Joanne Kyger's Travel Chapbooks: A Poetics of Motion.
Maybe if I change the point / of departure. --Joanne Kyger, Desecheo Notebook (9/113) (1) To see is always to see from somewhere, is it not? --Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (69)
Joanne Kyger's long and productive career as a poet was distinguished by her periodic publication of chapbooks associated with journeys she undertook from the early 1970s through the late 1990s. Desecheo Notebook (1971), Trip Out and Fall Back (1974), Mexico Blonde (1981), Phenomenological (1989), and Patzcuaro (1999) do not simply record Kyger's travels, nor do they offer purely imaginative representations of life on the road. Instead, they comprise an alternative genre that merges poetry, travelogue, and dream diary, seamlessly combining historical and mythic themes with memory and sensory impression, all interspersed with spiritual and philosophical inquiry. Kyger's chapbooks constitute new textual places, and "a new place," as travel scholar Frances Bartkowski suggests, "is always an opportunity for sanctioned cross-thinking," and "inter-speaking,... out of which something may emerge that transforms, transvalues, translates" (xxv-xxvi). In their rich layered, free-associative structure, Kyger's chapbooks reproduce the felt experience of travel itself in ways that express her belief that "the 'psyche' is not / a personal but a world existence" (Desecheo 10/114). (2)
This fusion of text, travel, and "psyche" marks a significant development in both the shape and the focus of Kyger's life-writing, which Journal of Beat Studies readers may have encountered in her better-known Japan and India Journals. In these detailed and far-ranging notebooks, composed between 1960 and 1964, Kyger recorded her daily experiences and experimented with poetic form and content. Commentators often describe The Japan and India Journals--published in 1981 and reissued in 2000 as Strange Big Moon--as a combination diary /writer's workbook. The text chronicles Kyger's years-long stay in Asia, her marriage to Gary Snyder, her struggle to master Zen meditation techniques, and her aspirations as a budding poet. In contrast, the travel chapbooks are products of single, shorter trips. But even though they are more bounded in terms of duration, Kyger's shorter travel texts are more open in other ways--unstructured, fluid, and mobile.
An essentially unclassifiable subgenre of the life-writing that takes place in journals, Kyger's travel chapbooks follow the movement of her mind in conjunction with her movement through different geographical and cultural locales. While The Japan and India Journals does examine the discontinuities and pleasures of life as a visitor in a strange land, they in large part concern Kyger's attempts to establish stability, to build at-homeness in her new household in Japan and in her relationship with the poet Gary Snyder. The chapbooks, on the other hand, focus intently and intensely on the sensations and stimuli of travel; they explore away-ness for its own sake and as its own purpose, rather than as a function of a larger project such as maintaining a marriage or studying Zen Buddhism. A key distinction between Kyger's Journals and her travel chapbooks, then, comes down to the difference between "seeing" from a relatively stable "somewhere" and seeing from multiple, shifting, and uncertain somewheres.
In Kyger's travel chapbooks, ongoing movement shapes modes of self-representation Although her Japan and India Journals demonstrates a genre-bending aesthetic, the journals tend to maintain clearer lines between poems, dreams, and expository diary entries than do the travel chapbooks. (3) I will suggest that the chapbooks' heightened disregard of generic, disciplinary, and existential boundaries proposes an ethics and aesthetics of selves in motion, even selves as motion. During her years as a poet/traveler, Kyger developed the travel chapbook into a personal genre of expression aimed at forming new "points of departure" for conceptualizing human being in the world; Desecheo Notebook, Trip Out and Fall Back, Mexico Blonde, Phenomenological, and Patzcuaro deploy travel as a metaphor for human consciousness. Rather than a condition the self finds itself in, travel seems analogous with the self.
As in the experience of travel, the chapbooks offer occasion for, even necessitate, "translations" and "transvaluations" of internal and external worlds. Perceptions flash past in shifting, overlapping moments of both discovery and dislocation, offering multi-faceted geographic, cultural, and sensory stimuli, invoking memory and reverie, and compelling self-examination. The travel chapbooks process the new through the already-known and probe the limits of individual consciousness. In travel, Kyger seeks and achieves varying degrees of integration with "world existence," undergoes experiences of de- and re-familiarization, and contemplates questions about how and why identity forms and reforms in different spaces and places, in different relations and proximities to others.
With its simultaneously inward- and outward-reaching ethos, Kyger's travel aesthetic reflects a sensibility shared by many of her Beat compatriots, who also shared her affinity for Mexico. For Beat writers, "movement and pursuit of freedom" are often "inextricably linked conceptually, often in an antithetical relationship to stasis, boredom, oppression, and authoritarianism" (Hibbard 15). Writers including Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg sought liberation, openness, and spiritual renewal in movement, pursuing unexpected truths in unexpected places. Travel spurred their evolution as writers, and their travel narratives, like Kyger's, embrace the uncertainties and ambiguities of perceiving self and world through the new lenses of new locales. For Kyger and many other Beat-associated writers, regenerating clarity of vision was often a function of an "experience of reality characterized by nonlinear time and by the intersection of the mythical with the modern" (Belgrad 36). Kyger's impulse to reconnect aspects of life commonly perceived as opposite and opposed--especially inner and outer, familiar and strange, mundane and transcendent--resonates with the work of Beat writers including Ginsberg and Kerouac, who reject dualistic binaries in favor of "a sense of communion with others or with the cosmos" (Belgrad 38). (4)
Similarities aside, however, Kyger resisted being designated a Beat poet, in large part due to her feeling that "Beat Generation" writers constituted a "brotherhood" in which she was not fully welcome ("Places" 140). Her poetry and journal writing evince a sense of simultaneous community with and alienation from her well-known male colleagues, writers who enjoyed the "rock-starish" prestige and authority afforded literary "gurus" (Shaw 77, 80). (5) In her earlier travel chapbooks especially, Kyger ties the searching uncertainties of travel to her own uncertainty about her identity as a poet. It was not "until I was about thirty," she said, that "poetry became an identity I was within. Before that, it was my own longings for it" (qtd. in Berkson 327). When Kyger joined the San Francisco literary scene in 1957, a great many of her friends and fellow writers were men, most of them with emphatic opinions about worthwhile poetic endeavor. She pursued her craft within the poetry circle of Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and formed relationships with artists including Snyder, Whalen, John Wieners, and Lew Welch. Her Japan and India Journals describes the uneven differentials of gender, artistry, and authority she experienced as a bohemian woman abruptly thrust into a traditional role as a "housewife" (xii). Chafing at her secondary position as Snyder's wife and frustrated by her difficulty carving out the time and space needed to nurture her poetic development, she briefly wished she "had never known writing"--"then I'd be more content with what I am doing now instead of wishing I was proving myself by writing" (36).
Kyger also struggled with male-focused definitions of poets and poetry. Her Journals record her response to "old crabby daddy" Ezra Pound's pronouncement that in order to be "great' a poet must "write an epic... have the command of a world / universal view" (225). In his formulation, Kyger observes, "a woman" cannot be "great" because "her craft seems to deal with parts, particulars" (226). Nevertheless, she composed most of the poems in her first book, The Tapestry and the Web (1965), during her time in Japan, material that grippingly and tangibly incorporates into a loosely woven representation of Homer's Penelope the "parts" and "particulars" of her life as a woman, an artist, and a sojourner in an unfamiliar land. (6)
In her review of Kyger's second book Places to Go (1970), Alicia Ostriker calls Kyger "a genius, though a weird one," and remarks that "handling her poetry is like handling a porcupine traveling at the speed of light" (qtd. in Knight 198). Kyger's writing is infused with movement and spontaneity--she intended her "pages" to "look alive" and "hold... energies" ("Energy" par. 49,47). (7) Her aesthetic brings "stray and often extraneous seeming bits of image and fact... to bear upon a loosely scattered area which is the poem"; she viewed "the linear aspect of the poem" as "merely a suggested voice line to take you from the beginning to the end, but suggesting no such consecutiveness in thought. The area of the poem is able to contain all elements" (qtd. in Opstedal ch. 10). These qualities (and others discussed below) characterize most of Kyger's poetry; they appear in intensified and amplified forms in the travel chapbooks, which explore a consciousness testing its borders and boundaries.
Consider, for instance, the sensory detail characterizing the first poem in Patzcuaro (1999):
A car sinks in a muddy pothole, disappears. Neat rows of roses. Lagoon baby crocodiles, yellow fish exotica. The painting of rabbit and coyote by Oaxaca's Francisco Toldeo plus the hair and the plumbing is a problem deep chapel bells a version of visions in lovey sponged blue cupids (7/695) (8)
As external phenomena infuse the traveler's consciousness in the form of sound waves, particles of light, and variations in color and shadow, they intersect with internal phenomena such as preoccupation with "problem" plumbing, a porousness that implies, in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's terms, "inspiration and expiration of Being" (qtd. in Wiskus 24). Kyger's travel poetry seeks connections between individual human lives and the life of the world, conceptualizing "consciousness itself" as "a project of the world... destined to a world that it neither encompasses nor possesses, but toward which it never ceases to be directed" (Merleau-Ponty lxxxii). Her understanding of human being in the world, as Jin Park and Gereon Kopt note about Merleau-Ponty himself, was "grounded in the notion of the 'life-world' instead of the 'transcendental ego.'" Like Merleau-Ponty, Kyger "embrace[d] the ambiguity between body and mind, self and the world, and sensor and the sensible" (3). (9)
Her work also renders ambiguous distinctions between significant and insignificant experiences, major and minor aspects of existence. Fellow poet David Meltzer remarks that Kyger's poetry "demands and awakens attention to the extraordinary ordinary" and "make[s] the pleasures and particulars of the 'every day'... luminous and essential and central" (xvii, xviii). In Patzcuaro, she admonishes herself:
Don't forget to write about the two white plastic spoons from the San Francisco Airport coffee shop now used everyday throw-aways (21/709)
The everyday, even the "throw-away," Kyger holds, are instruments of life, and thus appropriate and necessary subjects of poetry. Because she views "the self as a phenomenon" (Russo, "Introduction" par. 9), no element or aspect of the self is more relevant or meaningful than another:
Your dreams are important, your humorous life is important, your cooking life is important, your friendships, the dialogues you assume, the news that comes from within, the news that comes from out there. There's such a wide variety of "things" that go on. It's important not to get stuck on any one of these as being the "I" that writes. Being able to report, as it were, from all these areas of life and see that they're equally "valid" and "important".... An egalitarian sense of what it's like to be a human. What being alive is like. ("Energy" par. 20)
Composed of various and varying phenomena, individual being-in-the-world is relational, experiential, and multi-layered. "Several selves... move one self around, thousands /jiggling," Kyger asserts in Trip Out and Fall Back (1974). "It is so inappropriate" to deny this multiplicity, "to be unfound, whine / around, hesitant, lock up the window again"; instead, the poet describes herself as the experience of now--"this space in time, this focus, of articulation, that hears / the bee buzz round and round" (15/143). (10) Kyger resists classification as a certain sort of woman, kind of poet, or adherent to a particular literary movement, and in their "inter-speaking" and "cross-thinking," her travel chapbooks mirror this drive toward flexibility and open-endedness.
The challenge that Kyger's embrace of ambiguity offers readers is quite literally visible on the cover of Desecheo Notebook (1971), her first published travel chapbook. Sixteen lines of a poem that describes Desecheo--an island "off West Coast Puerto Rico" only "1 1/2 miles long /1 mile wide" (n pag./108)--appear on the outside back cover, but the final three lines are situated inside, at the front of the book. (11) The poem ends on the bottom of a page following the title page, a spot usually reserved for a dedication or an epigraph (see figs. 1, 2, and 3). In addition to this disorienting layout, the poem poses a thematic challenge that coincides with its shift from the outside to the inside of the chapbook; while the material on the back cover provides a concrete "point of departure" for Desecheo Notebook--a specific geography dominated by "steep ridges" and tidal pools, and occupied by goats, monkeys, and crabs (n pag./108)--the lines on the inside offer a less specific conclusion to the poem and/or introduction to the text:
a species of great beauty they have aura's [sic] Travel Broadens (1/108)
What species? And what does it have to do with travel's broadening effects? These ambiguities preview the poetics of travel that unfolds over the course of Kyger's career--she grounds her travel chapbooks in the concrete particulars of her daily experience as a traveler, but renders the personal and everyday "point[s] of departure" for more transcendent possibilities and felt moments of truth that model the movements of a consciousness productively engaged with the world.
Many other poem/entries in Desecheo Notebook and in subsequent travel chapbooks return to the question of how and what travel broadens. Mulling over "the creation of life," the "Sun, the night, this / earth with its finely gathered garment" on Desecheo Island, Kyger considers that perhaps she and her companions are a "new race being born" and feels she is "no longer in waiting as this world [she] call[s] / [her] own open[s] out" (15/118). In Trip Out and Fall Back, she reports that as her vehicle passes under "clouds over Indiana," she has "large dreams of beautiful patterns" (16/143) and experiences "union" with the open world (17/144). Traveling in Mexico in the early 1980s, Kyger devoted a journal entry to an ancient belief system that consolidates the individual with the universe:
Each person was bound to earth by his totemic animal & bound to heaven by the positions of Sun, Moon, stars, planets & constellations at his birth. (Mexico Blonde 18) (12)
In Patzcuaro, travel offers her the opportunity to "dream / too much" and become "completely pensativo" (11/699).
Kyger's focus on moments that broaden individual consciousness and awareness of "what being alive is like" highlights her preoccupation with the lenses and filters through which humanbeings encounter a world that "tirelessly announces itself within us" (Merleau-Ponty lxxxii). To return to the outside-in Desecheo poem cited above, her attribution of "aura" to an unspecified "species" draws attention to her own idiosyncratic modes of perception and response. Kyger looks at crabs, cacti, and monkeys, and assigns auratic beauty to something that broadens not just her view of the island but the parameters of her consciousness.
Aura, Miriam Bratu Hansen notes, "is a medium that envelops and physically connects--and thus blurs the boundaries between--subject and object, suggesting a sensory, embodied mode of perception" (351). Something similar could be said about Kyger's travel aesthetic: her chapbooks convey a sensory, embodied mode of perception rooted in her "total belief in "the capacity of what [she] see[s]" (Desecheo 17/119). (13) InDesecheo Notebook, she asserts:
Concepts promise protection from experience. The spirit does not dwell in concepts (10/114)
Her travel notebooks strip experience of the protection afforded by the abstract thinking that relies for its meaning on conceptual structures organized around exclusion, separation, and opposition. (14)
In fact, Desecheo Notebook itself is the product of Kyger's attempts to transform conditions of dislocation and alienation into opportunities for integration and wholeness. She had journeyed to Desecheo Island with Peter Warshall (with whom she lived in Bolinas, California, for a period in the 1970s) and a group studying "rhesus monkeys that had been left there a few decades earlier"; the students hoped to determine how the monkeys "had adapted and survived on essentially a desert island, an island with no water and very little rain" ("Conversation" 95). Alone in this harsh environment with six men engaged in scientific investigation, Kyger formulated her "own 'course of study'" centered in "investigating the 'self'" ("Conversation" 95). Accordingly, she resolves to both center and expand her sense of self by using her time on the island to "have a talk with [her] unconscious." In so doing, she imagines, a "figure will come up that [she] will commune with. / Maybe the king of the monkeys" (12/115). Positing an alternative approach to understanding the island monkeys and the mystery of their survival, Kyger couples contact with her self with connection to the entities with whom she shares a world.
Not coincidently, she also identifies openness to the larger life-world as the basis of her poetic voice:
I know I do not suffer more than anyone in the whole world But this morning I had to have first thing 2 cigarettes, half a joint, a poached egg and corned beef hash, I piece toast, 2 cups tea Jung, Williams, shells, stones, 2 slugs rum, depression, rest of joint, cigarette, 7 Up, and it's only 10 o'clock Because I wanted to write a poem Because I want something to come out of me You can't try. I believe in life, I am living now and for a moment the landscape becomes clear. (21/122)
Moving from what the poet sees, feels, and takes in--food, drink, drugs, texts--to what "come[s] out of [her]," the poem links everyday urges toward pleasure and fulfillment to the immanence of life and to the world's announcement of itself within her: "I believe in life, I am living / now." The entry constitutes a kind of poetic manifesto, attesting that it is when she opens herself to "life" and the sensation of "living now" that "the landscape / becomes clear." Although the poem expresses the frustration of an individual artist struggling to express "something" authentic, it pivots on the shared values of her artistic community. Before she left Bolinas for Desecheo Island, Robert Creeley advised her "you can't try" to write, leading her to conclude "whatever is going to happen is going to come of its own volition" ("Conversation" 96); "inter-speaking" and "cross-thinking" with Creeley, Kyger affirms participation in all of life as the source of poetic clarity.
The poem/entry that concludes Trip Out and Fall Back offers a similar view of the poet's role, asserting that Kyger is "a poet"
Because I write this down. I want bullet-like speed and precision to show that this mind connects in ways of delight, and also says truth way beyond this individual voice. Thus I speak from the holy story, the ordinary story. Thus I am married to the household gods, thus I aspire to be the consort of heaven. Thus I am sad when the earth is from me. We sleep together again. In no way will I part from this union. (17/144)
Her desire for "bullet-like speed and precision" evokes the sensation of travel, imaginatively aligning the consciousness of the poet with the consciousness of the traveler whose movement through the world empowers her to speak "beyond" her "individual voice" and achieve fuller "union" with the totality of life, ordinary and holy, heavenly and earthly. Similarly, a Patzcuaro poem entitled "Trying to Write" identifies phenomenal connection to the earth as the poet's "point of departure":
All of a sudden these leaves popped out of the tree reaching up from the beautiful patio garden under the bedroom window This is what happened. (17/705)
For her, "trying to write" means trying to express the seen and felt energy of life.
Kyger's travel texts imagine multiple modes and means of participation in the life of the world, interweaving, for example, locales of travel with her home in Bolinas and making frequent references to friends and companions, those traveling with her and those left behind. Desecheo Notebook conveys a sense of simultaneous, interpenetrating presence on "the island" of Desecheo and on what is essentially the island of Bolinas, a northern California town cut off from "the rest of the world," "perched upon the southernmost tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula" (Opstedal ch. 1). Entries in Desecheo Notebook merge concerns about housing in Bolinas and housing among "all these men" onDesecheo Island (7/112, 19/120), or shift from the specifics of a morning spent on the island to remembered details of a conversation with Kerouac (21/122). In Phenomenological (1989), the chapbook associated withKyger's 1985 journey through the Yucatan Peninsula, evidence of commercial development in Mexico leads her to worry "what's to become of Bolinas?" (9), and multiple poem/entries intersperse thoughts of her Bolinas community with observations of Yucatan geographies and details of her group's activities. (15)
The travel texts draw in and on beloved others as mental signposts, sounding boards, and artistic collaborators; poems/entries incorporate friends' texts and speech, include drawings provided by travel companions, and invoke poets such as Creeley, John Thorpe, and Bill Berkson. In Trip Out and Fall Back, Kyger answers the question "Are you all this self awareness and ego?" by tempering the "transcendental ego" with references to material connections signified by friends' gifts,
Whether it was in my purple mini skirt from Lynn and my blue sandals from Phoebe, or the yellow beads from Bill, or Joe's brown silk bandana. (5/138)
One entry in her 1981 journal Mexico Blonde consists entirely of her identification of "Dotty's gift of this / maroon and light purple polk-a-dot / Bandanna" as "one of the favorite things / [she] wear[s]" (16). In Phenomenological, Kyger explicitly links her internal states to those of others, attributing her own feeling of anxiety to "a little inferma" felt by her close friend Bill McNeill, back in California suffering from a terminal disease (8).
Trip Out and Fall Back, her chapbook about a 1972 trip to New York, found its impetus in creative collaboration (see figs. 4 and 5). Kyger suggested to illustrator Gordon Baldwin that he '"draw the East, and [she would] write about it.' He did a series of drawings, and gave them to Kyger, who used the drawings as inspiration for her words" (Opstedal ch. 10). Her husband Donald Guravich provided illustrations for Mexico Blonde--his last name appears with hers on the cover (in fact, it appears first), and in many entries his drawings take up at least as much space as her text (see figs. 6 and 7). In addition to these immediate, personal partnerships, Kyger also finds ways of collaborating with other writers while on the road. During her 1997-98 stay in Mexico, she explains at the opening of Patzcuaro (see fig. 8), she took Pablo Neruda's Memoirs, "fortuitously given" to her, as a "close reading companion" (n pag.). Patzcuaro draws to a close with a poem celebrating Neruda's "beautiful adjectives and magnificent metaphors" (23/710), using his text to demonstrate:
"Words that have a crystalline texture, vibrate are ivory, vegetable, oily like fruits, like algae like agates, like olives... wander from country to country very ancient, very new" (25-26/711)
This poem is constructed almost entirely of quotes from Neruda's Memoirs, in which he articulates a poetics rooted in the geographies of his homeland and describes and praises the work of writers he knew and loved. Kyger likely found a number of elements of similarity with Neruda, who also spent time in Patzcuaro, and saw "no country... more profoundly human than Mexico.... In its brilliant achievements, as well as its gigantic errors, one sees the same chain of grand generosity, deep-rooted vitality, inexhaustible history, and limitless growth" (Memoirs 151). Quoting Neruda's commentary on poets including Frederico Garcia Lorca, Paul Eluard. and Cesar Vallejo, Kyger recreates his investment (so like her own) in productive artistic community, his "wholehearted brotherhood" and "warmth of... feelings and language for his fellow poets" (Patzcuaro n pag.). Neruda's resonant voice and his concern for everyday working people subtly infuse Patzcuaro, the most politically engaged of the chapbooks, in poem/entries such as "You are not permitted the Sexual Act" (9/697) and "Dead in Acteal, Chiapas" (13/701). (16)
In Phenomenological, Kyger collaborates with another "great poet"--Juana Ines de Asbaje, a figure "from colonial / times in Mexico"--who "struggle[d] thru /her life with compassion and talent in / intellectual pursuits, not granted to women" (4,5). Kyger occupies a similar, albeit less restricted position as a Beat- and Bolinas-associated writer, a woman living and working in male-dominated communities, a poet determined to distinguish herself as a writer while also "keep[ing] memory compassionate of all the / interconnections of people [she] has loved / and known" (20). Juana and Joanne share other areas of coincidence as well. Like Kyger, Juana is interested in the intertwined nature of human belief systems; in her time, she provoked the Catholic Church's opprobrium by arguing that "the Mexican corn god... anticipates the Christian symbolism / of the death and resurrection of Christ and / the Sacrament of Communion" (5). Kyger describes Juana as a poet who "blend[s] the Old World and the New" (5) in a poem/entry that combines old and new worlds, in a chapbook that explores both "the pyramids of antiquity" and the "contemporary" cultures of Mexico (1). The seventeenth-century poet also shares Kyger's concern with the ego. Juana, Kyger explains,
becomes a nun, but runs into trouble with her mind, "I thought to flee from myself but wretch that I am I took myself with me." (5)
Kyger, too, "runs into trouble" with the stubborn structures of individual consciousness that frame and limit her capacity for pure, unfiltered "knowledge" of and "union" with the wide world, a predicament she has in common with Juana, and with all human beings (5).
Kyger experiences aspects of Mexico through what she reads and imagines of Juana's experience, viewing, for instance, a sky "filled / with swallows catching early morning breakfast" through Juana's poem of a "little bird who gets / eaten by a hawk for breakfast" (6). At other moments, she filters her perceptions through Charles Olson's Mayan Letters, a text that causes her to "muse about the Yucatan 30 / years ago," when it was "so much / emptier, no big tours from Florida" (8), and to acknowledge the inaccessibility of the more distant past. Riding to Chichen Itza in a "very comfortable" "first class bus" (9), Kyger finds herself surrounded by "tourists from all over the world," caught up in a "hilarious" cacophony of "people with / their comments in many languages" (10). Having read about the history of this site--over a thousand years marked by takeover and appropriation--she recognizes its reenactment in the present day by "teenagers of U.S. galloping / up and down on / history's past conquests." Nevertheless, she "immediately challenge[s] [her] self to El /Castillo's top":
And once there, weak legged, wind blowing terrified to walk around the temple at the top for fear I'll fall off want immediately to descend while I can. What vertigo! Holding on to the chain, praying and trembling I descend backwards down the narrow steps, remember the human sacrifice practiced by the Itzas. (10-11)
Travel opens the world to exploration, but does not afford the traveler unrestricted entry or understanding, let alone equilibrium. Unable to navigate the ancient pyramid, Kyger retreats to the familiar, visiting a conveniently located "refreshment stand" and composing a postcard before returning to her hotel for "early bed / and easy fiction" (11). As in the case of an earlier visitor who leapt into "the Sacrificial Pool" only to be "knocked deaf and dumb for three days" (9), Chichen Itza makes Kyger feel her limits, leaving her with "rubber legs for the next four days" (11), a tangible reminder of the barriers to union with "world existence."
Such barriers are implicit in the title of Mexico Blonde, which accented "e" aside, points to Kyger's visible otherness as a blonde Anglo-American in Mexico; despite her frequent travels to Mexico and love for its landscapes and cultures, she remains a visitor, well aware she is not of Mexico. In this chapbook, her sense of difference emerges early and forcefully on a crowded train, where, aware "the whole / car is watching," she suffers what she describes as a "gringo / nervous breakdown" due to conditions native passengers seem to take in their stride (4). She had come to Mexico hoping to connect with "human / treasures of existing people in / past time" (19), but finds her access limited. "Our Lady of Soledad," she reports, seems "very remote" in "her / basilica.... A far off / blur, thru the power of the church." Unable to achieve a sense of ease or inclusion, she finally feels compelled to leave--"I have to cough and go out" (7). Similarly, as she records her difficulty understanding the "structure" of the town of Zapotec, where "everybody is so / seemingly modern" and where she "[hasn't] been in / anybody's home." she recognizes that in order to more directly participate in the life of the place she would "have to make / a serious decision to study Spanish: / obviously from the heart" (21). These textual moments of disconnection and difference demonstrate that Kyger does not shrink from acknowledging the inevitable and at points unspecifiable impediments--internal and external--the traveler runs up against in her quest for integration.
At other junctures, however, the chapbooks suggest that travel does facilitate moments of coincidence during which some level of fusion with "world existence" might be achieved. Reflecting on shared elements of human experience in Patzcuaro, Kyger declares that in the "completely / focused" act of "chopping... tomatoes, chilies, and onions," one "could be anywhere / on Earth and Time" (10/698). The mind, she observes, "genuflects / to age-old themes of anywhere" (20/708), and during her 1998 sojourn in Mexico she actively seeks such themes in manifestations of the "old Mother God... transformed / into the Virgin" Mary; in one incarnation she appears as the "Virgin of Health... fashioned from corncob / and orchid honey paste," "dwell[ing] still in her towering pyramid rebuilt / as a basilica" (8/696). Multiple Patzcuaro poems/entries examine meldings of "the indigena" and "the Maria of Spain's conquest," the "Ancient Goddess" and "the sacred new Virgin of now / Catholic Mexico" (15/703). A poem entitled "Noche Buena," or "Christmas Eve," mulls over and participates in shifting yet intertwined modes of relationship between humanity and divinity:
When Maria gives birth to the son of god but somehow becomes the mother of god himself During which miraculous ecclesiastical transformation We eat carefully prepared chicken, cheese and mushroom crepes Where is He? He is here in your poem. Santa has his foot in the door. The old ways still for the birth of the innocent victor, Christ. And before that, Before that... ? We start again. (14/702)
Part of the "we" who endlessly "start again," Kyger's witnessing of spiritual traditions draws God into the here and now of her poem, merging the modern and fhe mythic, and making the chapbook akin to pyramids-turned-basilicas--another site where the human spirit recognizes its continuity through time and space.
In her travels, Kyger is drawn to artifacts and experiences that mark encounters of individual spirit and world spirit. Jonathan Skinner suggests "the occasion of travel is a retreat from ego possible only in fronting ego's desire, curiosity, generous impulses" (par. 13). A Desecheo Notebook poem captures this dilemma:
Generosity: I allow your existence equal weight with mine I kick the rock Rock spirit come out damn it slowly a string of beautiful figures drift from the cave high up on the rocks riding through the mists their diaphanous clothes flutter in the grey breeze There was a time when I wanted to learn the knowledge out there possessed by the world it helps on this island to do exercise thoughts stay in the mind close to the home camp (23/124)
By turns respectful and demanding, oriented inward and outward, focused on the auratic beauty of the world and on daily rituals of self-care, the poem reflects on the act of reflecting, moving without judgment through various stances individual consciousness might assume in relation to the world, its multitudinous phenomena, its mysteries and its gifts. Integration with the life-world, Kyger consistently acknowledges, may not be fully possible, but the urge toward it, she suggests, shapes the human psyche and constitutes the primary engine of creative expression.
In Phenomenological, Kyger's questioning of the parameters of individual consciousness emerges most obviously and urgently in her search for her "dear friend" Bill McNeill, who, as she set out for Mexico, was dying in a California hospital, "suffering from the / last terminal stage of his illness" (1). The chapbook opens with Kyger's explanation that she and McNeill had "made / an agreement that [they] would somehow 'meet'/ down there, 'between the real and the apparent,'" and she describes Phenomenological as "a record of that journey" (1). In a gesture reminiscent of the outside-in poem that greets the reader of Desecheo Notebook, Kyger's statement about her planned meeting with her deceased friend presents travel as the agent of a heightened awareness capable of activating new modes of interaction with the world. It also signals her engagement with ongoing philosophical debates about the extent to which human beings are capable of discerning what phenomena are actually "real" and which are only "apparent," those whose position on the surface of the perceptible world might mask some more fundamental truth. (17)
Phenomenological does not portray Kyger meeting with or otherwise "feel[ing]" Bill McNeill's "new birth" (4), but it does track her deeply felt participation in the life of the world, expressed in sensory, embodied encounters with "living ruins" (19) and "deep and lush and green" Yucatan geographies (14/230). Kyger's depictions of these spaces and entities vibrate with an auratic intensity that suggests heightened sensitivity to and receptivity of a world that infiltrates and inhabits her consciousness. The world around her, she writes, "look[s] thru this mind" (15), and its phenomena, including "birds nest fern / bromeliad, ceiba tree, and an arm / thick vine," "reflect [her] attempt / to display them / in the form of this body watching" (14/230). While recognizing the filters of the eye/I and her subjective stance as an embodied observer--"little Releases in time-space," she allows, are "personal to all, I suppose" (13)--poems/entries detailing the parts and particulars of Mexico do not render them separate objects viewed from a distance. Instead, internal and external phenomena look and live through each other; the poet and the world around her engage in the "cross-thinking" and "inter-speaking" that render boundaries between inside and outside worlds flexible and porous.
As Kyger "mak[es] a place / in the doorway of the Jaguar / Temple in the jungle," she undergoes an almost synesthesiac experience:
The Temple behind my back The room in which I sit flashes gold thru the satiny silver air (14/230)
In its evocation of the numinous halo or "elusive phenomenal substance" associated with aura, with something that "look[s] back at us" and blurs lines between me and not-me (Hansen 339), this gold and silver moment gestures toward the ineffable richness of open intersection between the individual "psyche" and "world existence." Later, Kyger presents Bill McNeill's new life in much the same terms--she dreams of him
showing a canvas painted in two parts of a Moon light path across the waters in silver and gold, from one existence into another. (29)
These depictions of silver- and gold-hued boundary crossings recall brief but immeasurably enriching moments of coincidence with the wider world. Such moments, it seems, constitute the primary aim and reward--the desired destination--of Kyger's travels.
In Phenomenological, vivid sensory encounters continue at the Temple of the Cross in Palenque, where Kyger's group is greeted by a butterfly she identifies as "the Ambassador" and "Guardian" of the place. The butterfly "sits on [her] hand,"
A wonderful jeweled ornament... on the very finger that writes this now. The continuing embellishment of Life in this ancient Epitome of grace (16/232)
An accompanying drawing by Donald Guravich portrays the butterfly in front of the Temple, in a perspective that imbues the butterfly with significance equivalent to that of the ancient edifice: the butterfly's small, transient being and the monumental, enduring temple appear equally relevant dwelling-places of world spirit (see fig. 9). The butterfly hereafter inhabits and guides Kyger's perception of Mexico, and much like the beautiful Desecheo species imbued with an aura that broadens, the Ambassador Butterfly offers Kyger a means of imaginative entry into the life of the place. She encounters it or its iridescent, prismatic energy over and over again, in various places and incarnations. The butterfly's color and motion are reflected in a full moon she describes as "red gold vehicle / for Sun's reflection, rising swiftly" (23). Kyger describes the spirit and sense of her Yucatan-inspired poetry as "that gold butterfly / wing[ing] from Palenque fly[ing] away from notebook / pages" (20), and she positions as "parallel" her friend "Bill's last days" and her encounter with "the Butterfly Guardian," an encounter that results in "transcendental clarity" (24).
Kyger also finds imaginative entry into different places through dreams, which she views as "a constant activity of the mind, a parallel universe as it were" ("Conversation" 98). Dream entries inDesecheo Notebook merge Desecheo Island and Bolinas, reflect on the personalities of fellow island sojourners, and highlight her sense of difference from her male companions. One dream-record draws her ex-husband Gary Snyder, his second wife, and their son into her Caribbean experience to share food, conversation, and a sense of "belong[ing]" (14/117). In another, she resolves to eschew silliness and get "down to business" in serious and "abstract" thought, only to confront the material, complexities of daily experience as a woman living amongst men:
Good lord I think I may / have buried some Tampax over there. There is /the son of the governor of Massachusetts turning over a / rock and looking sternly down. Gracious. We won't / mention that I'll just have to accept it as my kismet / on this desert Island stumbling around on rocks look- / ing for the ultimate lady-like way for the perfection / of toilet. (6/111)
Even though (or maybe because of) the submerged fears and conflicts excavated in dreams, Kyger credits her practice of "reporting dreams" in her notebook with enabling her to overcome the writer's block she had been experiencing prior to her Desecheo journey ("Conversation" 96), perhaps in part because dreams disrupt and dispute the waking mind's tendency to rend spirit from body, home from away, me from not-me.
Although as Jane Falk points out, dream-record entries inDesecheo Notebook are distinguished by their structure--they tend to appear in "block paragraph format" ("Journal" 998)--no one but Kyger (and maybe not even she) can definitively identify which entries or parts of entries constitute dream-records. The impossibility of differentiating dreaming from waking states illustrates that Kyger found such distinctions finally irrelevant. She agrees with Carl Jung and other psychoanalysts who view dreams as keys to "understanding '[one]self" ("Conversation" 98), and so affords dreams the same status and truth-value as conscious thought. (18) In fact, she suggests dreams provide access to truer, less filtered aspects of the self; because dreams are of the mind but not of the conscious mind, they reveal hidden "emotions and psychological states" and release "different languages and energies" ("Conversation" 98).
While some entries in Kyger's travel chapbooks consist entirely of dreams, others morph from waking to dreaming without warning or distinction. Still others self-consciously dissolve boundaries between conscious and unconscious experience, as in this early entry in Mexico Blonde, which begins with details of a weary train journey in the company of Guravich:
The long night proves to be uncomfortable and crowded. Great complaints fall into sleep and dreams. Suzuki Roshi and D.T. Suzuki are in the next room, Bill Berkson tells me. Well that's certainly enough to teach a little breathing patience. Great gusty winds in mountain monastery forest drive me in temple door, red tori under arm to find Suzuki Roshi pounding great prajnaparamita sutra drum. I join in hesitantly because I can't remember it all. But the vibrations feel so good. (2)
Despite discomforts--crowded travel and uncertain participationinZenpractices--the train dream resolves both projects in "good" feelings. (19) The entry's fusion of "the vibrations" of the pounding drum and the movement of the train produces a seamless dreaming/waking experience that mimics the desired result of travel in die interpenetration of inner and outer worlds.
Many chapbook poems/entries that are clearly not dream-records are nevertheless imbued with a dreamy quality that partakes in fhe feeling of simultaneous motion and suspension which often accompanies travel. In fhe Desecheo Notebook poem "Thursday," for example, fhe traveling poet transforms into a "Superman" figure who merges different personas, locations, and modes of being:
It's me too observing the dwellings by the train station as I fly by, carrying someone to this hotel room in Spain. When spring comes to the ocean eggs. History of the Island, this movie, subjective feelings and objective actions. He exists outside time & is the son of the maternal unconscious. (13/116)
While Superman might seem above and beyond the world of human striving, his "low flight" keeps him in and of that world, able to see freely and expansively (13/116). Kyger's low flight pulls together opposites--"super" and everyday acts, male and female being, subjective and objective perception, dreaming and waking states. All constitute elements of the life-world that reasserts its own enduring motion in the return of spring. The poem ends in the company of Jung's archetype of the wise old man, a figure both paternal and maternal who exists, like Superman and the poet-in-flight, outside dualistic restrictions. (20)
Kyger's second published travel chapbook begins and ends with the sort of movement attributed to both Superman and the traveling poet in Desecheo Notebook. Trip Out and Fall Back opens with an entry/poem that compares driving cross-country with "space travel" (1/136) and concludes with an explicit link between motion and poetry, in her desire for the "bullet-like speed and precision" through which her "mind connects in ways of delight" and communicates "truth way beyond [her] individual voice" (17/144). Kyger's travel texts repeatedly and insistently construct metaphors related to movement to express connection with the wider life-world. "The obliteration of restrains," she observes in Trip Out and Fall Back, "cause [s] the room to become spaceless / hurtled far above the buildings," and frees her to "love... all" (13/142).
In Kyger's representation, travel mimics the mind's constant probing of its outermost borders, its search for new points of departure that might enable moments of integration and connection with the wider world. Travel "broadens" Kyger's scales of reference and prompts her to create in her chapbooks a new discursive means to account for perceptions that inspire the emergence of "something" that "transforms, transvalues, translates" (Bartkowski xxvi). For her, this "something" constitutes a felt experience of the "spirit[ual]" connections human beings never cease weaving with/in "world existence," "the delicate thread spun so finely / over and over thru the centuries, past back over the / Greeks" (Desecheo 15/118).
(1) The original chapbook edition of Desecheo Notebook is unpaginated. I have assigned page numbers 1-30 to the text and also cite corresponding page numbers in Kyger's 2002 collection As Ever, which reproduces the entire Notebook.
(2) Kyger's view of the psyche as "a world existence" has obvious connections to "the Buddhist concept of mind--mind being this kind of larger, encompassing entity of which everything is a part" ("Conversation" 96). Zen Buddhism figures highly in Kyger's poetics. She studied in San Francisco and Japan, and taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, generally considered the "institutional center of American literary Buddhism" (Whalen-Bridge 157).
(3) The Japan and India Journals, probably Kyger's best-known work, is not a chapbook (generally, chapbooks are twenty to thirty pages in length and contain a series of poems dealing with a common subject or theme). Due to this generic difference and to the differences in focus and form discussed above, I dedicate this essay to the travel chapbooks only.
(4) Kyger also shared with other Beat writers her habit of daily notebook writing. Nancy Grace points to the "Beat movement literary practice of self-disclosure and confession" manifested in "the publication of letters, journals, and other private papers both as adjuncts to and as art tout court" ("Places" 135). Jane Falk suggests that "the conversational tone of Kyger's journals... conveys a sense of being in the present without conceptualizing the experience," "provide[s] a solution to her concerns about poetry's artificiality," and "shows the interest in spontaneity that she shared with Kerouac and the Beats" ("Journal" 998).
(5) Despite her sense of gender-related difference, as Amy Friedman points out, Kyger has in common "with other Beat writers her contemplation of Eastern religions, the elevation of quotidian reflections in her art, the repeated mention of other Beat writers that creates a sense of familiar artistic community, and a suggested patina of spontaneity in the generation of her writing" ("Joanne Kyger" 75). Kyger's friend Bill Berkson asserts that her "connection with the Beat writers, aside from matters of plain friendship, is grounded on mutual understandings of tradition and sources, poetic and philosophical" (325). For discussion of Kyger's position as a female poet within male-dominated literary communities, see Freidman, Grace, Russo, and Shaw.
(6) In addition to her links to the Beat movement, Kyger is also associated with the poets of the second wave San Francisco Renaissance and with the Bolinas, California writers' colony--all, in their own ways, restless groups. Kyger herself was a life-long traveler with a "self-admitted drive for adventure" (Friedman, "Kyger" 184). After returning to San Francisco from Japan, she went to Europe, traveled back and forth across the United States, spent time in the Caribbean, and took repeated trips to Mexico.
(7) "I always try to write my line," Kyger remarked, "so it reflects some movement of inflection" ("Conversation" 112). She told Nancy Grace that she strives for "a tension of lines so when [the line] breaks there's a certain energy that keeps you moving; that holds the end of the line and picks up on the next--the kinetics of what a line movement on the page is" ("Places" 149). Kyger credited Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" with enabling her to see "that it was possible to chart the actual breathing of the human voice on the page" ("The Community" par. 1). Michael Davidson notes that Kyger intended "her poetry to be gestural, 'an extension of [her] arm'" (188), and Berkson points out that she expressed "her aesthetic" stance in broad, though emphatic, terms such as energy, non-linear, line, (and generous line), and breath" (325).
(8) Patzcuaro is paginated 1-29; I cite corresponding page numbers in Kyger's 2007 collection About Now, in which the full text (with the exception of the final poem) is reproduced.
(9) Jane Falk notes that Kyger viewed the world "as one huge space, and the poet the recorder," a stance likely influenced by Olson, who was influenced in turn by Merleau-Ponty's view of the world not as "an object" but as "the field" of human experience ("Joanne Kyger" 125, 129-30).
(10) The original chapbook edition of Trip Out and Fall Back is unpaginated. I have assigned page numbers 1-17 to the text and also cite corresponding page numbers in Kyger's 2002 collection As Ever, which reproduces the full chapbook.
(11) The poem appears as an unbroken unit in As Ever.
(12) I have assigned page numbers 1-27 to Mexico Blonde. Only thirty copies were printed, which appear to be un-typeset copies of the actual notebook (see fig. 7), and the entry/poems are not reproduced elsewhere.
(13) Kyger endeavored, she explained, to share what she saw in lines that construct a "kind of space that vibrates its meaning" (Oppenheimer, Dorn, and Kyger 65)--a description that suggests a tangible, sensory medium of signification. Kyger likened her vibrating line to "the one-liner or the sampler on the wall.... It just stays there for a long time. You can go back into that one line and it will keep giving off overtones, so it doesn't have to sit there and be connected. It's connected but it's a different kind of space" (65).
(14) Rejection of "concepts," as Kyger observed, is also a Buddhist precept. "Zen Buddhists pointed out that concepts, ideas, are just ephemeral, so what really exists is you in the moment" ("Conversation" 104). As other commentators have suggested, Kyger consistently resists dualistic thought in her work; Jane Falk notes that Kyger's attention to "the problematic nature of... 'mind-body dualism'... originated in her college years" ("Joanne Kyger" 115). For discussion of intersections between Buddhism and phenomenology, see Park and Kopf
(15) The original chapbook version of Phenomenological is unpaginated; I have assigned page numbers 1-30 to the text, which appears in A Curriculum of the Soul, published by the Institute of Further Studies. Only a few Phenomenological poems are reproduced in later collections of Kyger's work. When possible, I cite corresponding page numbers from As Ever.
(16) Neruda seems to share Kyger's view of the centrality of ordinary, everyday experiences, asserting that "the writer's task has nothing to do with mystery or magic, and the poet's, at least, must be a personal effort for the benefit of all. The closest thing to poetry is a loaf of bread or a ceramic dish or a piece of wood lovingly carved, even if by clumsy hands" (49). Neruda views himself as a product of place, and his detailed, passionate descriptions of various landscapes and geographies have much in common with Kyger's work, especially her later poems, which "place her among our most diligent of ecological poets" (Russo, "Precious" 28).
(17) A reader might expect the term "phenomenological" to serve as an adjective or adverb, but the entity or an action it would modify is absent in the chapbook's title, leaving "phenomenological" to describe the book itself. Dan Coffey notes that "most of Kyger's non-poem works have been phenomenological in nature--using that discipline to reflect on the thought processes that are involved in observing the material world--but to actually call attention to that particular method in the book's title gives a self-consciousness to the work, above and beyond the self-consciousness of the T in the text of the journal entries. In this case, however, Kyger is using phenomenology to analyze the phenomenological method itself (par. 3). Lytle Shaw suggests that "Kyger's oscillation between a West Coast meditative poetics and an East Coast cultivation of dailiness is not so much a synthesis as it is a revelatory way of running one against the other--so that disembodied flights keep touching down into the gendered bodies and social contexts that make them possible" (81). Phenomenological was published in fulfillment of Kyger's "assignment" for the Curriculum of the Soul series, "a collaborative text in twenty-eight books derived from 'A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul' by Charles Olson" (Institute of Further Studies). Kyger described Olson's "Plan" as "a distinctive map with 223 names, subjects, ideas, topics, strewed across the page at all angles" ("The Community" par. 6). Publication of the series began in 1968 with Olson's Pleistocene Man (Institute of Further Studies). Following Olson's death, editor John Clarke "assigned topics from Olson's plan to selected poets" (Opstedal ch. 4). Titles in the now-complete text include Robert Duncan's Dante, Alice Notley's Homer's Art, Ed Sanders's Egyptian Hieroglyphs, John Thorpe's Matter, and Michael McClure's Organism (Institute of Further Studies).
(18) Kyger brought Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections with her to the island, and as a college student had been influenced by Erich Fromm, Robert Graves, and Joseph Campbell ("Conversation" 98; "Places" 143-44).
(19) Zen practices referenced in the dream-record include zazen, or seated meditation focused on breath--fundamental to Zen Buddhism. At points in her life, as Anne Waldman notes in her introduction to Strange Big Moon, Kyger "struggle[d] with" regulating her breathing and with "her... difficulty sitting still" (vii). Suzuki Roshi was a Buddhist monk and teacher with whom Kyger sat before going to Japan ("Joanne Kyger 2" par. 2). He played an important role in introducing Americans to Zen Buddhism. Kyger was acquainted with D.T Suzuki, a Buddhist scholar whose books were also influential in the U.S. (see Kyger's Crooked Cucumber interview for details).
(20) The final sentence of the poem consists of a quote from Jung. Kyger had thought "he" referenced Jesus Christ ("Conversation" 95,115)
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|Author:||Garden, Mary Paniccia|
|Publication:||Journal of Beat Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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