Saturday, November 30, 2002

 

Robert Kelly self-published Axon Dendron Tree in 1967 as Salitter / 2, distributed variously through his other small press journal, Matter, as well as the legendary Asphodel Bookshop of Cleveland, Ohio. The stapled 8½ by 14 publication appears to have been mimeographed, a process that would have limited distribution to the approximately 150 copies that could reliably be run off each paper master. The process also partly explains why the 80 page publication was printed only on one side of each page, rendering the volume as thick as a typical 160-page book. The other part of that explanation lies in the stapling – the book is so thick that extra-length staples have been driven in both front & back, but in no instance make it through the entire volume – I have to squeeze them by hand back into place whenever I read from this volume. This is one fragile book. The title – centered on a strip of white paper, 11 inches high but only 2 inches wide – is glued along the left side of the cover’s brown construction paper. The brush strokes of the glue have long since stained through on my copy.* Because of its size, this volume has spent 35 years sitting atop my book cases, never filed within one.

 

This is an awfully fragile, fugitive publication to argue as one of the defining poetic texts of the 1960s, but it certainly is/was such an event for my 1960s. In fact, it may have proven more so for me than for Kelly, who accords Tree just one six-page excerpt in his selected poems, Red Actions (Black Sparrow, 1995). The differences between the 1967 edition and his 1995 description of it are worth considering.

 

A note to the reader at the top of the dedication page reads as follows:

 

Axon Dendron Tree grew out of my reading of that issue of Poetry [October, 1965] wholly & with immense rightness given over to one section of Louis Zukofsky’s A (sic). This poem began swiftly in response & dictated in the first few dozen lines its own formal procedure. To the extent that I had any intention, it was to honor Zukofsky by letting his measure foster a like but different measure in my utterance. The concerns of this poem are its own, and have no bearing on Zukofsky’s there or elsewhere, apart from a few teasing relations.

 

Kelly discusses Axon Dendron Tree’s formal procedures in the notes at the back of Red Actions:

 

Axon Dendron Tree. A long poem organized on a numeric structure. Each section consists of 111 unnumbered stanzas; the first section’s stanzas are nine lines each, the second section’s of eight, and so on, diminishing to the last section, 111 one-line stanzas. In my own sense of my work, this is my first real achievement using any sort of compositional grid or organizational principal other than the Local Music, which has always been the self-arising guide of the poem.

 

The 999 line structure described here is certainly elegant. However, the opening section of Axon Dendron Tree is composed of stanzas of eight lines each, not nine. At least as published in 1967, the poem has 888 lines. Tree begins with, of all things, an image of golf:

 

Tee

off

& be

on grass

this is

start

of eighty

leven

 

pages

in the book

each

makes

a form

I counted

7 then

8 came

 

or hard

to render

stanzas

like boxes

each one

a line

of Wace

his Engels

 

while Laзamon

his Brut

took

the augury

of heard

sruti

beginnings

frutti

 

 

Lazamon – there are multiple ways to spell that name & Kelly picks one of the more difficult to cast into HTML – translated Wace’s own French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin history of Britain, Brut, into alliterative verse around 1190. Henry Wace, however, was a mostly 19th century religious scholar who focused on early Christianity, a topic that also concerned Karl Marx’s collaborator. So Kelly is almost instantly playing with several layers of connotation at once, the discussion of form cast into many directions from which the poet might then proceed. & does.

 

It’s interesting to contrast Kelly’s programmatic conception of form with that of his model.  Zukofsky’s “A” – 14, Beginning An, starts with four stanzas, even more extreme in their verticalism than Kelly’s:

 

An

orange

our

sun

fire

pulp

 

whets

us

(everyday)

for

us

eat

it

its

fire’s

unconsumed

 

we’ll

not

fire

there

rocketed

that

poor

fools

be

sure

 

moon

loon

bless

light

he

pees

pea

blossom

sun’s

peer.

 

First of

eleven songs

beginning An

 

in the

middle of

solar winds

 

Beginning with the above italics, Zukofsky proceeds with 169 tercets, all but one line containing two words, then with 247 tercets with three words – save for two “ringers,” one a four-line stanza with one word per line, the other just two stanzas further on, a couplet, one of whose lines has just two words – before dropping back first to a tercet of two-word lines, and then two concluding stanzas of one-word lines.

 

Zukofsky’s formal focus is very much on the line, Kelly’s on the stanza – it’s almost as if two men looked at one phenomenon with just slightly different lenses. Zukofsky’s conception of form generates the line, perhaps, but Kelly’s sense generates the poem. It’s a critical, even decisive, difference. In Red Actions, Kelly again acknowledges Zukofsky’s relation to the Axon Dendron Tree:

 

The whole poem is dedicated to Louis Zukofsky, in thanks for his creative kindness, as a poet to us all, and as a man to me when I was beginning. He is one of the Four Masters (with Olson, Duncan, Blackburn) who boxed my ears.

 

One name Kelly doesn’t mention here is that of Jackson Mac Low, whose work he certainly knew, having published several pieces in A Controversy of Poets, but whom I suspect Kelly must have seen more as a peer, given how late Mac Low got started publishing.** Mac Low’s sense of program as the motive principle behind a text was already quite developed by the mid-1960s. Axon Dendron Tree, however, may be the first such attempt to “just write poetry” by such method without constraint as to how the vocabulary might look or sound. Where Mac Low was consciously striking the ego’s presence in his work, Kelly gives it pretty much free rein. In this sense, Axon Dendron Tree is closer to two other programmatic texts that were composed in the late 1960s, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On.

 

Axon Dendron Tree thus represents a signal moment in the history of the American poem, the point when true formal procedure “comes inside.” The poem itself is raucous & witty, perhaps the high point of the Projectivist tradition, which is so often accused of being ponderous, as just fun. Kelly of course is moving quite far from some of his masters – Olson & Blackburn – in utilizing measure rather than speech as his modeling principle for language, but that is precisely what he takes from Zukofsky & Duncan. That push-pull aspect of the Projectivist  tendency, which has never been fully explored critically, is nowhere more clear than in Kelly, and almost never to greater purpose than in this poem.

 

When I would begin Ketjak seven years after the publication of this book, Axon Dendron Tree was one of the works that gave my own project its sense of permission & possibility. Would that every poet had the opportunity to read Robert Kelly’s long, thin book.

 

 

 

 

* www.abebooks.com actually lists seven copies available through used & rare book dealers, ranging in price from $30 to $275 (for a copy signed to Joel Oppenheimer).

 

** At 48, Mac Low had published just four books.



Friday, November 29, 2002

 

Parceled, not parceled, ever the light.

                                      Trismegistus to Tat: our bones

will want velvet,

                            line decays, root your gods

in flesh & stock your flesh in

                                                flame

(Giordano given over

                                    ubi peccavit– he sinned in fire

tongue    word-thorn

                                    into fire,

                                                   17 February 1600

& the beam of light

                                 that is defining measure

metre, the palladium

                                      yardstick only a curio

or orifice of

                     measure a controlled radiance,

ångstrom

                an infinity ‘longer than point–

Punctum in Nihilo

                               from which

It pours.

               Sentences by nature false,

opinionsmomentaneous murmurings

corpse-fat soft,

                         saponification of the great poets

when it is

                  Delight forgot–

                                                Addio alla madre

I take

            this serious knife

                                          where Death is

& makes

                 all sharp again

wretch of dull edge

                                 his knife I fight

bites mine.  Crystals

                                    of damascene sever in air

:   this silken

                        kerchief divides the steel.

 

This passage, the first two out of eight pages, opens Robert Kelly’s Songs I-XXX (Pym-Randall Press, 1968). Typing these lines again after all these years – one of the real benefits of doing this blog* – I feel as riveted by them as when I first confronted this work over thirty years ago. There is in these lines of verse something I feel is almost entirely missing from most of today’s poetry – the measure of the line heard & understood as a mode of music. Melopoiea as Pound once called it. This use of sound is something that poets once took for granted as an option – there are moments in The Cantos when it is all that exists beyond the crackpot economics & dubious readings of American presidential history. Yet, somehow, after Robert Duncan, a master at this mode, you find Robert Kelly, with his exquisite conception of measure, and Kenneth Irby, with an ultimate ear for vowels, then silence. Or not silence, exactly, but rather a shift in the manner music.

 

It was Olson of course, along with Creeley, who heard that other possibility in Pound’s line & even more clearly in that of Williams, the intricate prosody of the spoken, the huffing of the line as breath – very nearly a poetics of asthma in Olson’s case, the way so many of his poems start out with a long line only to find themselves narrowing as the words rush, repeatedly interrupted by the need to mark line’s limit, to a literally breathless conclusion.

 

Thus, in the 1950s and ‘60s, American poetry found itself with not one, but three different tendencies with regards to the proactive use of sound in poetry:

§         the complicated rhythms of the spoken (Olson, Creeley, Blackburn**), which also included a number of relatively casual practitioners, such as Ginsberg, Whalen, Snyder & O’Hara

§         a poetics predicated on measure (Duncan, Kelly, some of Irby)

§         a regularized metrics derived from the old formalism (Berryman, Lowell)

Of course, the great majority of poets fell into a category that could be triangulated between “a little of this & a little of that,” those who didn’t really care & those who were genuinely tone-deaf to their own writing.

 

Songs I-XXX was the third book published by Kelly in a two year period of 1967-68 that to this day remains not just a great burst of poetic productivity – Kelly has been the Energizer Bunny of poetic production his entire life – but also a defining moment for a particular mode of poetics, one that was grounded in sound & turned toward alternative sacred texts as a primary concern.

 

It’s worth noting Kelly’s trajectory in that decade – it gives some sense of how greatly the scene was changing, as well as how greatly it has changed in the 30-odd years since. Beginning to publish around 1960, Kelly within five years had brought out five books with small press publishers, been the focus of an issue of Cid Corman’s Origin, and co-edited with Paris Leary, A Controversy of Poets, published as a Doubleday Anchor paperback original. While Leary’s contributions have largely been forgotten outside of a few obvious “Big Names” such as Robert Lowell or the fans of Gray Burr & Melvin Walker La Follette, Kelly’s contributors expanded the roster of the Allen anthology, bringing Louis Zukofsky, Jackson Mac Low, Jerry Rothenberg, Gerrit Lansing & Ted Enslin to a considerably broader audience than they’d previously experienced.*** & by virtue of coming five years later than the Allen, several of Kelly’s selections, such as of “Billy the Kid” for Jack Spicer and the complete “Biotherm” by Frank O’Hara – literally in 5½ point type – were notably stronger than those included in the Allen.

 

So the three books that appeared more or less immediately on the heels of Controversy, Axon Dendron Tree (Salitter Press, 1967), Finding the Measure (Black Sparrow, 1968) & Songs I-XXX (Pym-Randall, 1968) effectively served to solidify Kelly’s position as a major American poet, one of the first, along with Ted Berrigan to achieve this level of recognition within the post-avant tradition who had not been a part of the Allen anthology.

 

 

* There is nothing that compares to having the words of a poem you are thinking about emerge from your own fingertips atop a keyboard, no matter than Robert Kelly may have originally drafted these in pen or that, in the late 1960s, he was almost certainly working with a manual typewriter, not a PC.

 

** Whose sense of the uses of transcription to spatially approximate aspects of speech is perhaps the most detailed of all.

 

*** I’ve noted before that when Richard Moore’s USA Poetry PBS television series first introduced me to the work of Zukofsky in 1966, the only volume that held any of his poetry at Cody’s in Berkeley, then as now the largest bookstore in that town, was A Controversy of Poets.

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Thursday, November 28, 2002

 

A note: Monday’s total of 183 visitors to the blog was a record. Since its inception at the end of August, the blog has been visited more than 6,500 times and is currently being accessed roughly 100 times per day. The total number of individual hits is 40 percent higher, indicating that quite a few readers are accessing the archives as well as the top page. I’ve been around the post-avant literary scene for enough years to understand what those numbers imply. So today seems an appropriate moment to take a breather and just say thank you.

 

 

 

& a correction: more than one plant-knowledgeable reader has pointed out that tatarian honeysuckle is not quite the mysterious item I was making it out to be in that John Taggart poem on November 26. Or, as one wit suggests, I’m sleeping with the wrong dictionaries.



Wednesday, November 27, 2002

 

If Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides chaplet series represents the epitome of pristine design and text presentation in micropublishing, Kenneth Warren’s House Organ is its polar opposite. Even though the two publications have occasionally printed the same people, they’re as far apart in some ways as two magazines could get. Typeset in a san-serif font that is hard-going on the page – it works far better on a PC screen – House Organ is copied onto 8.5- by 11-inch sheets of white paper and then stapled in a saddle-stitch format down the center longwise to create a journal in which the pages are 11 inches tall but only 4.25 inches wide. Sent through the mail sans envelope, my copies arrive bent, nicked, torn. Inside, Warren appears to have a horror of white space – each page is as crowded with text as is humanly possible. In the summer 2002 issue, the last inch & one-half of the very last page is given to Cid Corman’s contribution, wedged in as though an afterthought. House Organ is so ugly that it can’t possibly be an accident – Warren is insisting that these works have to be taken on their merits alone.

 

Yet in spite of all this, House Organ always has something of interest & is often a very lively publication. It is literally the only Projectivist publication extant in the United States. In addition to Corman, the summer issue, number 39, includes work by Tom Meyer, Albert Glover, Vincent Ferrini, Olson biographer Tom Clark, and the fourth installment of Warren’s own tour through Charles Olson’s Selected Letters, plus another ten contributors that include Paul Pines & Joseph Massey, whose first book, Minima St. I reviewed on the blog, September 19.* In fact, short works, such as those favored by Corman & Massey, work best in this format. Here is Corman’s, entitled “1/”:

 

This is getting you

nowhere – exactly

 

where you were heading

once your mother fed you.

 

And this is Massey’s untitled poem:

 

            Forefinger

 

stuck in peripheral

 

make

 

a moon

 

There is a way in which a short work creates its own white space, cognitively if not physically. The self containment that is possible in a work of this scale serves these pieces, which stand out in the context of House Organ more clearly than do longer pieces, even when those works are as thoroughly composed & finished as these, as in Tom Meyer’s excerpts from “Book Two”** or Tom Clark’s poems on the September 11 attacks.

 

Projectivism of course was always more interested in the poem as document of thinking more than of the finished text & House Organ’s summer issue shows just how far such work might go. Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini provides an annotated list of the “Authors in My Life,” interesting mostly because they aren’t who you might think. Albert Glover’s “Sketching Greg” comes straight out of a creative writing class project, literally, of having students write in the presence of a “life model” – the nude male of the title – while listening to the music of John Coltrane.*** To call Glover’s poetry slack misses the point completely. There is simply no attempt to work toward a polished surface, it is literature as pure process:

 

so let us occupy a safe space

   made by some invisible wall

          arms like little legs

winged up behind Greg’s back

 

            (Michele must be looking

right up his butt)

 

That Glover organizes the “g”s and the terminal “k” in that first stanza is fortuitous, perhaps the one singular moment in the three pages of the piece. But, as Michele can see, it’s not necessarily the point of this project. What makes this kind of poetry “difficult” or off-putting to non-fans of Projectivism is how much it depends on the inherent value of traced thought regardless of the quality of thinking. It’s one thing when one is reading a brilliant if undisciplined polymath like Charles Olson. As Paul Blackburn’s Journals show, even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.

 

Invariably, one comes across work in a publication like House Organ by people whose names are unfamiliar. Robert Podgurski in the summer issue has a poem, “Insistence,” that feels quite uneven. Its third stanza shines and the final one is technically competent, but I don’t get anything from the first two beyond a couple of unusual adjectives – anguine, batrachian that would compel me to reread them enough times to really get what he’s trying to say. I wish there were some contributors’ notes that would direct me me to other publications. I’m curious, but there’s no guarantee I’ll remember the name the next time I happen across it in print.

 

So I get House Organ & am always interested, but I seem to fight with a lot of what is going on – not, I suppose, too unlike my relationship to certain aspects of Projectivism. House Organ is available from Kenneth Warren at 1250 Belle Avenue, Lakewood, Ohio 44107.

 

 

 

*Which just happened to be his 24th birthday.

 

** Suggesting of course the presence of “Book One” & the possibility of others. Is there a new Tom Meyer long poem in the works?

 

*** I didn’t know that there were creative writing classes that still did this. This wasn’t so uncommon in the 1960s.



Tuesday, November 26, 2002

 

One of the very best things about poetry is micropublishing. My definition of micropublishing is any book or journal done in such a fashion as to preclude bookstore distribution, even via Small Press Distribution. Two very different examples are sitting on my desk. I’m going to look at one today, the other tomorrow.

 

Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides are printed on a single of sheet of paper, which is then folded into a simple pamphlet. Printed on a schedule of eight issues per year, the Broadsides must just now be completing their ninth year. With a distribution list that has swollen to 750, Pollet’s series may produce small publications, but they get excellent distribution for poetry. The current issue, no. 70, is 5 Pastorelles by John Taggart. Since individual pastorelles are numbered 5 through 9, we know they’re part of a longer series. This is especially good news, because these are among the strongest poems Taggart has written. My favorite is number 8, organized around an image any Pennsylvanian will recognize:

 

Young woman

 

Amish

 

green dress black apron translucent white prayer bonnet

 

 

strings of her bonnet trailing in the air

 

 

 

rollerskating down the road

 

 

 

by herself alone in the air and light of an ungloomy Sunday afternoon

 

herself and her skating shadow

 

 

 

the painter said

 

beauty is what we add to things

 

 

 

and I

 

chainsawing in the woods above the road

 

say what could be added

 

what other than giving this roaring machine a rest.

 

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics identifies the pastourelle as

 

A genre of lyric poetry most frequent in OF [Old French]. In the classical type the narrator, who is sometimes identified as a knight, recounts his meeting with a shepherdess and his attempt to seduce her. Sometimes the narrator is humiliated, even beaten, or the shepherdess makes a clever escape; in other poems they make love, either with the consent of the shepherdess or by rape. (888)

 

Taggart’s pastorelles seem more confrontations with an Other, capital O, as with this poem, the first of two parts to “Pastorelle 6”:

 

Cleft fissured

 

 

 

 the appearance of veins

 

 

 

close vein against close vein vertical and

 

criss-crossed

 

dark

 

crevices between

 

dark

 

between the blue-grey veins

 

 

 

each trunk each small trunk woven a woven fibre

 

of exposed veins

 

against early March snow still remaining

 

 

 

venous fiber bark

 

of the tatarian honeysuckle.

 

Tatarian is a mysterious word, not found in the online version of the American Heritage Collegiate, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, nor the OED. The latter volume, however, suggests that it is a plausible variant of tartarian, which can mean alternately

 

§         related to the Tartar people of central Asia

§         poisonous

§         infernal

§         a cloth like silk

To use an unknowable, or at least undecidable, term in the focal position of the final line is an interesting strategy. This poem is a verbal equivalent of close photography – by choosing a term that is itself Other right next to the final word, Taggart manages to render the reader’s sense of referential focus both so close as to seem verbally “blurred” right before it snaps back into sharp relief with the brilliant honeysuckle, a word as important for all its lush & contrasting sounds as it is for the familiar image. And while I have a much more positive association with the Tartars (owing to a friend who has such heritage) than one might gather from alternate meanings like poisonous or infernal, the multiplicity of possibilities here pleases me more than any single meaning.

 

Taggart has woven in his signature use of repetition into what is otherwise reasonably straightforward description, an approach that feels to me more grounded than the works that carry reiteration to a dervish-like intensity. I’m also intrigued about the extra leading between lines, which give the stanzas a more open and ethereal feel than they would have had single spaced. He’s not the first poet to do this (think of late Oppen, for example) but I always find myself wanting to pull these lines together, as though they were starting to drift apart.

 

Pollet’s choices for the Backwoods Broadside series have been wide-ranging, a great virtue. Many of the participants come out of some aspect of the Projectivist tradition, including Ted Enslin, Cid Corman, Ron Johnson, Jonathan Williams, Pierre Joris, Robert Creeley, & Clayton Eshleman. Also present are representatives of the New York School’s later generations: Anne Waldman, Aram Saroyan, Kathleen Fraser, Lee Ann Brown, Sotére Torregian. Objectivism’s history can be traced from Carl Rakosi, through George Economou, Ron Johnson, Robert Vas Dias, Michael Heller and of course Taggart. So can a more experimental tradition from Bern Porter to Alan Jennifer Sondheim to Sheila E. Murphy to Armand Schwerner & Jerome Rothenberg. Older traditions are obviously of interest: Mary and Patrizia de Rachewiltz, Osip Mandelstam. Rogue laureate Amiri Baraka and Wisconsin post-Beat Antler (!) both show up here. And there are lots of writers here I’ve never heard of before. It’s an awesome range of what is possible in today’s poetry, available in annual subscriptions of $10 through Pollet at 963 Winkumpaugh Road, Ellsworth, Maine 04605-9529.

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Monday, November 25, 2002

 

Sometime in 1967, Jack Gilbert introduced George Stanley to his creative writing class at San Francisco State by calling Stanley, “the finest poet now writing.” That may seem like an incongruous pairing for such an elaborate compliment today, but in the late 1960s in San Francisco, there was something approaching a consensus about Stanley’s talent and promise. Having been raised in San Francisco, where Duncan, Spicer, Rexroth, all the Beats, were transplants in exile from Elsewhere, George Stanley was poetry’s home town favorite. He cut that narrative of the Golden Boy short by moving to British Columbia around 1970, a time when the border was far less permeable (& far more one-directional) in terms of literary influence than it is today. For the past 32 years, he has lived and worked in Western Canada. Once one of the most visible poets working in the New American idiom, he has all but dropped from view in the United States.*

 

This may be about to change as Qua Books prepares A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems, 1957-2000, co-edited by Kevin Davies and Larry Fagin, for publication. At 228 pages, it’s a sizable volume, although, containing just 63 poems written over 43 years, this is not yet the Collected for which we will hopefully not have to wait too many more decades.

 

Stanley was the sort of young writer who absorbs and synthesizes his influences almost effortlessly, not unlike Curtis Faville 15 years later. “Pompeii,” literally the second poem in this book, was one of the handful of works by which San Francisco poets gauged themselves in the 1960s. It situates itself almost perfectly halfway between Spicer, Stanley’s early mentor, and Robert Duncan or perhaps I should say, Duncan’s H.D. Here is the opening section:

 

When I read this poem I think of Pompeii.

 

When they dug up Pompeii the poems were gone,

flower-like and fragile in the stone,

giving nothing to the stone,

honey alloyed to the stone,

making nothing sweet.

 

The eyes of the matrons burned on the dark blue walls,

under their eyes in shallow pools,

the bell of a xylophone, silver,

bell of an ambulance,

bell of a burglar alarm,

a trying to watch the slowest of motion,

a grinding explosion,

change everything in the complexity of a second.

 

When I read this poem I know Pompeii is at hand.

 

They were unready. It came at the wrong

hour for them, the silver bell.

Some little dignity argued a minute with the enclosing,

and all that was left then was the gesture,

virginity, the little lost dog come home

leaping and leaping caught as in a cartoon.

 

When I read this poem I know Pompeii is imminent,

I know we are moving easily into frenzy,

I feel like taking off my hat to Pompeii

before running.

 

It is the Spicerian touches, the ambulance & the burglar alarm, the Buster Keaton-like gesture in that last couplet above, that keep this poem from being what, on another level, it actually is: a shadow of Duncan’s great “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom.” Yet as a shadow, it’s a curiously ambitious one. Stanley seems to have set out to deliberately out-Duncan Duncan and to some degree does. It’s a move Rimbaud would have understood.

 

Like any Spicerian monolog, “Pompeii” invokes a palpable but silenced you as it considers the paralysis of the decadent state – even if it is the state of poetry – moving through two slightly longer sections before arriving at the final two:

 

There was a time for consolation

in the morning of the state, you and me, Republicans,

read, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

That could console us. But now we cannot

get consolation from Greek maxims

when everybody is licking his lips, expectant.

 

 

Bell of a xylophone,

Bell of an ambulance,

Bell of a burglar alarm, silver.

Now time has fallen into our hands

out of all the clocks. You look to me

for consolation, and the hot wind

pours by unconcerned, flushing our steepled faces,

and the thick flow of death winnows down the window like grass.

 

The “Greek maxims” that are being rejected here can be read I think precisely in terms of Duncan and beyond him the modernist project, of which he represents (at least here) the last moment.

 

Pompeii” reveals another aspect of Stanley’s art – its penchant for elegy. “Attis,” one of Stanley’s later San Francisco poems, and one that I’ve always read as a kind of deliberate farewell, is as successful an elegy as has been written in the last 50 years:

 

This is dying, to cut off a part of yourself

and let it grow.

 

The whole self

crawls at the thought of being mutilated,

even self-mutilated, as occurred to me

when you mentioned you had never looked at

the poem about Attis, and neither had I

 

nor at where in a poem feeling dries up –

A waterfall-filled Sierra canyon dammed

Hetch Hetchy of our spirit. Attis’s

cock, in some tree, in some jug of wine

or beautiful lips mouthing Who we love

growing.

 

So the fireflies go, with small lunchboxes,

mooning around trees. We cut

our conversation off, too, in sacrifice

 

Birds,

brinks, even

our whole environment, out to the farthest star

you can never reach

(because of light’s unchanging speed)

and so your dying can never reach either –

 

Blood,

not sinking into the ground, mysteriously,

but in the Roman sewers, forever, our home town.

 

There is a moment of grief in that last phrase that Spicer could never have managed, and Duncan never imagined.

 

Because Davies & Fagin generally steered from including work that is still in print, A Serious Girl offers something akin to an entropic reading in Stanley’s career, with eight poems totaling 40 pages representing Stanley’s first four years of writing, then seven poems (but only 16 pages) for two years spent in New York, followed by 13 poems for the final nine years in San Francisco, then just 35 for the final thirty years in British Columbia. But if Stanley emigrated physically from San Francisco, he appears never to have done so as poet. The streets and locales of San Francisco are as constant in the last half of the book as in the first. Indeed, the longest poem of all is entitled “San Francisco’s Gone.”

 

The elegy index hasn’t dropped much either. Stanley illuminates why in a passage of the relatively recent “At Andy’s,” one of the few pieces actually set in Canada:

 

Poetry means (a) I’m going to die – & (b) this notebook will be read by someone who will see how lacking I am – unless I destroy it – & I can’t do that – that would be worse than keeping it – that would mean thinking of it.

 

As this prose passage suggests, Stanley’s style has relaxed some in recent years – even if his obsessions haven’t – not unlike (although generally not as much as) Creeley’s later work. Yet the volume’s most taut – and best – poem is its very last, “Veracruz,” a remarkable gender-bending piece of autoerotic incest fantasy in which Stanley declares his desire to have been “a tall, serious girl.” In this poem, which I’m not going to quote so that you’ll have to go out & buy this book, all the promise of San Francisco’s Golden Boy is fulfilled.

 

 

 

 

* Even in the late 1970s, George Stanley’s star power in San Francisco was impressive. As I noted in the blog on September 22, when Stanley read with Ted Berrigan at the Grand Piano, each brought half of the overflow crowd.

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