Come gather ‘round poetry lovers, wherever you may be, and let’s celebrate
– and cerebrate –
Philip Lamantia Day!
Yes, it’s here again – the anniversary of the birth (October 23, 1927) of the great, late (he died at 77 a decade ago now, oh my oh my) native San Franciscan poet.
I think of Philip a lot this time of year, and not just because of his birthday. Lamantia also always comes to mind when – as has happened most every October for decades – the US Navy planes known as the Blue Angels do their screaming-loud practice flights for two days then choreographed air show for another two days above San Francisco. The jets are heard, seen, and felt across much of The City. Huge appreciative crowds gather to watch along the waterfront and at other view spots. The majority, maybe the vast majority, consider it a spectacular event.
Lamantia, on the other hand, considered the Blue Angels beyond terrible. His anti-militarist (and related pro-human) perspectives on this were one of the many, many things I loved about him. And equally fine, his antipathy for the annual event provided the spur for a memorable poem, titled “Death Jets,” first published in Zyzzyva magazine in Winter 1985, then included in Meadowlark West (City Lights, 1986). It’s also included in The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press, 2013).
“Death Jets” features a very-unusual-for-Lamantia structure, in which a prose-ish explanatory interlude, labeled a “commentary,” appears after the poem’s first four lines. That commentary features – and this will be the focus of this celebration today – a most surprising and delicious allusion, especially to us who love verse, to the 15th century Valencian poet named – well, more on that in a moment! First, take a look if you please at the poem’s first four lines:
three of them have terrorized my apollo finger
of human existence
for the umpteenth time, sans life
I dig dig dig this opening salvo, starting with the phrase “apollo finger.” It’s a term from palmistry that refers to the third or ring finger, said to indicate creativity, artistic flair and love of beauty. By this metaphor, Lamantia neatly shows that it’s no less than the poetic force itself that the jets attack. And the verb “terrorized” is exactly right, or so it seems to me as I recall the sudden core-rattling Shock-Shock (yes, I feel a double-startle) of the Blue Angels blasting through low in the sky, shaking windows, spines, and minds. Lamantia’s disgust at the jets couldn’t be clearer – “most hideous / of human existence” – nor could his core objection to it all – “sans life” – and exasperation at how long it goes on – “for the umpteenth time” (a neat use there of the informal adjective signifying “an indefinitely large number in succession”).
These first four lines show and tell a lot. But Lamantia obviously wanted something even sharper and clearer, and why not? As William Blake wrote, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” And so to emphasize, explicate, and expand his perspectives, Lamantia places the following prose-y section, sub-titled “commentary,” after the poem’s opening stanza:
These lines respond to the omnipresent threat of species suicide, to an ‘eternal' moment of decision, since it is certain that the sentence of death is passed unless there arise a conscious revolt against the forces of death — a mutational movement in opposition to all the moribund political powers who continue to sanction ‘Blue Angels,' whereas, thrills vaster than the poetry of Ausias March await us if, by the next century, Betelgeuse
pervades the skyscapes a sudden sensuous freedom to sweetly ask for chi'i in all moments
I dig dig dig this section too. I love the radical, visionary zeal, buttressed by a deep animus to “the forces of death.” I love too the resolute certainty in a future “sudden sensuous freedom to sweetly ask for chi’i in all moments” if – ah, yes, if – “a conscious revolt” and/or “a mutational movement” takes place. Also remarkable is the powerful almost cinematic nature of Lamantia’s imagined world: the red supergiant Betelgeuse (notice how that star is emphasized via the linebreak and repetition) omnipresent across “skyscapes” as us humans seek the essential life force and energy flow. Hey good people, let’s make it happen!
But what I really, really like in this mostly-prose interlude is the surprising way Lamantia conveys the fun and adventure in the world he imagines, specifically by asserting:
“thrills vaster than the poetry of Ausias March await us . . . .”
“Thrills vaster than the poetry of Ausias March”? How about that?! Ausias March!
Call me sheltered, but when I first read that line I had no idea who March was (his portrait is reproduced above) and knew nothing of his poetry. The esoteric nature of this particular allusion is not all unusual for Lamantia, particularly in the poems of Meadowlark West. He can make readers work in that regard. But despite my not getting the reference, Lamantia’s high regard and enthusiasm for March’s poetry came through clearly.
Naturally, the line sparked my curiosity. I love checking out allusions made and other things mentioned by Lamantia, and have almost always found something that was most definitely worth finding (click here my essay on a few other things I was led to by Philip). Here, I soon enough found Ausias March: Selected Poems (Edinburgh University Press, 1976), a bilingual edition presenting prose translations by Arthur Terry of approximately 30 poems en face with the original Valencian Catalan.
The 1976 Terry translation was the only edition of Ausias March poetry available in English at the time Lamantia wrote “Death Jets.” Subsequent translations were published in 1986 (in Spain) and here in the U.S. in 1992 and 2006; the latter publication features verse translations by Robert Archer. I don’t know whether Lamantia read the 1976 edition, or read the poems in a Spanish translation, in which case the full range of March’s work, a total of 128 poems, would have been known to him.
March’s poems, written mostly in the first half of the 15th century (he died in 1459), are at points similar to the earlier medieval Troubadour work. There are many poems chiefly about love, addressed to particular women as in the Troubadour tradition (March had two loves, whom he called, respectively, “Llir entre cards” and “Plena de seny” which have been translated as “Lily among thorns” and “Wise Lady” or “Beauteous Wisdom”). There are also poems on grief and death, poems of praise and blame, and poems on philosophical concerns including the nature of God and predestination.
Given the topics March assays you might conclude that the poetry would be predictable, or too Troubadour-ian. Not so. The work is complex and, nuanced, with plenty of interesting, exciting, and powerful lines and moments. In fact, it’s not hard to guess what Philip found “thrill[ing]” in March’s verse, in that there is plenty enough in the work that is similar to what’s found in Lamantia’s own poems.
The main thrill in March’s poems, as I read them, is the palpable personality that comes through in them all. March has an active mind, is a deep thinker, and many aspects of his mental and emotional life are memorably rendered. For example, there is his acute sense of difference or alienation from the world and sometimes from his very self times – traits that seem not-so-medieval, to say the least:
I think Lamantia’s poetry at points expresses similar traits. Consider, for example, this expression of separation from the world found in “A Winter Day,” published in Lamantia’s first book Erotic Poems (1946):En altre món a mi par que io sia
I els propis fets estranys a mi aparen . . .
I seem to live in another world
and my own actions seem strange to me . . .
[Unless otherwise noted, this and the other translations below are adapted from those published in 1976 by Arthur Terry]
or this depiction of a episode of self-splitting most strange, found near the start of the first of two poems titled “Visions” (written circa 1960, published in The Collected Poems (2013)):It is a strange moment
as we tear ourselves apart in the silence
of this landscape
of this whole world
that seems to go beyond its own existence
+++I remember the time I was thrown down my soul severed from my body hanging as if by a string – one to the other and I was taken up above myself left sweating and weeping, old earth body nothing but shit and there in the High Paradise lost or not I don’t know . . .
Another aspect of Ausias March that comes through in his verse is a profound sense of melancholy and sadness. While it may seem odd to consider such a matter a “thrill,” the way the poet shows these feelings does give quite a charge. March can be so explicit or poetic that it almost causes one to stagger or recoil. For example, there is:
and. . . l’hora sent acostada
que civilment és ma vida finda
. . . I feel the hour is approaching
when my life among other men will end
andCell Teixion qui el buitre el meja el fetge
e per tots temps brota la carn de nou . . .
I am besieged by a suffering greater than
that of Tityos, whose liver is devoured by a vulture . . .
Similar expressions of suffering and depression can also be found in Lamantia’s work. The biographical introduction to The Collected Poems makes clear that Lamantia experienced repeated periods of clinical depression (and mania). Not surprisingly, the word “pain” frequently appears in the poems. There is, for example, the linePlagués a Déu que mon pensar fos mort
e que passà ma vida en dorment.
If only God would paralyze my brain
so I could spend a lifetime lost in sleep!
[Translation by Robert Archer]
in “Subconscious Mexico City New York” from Destroyed Works (1962). The following lines, from the Meadowlark West (1986) poem “Isn’t Poetry the Dream of Weapons?” offer a more expansive expression, and are especially poignant given that the suffering is juxtaposed with what might be considered the highest goals of of Lamantia’s work:I am always walking in pain
The opening stanza of Lamantia’s “Vibrations,” from Becoming Visible (1981), is especially vivid in its depiction of a world and self wracked with suffering, and as such seems similar to March’s lines, quoted above, regarding the giant Tityos’s liver being “devoured by vultures”:Between the ecstasy and the secret
I’ve touched bottom I want to be lost
the glow is bathing me in pain
The final example of an expression of suffering and depression in Lamantia is from “Touch of the Marvelous,” one of his earliest and best known poems (first published by Andre Breton in the magazine VVV in February 1944 and first collected in Erotic Poems (1946)), in which he declares:There is a wind torturing bats
there are the scorched feet of dead suns
the city spun into the sea
where the gulfs of the pterodactyl beckon
there is a whorl of terror livening my mind
there’s the hum-whirr of the skeleton of solitude
where angry corpses flower in a bottle
and red weapons vanish into mirrors
+++I am now falling into the goblet of suicide . . .
There are plenty of other thrills in March, including most notably vigorous extended similes of a kind that don’t appear in Lamantia’s poetry. But surely Lamantia, who in the Meadowlark West (1986) poem “Invincible Birth” referred to
would have found a thrilling connection with March’s linesmy frenzy mantic mania
In addition, Lamantia surely would have thrilled when he came to a a March image (albeit uncommon in the work) with a surrealistic quality, such as in these lines:Illja mos dits, mostrants pensa torbada . . .
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ] d’hom fora seny
just read my poems, full of frenzied thoughts,
a madman’s ravings . . .
[translation by Archer]
Menys que lo peix és en lo bosc trobat
e los lleons dins l’aguia han llur sojorn,
la mia mor per null temps pendrà torn . . .
Sooner say that fish are swimming in the wood
or that lions now across the oceans roam
than that my love can ever start to wane . . .
Another enchanting element in March, and the final one I’ll point to here, again concerns the clear sense of the poet that one gets from reading the poems. I mentioned this above, and I must insist that the tippy-top moment for this comes in the concluding two lines of the next-to-last stanza of the final poem in the Edinburgh Press edition, in which the poet exclaims:
Now that’s a kick! Let me tell you: when I read those lines, with their rousing embodiment and declaration of self, and I leap to my feat and exclaim, “Yes, yes you are, Ausias March, goddamn yes, you are!”A temps he cor d’acer, de car e fust.
Io só aquest que em dic Ausias March!
I have a heart of steel, flesh and wood, all in one.
I am this man who is called Ausias March!
I’ll also guess here that Philip may have dug those lines in a similar way. After all, in a way at least arguably akin to March’s line that his heart is made “of steel, flesh and wood, all in one,” Lamantia in the poem “I Touch You,” first published in The Blood of the Air (1970), wrote:
He also wrote, in the beat-era poem “Immediate Life” –my heart of the rose hermetic and flushed by goats sighting prey . . .
– which are the only lines in his poetry in which his full name appears, and which embody and confidently declare self-identity in a similar to when March name checks himself.My name is Philip Lamantia
And I go around with whoever
Which means all kinds of weir persons I like . . .
There are also many “I am . . .” lines in Lamantia’s work that sort of mirror the excitement of March’s “I am the man who is called . . .” declaration. Consider, if you please, the self-assurance and beautifully expansive self-identity within Lamantia’s statement in “Kosmos” (written circa 1960, available only in The Collected Poems (2013):
and the following gorgeous and genuinely surreal aggregation of self-declared personality traits, from “The Marco Polo Zone” in Meadowlark West (1986):I am the womb of the transcendent Vision!
Now that’s a kick! Let me tell you: when I read that line, with its rousing embodiment and declaration of self, and I leap to my feat and exclaim, “Yes, yes you are, Philip Lamantia, goddamn yes, you are!”I am lore bundled of crow dew finger of pine eaglet bone of my bone soaring thought
Following the prose-ish second section with its reference to Ausias March, Lamantia’s “Death Jets” continues for another approximately 30 lines. The poem quickly becomes difficult, even beyond difficult, with the mostly discursive reasoning and straight-ahead grammar of the prose commentary giving way to associational leaps and fragments of thought, with allusions to Lemuria, the Heraclitean wind, Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, and ancient Pomo fetishes, among other things, as well as truly occult references such as “the Stage Magician” and “‘the Idea’” (single quotation marks in the original). The final lines have multiple references to Anarchy and Anarchs and invoke shiva and shakti.
Curious? Well – how about this! – you can read “Death Jets” in its entirety by clicking right here. Better still, open the poem at that link and then open another browser window and follow along as you listen to Philip himself read the poem, from a 1986 recording, via the miraculous PennSound site (click and go; it’s the first 2:25 of the audio track).
And, of course, have yourself a
Philip Lamantia Day