Monday, December 02, 2002

Robert Kelly’s Finding the Measure is full of poems of great interest beyond the “prefix” I looked at yesterday, only five of which (out of 43) make their way into Kelly’s selected Red Actions. While the “prefix” is included, among my favorite of the excluded works is “On a Picture of a Black Bird Given to Me by Arthur Tress,” as close to an objective poem as Measure contains. It opens:

Raven        in Chiapas
beak up open to
flat white Mexican light
against which an arch is breaking its back to join the broken sky

barbs of its feathers hang down, it cries out
for a world full of carrion
but its claws
hold firm & flat
the top of the ruined sill

The poem demonstrates conclusively Kelly’s ability to be far more than a poet of pure statement. The prosody of that first stanza is simply stunning – not a single syllable that does not actively contribute above & beyond the denotative level of the words or their connotative resonances.

Another wonderful poem can be found on the facing page, “To the Memory of Giordano Bruno,” a poem in two columns, the right one of which has it is lines, words & letters printed in reverse, so that one need read it in a mirror. A third excluded poem that certainly had its impact on the young Ron Silliman as reader is “First in an Alphabet of Sacred Animals,” a meditation on murder that begins

The ANT for all his history is a stranger
& his message is the gospel of an alien order
& his & his & his

works are furious in the crust of the earth
his house & his bread

(We must start with him because he is other,
he comes from a nowhere underneath us
& returns again & does not know us)

this is the easiest animal to kill.

Today I did not kill an ant
                                             a great big black one
& it became necessary to think
of the price of an ant’s death:
                                                      nothing we do
is without consequence)
                                            & in the taking of an ant’s life
is the taking of life

But the ant is not an albatross & dies easy
& soon his carcass is gone, who knows where they go
the bodies of insects we kill,
                                                   when we take life
                                                    what do we give?
-What is the price
of killing an ant
-What intricate microscopic karma do we fulfill
in crushing him
-What cosmic debt does he repay under my foot
-Will we notice the pain
with which we must one day surely atone for his death
-Or are there beings (& are there beings)
who step on us lightly as we tread ants?
that is the hideous question someone is always asking
Egypt after Egypt

& onward for another page before concluding with a section in prose. Kelly’s thesis here, as elsewhere, is compelled not to argue for the ant simply for its sake, but to connect it up, here to Egypt & thus to that larger system within the word “Sacred” in the title.

Also excluded from Red Actions is the twelve-part “Zodiac Cycle,” a series that is accorded pride of place in Measure, with each section – individual poems really – illustrated with its astrological symbol printed large in deep blue ink.

A closer reading of Red Actions would I suspect show that the elimination of a sequence such as  Zodiac Cycle” is not accidental. Kelly’s writing offers so very many choices – Finding the Measure, after all, was the 14th book of poems of Kelly’s published in just nine years; in his spare time, he also edited A Controversy of Poets, wrote a novel, The Scorpions, and published a liturgy – that one could easily publish a half dozen selected editions, each of which presented a very different Kelly. Thus while the Kelly of Red Actions remains a man interested in the alternate wisdom traditions, the mysticism that was front & center in his early books is presented here as incidental.

My own interest in Kelly, as with Duncan, had more to do with measure than mysticism. To this day I have never quite understood why these two phenomena appear to be linked, inextricable. Sound, it has always struck me, is an ideal antidote as an organizing & motive principle for the poem to the shallow surfaces of an unreflective dramatic monologue. Among the many poets that Kelly is & has been, is a superb practitioner of melopoiea.

The poem that follows “First in an Alphabet of Sacred Animals,” “Smith Cove Meditation,” has a title reminiscent of Olson, but the text is closer kin to Gertrude Stein. It begins:

Across the tone there is the one.
Everything is easier if there are women in it
but past the tone    there is the bone,
inside the bone there is the one.

One & bone; one times bone is bone, one bone.
One & bone are tone. Going across
is taking them away
from each other. Orphan bone,
widowed one.    Up on the hill
a widow lives, nurturing the tone.
Her son the bone. From their garden

on an August afternoon
you can see the one out on the water
all the waves & all the town’s streets
all the bright places & far
people, o some of them are gone,
gone to bone & gone to one, fallen
the castle of the bone, fallen the castle
of the enduring tone, the one
is over the harbor.

Every plausible combination of “o” & “n” is brought to bear – one can almost feel the deeper resonance of “afternoon” the way one might individual notes of a carillon. One might here argue that the “tone” of this poem is the selfsame “mantram” Kelly writes of in the “Prefix” to Measure, and while it is a radically different music than the rich alternation of consonant & vowel in the description of the blackbird, what it demonstrates precisely is Kelly’s to the poem of sound.
Right around 1970, a number of different events occurred that would transform the role sound played in poetry socially. Olson’s death in January of that year, followed a year later by Blackburn, shut the door on any hard-edged conception of speech as the prosodic determinant of poetic form. Already Creeley had moved toward a more relaxed notion of same in his 1968 volume Pieces, the potentially contradictory influences of Ted Berrigan & Louis Zukofsky combining to soften the tone of its linked sequences. When, in early 1971, Robert Grenier declared “I HATE SPEECH,” in the first issue of This, he was already jousting with an opponent that had largely abandoned the field.

Similarly, Duncan’s decision to not publish another book for 15 years after his 1968 Bending the Bow muted his enormous influence on younger poets. Combined with Olson’s & Blackburn’s absence & Creeley’s shift, Duncan’s step away from the scene transformed the role of sound in the poem – so prominent a feature in poetry for twenty years – into something of a non-issue in the 1970s.

But if This magazine’s first issue proved functionally to be announcement of this shift in poetics, it was Robert Kelly who had the literal first word:

If this were the place to begin
is not,

starts with the disk-sun-boat – a journey
we can share,
                           a precise
boatGokstad, not metaphor –
to our own country
                                    following the line
of tensions between the heard & the hard

facts of the world,
                                 perception.  Stanza
of particulars.
                          Lamplight half led
onto my book & half  held back –
afraid of the white page

My confession.  The pale blue asters
with dark hearts
are everywhere these days.
It begins to rain.

It is possible, even probable, that Kelly and the editors of This meant different things by putting this poem first in This 1. As so often in Kelly, the evocation of “particulars” – in this instance the Viking vessel Gokstad – is something unlikely to be shared by many readers, serving less as a point of reference than as a demarcation between those in the know & those outside. It’s in keeping with Kelly’s own long interest in alternative systems of knowledge, and in the poet as shaman or priest. But, with the principle exceptions of Fanny Howe, John Taggart and Nate Mackey, an aspect of poetry that has been far less visible in the three decades since. Thus, when the Apex of the M gang were proposing, nearly ten years ago now, that langpo had short shrifted the Gnostic, they came within a hair’s breadth of identifying what I actually suspect could have started the very revolution in poetics of which they were dreaming, the flip side of the measure/mysticism coin. The poem as sound, as measure & song as much as speech, let alone the narrow gargling of the sound poets.

& if such a poetics is again possible, or even plausible, reading Kelly & these great books is the necessary way back in.