Friday, March 23, 2007

Ed Dorn at the End

A couple of days ago Ron Silliman posted a review of a new selection of Ed Dorn's poetry, Way More West, just issued by Penguin. I haven't seen the book yet, but have to wonder if it included any of the work after Abhorrences, or if Ron skipped that section of it, given his comments. To wit:
So what we get, finally, is a rather sad case – of all the New Americans, Dorn’s later poems rank up there with Diane DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters as the silliest when it comes to their actual political thinking. And like Pound’s politics, it undercuts the poetry, even more so because Dorn has sacrificed so much of his poetics for this muddle of pissed-off agitprop.
Among the wreckage of all that [presumably the "aesthetic reign", as Ron puts it, of the New American poets, in the wake of the Beatles, drugs, and Vietnam], there is no more tragic tale than that of Edward Dorn, who got political only to be revealed as incoherent. Way More West is an important book, precisely because it is such a sad & ultimately disappointing one.
Surely this overlooks the major work published in the last collection Dorn assembled, 1997's High West Rendezvous. The sections from Westward Haut and Languedoc Variorum included there are anything but "pissed-off agitprop", certainly not "flat", and the former, a dialogue between two four-legged citizens of the canine clan, marks a return to the high humor of Gunslinger, albeit with a darker (and sharper) satirical edge.

It's not that Ed Dorn wasn't difficult; he was a deliberate contrarian par excellence. There's much evidence that he was, in fact, as ornery a critter as we've had in American poetry since Ezra Pound himself checked out. I remember a mid-nineties conversation with Dorn's longtime friend and fellow Black Mountain College survivor Robert Creeley, in which Creeley said essentially, and dismissively, that Dorn just enjoyed saying whatever he felt like, to see what reaction he might stir up.

I, too, was disappointed in Abhorrences; it seemed to me then a book focussed on trivial concerns and crotchety pet peeves. But the man still had his chops, and the work of the mid to late nineties confirms that he was anything but a burnt-out coke-head at the end of his career, whatever the legend.

Originally published as a comment over at Silliman's Blog. Ron stirred several folks up with his post, and you'll find some other meaty comments there; well worth a look.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Laura Hope-Gill: A Selection of Poems

Each month since becoming poetry editor of Rapid River I've featured the work of a poet who seemed to me to merit wider attention. For February, I selected Laura Hope-Gill - not because she's one of my co-hosts for WordPlay (though happily she is), but because she'd shared some work that I found intelligent, passionate, compassionate - and even, sometimes, hilariously funny. Limited as we were to the space of a single page, not all of it made it into the magazine; I include here both those poems that did see print, and those, as well, that just wouldn't fit.

A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, Laura now teaches English and directs plays at Christ School. Her poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in Cincinatti Review, Fugue, Fox Cry Review, Madison Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Phantasmagoria, The Rambler, Cairn, and Xavier Review, among others. As I mentioned, she co-hosts WPVM's Wordplay with Sebastian Matthews, Glenis Redmond, and myself, and is the Director of Wordfest 2008 Asheville, an upcoming poetry festival. Her blog, initially concerned mostly with her progress into deafness, but now featuring some explorations in alchemy and imagination, is Fade To Quiet.

So, ladies and gentlemen, ....



So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
The Book of Jonah 1:15

The boy ate chum for three
days straight, felt for light with outstretched
fingers that knew best the sea

from distances. He never asked for a journey.
While others prayed, he slept, weary
of the dangers once God finds you

and calls out. The joy of learning
to piss his name in the sand evaporated.
Becoming a man nearly took

everyone on that boat down with him.
And there in the darkness of his consequence,
the night he'd never dreamed

encountered him and moved him through the sea.

Through skin, this thickness,
under the fullest weight of quiet, Jonah,
with the bright red burden pressing in on him,

heard the loudest absence of sound for hours,
then broken by the tongueless moan that echoes
an ocean's fullness, all in one breath, a division

from where he'd been, such distance, such desire to connect.

I hunger for salt's slow death, he said,
drifting far below a tempest, not feeling it,

as the whale's broomstick-diametered ear rounded Africa
with its tail somewhere near what's now Quebec,

because I lack the patience needed for life.

I am the restless boy from the seashore that's my home,
I am the stick-thrower who prods the dead fish
for the smell. Ask me to serve you too much of myself,

and I become the flame-thrower of my temperament.
I am the boy who doubts the judgment
of anyone who puts their trust in me.

Here, I am the broken boy of questions held captive.

How do we choose our movement within
what is ever moving? In his pocket:
a coin, a bell, the grit of sea-tossed sand,

and almonds, seven left, sustaining him
in an otherwise unsweet depth.

He held his position at the prow of God's loneliness,
and from the brackish want for an end to stillness

steered his mind.

He slept deep and hard while they prayed,
slept the fugitive sleep as their calls, cries, creaked
through the vessel of his head, aching

by then from the pounding of skull
only God is capable of when He's trying to get in.
The fun was long over. A boy needs his

rest. He remembers when the visions first
started: sleep that left a place for lessons, the dreams
then all animal, a broken talon

he fixed with sudden magic. And now
excruciating in the slow leviathan journey
his mind was,

they rocked him into the ocean from his sleep.

In the water, the blood slows thickly
as the body bends into the waves that shaped it
ages ago, enfolding, remolding,

the deep relearns the shallow thinness of skin
and fingernail and questions again its creation.
Was it tears that made the human form so false

in the absence of the light, down here where there
are no eyes to admire it? What swam past certainly
glowed in comparison, as pale bubbles formed on his lashes

and the blue opened only wide enough to devour a floating boy.

He would, of course, then dream of his mother,
her subtle weaknesses abhorred, and craved them now.
The sea's bone refuse ebbed at his feet,

calculated by ballein roughness into infinitesimals
of how such a thing could live when all else is so small.
What she had given him was a wisdom

to question things that at least had potential for answers.

Desire is a hungry ghost, and within the whale's
cavernous belly, Jonah learned to sing.
The hours then between the steady flow of sea creatures, blood, urchin,

and weed honed him into one whose sounds
delighted God, who Jonah thought just might be listening.
And God loved how the music warmed the rib, resonated

outward into his beloved sea.
The boy pulled his knees up above the fooded surface
and forgot for a moment he was suffering

and into a world he could neither see nor hear sang.


Updated: 7:29 p.m. ET Nov. 16, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - In death, Ethel Freeman became an anonymous symbol of the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina: The 91-year-old woman's body, covered by a poncho and slumped in a wheelchair, lay outside the convention center for days.

This year belongs to Ethel Freeman,
the woman under the poncho
which has also grown to cover
Cindy Sheehan's son, the countless civilians,
soldiers, the families in earthquake rubble dust
we could not also get to in time, those taken by a broad
spectacular wave high enough to erase
the efforts of generations,
the holiday of your dreams,
a year of uncovered mass graves,
and uncovered mass illusions.

The year belongs to the woman whose son
had to leave her because there was not room on the bus
for the dead mothers, the busses that came too late
to carry the living mothers.
It belongs to the poncho keeping us under the cover
of death's rainy season, the broken levees of our illusions,
the dreaming tattered by streaming media of
rows of patient children, the camera-directed calls
of parents demanding "America, the rain has stopped.
Where are you?" when she was the black spot at the bottom
of their question marks. No, when she was the question itself,
slumped over, hidden, but undeniably, horrifically there

in the most powerful corner of the picture,
the background of the truths we know,
hunched over with the weight of rain,
under something that's begun to resemble a flag.


It was God whom she needed to show how deep
was her love, and for one night only, spirits
having flown, she was named guilty, doomed

to stand, sticks and specks, against the flames'
shadow dancing. Did she think, did she hear
alone the melody, through the still waters of

her timeless, god-connected mind for whom the
bell still tolls, knowing a love so right, the words
in the night, in the night we love, we know how

to do it? Did a horn section blast out the hard beats,
shout out as the ropes lashed her wrists, the words
nobody gets too much heaven no more? Did she

expect to get saved by the greatest bell? I just want
to be your everything, God has said, demanding that
we the little islands in the stream invite his jive talking

in exchange for the sort of immortality that often has
come too soon. You win again, the saints must always say.
Don't forget to remember, instructs God, before letting his

words of "you and I," heard one night only through the still
waters of the mind, feeling like ESP, disappear like a woman
consumed by fire. This is where I came in, says God,

running down a list of Number Ones who answered,
served and died, as the world saw a new morning, and alone
now tries still, shouting from beyond: I've gotta get a message

to you, crying out, singing: If I can't have you I don't want
nobody, baby. And God shouts back, Love you inside out
but we, still thinking we are islands in the stream, like Juliet's

Romeo don't get the message in time. And while this may indeed
sound like a tragedy, love still is so much thicker than water.
Great spirits have flown, having learned how can you mend

a broken heart. And the answer has always been to keep
stayin' alive, and know even among the flames that consume
you like a Saturday Night Fever, you should, like you started

a joke, for the record, in Massachusetts, anywhere, like a
ghetto supasta, no matter what your lonely days, lonely nights
may leave you, you should be dancin'. Yeah.

For Tom Andrews

Rather than worry about how little,
you worried how much time we had

in this world. The future bore down
upon you even as you read in your blue

plaid pajamas. And I couldn't calm you.
You knew then you would find your way

out and, sensing your need for change, I
suggested we buy a new house. Sensing

your desire to return to nature, I found one
in the woods. I hoped the new car would

help hasten your journey between home
and work. On the new piano, I played Bach,

in hopes that it would help you find order.
After six years, the world's still here, but you're

not in it. Some other couple lives in our house,
walks our woods. Plays our piano.

Another drives our car.


Rising up the escalator from the trams
that run between and below the terminals
at the Atlanta International Airport, I stand
shoulder to chest with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
black wool preaching robes. They are heavy and cloaked around
a form that isn't a body. No one has dared to try to recreate
that face of hope and love. There is just the robe,
there to remind travelers racing past
that he is not a body anymore.

Behind me, as I rise,
the wall above the escalators presents
the faces of a hundred slaves,
daguerrotypes, the lost art of glass plates
reflecting light even from these darkest faces,
our own darkest faces from our own darkest past
many say we should stop shining so much light
into and move on into the future,
ones who say we should forget the past.
But I say: I am a lover of light.
I say shine light everywhere that light can be shone,
I say capture as many truths and images
in the instant of flash
that is such an opportunity as life.

At the Atlanta airport, the photos of slaves
are accompanied by the phrases of slaves,
the language that grows when books are not present
and if they are present, the alphabet's denied.
And I hear those faces talking to me.
They are explaining to me the history of what many say
should be kept in silence.
But I say: I am a lover of speech.
I say talk about it because it's the silence that divides us from ourselves,
while it is the talk that heals us.
Talk and teach, I say, the truth because we are all here to learn.
We do not get the world we want by ignoring the world we have.
Rising up the escalator at the Atlanta International Airport
I come face to face
with the premature absence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is just his robe standing there,
empty of heart, of flesh, of breath,
but it is preaching from inside that glass box
to millions of travelers passing by.
And I always make a point of stopping to listen before racing past
because I know I need to know where I'm going.


Miason ran as though he'd made
a decision no cuts in flesh, barbs
torn through chest and haunch

could cause him to regret. The horse-
hands that summer made a game of
loosening their laces then launching

a kicked boot aimed at the horses'
stomachs. They used their whips
and crops like words, just to say

something. And we, the children,
winced at the jolt and stagger each
time a struck horse lost balance

or footing. Certain riding lessons
we chose not to learn. Nor at nights
did we steal out under the moon

to the pastures with hands outstretched
with apples. Instead, we slept in our
bunkbeds and dreamt of the horses'

velvet muzzles whispering the fruit
from our trembling fingers, opening
their lips with a gust of forgiveness

spelled out in silk upon the darkened
air. But when Miason chose to run from
whatever was about to be done to him

in his stall, his bolting took up
the whole wind and wrapped it
around us twice so we could not

move from the path of snapped wire as it
blew toward us and cut the horses' wild
remembered blood deep into our own.


On the second to last day of the year
after visiting the otters, the goats, the turkey, and the bears,
my 2 and 1/2 year old daughter and I come home. We eat
Annie's macaroni and cheese, the macaroni the shape of rabbits.

Andaluna doesn't eat it once its made
because she really only wanted to postpone her nap.

So I say it's time then for a nap
and she screams out for the rabbits.

What follows then, a row the sort no tactical expert in any cabinet could
maneuver, mastermind, or bring to a graceful close without
bringing in additional troops, it is a battle won by love
and patience alone and violence is not permitted-
and yet neither side can give in.
It is my will, which is the same as her will, against her will, which is mine
on the fluffy animal and stars rug of her bedroom, a simple pair
of purple footy pajamas on her body the target.
Our audience of Pooh bear, Ernie, Elmo, and one large
unaffiliated pink rabbit and his shifty crew of tigers, Nemo,
and woolen cats my grandmother knitted before my daughter was born
look on in dismay as I undo the love of indulgence,
turn my back on the photograph of her first minute outside of me,
resting on me, and all the tenderness between us now turns
into a battle against all sleep everywhere-the fresh diaper now a symbol of
her defeat, she kicks against it, throws Curious George,
the book not the soft toy,
toward my head.

When it's done,
the pajamas on, she struggles to catch her breath
which has run it seems back into my body she now clings to to get it back.
In the rocking chair, she cries out for sleep, as if it's the piece
of the puzzle I was missing,
the obvious provision in the ransom note she'd given me to read.
Cuddle, she begs, in mama's bed.

Battle-worn, I haven't even the energy to consult my parenting skills.
I lift the weary body of my three foot adversary and carry her to my bed,
where under the covers, we hold hands, talk in whispers,
and grow back into one another like a world once again at peace.

Poems © 2007 by Laura Hope-Gill.

(Former Rapid River poets have included Rose McLarney and Thomas Rain Crowe.)

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Robert Creeley: Here and Now

A note: the desktop computer is down again, waiting on another mainboard, and much of the material I'd like to work into posts resides on its internal hard drives. While we wait, here's a piece I wrote on Robert Creeley in, I believe, 1978. I had just met him again, after some four or five years, at a program on Black Mountain College that was held at Warren Wilson College, located east of Asheville in Swannanoa, not too far from the original Black Mountain campus.

The article first appeared in the
Arts Journal, though I'll have to track down the volume and issue numbers.

[3/26/07 Update: Located a copy of the old
Arts Journal; the piece appeared in June, 1978, in Volume 3, Number 9, on page 30.]

A much later (though posted much earlier) consideration of Creeley and his work can be found in the archives here.

The photo, by Joel Kuzai, finds Creeley at home in Providence, RI.


First, some observations by Creeley concerning Black Mountain College (where, of course, he taught) which institution furnished posthumously the occasion for Warren Wilson's recent course, and his own visit there:

Black Mountain was more than a college. It was actually a collection of real people.

It wasn't trying to save the world. ... The one real dilemma of that reality was that the world wasn't finally there, although people lived and died, tried to commit suicide, put themselves in extraordinary intellectual and existential patterns, but somehow the world was absent. .. . There was an inexorable sense of practicing for the world ... One thing now in retrospect is that extraordinary rehearsals did take place - Black Mountain was an extraordinary rehearsal of possibilities.

That was its intellectual wonder.

The awful hostilities of the situation I won't rehearse for you, the fading grandeur of Black Mountain now shrunk to twenty-five persons, momently to shrink to twelve enrollment, the great intellectual authority of that situation. The nation waits, the world waits, the FBI waits, the State Board of Health awaits ... You didn't have to worry about who was watching you, because there they were.

. . . Have you ever had a college in which there were no students?. . . I remember being in this faculty meeting when the enrollment for the subsequent term was nil, there were no students and we had to say why we were going to continue as an educational facility.

. . . No students, no college.

I'm not at all here to celebrate the isolation of an educational pattern within a social autonomy or reality that has no use for it. My proposal is that insofar as we are human, and we are, insofar as we continue information variously collected, and we do, that sudden flashing moments ... exist for an instant in time, they inform the individuals that collect in that pattern, but the hierarchy of their information is paradoxically of no value, except to the persons present. In other words, there's no way of translating that information apart from the experience of it.... There 's no substitute for being there.

. . . But, you know, the authority of being here and now is that you are here and now.

Creeley's comments not only help locate Black Mountain as an event, but speak in terms of a particular context from the sense of world he has recently encountered also in his poetry. And that poetry is, for me, the stuff that matters.

His work has sometimes been misunderstood as merely solipsist. No doubt he is a person of considerable privacy, with a tenacious sense of the singular aspects of consciousness, but he is also so attentive to the exploratory turns language does take, to open speech to the world, of others, that such qualification seems strange indeed. As Charles Olson noted in a letter to Cid Corman, editor of the wonderful magazine Origin:

in the very interstices of sentences,
be can breathe and feel out all that

is worth beating, worth grabbing on
to, of another man.
Or, of himself, his own speech. Of that, his poems are evidence enough.

It is possible, though, to see in his work where such a term might have found some apparent ground. Early, in "The Dishonest Mailmen" (from The Whip, 1957, and subsequently For Love, 1962) for example, he writes, in definition of the sense of audience his work addressed, and the necessary task of imagination (I give the whole):

They are taking all my letters, and they
put them into a fire.
I see the flames, etc. But do not care, etc
They burn everything I have, or what little

I have. I don't care, etc.
The poem supreme, addressed to
emptiness - this is the courage
necessary. This is something
quite different.
The other poems in For Love likewise speak with a solitary authority. They are sometimes occasional (in a fortunate sense), or addressed to specific persons, sometimes folding in presumably actual words and voices of others in dialogue and counterpoint; but they don't really specify the world, human or otherwise, in which they find their occasions. So it remains mostly uncreated as such - except, of course, whatever the occasion, one does get the activity of the mind, its feelings and its explorations of the situation via its language, which encounters and reveals sudden, bright instants. Olson, in a review of the book, spoke of "a generalized symbiosis of [Creeley] and those he places in the forged landscape," which still seems an accurate account of the activity of the poems, and Creeley's stance then in relation to the world.

Creeley's work since has presented a continual unfolding into a larger sense of world, an envisioning of such in its particularity. The poems (to speak quickly) through Words, Pieces, and Daybook discover a wider address, and are immersed more and more deeply in a world of particular persons and occasions, to come to the always implicit other side of that initial singularity of address - i.e., the poem addressed to no one, but also to anyone.

When Olson dedicated the first volume of the Maximus Poems to Creeley as "the Figure of Outward," it was a move that sprang from actual intuition of the necessary direction of Creeley's push - as his own, as any man's, who is serious. The glyph that accompanies the dedication is the silhouette of, perhaps a man cast like an opening net into the sky, the net of the mind in its elemental air. (Or, a piece of perforated tin ceiling, in some literal sense.) Olson, I would hazard, saw Creeley's struggle and triumph in this outwardness, and Creeley's persistent activity in this pattern gave Olson himself (though he had already ventured into Maximus) the companion and foil he then needed to extend into the reaches of his own world. The Maximus Poems became Olson's plunge.

Creeley, having offered Olson a primary recognition of the possibilities of this activity has now, it seems, followed its trajectory into new dimensions of his own world. That world's locations (e.g. West Acton, Mass.) and persons are now actualized in fuller particularity of the occasions they present, present, than in previous work. And the gain, of course, gives a more actual presence of voice also, a new range of tone.

"Form is never more than the extension of content," Creeley long ago said - extension, tension, from Proto-Indo- European ten, a stretch, out against the resistance any motion meets to the equilibrium between the movement and the inertia it discovers in itself, and beyond itself. A dancer makes form from the limits of his/her human power against simple gravity, as well as from space. Accuracy and grace of movement return some strength to him, to the dance.

“One thing, for an artist at least," Creeley observed at Warren Wilson, "is to keep particular to the body state, to the information of being person."

The poems which move to address no person as such find a language that, in a concern to be equal to many situations of meaning, wakes resonance not previously heard in their spare words. I think of "The Plan is the Body" (of the Selected Poems), or a poem read at Warren Wilson, “After”:

I'll not write again
things a young man
thinks not the words
of that feeling.

There is no world
except felt, no
one there but
must be here also.

If that time was
echoing, a vindication
apparent, if flesh
and bone coincided –

let the body be.
See faces float
over the horizon let
the day end.
Or, the conclusion to one passage of another, “Later”, which turns to include the speaker in the double predicament, keeper and kept:
there's more always here

than just me, in this room
this attic, apartment
this house, this world
can 't escape.
"The descent beckons/as the ascent beckoned”; so W. C Williams discovered. It beckons one into the self and into the world, to make light of both. As Creeley says:
… now the wonder of life is

that it is at all
this sticky sentimental

warm enclosure,
feels place in the physical

with others,
lets mind wander

to wondering thought,
then lets go of itself,

finds a home
on earth.
For me, having met Creeley's work anew, there is new certainty that the reports of this voyage his work offers will be of real use, a delight, as I follow the consequences of a common morphology here, and now, and beyond, on the path home.

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