Monday, September 25, 2006

 

Beverly Dahlen is the most enigmatic American poet since Laura (Riding) Jackson. Not that Dahlen is unnecessarily difficult or obtuse, but that – like Riding – she writes brilliantly, but has also proven exceptionally reluctant to letting her work into print. She first arrived in San Francisco, I do believe, in the very late 1950s, drawn to the intellectual & cultural ferment around North Beach, the Beat scene & the Spicer Circle, all of which she seems to have internalized but stayed carefully apart from – those worlds were anything but woman friendly & very few people proved to be as hardy at “playing with the boys” as did Joanne Kyger. Thus it wasn’t until Stephen Vincent published Out of the Third in 1974, with cover art by William T. Wiley (then the hottest West Coast artist alive), that people actually got to see a book of Dahlen’s work. Two of the sections of “Tree,” the longest poem in that book, are addressed to members of the Spicer Circle who, after Jack’s death in 1965, moved up to Vancouver, one to George Stanley & this presumably to Stan Persky:

Dear Stan,

I DON’T WANT TO BE
THAT WOMAN, ART

that never got her nose broke

That’s a tone consistent with Spicer & his followers, but hardly what you might expect from this quiet & thoughtful woman if you were to meet her in person. There was a second book, A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley, two years later, which somehow I either did not get or have long since lost. I do however have The Egyptian Poems, published in 1983 by Hipparchia Press of Berkeley in a tiny, fine press edition of just 175 copies, with an afterword by Robert Duncan. Its first poem, “The Opening of the Mouth,” is worth quoting in its entirety:

The dead are our children and we must coax them to eat.
Ah     Ah     Ah     Ah     pointing to the mouth, touching
the food: the bull’s leg, the heart.

The dead are our gods. We must pry open their mouths.
They cannot live without our sustenance.
We bring hammers and chisels.
We crack their throats.
Our words fly open above our heads:
stone clouds of owls, lines of water
rippling, geese.

The gods are our children.     Eat.
Eat the heart, the leg, the thigh,
all the parts.     Take into the darkness of your mouth
this eye.     It will be enough light.
It will light you
forever.

It is, I think, impossible not to hear the influences here of Spicer & George Stanley & of Duncan likewise. But if what impressed Duncan most, at least as evidenced by his afterword, was his own reflection –

These are poems evoking, and in return belonging to, a mystery

– it is worth noting that Dahlen is going somewhere very different in the poem above. The gods, she says literally “cannot live without our sustenance.” The mystery, to call it that, she is exploring here isn’t the theosophical “secret doctrine” of transpersonal unity, but rather that other one, a mystery less attached to names like Blavatsky than to names like Freud, Kristeva or Lacan.

By the time The Egyptian Poems were printed, Dahlen had helped to co-found HOW(ever) (now How2) and was already well into writing A Reading, an “endless” – the term she has used more than once – poem that is, to my mind, one of the masterworks of the 20th century. To date, there have been five volumes published from this project, the most recent being A Reading 18-20, just out from Instance Press of Boulder, Colorado. This is a slim enough volume, just 64 pages, and none of it was written after August, 1986, which means that this work is 20 years old. That is a considerable period of time to wait & let work come into print, but that’s Beverly Dahlen. I sometimes wonder if there are a thousand pages of poetry tucked away somewhere I don’t know about, and that won’t emerge for another few decades. My main problem with this is that I might not be here to read them, say, in 30 years. And I definitely want to read every word.

A Reading 18-20 contains three sections of Dahlen’s project, each in turn being composed of several segments – I almost want to say of several poems or works. Thus 18 begins with a series of prose poems, of which this is the third:

terrorism out of context, a story of murder as light reading. the civilized way to call it a day. when people meet at the end of a workweek, the context of their speech is the oppression of the boss. who was that masked man? the industrial décor of my favorite restaurant, the heating ducts painted red. it would be difficult to name the timeless values when gas pumps had become sacred relics. worshipping at a bowl of gelato. how do you do.

history repeats, the second time around as farce. the third time’s the charm. marigolds banked on a slope as part of a scientific plan for erosion control. I don’t understand you. read up on it: here’s a booklist.

content is what’s swallowed: junk food.

here’s a list. light up the sky with your faith, everything goes into the memory bank. the bombs bursting in air. it’s no more difficult than saying you’re going to live till you die. forty-five minutes. where does this road end? somewhere beyond the bird observatory. Rasputin held an onion in his right hand. deadlocked.

Gonick made history. so do I. so do you. drink me.

At some level – I frankly can’t tell which – this passage references a series of four bills enacted into law at the behest of President Reagan, establishing rewards for informing about terrorism, setting penalties for sabotaging airplanes or taking hostages, and prohibiting organizations from “engaging in terrorism,” or “supporting or cooperating” with such groups.¹ Yet this is just one pole pulling this text, as are the cartoon collections of Larry Gonick, the Star-Spangled Banner, references to Marx. This is not atypical of the disparate elements Dahlen puts into play. After a fourth prose poem comes a section in verse:

all that it’s not to deprive one
No man shall be an idiot for purely external reasons.
interiority to flux, crime shamefaced
reaches for a larger napkin to cover the wound.
the definition expands, the lunatic fringe
becomes the entire cloth
I is another killer
where shall we
take the place of that noun that common thing
the third person, the world
the world equal to x
or any letter which may stand for the unknown
a great loss, a damnable mystery
sold for a mess of pottage

and you
impossibly sleeping across the table from me
to secure for ourselves and our posterity
the blessings
how shall I shifter shifting shiftless
be one
a hole a number
any letter might take its place
any pronoun armed to the teeth an absolute construction
any thing
having been buried in a mass grave
how shall we name it the third person
the ragged world
the tattered fronds of the holy ghost

Referencing Pound (“No man…) and Creeley (“I is…), Dahlen focuses here on what she clearly envisions as the disruptor between I & Thou in any communication, “the third person, the world / the world equal to x / or any letter which may stand for the unknown / a great loss, a damnable mystery.” It’s a concept that recalls the epigram to her very first book:

One becomes two, two
becomes three, & out
of the third comes
the one as the
fourth.

Dahlen turns now back to prose, to a prose poem in the mode of a letter – a form favored by Duncan & Spicer alike – addressed presumably to Michael Palmer, which begins:

Dear Michael

It was one of my ideas to speak of the third person as if that stood for the world. In another sense it’s a sign of the holy ghost. These two are one: “world without end.”

Then I was reading a recent essay of Barrett Watten’s which begins: “The world is structured on its own displacement.” That seemed to me to be true, and also much of what follows in Watten’s piece seemed irrefutable. I read it again and again. I tried to imagine using it, going beyond it. All I could really imagine was quoting it in its entirety. What did I want? the negation of a negation? Watten’s work reminded me of all I know to be true: that the world, the self and the other are created out of absence, lack, desire; that “desire is the desire for meaning itself” (I don’t know where that quote comes from), that desire is that which by definition can never be fulfilled.”

Dahlen returns to this again in the next segment, again in prose, albeit so short that it almost calls that into question:

The third person is Eros, who never appears. It is, as Robert Glück has written, the referent, “ the guest who doesn’t come.”

The next segment is also worth quoting in its entirety, perhaps most of all for its directness:

The desire for meaning, to produce meaning, fills me with dread and anxiety. We do not want to hear of another’s anxiety; there is nothing we can do with it, nor about it. Anxiety, Freud observes, “corresponds to a libido which has been deflected from its object and has found no employment.” An unappeased ghost, incessantly circling. The parodic and diminished double of all that was holy.

“What is originally holy is what we have taken over from the animal kingdom – the bestial,” Engels wrote in 1882, and since then the hundred years war against what is never quite adequately translated as ‘instinctual nature’ has brought under the domain of repression the very notion of ‘the bestial.’ It is slanderous thus to describe the activities, for example, of death squads in El Salvador. We live in a posthumous world. “Nothing can be compelled from the site of the speaker except the outlines of her form.” (Watten)

This poem has another seven sections, ranging in length from a single sentence (or perhaps a sentence fragment, since its first word is “Or”) to more than a page of verse – and is then followed by a bibliography.²

If a long poem like Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts can be read as a post-Poundian palimpsest, each text swirling around a theme or series of questions, Dahlen’s approach strikes me as something closer to that of a stalker or perhaps a detective. Each section of A Reading is close to a dossier or case file on its topic. The relation of parts to wholes and of genre forms – verse, prose poem, letter, meditation – are all in play & their meanings change from section to section. This makes sense given that Dahlen’s approach is to call this project A Reading rather than A Writing.

As I noted above, every piece here is at least 20 years old. But, as Dahlen’s comments on terror or on the writing of Barrett Watten demonstrate, this work also feels completely current. In a sense, Dahlen’s strategy of being slow – glacial – to let things into print puts the “news that stays news” challenge to the test. Now if someone would just gather the five volumes of A Reading into a single volume, if Vincent’s Momo’s Press would re-issue Out of the Third, if Chax or someone would issue a trade edition of The Egyptian Poems and if we could just get a bunch of the remaining work into print! I don’t know if anyone has re-issued “Something/Nothing,” Dahlen’s 1985 talk on Laura Riding & Julia Kristeva – my copy is little more than a mimeograph with a clip to hold the cover together, published in that form by Africa O Malley – but that would be worth having back in print as well. Every time I’ve ever asked Dahlen about new work, she has always indicated that there wasn’t any, but then a new book appears. That may be a maddening (to me) process, but I hope that at least it continues on & on.

 

¹ Bizarrely enough, a few weeks after Dahlen wrote A Reading 18, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh deliberately contaminated the salad bars of several restaurants in Dahlen’s home state of Oregon, one of the first high-profile bio-terror incidents.

² The Watten material comes from “The XYZ of Reading: Negativity (& Diane Ward)” in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K, #1 (Oakland: May, 1984). It anticipates, but is not part of, the great discussion of negativity in The Constructivist Moment. Indeed, it might be read as the bridge between the essays of Total Syntax & Watten’s later work.

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