Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meng Chiao’s Late Poems

Meng Chiao (also spelled Meng Jiao) (751-814), a poet of the late Tang Dynasty era, has been something of a revelation for me.  Via the immense distraction but occasional wonders of modern-day social media, I saw a poetry friend post a couple of Meng’s works, translated by David Hinton, and immediately had to acquire the book (The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, Princeton University Press, 1996).  I had previously read the couple of short poems of Meng’s included in Witter Bynner’s 1929 translation (with the assistance of Kiang Kang-Hu) of the classic anthology Three-Hundred Poems of the T’ang (which Bynner titled The Jade Mountain), but hardly registered them.  As Hinton writes, Meng’s earlier work was “decidedly mediocre: conventional verse often mired in petty obsessions and inevitably undone by his penchant for the strange and surprising” (xiii).  A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang (1965) gives a good overview of Meng’s career, but Hinton’s Late Poems of Meng Chiao encompasses their broader breadth.

In these sequences, Meng has decided to foreground the “strange and surprising,” verging into what we might now call surrealism, marshaling intense images of the natural world, often of winter, ice, frozen streams, moonlight like sword-blades, ephemeral blossoms.  These long sequences allow for repetition of the images, with certain differences or variations on the theme, building up layers of meaning in the process of writing (and reading) them.  Hinton points out that such larger sequences were rare in Chinese poetry at this time, and that Meng’s “innovations anticipated landmark developments in the modern western tradition by a millennium” (xv).  In Hinton’s translation, they do read rather like avant-garde, twentieth-century American poetry, a bit like William Carlos Williams or George Oppen perhaps.  Without facing originals or some discussion of the translation process, it’s hard to tell how much of this effect comes from Hinton himself (for example, I suspect Meng’s original Chinese lines were end-stopped, whereas Hinton frequently enjambs them), but in any case the images and repetition come through to give a quite stunning sense of what Meng was doing here.

Though informed by Taoism and its affirmation of change and the cyclic nature of life, Meng’s worldview is somewhat harsh, at times pessimistic: “The Way of heaven / warns against fullness: it just empties away” (70).  Of poetic “fame,” he writes in his elegy for Lu Yin, “after a long illness, your body lies waiting // among all those prize books hungry mice / shredded and scattered through the house” (5).  The keynote, throughout, though, is winter’s ice and cold, or, as in these lines from “Autumn Thoughts,” the foreboding of coming winter:

Bitter winds sob among thorn-date branches,
wu-t’ung leaves now faces of frost on high,

and as old insects cry parched-iron cries,
a startled animal howls lone, jade-pure howls. (74)
Perhaps, it could be said, Meng’s poems themselves are “lone, jade-pure howls.” Though he sparked a significant if short-lived alternative movement in ancient Chinese poetry (one of his acolytes being Li He, who I wrote about here), Meng seems still to be somewhat overlooked in the West, despite Hinton’s now 22-year-old reclamation project.  However, there is a bleak beauty in these late poems of his.  Not only do they make up some of the greatest of Tang-era poetry, but they also, I would suggest, speak to our present moment, however obliquely — philosophically, politically (the late Tang was a period of political uncertainty, corruption, and war, and this hangs in the background of Meng’s work), and metaphorically.  Here is one poem from Meng’s “Cold Creek,” utterly, shockingly un-ignorable:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Haniel Long and Kropotkin

In my essay “Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda: Documentary Form and 1930s Political Poetry” (College Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, 2015), I discussed Long’s progressive political orientation, especially his embrace of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879) (indeed, Long writes a whole section of the Memoranda [1935] inspired by George).  I also noted his suspicion of fanatics, whatever side of the political spectrum they happened to lean toward.  For example, throughout the first sections of the Memoranda, Long writes a lot about Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie, his henchman Clay Frick, and the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate Frick in response to Frick’s crushing of the 1892 Homestead steelworkers’ strike.  While Long is completely on the side of the workers, for example lauding them as “more gleaming, than skein of metal” (16), he does not affirm Berkman’s actions.  In fact, he equates them with Frick’s and portrays both men as fanatics, one in the service of capitalism and the other of anarchism: “Frick was sure God was with him. // So was Berkmann [sic]” (30).

The problem here, for Long, is what he sees as the excesses of ideology, or of ideologically driven, self-important individuals.  In his book-length meditation on Whitman, Walt Whitman and the Springs of Courage (1938), Long attacks “our twentieth century world of megalomaniacs, neurotics, and convicts locked up in the jail of themselves and their theories” (43).  In place of such “theories,” Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, posits the necessity to overcome the self and move beyond such egotism: “Some people are not afraid things can overpower them,” he writes; “Some people can accept things without forcing their will upon them” (30).  While Long eschews prescriptive dogmas, it does not however mean that he constructs Pittsburgh Memoranda in the absence of any sort of political, philosophic, or economic foundation, and of course Henry George is important for him. 

But there are other thinkers who inform this work, including the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin.  While Long’s dismissal of Berkman might suggest that he was hostile to anarchism itself, this is not quite the case.  In an interview with Mary Frances Mackel, Long avers, “I have been greatly influenced by Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid as a Factor in
Evolution” (qtd. in Benjamin A. Botkin, Introduction, Notes for a New Mythology and Pittsburgh Memoranda, 1971).  As David Kadlec summarizes in his book Mosaic Modernism: Anarchism, Pragmatism, Culture (2000), “Peter Kropotkin is perhaps the best-known example of an anarchist who openly engaged with the writings of Charles Darwin.  In his 1902 treatise Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued for cooperation rather than competition as a guiding principle of evolution; that work became one of the most widely read anarchist texts of the twentieth century” (250).  Kadlec numbers Kropotkin among the ranks of “nonviolent anarchists” (42), which further helps to explain Long’s willingness to extol him, where he discounts Berkman.

Though not explicitly referenced in Pittsburgh Memoranda, Kropotkin’s influence is apparent.  In Mutual Aid, he attacks the “reckless prosecution of personal interests” (1955 edition, 283) and “the self-assertion of the individual . . . in its efforts to attain personal or caste superiority” (295).  In Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long too attacks “self-assertion” (30) and the egotism of those he calls the “granite men” (12) or “the Napoleon-man” (85).  At the same time, Kropotkin makes clear that his emphasis on collectivity and cooperation does not come at the expense of individual expression, with “its much more important although less evident function of breaking through the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual.  In other words, there is the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element” (295).  Similarly, in the “Duse” section of Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long argues that “the need for the disappearance of the individual / has come upon us — but never of the individual soul” (63-64).  While Long is not an anarchist (following George, Long sees a role for the state as administrator of an egalitarian society), Kropotkin’s cooperative anarchism could be said to inform the dynamic between the individual and the collective that plays such a major role in this book, indeed in much of Long’s poetry.

Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, writes about political corruption, the growing power of corporations, and the exploitation of workers.  While his braiding of the thinking of Kropotkin and George is idiosyncratic, it is not to say it is easily dismissed.  It makes poetic sense, and, more than 80 years later, perhaps it can still even be inspiring.  Kropotkin formulated his political ideas in Mutual Aid by observing nature, and Long notes that “Science / teaches its lesson with a ruthless quiet” (83).  As he builds toward the conclusion of Pittsburgh Memoranda, he attacks the corruption that had befallen the democracy of his own time, but suggests hopefully that “The way of political action still remains”:

. . . Humility and brotherly love
and a knowledge of corporations
and a knowledge of mass production
and a recollection of the ancient truths
and thoughtful watching of how a good vine bears its grapes—
these are to be among the guides for action.  (83)
Finally, it is the collective power latent in the people that Long identifies as the mechanism for confronting and resisting political oppression.  As he comes home to Pittsburgh and observes the city through the smoke and fog, he gives us these lines:
Despite the horrors of my time, I knew
(and knew it with the greatest joy life gives),
that there were people in that hidden city
seeking the laws of life, mingling their knowledge,
suffering but finding peace in one another,
and learning more and more not to wish power
over anyone but themselves. (84)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hüsker Dü, Savage Young Dü / Extra Circus

Savage Young Dü is the Numero Group’s long-awaited box-set collection of early Hüsker Dü recordings (four vinyl records and a hardcover book, also available on CD), from their earliest demos and live stuff in 1979, up through the recordings of their first two albums (Land Speed Record [1982] and Everything Falls Apart [1983]), and even live performances anticipating the recording of Metal Circus (1983).  This material is significant musically in itself, but also for filling in an important historical gap in the development of American rock’n’roll, especially punk and hardcore.  HD were up there with Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, et al. as one of the simultaneously quintessential and most original of hardcore bands.

Hüsker Dü’s “theme song” “Do You Remember” (which translates the Danish/Norwegian name of the Minnesota band) dates to a 1979 demo, and fittingly starts off the collection.  It’s a heavy punk number, with strong bar chords and a Ramones-like mid-tempo feel.  The next tune, “Sore Eyes,” foretells the combination of melodic chord progressions and vocals with the energy of hardcore that characterizes much of their more well-known work.  It is interesting to notice, right off the bat, how the seeds of their signature sound are sown in their earliest recordings.  At the same time, we see them in this early period making forays into other sounds, experimenting with poppy new-wave tunes and post-punk (“Outside” has hints of Joy Division or perhaps the Cure in places). Other early highlights include a cover of Johnny Thunders’s “Chinese Rocks” and a live 1980 version of “Data Control” (which song was later the highlight of the Land Speed Record album).

Beginning record two of the collection is Hüsker Dü’s first single, “Amusement” b/w “Statues,” which exhibits a post-punk Pere Ubu or Gang of Four-like sound and suggests the confused reaction of the audience at the time — other songs from this 1980 recording session which were not released are in HD’s by-then signature punk style (“Writer’s Cramp” and “Let’s Go Die”).  An early live version of “Wheels” (which was later recorded for Everything Falls Apart) is heard originally here in an industrial mode, with Grant Hart on a Casio keyboard and Bob Mould unexpectedly playing rudimentary drums. Greg Norton’s “Termination” sounds like an outtake from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.  HD finally come into their own, both according to the historical account and to this listener’s ears, after their cross-country (or -countries, since they played in Canada too) 1981 tour, which resulted in the live recording of the fast-paced Land Speed Record.

As for Land Speed Record, the original is sludgy and I was not bowled over by it when I got it in late 1982.  This is probably why I didn’t buy the subsequent “In a Free Land” 7” at the time, when I could have, which of course I regret — so it is nice to have the songs now, as that EP I think is the best of their very early releases, and puts forward a still-relevant political stance.  The original tape of the LSR album was lost, and Numero, working with Grant Hart, found another, similar live recording from the same time period to make up an “alternate” version of the album.  The new version actually sounds a lot better to me, but I was a tiny bit disappointed that it didn’t have “Data Control” and others.  Yes, those songs are there in other parts of the anthology, but it isn’t the same as having a fully replicated LSR album.  What we do have, though, is better than the original version.

Obviously, all of this material is great.  But from the early press releases, I expected actual “re-issue”-style packages of stand-alone albums for Land Speed Record and Everything Falls Apart, with reproductions of the original covers and lyrics sheets.  Instead, those recordings are contained on one side each of the ongoing anthology package.  It doesn’t matter that much to me, as I have the original albums, but it was just a little different than what I was expecting.  All wonderful listening, though.  The new LSR better exhibits Hüsker Dü’s speedy hardcore sound, and this package includes part of the second set from the LSR August ’81 show that didn’t appear on the original, including an early version of “Diane.”  EFA is nicely remastered and sounds amazing.  The last side includes live material from late 1982 that was shortly to be recorded for the 1983 12” EP Metal Circus (SST Records) — e.g. “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Real World,” “Out on a Limb” — and these are blazingly tight versions.  The box-set fittingly ends with an announcer saying, in a Minnesota accent, “Let’s hear it for one of the greatest hardcore bands in the country, the Hüskers, huh?”  Whoever he was, he was absolutely right.

The accompanying book is well-written and nicely printed, with tons of photos, flyers, and ephemera.  Incidentally, it includes two photos from a 1983 Love Hall show in Philadelphia, the first time I saw Hüsker Dü.  The textual narrative traces the band’s origins from the very beginnings, highlights how early their connections with Black Flag and the SST people were, and takes them up through late 1982.  After this, of course, their SST releases were recorded (Metal Circus, the great Zen Arcade [1984], and so on) as they moved beyond hardcore (though they were never formulaic to begin with), leading eventually to major-label success.  But Savage Young Dü stops there, keeping its focus on the earlier years of the band, a seminal period in the development of a seminal band.

Numero Group has also concurrently released a separate 7” of the outtakes from the Metal Circus sessions, titled Extra Circus, which looks ahead tangentially into the next stage of their evolution.  This comprises the songs that for whatever reason were left off of the SST 12” and that all together would have made up a full-length LP.  I like how Numero imitated the SST layout of the labels (and back cover), along with an alternative color front photo of the mysterious office from the same shoot.

There are five songs: “Heavy Handed,” “You Think I’m Scared,” “Won’t Change,” “Is Today the Day?” and “Standing by the Sea” (the latter was later rerecorded for Zen Arcade).  Most of them are hard-hitting punk/hardcore blasts (a few recalling Black Flag’s sound on Damaged), which leads one to think that they were possibly originally omitted in order to highlight the band’s burgeoning melodic songwriting skills.  Much has also been written about HD’s disillusion with the growing conformism of the hardcore scene.  That said, Metal Circus is still pretty punky, so who really knows.  In any case, this record sheds new light on the broader project and suggests, to my mind anyway, that it should have been a full-length album, with all twelve of the tracks included.  There is not one song here that is somehow lacking or second-rate.

Taken as a whole, the 69 songs of Savage Young Dü and the five on Extra Circus create a sonic portrait of a group moving from its already strong beginnings to the height of its powers.  They reveal Hüsker Dü not only as an important punk band, but one of the greatest American rock’n’roll bands of all time.  Along with Metal Circus proper and Zen Arcade, this collects the most indispensable chunk of their music in one exhaustive anthology (and paired 7

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thinking Continental Is Published

Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien, is now officially out in the world.  I have a poem in this multigenre, multidisciplinary ecocritical anthology.

The book is 378 pages long, includes 15 photographs, yet is quite affordable.  As the blurb describes it:

In response to the growing scale and complexity of environmental threats, this volume collects articles, essays, personal narratives, and poems by more than forty authors in conversation about “thinking continental” — connecting local and personal landscapes to universal systems and processes — to articulate the concept of a global or planetary citizenship.

Reckoning with the larger matrix of biome, region, continent, hemisphere, ocean, and planet has become necessary as environmental challenges require the insights not only of scientists but also of poets, humanists, and social scientists. Thinking Continental braids together abstract approaches with strands of more-personal narrative and poetry, showing how our imaginations can encompass the planetary while also being true to our own concrete life experiences in the here and now.
It can be ordered direct from the publisher here:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ghost City Tapes, Vol. 1

Recently, Ghost City Press (publisher of my chapbook The Muddy Banks) brought together a compilation of spoken-word poetry from a number of the poets it has published.  It is called Ghost City Tapes, Volume 1, and includes two tracks of mine, where I read poems about the Pittsburgh neighborhood called Uptown.  Check it out (for free) here:

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Six Poems at Empty Mirror

I have six new(ish) poems published at Empty Mirror, an excellent journal of surrealist and post-Beat literature.  Read them here:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Retrospect: Kerouac, On the Road

I was prompted to set down these thoughts on Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) by Hank Kalet, who has been writing a series of reflections on the same topic on his blog (starting here).

I first read On the Road I guess when I was about 17, so late 1983 or early ’84.  It was probably at the suggestion of my father, who was a professor of English.  I had up to that point been into Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke, and other German and non-German existentialist sorts of writers.  Hermann Hesse, as well.  Around the same time as I read On the Road, I started reading other Beat writers — I got into Ferlinghetti and Corso around then too.

Upon first reading On the Road, of course I was dazzled by the long-ranging adventures of it, the
“plot” such as it is, the wild search for kicks, etc., and though I was capable of tuning into the aspect of literary language, it was really more the content that I became enamored of, and the romanticized vision of America, a kind of nostalgia for something I had not really experienced.  I didn’t pick up on the fact that it’s actually fairly pessimistic, especially as it moves toward the ending (despite the fantasy of Sals relationship with “Laura”), until my later re-readings of the novel.  As Kerouac himself wrote in a 1960 letter, “I’m middle aged now and no longer an enthusiastic college boy lyrically feeling America.”

In my early readings of the novel, I thought Kerouac’s depiction of Dean Moriarty (based of course on Neal Cassady) was simply as this heroic, charismatic figure who flouted straight conventions and so forth.  Somehow the ending just never sank in.  Over time, it became clear, as my own understanding of how literature works became more clear, that Sal rejects Dean and moves on from him, and that Dean, while being representative of a certain American type, is ultimately not portrayed as a model for a fully realized person to follow.

Indeed, Dean is depicted toward the end of On the Road almost as a ranting, nonsensical idiot.  I think it is in Desolation Angels that the protagonist Jack Duluoz relates his hesitance to show Cody (the Dean/Neal figure) the just-arrived copy of his “Road” novel.  The portrait of him isn’t always that glowing.  The problematic aspects of the novel — cultural appropriation, “slumming,” the negative portrayal of women generally, Dean’s treatment of women in particular (his broken thumb) — also became much clearer later on.

I’ve probably read On the Road about six times.  Most recently, it was in the last several years, when I taught it to undergrads a couple of times, and it went not as well as I had hoped.  There’s been a generational shift, I think.  Part of it seems to me short-sighted, if understandable: students being focused on jobs and careers, and so traveling “on the road” holds less appeal for them than it did for previous college-age kids.  But I think there is also much more awareness from the start now about the negative stuff mentioned above, which must be a good thing, though it makes it hard for some to appreciate what remains valuable about the novel.

At present, I see On the Road as a kind of picaresque — the Sal character is deliberately rendered as naive earlier on, and comes to some degree of awareness about Dean’s exploitative nature and the limitations of the American myth (in tandem I suppose) only over time.  In that way it is a smart novel, which ultimately subverts the very myths it is famous for.  I appreciate it for its style and its critical view more so than plot now, even though, if we’re going to talk about style, I think Visions of Cody (an alternative version of On the Road) is the superior novel and probably Kerouac’s masterpiece (that and Doctor Sax maybe).  I still think Kerouac is one of the greatest prose stylists in English of all time, along with James Joyce and Djuna Barnes (though I’m probably forgetting a couple of crucial names here).

Monday, July 31, 2017

On Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971)

I have recently been reading Denise Levertov’s late-60s/early-70s Vietnam-era poetry, and liking it very much — especially To Stay Alive (1971).  This is essentially a book-length poem (made up of shorter, inter-related poems) that occasionally incorporates found material and documents her experience opposing the war.  Especially given the political turmoil of our current moment, Levertov provides one possible way forward in regard to the writing of political poetry.

I had remembered reading somewhere, years ago now, that Levertov was attacked for this period of her writing, that supposedly it was slack or too close to sloganeering.  However, I found that accusation not to be accurate.  Sure, sometimes she is direct or personal, but to me this was powerful and often inspiring.  For example:

Brown gas-fog, white
beneath the street lamps.
Cut off on three sides, all space filled
with our bodies.
    Bodies that stumble
in brown airlessness, whitened
in light, a mildew glare,
    that stumble
hand in hand, blinded, retching. (“At the Justice Department”)
The enjambment of lines sets up interesting moments of surprise or expectations subverted, while the use of assonance and repetition lends a subtle layer of soundplay to what some at the time took as being merely prose-like free verse.

In certain moments, Levertov’s work in this collection is outright brutal, but justified in being so given its subject matter.  She writes in “Life at War” of

. . . the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
This last line was one that Levertov’s close poet-friend Robert Duncan objected to as “an effect and tone of disgusted sensuality” (see Ange Mlinko’s excellent article on their debate over political poetry, here, from which the latter quote comes).  I don’t think Levertov was merely trying to draw attention to herself, as Duncan accuses her of doing; I think she’s employing the powers at her disposal, of language, to both render the awfulness of the war and to challenge the reader to confront it.  Duncan, however, may not have ultimately agreed that this can be part of poetry’s job.

In further researching all of this, I was reminded that the prominent Language-poetry critic Marjorie Perloff also attacked Levertov.  The same Marjorie Perloff who more recently has defended Kenneth Goldsmith and his appropriative reading of the Michael Brown autopsy report, and her subsequent statements on the matter that led Fred Moten to characterize her as “ignorant” and “cold-hearted” (see here, and here with further links).  Suddenly it all made sense; Perloff was on the wrong side both then and now.  As much as I like Duncan’s writing, and as much as I would even agree with many of the insights that later came out of Language poetry, people like Duncan and Perloff really seem(ed) to believe that poetry is somehow insulated from the wider world of politics and protest, that as Duncan wrote in 1971: “I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt — I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right. . .” (qtd. in Mlinko).  As if Levertov could not do both.  (I’ll leave aside, here, Duncan’s dismissive tone toward oppressed peoples and women.)

Perloff in a 1996 essay seconded Duncan’s suggestion that To Stay Alive was merely the outburst of an hysterical woman complaining about her own status: “Is what seems like a one-dimensional and simplistic lyric outburst against injustice or racism to be praised because its author is a member of a minority group and hence not to be subjected to the literary norms of the dominant race and class?” (“Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience’: The Duncan/Levertov Correspondence”).  Like the New Critics before her, Perloff seems to believe in some sort of inherent, overarching criterion for “good” writing, and, more insultingly, that Levertov’s work was only taken seriously because she was a woman (whose father was a Jew who converted to Christianity).

In retrospect, Perloff and Duncan now seem woefully out of touch.  But even according to their own arbitrary premises, I would assert that Levertov’s political writing is also “good” poetry in itself.  Not only does she pay attention to language in interesting and compelling ways (with only  a couple brief examples given above), but as William Carlos Williams admitted in a famous interview, sometimes poetry can even be “a fashionable grocery list,” before going on to assert, “Anything is good material for poetry.  Anything.  I’ve said it time and time again” (The William Carlos Williams Reader, p. 100).  Levertov achieves what Williams does with sometimes quotidian material.

Additionally, it is worthwhile reading To Stay Alive is in the context of the documentary political poem, which has also been employed to great effect by Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Haniel Long, Charles Reznikoff, and many others.  Levertov notes in a 1972 interview that she had sought “the elbowroom of a diary form, incorporating prose passages as Williams had done in Paterson . . . and as Haniel Long had done in Pittsburgh Memorandum [sic]” (“‘Everyman’s Land’: Ian Reid Interviews Denise Levertov.” Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, UP of Mississippi, 1998, p. 74).

In her monograph on Levertov’s political poetry, Audrey T. Rodgers observes a “sense of immediacy” to the work that, rather than undermining it as Duncan and Perloff claim, “endows the whole with a high level of aesthetic value” (Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement, p.104).  Certainly there has been much political poetry that thrives on a similar sense of immediacy — Amiri Baraka comes to mind, to give just one other example — and it is often the case here.  Rather than feeling that Levertov was violating some abstract notion about “getting the words right,” in reading To Stay Alive I saw that she was in fact getting the right words, invigorating, beautiful words at that.

In Perloff’s case, it seems possible anyway that maybe really she just could be a political conservative in the guise of a radical-poetry critic (she was also part of Jacket 2’s recent attempt to explain away Gertrude Stein’s enthusiastic support for Marshal Pétain, for example; see here and here), and the fact that Levertov opposed Perloff’s appointment at Stanford (see Donna Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, p. 355) would not have helped matters.  However, both she and Duncan seem to me completely misguided about Levertov and political poetry more generally, almost as if they were unable to see poetry as more than one narrow thing.

Sure, there is bad political poetry, just as there is bad Language poetry.  There is even good writing by people with bad politics (Pound, Eliot, and Stein come immediately to mind).  None of this is in dispute here.  But I find it extremely short-sighted that Levertov was written off by people who set themselves up as aesthetic arbiters, yet were seemingly prompted more by partisanship (be it strictly poetic or possibly political as well) than any real sense of what “good” poetry is or isn’t.  I hope that, as time goes on, work like To Stay Alive will continue to be revisited and reconsidered, against the wave of criticism that has been set up against it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Billy Mills, The City Itself

Billy Mills’s new collection, The City Itself (Hesterglock Press, 2017), employs compact and intricate soundplay, occasional lyric flashes, documentary historical material, and even personal narrative in order to make an argument about the interplay between urban and natural spaces and human beings’ place in the network of things. Divided into five sections plus a “Coda,” the book might initially seem like a patchwork or amalgamation of unrelated pieces, but an attentive reading quickly reveals that certain overarching themes wend their way throughout: access to housing, humanity’s role(s) in the continuum of the environment, the ephemerality of existence, and language as a material (if imperfect) medium for knowing the world, among others.

The book’s first section, “A Short History of Dominick Street,” incorporates found texts on the subjects of living conditions and poverty in that area of Dublin, where Mills himself was born. Drawing on newspaper accounts and books, this material goes as far back as 1847 to document a series of bread riots, continuing on to focus on the deterioration of this once upscale part of Dublin (which descended into slum tenement housing by the turn of the twentieth century). Mills also incorporates transcripts of Dáil debates on these issues from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In so doing, he sets the stage for wider explorations of the need for home and shelter in what I guess we could term an impersonal universe, or perhaps more to the point a laissez-faire, free-market economy.

This technique of including found materials calls to mind the documentary (and often political) work of American poets in the 1930s-40s: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” (in her collection U.S. 1), Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda, and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (both Rukeyser and Long before her similarly replicate U.S. congressional transcripts in their works). It is interesting to see Mills do this in an Irish context, at the same time bringing a new perspective to the genre. It is something we are encountering again in contemporary American poetry (Layli Long Soldier’s recent collection WHEREAS being one salient example, and Tyehimba Jess’s Olio also immediately comes to mind), but not so often today in Ireland and Europe as far as I know.

Having thus elaborated an historical backdrop, which anticipates themes and tropes he returns to later in the book, Mills proceeds with a series of imagistic poems titled “Pensato” (I previously reviewed a selection of them, here). These utilize short, clipped lines and are often dense with assonance, slant rhyme, and alliteration. The first piece reads simply, “listen / do not // sing it is enough” — and indeed these are poems worth listening to. One example is:

low in the west
against the almost
dark the finest
waxing crescent (56)
Here, we hear the assonating ‘o’ sound in “low” and “almost”; the near-rhymes of “west,” “against,” and “almost”; “west” picked up by the rhyme with “finest”; the ‘w’-alliteration of “west” and “waxing” connecting the first and fourth lines; vague sound echoes throughout with the harsher ‘k’-‘x’-‘cr’; and finally the ‘ess’ that links “west,” finest,” and “crescent.”

The poem is also very close to a haiku, with (perhaps coincidentally) 17 syllables and the focus on presenting an image from nature that is both simple and revelatory. Often, though, these “Pensato” pieces are closer to early Gaelic poetry, which similarly tends to focus on nature through impactful and concise language. As Mills himself has written in an ecocritical essay titled “Sustainable Poetry,” “From the 8th century haiku-like lyrics of intense perception to the onomastics of the Metrical Dindshenchus, medieval Irish nature poetry concerned itself with the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them.” Though he refers specifically to the work of Maurice Scully in this regard, Mills brings a similar approach to his own writing, as set forth in this piece:

that there are things
& that these things are
as they are
& nothing is implied

everything spins
patterns of light
of stuff a world
explicable & strange (37)
This poem could be said to encapsulate both Mills’s approach to the material world and to poetry/language as a material thing in the world (one could even draw a connection here to the Objectivist poets of the first half of the twentieth century). That the world is “explicable” is at least partly ironic — it is explicable to an extent, but as Mills also writes in “Sustainable Poetry,” the poetry that he aspires to create “asserts that many things are that have never been perceived, and that for most things that are perceived, the perception is imperfect.” And that is okay too; they can simply remain “patterns of light.”

Following “Pensato,” the next section (utilizing prose) is “The Island.” It locates itself in the city of Limerick, combining history with a first-person personal perspective as Mills explores intersections between natural and urban space. Commenting on the dark limestone used to build many of the city’s structures, he writes, “In a sense, the fabric of the old city has grown out of the earth in which it sits” (65-66). This geological linkage between landscape and city is reminiscent of Manuel De Landa’s observation in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997) that “We live in a world populated by structures — a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history. . . . In turn, these synergistic combinations, whether of human origin or not, become the raw material for further mixtures” (25-26).

Like De Landa, Mills as an eco-poet is interested in understanding the ways in which people interact with, think about, and live within the environment. Also coming into renewed focus in this section is the theme of home and our need for livable housing. Part of “The Island” harks back in tone and strategy to the first section, with further reference to Irish government debates and initiatives for public housing schemes. There is a sense of fragility, with both socio-economic inequity and flooding from the River Shannon threatening Limerick’s inhabitants — setting this up, certain lines from the preceding “Pensato” section depict the violent action of a flooded river, with a floating tree trunk seen smashed up against a bridge (e.g. p. 46).

Thus, as the collection progresses, we begin to see its different threads coming together or being revisited in new contexts. The title section, “The City Itself,” builds on Mills’s earlier, tentative thinking about natural versus built environments, now positing the city as a continually evolving idea: “the city itself held in mind // as once it was imperfect & lovely / as it still is & will be” (71). Because it is in a state of endless becoming, both as a city “itself” and as a part of the wider weave of time and landscape, the city is also “never itself” (74) and “not itself” because “it fades / lacks definition / time wavers. . .” (79). Mills’s own perspective similarly moves, like the grass in the breeze, coming to see the city as a liminal space that cannot be completely separated from nature, its litter and detritus mixing with the plant-life that envelopes the city’s outskirts.

In “The City Itself,” Mills also writes that “this human name / is not itself anything world / closes in & night with its sleep” (81). There are multiple meanings here, with the enjambed lines setting up two immediate and related possibilities: that the word “city” cannot wholly contain the ever-changing entity that it denotes, either physically or conceptually; it “is not itself anything.” What then to make of “it is not itself anything world”? As Mills avers in “Sustainable Poetry,” “The physical sciences take [the] view . . . that the world is essentially physical, and that languages, including mathematics, are tools we can use to create increasingly accurate maps of it.” Clearly, then, as a thoroughgoing materialist, he does not aspire after some ideal vision of the city that transcends the grubby physical day-to-day “world.” Rather, the emphasis is on the limitation of our own tools for understanding of the world, and the inability of language to completely encompass it, foregrounding the poet’s work within that awareness.

A third idea is also embedded in those same lines, the “world / closes in & night with its sleep,” which relates to one of the volume’s aforementioned overarching themes, home or having a safe “place” in the world, a habitation. The penultimate section, “On the Bridge,” picks up on all of these ideas, self-reflexively questioning the “I” as subject, observing a heron from a bridge, and undermining the presumption that language can bring over the object, the thing itself: “This is a sentence about a place. Of course, it isn’t” (85). Mills is also conscious of avoiding the tendency to anthropomorphize the heron he observes perching on a rock: “It is tempting to call it patience, but the bird simply has nothing else to do, no concept of anything else to do” (88). Finally, there are two herons flying, one of whom lands on a “branchless trunk” and “Settles. A nest” (89). There is again wonderful, clear imagery here, and perhaps even metaphor (herons settle on their nests in the river, which as we have seen is subject to flooding, just as we make our homes where we can, be it corporation housing or even if necessary in slum tenements).

The two poems of the “Coda” sum up and recapitulate the ideas that Mills has been working with throughout The City Itself. The first focuses on the ephemerality of human civilization and our attempts to carve out a permanent place for ourselves in the universe:

cities visible below
spread in the night the
darkness broken

clusters of light of
energy expended
to banish that which

surrounds us. . . (93)
In other words, the city light we generate to protect ourselves from the “darkness” (of death or harm) are mere flickers. Or, as the end of this poem suggests, our lives and words are merely “carved // in air” or “a shape / on the river / here & then not” (93). It is of course simply the reality of corporeal existence, which Mills renders poignantly yet unsentimentally.

Finally, we are left with “words that name nothing / that sound outside themselves,” along with the images of the birds, the river, and a heron’s eye watching a watcher, itself catching a glimpse of “the city’s curve” (94). There is a hint here at the end of some broader philosophy, one that affirms the materiality of the world and of language while remaining agnostic about first causes — “what happens hidden feed / & flows a source appease / this moment again” (94) — where the sounds this poetry makes in the moment are of equal import to the “message.”

As a multigenre work, Mills’s The City Itself juxtaposes heterogeneous materials in consonance with the De Landaian perspective, creating “synergistic combinations” of modes and sources that in this book “become the raw material for further mixtures.” It is a subtly absorbing reading experience, and as a collection it exemplifies some of the author’s familiar poetic strategies (if indeed you are familiar with his work), while perhaps looking forward to even further “synergies” and “mixtures.”

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Haniel Long, “Easter 1933”

Haniel Long, photographed by Ernest Knee
I’ve been reading the modernist poets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and among that group Haniel Long, whose Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935) I’ve previously discussed. In my research and reading of Long, I was also struck by his poem “Easter 1933,” which was not included in any of his collections, but was published in Poetry magazine and can be read for free in their archives (read it in full, here). It doesn’t quite fit with the direction I’ve gone in in my other readings of Long or the Santa Fe group, but it’s such a good poem. So, here is my take on it.

After the 1928 publication of The Turquoise Trail anthology, and moving into the 1930s, the Santa Fe scene continued to thrive. Poetry designated its December 1933 issue as a “Southwestern Number,” guest-edited by John Gould Fletcher. Long was among its contributors. His sole offering, a 72-line poem titled “Easter 1933,” was in many ways that issue’s centerpiece. A sophisticated handling of various mythic elements, political commentary, and strands of personal experience, it takes as its subject an Easter visit to the Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico, a site near the Acoma pueblo and Mount Taylor (a mountain considered sacred by Native Americans). It begins with snippets of conversation among those on the sojourn, rendered paratactically, and then moves to a description of

the Mesa, ivory chiefly, slanting up to pink —
precipitous, what we had come to see,
high above the rippling white
wind-written-upon sand. (138-39)
There is a sense of amity among the group and awe before this signal landmark. Being at the mesa, approaching the desert with reverence, on a day holy in the Christian calendar (Long’s father was a Methodist missionary), sparks a meditation on history, civilization, and politics. Putting Acoma pueblo among a number of other noteworthy cities — “magnificent Chinese cities”; Florence; Rome; Richmond, Virginia; Vienna (139) — Long goes beyond the familiar pattern of primitive-equals-good and civilization-equals-bad that he and other Santa Fe poets had vaunted only a few years before in The Turquoise Trail. In this poem, none of these cities represents a utopic situation (not even Acoma), but
Despite the faults a scrutiny discovers,
they were magnificent, and to think of them
is to receive obscure sleep-giving pleasures
like those from mountain or butte. (139)
Carl Redin, Enchanted Mesa, oil on canvas, 1929
Long considers cities and the natural world alike and finds joy in each. It is a more nuanced view than the stark binaries between the decadent city and the spirituality of the desert that many of the Santa Fe poets asserted in the 1920s. While the focus is still on the centrality of land and nature, “Easter 1933” sees Long moving toward a synthesis of different mythological frameworks and modes of living.

This is reflected in the poem’s form, a discontinuous, free-verse pastiche of images, thoughts, and quoted conversation (not unlike the documentary style used in Pittsburgh Memoranda). As it continues on, Long returns to a vision of the mesa, then relays a companion’s comment that “Something is always happening to wonderful people and cities / to hurl them into the age in which they live,” which prompts the unspoken rejoinder, “No matter what you say, / democracy for me is still a virgin, / has never been tried” (139-40). Celebrating “the mystical love of one’s own landscape” (140), Long suddenly drops in an allusion to the Grimm fairy tale “The Three Snake-Leaves,” then ends:

Ask the Navajo, ask the Zuñi — ask the Acomanero
why he thrusts his prayer-wands
into the flank of Mount Taylor.

. . . anyway, we’ve broken through our winter crust —
taking time to be with the earth and the sun,
hearing meadow-larks and mocking-birds,
and visiting with a strange mesa
all by itself in the shifting sands. (140; ellipsis in original)
As with other Santa Fe poets, Long retains his interest in Native American myth and ritual, but now it is portrayed as one strand among many in the more multifarious worldview he constructs. It stands alongside the Christian myth of Easter (rebirth, “we’ve broken though our winter crust”), of the ideal of American democracy (which for Long has yet to be achieved, “has never been tried”), of great civilizations (“magnificent” cities), of European legend (Grimm fairy tales, themselves often distilled from earlier European mythological material), and so on. The particulars no longer matter for Long; as he had written in Notes for a New Mythology (1926), “Whoever pictures life as he sees it, re-assembles in his own way the details of existence which affect him deeply, and so creates a spiritual world of his own” (13). In “Easter 1933,” finally, there remain nothing but images of the natural world with the poem’s speaker and his companions imagined as pilgrims “visiting with a strange mesa,” which stands mesmeric amidst the continual change (“shifting sands”) that occurs below it.

“Easter 1933” perhaps then suggests that, for Long, myths in a sense are disposable, that he will make and remake his world as necessary. Native American myth is certainly important to him, as someone alive to his environment and surroundings, but in this poem he seems to understand the limitations of his sympathy to it. Why do the Navajo, the Zuñi, and the Acomanero sacrifice prayer-wands at the site of a sacred mountain? They have their reasons, as Long intuits, but he does not purport to speak for them — ask them, he says, and “anyway” moves on.

Similarly, while he clearly does not promulgate Christianity as such, he gestures toward its trope of renewal at Easter, eschewing the particulars of the story. In moving through a number of different mythological frameworks in this poem, Long acknowledges that none of them can be eternal or absolute. Only the “strange mesa” itself seems so, and Long demurs from explicit summarizing, leaving its importance up to the reader — each individual person who visits the mesa, he suggests, is free to draw his or her own meaning from it, mythological, religious, or otherwise, or not to draw any particular meaning at all.

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Unknown Kerouac (a review of sorts)

Recently, the Library of America began publishing the works of Jack Kerouac, providing them the sense of gravitas they deserve and making them available in solid (literally and figuratively) hardback editions replete with scholarly material and context.  The most recent such edition is The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings (2016), edited by Todd Tietchen, with translations of the French-language material by Jean-Christophe Cloutier.

This volume includes works thought to be lost, or which existed only as fragments, never previously published.  There are two novellas (La nuit est ma femme/The Night Is My Woman and Sur le chemin/Old Bull in the Bowery, both written in Kerouac’s native Québécois French), the existing portion of the abandoned novel project Memory Babe, and the opening to the late-period projected novel Beat Spotlight (which would have followed Kerouac’s final book, Vanity of Duluoz, had he lived to complete it).  In addition, The Unknown Kerouac includes a significant 1951 journal, an interview conducted by John Clellon Holmes in 1963, and the short but engaging sketch-like manuscript Tics, among other odds and ends.

The phrase “odds and ends” suggests that the book might be an insignificant hodge-podge that scrapes the bottom of the archival barrel.  However, this is not the case.  For anyone who is more than a casual reader, the works collected here not only round out our picture of Kerouac’s oeuvre in a significant way, in themselves they are absorbing examples of the author’s consummate and unparalleled prose style.

One of the works herein that I find particularly interesting is La nuit est ma femme (1951), written in French in New York City not long before Kerouac composed the famous scroll version of On the Road.  Like most of his work, it is autobiographical, focusing in this case on the time period after Maggie Cassidy, before he left Lowell for Horace Mann and Columbia University.  It begins, though, with the Kerouac-narrator (here named Michel Bretagne) reflecting on his current state of existence, almost in the mode of Dostoevsky (thinking of Notes from Underground): “I have not liked my life.  It’s nobody’s fault, just me.  I see only sadness everywhere.  Often when a lot of people laugh I don’t see anything funny.  It’s a lot funnier when they don’t trouble themselves with sadness” (65).

Here, we note that the style is not what we would expect from Kerouac; instead, it is composed in short, clipped sentence structures similar to those exhibited in the earlier, existential And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945).  The reason for this has to do with the difference in languages, Kerouac’s native French dialect versus his learned English style.  As the translator Cloutier observes, “Kerouac notably renders in written form a type of French that, at the time, only existed as speech” (xxiv).  He also goes on to note that, in his translation, he takes a cue from the approach that the author himself used in a few self-translated passages where he “often chose to foreground rather than bury his linguistic foreignness.  His hand-edits disclose moments when he deliberately worsens the spoken English of the characters” (xxxi).  Finally, we get a real glimpse of the double-consciousness that Kerouac lived with every day as a working-class Francophone “Canuck” in a majority English-speaking America.

In a different mode, the 1951 journal is of immeasurable importance in Kerouac’s development as an artist, as it documents, over a three-month period, the working out of his new literary approach, culminating in his discovery that he could write about the “real” events of his life with a focus on character, rather than worrying about plot — that he could essentially approach his writing in whatever way was necessary to render his own original vision of life and art.  It was this breakthrough that led to his “spontaneous” style, first realized the On the Road scroll (it is also interesting to notice that many of the tenets put forward in Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” are pulled directly from this journal).

At the same time, it is worthwhile to be reminded here that Kerouac worked through many different iterations of his most famous book, and that his success as a novelist (and for that matter as a poet) is due not merely to some fortuitous burst(s) of energy, but also to many years of thought and the hard work of actually writing hundreds of thousands of words.  The 1951 journal shows him engaged in all the different aspects of this, committing himself to his vocation as a writer and elaborating exactly how he would go about fulfilling it.

Similarly, the 1963 interview initiated by John Clellon Holmes (“Doing Literary Work,” conducted in writing, by letter) further solidifies our image of Kerouac as a serious writer, in contrast to the popular misperception of him as the “King of the Beats.”  Holmes’s questions about his friend’s themes and techniques are insightful and usually designed to elicit sustained thought about the writing itself (not, say, the salacious details of a life; though, occasionally these are connected).  For example, Holmes asks,

In On the Road, you still see things in terms of superlatives, exuberance . . . after this book . . . you become more precise and yet sadder too.  Was this simply a stylistic honing?  A surer grip on your mind and meanings?  Or a disappointment, a reconciliation? (308)
To this, Kerouac answers,
A disappointment.  I was an imbecilically joyous healthy lad bent on thinking only “glad” thoughts but for deliberate philosophical reasons, in fact as a deliberate counterargument to Oswald Spengler and all his Late Civilization Skepsis.  Finally the world creeped up on me . . . and drove in the lesson. (308-09)
But, readers of his work can see a stylistic honing in this process as well, and The Unknown Kerouac registers his evolution, the breakthroughs, changes, and progression in the career of — let’s be honest — one of America’s greatest writers.  This is not to say that Kerouac can’t also be criticized (hints of reasons for that exist here too), but in the critical discussion(s) of twentieth-century literature he can no longer be dismissed.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Collected Poems of Li He

The Collected Poems of Li He, translated by J. D. Frodsham (Calligrams Series, The Chinese University Press/New York Review of Books, 2016)

This collection of the works of the lesser-known Tang-era poet Li He (790-816) was long-awaited.  It is a republication of Frodsham’s original translation that first appeared in 1970, then again in 1983, now further updated and with a new preface by Paul Rouzer.  Li He is described in the introductory material as a kind of doomed Romantic or an ancient Chinese Rimbaud.  He did die young, apparently of tuberculosis, and his poems are often littered with images of death and otherwordly figures.  His work was left out of the standard Tang anthology, for being supposedly too weird.  Yet, it seems a tiny bit of a stretch to me to compare him to Kurt Cobain or to a contemporary teenage Goth, as Rouzer does in his preface.  These Western analogues make for good selling points, but in reading the whole of Li He’s oeuvre, not just the wilder pieces that the introductions and back cover focus on, it becomes clear that he was more often than not working within the conventions of Chinese poetry than breaking them.

Though the more well-known Tang poet Li Po (701-62) is mentioned by Frodsham only once (and then only in passing), Li He’s corpus often follows contours close to his predecessor’s — he overarchingly utilizes the same metres and line-lengths, and similarly there are poems about drinking wine, of sad farewells to friends, there are court poems (often dense with allusion and allegory), songs of singing women, “harmonizing” poems, travel poems, and imagistic nature poems.  A nice example of the latter is Li He’s “Walking through the South Mountain Fields,” which reads in part,

Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
Cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
That the red moss “weeps” dew is a nice touch here, personifying the natural scene and lending the poem a slight hint of melancholy.

Both Lis also dabble in mysticism from time to time, writing ecstatically of gods, goddesses, and immortal beings who inhabit heavenly realms beyond ordinary human experience.  Li He was greatly influenced by the early (c. 200 BCE) shamanistic series of poems titled the Chu Ci, and in his own “Song of the Magic Strings,” one of his most remarkable poems, he writes,

Blue raccoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The Rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
Here, it seems to me, the Western analogue is not the Romantics or even the Symbolists, but the Surrealism of André Breton.  This is also an ekphrastic poem in part, with certain lines responding to a temple fresco (“On the ancient wall. . .”).  It is stunning imagery, and though not all of his work is quite as intense, this volume is more than worth it for having poems like these.

A similarly arresting poem is “Song of an Arrowhead from Chang-ping,” where Li He visits an ancient battlefield and feels the presence of ghosts:

Desolate stars,
Black banners of damp clouds
Hung in void-night.
Souls to the left, spirits to the right,
Gaunt with hunger, wailing.
Not only can we say that Li He was, at times, haunted, but that the poem itself is haunting, still today some further 1200 years on.

One point of divergence between Li He and the slightly earlier Li Po is that where Li Po was decidedly Taoist in philosophy and religion, Li He bends toward Buddhist thought — a cherished text for him being the Lankāvatāra Sūtra.  Yet, I am not sure even these differences are really all that great.  The Lankāvatāra Sūtra, in its discussion of the emptiness of form and self is not so far from Taoist texts such as the (admittedly Buddhist-influenced) Qingjing jing (Scripture on Clarity and Tranquility).  And, for that matter, the Chu Ci poems are often seen as iterating an early or proto-Taoist perspective.  While Li He frequently satirizes Taoist external alchemy (the misguided attempt to create and ingest an elixir of life), he nonetheless seems to delight in religious ritual of all sorts.

A further poem that I found interesting is “The Caves of the Yellow Clan,” which depicts aboriginal natives of southern Guanxi/western Guangdong, who were in the process of being colonized by the Chinese imperial government.  Li He describes them as “Treading like sparrows, they kick up the sand / With sibilant feet,” . . . “High-pitched voices shrilling like apes. . . .”  Li is clearly taken by these people and the spectacle of their massed ranks: “Coloured cloth around their hanks, half-slanting, / On river banks their war-bands muster / Gorgeous as arrowroot. . . .”  He seems sympathetic to them, despite their otherness (for him), and goes on to critique his own government for their unnecessary slaughter.  But the poem is also noteworthy as an early example of primitivism, in a way similar to early depictions of Native Americans, or Caesar’s descriptions of Gaulish culture, alternating between fascination and disgust.  With more awareness of such a dynamic, we in the West might even sometimes question our approach to reading Asian poetry, so it is another odd twist to remember that China, ancient and modern, is also an imperialist society that has engaged and does engage in the same kind of primitivizing, colonialism, and exploitation that the West has also often been guilty of.

Frodsham’s translations in this book are exceedingly well-wrought, following a pattern of their own: Li He’s five-character lines retain their single lines in English, rendered in quatrains or octets, while the seven-character lines spill over into two (broken after the fourth character).  This roughly brings across the feel of the original classical Chinese forms, and while Frodsham dispenses with the strict rhyme and tone-patterns, his English verse is rich with alliteration, slant-, and internal rhyme.

A final note, which should not discourage anyone from acquiring this volume, but nonetheless it needs to be said: There are far too many typos here than one would expect from any professionally published book, much less from a university press.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a trend as of late.  Presses absolutely must retain (or, apparently, hire) full-time proofreaders, or risk losing credibility.  Perhaps it is a symptom of disappearing funding and slashed budgets, but it is nonetheless unacceptable that typographical standards are getting so low in the publishing world.  One is able to muddle through, as here the mistakes are, in the scheme of things, infrequent.  But taken as a whole, they add up to too much.

Once again, though, this book is well worth the time spent and includes Frodsham’s copious notes for context and explanation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thinking Continental Pre-Orders

Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time is a multi-genre, eco-critical anthology, published this November by the University of Nebraska Press.

Edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien, it includes a poem by myself.

It is already available for pre-order, here:

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review of Get Out (Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, is a great début.  I’ll confess that it is rare for me to care all that much about a newly released horror/thriller film these days, but of course this one is different than the usual.  It was interesting to me in that it consciously plays on many of the tropes of the genre, but then does weird things with them, like Kubrick did in The Shining (though it only somewhat resembles that film in places).  In many ways it is akin to Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man (I’ve also seen it compared to The Stepford Wives) — except that the ultimate evil here is not Satanism or paganism or anything supernatural, but rather whiteness itself!  The first half of the film wittily explores the various microaggressions that black people are frequently subject to in American society, and is thus a kind of well-rendered social commentary.  These, however, are bizarrely heightened, and so for example the main character’s interaction with a cop is laden not only with the usual layer of fear that many, especially African Americans, might feel in such a situation, but also with the expectation of potential terror that you get in the horror film.

Then, in the second half (spoiler alert!), we learn that these microaggressions (exemplified especially at the white girlfriend’s family’s party) spring from more than just the usual subconscious or even conscious racism that still widely exists in the supposedly more enlightened America of today.  In fact, the white family wants the protagonist’s black body (because, they say, black people have stronger physical genes, propagating yet another stereotype) — they are essentially turning them into zombies, re-enslaving them in a sense, and ultimately transplanting the brains of their dying, rich white friends into the bodies of kidnapped African Americans whom they have lured to their house in one way or another, here through the girlfriend, who is in on it, but sometimes, with the help of the girlfriend’s younger brother (who plucks them off of the street).  Upper-class whiteness is suddenly revealed as a kind of sinister cult, hiding behind a liberal veneer, but enacting a horror just as evil as anything that occurred in past history.

On one hand, then, Get Out is a wry satire, but on the other an eerie intensification of the real fear that exists for many, and finally is a metaphor for contemporary America.  It is amazingly filmed, which may or may not be a surprise from a first-time director who came to prominence for a comedy sketch show (I personally was always a fan of Key & Peele, and thought it was excellently directed).  In a way, it is odd that the film is being promoted in such a mainstream way (though good for Peele).  Peele has the eye of a more “artistic” director and seems to be taking cues from people like Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and so forth.  The opening sequence is an impressionistic montage of a forest, with a nice play of light, and there are unexpected dream-like sequences that occur when the protagonist is hypnotized by the girlfriend’s mother, and so on.  Call me a snob if you want, but sitting through the 20 minutes of awful “Hollywood blockbuster”-type action-movie previews before Get Out even began felt incongruous, and reminded me why I never see them.  But in this case it was well worth it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Louisville Conference 2017

Get to the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 early!  This Thursday the 23rd I’ll be presenting on the Santa Fe poets of the 1920s!  Tell your friends!

Here’s my panel:

A- 2  Mythologies of Modernist Poetry
Thursday 1:30 PM − 3:00 PM    Room: Humanities  207
Chair: Daniel Ross, Columbus State University
·  Elysia Balavage, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
“Dionysian Modernism: Chaotic Release in the Poetry of Ezra Pound and H.D.”
·  Michael Begnal, Ball State University
“'visiting with a strange mesa': Modernist Mythologies and the Poets of Santa Fe”
·  Patrick Jackson, Columbus State University
“Singers and Scavengers: The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ted Hughes’s Crow Poems”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Free State Review 7

I have an essay in the new issue (#7) of the Free State Review.  It is a great issue, with many wonderful co-contributors.  My piece is a somewhat scholarly, somewhat subjective view of the ancient Chinese Taoist poet Li Po.  Editor Barrett Warner saw fit to put me on the cover.  Thanks for that. . .

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

David Stone, The Memory Strait

David Stone is a poet I’ve written about on this blog and elsewhere a number of times (see here, here, here).  His newest book is called The Memory Strait (Macauley, 2016).  It includes not only text, but mail-art / collage / painting by the late Guido Vermeulen, and cover art by Cheryl Penn.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Stone’s poem “A Phenomenology of Night”:
Spectral agents
ground on foot
the rotating
seconds fed
the thirst
after laughter
The apocalyptic
police steered
the demand
for the outcome
of planetary gains...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Formative Albums

This is something that originated on social media — people posting lists of albums important to their teenage years, as opposed to say all-time favorites, or what have you.  I rarely if ever do these things, but those who know me know that, aside from poetry, I also write about music.  So, my list.  Here, I’m really thinking something like ages 14-18 or so.  As it’s 12” albums, I’ve left off important 7”s, and I’ve also only gone with one per band, in no exact order (though I guess they’re roughly in the order of my coming to them).  Again, this is not an all-time favorite album list, which would be rather different   I’m sticking with the “influenced you in your teenage years” thing.  Here are eleven.  [Bracketed comments in regard to live shows.]

Ramones, first album 
I actually first listened to this when it came out in 1976, when I was 10, due to the fortuitous presence of a long-time family friend who gave it to my parents.  Afterward, I went through a couple of different phases of musical development, including popular AM radio groups, then a serious Beatles period ages 13-14, then some “new wave,” and then at 14 got into true punk rock again in a big way, with the Ramones gracing my record-player frequently.  In fact, they still do.  This album is probably the ultimate punk album (certainly one of the all-time best albums, period), and I imagine my life might have been very different without it.  [I finally saw the Ramones live in 1985.]

Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks 
While the lustre of this one has kind of worn off for me (if I ever listen to the Sex Pistols these days, it’s mostly the rarities or B-sides), I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a major record for me during the early part of my punk career.  (I use the word “career” because I was in a band already — Wasted Talent — aside from just being “a punk”).  Out of the “big three” of the British punk bands (Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned), I would now unhesitatingly go with the Damned as my favorite, and even throw in Sham 69 and the first Wire album over the Pistols.  Strange how that happens.  [I never saw the Pistols live, as they broke up when I was 11, but I did see the Professionals with Steve Jones and Paul Cook.]

The Plasmatics, New Hope for the Wretched 
As it turns out, this band was originally a performance-art project created by their manager (I think it was), but then weren’t the Sex Pistols too, in a way?  When this album came out (1980), they were pretty much the biggest thing in American punk rock, and I even remember seeing them on Entertainment Tonight or one of those shows, blowing up a car on stage as part of their live act.  You might dismiss them as a gimmick, but the real test is in the music — they were a surprisingly good band, and Wendy O. Williams was a great singer and front-woman.  Best tracks: “Butcher Baby” and “Monkey Suit.”  [Never saw them live.]

Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables 
The DKs were a pretty well-known band in the early hardcore scene, though they don’t sound as hardcore as some on their early stuff.  I started buying their singles, then saw this album in the store.  My favorite tracks were probably “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “California Über Alles.”  Jello Biafra’s voice is the kind of thing you either love or hate.  What I also liked about the DKs is that they had a pretty original guitar sound, with weird surf influences, etc., not just the standard bar chords.  Highly political (maybe even more so on their subsequent releases), one could argue that they are once more relevant, given the era we now live in.  To be honest, though, I don’t listen to them much anymore. Just a subjective thing.  I guess, like the Sex Pistols, I kind of wore them out.  [Never saw them live.]

Germs, (GI) 
The Germs, however, never get old for me.  Darby Crash had one of the best punk singing voices out of anyone.  Despite his self-created image as a drunken lout, his lyrics are some of the most poetic or literary lyrics in punk rock.  The Germs took the best of the original ’77 punk sound and intensified it, creating (along with a few other bands) the L.A. hardcore sound.  Pat Smear’s guitar is unrelenting.  There’s not a whole lot in the way of leads, but his bar chords are hard to beat.  This is still one of my favorite albums.  [Never saw them live.]

Black Flag, Damaged 
As is Black Flag’s Damaged.  Since I’m only going with one album per band, it was a toss-up between this and Flag’s other great album, My War.  But since I’m still focusing on earlier influences, I chose Damaged.  I can’t count how many times I played this album at age 15 and 16, over and over, very much into the lyrics and the viscerality of the music, and the way they were able to evoke intense emotion more so than probably any other band I can think of.  You want pathos, you got it!  But it doesn’t so much speak to the teenage condition as it does the human, and that’s one reason why it still holds up as art for the ages.  [I first saw them live in May 1982, and ten times after that.]

V/A, Flex Your Head comp 
As everybody knows, Washington, D.C., had the best hardcore scene in the country, or at least the best bands.  This compilation is proof: The Teen Idles, Untouchables, S.O.A., Minor Threat, Government Issue, Youth Brigade, Red C, Void, Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, and Deadline all on one album, without a single throwaway track.  Even though I think I was just 15 when I got this, it made me want to quit school and move to D.C. to be part of it all.  In retrospect, there was at least something to be said for staying in State College, PA, for a couple more years, as awful as it seemed at the time, and being in the band I was already in.  [Of the bands on this compilation, I saw live shows by Minor Threat, Government Issue, Void, Iron Cross, and Deadline.]

Minor Threat, Out of Step 
Along with Black Flag, and then very soon the Bad Brains, Minor Threat was one of the let’s say top three bands that represented “me” and how I felt about life and how I put myself forward in the world at the time.  Focusing on personal politics and positing a straight-edge philosophy (in fact, vocalist Ian MacKaye originated the idea and the term, as we all know), MT was and is the quintessential East Coast hardcore band, the sine qua non of the genre, and have never been surpassed (sorry, Fugazi fans; sorry NYHC fans; etc.).  Out of Step was their only album, but it didn’t come out until the spring of 1983.  By that time, it was an “event,” and it was worth the wait — it’s indisputably a great record.  Before it, though, their two 7” EPs were almost constantly on my turntable.  [I saw Minor Threat twice, in May 1982 and June 1983.]

Bad Brains, Rock for Light 
Though I had listened to their ROIR cassette and of course really liked it, and had a few of their tracks on compilations, I didn’t really get into the Bad Brains in my own way until 1983, when Rock for Light came out.  “Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, “now I see why Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye argue that the Bad Brains are the greatest hardcore band ever.”  People say their heyday was a year or so earlier, and maybe it was, but Rock for Light is one of the best and most original hardcore/punk/whatever albums imaginable, in sound, fury, and content.  Sure, it’s a toss-up between this and the ROIR album, in fact many of the songs are the same, but I give this one the edge here for production and my own personal investment at the time.  And, the three reggae tracks on this album are great!  [I saw the Bad Brains twice in 1985, shortly after they re-formed.]

Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade 
I got Hüsker Dü’s first album shortly after it came out and thought it was so-so.  Then, however, I was blown away by both Everything Falls Apart and Metal Circus.  Either of these latter two could be on my list, but Zen Arcade, wow.  It came out in the summer of 1984, so I was either still 17 or had just turned 18.  It was that point in time where the original hardcore scene was just starting to fragment and evolve (if not the beginning of the end), and this double album pointed a way forward.  It still retained the speed, roughness, and noisiness of hardcore (a few songs were still outright thrash), but brought in all kinds of other influences at the same time: 60s garage/psych, hard rock, an “emotional” lyricism, there are a couple of acoustic tracks, vocal melodies, some tape loops, etc., but they never lose their punk edge and intensity.  Zen Arcade is a landmark album, and still one of my favorites.  [I saw Hüsker Dü twice, in December 1983 (with the Minutemen opening) and in the spring of 1985.]

The Stooges, Fun House 
It’s hard to know where to begin with Fun House.  Any of the three Stooges studio albums could’ve been on this list — in fact, I first bought Raw Power when (I think) I was still 14.  But, I started getting into Fun House when I was 17 or so, partly because Henry Rollins (via Chuck Dukowski’s influence) had talked it up in an interview.  My initial point of comparison was Black Flag’s My War LP, the way both albums had this subtle departure in mood between side one and side two, with the back half getting wilder and more free-form.  But Fun House quickly took on a life of its own for me, at a time when (as I alluded to above) I was looking for something beyond what had increasingly become a hardcore formula (well, I stayed with the hardcore sound for a while more, too).  Much has been written about this album (indeed, readers of my blog know that I write about the Stooges myself from time to time), and its importance to my own art from that period on cannot be overstated; there’s no other record like it.  In my opinion, it is the greatest rock’n’roll album.  [Never saw the Stooges live, though I did see a couple of Ron Asheton shows (with Empty Set, and Dark Carnival) and a couple of Iggy Pop shows.]

Since narrowing it down is difficult, here’s a supplementary twenty-two more formative albums.  Again, no particular order except rough personal chronology, same time period (age 14-18).  And I’m obviously leaving off many other important ones.

Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, Replicas
New York Dolls, first album
Iggy Pop, Soldier 
Lydia Lunch, Queen of Siam 
Dead Boys, Night of the Living Dead Boys 
V/A, The Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack
V/A, Hell Comes to Your House comp
V/A, Boston Not L.A. comp
Circle Jerks, Group Sex 
Misfits, Walk Among Us 
Faith/Void, split LP
V/A, Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp
V/A, Not So Quiet on the Western Front (MRR) comp
SS Decontrol, Get It Away 
D.Y.S., Brotherhood 
Ruin, He-Ho 
Necros, Conquest for Death 
Marginal Man, Identity
Black Sabbath, Paranoid 
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Doors, first album
MC5, Kick Out the Jams