Monday, February 07, 2005

I stopped for lunch at El Sombrero Grocery Store in Avondale, PA, a farm town west of Kennett Square where some of the Mexican families who fly in from San Diego to work the mushroom fields in the area have set down roots. It’s a funky little two-room store in a converted residence, right on Route 41, with a few tables in a side room that functions as a diner. There’s always Mexican music on the radio & it’s a breath of 24th Street to an old San Franciscan like myself. I grabbed a couple of the books I’d put in my bag for the trip to DC and went in for a burrito & lemonade, the perfect lunch. Opening one of the books, I suddenly recognized the typeface and page design as being exactly what I’d seen and identified as the work of Robert Creeley’s in my dream the night before. Only it wasn’t Robert Creeley. The book was Michael Kelleher’s To Be Sung. The book had just come in the mail the day before I drove down to read & talk with Leslie Scalapino & I’d thumbed through it briefly before tossing it into my bag for the trip.


How weird is that, I wondered. Then, reading the book – I got two-thirds of the way through just during lunch – I realized that it wasn’t weird at all. There is a way in which To Be Sung reads very much like a Robert Creeley book. Consider “Escapism”:


On a garden

Walk a life


Coughed up
In a hand


A waking



Or urn

On which


Frozen forms



To yearn.

One asks



What is it


One knows

One knows


Only one

Knows one-


Self not

The music


At hand that

Of a bird


Or bard

In flight.


Robert Creeley wouldn’t have written this poem, largely because the sentimentalism in its final gesture is a sentimentalism of writing, the closed arc, whereas Creeley’s sentiment is addressed almost always to friends or family, never into the process of writing itself. But beyond that distinction, this poem has the feel of Words, Creeley’s brilliant 1967 volume. It’s virtually a study of how to make such use of language. Consider, for example, “The Language”:


Locate I

love you some-

where in


teeth and

eyes, bite

it but


take care not

to hurt, you

want so


much so

little. Words

say everything.



love you



then what

is emptiness

for. To


fill, fill.

I heard words

and words full


of holes

aching. Speech

is a mouth.


Now that is Creeley, from Words. Not all of Kelleher’s work echoes that book, necessarily, and much of his writing is quite good –


I’ll fuck anything

That moves.


But everything

is still.


What History of Dance

To be written this day?


What Kings to be crowned?

I am the King of May.


Already it is December.

This all happened


Before the barricades

Went up


When I was the state

You are in.


But if the Allen Ginsberg allusion here isn’t jarring, I wouldn’t know what was. Is Kelleher actively discussing his relation to his literary ancestors here or isn’t he? I can’t decide. Similarly, I’m not certain that Kelleher is discussing his own writing in the fifth section of “Tarkovsky Suite.”


The tree planted

Near the stream


Yields no fruit.
Bitter leaves



Waters and shore.


No one gathers

These leaves.


No one gather

these leaves.


One of the enduring problems of influence of course is that historical context matters. What Robert Creeley was doing in 1956 or 1967 was one thing – it changed poetry forever, as did the writing of many of his peers. Writing works that echo these achievements 35 to 50 years later is a very different proposition. To Be Sung is eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable, but in the same moment it makes me want to scream or shout or wash my hands. I wonder, in retrospect, how much of this I divined just flipping through its pages the other night before I put in my bag. Is this why I had that dream?


Twenty-odd years back, I recall having a similar feeling about some writers of my own immediate age cohort with regards to, say, Louis Zukofsky as an influence. There were, or so I felt, one group of poets who took Zukofsky as stepping-off place – Barrett Watten & Bob Perelman would be particularly good examples of this – and another group who seemed to take his work as an upper limit, as “far out” as one might imagine. I don’t know Kelleher’s other work – he has had some other books – so I don’t to overjudge the man. To Be Sung is a good book, but confined very much to a retrospective view of poetry. To me that would feel like chains.