Wednesday, December 29, 2004
I laughed – guffawed actually – when I first opened the carton that brought David McAleavey’s Huge Haiku to my door. At 289 poems, it’s one of the heaviest literal manuscripts I’ve had in hand in some time. 289 is of course seventeen sets of 17 poems each. Each of which has 17 lines & each line 17 syllables. A book therefore of 83,521 syllables organized by fives & sevens – each line has not one but two pauses – hence five syllables, seven syllables, and then again five – each poem is gathered into stanzas of five, seven & five lines.
Huge Haiku indeed. Incredibly obsessive, exceptionally detailed haiku might be a more exact description. Imagine 80 Flowers exfoliating over a far greater terrain, growing wild in fact with a sense of its own range. Yet not without self-knowledge. “Blunt architecture” is both the first title and first phrase of the opening poem, a figure that might capture the project itself at hand, recount something as simple as a deck addition to a home & reverberate not-so-coincidentally with the profession of the poet’s father.
I’ve been reading David McAleavey’s work for over 30 years, since we first met at Berkeley. Tho he’s published four books over that period, he’s focused as much on his work as a teacher and may be best known to readers here – at least by folks outside of the DC area or who are not Oppen scholars, as such – for having been the editorial hand behind the Ithaca House run in the early 1970s that included first or second books by yours truly, Bob Perelman, Ray DiPalma, David Melnick & others.
When I first met him through Occident editor Lewis Dolinsky, McAleavey was an obviously brilliant grad student tho not yet well- read beyond the standard undergraduate fare in American poetry. Melnick & I heaped volumes of the New Americans on him – he in turn taught me to play chess (tho I suspect he would still obliterate me in about four moves if we sat down at a board today). After leaving Berkeley for Cornell, he turned to Oppen on his own. Reading these non-haiku haiku – you can see several samples here and another here – I realize that there is something deeply simpatico between the two poets I hadn’t understood before. A sense of ethics as the heart of poetry that often plays itself out around figures of literal handcrafts.
These poems to my ear are at their best at their most dense – I think I would say this of almost any poet – and yet, not unlike Bob Perelman, McAleavey often refuses that final step off the springboard into the level of opacity we associate, say, with something like 80 Flowers out of an ethical commitment both to content & reader. This sometimes gives the haiku a thematic center that puts individual pieces again midway betwixt Oppen & (of all things) Berryman’s Dream Songs, the poetry McAleavey was most enthusiastic about when first I met him. This may, in fact, be the first work influenced by Berryman that I can think of that takes that formal impulse forward, precisely because it recognizes these disparate connections. There is a world in which Berryman & Zukofsky make perfect sense together – and this pretty much is it.
I’ve sometimes accused McAleavey of going out of his way to keep his poetry a secret – he seems quite resolute in his disinterest in the hustle associated with a lit’ry career – yet with a Chax Press edition of Huge Haiku coming sometime in the new year, this may well change at last & for the better for us all. McAleavey’s blunt architecture is filled with riches for us all.