Thursday, December 29, 2005

 

Yesterday’s note on Brett Evans reminded me that I owe (and am way past deadline) CA Conrad an answer to an email I received earlier this month that read, in part:

Dear Ron,
Not long ago I interviewed Eileen Myles for PhillySound, and one of the questions I asked her was, "There must be other poets whose work you admire whose work is either out of print or difficult to find. Can you share some names or titles, and what this work means to you?"
 
This was her answer:
Susie Timmons. Always Susie. Locked from Inside. Yellow Press of
Chicago did it. She is my generation of poets who came up in the east village in the 70s and 80s. Very fast, very conceptual, funny and magical. Nobody like her. I loved her work then and now. Joe Ceravolo. Wonderful, also kind of religious-tinged work. Loose but sinewy. Spring in this world of poor mutts is a title. A guy completely unheard of is Richard Bandanza. He was in workshops with me in the 70s. He published one book under a pseudonym, Richard Nassau. It was called I Like You. He married a doctor and he lives in Connecticut. I bet he’s still writing.
 
Not only was I excited to learn about Susie Timmons, but others who read this interview were also quite excited, and said so, and I'm taking this question to the next step.  It's important, I believe, to ask this question of poets whose work we admire, which is why I'm asking you and a few others the very same question, "There must be other poets whose work you admire whose work is either out of print or difficult to find. Can you share some names or titles, and what this work means to you?"

At the time I told him I agreed with Susie Timmons as one such choice & I had never known that Richard Nassau was a pseudonym – I Like You is a terrific book. I, of course, have used this space before to write about several poets who fit this general description, such as Besmilr Brigham or Seymour Faust or Drum Hadley. I still have a stack of Harold Dull books atop a bookcase near this PC because his disappearance from the Spicer Circle was far more profound than, say, that of Landis Everson from the Berkeley Renaissance. You really can’t get a sense of the Spicer scene without addressing the role of its core straight male member (and, so far as I can tell, one that Spicer never tried to seduce). Dull left the writing scene behind fairly soon after Spicer’s death – Tom Mandel & I persuaded him to read in the Grand Piano series in 1977 or ’78, but even then that was in the nature of a resurrection. In those days he was working as a therapist near the UCSF campus on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco. Relatively soon thereafter, tho, Dull began to develop Watsu, literally water shiatsu, which I believe he still does himself these days at the Harbin Hotsprings Resort north of the City.

I could make the case as well for Curtis Faville, whose Stanzas for An Evening Out, is a definitive book of the 1970s. Curtis, as readers of my comments stream well know, has hardly disappeared, but works now as a rare book dealer. In addition to Wittgenstein’s Door, which you can still buy through SPD, a new volume, Metro, supposedly is about to appear. But Stanzas is the book every poet interested in the evolution of contemporary verse ought to own. SPD has no copies & Abebooks.com shows none among the Faville volumes that can be found through the rare book network.

However, the poet who best fits this description for me – someone whose work I admire whose books are either out of print or difficult to find – unquestionably has to be Jerry Estrin. Estrin started out as a surrealist poet in San Francisco some time in the 1970s & saw his work evolve considerably right up until his death from cancer in 1993. He was a student of mine briefly at San Francisco State & when I say of that graduate seminar, that there was always at least one student there ready & willing to discuss just why this or that language poet was a fraud, deficient or just not interesting, the subtext is that Jerry filled that dissident role a disproportionate number of times. Yet these poets were his friends as well – when he drove cab around the City, he would stop & give them rides if he saw them, never ever charging for the service (I once literally threw money into the front seat & jumped out before he could give it back) – and he would have been amused to see the words “language poet” used in his own obituary.

His biggest & finest book is Rome, A Mobile Home, jointly published by The Figures, O Books, Potes & Poets & Roof. The book arrived the same week that Jerry passed over & what was to have been a launch party turned instead into a memorial service at the SPD Bookstore that then existed on San Pablo Avenue. You can still get Rome from SPD as well as Cold Heaven, a slightly earlier book from Manuel Brito’s Zasterle Press in the Canary Islands. An earlier book, A Book of Gestures, published by Jerry’s own Somber Reptiles press in 1980, is worth tracking down as well, capturing as it does his surrealist years (the cover image shows Gertrude Stein conversing with André Breton). Abebooks shows just two copies of that volume to be had, as well as another chapbook I’ve not seen and an issue or two of Jerry’s magazine, Vanishing Cab.

Jerry tended to write in series – Cold Heaven is something of an exception in that regard, save for the last long work, ”The Park,” perhaps the first truly major poem Estrin wrote. A shorter version can be found in Rome. My own favorite Estrin poem, “Brace,” is likewise to be found in Rome & focuses on the meaning of Roger Maris – I don’t know if Jerry knew he had cancer when he began this or not, tho his version was not the lymphoma that took Maris in 1985 at the age of 51. The connotations around Maris’ name have changed considerably since Estrin himself died in ’93, as the two-time American League most-valuable-player enjoyed something of a renaissance of attention when Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa first surpassed Maris’ record in 1998. Here are the first two pages of “Brace,” the ellipses in the original, which focuses on the moment of the homerun itself:

During the 1961 season, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. At the conclusion of his final home run, Maris cried: I’ve taken my last swing, I am finished. I will now be visible forever.

Diary: the grass on the field, the stands, heavy with fans, the press corps, high in the sands, and Maris, connecting with the pitch, the ball, soaring over the center-field wall . . .

Maris, striking the ball, gives the home run its form.

People running, the ball, invisible, in the single movement of the swing . . .

Perfection of the swing, white-out of the ball, a surfeit never extinguished, asymmetrical to the distant epiphany of its form.

Crowds intensely draw all stories to themselves, are capable of any form. Violence of the swing, then a roar.

Without inside, Maris, after his final hit, would not speak, or rather, there was the sight of his swing, caught on camera, repeating itself, forever.

Maris’ swing, its constancy.

Night, Maris, under Yankee Stadium light, the crowd.

The crash of the ball, and Maris, caught in that instant, without inside, opening, to the evening.

Goodbye, he says through the night of the stadium air.    Ah, I am finished.

During of the game, a player’s ration.

Image of Maris, flap of pinstripes, under shadowless stadium light.

Image before, Maris at the plate, bat about to explode into ball.

The roar, the sound of bat on ball. The swing never post-game

but prior to definition, to description

to our agitation.


Repose, words of prose, existing once and for all, removed from bat and ball.

If you look at that grainy QuickTime movie linked above, you will note how much this piece itself is a construction of memory: the home run went over the right-field wall & there were no people running to greet Maris or fetch the historic horsehide (a conflation perhaps with Bill Mazeroski’s World Series’ winning home run the previous autumn). The perfection of form – what this poem is truly about – is entirely Platonic, regardless of how temporary or complex.

Estrin creates the poem out of equal doses of cubism & Objectivism – the idea of a writing “without inside” is the point at which both join – yet his own position is outside of either. The poem’s last page shows Estrin offering a critical, rather than figurative, frame:

Think of a film, an unmoving Roger Maris, whose doll eyes never flicker. Shot of the street, of rhythmical crowds, of Roger there.

Maris the modernist, sufficient to himself, has become the paradoxical hero of an instant that endures without a future.

That last sentence might have been written by Guy Debord, had the French philosopher-vandal only known baseball.

In a way, Jerry Estrin’s own poetry likewise occupies this paradoxical space, still the writing of a young man, but forever a work that is finished, if never complete. I miss him personally a lot, but I know also that the world of poetry never has fully understood just how much his poetry has to offer.





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