Saturday, December 31, 2011

Poetry, Published In 2011

Listed and pictured below are seven books of poems published this year that ROCKED my poetry-reading world. These are chosen from among forty or more books published this year that I bought (or in a few cases, were given) and read thoroughly, plus several dozen others that I sampled heavily, mostly during extended browsing at Small Press Distribution. In other words, I no doubt missed a lot!

As it happens, my top four books of poems published this year were written, respectively, by two contemporary and two deceased poets. They’re so grouped, below, and within those categories alphabetized by last name, and I go on about them, or most of them at least (please forgive my prolixity, if it seems too much).

Following those four, I list and comment more briefly on three others that warrant special mention given what they did – and continue to do – for me. These final three are listed in order of the poets’ age, from youngest to oldest. For all seven titles, I’ve tried to size the various images in a way that corresponds to the relative sizes of the books pictured.

I publish this list to honor the poets and their work, and because writing about poetry means thinking about poetry and such writing and thinking invariably makes that poetry even greater than the great it already was and is. It’s deeply enjoyable and satisfying to have that happen, and I wish I could do it more often. Well, maybe next year, and with that, and thank you, dear readers of this here glade, for taking a look, and here’s my list of seven, starting with . . .

My Big Four of 2011

Rae Armantrout
Money Shot
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

It’s no surprise that Money Shot floors me. Two and one-half years ago, I fell hard for “Sway,” one of the book’s 60 plus poems, when it first appeared in print (click here to read about that). And about eighteen months ago, I wrote (click here if you please) on Armantrout’s use of questions, which fascinates me to no end. So, I was primed for this new collection.

Then, early this year, just after Money Shot was published, something happened to kick-start my enthusiasm for its poems. I happened to travel to San Diego for a few days on business, and I took the book with me, figuring it might be illuminating to read it down there, where Armantrout has lived and worked for decades. I know that Armantrout’s not primarily a poet of place, but local details naturally enough show up in a good number of her poems. I was hoping for some frisson between the locale and the new poems.

And yes indeed, a special treat – and fun – it turned out to be. I sat down in my hotel room, opened the book, and in the first poem – “Staging” – came to the lines:
Prolonged sigh
of traffic

and the downward
curve of fronds.
and could while reading them could at that same moment both hear a similar sort of sound (cars and trucks moving along outside) and see, across the street, the green tops of palms. Ah! -- and by the by, Armantrout’s “prolonged sigh” is a beautiful descriptive phrase, the way the sound at the end “sigh” fades in a way that mimics the dopplering back end of passing traffic.

Now, as it turns out there are more poems without than with local particulars in Money Shot, but still the book as a whole has scattered throughout a number of easy-enough-to-encounter in-San-Diego details. For example, it mentions bougainvillea, a mourning dove (beautifully described with vivid, concise, specificity), “smog colored” embankments, “the gray plump tongues of a succulent”, the international border, houses on a hillside, and more than once, the ocean. I didn’t see every one of these things while on my trip, but did come across many, and just knowing all this stuff was more or less near at hand, right there, gave an extra kick to the reading of the book. I had another work trip to San Diego a few months later, and did it all again. Poetry-place frisson-squared!


Although several poems in Money Shot – which was written two or three or so years ago – concern the national fiscal crisis, the poems in the book with the strongest pull for me are those extra-charged by matters directly related to mortality and thoughts of death. This has been a particularly powerful characteristic of much of Armantrout’s poetry since she was, about five years ago, diagnosed with, and (so-far-and-may-it-ever-be) successfully treated for, a rare form of cancer (Armantrout very recently published a three-part essay concerning that experience, including her surgery and short ICU stay – Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here).

Several poems in Money Shot directly allude to or arise from what I’ll call a certain sharpened perspective brought on by Armantrout’s near-death experience. “Win,” the next-to-last poem in the book, begins with an event that, while bizarrely funny (and no doubt true), brings mortality directly to the fore. There then follows powerful images of apart-ness, here-and-now-ness, and movement through time, with Armantrout in the end able to find, what seems to me at least, a modicum or even more than that of acceptance or even comfort:


Card in the mail:

“Win a free


On the table top,
a scatter,

grains of salt



It works for me.

Gracious wood grain

what I like best:

an illusion
of passage.

Another Money Shot poem, “Errand,” has as its opening:
The old

is newly cloaked
in purpose.
and those lines surely suggest a more focused intention and spirit.

Similarly, the poem “Exact” begins with what sure seems to be an extremely time-sensitive self-command, one directly related to (and which also wryly comments on) Armantrout’s poetic predilection to both look hard wherever she’s at and put that world into words:
Quick, before you die,

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.
That reference to mortality is reinforced at the end of the section, with lines that I read as a blunt suggestion from Armantrout to her readers, one grounded in a not-so-occult thought of not being around:
If you love me,

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.
Intimations of mortality also seem to give an extra push to the following lines, from the end of the poem “Garden” and which link the hypnagogic – the state between sleeping and being awake – to the most eternal of all border zones:
[. . .] it’s the liminal,

the area between
sleep and waking up,

the border
we think we remember

between existing
and not

that we still want.
And as a final example here – others from the book could be cited, but I think the point will have been made – a close encounter with the now we’re here and now we’re gone ultimate reality of life seems to give the concluding image of the poem “This Is” a richer meaning:
This is a five star trance.

To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,

to get drunk on indifference,

to stare

at a bright succession
of crests

raised from nothing
and flattened.
These are beautifully written lines, especially the flow, varied but smooth rhythms, and the way the sound of the final word, “flattened,” with its stronger front-end phonemes and relatively weak ending sound, brings to mind, or echoes very closely, that which it describes. Plus as a general matter I’m a huge fan of trance, so Armantrout’s presentation of one here – a “five star” one no less – makes me turn cartwheels until I’m hypnotized.

Now, the final image – from cliff’s edge, the crests raised and flattened – perhaps most obviously suggests a seascape, of the type common along parts of the San Diego coast (as in La Jolla). It might also be seen as depicting an acute self-aware mind, poised at the edge of some accumulated base of thought, observing successive waves of ideas rise and fall, unconcerned with catching any of them. And these lines – and here’s where Armantrout’s experience may come in – may also represent what a patient on a gurney or hospital bed sees eyeing a cardiac monitor. Once again, a matter of mortality, giving an extra-sharp focus to a poem.


Another of the great characteristics of Armantrout’s poems – and this no doubt is a primary element in her work – is the energy that emanates from the juxtapositions within poems, particularly between sections but also even between lines within sections. Ideas and approaches to ideas, or really most anything in and/or as words, are placed or situated near one another, and the arcs and the connections between them – often not obvious, many still occult to me even as a re-re-re(etc)-read – are a HUGE part of the extraordinariness and the beauty of the poetry. The reader MUST get involved, and sometimes the point must, or should, remain in tension.

As an example, and as the final matter here on Money Shot, read if you please both sections of “This Is,” the last section of which I set out above. Here’s the entire poem, including the finale:
This Is

“If you can read this,
you’re too close.”

This has been specially
handcrafted in Mexico.

“Hi, you’ll do”
on a tee-shirt

made by young girls
in Thailand?

America poses
in whose mirror?



This is a five star trance.

To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,

to get drunk on indifference,

to stare

at a bright succession
of crests

raised from nothing
and flattened.

This poem’s first section, is rich with shifts in thought or modes (more broadly, juxtapositions). It moves from a (presumably observed) quotation (possibly on a t-shirt) to another observation (a tag or stamp on a consumer product, I’d guess), to yet another observed quotation on a t-shirt that broadens into a specific question, followed by a broader question, all of which bring to mind various matters – which I’m sure you can formulate as well as I – related to geo-political, economic exploitation.

And all that happens before we even get to the first section’s final two juxtaposed words: “Irascible. / Insouciant.” There seems to be a shift to a more general perspective with these, and giving each word its own line (and sentence) seems to both emphasize their thingy-ness while making it easier to see and hear the common orthographic and sonic elements of the two words which turn out to be near antonyms of each other. That last fact seems to be Armantrout trying out responses to the geo-economic mess previously alluded too – pissed-off or lighthearted – without explicitly adopting either.

And of course that entire first section is followed by the second, concluding section, already discussed above, which as I read it presents something entirely different. As I say, the energy of juxtapositions, and you the reader, must get to work. I’m not sure, but maybe the second section, with its trance and beautiful zen-like indifference (which I find a very positive quality) serves as a counterpoint to the charged ideas and pointed engagement of the first section.

I’m still working this one through, even after going after it a couple dozen times at least. That’s part of what makes the poems in Money Shot so fine: their mysteries persist.


Joseph Massey
At the Point
(Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011)

This collection represents a gorgeous and often breathtaking deepening of everything that was great in Massey’s first full-length collection Areas of Fog (2009). So, it’s poetry that arises from a specific place (Humboldt County, California), written with an almost preternatural strength and concision, and is focused primarily on moments, or the consciousness or apprehension of moments and the challenge of putting any of that into words.

For me, the intensity and quality of Massey’s minimalist approach, which results in works that seem soldered together by a master welder (solid, seamless, done with care and with no wasted materials, all of which sharpens the focus on the words themselves) that turns his poems, which are grammatically straightforward and easy to read, into extraordinary and exceptional works.
Afternoon—this morning’s haze
still holds, italicizing hills
that seem to float
over the highway, the horizon.
This excerpt, one of thirteen sections from the poem “The Lack Of” (which itself is one of three longer, multi-section poems in At the Point) provides a solid mini-example of Massey’s way with words. The concision’s obvious here, so too the alliteration, and perhaps you saw what’s to me the key element: the present progressive verb “italicizing.” I mean, how perfect is that verb? It’s just marvelous, I submit: hills in haze can indeed appear slightly blurred, as Massey’s verb suggests – hills – and I believe it’s utterly fresh to say it, convey it, the way he does, and it seems natural too, unforced and not showy. When, as he does here, Massey adds a suggestion of levitation, the image becomes, for me at least, mind-blowing and truly lovely. Such moments abound in At the Point.

As mentioned above, the challenge of apprehending the world, and the related challenge of putting it into words, are key concerns in Massey’s poetry. The basic idea, which seems valid to me, is that there’s a triple-whammy difficulty: the world’s always changing moment-to-moment, the poet-perceiver has limitations both universal (common to us all) and particular to him, and in addition to both those things getting anything into words is hard too. Moments of unalloyed perception do make it to the page, and they are wondrous, but often what is described involves the struggle to get a moment, or series of moment, into poetry: thoughts get interrupted or lost, dissolved, overwhelmed, or erased.

Massey’s poem “101” – it’s one of almost three dozen in At the Point – is a beautiful poem that contains much about these prime concerns, particularly the challenge of catching or keeping moments, or the ideas in one’s head, given what happens moment-to-moment in the world, and the stunning results when moments-in-time do make it, via poetry, to a page. The poem’s title, I think, alludes to the setting of the poem – 101 is the numeric designation of the main freeway that runs through Humboldt County – but maybe also suggests that it’s a kind of primer (think of how colleges traditionally number foundational courses, e.g., English 101) on the core principles with which it is concerned. Here’s the poem:

This revision
                of the hills

—sun sieved through low clouds
                and rain, the weight

given to green
                and clear-cut patches

–engulfs what I’m

or what you were

And then an egret

                on the side of the road
nosing litter.

This poem, so perfectly balanced among other bits of genius, just moves, flows, so smoothly and beautifully from start to finish, beautifully presenting the mind-action described. The poem’s final image – “And then an egret . . .” – has become a kind of talisman for me, with Massey’s words often enough coming to mind when I catch my attention shift when caught by something unexpected and unusual. Now that’s a sure sign a poem’s hit deep.

The last part of the egret image in “101” – the bit where the bird is “nosing litter” – serves to illustrate another key element in Massey’s poetry: the marked tendency to notice, to bring in, the detritus that surrounds us. Expired fliers flagging on telephone poles, shrubs woven with trash, hydrangeas festooned with plastic, a condiment packet coagulated yellow on a creekside path, unspooled cassette tape on a beach, and scrap metal rusted orange are examples of the sort of stuff that appear in the poems of At the Point (and there are also natural things not generally considered the height of beauty, such as rotted leaves, overgrown grass, and even “steam lifting from a turd”).

All this stuff in the poems hearken back to certain poems of Lorine Niedecker and William Carlos Williams (Massey in some ways is a poetic descendant of each, although plenty of others including William Bronk, Emily Dickinson, and Frank Samperi give him life as well). But the focus on trash and waste also suggests a deep concern, and seems to comment on, the human tendency to mess up the environment.

Further, and thinking here as well of the less than pristine parts of the natural world that turn up in the poems, such as rotten leaves and overgrown grass, it seems to me that all the typically not-so-beautiful stuff is a sure sign that Massey keeps it real. He’s a purveyor of no-punches-held honest realism. His poems are rooted in a particular place and heavily focused on what’s actually there. The images and poems in At the Point are sharp, crisp, and rich with life as-it-is, both in terms of what’s shown and the difficulties of getting any of it into words.

And then an egret // on the side of the road / nosing litter.


Aimé Césaire
Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition
[A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, co-translators]
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

This was a book I’d waited for, wanted to read, for quite some time. I enthusiastically posted about it almost two years ago, when I first heard it was in the works (click here to see, if you please) and then thirteen months ago was privileged to publish five poems from the book at this blog (click here to see that).

The basic background of Solar Throat Slashed is that in the decades after first publishing the collection in French in 1948, Césaire greatly re-worked his book, eliminating 31 poems entirely and cutting text in another 29, leaving only 12 poems untouched. As such, many of the original poems had been essentially lost or never seen, particularly in English. This masterful translation and edition by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman presents Césaire’s book – written at the height of his engagement with surrealism – in its full resplendent glory.

Césaire’s unexpurgated poetry here is the event. It is wild, full of confidence and boldness. There is blasphemy and sexuality and plenty of other staggering images. Co-translator Eshleman’s word for the work is “fulgurating,” meaning I believe the force and flash of lightning. I will add that it can resound as thunder to boot.

Here’s “Preliminary Question,” a short (12 line) poem that shows well the bold, forceful, headstrong way that Césaire takes with words in this book. It also, not coincidentally, is a capsule self-portrait of the man and poet, and so perhaps will serve to introduce you to him:

Preliminary Question

As for me should they grab my leg
I vomit up a forest of lianas
Should they hang me by my fingernails
                                                   I piss a camel bearing a pope and vanish in a
row of fig trees that quite neatly encircle the intruder and strangle him in a
beautiful tropical balancing act
The weakness of many men is that they do not know now how to become either a
stone or a tree
As for me I sometimes fit sulfurous wicks between my boa fingers for the sole
pleasure of bursting into a flame of new poinsettia leaves all evening long
reds and greens trembling in the wind
like our dawn in my throat

Woosh! And how!! If you please, take less-than-a-minute and listen to co-translator Eshleman read the poem (this is an excerpt from his reading of selections from Solar Throat Slashed at UC Berkeley this past November):

Aimé Césaire, “Preliminary Question”
[read by Clayton Eshleman]


And now, how about a propulsive poem of (forgive the pun here) unbridled confidence and optimism? Here’s Césaire “Horse” as read by Eshleman at Berkeley in November, with the poem’s text immediately following for those who’d enjoy reading along. The energy and imagery, the words, yes the words of this one, make for an extraordinary and amazing ride!

Aimé Césaire, “Horse”
[read by Clayton Eshleman]
[text of the poem is below the video]


For Pierre Loeb

My horse stumbles over skulls hopscotched in rust
my horse rears in a storm of clouds which are putrefactions of shipwrecked flesh
my horse neighs in the fine rain of roses and sentiments that my blood creates in the
scenery of the street fairs
my horse stumbles over the clumps of cacti that are the entangled vipers of my torments
my horse stumbles neighs and stumbles toward the curtain of blood of my blood pulled
down on all the pimps shooting craps for my blood
my horse stumbles before the impossible flame of the barrier howled at by
the vesicles of my blood
my horse rears before the great pillar of hyacinth perfectly pure that rises to the glory of
the lord and descends to the depths of the shit of my blood
my horse rears before a beryl lamp made from fireflies peddled by my blood
I saw too a great horse of ardent peace that dashed forward pawing the ground from a
season of rains of mollusks of an anger of hair of a harangue of pyramids of a camisole of old
corks of a confusion of mushroom spittle
great horse my blood to be spilled in public squares
my blood in which from time to time a woman in solar perfection shoots out all her
tuberous stems and vanishes in a tornado born on the far side of the world
my blood for a foot freshly repainted as a gibbet
my blood that no canonization has ever soiled
my blood the wine of a drunkard’s vomit
my blood that no paid off judge has ever heard
I give it to you great horse
I give you my ears to be made into nostrils capable of quivering
my hair to be made into a mane as wild as they come
my tongue to be made into mustang hooves
I give them to you
great horse
so that you may approach the extreme limit of brotherhood
the men of elsewhere and of tomorrow
on your back a child of the furrow with barely moving lips
who for you
shall disarm
the chlorophyllian crumb of the vast crows of the future.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Body Sweats
(Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011)

Freytag-Loringhoven – aka Baroness Elsa or more simply the Baroness – was in the words of the volume editors, a “neurasthenic, kleptomaniac . . . man-chasing proto-punk poet, . . . an agent provocateur within New York’s modernist revolution.” Some of her poetry was published in avant-garde little mags in the late teens and early 1920s (e.g., The Little Review). She died in 1927, at age 53. After that – and I exaggerate here, but not by much – her work for all practical purposes mostly vanished.

I first heard of the Baroness many years ago, reading Kenneth Rexroth’s breezy book-length survey, American Poetry in the 20th Century (1970), which has two long paragraphs about her. Rexroth calls Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry a “radical revolt against reality” and “extraordinary enough.” He points out that very little of the Baroness’ verse was published during her lifetime or since, and expresses hope that it, and her unpublished work, would someday find print. Rexroth also wrote – and this is the best part! – that he once asked Marcel Duchamp if the Baroness was a Futurist, and that Duchamp responded – it doesn’t get better than this – “She is not a Futurist. She is the future.”

One might expect that a poet labeled decades ago by Duchamp himself as “the future” would have been widely published long before now. But it was not to be. A few selections of Freytag-Loringhoven’s work appeared in Jerome Rothenberg’s Revolution of the Word anthology (1974), and Clayton Eshleman’s magazine Sulfur 6 (1983) published eleven of her poems. Since then, her poems have appeared only rarely.

The point is this: UNTIL NOW, approximately eighty years after she wrote, and despite publication in recent decades of (among other things) her autobiography (1992), a critical biography (2002), a small catalog regarding her works of art (2002) and a roman à clef based on her life (2005) there’s NEVER been ANY book of the Baroness’s poems, let alone a comprehensive collection. And that’s EXACTLY what Body Sweats brings us (it’s subtitle: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven).

The editors of Body Sweat – Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelaszo – present the poems in nine different categories (e.g., love poems, poems of the city and consumption, nature poems, sonic (sound) poems, visual poems, poems on death and suicide, and poems of aesthetic consciousness). That works pretty well.

In general, I think the spirit of the Baroness, her desire and gusto, as well as something of her poetic approach – comes through in the title and opening phrase of “One Dozen Cocktails — Please” which begins, “No spinsterlollypop for me . . .” (and no, that’s not a typo, the two words there run together, which is a very prominent Freytag-Loringhoven trait). Yes, Baroness Elsa in life and poetry was wild, and though she may have died many years ago her verse, heavy with portmanteaus, dashes, and (mostly) staccato lines of one, two or a few words each, all steeped in Elsaspirit – remains very much alive.

Here, just for a taste, is the first stanza (of seven) from TEKE HEART (BEATING OF HEART), a pure DADA sound poem:
Pulpqvemank – alvdch – n – n –n – qvn – n – n
Snijrre husta –
Aja – ja – hacha – huk – huluk –
Orkmmmm – orkmm – mmm – – –
Hirre – héta
Hetta – hett

And here are, again to just give a taste, the opening lines (and salvos!) from “Ultramundanity,” a two and one-half page work (90 plus lines) that the editors categorize as a poem of philosophical contemplation:

More conventional, but still all-Elsa, is the following gorgeous wintry city or nature landscape, presented here in its gorgeous entirety:


Country –

Cliffs –


Sky –


Crimson –
Emerald –
Light –

Away –

Slate-vapormist –


Toadstool –


There’s a lot to love in this poem, including its Dickinson-feel, very effective verbs (with “Train / Clogs / Away” being particularly evocative), the portmanteaus, the stanza that is almost entirely made of color and light and, above all, the enthusiastic surrender to – the basking in – common moments abiding majesty.


Finally for your possible enjoyment, here’s Freytag-Loringhoven’s poem-rendering of George Antheil, the Dada/Modernist composer/musician, well known for his pioneering percussive piece, Ballet Mécanique (1924):

Thou walkest tossest slick head as very proud horse
Blast thine very slick head – I love it – trim polopony
Play kick of polished smooth steelhoof causes waters valleys
                  mountains, clouds trees grass birds flowers
Elephants fireflies snakes frogs cats dogs baboons china-tin-glass
                  brassware steam engines machine wheels to motion –
Clash – crash sounding asunder jigging sun – fragment jazz twirrlin
                  awhizz – rainbow crystalkaleidoscope intermingling –
                  sharp-hitting – noiseflicking swish
Pleasure wheel of hail stinging brilliancy
Assembling anew shape recreated to importance of elevated form by
                  potency beseeching unconcerned
Hiding hidden adolescent masked.

This poem, if you will allow me a year-end cliche and bad pun all in one, hits all the right notes. It’s unbelievably grand, to my eyes and especially to my ears. Why? Well read the poem again, aloud, especially its middle lines where animals and machines and natural objects rush and jam, which the Baroness – in her marvelous way – summarizes as “fragment jazz twirrlin / awhizz – rainbow crystalkaleidoscope intermingling – / sharp-hitting – noiseflicking swish.” It sounds, it feels, it just about is – in words – Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. Check out the following version of the tune:

George Antheil, Ballet Mécanique
[via computer-driven robotic ensemble,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2006)]


O Body Sweats – finally, after all these years, the poems of the Baroness! Now, it being a comprehensive collected, there are a few not-so-great poems in the book, and also a few in which Fretyag-Loringhoven’s common-to-the-times anti-Semitism rears up. Still, for the achievement of most of the poems, and the achievement of this poetry finally being widely available, this is an important book, one that heavily rocked my poetry-reading world this year. Yes!


Three More Great Ones From 2011

Pam Rehm
The Larger Nature
(No Place: Flood Editions, 2011)

This book brought me to a lot of places. For example, Rehm’s gorgeous “November” – five very-brief sections (four or five lines each, with only a few words per line) presenting observations of the outdoors, mostly of nature – sent me back for a full-on re-reading of Lorine Niedecker, after I learned – and this happened after I had fallen for the poem – that it was very influenced by the great Wisconsin poet. At the same time, Rehm’s lengthy (more than two dozen sections spread over more than a dozen pages) “The Depths Of The World,” which an end note explains takes its words from William Blake’s Milton, sent me back to that prophetic and in places very wild poem.

Niedecker and Blake: now that’s a pair!

Rehm’s The Larger Nature also includes, as the second through fourth poems of the book, a lovely series of brief, single page poems, that examine ideas and facts regarding change, self-identity, as well as aspects of continuity within each of those things. It sounds heavy, and I guess it is, but in this poem – as in the others in the book – Rehm’s care with words and thought – lexical discretion and a total avoidance of any suggestion of piling on such that the subject becomes soft – makes it work.

I must also point to “The World’s Welter,” a relatively short poem that stunningly captures the struggle of an (presumably Rehm’s) imaginative mind, including when thoughts act up and feelings get involved. Here again, a Big Subject, under Rehm’s elegant command, becomes very personal, very real, and very moving.


Will Alexander
Compression & Purity

(San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011)

The surprise here isn’t that I went to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word or words in just about every poem in this book, a volume in the fabled publisher’s Spotlight series, edited by Garrett Caples. An out-there vocabulary has always been a key part of Alexander’s poetic approach, and this new volume fits right in that way. In fact, I typed up a several page list of definitions as I went along, not including words such as “carking” and “sigil” which I knew from previously published Alexander work. Among the new-to-me words in Compression & Purity are “algid,” “clepsydra,” and “merismatic,” and if you know those, well, a gold star for you!

No, the surprise in Compression & Purity is that in addition to the expected traditional and wondrous Alexander conflagrations – multi-page clusters of phrases that rave and burst around and on a particular subject, often taking the form of a dramatic monologue – there are several poems that are really short. There are, for example, two poems with only three and four lines, respectively, another three with only five to seven lines, and at least one not much more than a page in length (and the pages are small in this pocket sized book). These short poems are no less great too, and it’s fun to see the change of pace.

Compression & Purity also includes two prose statements that serve as poetics (and personhood) explication. “My Interior Vita,” which at five plus pages is the longer of the two, includes much that’s fantastic, including the following, in which Alexander, using terms that surely would place high in the metaphor of the year contest, describes the place, as a poet receiving signals back from mystery imbued with oneiric wings and spirals, he hopes to forget: “my prosaic locale with its stultifying anchors, with its familial dotage and image reports, with its dates inscribed in trapezoidal feces.” Wow!


Michael McClure
Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems
(Berkeley: University California Press)

I did not need the “Selected” part of this book: I’ve long been an avid reader (and re-reader) of McClure (click here for my February, 2010 post detailing the 17 reasons why I love his work). I am lucky to already have everything the selected portion of the book presents, including the poems from early and/or out-of-print and thus hard-to-find publications. However, there’s no doubt the selection (edited by the late Leslie Scalapino) is smart and an important gathering of McClure’s work, and most will find it essential for that reason.

For me, Of Indigo and Saffron is very special because the “new” part of the collection – the final 108 pages, containing 65 poems and titled “Swirls in Asphalt” is in fact constitutes an entire, and rather generously sized, new book! And best of all, that new poetry’s great!

It’s pure McClure, first and foremost, with the approaches (finely-calibrated awareness coupled with enthused engagement of the world around him) and optimism (while not ignoring the horrors of the world) that he’s so convincing with, and great as well because of a relentless focus on the “moment,” the “instant.” I use quotation marks because in fact one or the other of these words, or some other word or words denoting something RIGHT NOW, appear in most of the poems. These poems sustain and energize, and I feel deeply privileged to have them, to read and re-read.


All right folks, thanks for taking a look, and best wishes to you and your poetry reading!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theodore Enslin
The Work Proposed
(Kyoto, Japan: Origin Press, 1958)
[7.25" tall x 5" wide | 250 copies]
[his first book]

Theodore Enslin -- "The Work Proposed"
[the first poem -- the title poem -- in his first book]


Of wave wavelength in freshened breeze
along the longest length of breadth the waves
long comb of waves     or chop of rising seas
the waves     the longest     climbing over length     to
tumble down     a freshening     remaking of the breeze
is wavelength freshening     as a breeze is length
in breadth the combers     waves that tumble
down     around the chop of rising seas     so fresh
the breeze     the rising wave in length to rise
to tumble combers     breadth as length remaking
wavelength freshened in the breeze     a length of wave
long and chop on seas     the rising     let them tumble
down in climbing     combers of the sea     its wavelength
chop in rising as the waves are rising from the sea
in wave wavelength to freshen in the breeze
all length and breadth will rise to tumble down
along the longest length of them and breadth
wavelength freshening along the breeze to tumble
down     as down remembers longest length of wave.

    -- Theodore Enslin
    from NINE (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2004)
    [collects poems from 1993 to 2003]


Friday, November 18, 2011

Bruce Conner, the great San Francisco artist who died in July, 2008 (pictured above, in front of one of his photos, and yep, that's a giant eyeball -- here's looking at you! -- on the TV!), would have been 78 today. Well, I and many others I am sure miss him a lot, but we still have his work to stare at, and to stir our spirit, and this past year has been mighty interesting in that regard. Here's a selection of what was up with Conner and his work in the last year:

In late June, poet, essayist, and editor Garrett Caples published at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet site a particularly well written and well-illustrated essay on a particularly unusual Conner work -- a painting hung outdoors with full knowledge that it would be exposed to the weather and thus would continue to change. The article's linked to here, and you may find it an interesting read.


Presented during the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this exhibition included a series of works which Conner began after hearing on the radio of the planes flying into the World Trade Center, and continued in the weeks thereafter. Conner made inkblot drawings (using a splatter blot method), cut them into the shapes of leaves, and then collaged the leaves onto silk scrolls (but never put his name on the works, instead insisting they were done by Anonymous). The exhibition was rounded out by Conner's collage film HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, completed in 2006. Holland Cotter, reviewing the show for The New York Times, wrote that the works brought together Conner's political awareness and impulse towards the visionary. Of the film, Cotter remarked, "When it comes to meditating on unthinkable tragedy, no art can ever say it all, but this little film, so sweet with hope, says a lot."


The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Boston

(currently on exhibit)

EVE-RAY-FOREVER is a three screen, silent, projected black-and-white film, first completed by Conner in 1965 and then brought through the digital keyhole by him in 2006. An interesting thing about this one is that all three films are designed to play in loops, but each has a different running time, so that the three images seen are never the same! It's quite invigorating. After seeing the film at Brandeis earlier this month, Sebastian Smee, the 2011 Pulitzer-prize winner for criticism, wrote this in The Boston Globe:
EVE-RAY-FOREVER has an astonishingly crisp beauty. In just a few minutes, it does to your head what a long, late-night ramble through city streets does to the state of your soul: makes it tremble and blur, even as its racing, leapfrogging perceptions come to seem more fragile and friable by the minute.

Bruce Conner in the '70s
Kunsthalle Zürich at Museum Bärengasse, Switzerland
April 2 - May 29, 2011

This show of paintings, prints, film, and other work (which had originated in 2010 at the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna) had a visually arresting poster, using an image from Conner's 1967 dance and spirit film BREAKAWAY:

This museum exhibition also inspired Sandra Bauknecht, a fashion writer with what seems to me to be a very smart eye and mind, to write about it, in a post she titled "Art, Handbags, and Obsession" (click here to read it). Here are two photos Ms. Bauknecht used to illustrate her piece -- yes, Conner paintings serve as backdrops in both -- and I do insist that it's a total fashion/art triumph (in the second photo below, Ms. Bauknecht is on the left):



CIRCA SIXTY 1958 - 1964
Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
November 11, 2011 - January 4, 2012

SEPTEMBER 13, 1959
Bruce Conner
Mixed media assemblage
22 x 15 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches


HELLO?, 1959
Jean Conner
7 1/4 x 9 3/8 inches

This exhibition displays close to 50 works by Bruce Conner, and a similar number by his wife Jean, all of which was made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Because it just opened, no reviews have been published, but as the year draws to a close it has to be one of the finer gallery shows in Los Angeles. More important, it will rightly cause people to think about how Bruce and Jean -- who were married to each other for more than 50 years -- influenced each other's work.


In the years before his death, Conner donated most of his paper records and other archived material -- including a fabulous year-by-year scrapbook covering approximately the first two or three decades of his artistic work -- to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. The material amounts to 30 linear feet, and the finding aid -- which I believe became available on-line just this year -- runs 31 pages. The aid includes a a concise biographical introduction (click here to read), and the entire aid was obviously carefully and I say lovingly compiled by Dean Smith, a long-time Bancroft staffer who also happened to know, and make art with Conner. The Finding Aid and papers it catalogs will most certainly be a necessity and a joy for those wanting to know more about Conner.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

¡ ¡ ¡ ¡ Viva Lamantia ! ! ! !

For the fourth time in the short (and admittedly somewhat irregular) history of this here glade, it’s Philip Lamantia Day – the anniversary of his birth (October 23, 1927) – an occasion to remember and celebrate the Sicilian-American / San Francisco poet who died in 2005 and whose poetry forever inspires. So all right, and . . .

. . . Andiamo!

On the three most recent anniversaries of Philip’s birth, I’ve respectively (1) taken a look at his first major publication in print, in 1943; (2) surveyed about a dozen poems, by an equal number of poets, written for, to, after, and/or about Lamantia; and (3) told about a few of the many things I learned from him.

This year, I celebrate by sharing a wild visual or shaped poem first published in Lamantia’s Ekstasis (San Francisco: Auerhahn Press, 1959), the cover of which (lettering by Robert LaVigne) is pictured above. Take a look, and read if you please, “In a grove” —

The typography of “In a grove” suggests a pryamidal censer, or perhaps a triangular candle, from which smoke wafts and curls. The poem’s text conveys an ecstatic experience, or I think more precisely the energy and kinetics of such an experience: Lamantia seizes, or is seized by, an apprehension of that which is without, via a kind of out-of-body – or at least body-altered/body altering effort. It’s not prototypically religious ecstasy here, but it is divine and otherworldly both in subject matter and – I insist – in its achievement.

I love the visual confusion of the words in the curling smoke, and the power in the center of that part of the poem, the latter charged up by the use of capital letters for VOICE and the adjectives (booming, electric) paired with that noun. It all is a mimetic equivalent of the mind/soul getting hit and thrown off balance by that which is heard.

I love too how the wafting, curling words resolve into “night birds / I” (the latter at the top of the pyramid), with that hinge foreshadowing and in fact perfectly encapsulating the entirely of the ecstatic identification detailed in the rest of the poem.

And I love as well the emphasized interjection “HA!”– Lamantia when speaking had probably a hundred inflected variants of “Ha! and “Ah!” which he would use to shorthand everything from enthusiasm to puzzlement to – as here Eureka!-magnitude emotional certitude and recognition. That certitude is also reflected in the pyramid structure at the bottom part of the poem – about as solid an architectural base as might be imagined, and one that contrasts beautifully with the lexical in-the-air-ness of the top half.

One night more than a decade ago Philip was visiting here at my house, and it happened to be one of those rare San Francisco nights in which the temperature held at circa 70 degrees. We sat at the kitchen table talking, windows open to the backyard – which itself is adjoined by the backyards of neighbors. Soon enough – keep in mind Philip could talk with the best of them – it was nearing 3:00 a.m. and in a sleepy stutter in the conversation we both heard what I believe was a mockingbird, calling from the yard out the window.

“We MUST go hear that,” said Philip. And so down the back stairs we went into the dark, to the middle of the yard, close to where the mockingbird – which we could not see – talked on. I don’t know if anyone deciphered the electric voice of that bird that night, but – HA! – I like to think that maybe someone did.


Lamantia bibliophiles may be interested to know that “In a grove” – since its first publication in Ekstasis – has appeared in the Ishmael Reed edited anthology, Calafia – The California Poetry (Berkeley: Y’Bird Books, 1979), then (under the title “Voice”) as a beautiful color over-sized broadside print, and one of thirty different poems from throughout history, as a part of the Glenn Todd edited Shaped Poetry (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1981), and also in Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems 1943-1993 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997). The poem no doubt will be included in The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, currently scheduled for 2013 from University of California Press.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

May the Sirens Sound!

[[ Bloomsday 2011 ]]

Episode 11, The Sirens
[first page and one-half]

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.

Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the.

Goldpinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.

Trilling, trilling: Idolores.

Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?

Tink cried to bronze in pity.

And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.

Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade. Notes chirruping answer.

O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking.

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

Coin rang. Clock clacked.

Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter. Not leave thee. Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm. Sweetheart, goodbye!

Jingle. Bloo.

Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.

A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.

Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.

Horn. Hawhorn.

When first he saw. Alas!

Full tup. Full throb.

Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.

Martha! Come!

Clapclap. Clipclap. Clappyclap.

Goodgod henev erheard inall.

Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.

A moonlit nightcall: far, far.

I feel so sad. P. S. So lonely blooming.


The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each, and for other, plash and silent roar.

Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss.

[Alas, the audio excerpt embedded above ends here, but do read on (and out loud!)]

You don't?

Did not: no, no: believe: Lidlyd. With a cock with a carra.

Black. Deepsounding. Do, Ben, do.

Wait while you wait. Hee hee. Wait while you hee.

But wait!

Low in dark middle earth. Embedded ore.

Naminedamine. Preacher is he:

All gone. All fallen.

Tiny, her tremulous fernfoils of maidenhair.

Amen! He gnashed in fury.

Fro. To, fro. A baton cool protruding.

Bronzelydia by Minagold.

By bronze, by gold, in oceangreen of shadow. Bloom. Old Bloom.

One rapped, one tapped, with a carra, with a cock.

Pray for him! Pray, good people!

His gouty fingers nakkering.

Big Benaben. Big Benben.

Last rose Castile of summer left bloom I feel so sad alone.

Pwee! Little wind piped wee.

True men. Lid Ker Cow De and Doll. Ay, ay. Like you men. Will lift your tschink with tschunk.

Fff! Oo!

Where bronze from anear? Where gold from afar? Where hoofs?

Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl.

Then not till then. My eppripfftaph. Be pfrwritt.





Saturday, April 2, 2011

Peter Howard, requiescat in pace

Peter Howard (July 1, 1938 - March 31, 2011), at Serendipity Books, Berkeley, California

I met Peter Howard sometime just before 1995. I was looking for a book of poetry, Langston Hughes’ translation of Gabriela Mistral. Why exactly that book, I can’t really remember (so much poetry, so many years), but somebody told me to check with Peter Howard, at Serendipity Books on University Avenue in Berkeley, and I did. He had the book, I bought it, and that was, as the movie puts it, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that centered on his store full of poetry.

Today, Peter Howard’s gone. Pancreatic cancer, diagnosed about a year ago, got him two days ago, and the world of poetry is now much diminished, and I’m out a friend.

Peter Howard was the proprietor of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, a rare book concern that ran for close to 50 years, first out of his home, then on Shattuck Avenue and for the last almost thirty years out of a big building on University Avenue.

Peter Howard by any measure was the major domo – the engine that powered – the Bay Area rare book trade. Even that doesn’t indicate the measure of his reach. Sometimes, as when he’d broker or harvest the taking in of a huge collection (e.g., that of the fabled New York collector Carter Burden or that of Sir Joseph Gold, each of which had deep and rich assortments, thousands of books worth, of poetry), the entire cadre of the nation’s antiquarian dealers would come a-calling.

Peter Howard had an incredible if simple philosophy regarding poetry: no matter what, he’d take it in and put it on a shelf. His store had hundreds of shelf-feet of alphabetized-by-author poetry books. There were well-known poets, the obscure, and the completely and totally forgotten; big publishers and the smallest of the small.

Serendipity had special sections for many poets, including for example (and these hardly scratch the surface) Duncan, Spicer, Eigner, McClure, and Stein, plus many other special sections (one example: a half-shelf of nothing but the 8.5" x 11" mimeoed titles published in the 1970s by Adventures in Poetry). There was also a closet for assorted additional good poetry (supplemented by a locked safe), huge file cabinets filled with broadsides, and at least one “secret” section where even more “good poetry” would be shelved. All this plus huge amounts of modern fiction, sci fi, and other first edition literature, and the new and not-so-new arrivals, piled or bagged on the store’s floors and tables.

Although Serendipity lists approximately 20,000 volumes on the internet, Howard and his staff (including the amazing Nancy Kosenka) actually possessed probably twenty times that amount (i.e., in excess of 400,000 items). Living across the Bay in San Francisco and (at least for the first approximately fifteen years after first discovering the store) working in San Rafael, I spent a lot of hours – and a lot of money – at Serendipity, happily so. Somewhat miraculously, about three years ago the office in which I work moved to within an easy lunch-time walk of the store. Sometimes even us fools get lucky.

As indicated above, I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve been able to buy books at Serendipity, including at times on time, with Peter insisting that interest was totally out of the question, even when he carried the amount due for months. The poetry I received in return amazes me to this day, including for example (to do the alphabet thing best I can here) the first books of Helen Adam and Bruce Andrews to those of Lew Welch and Phil Whalen, and all kinds of poets (and all kinds of books) in between.

For reasons not entirely clear, and although he had a well-earned reputation as a catankerous, arrogant son-of-a-bitch, Peter and I became close. After learning early on of my particular love for the poetry of Philip Lamantia, he offered me each and every thing he had or henceforth received related to Philip, and told me (before the internet search engines changed the game) what other booksellers to contact to find publications he did not have. Serendipity is a major reason I’ve been able over the last 20 years to put together a comprehensive chronological checklist of Lamantia’s books and other appearances in print.

Plus, and maybe because he liked me a little, via Peter Howard I came to many once-in-a-lifetime books. Things like Mina Loy’s first book (Lunar Baedecker, Contact Editions, 1923). One of the thirteen special copies of Caesar’s Gate (Divers Press, 1955) with a holographic (and otherwise unpublished) poem by Robert Duncan and full-page, full-color one-of-a-kind original paste-up (collage) by Jess. Harry Crosby’s Aphrodite in Flight (Black Sun Press, 1929), an impossibly rare collection of poetic aphorisms conjoining flying and seduction. And Elsa Gidlow’s On A Grey Thread (W. Ransom, 1923), the first book of openly lesbian poetry published in this country. You get the idea.

But just in case, how about the mimeographed program, featuring on the cover a reproduction of one of Bruce Conner’s felt-tip pen mandala-like drawings, for the very first Trips Festival, held in January, 1966 at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco? I found that impossible rarity one Saturday a decade or more ago, in a nondescript pile of ephemera and old magazines on some random shelf, and Peter insisted on selling it to me for three dollars (or was it one?). He’d do that once in awhile when a particular item was unearthed from a book-buy for which he’d long before turned what he considered a decent profit.

Peter Howard loved baseball, in particular the San Francisco Giants. He held season tickets for so long (from somewhere in the mid-1960s) that the ballclub itself didn’t even know how long he’d had them. He kept score the old-fashioned way, and his eternal optimism for the Giants, no matter how grim the prospects, was most instructive and helpful. I loved going to games with him. He was very smart, widely traveled and well read, and could mix it up, conversationally or argumentatively, with anybody. Nine innings at the yard with Peter was a mighty fine time.

Peter’s seats, both at Candlestick and (for the last decade) at the waterfront park, were primo: about ten rows up from the visiting club’s on-deck circle (Peter liked to see the other teams’ players since he saw the Giants’ all the time). When he couldn’t make it to a game, he’d offer up his tickets gratis to a wide circle of folks, including for example his UPS delivery guy. He would even give away tickets in advance if you asked, and he’d always throw in his “Lot A” parking pass too, for a total per game value (given the price of a pair of field level seats) of about $150. In this way, and thanks to Peter, my wife and I enjoyed a half-dozen or so Giants games every year.

Peter met his wife, Alison (who also died within the past year), when the two were doing field work for the Quakers in Alaska. The two taught me how easy it was to make pasta from scratch, and showed me the fun of entertaining with a touch of extravagance. Every couple of years, the Howards would hire an accomplished piano player to perform a concert in their North Berkeley house, and invite a small group to hear Mozart and Liszt in their small living room.

Best and most stupendous of all, every two years, coinciding with the big February antiquarian book fair in San Francisco, the Howards would throw an enormous all-day party at Serendipity. The last few times – including this past February – the main parking lot would be tented over, the side lot give over to the caterers, and oh god what a feast: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with just about everything you might imagine, including whole roasted pigs and dried figs crusted with fresh ground pepper.

But I must return to the poetry. As I look around at the shelves tonight typing this, I remain in awe of the books that came from Serendipity. Even in the last few months, after years of unfettered access and countless sessions scouring the store’s shelves book-by-book, unbelievable treasures could be and were found. Among the items I bought there in the last few months were the first books of Joseph Ceravolo, Juliana Spahr, and Andrew Joron (the latter in the hardcover version), plus wonderful oddities such as a pre-publicaton flyer, with selections, for Tom Raworth’s Writing and a beautiful hardcover and dust-jacketed first edition Modern Czech Poetry, an anthology from 1945. All these books, save the last-named volume, are essentially impossible to find currently, including on-line, and yet there they were, at Serendipity.

Rest in peace, Peter. I miss you already, miss you more than words can say. Miss you more than words arranged in a poem can convey. Even, or especially, those in the poems in the hundreds of poem-books you brought my way.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Milosz-ian Awe


The Rule of Law

If you don’t know Czeslaw Milosz’s life-story and work, including his poetry, now might be a good time to get curious. And if you do know Milosz’s writing, then maybe it’s time to read it all again. You see, it’s the centenary of his birth (born June 11, 1911 / died August 14, 2004); among other events there’ll be a celebration the week of March 21st in New York City (click here), and – hey what do you know! – I’m back in the glade here today to give a more personal (and perhaps idiosyncratic) shout-out.

Milosz, to cover the basics, was a poet, writer, and professor (Slavic Languages and Literature) at the University of California, Berkeley. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, the key biographical fact is his emigration to “the West” (first France, then the United States) after World-War II when his homeland (Lithuania-Poland) came under the control of brutal and repressive totalitarian forces (first Hitler, then Stalin).

Milosz wrote poetry, in Polish, starting in the 1930s, but first attracted substantial notice here with the early 1950s publication (in English) of The Captive Mind. The book examines the challenge – the impossibility, for him – of creative and intellectual thinking and work in a society marked by centralized, arbitrary, and highly politicized authority with its concomitant explicit and de facto restrictions on the individual. Here’s the front cover of the true first edition (London: Secker & Warburg, 1953):

Among the supremely persuasive sentences in The Captive Mind is the following rather direct explication – and surely Milosz was in a position to know – of the importance of what I’ll call the rule of law for limiting the power of those in charge:
To seize a man on the street and deport him to a concentration camp is obviously an excellent means of dealing with an individual who displeases the administration; but such means are difficult to establish in countries where the only criminal is the man who has committed an act clearly defined as punishable in a specific paragraph of the law.
Milosz elaborated on his ideas on the importance of the rule of law, and did so in a poetic way, in his essay “Emigration to America: A Summing Up,” first published in Polish in 1969 and included, in an English translation, in the excellent prose collection Visions from San Francisco Bay (1982). In this passage, Milosz’s unabashed verve and enthusiasm for the rule of law grabs me hard, and I think the same happens with just about everyone who reads it. How about you? Here we go:
People who have preserved the capacity for awe are rare – people who can, for instance, still be awed by the earliest, basic human discoveries, like the striking of fire and the shaping of the wheel. No less amazing is the idea that the power of the state should have limits prescribed by law and that nobody should be thrown in prison on the whim of men in uniform. Especially because, while the wheel is here to stay, the protection of law as secured by an independent judiciary is constantly being threatened by the ambition to rule others without any obstacles or checks.

“the striking of fire”

“the shaping of the wheel”

“the only criminal is the man who has committed an act . . .

clearly defined . . . in a specific paragraph of law”

I’ve long held dear the Milosz-ian awe for the rule of law, and have especially thought about it over the last several weeks and months. The importance of limits on centralized government authority, of the kind Milosz writes about in the excerpts above, seems at the core of the mass uprisings in the Middle East, where unchecked state power has long been the norm (see for example the LA Times article here, alluding to Hosni Mubarak’s security forces having plucked Egyptians from the street and vanished them in an instant).

More acutely – since it more directly involves where I live – Milosz’s words come to mind in connection with “the new detainee cases” now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court (click here for the legal low-down, if you please). These cases, brought by those with last names that include Khadr, Kiyemba, and Al-Bihani, challenge the indefinite confinement at Guantánamo Bay “Detention Camp” (some have been locked up for almost a decade now). The detainees have been imprisoned because they are considered a threat, not because they, to use Milosz’s words, “committed an act clearly defined as punishable in a specific paragraph of the law.”

Detainees at Guantánamo Bay, January 2002

The disturbingly harsh conditions at Guantánamo – I say it’s torture – only make me think harder on what Milosz wrote. So too the fact that America indefinitely holds others at Bagram Airfield outside of Kabul, Afghanistan (and reportedly elsewhere as well). Guantánamo and Bagram seem another sad example – see also Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, and the upholding of that totalitarian act by the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (1944) – in which America has turned its back on the rule of law, and surely not feeling any Milosz-ian awe toward that fundamental necessity of organized social-political society that truly values the individual.


I’ve read pretty much all of Milosz in English, and unless I’m forgetting something his views about the rule of law and limiting the power of the state, while clear in his essays, aren’t explicitly set out in individual poems. Milosz could be direct, even didactic, in his verse, but generally he does so (with a winning intellectualism and humbleness, I must add) regarding matters of philosophy, emotions, or poetics, not politics or political theory.

The following poem, however, comes to mind, and stays there, when I think about Milosz’s views on the rule of law and in particular his sentence, quoted above, about awe for the “earliest, basic human discoveries like the striking of fire and the shaping of the wheel” (and thus for the rule of law, which he finds “no less amazing”). The poem, a remembrance and celebration in verse of things past, was first collected in Provinces (1991), translated by Milosz and Robert Hass, and here it is:
Blacksmith Shop

I liked the bellows operated by rope.
A hand or a foot pedal – I don’t remember which.
But that blowing, and the blazing of fire!
And a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs,
Red, softened for the anvil,
Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe,
Thrown in a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.

And horses hitched to be shod,
Tossing their manes; and in the grass by the river
Plowshares, sledge runners, harrows waiting for repair

At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds,
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.
I love this poem, although with one reservation. But before the objection, the praise: as an expression of awe, this poem is (forgive me) awesome. I love the details, especially those (and particularly “sledge runners, harrows”) uncommon here in 21st century coastal California. I love too Milosz’s humanness, which saturates the poem with sensuousness and moments we can all identify with (see especially the second line, in which Milosz admits not remembering exactly).

Also lovely is how the poem begins as – and remains always – a memory (“I liked...”) yet repeatedly zooms to RIGHT NOW, as at the end of the first stanza when “a piece of iron,” first “held” has by the end of the sentence, in a feat of grammatical presdistigation come right to the present, with “sizzle, steam.” The same happens in the final stanza too, I think: “Here, gusts of heat; at my back; white clouds,” set forth as if it was happening this very instant.

What I don’t like much in the poem is the final line and one-half: “It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.” This seems iffy, if you’ll allow me a readerly questioning of a Nobel Laureate’s work. There are some, probably many, who applaud this direct declaration of poetic purpose (see here, for example), and it’s hard to deny the power of Milosz putting it out there as he has here.

But more often I wish he’d not included that final sentence. I think the point, his sense of a mission to “glorify things just because they are” is made very, very clear by the lines that come before, in which does masterfully does just that. Personally, I think eliminating the final declaration, so that the poem ends with “I stare and stare” or with that sentence re-lineated so that on the page it goes something like
I stare


– to s-t-r-e-t-c-h it out with no terminal punctuation so that it suggests a long, never-ending reverie. That, I think, would have been very, very cool. On top of that, the “I stare and stare” phrase has wonderful, maybe even triple, ambiguity. Is Milosz telling us here about staring at the scene at the blacksmith shop back in the day? Or what he’s doing now staring back at the vivid memory? Or what he does now as he looks at the words just written in the poem (and why wouldn’t he “stare and stare” at his lines? I certainly do!). I enjoy the multiplicity of “I stare and stare” and think ending the poem with those possibilities would have made it stronger, to me at least, compared to its buttoned-up and neatly packaged declarative conclusion.

But still and again, the awe here in “Blacksmith Shop,” especially since it centers on the elemental (fire, the shaping of iron) that brings me back to Milosz’s point about awe for the rule of law, is awesome. I can’t say enough about that, even here on this puny and way too irregular blog. Happy 100, Czeslaw Milosz!


Czeslaw Milosz
circa 2000, Krakow, Poland

Czeslaw Milosz
1980, Berkeley


“Blacksmith Shop”
scanned from Provinces (The Ecco Press, 1991)
[page signed by Milosz, at Booksmith on Haight Street, April 12, 1999]
[click image to enlarge]