Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Alice Notley


If the new edition of Chicago Review devotes 137 pages to Christopher Middleton, that’s just for openers – the issue contains another 170 pages of poetry, fiction & critical fair, virtually all of it of interest, and very much in the vein of what Jacket does online, suggesting broad contexts for reading. It contains a generous selection of post-avant poetry in English, with work by poets with roots in Australia (John Kinsella), France (Gustav Sobin with one of his last poems), England (Keston Sutherland &, in another way altogether, Alice Notley), Canada (Christopher Dewdney, Kevin Connolly), a look at Allen Ginsberg’s photography, new work by Landis Everson, one of the original members of the Berkeley Renaissance who is returning to print with quite a flourish at the end of his eighth decade, a long piece of fiction by Lisa Jarnot, an interview with Camille Guthrie plus memorials to Philip Lamantia & Guy Davenport.

ChiRev – an abbreviation I’ve been using now for some 38 years, back to when I first appeared in that journal, and which shows up in my own poetry, but which may be exclusive to me, I don’t know – has been doing this with each of its recent special issues & it makes extraordinary sense. Come for the Middleton, the Dorn or Zukofsky, stay & get turned on to something new altogether, simply because on the page they make sense. The cohesion of this issue is as impressive as any accomplished by a single hand, be it Clayton Eshleman, Cid Corman, Bob Creeley or Barrett Watten. That it is actually being done by a college magazine is more or less impossible. With their typically cautious faculty sponsorships & rotating student editors, college mags are a ground for young poets to get some sense of what editing may be about, but the simple fact is that most are pretty dreadful productions, maybe a “famous” name or two & a lot of student work – sometimes the student work is quite a bit better than the generous mid-career poet’s contribution, having given the mag something he or she wouldn’t send to a journal that might be more widely read.

Chicago Review has had its own mixed history of course. An attempt in 1959 to publish “Old Angel Midnight” by Jack Kerouac & an excerpt from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in the journal was thwarted by a half-wit journalist at the Chicago Daily News who knew that a good ruckus over obscenity would increase his readership, leading instead Paul Carroll to create Big Table as an alternative site, in many ways the inaugural event of Chicago postmodernism, especially after the Post Office in turn went after Carroll & Big Table. In the late 1960s, Eugene Wildman & Iven Lourie (who would abandon his own literary career for a deepening spiritual engagement in the 1970s & is probably remember now more as the brother of Hanging Loose co-founder Dick Lourie) pushed the magazine out of that sort of inevitable collegiate shell college mags can fall into, but then the staffs rotated again & not much was heard until the mid-90s. Thus, for example, it seemed mostly to miss the burst of creativity that poured forth in the wake of a brief post-Iowa teaching stint in the Second City by Ted Berrigan in the 70s. Now Eric Elshtain concludes an extravagantly successful five-year run as poetry editor with this issue, so I suppose we’re going to have to hold our breaths all over again for what the journal will mean in the future. But this run has been something else – these last issues in particular will be on poets’ bookshelves for decades to come.

The writer whose work pulled me in first is Kevin Connolly, who I’m presuming is the Canadian poet & journalist, tho any details are curiously absent from the contributors’ notes. He has a piece entitled “So Familiar,” which acknowledges that it is “after Darrell Gray.”

You are the toy delivered at daybreak,
conundrum to a storm of checkmarks,

and still, so familiar to me
this bale of regret
I have strawdogged. . .

Cordwood, filibuster,
young love caught under the porch
with the chamois and the millionaire

A class of oafs
can set the terms more finely
than any timeshare Nero

But when I put up my fiddle, the
moon dawdles on my cheekbones –
all those plump hours tractoring back

A perfectly fine little poem & one that does indeed remind me of Darrell, the Actualist poet who drank himself to death far too young, especially Darrell’s work under the French pseudonym Phillipe Mignon, sort of a kinder, but not gentler, Kent Johnson.(Johnson is himself represented in the issue via a sympathetic review by David Hadbawnik.) Gray, who studied with Berrigan in Iowa City in the late 1960s, before moving to the Bay Area after a brief stint writing – no joke – verse for Hallmark in Kansas City, was the lynchpin for a network of poets whom one might think of as third generation New York School, save for the notable detail that they were not New Yorkers & not in New York.

Another member of that same generation at Iowa, of course, was Alice Notley, whose own roots were in the sparest part of the harshest desert in the U.S. She married Berrigan & lived with him until his death some fifteen years hence, after which she lived in England & France, taking up serious root everywhere she went. She has two pieces here in very long lines indeed, two others in prose – they don’t look at all like anything Ted Berrigan ever did or anyone in Iowa ever did, or pretty much anyone writing before has ever done, unless maybe the more oracular side of Anne Waldman. But you get those little verbal flourishes in Notley, like her use of adverbs & adjectives in the first two lines of “Oath”:

by the little daggers of my dear, the very legitimate tendernesses of his spirit/body i swear.

to go on before the courts and flowing lectures, to animate the light with furious weight.

The whole heritage of the New American Poetry is captured in something like furious – it’s a term you can hear Kerouac & Whalen, for example, using before a noun such as weight. It is impossible to get such life into a poem without having it be there at all points – it’s not something you can fake or learn in school. Even in these new & sometimes strange forms, Notley’s poetry is absolutely bristling with such instances of specificity, in every line, every phrase.

A very different vision of the history of the New American Poetry shows up in Peter Leary’s review – it’s both deeper & more personal than that term suggests – of the humongous volume of collected correspondence between Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov. Both poets have seen their reputations wane somewhat since their deaths – Duncan’s because key projects such as The H.D. Book and any sort of collected poems have never seen print, Levertov because she cast her lot in her later years with one side of the School of Quietude, which has a perpetual tendency to neglect its own (part of a larger hostility to literary history that one suspects is because a cold, clear look at same would force them to, as Rilke would have put it, change their lives). Both are considerably more important figures than they might seem today, and are like to return as forces if & when fuller collections of their of work are made available.

Leary focuses on the degree to which this correspondence traces the breakup of their deep friendship over the Vietnam War, the moment of great drama in the letters, to be sure. Levertov who became a fulltime political activist in these years argued with Duncan, who was a good enough friend to actually tell her the truth about what this was doing to her writing. Yet it is worth remembering here that it was Duncan, with “The Fire Passages 13” & “The Multiversity Passages 21,” along with Allen Ginsberg’s ”Wichita Vortex Sutra,” & George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” who turned out to be the great antiwar poet of the Vietnam conflict. Levertov’s own political poetry is not anywhere near her best work, and the Vietnam era poems don’t stand up well against antiwar work by far more conservative poets like James Dickey or Donald Justice.

At the same time, Duncan was somebody who needed enemies & opposition & he burned down more than a few of his friendships over his life. The relationship with Levertov may have been the most profound of these self-invoked disasters, although certainly poets who were in San Francisco during the early sixties have been known to speak of periods where Duncan & Spicer behaved more like Godzilla & Mothra. So there is this dynamic as well. But where Duncan’s confrontation with what a homophobic jerk Pound was simply led him to stop communicating with the older poet in the 1940s (unlike, say, Allen Ginsberg), Levertov was someone he wasn’t going to let dissolve into a scold without a fight. He goes after her like a brother doing an intervention on a sibling who’s got a crack habit, only to discover that she has no intention of stepping off the high horse that was, for awhile at least, gaining her a broader readership for the first time in her career.

Ginsberg, on the other hand, is represented via a fascinating consideration of his photography & specifically how his photography fits into his literary aesthetic, specifically the problem of how to photograph the subjective. Erik Mortenson is new to me as a critic, but this strikes me as a rich vein of possibility. Ginsberg was obsessed with his photography – in some ways, I think it was a form in which he never had to fit into the expectations of being “Allen Ginsberg, Papa Hippie, King of the May.” Once before a panel we were both on under the big tent at Naropa began, he leaned over to me to say “When I’m in places like this, I’m always imagining all the photographs I could be taking of the audience.”

A very different view of post-avant tradition comes in Bill Mohr’s piece on Paul Vangelisti, the Los Angeles poet, editor & translator. I’ve written even in the past week about the degree of isolation Southern California has as a literary scene, and Vangelisti like Leland Hickman is an example of somebody who is not nearly as widely known today as he should be – and would be if he lived, say, in San Francisco, New York or even Philly or Boston – so it is great to see Mohr taking on the broad view of his work here. If only the issue had a few new poems of his as well.

But it’s hard to fault a publication this rich & this committed to the completeness of the post-avant. The memorial pieces for Philip Lamantia & Guy Davenport, for example, bring together radically different views of poetry & the world. Both have important relationships, however, to the same broader scene. Similarly, there are pieces here that I haven’t mentioned by Elizabeth Willis, Sarah Mangold, and a delightful review of Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed by Daniel Kane. Plus lots of poets new (or at least relatively new) to me, starting with Philip Jenks, John Wilkinson, Daniel Borzutzky, Danielle Pafunda, Camille Martin, J.S.A. Lowe, Jen Lamb, Tim Early & Gregory Fraser. It’s not that there are no false moments – Elshtain tries to compare D.A. Powell with Charles Olson & another piece overpraises the work of Jeff Clark, who has been designing the covers of ChiRev of late. In all, however, this is a feast. It’s not up on the Chicago Review website quite yet, but this issue – like all of the recent ones – is worth ponying up for. While you’re at it, get whatever back issues you don’t already own.