Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Philip Lamantia -- The Collected Poems

Publication of any volume of collected poems is a grand event, worthy of celebration.  The more complete any such book is, in terms of the poetry included and comprehensiveness of editorial material, the bigger the party should be.  And that goes double if the poetry’s particularly potent.
By these measures, The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press, 2013), edited by Garrett Caples, Andrew Joron and Nancy Joyce Peters, deserves a Saturnalian blow-out. 

Yes, I enthuse, and big-time.  For me, this Collected is a dream – a DREAM – come true.  I have collected and read (and read and read and read) Lamantia’s poetry for years.  More than a decade ago, I compiled a chronological list of his published writings including appearances in magazines and anthologies – it numbers well over 250 items.  

More to the point, I love Lamantia’s wild and free imagination.  His surreal, anti-rational images, and the associational play of the poems (they take me to “the kingdom of Elsewhere off the shores of Never More,” to quote a line from one of them).  I love too, particularly in the poems from the mid-1960s forward, the many erudite, esoteric, and/or hermetic allusions that stimulate and challenge the mind.

I also met Lamantia in 1998, and became a friend. Among other things, we were both native San Franciscans of Sicilian heritage.  We regularly talked and occasionally met until late 2001, when depression caused him to withdraw from social life (he died in 2005).  This blog takes its name from a line in one of Lamantia’s poems, and each year on the anniversary of his birth (October 23, 1927) – hey, that’s today! – I’ve posted something here about him or his poetry.

Finally, I played a small part in getting this Collected Poems into the world.  I provided the editors – who I’ve each known for about 15 years – with a list of previously published but uncollected poems by Lamantia (and copies of some of them), as well as information about (and copies of) certain previously unpublished poems.  The editors very kindly mention this help in the book’s acknowledgments.  I also helped with proofreading. 

So I am not a neutral observer.  My exuberance ignites from my love and passion for Lamantia’s poetry.  But even leaving that aside, this book deserves kudos.  As the saying goes, facts are facts.

First, the Collected Lamantia includes all the poetry from Lamantia’s fourteen previous books.  Of course, the original books will always be worth having, if you can get them.  Lamantia and his various publishers made beautiful books, and its great to read the poems as originally presented. 

For example, there’s Destroyed Works (Auerhahn Press, 1962).  Its black-and-white cover photo of an outré Bruce Conner assemblage (see image directly below) neatly echoes the gathering of poems within, and relatively large-sized pages nicely create space for Lamantia’s sometimes long lines.

The problem, however, is that almost all of Lamantia’s original books are out-of-print, with several now collector’s items.  It’d likely cost several hundred or even a thousand dollars or more to buy them all.  Now, all that poetry  – oh that beautiful poetry (please see below for my list and discussion of two dozen Lamantia poems you might want to read!) – is available in a single volume for around $40 or $50, depending on where you shop.  It’s fantastic to have it all for a relatively affordable price.   

But wait!  There’s more!

The Collected Lamantia also includes approximately 100 poems in addition to those found in Lamantia’s books.  About 50 of these additional poems were previously published in small magazines and the like, but uncollected.  The other half are entirely unpublished, selected by the editors from Lamantia’s surviving manuscripts.

These previously uncollected and unpublished poems come from each of the seven decades (‘40s through ‘00s) in which Lamantia wrote.  Among the rarities is Lamantia’s long-lost first published poem, from a 1943 California high school anthology.  Written when he was 15, it’s not strictly juvenilia since within about a year of its appearance Lamantia would have about a dozen other poems published in View, VVV, and Hemispheres,
the leading national avant-garde magazines of the era.  

Also included is an almost 20 page assemblage-work comprised of 42 numbered sub-poems or sections from the late 1950s / early 1960s, and fourteen poems from Lamantia’s final years of writing (1998-2001).  Overall, the previously uncollected and unpublished poems comprise about 25% of the book and permit a deeper and more multi-faceted understanding of Lamantia’s poetic concerns and approaches.
But wait again!  There’s still more! 

The Collected Lamantia also includes the editors’ 40 page introduction to the poet’s life and work, titled “High Poet.”  This  chronologically arranged essay details Lamantia’s eventful life, including his various travels and exiles (including multiple lengthy stays in Mexico) and key associates (including the avant-garde circle in New York City and Kenneth Rexroth in the 1940s, Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, and Nancy J. Peters from the mid-1960s to the end of his life).  It also addresses his interests in certain values or activities (Catholicism, for example, and birding), experimentations (early 1950s use of peyote, for example), erudition (Lamantia was an autodidact polymath), and challenges (with depression and mania in particular). 

Among the many biographical nuggets that shine in “High Poet,” I especially enjoyed reading how Lamantia heard the call to poetry.  He was 14 years old, rebellious, already fascinated by the marvelous, and deeply inspired by exhibitions he’d seen at local museums of paintings by Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.  In a grove of trees atop San Bruno Mountain – located less than five miles from the San Francisco neighborhood (the Excelsior) where he grew up – Lamantia observed “the weird effects of the wind and fog banks” surrounding the mountain and then heard “an inner voice declaring [him] a poet.”

The weird effects of wind and fog, as seen from San Bruno Mountain
[click here for a time-lapse video -- and imagine what Lamantia saw when he heard the call!]

The editors describe this mountain and fog experience as an early example of Lamantia’s “response to the marvels of the natural world.”  That’s certainly true. But there’s also this: a kid born and raised in The City, called to poetry while on a hill watching the wind and fog.  That, my friends, must be the mark of a true San Francisco Poet!    

“High Poet” also astutely describes Lamantia’s poetics, including the fundamental importance of the marvelous and surrealism, as well as his key belief that poetry was “both an expression and form of gnosis,”  The editors – and I agree with this assessment – call Lamantia  a “visionary poet who ascended the heights of pure imagination” and “sought both intellectual understanding and spiritual transcendence.” 

The editors also provide helpful observations on certain esoteric or hermetic aspects of Lamantia’s poetry.  For example, there’s an explication of Lamantia’s iconoclastic concept of “weir”– a term that turns up in several  late 1950s and 1960s poems.  A variant of “weird, ” the word, the editors explain, concerns an imagined place or space where Lamantia could “correlate his experiences of mystical, drug-induced, and poetic vision under one heading.”  

The essay also briefly frames each of Lamantia’s books with remarks about the poetry itself or life events relating to the work.  Occasional opinions are offered on the books as well, such as calling Meadowlark West (1986), the dense and sometimes difficult late-career collection, a “concise, left-wing riposte to Pound’s Cantos” that is “in many ways Lamantia’s most original book.”

Until a full-length biography and/or a poem-by-poem study of Lamantia comes along, “High Poet” is IT.  If awards were given for these things, this introductory essay would surely get the prize.


A few years ago, Billy Mills nicely summed up the possibilities that, as he put it, “can really only happen in the context of a big collected poems.”  With such books, Mills wrote, readers can begin to get “a new sense of the total shape” of a poet’s work, and see “the development of [the] poet’s individual voice.” 

Or, as Robert Grenier said – with characteristic pithiness – about another collected edition, readers can now “begin to contemplate what in the world it might be.”

Yes oh yes, with The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, the possibilities for readers now begin.  Go forth, if you please, and . . .

¡Viva Lamantia!


Twenty-Four Lamantia Poems
You Might Want To Read!

[This list is roughly chronological.  For each poem, I offer comments, sometimes brief, and an excerpt or more.  
Please note: I could list many more!]
 I Am Coming

“I Am Coming” was among the five poems in Lamantia’s first appearance in a national publication – the June 1943 issue of View, edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler.  Lamantia was fifteen years old.   Here’s how the poems looked on the magazine’s page, with “I Am Coming” at the upper left:

Lamantia later described his writing of these and other poems (there were over two dozen) in this period as a “three-year adventure in ‘pure psychic automatism’ productive in the exaltation of the poetic marvelous, delirious eroticism and the reign of the unfettered imagination.”

“Unfettered imagination,” “delirious eroticism,” and “marvelous” are exactly right for “I Am Coming,” whose three stanzas concern a very memorable and surreal journey.  The poet follows an unnamed female – a muse and desired other, as I read it – to an imagined place where, again as I read it, inspiration reigns.  Of course, the title can be read as a double-entendre which gives the poem a sexual charge.   

The first stanza features propulsive anaphoric rhythms and quick-cut images.  The opening line:
I am following her to the wavering moon
has the poet in thrall, leaving the terrestrial and diurnal behind.  The journey continues in the seven lines that follow, the first six of which begin with the word “to” (or “and to”), with each telling of a different place to which Lamantia  follows the unnamed “her.”  The first such place – “a bridge by the long waterfront” – seems to have a real-world analog: the Bay Bridge, less than a decade old at the time, standing above the series of piers jutting into San Francisco Bay along the Embarcadero.  

The other places to which Lamantia follows seem more purely imagined.  These include “valleys of beautiful arson,” “ men eating wild minutes from a clock,” and, in the stanza’s very evocative last lines, “ that dark room beside a castle / of youthful voices singing to the moon.”  That final image ties back, of course, to the opening line, and adds the auditory dimension of song. 

The poem’s other two stanzas, three and five lines long respectively, are as memorable as the first, even as they abandon that stanza’s anaphoric structure.  The second stanza shifts perspective, looking forward to what will happen to the “she” when the sun comes up: “she will live at a sky / covered with sparrow’s blood / and wrapped in robes of lost decay.”   I like the use of the indefinite article “a” with sky, which removes that particular atmospheric zone from the familiar or known.  But it’s the nightmarish shock of  “cover in sparrow’s blood” and “wrapped in robes of lost decay” that stand out here.  Automatistic, sub-conscious images are not always pretty. 

Here’s the final stanza:
But I am coming to the moon,
and she will be there in a musical night,
in a night of burning laughter
burning like a road of my brain
pouring its arm into the lunar lake.

In these concluding lines, Lamantia returns to the selenological trope of the first stanza and also uses images that relate back to other images used there (“musical” = “voices singing” | “burning” = “arson” | “road” = “bridge”).  Those resonances plus repetition of key words (“night” in the second and third lines, “burning” in the third and fourth, and the gerunds that begin the last two lines) makes for a very rich and heady climax.

With its evocative opening montage, counter-point second stanza, and compelling conclusion, “I Am Coming” was an amazing debut.   Let me repeat, Lamantia was fifteen!  Kenneth Rexorth’s remark about him, written in the 1960s, is worth remembering: “I have never known anyone else who started out, without preliminaries, with no five-finger exercises, as an achieved poet.” 


There Are Many Pathways to the Garden

“There Are Many Pathways to the Garden” also appeared in the June 1943 issue of View (see it in image of the magazine’s page, above) and so is another written when he was fifteen.  The poem’s title is a beautiful thing in and of itself, a persuasive variant on the idea, common in certain philosophic or religious traditions, that there is more than one way to revelation.

The poem’s memorable images – remember they are automatistic – include “a stevedore’s wax ocean” and “a sublime bucket of red eyes.”  There’s also a “rage of pennies” and  “a crab’s rude whip.”  Reading them, charged as they are with imaginative energy, my mind happily dances about,

Four decades after it was first published, an English Professor reprinted “There Are Many Pathways to the Garden” in a book-length “guide to understanding” and “a celebration of” poetry. See Burton Raffael, How To Read A Poem (Meridian Books- Penguin Group, 1984), pages 122-123.  Lamantia’s poem was used as a kind of counter-example.  

“I have no idea what this is all about,” the professor declared, adding, “I recognize surrealist techniques but what they are meant to do I simply do not know.”  Conceding there were “respectable people” who liked Lamantia’s poem, the he professor insisted as a believer in “poetry as communication” that he did not.  He called the poem “truly obscure,” “impenetrable” and a “poetry of befuddlement.”

I do not share the professor’s views.  The poem’s title provides plenty of “communication” for me.  More important, the wild images and absence of positivist logic or a straight-line narrative  causes reverie to romp and associational thought to reign.  In the concluding line of the poem’s second-to-last stanza Lamantia declares,
. . . I set free the dawn of your desires
and I think that’s precisely what this poem does, and does very well.  

About a decade ago the city of Berkeley had a couple dozen poems – each written by a poet with some connection to area – engraved on large metal plaques, and then placed the plaques on sidewalks  downtown.  They plaques are still there, and they’re pretty cool.  “There Are Many Pathways to the Garden” was supposed to be included  – it’s in the official book-length anthology – but for some reason never made it to a plaque / the sidewalk.  Maybe that’s because Lamantia’s poem is too out-there even for Berkeley! 


Touch of the Marvelous

“Touch of the Marvelous” is probably the most well known early Lamantia poem.  Written at age fifteen or sixteen, and another from his “pure psychic automatism” years, it’s the first poem in The Collected.  It was first published by Andre Breton in the magazine VVV in February 1944, along with two other poems and a full-page letter by Lamantia.  The poem’s three-line opening stanza  –
The mermaids have come to the desert
they are setting up a boudoir next to the camel
who lies at their feet of roses
– captures and accelerates most readers’ imagination. 

The surge of surrealistic and oneiric imagery and energy continues in the second stanza:
A wall of alabaster is drawn over our heads
by four rainbow men
whose naked figures give off a light
that slowly wriggles upon the sands
In the first line, the word “alabaster” – familiar and slightly strange – seems key.  The roll of its four syllables the deliberate pacing of the wall being pulled up, and the three soft a’s suggest something of how the wall looks (and feels). Also, the word denotes something translucent, and thus suggests the idea of energy passing through, an important concept in a poem of automatistic origins in which consciousness and the sub-conscious seem to mix.   

Another key in this stanza’s first line is Lamantia’s use of the attributive adjective “our.”  It suggests that we readers are also present in the desert along with him, the camel, and the boudoir of the mermaids with feet of roses. 

And then, of course, there are the “four rainbow men / whose naked figures give off a light
/ that slowly wriggles upon the sands.”  I always imagine – arising no doubt from “rainbow” – that the wriggling light is that of the visible electro-magnetic spectrum.   The words here have the vividness and plasticity of an animated technicolor film. 

The poem’s third stanza begins with Lamantia’s iconic declaration about being moved or stirred by (to borrow from the editors’ introduction) “manifestations of the uncanny, the sublime, or the impossible, which resist or exceed rationalization.”  Of course, the poem puts it far more concisely and memorably: 
I am touched by the marvelous
as the mermaids’ nimble fingers
go through my hair
that has come down forever from my head
to cover my body
the savage fruit of lunacy
Lamantia’s declaration seems very real, in part because “the mermaids . . . fingers” go through his “hair.”  That’s a naturalistic, tactile, and sensual detail that ties the surrealistic and fantastic to the actual.   Hair, of course, is a universal feature of puberty, and the line here intimating that it covers his body reminds that Lamantia wrote this poem as a teenager.  Calling the hair, in the stanza’s last line,“the savage fruit of lunacy” seems both an automatistic image and one rooted in the sometimes maddening and wild emotional charges and physical changes of adolescence.   

Lamantia’s declaration here also reminds me of Arthur Rimbaud’s self-description, written when he was a mid-teen, as “a child touched by the finger of the Muse.”  See Enid Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud, pages 50-51.  Do all prodigies feel similarly moved? 

“Touch of the Marvelous” reaches its peak, I think, in the next three stanzas:
Behold the boudoir is flying away
and I am holding onto the leg of the lovely one
called beneath the sea
She is turning
with the charm of a bird
into two giant lips
and I am now falling into the goblet of suicide

She is the angelic doll turned black
she is the child of broken elevators
she is the curtain of holes
that you never want to throw away

she is the first woman and first man
and I am lost in the search to have her
The metamorphoses and the other action in these lines startle.  The archaic and biblical “Behold” with which the stanza begins gives what follows an epic frame, and yet the extraordinary events that follow are presented matter-of-factly, giving the fantastic a very natural air.  The associative connection between the “two giant lips” and “the goblet of suicide” which follows (the latter image, as Lamantia himself later pointed out, foreshadows his  life-long struggle with depression), creates a sensibility beyond logic.

The anaphoric series of metaphors (“she is the . . .”) that describe Lamantia's various imaginings of BIANCA are particularly potent.  The first and last of these – “the angelic doll turned black” and “the first woman and the first man” – suggest the union of opposites central to the surrealist thought.  

The other two metaphors are more allusive. The “child of broken elevators” is – well, I don’t know – but it’s a line I remember every time I get in a elevator.  The next image – “the curtain of holes you never want to throw away” is perhaps a bit easier.  It plainly implies a long-standing, deeply personal, and unalterable desire and attachment, a feeling that explodes in the following stanza/couplet with Lamantia’s confession, “I am lost in the search to have her”.
“the curtain of holes you never want to throw away”
The poem’s final three stanzas are a kind of denouement, but desire remains primal and is expressed through surreal imagery (“I am hungry for the secrets of sadistic fish / I am plunging into the sea“).  Lamantia ultimately continues to seek “BIANCA” in a place or space “beyond the hours and the day.”  No clock, no calendar, just the desire for inspired marvelousness.  That, I believe, is just the way it ought to be! 


“It’s summer’s moment in autumn’s hour” 

“It’s summer’s moment in autumn’s hour” is the killer first line of this untitled two stanza, nineteen line poem, first published in 1948 (it subsequently appeared in Ekstasis (1959), Lamantia’s second book).   Have you ever been in San Francisco on a nice day in October?  If you have, then you know that Lamantia’s opening line gets it exactly right.

Written during a period when Lamantia’s poems brought in more naturalistic details, the opening six lines of “It’s summer’s moment . . .” are seemingly drawn from what he’s observed:
It’s summer’s moment in autumn’s hour.
I walk over a carpet of leaves
Fallen on a hill overlooking the city
Watching the clouded moon cut
Like a white diamond
                                    across the sky.
That’s a sweet use of blank space in that last-quoted line, allowing the moon-simile from the line above to for a moment shine and move as the reader’s eyes move across the page.  The verisimilitude of these lines sets up the stanza’s last four lines, which arise from another sort of reality – that of a wild imagination:
The godly animals, roused from sleep
 — Flying serpents and the many eyed of the ancients—
Come out to mate on the lawns of heaven
All about me a fierce fireworks of desire.
How about that?  Do you remember the concupiscence of youth?  Lamantia was twenty when he wrote this poem.  His phrase “a fierce fireworks of desire”seems exactly right.

The poem’s final stanza has a reflective, romantic, and lyrical tone.  Lamantia declares he would make a necklace of the leaves “[in] vision of her the whirling winds have taken” and “joyous in her love.”  But it ends more mystically than what one might expect:
I would be no more sentient than this bird above me
Its breast against a receding wind
That is time broken by the beasts of heaven.
The final line’s image, of course, refers back to the “godly animals” of the first stanza.  Interestingly, the visionary wish, “I would be no more sentient than this bird above me . . . ,” foreshadows by about twenty-five years Lamantia’s deep interest in ornithology. 

 I find the ecstatic and transcendent verve of “It’s summer’s moment in autumn’s hour” deeply moving.  I remember it every warm fall day that I’m lucky enough to find myself atop a hill here in the City.

“on a hill overlooking the city”

Inside the Journey

“Inside the Journey” is a beautifully written angly-jangly eight paragraph surge of a prose poem. It was first published, along with three other similar works by Lamantia, in “A Little Anthology of The Poem In Prose,” a special 80-page section in New Directions 14 (1953), the well regarded annual from that publisher.  The section, edited by Charles Henri Ford, which
I believe was the first comprehensive mid-century gathering of prose poetry, featured work by historical and contemporary writers.

The word “quickly” is key in the first paragraph of “Inside the Journey”– it begins each of the first four sentences.  By the last of those sentences, which begins:
Quickly and quickly, and faster, faster . . .
the poem’s whirling in the mind’s eye (and ear).  It’s as if some subconscious centrifugal force has been brought to the fore.

It’s hard to describe the rest of the poem.  It’s free, wild, personal and surprising.  The third and fourth-to-last paragraphs of the poem show well the tour-de-force pacing and chains of imagery featured throughout: 
    In another time, I was making blueprints for the Eternal, but the work was interrupted by some ogre who jumped out from behind a slab of magenta sky, and I was mesmerized on the spot between the poison I was wiping from my lips and the face behind the face I saw looking at me from the sky I was using as a mirror.

    Anyway, I broke the spell. But another wave of invented emotions sank and another light fell on the crest of the wave: escape was a door I kept shutting all around me and on those who were carving me, symbolically they said, for the first course at the restaurant for the initiates of the lake of love— which is to say, sperm ran high that year, breaking over the brains of those who know how to conduct themselves properly in this world: which is to say, life goes on gathering wool for the mothers of all the daughters whose tongues spit live lobsters and whose insatiable desire for some seasalt paradise makes thunder break in my skull: which is to say, very simply and without metaphor, that my brain was oppressing me.
Take a look at the very short sentence – “Anyway, I broke the spell” – that begins the last paragraph above.  That sentence sharply contrasts with both the long complex sentence that constitutes the entirety of the preceding paragraph is the paragraph above it, and the even longer and even more complex sentence that follows.  Its brevity, as well as its almost off-hand informality and directness, cleanses the mind’s palate between the other sentences’ almost impossibly rich imagery.

I love too how the latter paragraph’s l-o-n-g final sentence sustains attention.  First,  there’s the phrase, near the sentence’s start, that “escape was a door I kept shutting all around me . . . .”  The nightmarish image of a person repeatedly shutting himself out from the possibility of escape is easily seen, and lures the reader into the suddenly deep water that follows.  The phrase “which is to say,” which in the sentence’s last half Lamantia repeats three times, then  serves as a kind of navigational buoy, a mooring or marker in the sentence’s oceanic waves of clauses and images.  The last clause – “my brain was oppressing me” – brings it all to anchor.

The poem’s crazed energy continues in the remaining paragraphs, and even gets more intense, with the next paragraph beginning, seemingly in media res,
“—And that is not the most of it—
with Lamantia then embarking on an extended exploration of what he calls “the great vacuum of this world” (italics as in original).  “Inside the Journey” indeed!

I heard Lamantia recite “Inside the Journey” at a Poetry Project New York reading in 1999.  With his voice a mix of matter-of-fact and dramatic verve, Lamantia spoke his rich and fantastic sentences.  I recall an audible collective exclamation (was there also applause?) when the poem was over.  I know it was recorded, and maybe someday we’ll be able to hear it.

“escape was a door I kept shutting all around me . . . .”
The Owl  

“The Owl,”written in the early 1950s, offers a memorable take on the titular bird. The repeated words that end the first stanza hypnotize (italics as in original):
 . . . his Eye magnetic to the moon,
his Eye magnetic to the moon.
The repetition of the words, and italics, also seem to reflect or mimic the eye-moon attraction that’s described. 

The owl here seems to stand for the poetic marvelous and/or a kind of hermetic knowledge, but not anything easily attained.  The poem needs to read whole – you’ll find it and do that, will you please? – but here’s a stanza that shows some of what I mean: 
He is not easily enticed to manifestation,
But stony silence, petrified moments
— a transfiguration— will bring him out
focused on the screen where all transfigured bodies are.
You must be humble to his fangs
that paw the moonball dissolving in the space
from the corner of your eye:
He’ll trick you otherwise
— into daylight, where you meet his double while running.

[ In a grove ]

This beautiful and wild shaped poem, from the late 1950s, was published in Ekstasis (Auerhahn, 1959):

The editors’ introduction in The Collected Lamantia suggests that this poem’s shape is similar to a vortex or a triangle.  Others have seen a rose, a mountain / volcano, or a censer.  
How about you?  
No matter what’s seen, the poem -- what it says -- reminds us of how Lamantia could and did receive visions and language from the world-about-him.

“Ah Blessed Virgin Mary”

“Ah Blessed Virgin Mary” is the first line of a short (14 lines over three stanzas) prayer-poem of Catholic mystical devotion.  In the final stanza, visionary fervency reflects clearly in, and from, Lamantia’s words:
Tell Him I have eyes only for Heaven
as I look to you
   Queen mirror
of the heavenly court
“Ah Blessed Virgin Mary” first appeared in a 1959 issue of Wallace Berman’s hand-assembled Semina magazine, and at that time played an important inspirational role for the great San Francisco artist Jay DeFeo.  Reading the poem there, DeFeo was deeply moved by the stanza quoted above, believing that it resonated with her work.  She then inscribed those final lines on the backside of The Eyes, a large (42 inches by 84 inches) graphite drawing she had just finished. 

Jay DeFeo, The Eyes 
DeFeo also wrote Lamantia’s lines across the wall of her studio, right below where she taped up the drawing.  When the poem appeared a few months later in Ekstasis (Auerhahn, 1959), DeFeo hand copied the last stanza of Lamantias poem on an end page in her copy of that book.  On another end page in her copy of Ekstasis, DeFeo drew a preliminary sketch of her masterpiece sculpted painting, The Rose.  It all makes for a very cool story of  Lamantia, Ah Blessed Virgin Mary,” and DeFeo (and was documented in the catalog for her recent retrospective exhibition at SF-MOMA and The Whitney).  


From the Front

The title “From the Front” suggests a war correspondent’s report  from a fiercely contested zone, and in this poem’s thirty-seven lines a kind of battle rage as Lamantia experiences the world about him and that which swirls within.  The poem does not so much describe what happens but rather enacts it – a quality that can often be said about Lamantia’s poetry.

Written in Mexico in the late 1950s or early 1960s, “From the Front” first appeared in Destroyed Works (1962), as the final poem in a section titled Mantic Notebook.  The poem takes off quick doesn’t slow much.  The exclamatory single-word first line –
– provides both a geographical anchor (the ruins of that historic community lie beneath what is now central Mexico City) and a sense of ancient forces at work.  More than that, its multi-syllable mostly hard consonant sonics and exclamation mark provide a pulse-revving jolt.  Ecphonesis, baby – it always gets me going!

The poem next features blasts of sensations or thoughts from without and within.  There are here and now details, as observed or heard: “grey seven thousand feet high / mist of dust,” “tin door open / to slow motion immobilized traffic,” “dust of wind,” and “slamming venetian blinds,” for example.  Some of these details get repeated as the poem progresses.  

Along with the naturalistic details, Lamantia brings in a number of esoteric or seemingly coined allusions (“fields of Egluria” and “Chicagos of Zeno”), visionary exclamations (“the sky is peeling its skin off!”) and questions – lots of questions – (“Is this American mood?,” for example, or the wonderfully outré “who ate the dogbrick sandwich?”).  It’s quite a swirl.

In the middle of these details, allusions and questions comes a single word sentence – “Reprieve.”  It’s a moment of calm amidst the roiling churn of observations, stimulation, interior thoughts and questioning emotions.  But the swirl immediately begins again, with fragmented and jammed together details and thoughts clashing and thrusting:
. . . .  Sail of dust wind
venetian mountain sequence
zeroguns silence the street
mute traffics— desperate surrealism
backfire from motorcycles
waves over empty roof tops
The poem’s final lines masterfully enact and reflect the sensation of a self assaulted by or caught in a vortex of what’s both within and without.  There’s first a set of, as I count them, nine questions that create a crescendo of uncertainty, and then a stand-alone last line that, in another kind of crescendo, repeats many of the poem’s here-and-now details:
    Where am I? you answer
    the question where am I?
    who’s here? who wants Veracruz?
    what is New York? who is San Francisco?
    where are you?
    what to do     go where    how?

Motorcycles of atonal venetian blind dust of wind roof top!
That final line, for me, is beyond wow – so I’ll write yow and xow and zow!  It plays across the page (and in the mind) as a machine gun rat-a-tat manic lexical riff, a tremendous rush of words.


STILL POEMS (all caps in the original) is the title for a suite of a half-dozen poems, each between 13 and 21 lines, published in Destroyed Works (1962) but written in and around 1959.

Have you ever found yourself in a moment relative or even transcendent calm, both within and without, when thought seems larger and deeper than usual?  Sure you have, and it’s that kind of “still” – an inner meditative or ruminative state – that these six poems arise from. 

Sometimes this reverie-rich state happens deep in the dark, as is evocatively described by Lamantia in the first line of one of the six STILL POEMS:
The night is a space of white marble
This description of night as a space of white marble clearly suggests the hardness, durability, and beauty of the mental space out of which Lamantia wrote.  

These poems mostly are direct and very self-aware: “This is my mind talking,” “I’m weak from the altitude” and “There is this distance between me and what I see,” for example.  But they are also at times quotidian (“a car goes by,” for example, or “I’m eating a tomato”).

And yet they can also be ecstatic and even transcendent  (“arrows mark the dawn!”and “I am a God”),  visionary or hallucinatory (“I see New York upside down” or “I shall watch speckled jewel grow on the back of warspilt horses”).  Or vatic (“I have given fair warning / Chicago New York Los Angeles have gone down”).  Mystical too (“everywhere immanence of the presence of God” and “I long for the luminous darkness of God / I long for the superessential light of this darkness”).  At points they are didactic as well (“what’s important is not seen by eyes nor heard by ears”).  Even outré (“I have eaten rhinoceros tail” and “A poppy size of the sun in my skull”) and beautifully mysterious (“Can you find the dinosaur’s track? / Can you put your hands on telephone wires? / Can you find Socrates in some garden?”). 

Get my point?  These are vibrant and potent poet, the work of a poet alert to his surroundings and thoughts.  Lamantia LIVES in these poems.  


Morning Light Song 

“Morning Light Song” was written in the 1950s, when Lamantia lived in Mexico.  It was one of four Lamantia poems Donald Allen included in his The New American Poetry anthology.  It’s a single stanza of about two dozen lines, most very long.  The opening four lines are particularly rich in religious fervor and the ecstatic, and always energize my mind and spirit:
RED DAWN clouds coming up! the heavens proclaim you, Absolute God
I claim the glory, in you, of singing to you this morning
For I am coming out of myself and Go to you, Lord of the Morning Light
For what’s a singer worth if he can’t talk to you, My God of Light?
This long-lined mantic manic devotional energy surge continues throughout the poem (here are two random lines, to give a bit more of the flavor of the work):  
Here’s the worshiping Eye of my soul stinging the heavens

[ . . . ]

Here’s my chant to you, Morning of Mornings, God of gods, light of light
I’ve loved “Morning Light Song” for years.  Even now, I’ll sometimes get up real early, while it’s still dark, walk past the house (about eight blocks from where I live) on Sanchez Street in which Philip was born (in 1927), continue up to a hilltop here in San Francisco, then read the poem as the sun rises.  



“Gork!” is a poem from sometime in the mid-1960s.  It concerns, to quote from its first line, “one of those days.”  We’ve all had “one of those days,” I think, but me oh my I don’t know if anyone has ever had “one of those days” like Lamantia had one of those days:
It’s one of those days when the moon jumps
out if its skin and the walls of the sky
crash down with a thud . . .

There are many searing phrases and images in this astrology-influenced, visionary, and social/cultural-protest poem, including “heads of state are venus fly traps / eating the scum of their slaves / from cisterns of all the phony capitols / of King Mob.”  Lamantia advises readers:
the planetary aspects are so bad if
anyone at all is not a Taoist — Be Still
& Act Not — an age of karma is set going so that
all future cranes & paradise birds
over bleed on the crests of all the seas
of our world, to the degree that on
Another One of These Days the air itself
shall strike down the citizens like a plague!
Another great thing about “Gork” is its approximately 85 word sub-title.  Adjust your glasses and fasten your seat-belt, here it is (italics as in the original):
Or, My Personal Minute Reading On the Calendar of Emblems Proclaimed From the Principality of Weir Which is Constantly SomeWhereElse Therefor Unreachable by Machines & Beyond Any Psycho-Physical Analysis, and Conjuncts Only Relatively With the Phantomatic Distortions & Material Encumbrances Socially Projected by Over Proliferating Mobocracies, Murderous & Degenerate Sciences, Retrograde Religions & Politics At This Time Increasingly Oppressive & Horent Perpetuating Their Arbitrary Prerogatives Out of Certain Atavisms of Thought & Operation — Steeped in Integral Errors — Known to Corrupt and Destroy Our Humanity.
That’s one tremendous and tremendously weird sub-title as prose poem! 


What is Not Strange?

“Nothing” is the implicit but emphatic (and double-negative and thus in that way strange itself) answer that Lamantia
’s poem gives to the question posed by its title.  The strange here includes the poem’s shape, which zigs and zags relative to the left margin.   

The allusions and hermetic references in the poem are potently strange too.  Lamantia among other things brings in the sea towers of Sicily, the tongues of elephants, the Ibis,  Diotima, Hermes, the fans of Murasaki, zipzap cities, Venus, Visionary hotrodders, Geronimo, sassafras seeds, Superman, Holy Biscuits, the Pacific Ocean, and the Roman Empire.

The poem’s prescriptive, stand-alone, majuscular (and muscular!) final line:
is memorable, a beautiful mystery that while perhaps not entirely explainable seems exactly right.   
 I Touch You

An approximately 40-line surrealist love poem,
“I Touch You” is very much in the spirit of Andre Breton’s “Free Union,” Benjamin Peret’s “Wink,” and Viteslav Nezval’s “Song of Songs.”  The beloved is celebrated, always in unusual or even unsettling ways.  Here are the first seven lines:
I touch you with my eyes when you lie under spiders of silk
I touch you with my one hundred headed giraffes too secret to be seen
the rods & cones the morning covets awaken you
with my touch of tobacco eyes
and you rise from the snail’s bed of tubular hair
I touch you with the breath of jet planes
and they are gone elsewhere to you too
About a decade after it was first published as the first poem in The Blood of the Air ( Four Seasons Foundation, 1970 ), “I Touch You” (along with the myth of the Sirens) inspired Dutch composer Robert Nasveld to produce a multi-track tape abstract composition. While using none of Lamantia’s words, the song certainly catches the strangeness of the poem’s beauty (click here to listen)  
“giraffes too secret to be seen”

The Comics

“The Comics,” from The Blood of the Air (1970), is a surreal gem.  Here’s the poem:
the men are going home to work
on sleeping horses
and automobiles come alive
and return to the factories
wearing lingerie and makeup
Steering wheels chrome fenders and gears
leer at the computers
in the outer offices
and the engines—ah those seductive engines—
get into black boots and thrash the clouds
rushing through gargantuan windows the pistons are eating
with anthropoid teeth.
True to its title, the poem reads as an almost panel-by-panel series of images, and has more than a bit of biting comic humor too. (Lamantia, especially as a child and young teen, deeply loved certain comics, as he explained in a lengthy essay published in the late 1970s.)  I like how it uses the comic tradition of animating normally inanimate objects (think for starters of Winsor McCay’s classic Little Nemo, pictured above) .   

The main energy of the poem comes from its images and action.  However, certain small effects, such as the sonic rhyme of the “gears” and “leer,” the hyphenated aside about the engines (complete with an “ah,”a verbal interjection often favored by Lamantia), and the multi-syllabic adjectives in the last two lines, add greatly to the whole.

Lamantia earns bonus points in “The Comics” for including two no-doubt giants of modern life – the automobile and computer.  The allusion to computers suggests a  a certain perspicacity or imaginative foretelling since it would be years before those machines became ubiquitous (other poems from that period also mention the computer).


Between Sleep and Waking

Previously unpublished, “Between Sleep and Waking” was written in the 1970s.  The title refers to the hypnopompic state (defined by the title).  The poem does not so much describe that zone as arise from it.  

“Between Sleep and Waking” features a series of unpunctuated quasi-sentences and phrases spread over 17 lines, with plenty of surreal or dream-life images and action: “mineral parabolas,” for example, and “cascades of thundering snow / with giant fires on saucers the earth left hanging / from its last general orchestration.” There’s also a reference to:
.  .   .  the flute of leaves
tangled at the mutating crater I call my muse
That Lamantia calls his muse “the mutating crater” causes me to puzzle, and I cannot claim to know what precisely he means or is suggesting by the term.  Perhaps it’s a reference to some very deep place in the mind where what I’ll call the thoughts and words from the subconscious, similar to magma in a volcano,  rises up and forever changes he landscape of the conscious mind’s surface.  But maybe the term is automatistic and can’t be parsed.

The poem ends with a description of an exchange, perhaps between Lamantia and his muse, or maybe it’s between the poet and his readers, or – and this seems most likely – between the sleeping and waking, or waking and sleeping parts of Lamantia’s mind.  In any event, it’s an interaction shot through with the marvelous:                
what I give you with my eye of solitudinous matter
you return with your left hand of laughter
as it gathers ocular pitches
scattered by black needles
over the storm of wooden eggs
The term “ocular pitches” here charms and intrigues me.  The adjective “ocular,” denoting the visual, when combined with “pitches” -- if that noun is taken to mean a steeply-angled environment -- seems to suggest vertigo, or at least vision from acute perspectives.  I think of Dickinson and “tell it slant”or any mind when it looks at things from an unusual vantage point.  Maybe even how a mind sees things, the oddness that can be, as it wakes from sleep.   

I also like “Between Sleep and Waking” for three other reasons. First, it remind me of the poem “Awakened From Sleep” from Lamantia’s teen years.  It deserves a full reading but let me here quote four lines that, for me, reflect a beautiful embrace of the bliss that sometimes is the waking mind:
There is no rule here,
No seasons and no misery;
There are only our desires
Revealed in the mist.
Another reason I like “Between Sleep and Waking” is that Lamantia loved the permeable zone where the dreams and thoughts of sleep meet the more controlled thought in the waking mind.  I once had very long, very late night / early morning phone call with Philip.  After almost two hours, I laid down on my bed, and as Philip talked  I dozed off for a moment or three.  Waking up, I immediately told him what had happened and began to apologize.  Philip would have none of it, insisting that he wanted to know exactly what was in my mind just then!

The final reason I like this poem is because the zone between sleeping and waking is a very common human experience -- it happens
to everyone everyday.  As such, it may be the easiest way to explain the nature of the automatistic or quasi-automatistic zones that Lamantia valued when writing poetry.  

brain waves - awake and in sleep


The Romantic Movement

The five paragraph prose love poem “The Romantic Movement” (dedicated to Nancy Peters) was written on a ship while passing the Azores on an Atlantic crossing.  It was published in Becoming Visible (1981).  Sea-going details immediately grab the imagination:
The boat tilts on your image on the waves between a fire of foam and the flower of moon rays, these the flags of your dreaming lips.  I’m watching Venus on the ogred sky and a continent in cocoons.
Other images here similarly scintillate: “our eyes the dahlias of torrential ignition,” for example, or “the sempiternal spectrum of sundown at Segovia.”  The latter’s alliterative multi-syllabic rhythms vividly suggest what must have been a very stretched and synesthetic twilight sky.   The poem’s next-to-last paragraph is a complex and beautiful wish for the beloved.  It’s so beautiful, I repeat it here, and wish it for you:
The whisper of the inter-voice to wrap you in the mantle of marvelous power, with the secret protection of the forest that falls asleep in fire whose ores become transmined only for love—all your steps will lead to the inner sanctum none but you behold, your shadow putting on the body of metaphoric light. 
The final paragraph of “The Romantic Movement” is another Lamantia tour-de-force.  A single sentence of almost twenty clauses, it begins with the declaration, “The stone I have tossed into the air of chance shall come to you one great day,” and then proceeds to list all which that stone will “exfoliate” (throw off) for the beloved.   It may not seem particularly exciting but believe me, it is.  The stuff the stone sheds beguiles, even when (as it often is) esoteric or hermetic.  There are for example, “the carbuncle of delights,” “Chief Seattle’s lost medicine bag,” “a madrone forest to live inside of” and “the redolent eyes of first-born seers.”  May you receive such things from those you love. 

“The Romantic Movement” also celebrates poetry-in-life and life-as-poetry (“life is a poem someday to be lived”), and includes Lamantia’s evocation of the imagined rulers of the poetic imagination –
King Analogue
Queen Image
Prince Liberty . . .
These three lines were considered important enough that they were  quoted in the concluding paragraph of The New York Times obituary for Lamantia, published shortly after his death (click here to read).
the waves between a fire of foam and the flower of moon rays”


Redwood Highway

At about 250 lines, “Redwood Highway” is the longest lineated verse poem Lamantia ever published.  It opens Becoming Visible (1981), and with its mix of esoteric allusions, western locales, AmerIndian references, naturalistic observations and surrealistic imagery, it anticipates the poetic approach of Meadowlark West (1986).   

The poem is made up of six unnumbered sections, each of which contain between two and seven stanzas of various length.  The lines are unpunctuated, and often relate to each other not via grammar or logic but by poetic association.


There’s a real “Redwood Highway” in northern California (it’s the official name of Highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border).  However, Lamantia’s poem is not a travelogue set on that road.  In fact, the poem has only a few references to that found along the route – redwood trees and the Yurok people (Native Americans of the lower Klamath River region) are about it.
In fact, there are far more references in “Redwood Highway” to places and things far from the northern stretch of Highway 101.  These include mountains in Arizona, Walpi (the Hopi Village), Oregon caves, the Washo of Nevada and Cora of Mexico, Mount Shasta (inland Northern California) and the Wintun people, and locations in the Bay Area (Mount Diablo, Angel Island, and Coit Tower).  Plus there are references to historical figures such as Giordano Bruno and Charles Fourier.  As such, “Redwood Highway” seems to refer to where the poem took flight, or the mental space within which it occurs – a journey of discovery that has the sentinel majesty of the world’s tallest trees.  

The poem’s lexical energy arises from the visionary verve and swerves of Lamantia’s thought, including the various allusions (examples given above) and many unusual and thus very striking adjective-noun combinations.  These include phlogistic eye, murmuring minerals, furious salt, alembic sleeve, iron cloud, molten phallicular, antelope-necked tom-toms, sea-witch glamour, webfooted mirrors and quadratic foliage.

“Redwood Highway,” using the geographic places it mentions as well as its many allusions, explores and seeks knowledge.  For Lamantia, the land, and the traditions associated with it, are – to quote his line – “Dazzling with Mythos Rising.”  However, the poem is a kind of alchemical quest, and thus does not translate to rational prose.  It’s all opposed to “the gangrene of the world,” as the poem’s final line puts it.

Although it’s not typical of the poem, there’s a marvelous image, seemingly taken from an observation in nature, presented in the last three lines of a stanza near the end of the fifth section of “Redwood Highway.”  The context matters,  so here’s the stanza in its entirety:
Closed eyelids through the eternity behind us
This vast ring of the rising crystal
To swim into manta rays
Mentation of the vowel
To the sonatal leap
Hidden on the verge of the verbal jungle
A tarantula
Quaintly with a diffidence of speed
Retreats back into its hollow
I love how the final three lines reflect the ornate and seemingly timid deliberativeness of the spider’s movement.  The heart of it is  “Quaintly with a diffidence of speed” -- the words there amble across the page (and in the mind), similar to the how spider must have moved.   In addition, the multi-syllabic words in the final three lines –  “ta·ran·tu·la / Quaint·ly . . . dif·fi·dence . . . / Re·treats . . . hol·low” –  seem to connote the arachnid’s segmented appendages. 

It’s a cool image, neatly presented.  Plus, coming as it does after lines that explicitly involve the mind engaged in language, the retreating tarantula suggests how words or ideas sometimes just move away in the thinking mind.  
“A tarantula / Quaintly with a diffidence of speed / Retreats back into its hollow”

The Fulcrum Loaded
Published in Becoming Visible (1981), “The Fulcrum Loaded” is a potent poem of approximately 40 lines.  The title plainly implies a machine ready have energy or effort applied.  Of course, the energy to make this poem-machine work is supplied by you, the reader, by the act of reading.  Reading lifts Lamantia’s words to  imagination’s stratosphere, where logic may be scarce but surprise is abundant.  The sensation of accelerating lexical energy begins in the poem’s opening two lines: 
With the serenity of goats copulating in a volcano of street corners
Curves of thought turn over the silver avalanche dreamt from the ocean’s brain
Yow!  Now that’s a vigorous (and surreal) characterization of thought in the waking mind.  Notice too the three hard c’s at the end of the first line, and the one at the start of the second.  They create a cacophony that’s not at all serene, which of course is consistent with the impression given by metaphor itself (there is nothing serene about what the goats are doing, and where!).  Let me repeat: Yow!

There’s similarly energetic images in the poem’s other almost forty lines.  Excerpts are difficult, since the effects line-to-line are largely dependent on context and flow, but just for fun and edification, try this set of a half-dozen lines, which contain both trademark Lamantia imagery and a bit of very hopped-up avuncular advice (if your uncle was an automatist poet, that is!):
Black suns that rivet space
Immediate coherence in a waterfall of echoes
To stick out your zodiac of the earth on fire
Paranormal windmills gallop the skyway
Your head steaming the space between a fallout of engines and florid beaks


Poetics By Pluto 

Previously uncollected, “Poetics By Pluto” was written in the mid-1980s and published in 1986 in the print journal Exquisite Corpse.  It’s another poem in which Lamantia’s erudition plays a key role.  He alludes, to myths (kali-yuga, the Phoenix, Cernunnos, and Diana), well known persons, people, or places (Goethe, Isadora Duncan, the Coastanoan, San Juan Bautista, the Watts Towers, Walpi, and Altamira, for example), and the esoteric (Mother Shipton).  There are also references to various ornithological and astrological matters (“Pluto retrograde five degrees into Scorpio,” for example – a multi-year period that began in 1983 that was supposedly marked by intensity or strong emotions). 

“Poetics By Pluto,” like many by Lamantia, proceeds by its own desires as he seeks and finds through language.  However, the poem at its core is one of protest and warning.  It begins with the observation, perhaps made from a city apartment window, that a “dendrophobe just across the way just demolished nests / of finches sparrows other possible birds.”   Later, more global concerns are raised:
sudden death for a whole continent of forest here & everywhere
    sparrows strangled in midair with the last condors
situate Acid Rain and the Green House Effect
    plague-lined trees oil-slick birds
There’s little time left for geographic enclaves to form Aquarian islands
The poem also brings in – as suggested by the title – concerns about the purpose of poetry, and the role of the poet, with Lamantia remarkably direct about both.   He observes:
If (as Hegel proved) poetry is a rare assemblage
a Watts Tower transmuting junk
how over-quantified to vanishing the prosaic
This critique of “the proasaic” exists in tension with other lines in the poem in which Lamantia – albeit in the context of a poem that has a wide variety in it – seems to embrace and explain direct personal declarative statement:
How do I feel? rotten, misnamed ‘hysterical’ who calls freely for the Annulment of
      Nuclear Physics
as if technē were the issue and
not a cosmic catastrophe
[ . . .]

Now there’s mostly monolithic media noise
    on the inner cliff a shadowy figure who announces
the Admonition, again
but certainly some attempt at statement, flying wild to the polis, is proportional to
      our destruction as a species
When does the winged bridge appear on this terrified earth?
I love the idea and images here: the poet as a shadowy figure on the inner cliff whose attempt at a message (the poem) is “flying wild to the polis.”  Here, poetry “flying wild” seems perfect: words fierce and free winging their way to the places where we live. 

 Native Medicine

The second poem in Meadowlark West (1986), “Native Medicine” is an excellent example of the dense, erudite, sometimes hermetically allusive and  fragmentary approach of the work in that book.  It’s compelling poetry, but difficult to write about or comprehensively explicate (it’s a poem, after all!).  It begins:

Forty years ago I was born from a crumpled tower of immaculates that twist like
    the fleeting damaged bridge torrential rain on a road nearing Chehalis
                                love driving through her native land the beauty of all I’ve
    received from her

These opening four lines present a series of interesting challenges, the first being what is meant by “[f]orty years ago I was born . . . .”  Since the poem was written in the early 1980s when Lamantia was about 55 years old, “[f]orty years ago I was born” cannot refer to his actual birth in 1927.  The math instead suggests Lamantia’s referring to something that happened when he was 15, and so I’ve always thought it refers to the event (discussed in my general introduction above) when while within a grove of trees on a mountaintop he heard the call to poetry.  

Even if that’s right, the phrase “born from a crumpled tower of immaculates that twist . . .” is difficult to parse.  I’ve not at all certain of this explication, but feel that “immaculates” – a noun formed from an adjective – suggests the purity of the poetic message heard; with “crumpled” and “twist” suggesting the complications of it all, or perhaps the shape of the trees where the call was heard.  

That the “crumpled tower of immaculates that twist” is then, via simile – a somewhat rare device for Lamantia – tied to seemingly more contemporaneous observations (“the fleeting damaged bridge torrential rain on a road nearing Chehalis” (a small city located about half-way between Portland and Seattle) complicates it all even more.  That said, the import of the opening’s final two lines – “love driving through her native land the beauty of all I’ve / received from her” – seems clear, underscoring the vitalness of the land and its traditions to Lamantia.  

The poem includes references to AmerIndian lore and related matters, including Lamantia’s all-night experiences with “the Washo peyotlists” which clearly remained important to him (“none shall ever steal from me our sixty eyes to the smoke hole at the Tipi flue”).

There is also, later in the poem:
the slash of cosmic jokery
which seems to me a fairly perfect encapsulation of the sometimes sharp absurdities of our worldly existence.  There’s also “corpses of the doomed sciences,” “human misery,” and “Serpent of suffering,” all of which effectively convey the pain of that sometimes challenges our lives, against which, as a kind of antidote, Lamantia puts forth “Native Medicine.”  The poet’s values are made clear in his declaration, near poem’s end, “Ancient ones only you shall see us through.



“There” is a beautiful eighteen line poem from Meadowlark West that conveys and celebrates a particular ecstatic, visionary and, for Lamantia, ever-inspiring experience in the natural world.  The poem begins with lines that recall the dramatic moment:
on that chain of Ohlone mountains
shafts of light on a bobcat
through the thick madrones
first seen emblems that cupped my nine years
the great booming voice of nature
in the red bark’s sloping labyrinth
who called my name
“Ohlone,” as you may know, is the term for the native (American Indian) peoples of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas, so the “mountains” here could be any number of coastal hills.   The totemic quality given to the bobcat and madrones (“emblems”) is classic Lamantia, as is his hearing the voice of nature (see “[In a grove],” above).  Also classic is the fervency the experience  continues to have for Lamantia, and its connection to poetic fire:
these lights never die whose embers glow wilder
than wilderness at the beginning of words
to catch the ring of stars
The phrase “wilder / than wilderness” – how luxuriously feral! – always gets me.  

In the poem’s final six lines,
Lamantia seems to describe where his poetry is generated and a bit of what he experiences or finds there.  By the end, when he speaks of -- 
elastic time in the gape of memory
visionary recitals in the exultant spring oblivious to the sea 
-- the intensity of Lamantia’s poetic reverie-thought is strongly felt.   
“through the thick madrones” [ . . . ] “in the red bark’s sloping labyrinth”


“Shasta great Shasta / Lemurian dream island . . .”

The final poem in Meadowlark West, “Shasta” is a one and one-half page, eleven paragraph prose poem.  It also contains a few lines of verse.  The poetry here may not be entirely automatistic, but there is lots of that. “Against the current words came looking for me,” the poem begins, and in part Lamantia is putting down the language that arrived – it’s a wild poem, unpredictable sentence-to-sentence and sometimes word-to-word.

“Shasta” for me is an exploration that spins around the idea of  Northern California’s Mount Shasta as the center or namesake of a new land.  Because of its relative isolation and dramatic rise (almost 10,000 feet) from the surrounding terrain, Mt. Shasta is not only considered especially majestic and beautiful by many, but also looks like it stands apart.  The poem is marked by Lamantia’s erudition and hermeticism, contains language suggesting both crises and triumphs, and is strongly visionary and prophetic. 

Lamantia’s prose in “Shasta” can stun.  Luxuriate, for example, in these sentences, which close the poem’s fourth and begin its fifth paragraphs, respectively: “The languorous green dew strokes the burning red beam.  The succulent pine resin writes kaleidoscopes between seasons.  [¶]  The roads are closed by fire.  The roads end, darken.  Omens thicken, the psychic pain of being born.  Only the blue vapor endures like sidereal weaving at the black seed, decay in the waters of the equestrian sea.”

Your humble blogger says go read this poem!



Previously unpublished, “Recall” is a part of the last section of The Collected Lamantia, which contains work from 1998-2001.  The poem is relatively short, with relatively short lines, and is thus mostly different than most of the other late-life poems.  It also does not have the same kind of freewheeling frenzy that marks many other Lamantia poems.  

That said, “Recall” does give off a heady energy.  You who have read this post this far deserve, I think, Lamantia’s poem in its entirety:

Fog be-numbed and stoned
on a cul-de-sac corner
enveloped by grey moist density
to myself invisible
on that edge of
poised trance, hour 
lasting a lifetime
caught again as
arrowed gift from
the next moment: those moving
points of ductile thought.
This poem beautifully gets at he workings of the mind as time and ideas come and go.  That its eleven lines contain but a single complex sentence suggests the density of thought, and overall the poem shows, I feel, the particular intensity and visionary or mystical quality of Lamantia’s mind, particularly when -- if this makes sense -- thought is on the verge of its veer.  

“Fog be-numbed and stoned
[ . . .]
on that edge of / poised trance . . .”




Steven Fama said...

If you want to write direct, please use:
stevenfama AT comcast DOT net

metaphor messiah said...

thank you Steve for this inclusive and Marvelous survey ... I have reposted in various places ... Matt Hill

Unknown said...

Wow, Steve. Greatly moved by this work (yours and PL's), and by your efforts to illuminate and celebrate the poetry of your friend. Excelsior!

Tim White said...

Thanks Steven for maintaining this wonderful memorial of PL and his work. Your insights and comments are appreciated.