Friday, October 23, 2020

Philip Lamantia Day -- 2020

Gather ‘round people, a shelterin’-in-place (or not), as today’s the 93rd anniversary of the birth – on October 23, 1927, in a home on Sanchez Street, San Francisco – of Philip Lamantia.

1917 Sanchez Street, San Francisco: “On October 23, 1927, a midwife delivered 
Philip Lamantia in the garret of this two-story wood-frame house.”  
Don Herron, The Literary World of San Francisco & its Environs (City Lights, 1990), at 141.

So Yes! and Hey Now!, Let’s Celebrate, and Cerebrate!  How about we read, and think a bit about, one of his many fine poems?  Here we go:

After the Virus

Am I happy? Were I happy!
Zoos of happiness converge
on horrors which is a wide paw
of who calls first from
the lip’s underscore
Happiness not a constant state
The field of man’s gore
makes bones shine further
to the suicide machine
We make the sacrifice tree grow
for its necessary leavens
burnished with an ecstatic smile
of pain — the oscillations escalate —
not a moment of happiness but
contradicted by the black undertow
What, then, is coming to be
from undergrounds too fast
in their bright plumages
flailing our brains
with the gash of birth?
Something storing mercurial islets
and fungi of being . . .
and sold for altars
pitched to the stars!

“After the Virus” – a title that for obvious reasons caught my attention while re-re-re-re-re-etc-reading Lamantia during the present pandemic – was first published in the “Secret Freedom” section of Selected Poems (City Lights, 1967), along with fourteen other previously uncollected and mostly unpublished poems, all written, per the book’s Table of Contents, between 1963 and 1966.  

All this work, of course, is also available in The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press, 2013).

There’s a winning verve and singular (if I may say it like this) unusual-ness to all work in “Secret Freedom.”  With regard to its unusual-ness, one of the poems is titled “What Is Not Strange?” while another has an one word exclamatory title – “Gork!” – followed by, count-‘em, an eighty-five word sub-title.  As to ardent enthusiasm
– remember here William Blake’s “Exuberance is beauty”  –  consider the fervent way-out optimism of the inspiriting declaration in “She Speaks the Morning’s Filigree”: We can play host to the marvelous / and have it burn us to the salt of memory / where an invisible stone contracts all thought / to draw out our words / that shall crackle your sleep / to wake us up beyond the Pleiades”.

Also, a fresh mid-1960s wind invigorates the “Secret Freedom” poems.  Tellingly, one of them, “Astro-Mancy,” first appeared in a 1967 issue of the quintessential hippie-era newspaper, The San Francisco Oracle.  In that poem, Lamantia, quite in tune with those heady times (or did he play the music to which others then sang?), foretells “essential changes”  including The Realm Apart (italics in original) where among other things “poetry [is] the central fact.”  There are also plenty of esoteric allusions, some of which  t can challenge, including because they are in part imagined, such as the reference to “the Giant Chairs of Tartesos” which I take (this largely a guess) alludes to Tartessian BCE thrones, which, so far as I can learn, have not survived but are known to have been supported by two foot tall bronze sculptures of winged felines

Finally, and probably most important, Lamantia during this period returned to his surrealist roots, so there’s an authentic automatism in the poems.  Parts of “After the Virus” show this, I think.

As I read it, “After the Virus” concerns the emotional and  physical state, as well as the psychic mindset, just after an illness or perhaps while still sick but trending towards recovery.  The nature of the illness is not specified – see conjecture below – but the poem’s opening question – “Am I happy?” with its almost rueful self-answer “Were I happy!” clearly indicates that Lamantia – the presumed speaker here – is not 100 percent well, to say the least, although that the response comes with a mark of exclamation suggests there’s some energy there as well.

The memorable lines that follow suggest more specifically what’s going on: “Zoos of happiness converge / on horrors which is a wide paw / of who calls first from / the lip’s underscore”.  The words connote a state that’s wild, varied, penned-in as well as frightening, nightmarish, frantic, immediate, and well-entrenched or emphatic.  It’s quite an image, or series of them.

There then follows a broader philosophical suggestion –  “Happiness not a constant state” – which is given a stunning visceral twist by the lines:

The field of man’s gore
makes bones shine further
to the suicide machine

Lamantia’s suggestion that happiness is not always with us, especially when coupled with  images that suggest blood, skeletons, mechanized self-harm and death–, reminds me of the  scene in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, in which the title character envies life in Europe but is counseled by his guide, Imlac, that “[t]he Europeans . . . are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”  

The poem doesn’t go as far as Imlac’s pronouncement; Lamantia seems to suggest not that sorrow almost totally predominates, but that joy and sorrow co-exist, are ever-present companions, always in tension.  In this regard, the poem a  few lines later, references “. . . an ecstatic smile / of pain . . .” (does Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa come to mind?) –

– and then, a few further lines down, directly declares, “not a moment of happiness but / contradicted by the black undertow”.

The repeated, emphatic insistence that “horrors,” “pain,” and “the black undertow” co-exist with happiness or ecstasy may well reflect that Lamantia, to borrow the words in “High Poet,” the magnificent introductory essay to The Collected Poems, “struggled with a lifelong manic-depressive condition” marked by periodic “intense manic episodes” and “cycles of depression.”   This mental health condition is reflected in many of Lamantia’s poems, and he occasionally explicitly references it.   In “Invincible Birth,” for example, published in Meadowlark West (1986), he speaks of “my frenzy mantic mania,” and the late 1980s “No Closure” includes, “[f]or I have, as the poet Cowper, known 3 cycles of  “depression” cursed by my own line /  “. . . fallen into the goblet of suicide . . . ”.

Given all this, perhaps the “Virus” in “After the Virus” is not a submicroscopic infectious agent, but shorthand for the manic-depression which plagued Lamantia.  It seems quite possible.  It’s also possible, I suppose, that the  “virus” of in the poem is something that infects society at large.  Lamantia never held back his strong views of the ills of the world; other “Secret Freedom” poems, for instance, indict the “monster metal cities / and their billion, bullioned wheels of chemical death” (“Voice of Earth Mediums”) and declare that “[t]he old civilization / that rolled the dice of Hitler / is surely bumbling / into a heap of catatonic hysteria” (“Astro-Mancy”).  

But perhaps in addition to the personal and global, an actual viral illness was involved here too – or solely so.  Ah, I wish I could ask Philip, but alas, he’s now gone – this seems impossible – 15 years.  

The powerful exploration of the relationship of happiness and pain in the poem’s first fifteen lines is followed by nine concluding lines in which Lamantia, as I read it, prophesizes what’s to come from where he’s at, a state in which “oscillations escalate.”  This prophecy is told in a question-and-answer format:

What, then, is coming to be
from undergrounds too fast
in their bright plumages
flailing our brains
with the gash of birth?
Something storing mercurial islets
and fungi of being . . .
and sold for altars
pitched to the stars!

That is one far-out Socratic dialogue, or perhaps better said, one very deep or may I suggest one very high and surreal catechism.  In the end, what Lamantia asks and answers – what he sees – is probably one of those matters for which “[e]xplanations are neither necessary, desirable, or possible,” to borrow the words written by the early 20th Century California poet and weird tales author Clark Ashton Smith, whose work Lamantia knew and liked, see Preserving Fire: Selected Prose (Wave Books, 2018) at 127.  

While a definitive explication here is beyond the reach of reason (and hurrah! for that), the combination of images beguiles and intrigues.  To say it another way,
the “Something” that is “coming to be” – with its suddenly and unpredictably changing small islands (or does “islets” refer to biologic cells?) and ’shrooms of existence, which then are sold as a  ritual furnishing aimed at the titans of the universe (and remember, Lamantia was a star-lover of, er um, stellar dimensions) enchants.

I say, let Lamantia’s “Something” come to be!

The last four lines of
“After the Virus” are a particularly formidable  reverie-generator, and as such you and I – us readers – create in a way similar to Lamantia when he wrote it.  The images also remind, to quote Gaston Bachelard, that “great poets teach us to dream.  They nourish us with images with which we can concentrate our reveries of repose.  They present us with their psychotropic images by which we animate our awakened oneirism.”  The Poetics of Reverie (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) at 158.  

Happy Birth-Anniversary, teacher, nourisher, and animator, Philip Lamantia!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Harry Crosby Day!

Yes, today’s the anniversary of Harry Crosby’s birth (June 4, 1898).  He’d be 122.  He died in 1929, age 31, alas (and alas) by his own hand in a double-suicide or murder/suicide (the other person was his  lover).  And a further alas can be voiced as well, I think, in that these deaths were consistent with Crosby’s deadly serious desire to die on his own terms, an impulse (read: obsession) that surely stemmed in part from (alas yet again) a near-death experience while driving an ambulance on a World War I battlefield.  

Nevertheless, despite the shocking and grievous circumstances of his death, much of what Crosby did while alive can deeply inspire.  He was, to use Philip Lamantia’s riveting assessment, “a true dandy of explosively Promethean desire,” who “left in Mad Queen [1928] and elsewhere, signs of a ‘Sadean’ magnanimity in the realms of mad love . . . .”   In addition to his poetry – more on that below –  there’s his remarkable diary of the 1920s, Shadows of the Sun.  He also had world-class reading habits, a high-motor autodidact drive, independent and often enduringly correct critical judgments, a top-flight work hard / party hard ethos, an adventurous spirit, and the desire and ability, greatly helped by his wife Caresse, to publish beautiful books by stellar writers at the Black Sun Press.

And oh yes there’s above all his hyper-focus on and worship of the Sun.  I’ve put up a commemorative post on Crosby’s birthday the last few years, and the tradition now continues for (natch) another slightly oval trip ‘round our nearest Star. 

Without a doubt, the big Big BIG Harry Crosby news in the last year was the September 2019 Quale Press publication of Seeing With Eyes Closed, which collects all of Crosby’s previously published prose poems.  Per Quale, Crosby was “the first poet writing in English to produce a significant body of work in prose poetry” and the first poet to strongly show the surrealist influence on American poetry.  I think those things are true, and that this collection is a great grand opportunity for adventure.

It’s also a great grand opportunity to get the poetry for relatively little cost.  While some have been re-printed over the years in anthologies or two collections of Crosby’s work (one published almost four decades ago and now scarce, the other, more recent, poorly done), much of the poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed has been available only as originally published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, either in a few issues of transition magazine, or in several of the Black Sun Press collections of his work: Chariot of the Sun, Mad Queen, Sleeping Together, Aphrodite in Flight, and Torchbearer.  Those fine well-made limited editions are highly valued by collectors.  It would likely cost upwards of $5,000 to get them.  Gulp.

Not only that, one of the books – Aphrodite in Flight, a collection of 75 very short comparisons of   romance and airplane flying (“observations on the aerodynamics of love” is how the sub-title neatly puts it) – is essentially unobtainable.  Black Sun Press published only 27 copies of the book, all hors commerceAt least 13 of those are in libraries (and rare book rooms at that).  The nearest of those to me in San Francisco is almost 1,000 miles away, in the McDermott Library at the (yes, believe it) U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

As such, the 200 plus pages of poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed – which retails for $19 – seems an extraordinary poetry-bonanza bargain, even in our current exceedingly difficult times.

The book includes the Crosby prose-poems that adoring moi has previously highlighted here in the glade (click poem titles and scroll down to see): “Stud-Book,” “Sun Testament” and “Telephone Directory,” all from Mad Queen, as well as  the marvelous declaration of lexical adventure “The New Word” and “Empty Bed Blues,” no doubt inspired by the great Bessie Smith song of the same name, plus of course indeed most certainly yes the wonderful “Madman” aka “The Sun,” modeled after the equally wondrous answer to the question “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” in Episode 17 of  James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Seeing With Eyes Closed is also neatly designed.  The typeface looks very much like that used in the Black Sun Press original publications, and it’s a very cool look, sharp and alluring, redolent of the roaring ex-pat Paris of almost a century ago.  Combine that with generous margins – no text falling into or crawling out of the gutters here – and starting each poem on its own page and voila! it’s a remarkably elegant and strong publication, showing what print-on-demand can do when done right.   The only mis-step is the printing of “The New Word” without an extra space between the paragraphs, as originally published.  The editors acknowledge the emendation, and it appears to have been done so the poem could fit on a single page.  If so, I’d have voted for using a larger page size, since . . . well, just look how gorgeous  and powerful the poem’s prose-stanzas are when each has a bit of space to shine (this from transition, June 1929):

How about two more poems, to entice you to buy and read the others in Seeing With Eyes Closed, and to allow me to write a bit about Crosby’s craft?  I love “Seesaw,” one of about five dozen dream poems from the endearingly titled Sleeping Together (and yes, my slightly angled photo here is purposeful!):

What do I love in “Seesaw”?  The primacy of child-play, that font of fecund creative energy: plus, to borrow from J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (English translation, 1950), the charm of its temporary abolition of the ordinary world’s laws and customs.  The fantastic enlargement of the play, scaled such that the participants reach the cosmos.  The Winsor McCay Slumberland-like interrupting of the dream by the ringing of the phone.  And the convincing pulled-from-the-hypnopompic logic with which the poem ends.  A dream true indeed.

Completely different is “Collision,” from Torchbearer:

This is no dream.  It’s a 37-word maxim-poem, I do believe, one in which Crosby declares, teaches and ultimately challenges the reader.  He uses analogy to illustrate the anagogic: Dust in the Sun = Thoughts in the Mind.  I love the focus on the noetic and the possibility of marvelous chance encounters, the latter expressed via an allusion – “orchestral magnificence” that directly suggests the complex musical splendor of poetry.  Then there’s the last phrase, a challenge that brings the poem to life.  That phrase – “he who has ears to hear let him hear” – also corresponds with Andre Breton’s often made point, perhaps most directly stated in the 1946 essay Golden Silence, that “Great poets have been ‘auditories’ not ‘visionaries’.”

Seeing With Eyes Closed also includes fantastically assiduous notes on a number of the poems and three essays – a foreword and two afterwords – that discuss or explicate various matter related to Crosby and his work.  The essays are fine, with the exception of the foreword’s baffling naming of someone other than Philip Lamantia as the “best practitioner” of American Surrealist poetry.  But that’s a minor quibble, and ultimately the editorial material, even when excellent, is beside the point. Crosby’s poetry is the (Sun is a) Star here.

So, yes, and especially today, the anniversary of his birth, Bravo Harry Crosby!  And Bravo Quale Press, for Seeing With Eyes Closed.