s about two dozen lines – in the main describes a scene found in the middle of the central (or Paradise) panel of Bosch’s painting. Large numbers of animals, most ridden by naked men, parade around a small round pond in which naked women stand, stretch, or swim. Birds flit about or perch, often on a person’s or animal’s head, and many other beasts and people are seen as they too move from the sides into the circling multitude.

But that’s my prose. Here’s Eshleman’s verse, found in the poem’s fifth section. The excerpt begins shortly after Eshleman’s mentioned the “[t]hirty-one female nudes” who “cavort in the mother-elixir” (the pond or pool at the center of the scene). The view then pans out and zooms in on the “rotating cavalcade” trying to get the female’s attention:

    little red bear under a horse. Bud-like clusters of mainly nude male riders,
        all identical.
    A crow sits on a long thin branch piercing huge grapes.
    Circling cocks, camels, prancing ponies.
    Black-winged stilt poking its needle-beak into the anus of an upturned
         leg-forked lad.
    Chatting youths, wearing tern, woodpecker headdresses.
    On a large white boar, one holds up a heron’s wings.
    Transformation of the millstone. Labor converted to a snorting, heaving
    Bull, donkey. Pronghorn with Hathor fruit sun between horns.
    Leaping, static, this engine of the mind.
    About what hub does the creative wind?
                                                          A nymph-clustered pool?
    Three riders bear a fish devouring another fish (one pets the devourer
         as if it were a pet).
    Lateral entry: an immense lobster shell packed with dirty asses
         plugging its orifice, carried by a platoon of nudes—
    drive this too around the carousel! Griffon with jet-black tipped wings,
         round porcupine blazon.
    Lion lugging a huge carp. Two storks on the back of a rose boar
         with black balls, a black-and-white-suckered-tentacle-tail.
    Lavender leopard with goggle-black eyes. All are astrologically-
         tinged, medicinal, layered with superstitional abuse.

High octane poetic energy powers these lines. They are potent, whether full (i.e., grammatically “correct”) sentences or just fragments. The sentence that ends with an exclamation point (“ . . . drive this too around the carousel!”) underscores Eshleman’s enthusiasm, his excitement, at what he’s doing.

Eshleman here doesn’t capture each and every detail seen in Bosch’s parade, but presents plenty enough to set the mind spinning with the spectacular scene. He mixes his approach and the rhythm (including the length) of his lines, sometimes piling on adjectives and nouns, as in the third-to-last line’s multi-hyphenated description of the boar’s tail, and sometimes going full-on basic, as in the two-word sentence “Bull, donkey”).

I especially love the echoing alliteration at the start of the last two non-indented lines. That effect brings together the “Lion lugging a huge carp” and the “Lavender leopard with goggle-black eyes” – two images of particular hallucinatory intensity – into one persuasively pulchritudinous phantasmagoria. This description drives me back to the rest of the text, to read again, and closely, his words, and to look too, and carefully, at Bosch’s painting (high resolution images are readily available on-line).


Near the middle of the excerpt above, Eshleman switches modes; over the course of three lines he doesn’t describe the circling parade but makes an assertion and asks two questions about it, or about the thoughts it inspires:
Leaping, static, this engine of the mind.
About what hub does the creative wind?
                                                     A nymph-clustered pool?
This kind of probing, large and intelligent, that is a hallmark of Eshleman and thus another of the great joys in reading “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” Eshleman, to get sort of cliched about it, has not only been around the block a few times, he’s repeatedly explored the friggin’ archeological remains beneath it, and has a few ideas about what he’s seen.

In the lines quoted above, Eshleman’s equating of Bosch’s fantastic circling parade with the mechanism and energy of thought (“Leaping, static, this engine of the mind”) strikes me as utterly correct. But what’s really great is the way he extends or pushes his ideas: the following question (“About what hub does the creative wind?”) with its matching end-rhyme and syllable count gives off a maxim-glow, but it is a question. A question that’s answered by another (“A nymph-clustered pool?”), an approach that makes clear that Eshleman doesn’t pontificate here but seeks and tests, offering possibilities. The reader, this one at least, happily, delightfully goes along, riddling and thinking right with him.

Here’s another query by Eshleman from “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” I present first the image which gave rise to Eshelman’s lines – it’s a detail from the left (Eden) panel of The Garden, which I ellipse here:

And here’s the corresponding verse, from the poem’s third section:
I wonder:

                    might this Fountain of Life—
a mineral-plant monstrance,
liquids peeing through orbs and disks,
balanced on percolating muck
—be the pumping heartwork of an androgynous matrix?
Now I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an androgynous matrix, let alone the heartwork of such a thing, and that’s exactly why this particular question works so well: the inventiveness sparks the speculation into an idea that fires the imagination.


Although Eshleman asks plenty of questions in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” he also makes many very definite, quite definite, statements. This too is a hallmark of Eshleman’s writing and (if I may) his personality too, as anyone who’s read his criticism or received from him (as I have) pointed e-mails directly challenging something you’ve written. When he’s convinced, Eshleman’s confident and fearless and doesn’t hold back.

Here’s an example of Eshleman’s energy of certainty, taken from the very end of the ninth section of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” The statement, a strong-willed opinion, is spurred by an image near the bottom middle of the right (Apocalypse) wing of the triptych in which Bosch depicts a well-dressed rabbit who stands upright and carries a hunting horn, game bag, and a long pike from which a naked woman – whose belly, in the words of the poem, is “farting fire” – hangs from her heels. Eshleman first describes that scene and then, taking the view of the animal he calls “Squire Rabbit,” exclaims:
so, the hunting’s been good! So good the butchered creatures
     have turned the tables.
Think of the earth from a rabbit hutch point of view. Can you imagine
the cow report if slaughterhouse reality could be mooed?
Or the hook-torn trout assembly granted a symposium of the creek?
            Apocalypse is what we have done to them.
This inter-species table-turning, with us humans sharply condemned, packs a wallop. Here Eshleman’s questions – and they are marvelous ones, particularly the force of the suggested cruelty and pain in the “moo[ing]” of the cow – are answered with certainty. The final line, and the final word’s italics, leave no doubt, and it’s bracing, sobering, and convincing.


As mentioned above, Eshleman at certain points in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” puts himself (or is it finds himself?) in Bosch’s painting. He becomes via poetic projection a part of the action, even as he reports, speculates, and riffs on the artwork. This is wild, and why not? Getting into it, literally-in-imagination, certainly suggests his intensity of involvement with, and depth of immersion in, the triptych.

The Eshleman-in-The Garden approach results in at least two moments that especially delight. They’re both found in the poem’s sixth section. The first set of lines describe and concern an image, pictured below, that appears in near the upper left corner of Paradise (the center panel) in The Garden of Earthly Delights (Eshleman’s lines immediately follow):

So here I am, up in the sky riding a griffin with Persian-blue aquiline
holding a branch from the Tree of Life upon which a red starling
In its talons my griffin grips a wriggling bear.
As a unit, we herald the commingling of all things,
or as many as one artist can atoll, in the coral amassment of a life.
The real kicker here are the final two lines, a compelling capsule summation and celebration of the slow-growing collage of the creative over time. approach. I love the inventiveness that takes the noun “atoll” and makes of it a verb, then associates it with coral, used as an adjective to modify “amassment,” a word that with its repeated though separated vowel and consonants (the a’s and m’s in particular) sounds just like what it is.

But Eshleman’s not done. He’s not just riding the griffin, embodying a herald of commingled things. One idea that undergirds the poem is the self and existence as multifoliate. And so directly across the image of the griffin shown above is another, of something else in the air that’s unusual, and this too Eshleman identifies with. Here are Bosch’s image and Eshleman’s lines, found about one-half page after those quoted above:

I am also a mer-knight on a flying fish, pulling my tail up over my head,
     a salamander pout on my armored mug.

I give functionality to the void, instilling it with a gear-work of
     irrational transmission.
The description here of the poet’s work with the irrational – an important complement to the atolled coral amassment written about in the previously quoted lines – is marvelous, and I don’t want to lessen it by saying much about it.

I also love the idea, set out at the beginning of these lines, of the poet as a mer-knight. In fact, I’m so charmed by that idea that as this post ends I hereby exercise my reader-royal authority and bestow on Eshleman the title Sir Clayton. That’s only right, I think, and richly deserved, given his life-work in poetry, including the achievement of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.”

Clayton Eshleman


Clayton Eshleman recently read
the entirety of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,”
including the prose introduction and some of the appendices,
on the Joe Milford Radio Show.
The approximately 90 minute broadcast
is archived, and can be heard,
by clicking here.



Clayton Eshleman
on his exploration
into the meaning of
The Garden of Earthly Delights

(May 31, 2010)

After publishing this post, Clayton Eshleman e-mailed several very interesting paragraphs regarding what he considers his success at exploring the meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Here’s some of what he sent, focusing on that for which he quotes from the poem (italics in the original):
“There is one statement in the poem that presses into what could be thought of as the triptych’s meaning:

      The gold coins on the Eden Tree of Life
      reappear only in Apocalypse, where a crouched man
      shits four of them into a caricature of the Cenoté.

      [ . . . ]

      Hence, in Bosch, Apocalypse is “coined” in Eden.

      It is not a breakdown brought about by paradisal transgression.

That is, I think, a significant perception, as all commentaries on the painting that I have read treat the nudes in the center (Paradise) panel as sinners involved in sexual excess [ . . . ] that then brings about the fire and brimstone in the right hand panel. But if Apocalypse is ‘coined’ in Eden, that suggests a deterministic universe.”
Eshleman further explains in the e-mails he sent me that while scholars have long treated the nudity in Bosch’s central panel as sexual excess, no explicit sexual activity takes place, and no erections or vaginas are depicted. At most, he writes, Bosch shows (Eshleman’s terms in quotes here) “a few dreamy passes at foreplay” but they and everything else amongst the (his term) “tendrilesque throng” in the panel “seem choreographed by red berry intoxication or high.” Red berries, Eshleman points out, “dominate, as materials, the middle section” (this is extensively discussed in an appendix to the poem).

“So,” Eshleman concludes regarding Bosch’s painting, “a deterministic universe in which the end is present in the beginning, and the new beginning is present in the realized end. In between, nature’s marvels include mind-altering fruit that enables some to imagine earthly delights.”


Sunday, May 16, 2010

. . . notational noetics . . .

Joanne Kyger
Lo & Behold

(Voices From The American Land, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

Bolinas, California (looking Northwest)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gull just caught a crab.

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

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

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

Just one dog barking, barking all afternoon.

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

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

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

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

Language as sculpting of energy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will I ever write anything but notations again?

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

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

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

See! There’s room enough here.

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

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


Joanne Kyger (2008)
[photo by Andrew Kenower]


. . . notational noetics . . .


Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Inter(rae)gator

Armantrout’s Questions

Rae Armantrout read in Oakland Friday night, at the monthly Studio One series in the Temescal neighborhood. For once, I kept paper and pen in my backpack and pocket, respectively, and just let the word-flow take me where it would.

As it happened, I keyed on, became absorbed by and then obsessed with, the questions Armantrout asked, explicitly, in the poems she read. My oh my how invigorating (do you feel it?) that was, and let me explain why.

I was primed, to say the least, to be hit hard by Armantrout’s questions. I went to the reading straight from the office, where I’d spent much time late Friday helping a co-worker prepare cross-examination for an upcoming evidentiary hearing. For close to a couple hours she’d asked me her questions, and we’d talked about what the questions were meant to do. Heading over to Studio One, my mind was a querl of queries.

So imagine my response – can you, please? – when the first poem read by Armantrout – “A Resemblance” (it’s found early in the first section of her Pulitzer-winning Versed) – began as follows:
As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly

Right out of the gate, that’s two questions (Armantrout when reading out loud indicates the questions just as any of us would, via inflection on the last word or syllable), and two interesting ones at that, what with seemingly improbable (yet upon reflection sensible enough) suggestion of connections between the nature of language and ur-stuff of existence, plus the funny heterographic echo of “Hello?” in “Halo?”

Given my focus at work just before the reading, these opening queries just LIT UP my head. I immediately thought about why Armantrout asked these particular questions, in this way, and how should they be answered, but then – what do you know? – two more questions were asked in “A Resemblance,” the back-to-back:
“Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
and before I could get too far in thinking about these the next poem (“Outer”) was coming through and it had two more questions (“Removal activates glamour?” and “The outer world means / State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando?”) to think about and then – does this come as a surprise? – as the reading proceeded there were plenty more poems that included a question or two. By the end of the night, my head was just about spinning with questions, and questions about Armantrout’s questions!

After the reading – and I scurried home, wanting to check on this – I re-read Versed, keeping an eye out for the questions. I counted 64 in the book’s 87 poems. Checking more, I re-read Armantrout’s first book – Extremities (1979) – and counted 20 questions scattered within its 31 poems. And then – it got to be really, really late, can you imagine? – I looked through her other collections and sure enough – while I didn’t count, and you will forgive me that, yes? – there were many questions in the poems of those books as well.

As such, there is in one respect no question about Armantrout’s questions: she uses, puts into her poems, a lot of them. It’s not predictable (there are many poems in which no question appears), but as the statistics or even casual readings of her work show, it happens plenty often, so much so that I must ask:

Is Armantrout the great poet inter(rae)gator of our time?

Well, is she?

I think so, but even if she isn’t, the question of her questions is one way (among at least a dozen I can think of just off the top of my head) to think hard about Armantrout’s poetry.

Armantrout’s questions come about first, I think, from her inquisitive intelligence, one that she recognized in herself very early on but which back then was surpressed, as she explained in her autobiography True (1998):
“Why?” and “What do you mean?” didn’t seem to have been allowable questions in my home. Now I can’t stop asking them.
The questions also reflect skepticism about the world in general, a mind-set that Armantrout has said there should be more commonly used Here’s how she put it in the Chicago Weekly earlier this year:
We never seem to be skeptical enough. [ . . . ] Poetry, the poetry I care about anyway, makes us slow down and think twice about what we’re reading, what we’re seeing. It makes us wonder and doubt. I think that’s good practice.
Related to her embrace of skepticism is Armantrout’s challenge, often fervent, to “the contemporary poetic convention of the unified Voice” (the quotation, and those that follow here, are from various essays in her Collected Prose). The questions in the poems often reflect a “consciousness of dissent” and a “polyphonic inner experience and an unbounded outer world.” They can also advance “a poetics of collisions and overlaps, contested spaces.” They further can explicitly demonstrate how Armantrout’s poems (again, her words) “are composed of conflicting voices.”


As I re-read Versed while obsessed with and thinking on Armantrout’s questions, I wondered what the questions might look like if strung together. So I did it, and it was fun and maybe a bit illuminating too. So here they are, lifted from the poems and formatted, in the order they appear, as a prose series. Some capitalization has been added, and the paragraph break separates the questions found in the book’s first section (“Versed”) from those in its second (“Dark Matter”):
Was it a flaming mouse that burned Mares’ house down or was it just the wind? Is this plausible? Archly? As word is mostly connotation, matter is mostly aura? Halo? “Are you happy now?” Would I like a vicarious happiness? Removal activates glamour? The outer world means State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando? What will you little chimes bring me? Can it be true that the baby is afraid his wish to gobble us up has been realized already? Could we grant them a quorum – dense, with the shiny glossolalia of the leaves, the resilience of open-ended questions? This sense of my senses being mine is what passes life to life? How distinguish one light from the next? Is it nummy? Yeah, huh? Where you put them – did you, for instance, those window bars reflected in sun glasses upside down between remotes? Who are you anyway? And what is that? Little apron leaves, what are you covering up, plump, and forgotten on a woody stalk? “Did you have fun playing with trains, Phantom Stallion, Rainbow Frog?” What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words? What if “of” were such a hot button? What if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name? What? Why shouldn’t an idée fixe be infinite? Because empty? The short moan – or hum? “What do you want to be?” Aren’t you exhausted, you green spear, you peel-back purple? How are we defining “dream?” An exaggerated sense of the relevance of these details, of “facts” presented? A peculiar reluctance to ask presented by whom and in what space? How far will you get? By what? How much would this body have had to be otherwise in order not to be mine, in order not to exist? When would that difference have had to begin? What have you got to lose? What is this extra element that is mingled in when you arrive at the ordained spot? The cumulus and the white flash from under the mocking-bird’s wing make what?

Who am I to experience a burst of star formation? Did the palo verde blush yellow all at once? And so I ask, “Do you need both skies?” Perfect red roses coaxed to frame a door beyond which a couple bickers – and why not? What’s the matter? Are you still interested in the image of this island as a brown shoulder or breast half-hidden by clouds? Are you turned on by chimeras? A tendency to take exception? How much of me could be lost while like remained? Could like stand alone? Does it? What can you give me for this glimpse and its provenance? What’s a person to us but a contortion of pressure ridges palpable long after she is gone? One what? One grasp? What did the men look like? Why wasn’t I told? Shriveled hedge flowers cast elaborate shadows on the broad, bright, sharp gladiola leaves now? But how do we come into it? A scarf? A string of notes – a string of words could be a worm or a needle passing in and out through some hole – stitching what to what? Who is asking? Flowers as punctuation?
Even (especially?) out of context, these questions hammer home not only the number of inquiries that Armantrout uses, but also her poetics, outlined above, of inquisitiveness, skepticism, collision, and contested space. But there’s more as well. A few – most obviously those in quotation marks – reflect her use of “found” conversation. Some are simple interrogatories, for which a yes or no answer could be given, while others open out into many possibilities. Some of these can almost be called kinds of riddles.

Armantrout’s riddle-questions deserve a special shout-out. First, I agree with Johans Huizinga, the 20th Century Dutch historian, who in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1944, English translation 1949) asserts that “the close connections between poetry and riddle are never entirely lost.”

More than that, Armantrout’s poems as a whole, whether they contain explicit questions or not, are riddled with riddles, ones that consistent with the principles of her poetics as outlined above are mostly not answerable with a single conclusory flourish. Among the question-riddles in Versed, I’m most partial to the one that comprises the entire second section of “Translated,” the poem that ends the book’s first section:
The cumulus

and the white flash

from under the mocking-bird’s wing

make what?
These lines read as – are – a straightforward, almost child-like inquiry, but not one for which a single response is readily available. Armantrout in the poem certainly provides no explicit or even easily inferred answer or solution to her query. She just puts the question-riddle to us, the readers, and we to get to work on it, and maybe ultimately we just puzzle with it.


This effect of placing of the reader – or listener – in the middle of the action is what most attracts me – attracted me Friday night – to Armantrout’s many questions. As a technique for engaging the reader (or listening audience), the question is almost peerless. When a question is posed, we all share a natural desire to answer, or at least to think about how we would answer. The impulse to respond kicks in and – what say thee? – you’re brought that much more into Armantrout’s poems.

Do you agree?



Wednesday, May 5, 2010

the glade . . . goes off-shore . . .

Much Like You Shark
Logan Ryan Smith
(Big Game Books / Tinyside # 27, 2007)


Much Like You Shark
Logan Ryan Smith
(dusi/e-chap kollectiv, 2007)
[on-line dusi/e-chap PDF (2008)]

The glade today travels off-shore to Galatea Resurrects, where I swim in the waters of engagement and review the marvelous poem-chap(s) pictured above. Click, please and please again, to go!

Galatea Resurrects, a love-site of poetry reviews nurtured and worked by Eileen Tabios, is where I first published full-length reviews of poetry. That was way back (not!) in 2006. It’s a joyful privilege to return there today, and I am happy to direct you there, to read a bit about Much Like You Shark, by Logan Ryan Smith (please click here to go!).

The Red Triangle is the colloquial name of a roughly
triangle-shaped region off the coast of northern California,
extending from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco,
out slightly beyond the Farallon Islands, and down to
the Big Sur region, south of Monterey. The area has
a very large population of marine mammals, such as
elephant seals, harbor seals, sea otters, and sea lions,
which are favored meals of great white sharks.

Much Like You Shark


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Providence, again (this time with Clark Coolidge)

The Act of Providence
Clark Coolidge
[front cover photo by Celia Coolidge]
(Cumberland, RI: Combo Books, 2010)

Who knew – I sure didn’t – that Providence, Rhode Island would turn up so directly and so often in my poetry reading during the first part of 2010?

I mean, before this year Providence to me was the home of H.P. Lovecraft, the Waldrops and their Burning Deck, Brown University, and an important day-job professional contact. I’ve never been to the city, and since it’s 3,100 miles away I won’t be driving over to check it out anytime soon. More generally, I hadn’t given Providence a whole lot of thought.

And then earlier this year I came across and fell hard for State House Calendar, by Mairéad Byrne, a set of poems sprung from daily observations of the Rhode Island capitol building (and the sky around it) in Providence. And then more recently there was Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven. One of that book’s thirteen sections is named “Providence” because those poems take place in or arise from some particular geographic setting or other event in that city.

And now there’s Clark Coolidge’s The Act of Providence (Cumberland, RI: Combo Books, 2010). As somewhat implied by the title, and explicitly seen in a number of its poems, there’s much about Providence therein, at least as experienced by Coolidge (he was born and raised there), although all that there is about the city comes across in typical, to coin a word, Coolidgic manner.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A few basics first: The Act of Providence is a 237 page book of 76 numbered poems, plus about a dozen black-and-white photographs (including the gorgeous cover shots) by Celia Coolidge. All but a dozen of the poems, and all the photos, are untitled. The shortest poem is six lines, the longest a bit more than 24 pages (another goes for 18 pages), although these long ones are broken into multiple sections. Most poems are couple pages long. The vast majority are lineated verse, but about a dozen are in prose, and four take the form of a dialogue.

That Coolidge’s poem/book concerns Providence, the place, is hammered home right at the start. The city name is repeated 17 times (!) on the first two pages. Other locations – street names, for example, such as Westminister, Hazard, and Loxley – are mentioned there too which, when googled, turn out to be in the city. Providence (the place name) and what I presume are references to local places and things turn up regularly throughout the book.

But again, that which there is about Providence is Coolidgic. If you’ve read more than a few of his approximately 50 books of poems, I think you know what I mean. If not, here’s a short sample, totally at random yet more or less typical, a stanza – one of twelve – lifted from about the middle of poem # 7:
Providence is missing
pieces of itself at the rim
the warm hone in festive minor
trouble bullet plonking
hill turned lump
Doyle Avenue coatless
Marvel Gym with no shave
glance touch of it all I have
not to come out of it homely born
bloomed and scratching
These lines can’t be explicated in positivist narrative fashion, at least not by me. And the same would be true even if I provided additional context by setting out the surrounding stanzas. In fact, the more lines I gave, the more difficult it would be to take it apart and tell.

Poetry sometimes can be categorized by the degree of meaning available at the surface. To be cheap about it, at one end of this spectrum are poems that you read and get right away. At the opposite end are those in which there is no meaning at all (sound poems, for example).

In between these poles are, among much else, poems in which meaning, as with the tales told by Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, exists not inside the words “but outside [and brought out] only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

Meaning in The Act of Providence is mostly of the spectral moonshine misty halo glow kind. However, it’s nowhere near as opaque or hard surface as the poetry in, for example, Coolidge’s Polaroid or The Maintains, where the signifying functions of language are largely (to quote Ron Silliman) “effaced.”

In contrast, meaning in Coolidge’s new book does emanate out – I came away with much about Providence and the poet’s growing up in it, and will know even more when I’m done with a second reading – but much (much) is hermetic, sometimes to the nth degree, unless you happen to be Coolidge. Only he, for example, really knows the specifically named, and there are many, including (from just one stanza of poem # 26) Ellen Terry, Beverly, Abel Channing, Mary Parish, and Elton James (there are dozens of proper names, of people and places, in the book). And yet I bet there’s much that’s unknown to Coolidge as well. The book/poem is an imaginative undertaking, an exploration, a making of something new.

This lack of full-bloom, buttoned-down, or easily discerned signification may make The Act of Providence a non-starter for some. I, however, like these kinds of things, and like them as much as Romeo liked Juliet.

More specifically, big doses of “what the heck” or “this is impossible” are to me an antidote to the rationalist pin-it-down world of the day-job, which while important surely isn’t all there is. Plus, as I’ve said repeatedly, I Love A Mystery (capitalized and italicized to refer to the old-time radio serial, about a group of detectives whose motto was “no adventure too baffling”). Further, a poetic approach that does not completely foreground meaning signals that the poet creates a word-made world, as well as describing and intensifying it. And so when I come across a group of Coolidge lines such as (from the first stanza of # 40 in The Act of Providence):
I lived in a neighborhood where the birds were on the stove
Intro League
for the chases under the drains of icicle limes
we had stupid stripéd student futures
clowns that salt their own minds to get out of spending
ready, Rolly?
it takes less than thirty seconds to read but can be thought about for a long, long while.


There seems much that is memoir, or memory-work (Coolidge remembering his youth), at work and play in The Act of Providence, as indicated by the many place names and proper names of the kind mentioned or seen above. Yet there’s also a bit of the more modern too (“Goretex” and “Cowabunga, for example), plus scattered oddities including for example multiple references to over-the-counter digestive aids (“Mylanta” and “Ex Lax”).

Coolidge also weaves in much that reads as fantasy or myth-making. This comes most obviously in the figure of “Professor Providence,” who shows up repeatedly, including as one of two participants in the four dialogic sections (the Professor converses with Providence itself). There is a line, the first in the final stanza of poem # 60, wherein Coolidge states:
I don’t go there but I dream there
that perhaps points at the wilder side of the book’s energy flow. I think based on some of this Tom Clark, an experienced reader to be sure, has already suggested that Coolidge’s book “aims for being a sort of Doctor Sax of Providence,” a reference to Kerouac’s memory / fantasy novel of childhood Lowell.

Better yet is poet Tom Raworth’s celebratory description in late March, just after the book’s publication:
Clark Coolidge’s The Act of Providence is the first book since Ashbery’s Flowchart to remind me of the particular pleasure reading once was. It is as if Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac danced together in the cemetery of Spoon River in the light of a projected image of Joe Brainard flickering on fleeting clouds, while teaching the intricate steps to the ghost of Maximus.
Now that constellation by Raworth of a half-dozen references is a capsule review that is itself a poem! And while I can’t say exactly what he all means, it strikes me as being precisely correct about Coolidge’s book!


A particular pleasure of reading Coolidge comes when the eye saccades, brain waves, and inner ear synch to the rhythms and sounds of his words and lines. Such grooves are almost always a sure bet when reading Coolidge: he often writes in almost danceable musical measures, which surely relate to his interests and sensitivities to beats and percussion (including his actual experience drumming be-bop and sunshine psyche-raga rock). He puts together words well . . . well puts words together . . . together puts well words . . . words puts together well.

A poem towards the book’s end – # 67, titled “An Ode to Maurice Dixon” – may be the deepest sound/rhythm groove in The Act of Providence. I don’t know the “Maurice Dixon” of the title (and Google doesn’t seem to point anywhere particularly relevant), but the poem’s 13 lines seem to suggest he was a musician, one that Coolidge heard or maybe even played with at some point. In any event, dig the beats here, especially the bop, quick pulses of sound, in the opening line:
Cool junk bag tweeds on a budge
in sift pokey ointment-dodge of pre-bop
thread through old passage with socket
practice on a town where the donuts are handed
horn picked and blushed in novice shame
daubed with pad hat you may be a stickler
bumpy grange hall in outer Petesfield we gig along by
not enough bulb to answer What Is This Thing
called shape-shutterer in grace of youngster Lester dip
exampleboy of the truly out cat of the weird and hip
glide in hour soft bag bled to the groove
Maurice, stop me if you’ve heard
your own gone choruses come back
Now this whole thing is great, but did you especially enjoy that first line? Let’s hear that one again:
Cool junk bag tweeds on a budge
Wow! There might as well be stereo speakers on the page, a top-drawer pair at that, given how that measure of words plays so clear in the mind. Among other sounds, there are two sets of long vowels (“oo” and “ee”), an internal rhyme of two phonetic “uh” vowels (“junk” and “budge”), and mix of hard and soft consonants (about a dozen separate sounds, with one at the start and end of all but two words), and it all comes quick, staccato like almost, in seven single-syllable words.

Similar fun, whether rhythmic, sonic, lexical, or via references, can be found amidst all the difficulties and puzzles in every poem, page, and/or stanza. Open the book, for example, to poem # 23, “The Map” and find on page 90
mushroom of Nobodaddy Playroom
pass me a dexie, Arch
lend me that Archie, Dex
a set of lines that sends the reader to William Blake, speed, and comic books at the very least. And then on the facing page (91) you will find, among other things, the phrase “doohickeys of eagledust” which to me at least is something new, and fascinating.

And you know what? That’s what I’m going to say about The Act of Providence as a whole: it’s something new and fascinating by Clark Coolidge, himself a master-poet of the new and fascinating.


The Act of Providence
Clark Coolidge
[rear cover photo by Celia Coolidge]