Thursday, July 01, 2004

Judson Crews is a name I recognize from little magazines some 30 years ago & remember more distinctly from positive mentions of it by Robert Creeley, mostly in association with Creeley’s days in New Mexico. So when I saw Crews’ The Clock of Moss listed in the Ahsahta Press catalog awhile back, I sent for it immediately. I’m glad I did. Tho I’m a little amazed that I didn’t learn of this book until 21 years after it was originally published.


Edited by Carol BergĂ©, herself a poet whose work has been too little collected and reviewed, Crews’ poetry is a fine example of quality work written by somebody deeply influenced by various aspects of the New American Poetry, as well as by the same influences that shaped that 1950s generation. Born in 1917 – and still alive so far as I can tell – Crews is just two years older than Robert Duncan & writes a poem that has resemblances to the work of William Carlos Williams, Creeley, Olson, Dorn, Snyder, Blackburn & Gilbert Sorrentino. Had he “made the scene” more aggressively – rather than spending most of his adult years in Taos, save for four years in the 1970s in just barely more remote Zambia, Crews almost certainly would be a “household name poet” today.


Instead, like BergĂ© or Besmilr Brigham or even a fairly established San Francisco poet of that period like Harold Dull, Crews has become one of those gems you find if you’re one of us obsessive reader types. It seems to me absolutely impossible to imagine how one can envision an American poetry of those middle decades in the last century without the active context provided by such writers, without whom the names we do know would have been isolated indeed.


His poems are contained in the way so many of the shorter New American poems of that period are – not yet open-ended in quite the way poems will become once the likes of Berrigan & Whalen & the later Olson will make possible – and present a vision of the American west that is as sharply etched as anything ever written by Edward Dorn:


The day’s cock of morning


That bird is neither anonymous

nor fragile. His spurs could cut


An old gelding’s flanks sharply

if we needed to get to somewhere


In that big of a hurry.

My last pair of spurs


Had some silver on them – sold

them finally when I thought


I needed the cash the most.

When I thought – when I thought


I’m gonna need to eat again

say, three or four days


Guess it is more dignified

to shoot that old bird than


           chop his bloody head off


This poem’s shifts within its narrative frame are deft enough, but what really impresses me is its play with what, for want of a better adjective, one might call its Freudian frame – from cock through gelding through spurs to that final line, which is completely phallic. That Crews was trained professionally as a sociologist & psychologist makes total sense reading this.


Actually, in precisely this context, one thing one confronts reading Crews is an attitude towards gender which bespeaks prefeminism, or at least its second wave. Women here are figured as whores, crones, and girls just coming into puberty:


If she had spoken, if I


Had spoken – that face of evil

that had fallen upon that place


The feature that had chilled us

each. She was a faster draw


Than I, but a poorer aim –

I was oozing blood from the left


Testicle. But she was dead.

What could she have been doing


In such a place – naked with a

bandolier and a six-shooter


You would know it was out
West. You would think it was


The old days. You wouldn’t think it

was She, holding out the apple


This is not – which may be hard to imagine in a 50-page book – the only poem to recount this gunfight of the sexes, nor is this the only instance of a gal naked but for her bandolier. Like the narrative containment these poems all share, I read this as a mark of its time, carbon dating the text. Yet get past this – or not, even, maybe just focus right there upon it – and you will find some of the most well-crafted examples of a western New American text I’ve read. The one thing this book made me want to do, more than anything, is to find & read more poetry by Judson Crews.