Sunday, November 18, 2012

¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! !  

 ¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! ! 

¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! !  

I was home in the late afternoon with the sunlight coming through the window in my room.  I was lying on the rug working on my homework.  I decided to rest and I laid my head on the floor.  The light started to change and became very bright. . . . Shapes and sizes were changing.  It seemed like they weren’t inanimate.  They were living things.  I was part of them, and I was moving into them.  I moved into a space that was incomprehensible to me. . . . I went through things, and places, and spaces, and creatures.  I became them, and I came back to myself. . . . I went through all these changes until I was so old.  I was so wrinkly.  My bones were creaking and likely to break. . . . Then I began to realize that I was on the floor.  I was back. . . . I became myself again, after eons of time. . . . It was the same room.  Only 15 minutes had passed.

 ¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! !  

 ¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! ! 

Yes, the Glade of Theoric Ornithic Hermetica today celebrates Bruce Conner, on the anniversary of his birth – November 18, 1933 in McPherson, Kansas.  Conner died in San Francisco in 2008, but his work lives on.

The two texts seen above are excerpts from interviews of or talks by Conner in which he recounts a pivotal childhood experience.  The version at the head of this post was printed in 2011 by Jon Beacham at The Brother in Elysium, for the cover of a program distributed at a screening of Conner’s films.   The second version was printed in the Walker Art Center’s catalog for the 2000 BC exhibition.  A third version of this wondrous story told by Conner can be read by clicking here.

The first art work seen above, titled ANGEL, is one of a series of life-size photograms Conner made in collaboration with photographer Edmund Shea in 1975.  In these self-portraits, Conner’s body appears made of light. 

There then follows a 1990 collage of wood engraving images by Conner, titled PSYCHEDELICATESSEN OWNER.  What’ll you have, my friend?

The final work pictured here, as indicated by the text printed over the bottom of the image, is HANDPRINT, made by Conner with his blood in 1965.

 ¡ ¡ ¡ Bruce Conner ! ! ! 



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

¡ ¡ ¡ ¡ ¡ Viva Lamantia ! ! ! ! !

Philip Lamantia
Meadowlark West
(San Francisco: City Lights, 1986)

Meadowlark West, published in 1986, was the last all-new collection of poetry Philip Lamantia published in his lifetime (he died in 2005).  On this – the 85th anniversary of his birth on Sanchez Street in San Francisco in 1927 yes, it’s Philip Lamantia Day! – I celebrate the book, which after 26 years and dozens of re-readings remains gloriously invigorating and fresh. 

The poems in Meadowlark West - there are 34 in the book’s 73 pages - still jolt and inspire most fundamentally because of the hugely ambitious purpose that animates them.  The poems were written, to quote a  prose comment embedded by Lamantia in “Death Jets,
to “respond to the omnipresent threat of species suicide.”  Against that possibility, the poems, to use the simile with which Lamantia begins “Reached the Turn,” are “like opening a door to another land.”

Another land where “Poetry magic love liberty” (to quote from another poem in the book) reign and where one might find (quoting here from various poems): 
Sirens at doorways on rocks in place of gutted rooms

rollicking maypoles of imaginary Canaans forgotten in redwood dust

motorific cyclones a bridge of garnet almost granite

the bronze raindrop

the flocculent chance of onyx leaves
Lamantia in lines like these convincingly shows that, as he declares in one poem, “the jacknapes of surprise line my vision with orchidian trumpets.”   It’s a vision he carries out in Meadowlark West with the deepest conviction of purpose.  As he declares in “Exorcist Exercises,” it’s “my nomenclature against the orthodox.”  He seeks nothing less, to quote the line that follows in that poem, than a “morphomatic revolution by the lyrical swarm.”  

And “swarm” is key.  It’s a “frenzy mantic mania” (“Invincible Birth”) lexical field of energy, with (to quote another poem) “Mercury / Quick” shifts abounding.  It’s a powerful experience, as Lamantia in that poem suggests:
When you hear my words you will see them after coming home they
           leave me
these palpable shadows that sparkle
show their sides
blow out candles
diced in sand
Just now a magnet of living juice has been whirling the mental plume
and death’s sacrifice on the stone below traveling the lingual stalactites
Only the verbs glow on the absolute rim
With this sort of approach, line-to-line explication and logical explanation generally isn’t possible, for me at least, and it’s this (to quote Lamantia) “irrational factor” (“The mind is a black hole of beautiful chance encounters,” he also writes) that keeps the collection ever-vital.  Lamantia’s leaps-of-thought-in-words energize the mind, no matter how many times the poems are read.   

The other key characteristic of the poems of Meadowlark West is their use of allusions and references.  It’s a big-time parade of allusions, and to use just a few examples from but one of the poems, they range from the familiar (Sor Juana and John Donne), to those that can be unlocked with a bit of research (“the massacres at Humboldt Bay in the nineteenth century,” “the red obsidian light of Church's Cotopoxi,” and “Gilak in the Pomo legend,” for example), to a few which seem destined to remain mysteries (try “the collini lombardini,” and “the Canadian octophagic”).  References to California and west coast lands, American Indian culture, and bird life are most common, but lots of other things come in – and this pulling in of much else also keeps the poems fresh.

I’d also like to point out – if only to underscore my love of this book, that this blog takes its name from a line in Meadowlark West.  Here’s the final stanza from “America in the Age of Gold”:
There's nary a Wilson but the warblers send cascades that wing
         the ears of the Choctaws
Poetry magic love liberty
the unequivocally mediocre is an anti-meditation on bird houses
golden ringlets rare afternoons
the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica
a talon of deva dravidian bird
demon of legend
plucking the string
a diagonal of dew for the finches red-streaked
for the blush of the sun
the fifth note

Happy Philip Lamantia Day!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Larynx Galaxy, by John Olson

John Olson
Larynx Galaxy

(Boston: Black Widow Press, 2012)
[6" by 9" || 395 pages]
[cover art & design by Kerrie Kemperman]

Larynx Galaxy, John Olsons first collection of poetry in four years (and first all-new collection in six) is huge.  H-U-G-E as in almost 400 pages, comprising more than 180 works, all in prose, each alive aglow and awaiting a-you.  

Although Larynx Galaxy includes several straightforward essays, most of the book consists of prose poems.  These include a  substantial number  that examine, or take flight from a look at,  objects, places, or personal circumstances.  For example, there are poems about closets, electric fans, the Palouse (the region in southwest Washington state), prepositions, a seemingly lost birth certificate, the funeral of a friend, a road in North Dakota, a new bookcase, speeding down the freeway, and elevators.  There’s even a very entertaining flash-autobiography, “My Life In Five Paragraphs,” with its cut-to-the-chase opening lines:
The first punch sent me flying into a Christmas tree. The second put me on the floor on my hands and knees, blood dripping from my nose. I tumbled outside, caught a train to North Dakota, and went to college.
In these object/place/personal circumstance poems, Olson generally (but not always) keeps the focus tight on the subject, or on related tangents.  And while the writing, and thought behind it, displays considerable verve, the denotations and connotations of language are mostly (though again not entirely) familiar.

The other, and I would say more common, kind of work in Larynx Galaxy are what I call JohnOlsonian prose poems.  That eponymous descriptor might sound nutty, but I believe it
’s appropriate: the writing it describes is truly sui generis.  

With regard to this uniqueness, no less an authority than Clayton Eshleman – who edited Caterpillar and Sulfur, two of the premier poetry magazines of the last almost half-century – calls Olson (in a back cover blurb for the book) “an original . . . whose prose poems do not remind me of anyone else’s work.”  A related view was held by Philip Lamantia, who once told me that Olson’s work was “extraordinary . . . the greatest prose poetry [I’ve] ever read.”

The characteristics of a “JohnOlsonian” prose poem are in some ways hard to describe.  Michael McClure’s suggestion (also in a back cover blurb) that Olson’s poems are marked by “surging perceptions” that “float in inspiration” suggests something of the character and energy of the writing.  

So too do the paradoxes in Lewis Warsh’s description (also in a blurb) of Olson’s writing as “hallucinatory” and “clearheaded,” texts that “verg[e] on the edge of infinity, yet [are] forever at home in the world.”  Also on point is the assessment of Christopher Frizzelle, long-time critic for The Stranger (the “alternative” paper in Olson’s hometown of Seattle) – that Olson’s poems are “wild and mercurial.”

Olson himself perhaps best describes the what and why of his writing (and click through here for a post, from three years ago, about that).  Many poems in Larynx Galaxy include declarations or hints about what’s going on with the words as words.  

In “The Utility Of Futility,” for example, Olson proclaims, “I have a Jackson Pollock belt buckle and a cricket cantata hairdo.” That  statement, I suggest, neatly captures both the abstract practicality and musical aliveness of his writing, and its good ol’ surreal fun as well! 

“I can tie water in knots and waltz the skeleton of a cloud,” Olson writes in the same poem, suggesting and at the same time showing his imaginative reach and confidence.  He adds, “I can lean the ocean against a predicate in the scrotum of a moose and nail a drop of perfume to a blister of light.”  I, for one, do not doubt that Olson could do all those things, and more.

Olson more directly discusses his approach to words in “Brought To A Boil: An Essay On Experimental Poetry,” a four page work from near the start of the book.  In the following excerpt from that piece, Olson begins with a kind of prologue of demonstrative poetry and then hammers on several key points:
Experimentation in words leads to the mustard of cacophony, unbridled granite, ecstasies in anvils, legends and dragons boiling out of fugitive metaphors.  Mallarmé doing wheelies on a Harley-Davidson.  Six nude somersaults and a buffalo in a tulip refinery.  You cannot quite predict what words are going to do.  That is the whole idea.  This is exactly the kind of situation you want to be in: entering into a play with the language in which control is excused and revolutions begin.  Revolution in both senses of the word: orbital motion about a point and a sudden or momentous change in a situation.
In Olson’s poems, language at play can result in a lot of de-familiar denotation, uncommon connotations, and super-elastic metonymy.  Put some or all of that together with the swerve, spiral, and/or surge of ideas in the poems, and wow whoa wow.  

Now, more traditional creative constructs – observed details, lyrical flights, and revelatory assertions, for example – do appear, even in the most experimental poems, and they are a delight.  But when Olson gets out there, really out there, the lexical field energizes hard towards glorious abstraction.  Heres an example of that thing itself, from “Lapadarian”— 
There is fat in the yell of the epaulet idea.  Its chill was pink among that Democratic chemistry and lace hoists that made the calculus nasty with just the right dashboard.  As pills to columns and garters to gargoyles, the oblique in the ketchup is inundated by quandary.  Such pastels as yonder calendar persuade the eyes that reality is dome haphazard mirror, an apology to the toes and an occupation for the nose.
Or consider the following example, an excerpt lifted from the middle of the prose poem “Beet To Beet” because it ends with a question by Olson that suggests something important that’s going on in his poems, and in our reading of them:
Applause cleats are ugly but some come to flap like harmonicas.  It is vital to maintain good philosophy habits.  Memory is an aperture to open in cypress.  Zeppelin is more philodendron.  Only a fire could mark this dent.  This paint.  This yellow wall.  Scan screened through a waterfront is not a crocodile it is a scooter in scales.  Here comes everybody with a fistful of haphazard castles and a sharp pencil.  Who is in control of these words, you, me, or each other?

Larynx Galaxy’s size and sprawl, its JohnOlsonian poetry, will challenge many readers.  It’s not a sculpted book that one can place in the center of the room of the mind and take in with a simple spin about. 

For me, reading Larynx Galaxy is akin to a long trip through a wilderness area, one that you haven’t visited before.  It’s a rigorous journey but one that’s grand and memorable.  You
re far from the urban grid with its familiar commercial strips and mega-malls, and so the unusual and surprising are everywhere.  

In Olson’s book, as in any great wilderness excursion, what’s around the bend – in the next poem, paragraph or even sentence (or within a sentence) isnt easily or at all anticipated.  That’s part of the challenge and fun, especially since there are so many marvelous poems, turns within or between those poems, and plenty of sentences and paragraphs of spectacular imagination.   

Wilderness adventures require a special fortitude and attitude.  A willingness to endure sometimes challenging conditions.  An alert and curious mind that enjoys come-what-may unexpectedness, and delights in discovery.  An enthusiastic diligence to figure out, or try to figure out, what’s going on when the territory becomes unfamiliar.

But while difficult, wilderness adventures renew and reward, me oh my, in very special ways.  This is what Thoreau, Muir and many others – let me mention Aldo Leopold and Margaret Murie – taught.  Get really out there, these folks insisted, and lo and behold the world – you and the universe – come alive.  I believe that’s so, and that it happens when reading deep in and through Larynx Galaxy.

Yes, Larynx Galaxy is Wild Sky, Indian Heaven, Bright Star, and Passage Key.

Arrow Canyon, Weepah Spring and Eagle Cap.

Garden of the Gods and Craters of the Moon. 

Tatoosh too, of course, and hundreds of others I could name. 

Larynx Galaxy: a poem-book wilderness in the best sense of that term: worthy of exploration, attention, recognition, and celebration. 

The following is a small selection of excerpts from poems in Larynx Galaxy’s first approximately one hundred pages.  

I’ve favored in these nine excerpts the short and snappy, or sentences that for one reason or another seemed worthy of showcasing.  I don’t aim here to represent the whole.  Instead, I hope to provide a few snapshots of the wondrous JohnOlsonian wilderness.  Many other examples could be presented, both from the first one hundred and the remaining almost three hundred pages.  

I’ve paired the excerpts with images, altered Olson’s prose by centering each excerpt and inserting line breaks at points, all in a probably futile attempt to make the words look better here on Blogger.  All punctuation has been preserved.  Enjoy, and to those who may go on to explore Larynx Galaxy: Bon Voyage!


The mind can go deep as it wants in a word
or string of words.

— from “Extreme Reading” 


 There is sometimes a sunrise in our consciousness, 
our level of awareness, so that we leave the theatre 
with something we did not have before we 
entered into the darkness, 
something like a jewel, or a song of ice. 

--- from “Marquee” 


The majesty of thought is sometimes too volatile 
to redeem by words alone.

from “The Thing Itself”


The ecstasies of the poet are ignored in the marketplace 
but trust me, the torsions and contortions of syntax 
tremble with each attempt to drag a rainbow 
over the bridge and watch it grow prodigal
 as it leans into the coming night. 

from “The Thing Itself”


Fold the air into words into birds into prepositions 
ingots of gold in a musky room a slightly gnarled wrist 
mute with the moisture of thought a workshop expanded 
by description elephants bathing in a muddy river 
a sentence caged in a paragraph bursting with rain.

from “Life Imagined As A Slither Of Syllables”


Jellyfish never give advice.  They just hang in the water 
like music from a broken zither.

from “Listen”


The lachrymose beak beckons its lurid appearance 
and the variegated scold zigzags on like another incessant 
humidity on the verge of majesty.  The knack of appetite 
hungers for iron.  Eyes mill the vision of a quiet 
identity, an aorta soaked in glee.

from “Niche”


I am alone in my enzymes, but my enzymes are yours 
as well as mine, limpid hammers of protein, 
sequencing each of us into vengeance and boots.  
We are idioms of electricity.  Pantomimes mirrored 
on paper.  Daydreams vivid as jewelry, 
Clark Gable in Nevada, 
a mustang going crazy at the end of a rope.

from “Quartz Ukelele”


A reverie which nails itself to a camellia 
is precisely the sort of thing I’m looking for. 

from “Happy Little Tendons Swimming With Doors” 



Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday, 2012

James Joyce - manuscript page from the "Circe" episode of Ulysses

Agenbite of inwit, it’s Bloomsday

And so today let’s celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel of potent poetic force that I’ve been privileged to read, or at least re-read in part, just about every one of the last 40 years.  Three years ago, I applauded here in the glade a couple wonderful bits from the book about the sea and water (click here)Two years ago, I billboarded the famous final words of Molly Bloom’s book-ending soliloquy (click here).  Last year, I luxuriated in the wonderfully sonic opening lines of the “Sirens” episode (click here).

This year I herald the “Circe” episode, the 15th section of Ulysses.  That episode, set in Nighttown, Dublin’s red-light district, takes the form of a script for a drama, including sometimes extensive stage directions and descriptions. Most compelling, Joyce in his dream-drama blends or animates the real and natural (including memories of events depicted earlier in the novel) with the characters' subconscious and/or anxiety-ridden impulses.  Warped hallucinations often result, and they can scorch the imagination (and not infrequently be very funny).  

So yes I said yes, let us this Bloomsday wow ourselves with a few passages of nightmarish wildness!  Agenbite of inwit, indeed!

Let’s begin with a description of on-stage action from very near the chapter’s start.  In this excerpt, the unusual and disturbing pile on one another here, and the writing – check especially the verbs – moves.  Initially, Joyce presents a series of mostly lengthy and grammatically complex sentences, some of which include unwieldy portmanteaus, and which  depict rather complicated sets of actions.  Joyce then shifts dramatically, dropping in a triplet of short sentences (nine, seven, and six words each, respectively).  These shorter sentences stun with the rhythmic variation they bring to the passage, their own internal staccato bursts (each of the three sentences has its own three-part energy), and the marvelous cinematic verve of the action conveyed in each.  You’ll see, I do believe, and off – and into the wild – we go:

(A pygmy woman swings on a rope slung between the railings, counting. A form sprawled against a dustbin and muffled by its arm and hat moves, groans, grinding growling teeth, and snores again. On a step a gnome totting among a rubbish tip crouches to shoulder a sack of rags and bones. A crone standing by with a smoky oillamp rams the last bottle in the maw of his sack. He heaves his booty, tugs askew his peaked cap and hobbles off mutely. The crone makes back for her lair swaying her lamp. A bandy child, asquat on the doorstep with a papershuttlecock, crawls sidling after her in spurts, clutches her skirt, scrambles up. A drunken navvy ups with both hands the railings of an area, lurching heavily. At a corner two night watch in shouldercapes, their hands upon their staffholsters, loom tall. A plate crashes; a woman screams; a child wails. Oaths of a man roar, mutter, cease. Figures wander, lurk, peer from warrens. In a room lit by a candle stuck in a bottleneck a slut combs out the tatts from the hair of a scrofulous child. Cissy Caffrey's voice, still young, sings shrill from a lane.)

Ah, “a scrofulous child.”  Don’t see that one used much, do we?  This or different sorts of wildness (both in description, action, and dialogue) continues in the Circe episode for almost 5,000 lines of text, well over 150 printed pages in most editions of Ulysses. Maybe the best place to read it on-line, because of its hyperlink annotations and color-codes that indicate the various narrative approaches Joyce uses, is at the site (click here then click on Chapter 15 (presented in two halves) a bit down the page).

In the meantime, let’s wrap up our Bloomsday observance here by getting wild again, this time with an excerpt from a description of stage action taken from near the end of the Circe episode.  The set up here, to simplify mightly, is that distant voices are heard to say, “Dublin’s burning! Dublin’s burning! On fire, on fire!”  Joyce then goes apocalyptic, an epic of an apocalypse, including marauding birds and even a bit zombie-action.  Dig the punch of the short sentences, almost twenty of them, as this begins, then the longer roll-out of our fine feathered friends, and finally the dead rising, the living plummeting, and all the rest.  Yow, and wow, here it is: 

(Brimstone fires spring up. Dense clouds roll past. Heavy Gatling guns boom. Pandemonium. Troops deploy. Gallop of hoofs. Artillery. Hoarse commands. Bells clang. Backers shout. Drunkards bawl. Whores screech. Foghorns hoot. Cries of valour. Shrieks of dying. Pikes clash on cuirasses. Thieves rob the slain. Birds of prey, winging from the sea, rising from marsh lands, swooping from eyries, hover screaming, gannets, cormorants, vultures, goshawks, climbing woodcocks, peregrines, merlin, blackgrouse, sea eagles, gulls, albatrosses, barnacle geese. The midnight sun is darkened. The earth trembles. The dead of Dublin from Prospect and Mount Jerome in white sheepskin overcoats and black goat-fell cloaks arise and appear to many. A chasm opens with a noiseless yawn. Tom Rochford, winner in athlete’s singlet and breeches, arrives at the head of the national hurdle handicap and leaps into the void. He is followed by a race of runners and leapers. In wild attitudes they spring from the brink. Their bodies plunge. Factory lasses with fancy clothes toss redhot Yorkshire baraabombs. Society ladies lift their skirts above their heads to protect themselves. laughing witches in red cutty sarks ride through the air on broomsticks. Quakerlyster plasters blisters. It rains dragon’s teeth. [ . . . ])


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Transit of Venus

It's a twice-in-a-lifetime thing, today's passing, or transit, of Venus across the face of the Sun.  The last time it happened was eight years ago, and after today it won't happen again for more than 100 years (and this pattern -- two transits about eight years apart, with each pair of transits separated by more than a century -- is exactly how it has always been, and will be).

So hold tight from 3:07 p.m. to almost 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time (and at the same corresponding time elsewhere) today.  Assuming clear skies, proper geographic location (click here and use the options to see where you fit in), and the right eye-wear (or access to a computer webcast like the one found by clicking here), Venus "will appear as a small black dot gliding across the disk of the sun."  And Venus's glide will have a royally exquisite pace: given its six hour plus total transit time, the planet from our earthly perspective will slowly inch across the face of the sun.  

Wow!  The rareness and balletic beauty of today's cosmic synchronicity excites my mind and passion.  

And so  so too does the event's poetic energy.  The Sun and Venus pack elemental symbolic power;  at their metaphoric cores, they are fiery life and love, respectively, and each has been so associated for a long, long, time.  When such potent tropes come together, especially when that happens but twice-a-century (including today!), getting giddy just can't be helped.  And I also feel inspired by today's transit of Venus across the Sun: I'm ready and even full of lust for any and all unexpected pairings or unusual juxtapositions.  Poetry, do thy thing!

And in addition to all that, today's also the exactly right and perfect time to specially celebrate a book of poetry named after the celestial event: Harry Crosby's Transit of Venus (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1928, revised editions 1929 and 1931). 

Best of all would be to buy (many copies available for less than $10 including shipping) and read Black Sun (New York: Random House, 1976), Geoffrey Wolff's classic biography of the man.  Crosby's adult years included a stint as an ambulance driver in World War I, a ditching of Boston aristocratic life for expatriate high (and sun-worshiping) times in 1920s Paris, the founding (with his wife Caresse) of the important Black Sun Press, work on the avant garde magazine transition, and the writing of his own poetry.  His  life ended in December 1929 with what has been called a murder/suicide and/or suicide pact; the victim Josephine Rotch, shot by Crosby in a New York hotel room a few hours before he shot himself, was one of his lovers. Wolff's account of Crosby's life is superb, and his speculations and assessments are reasonable if not always entirely persuasive.

As I alluded to about three years ago when discussing a couple of Crosby's wildest dardanic poems (click here and scroll about half way down the post), I came to his work via Philip Lamantia, who greatly enjoyed and championed Crosby's rebellious surreal-tinged Mad Queen (1929), a book of "tirades" (there's much in the poetry that pointedly attacks Boston culture).  It's definitely an under-appreciated American classic, and a primary reason why Crosby as a writer holds special appeal for me, even as most tend to categorize him as a minor poet. 

The poems in Transit of Venus were written in the weeks following July 9, 1928, when Crosby first met and began his affair with Josephine Rotch, who would eventually die with him.  Crosby at the same time had been reading about the sun;  the July 5, 1928 entry in his diary (published as Shadows of the Sun) -- lists approximately three dozen facts about it that he'd learned.  Crosby, in his first diary entry about her, called Rotch "the Youngest Princess of the Sun!"  In the August 21, 1928 entry, he explained, "Decided to call my new book of poems Transit of Venus -- Venus being the Youngest Princess of the Sun.  But  occasionally at her inferior conjunction Venus passes directly across the disk of the Sun the phenomenon being known as a Transit."

Although Transit of Venus does not have the overall unconventional outlandishness and verve of Crosby's Mad Queen, it does have plenty of intensity and many memorable moments.  Among its approximately sixty short poems (almost all are shorter than a half-page) are about a dozen that I always enjoy reading again, including the handful below that I present here today for our celebration.
The first poem in Transit of Venus is rather conventional, but importantly -- especially today -- it explicitly ties the astronomical phenomena of the book's title to the poet's new romance (and in fact is the only poem in the book that alludes to the transit):

("lorsque Vénus est tout 
entière entrée dans le disque")
When you are the flower

I am the shadow cast by the flower

When I am the fire
You are the mirror reflecting the fire

And when Venus has entered the disk of the Sun 

Then you are that Venus and I am the Sun.

Several poems in Transit of Venus take a stuttering approach with at least some of their lines, featuring more-or-less incomplete phrases that seem to suggest a world of fragmented perceptions or thoughts  It's a mode that seems to fit within the experimental verse of the era, and at times still feel that way today.  Here are three examples:


A shade,
A starless night,
Of death, darkness and the
Of some unseen power,
Thy wings under the
On the wall
Of evening, let me call
Shadows of a thought in green
Shadows I have seen.


Tall ancestral
Tongues in
Unto the root of
As the needle to the pole
As the shadow to the sun
Fungi and mushrooms
And the root of the tree
Thrusting into


This blessed fruit, this,
This goodly red,
This fire, this O, this,
This is the last of
This kiss.

I really like that "Shadows of a thought in green" line in the first of these three poems.  Crosby was a deep reader of poetry, so it'd not surprise me if he purposefully echoed there the "green thought in a green shade" line of Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" (click here to refresh your recollection, if you please).

I also really like the last poem in this bunch.  The staccato in that one serves a mimetic purpose, effectively transmitting the rhythm, the passion, of the lovers' extended kiss, a kiss that's a series of mini-kisses, some long, some quick, some deep, probing here, lingering there -- well, you know how that works, don't you? -- with the commas signifying the pauses between each part, and the whole possessing a most dynamic and arousing intensity. Yes? Yes!

Even when he is more-or-less conventional, as he can be in Transit of Venus, Crosby almost always drops something interesting into his lines.  Consider:


New Every Morning
All brightness like an orchestra of swords
All flashing messages of joy
All gay as ladies with their lords
Meteor with comet spinning spun
New every morning with the sun.

This, a brief lyric on the freshness each day brings, is very traditional in form and subject.  Yet that second line simile, "All brightness like an orchestra of swords," surely isn't typical or tired.  It's close to, maybe is, a surreal image, and memorable for that reason.  The image's freshness also of course conveys exactly what Crosby wants to suggest about the newness of every morning.  Memorable too is the next to last line of the poem, the way it doubles the not-of-this-world objects (the nouns meteor and comet both) to suggest unexpected abundance, and then puts those objects in a kind of time-traveling action whirl with its initially awkward sounding yet ultimately alliteratively smooth back-to-back present participle / past tense verbs ("spinning spun"). 

I'll end this celebration -- and here's wishing you a fantastic transit of Venus / Transit of Venus day today! -- with the next-to-last poem in the book.  I like its on-the-sleeve ecstatic affirmation of exact in the instant accuracy:


One little
One golden
Of bliss wingéd
With flying feet
One vision golden
Of the sun and the sea
One precise moment
Of clarity.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr.

King in the Birmingham Jail (1963)

"Living in the colony of time,
we are ultimately
to the empire of eternity.

-- Strength To Love (Harper & Row, 1963)


Thursday, January 12, 2012

. . . to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show . . .

. . . the very age and body of the time [its] form and pressure.
– Hamlet, III.ii.20-23

I’ve recently here in the glade trumpeted (loudly, at that) seven books published last year that ROCKED my poetry reading world (click here). However, I’d like to herald two others that appeared in 2011 that definitely deserve a shout-out and, if you please, maybe even a reading by you.

In addition to being individually great, these two books – wordlick by Joe Ross and war by andrew topel – also can be rightly paired with each other. Both use words in highly unusual ways to show something of the world, and neither adds any poet-centric (or other) exegesis or critique. In other w-o-r-d-s, the language in these poems – particularly the way it is used and presented – is the thing itself. These works – book-length poems in both cases – can be called lexical objects, sculpted or constructed of language.

Maybe that’s vague or confusing? Well, let me, if you please, show and tell a bit about each.

Joe Ross

(København & Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 2011)
[6"x 4.25", 62 pages]

Since buying Joe Ross’s wordlick (yes, it’s all lowercase on the title page) six months ago – and let me here thank Mark Wallace, who in June wrote a bit about the book on his blog, sparking me to get it – I’ve constantly made like a, well, like an animal to a salt block on a hot day, repeatedly returning because I find in it something both essential and quite pleasing.

Portrait of a Blogger Returning to Essential and Delicious Poetry

Immediately below, for your enjoyment, is poetry from a single a page from wordlick. This excerpt, taken from near but not too near the book’s end, is representative: essentially, every page features – similar to what you’ll see here – three stanzas, each of which has five medium-length lines, with each line having many word combinations, or rather more accurately – and watch me here – wordcombinations. Here’s how it looks, and reads:
Laddercrossed bridge letdown fogstaining castlefall
Bumppicked stumpwagon sandalflair whatever
Hairwet stickyflap treeburned greenzone heaven
Spidersmiled mumblypeg eyerubbed gardenfodder
Algaeworshipped weekendtart nervejangled sonata fugue.

Rooffickle barburn gangsticking sementoast
Myopic oversightformal softshoeing princessobsession
Rugsplurged closeout camp windbreaking leftover slag
Corkscrewing againstand treeloped flavorby
Stingwith tongueflap arian at canelash.

Guideposted phantomarch lobelocked ancestral blight
Soupstone motorperch sideman getawayhearse
Pollencrapped searsucker runway obscurification project
Dimlighted couchgab hopecrested waveswallow
Spiralbound diseaseleaf girltalking arenastare.
And so wordlick goes for about 50 pages. It’s irresistible to me, hearkening back to Baroness Elsa (she a wordcombo devotee, click here and scroll down), the neologistic nirvana of Finnegans Wake, and a few other poembooks (Naturalistless by Christopher Rizzo – click here – being a notable example from a few years ago) in which newwords predominate. At reading a few months ago in Paris (where he lives), Ross read a bit from wordlick (click here to see and hear) and explained:
This book, as the title wordlick suggests, is made of word combinations . . . . What I was trying to do was look at the sounding of the language, and the mess that we’re in, and just try to – not say anything about it – but actually just show it.
“[T]he sounding of language” part is easy enough to understand, I think, but perhaps less so “the mess we’re in” given that “mess” can spread in a whole lot of directions. But experiencing the relentless jammedwording of the poem, the difficulty of parsing many individual wordcombinations and, even when that’s done, sustaining acute attention for more than several pages, I have an idea.

“The mess” that Ross is out to “actually just show” in large part concerns what I’ll call the infooverload in and bombedsensesblitz quality of contemporary life. I’ll put it like this: if you were to take in wordlick in a single sitting, you’d end up in a datastimulated floodfunk that probably would require, as an antidote, a long, slow off-trail walk off-trail someplace on a perfectly windless day so that the silence, and maybe the crunch of your boots in the dirt, are the only sounds you hear.

In addition to its accurate mirroring of the insistentseethe of modern life, I really like the inventiveness in wordlick. Admittedly, some of Ross’s word combos such as (referencing the three stanzas quoted above) “eyerubbed” or“dimlighted,” have an easy naturalness to them, and I suppose even something like “sementoast” might be familiar in some crowds (okay, probably not). But many combos – such as “spidersmiled,” “rooffickle,” “againstand,” and “getawayhearse” – are fresh, lovely to decipher and take me to reverierivers that have surpassingly strong currents.

Further, some of the combos in wordlick – “againstand” in the second stanza above is an example – can swing two ways (“again | stand” as well as “against | and”). And even when wordcombos can really only be read a single way, the decoding, as I’m sure you discovered, can be difficult, especially when mid-wordcombo double consonants have the look of a “real” word but in fact represent the end of one and the start of another (e.g., “rooffickle” in the second stanza above) or the combo’s pivot point has a letter that could belong to either the first or second word (e.g., the second “s” in “spidersmiled,” which might be seen as forming a plural for the initital noun (i.e., “spiders”) instead of start of the concluding past-tense verb (i.e., “smiled”)).

The challenges and confusions of the wordcombos, of course, fit perfectly with the idea of Ross using the language here to reveal the thing itself. The it’s-hard-to-make-sense-of-things-when-it-all-comes-at-you-mostly-jammed-together-and-without-much-pause-in-the-flow is I think a part of “the mess” that Ross in his poem “actually just show[s].” I see, and feel what he shows, and, find wordlick, as indicated above, extremely compelling. Extremelycompelling.


War, goddamn war, is surely a part of the “form and pressure” of “the very age and body of the time” in which we live. War sometimes seems, it probably is, a 24/7/365 phenomenon: stealth bombers, predator drones,“kinetic shaping operations” (a particularly insane bit of military psycho-parlance there), and all the rest (add here: pissing on fresh-killed bloody corpses) that’s a part of the organized killing, maiming and destroying that we – and I use that pronoun for humans collectively – seem to love.

Speaking of love, maybe you remember, or have heard, that Troggs’ tune from the 1960s, “Love Is All Around.” Well, okay, I get that song’s point (though not so much its sappiness), but a persuasive case could be made that it really ought to be “WAR Is All Around.” That war is the universal force, the all-mighty source of all, is a very uncomfortable notion, to say the least. Know what I mean?

andrew topel

(Clearwater, FL: avantacular press, 2011)
[7.5" x 7.5", unpaginated [but 36 pages]]

Well, I think andrew topel (he prefers, by the evidence in this book and elsewhere, his name in the lowercase and thus I so type it here) knows what I mean. Although he often works in viz-po (click here), topel sometimes goes textual, and he has here written a book that seems to be an attempt to show with language, to be-in-words, something of the rat-a-tat bombs-away absurd dehumanizing overwhelmingness of war. Here’s how topel, who in this instance is both poet and publisher, describes war (yes, it’s lower case on the title page) on-line:
. . . written by a renegade with text grenades - a sonic assault, salt & peppered with phonic land-mines to bend the spine as well as the mind - read at your own risk with a medical kit on hand
This description, even allowing for topel’s sly humor and use of puffery of the kind I sort of enjoy in all commercial come-ons, does accurately suggest what is found in war. But let me be specific: the book – the poem – is slim, at 30 unpaginated pages, and yet packed, since every page consists of margin-to-margin (left-to-right and top-to-bottom) unpunctuated text, 33 lines per page, with 10 to 17 words per line, that just comes at you and comes at you and comes at you. It’d be VERY difficult to replicate the look of even a single line on ol’ blogger, so here’s a scan of a single page (click the page-image for a clearer view) for you to read:

In case you weren’t able to view the image, the first nine lines of the page, save for the justified margins, go like this:

dopamine durian upraised blazer detrained durance trance dance endurance expanse
depraving ravens surprise deprive private divots shiver quiver liver lifer pipe gripe crepes
paper staple ape maple syrup peer searing steering wheels severing eleven hens gentle
oriental spindle kindle dental sheering sneers sneeze please grease bee knees seeing seeding
seeming abeam teamwork siring sigh siren iron viral irony virus vireo orzo Oreo ore oleos oar
or verso veer stereo moron micro marring sparring partners apron arson arrant errands
ardent arrest argents baron aroma stoma stomach flummox flumes bloom perfume fumes
vacuum your room font front fro found form frown downtown frog an analogue roan matron
macron marrow platoon subsume sardine sandiness bliss missiles andantes anodynes spine

Reading the page or even just the nine lines, you can make a good guess as to how topel wrote at least some of this. As it comes at you, connections – sonic, orthographic, or sometimes substantive – can usually be made word to word, and sometimes in runs of words, with an occasional seemingly random leap that starts something new.

That war goes in this manner, margin-to-margin on decent-sized sheets for 30 pages, is mighty impressive. Some very sustained attention by topel must have been brought to bear on this work, presumably over a considerable period of time. The result, I think it fair to say, overwhelms the reader. How did you make out reading the above page? And that, the overwhelmingness of the experience, is part of the point; the words are used to do just that.

Also part of the point is that it never adds up to anything except in the word-to-word connections mentioned above. In this way, I think the book is as described: an assault, and specifically an assault on comprehension as traditionally sought or found in a text.

More bluntly, attempts to make connections, or sense, in war are relentlessly blow to smithereens. Reading the book – and this is especially so when re-reading it, since in the first time I made like a low-grade grunt and slogged through it line-by-line – I get so I am almost compelled to eye-jump around and within the text, taking a word from here, then there as I zig down or zag up the page, or even cross the gutter to take a bit or a bunch from the facing page. This fragmenting of the visual experience seems unavoidable given the poem’s language’s explosive attack on meaning. So I think the poem is, to quote its first and last word, “war.”

Now, I am certain that topel isn’t championing war – everything I’ve ever read by or of him suggests a deep pacifism. The poem, I think, simply presents the relentless impossible absurd violence via the very way its words are presented. It’s meant, I believe, to disrupt, get into the eyes, mind, and emotions of readers. And that war does.



Blog Archive