"In Bad Times, Trances Help": Outriders & Shamans.
Before we dive into that work, I thought I'd start by saying something about the new translation of the ancient divination system of the I Ching: The Book of Change by classical Chinese scholar David Hinton: hippies love the I Ching, right? Except I have to admit I have nothing insightful to say about this version of the I Ching: though Hinton's introduction is fascinating, as a tool, the I Ching is elaborate and mathematical, and thus both the functional/spiritual and the poetic purposes of the text were lost on me. I'm just as confused about the source of the text itself: as an ancient language system with its origins lost in history, in what way was this a "book"? From what source, exactly, is it translated? What was the translation process? Hinton's notated text answers many questions, but not these most basic ones. All I can tell you is that the I Ching "is a grammar of mystery," as Hinton writes, that offers "an experience of consciousness as a much more open and penetrating phenomenon than Western thought and language allow." I trust that readers better informed about both ancient Chinese culture and this particular strain of divination might get a lot more out of this radical new translation than I did.
So: onward. In his introduction, Hinton says "language is how we represent change, reality in its dynamic process of transformation." That is certainly true of the poets I'll discuss below: each of them is working with their own "grammar of mystery."
Typically I use this column to shine a light on work by younger poets. But our elders are the shamans, and we are nothing without our elders. The poets here, living and dead, have been practicing innovative poetics since before my generation and those after me were born.
The first three poets--Charles Wright (1935), Jim Harrison (1937), and Norman Dubie (1945)--are of a tribe I don't talk about much in this column: they are old, straight white men. Wright is the best known, but although I've long been attracted to the primal energy of his books' titles and heard wonderful things about him, I'd never read his work. Harrison is a poet I've loved for a long time, and my dear friend Sarah Vap, for whom Dubie is a beloved mentor, introduced Dubie to me. All three are roughly of the same generation and all have new collections, which in and of itself is inspiring: I hope we are still writing vibrant, searching work in our 70s.
If one were to draw a continuum of weirdness, Wright would definitely be at the straighter end and Dubie at the freakier end, with Harrison somewhere in between. The poems in Wright's Caribou have a kind of linear narrative solidity to them, like an old man's barrel body that belies the vulnerability and mess within. So while the meat of this work feels tough and strong, the bones-the content of the lines, as well as the way they are broken--are somewhat crooked and unpredictable.
Caribou is understandably preoccupied--as Harrison's book is--with mortality: Wright has many metaphors and phrases for aging. He talks about "last chapters" and "cold fronts," "unutterable alphabets" and "end papers"; he says "I love walking in the setting sun." In "Time and the Centipedes of Night," he writes, "How to understand this / Deep sleep, / deep sleep in the sheared, many-mouthed afternoon?" And he's looking back on the writerly journey he's taken so far. In "Ancient of Days," he admits:
This is an old man's poetry, written by someone who's spent his life Looking for one truth. Sorry, pal, there isn't one.
But he even as he fears the inevitable decline, he embraces it: the poem "Everything Passes, But Is It Time?' ends, "Time is your enemy,/time and its fail-safe disgrace. / Open your arms, boys, take off your shirts."
"Everything Passes" and other poems here feel like ars poetica, the work of a poet with a long career looking to define his artistic aim both past and present. I love the gritty, plain way he states this in '"My Old Clinch Mountain Home,'" which begins "I keep on hoping a theme will bite me, / and leave its two wounds" and later demands, "So, dog, show me your teeth and bite me. / Show me some love."
As one can hear in these lines, Wright is very much a poet of the Virginia South: he writes of blues songs, creeks, and mountains, and often addresses the reader as Jack or Jim. Jim Harrison is one of our great poets of the Midwest (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and West (Montana), and so even as Dead Man's Float spends much of its time ruminating over other poets from across time and the world--Keats, Lorca, Rumi--what distinguishes Harrison's work here is what's always distinguished it, and why I love it so: he is a poet of carnal appetites.
I like to think of Harrison's poems as a steak cooked rare over an open fire. They are simple, raw, nourishing, and deeply American. Harrison unapologetically and passionately writes about pretty girls and fishing, horses and cigarettes, but also through the kind of deep spiritual seeking--the tug between faith and doubt, innocence and cynicism--which marks the American character.
Like Caribou, Dead Man's Float is aware of life in its final years. There are many visions of prophets and saints here, but the poet also goes back in time to retrieve the body of his younger self, or occupy that of a bird. While the physical self may be starting to give out, and dogs and girls the speaker once loved are now buried bodies who might "rise from the dead," "a bit too luminous to have a hamburger," at the same time, it is just "yesterday" that "I was seven in the woods." Also like Wright, Harrison acknowledges the ongoing struggle to find answers through literature: the poem "Books" ends "I used to look/at pages 33, 77,153 for the secrets of the world / and never find them but still continue trying."
Harrison mixes the very accessible, plainspoken moment with witty, trance-induced surrealism, but remains plaintive throughout. He is a poet who still wants "to be a yellow wolf of heaven." In the prose poem "Hospital," he writes "on very sleepless nights I'd gaze at the well-lit statue of Saint Francis across the courtyard. I'm not Catholic but he bore me up with birds on his shoulders. One night the planet Venus dropped unwelcome on his neck. Francis with Venus is not right." And he never forgets his hunger for the sensory pleasures of this earth-bound existence. This is his short poem "Zona":
My work piles up, I falter with disease. Time rushes toward me-- it has no brakes. Still, the radishes are good this year. Run them through butter, add a little salt.
Let's get farther out. Norman Dubie's The Quotations of Bone is full of ciphers, witnesses, characters speaking in tongues. One has a hard time making heads or tails of it, and that's the point: these poems are not proper animals. As with his compadres Wright and Harrison, many of the friends spoken of in these poems are already dead; in Dubie, what prevails is a trippy access to both the galactic reaches of perception and the intimate ones. The poems overlay dreams, memory and history. In "Lines for Little Mila," the speaker is reminiscing about images from his own childhood, men "husking corn on the porch":
I told a friend's little girl about some of this, and she immediately slumbered, putting a blue ghost inside my chest. I said to her-- so you still remember things from the other side? Then quickly I added-- of that river?
This is one of the more linear poems in the book: mostly Dubie's aesthetic is that of a compass spinning wildly, with everything in flux. His poem "A Song without Words" ends "The Black Sun / is an approaching cata-strophe / of hope, dignified / with loose women and buttons of adrenaline you must eat / like cookies at the two cooling pools of milk." Here and elsewhere, the tone is sometimes jokey and sometimes grave, and, like Harrison, often both at once. The title poem, "The Quotations of Bone," is bound together by rhyme, and ends:
He thinks a long icicle is buried in his ear. She thinks D.H. Lawrence was a grim buccaneer. I hate most men. Adore the few named Lou. One small addendum: the dead elk are grinning too.
As a reader, I find myself both confounded and exhilarated. You can do this in a poem? What are the rules?
This is also how I feel when I read the work of Caroline Knox (born a year after Harrison), and her latest collection, To Drink Boiled Snow, is no exception. Since she first began publishing books in the 1980s, she has been writing in a singular voice, that of an enormously wacky and good-humored great aunt with a geeky interest in science and history.
Knox's poems are conversational, irreverent (while also full of sweet reverence), and playful. In one piece she requests that the reader "please google [Gustav] Dore and see what you think"; another, "They Had Had It in Mind," is built upon the sound/sightplay of stringing together the words whippet, ballet, wallet, pellet, basset, palette, tacit, spinet, bonnet, thicket, and Ashuelot (as in New Hampshire). Another piece is a play in which all the characters are erasers--whiteboard, pencil, rubber, etc.; yet another works entirely out of anagrams derived from the name of Arthurian character Morgan Le Fay.
As these fanciful experiments demonstrate, Knox is both skeptical and in love with poetry and its made-ness, and her goal is a warm kind of send-up, not, as she quotes Mark Strand saying about Wallace Stevens, "disclosures ... of the primary sort." No, she tells us, she writes "plain poems," like these lines from "Song," which crack me up:
Down come the yellow tickets The mower makes dust of the leaves Tears spring to the eyes brushed away by snows La la la la snows La la la la eyes I gave my love a copy of The Education of Henry Adams He gave me a subscription to The Journal of Fonzarelli Studies We went beside the river in the snow sleet snow La la la la Adams La la la la Studies
I imagine Caroline Knox might have a wonderful time with Second Generation New York School poet Susie Timmons, who, although they began publishing around the same time, is a couple of decades younger: they are both invested in the wacky, the chatty, and the open-hearted. "More emeralds," goes a line in Timmons' "Spring Classics," "I wish I were here /1 wish though that I were you."
Superior Packets collects three of Timmons' earlier volumes--one from 1979, one from 1990, and one from 2010--along with recent and uncollected poems. Reminiscent of work by Frank O'Hara and Eileen Myles, both of whom appear in this volume, Timmons often employs short lines in sprawling, wild poems that are in love with the world, though sometimes, of course, the "city is shithead mean."
Timmons and Knox are wonderful press-mates, but Timmons is also a great fit with some of the Wave Books authors who were born a full generation after her: I think of her intimate, mysterious poems as akin to Hoa Nguyen's, and she uses capital letters, collaged quotations, and exclamation points as generously as CA Conrad (who is one of the editors of the John Wieners volume from Wave discussed below). Timmons' voice, like Knox's, feels wildly youthful, energized: "Don't be so bitter when /I point out the nifty / dynamic lights curving / over the gas pumps," she writes. "It's/deflating and disturbing."
I adore this flower child-like attitude, also on display in "Chickadees in the Snow," the title poem of the last, newest section of the book:
In general, this morning had a festive aura. I have to say I love the changed world and the cold floors of this morning morning morning where you have to shovel if you want to move.
Such optimism is a stark contrast to the riveting work of Elise Cowen, born two years before Wright. Cowen was briefly the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg during a therapist-suggested experiment Ginsberg conducted in heterosexuality. She committed suicide at twenty-eight, and "like a Beat Sappho," most of her extant poems are in fragments, the rest having been burned by neighbors because her parents couldn't handle the countercultural nature of the work. What remains--thanks to her friend Leo Skir, himself a member of the Beat circle; Tony Trigilio, a contemporary poet and Beat scholar who was my colleague at Columbia College Chicago; and our mutual former student Izzy Oneiric, and with the support of Cowen's extended and surviving family--is this carefully edited volume, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments.
These poems revel in anti-normalcy, emblematic of the Beat desire to provoke. Clearly influenced by Ginsberg, Cowen's work is that of foul-mouthed ecstasy, and, like him, combines references to Jewish heritage with wild-eyed nihilism: the fragment "[Dear God of the Bent Trees of Fifth Avenue]" ends with the lines
Fuck your only begotten cobalt dream To filter golden pleasure through your apple-glutted heaven Filter through the uncircumcised sin of my heart.
Cowen's poems are grounded in the gritty, Beatnik life of the 1960s: cockroaches and methedrine, "atomic rainbows" and her thwarted interest in Ginsberg himself. Sometimes formal and tight and lyric, echoing Dickinson, other times sprawling and wild, a nascent feminism churns through these poems as well. One piece boldly (for the time) claims that some men may wish they were women; another has the female speaker unapologetically "chewing" a hero sandwich; many others are openly pansexual ("Someone I could kiss/Has left his, her/tracks"). And she is not afraid to be shocking: "O that I was a / cunt of golden pleasure more pure / than heroin or heaven," writes this angel-headed hipster.
How tragic that Cowen and her desires did not survive to go head-to-head with Harrison's, since their appetites are the same: "Meat, meat," Cowen exudes. "To fuck, to eat." But her sites are clearly set on Death, to whom she tells "I'm coming/wait for me." I found this rhymed verse heartbreaking in its concise description of bipolar disorder:
Two weeks of the month I'm half-mad and half-free Two weeks of the month I'm half drown in me.
One of her final fragments seems clearly a suicide note, apologizing to her parents and bidding farewell to friends before she ends "Let me out now please--/--Please let me in."
I wonder if Cowen ever met John Wieners, a fellow Beat and radical. They were the same age, and similarly interested in candidly documenting the sexual and psychotropic experiments of their culture and time: in an early poem from 1958, Wieners writes "the poem / does not lie to us." As in Cowen's collected works, what comes across most strongly in Wieners' selected collection, Supplication, is a sense of living wild and free while also haunted by death and societal exclusion.
Openly homosexual from an early age, Wieners' poems are occupied with the loneliness and fear surrounding the underground bars, clandestine encounters, closeted desire, and the search for love for a gay man in the 1950s and '60s, as well as a displaced longing for "a wife and home" that could "cure the / hurts of wanting the impossible," as he prays for in "Supplication." They are also full of overdoses and suicides, junkies "vomiting strawberry and green." I had associated Wieners with his more frenetic poems, but many in this volume are cogently and intricately crafted, with an almost arcane and formal beauty, even when talking about anonymous blowjobs or meeting a dealer on the corner:
I speak of suicides, men dropped at tide. I speak of sleeping pills that still our aching mind. I speak of lovers they murdered because they are so kind. Anything to stay beautiful and blind To those men they turn into swine.
It's important that we have these documents of gay life in America before Stonewall, before marriage equality. We need to remember how truly terrifying and oppressive it could be--and still is, for those outside of the progressive pockets of American culture.
And yet for all the tragedy Wieners documents, he, like Cowen and the others discussed here, is also a poet capable of enormous joy and vision. In the gloriously psychedelic "A poem for the insane," he writes:
Yeah stand now on the new road, with the huge mountain on your right out of the mist the bridge before me, the woman waiting with no mouth, waiting for me to kiss it on.
In Wiener's essay "The Lanterns Along the Wall," which is collected in this volume, he writes that poetry's practitioners "are secret, sacred vessels to an ancient divinity." This column is a celebration of poets for whom that kind of incandescent mediumship is at the heart of the work.
ARIELLE GREENBERG'S third collection of poetry, Slice, came out in 2015; her book of micro-essays/prose poems, Locally Made Panties, will be out in the spring. She is a core faculty member in the MFA program at Oregon State University-Cascades.
<B>BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS COLUMN</B>
Outrider: Essays, Poems, Interview, Anne Waldman, La Alameda Press, 2006
I Ching: The Book of Change, translated by David Hinton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Caribou, Charles Wright, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Dead Man's Float, Jim Harrison, Copper Canyon Press, 2016
Quotations of Bone, Norman Dubie, Copper Canyon Press, 2015
To Drink Boiled Snow, Caroline Knox, Wave Books, 2015
Superior Packets, Susie Timmons, Wave Books, 2015
Poems and Fragments, Elise Cowen, edited by Tony Trigilio, Ahsahta Press, 2014
Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, John Wieners, edited by Joshua Beckman, CA Conrad, and Robert Dewhurst, Wave Books, 2015
CHRISTOPHER SOTO (aka LOMA) is a queer Latina punk poet and prison abolitionist. They are currently curating Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color in collaboration with The Lambda Literary Foundation. They have work published in Columbia: A Journal, MIPOesias, Apogee Journal and more.
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|Title Annotation:||APr: Books|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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