Thursday, August 10, 2006

Of all the poets included in the watershed 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Don Allen, perhaps only Bruce Boyd is less widely known than the late Kirby Doyle. He has just one poem in the book, in its “San Francisco Renaissance” section – a grouping that I’ve argued before was largely a fiction created by Allen’s need to organize his materials – sandwiched betwixt Boyd & the not-a-whole-lot more famous Ebbe Borregaard. A brief one-paragraph bio note indicated that he had been a grad student at SF State, but was then in New York, working on his poetry & a novel “under the dubious security of unemployment checks.” When Doyle died in 2003, the poem in the Allen anthology was his one poem still in print.

The book I came across the other day in Oakland, Doyle’s Collected Poems, was published in 1983, his fourth volume to appear, one of which was a novel, Happiness Bastard, composed entirely on a single roll of newsprint a la Kerouac. There were four more books after the Collected, all in the 1980s. If I read his entry in Wikipedia right, there remain unpublished at the least one epic poem, Pre American Ode, and another novel. There is an excerpt in the Collected, which it describes as “End Section of Book Five (Glacial Nocturne)”:

In my forty-ninth year
with a few dollars
& many poems
I salute you, Tomales
O fecund & friendly coast
of my native land,
deeper than genius
(or as deep).
This hand salutes
& not th’ death threats
of a non-existent god
marrying children to murder

Poorer than a priest
& certainly healthier
nature loves & is profound’d
by me –
Sappho calls to me
beyond & prior to
the’ ill-focus’d folds
of th’ priestly & alien calendar.
I would die before
I (intentionally) call’d
this earth a planet –
would perish myself a’fore
I would deliver earth to th’ universe
Fields love me in fields
I do not count.
I am welcome in earth –
there is no death for me.
I am no ace of space
but a walking land.
If there is an
if there is a west
I am that
& that west.
I too have lean’d w/mean
& have straighted from them –
O they are worthless in their
viewings & importance,
& O I have happy – pointless.
O Spirit be not spirit;
God be not god.

A hundred lines before breakfast
& O I am living!
a hundred lines after
& life is original again –

kiss’s from everywhere –
flowers tuba bass notes
of welcome.

Simpler than schemes o’ killers
I give no false directions.

An over-abundance of myself
weathers all genius, all originality –
weathers time, weathers sleep,
unempires forests, makes unstrange
of friends.
Gardens celebrate themselves
by my wealth.
Voices cease,
& stillness enters all places,
all persons, all causes & deeds.
Th’ hills are still –
O th’ hills are living still!

(Priceless drafts of rough poems
stain’d & wealthy –)

Th’ freedom o’ Adam
far from th’ craze of killers
straining for bondage,
alive & nonchalant
is my companion –
O happy th’ furls of smoke,
my companion tobacco –
O profound cigarette,
profounder than bells.

’Ways of life’ only live –
ambition prays itself.

I am yet born
O the’ angels o’ Blake
are too precious –
I have no angels,
just ageless seed companions
of th’ endless forests of earth.
Now half-a-century long
now my birth –
I am earth.
Conquerors who could not (would not)
conquer themselves
have come upon me
asleep in my time
and perish’d
fear’d & cunning hags
worthless in antiquity
& too stupid in incessance
of old & unwant’d sex
have shriek’d & faded.

Th’ ego of independence
is a priority of my rights –
I accept only th’ teaching
of the poem.
Th’ ambitious ordinances of God(s)
cannot force my love.

Friend, I tell you I am asleep
& am sleeping in my own time –
that the succulent living growth
of all fruits & food
is a product of my sleep.
Too many claims, old gods,
I shall not awake unto you.

Ride not, ye priests,
upon th’ sleep of a babe –
you are sleepless, & without time
No fruits of life have ever claim’d
you –
death is y’r dear toy.

Over exposed, mad ambitious
religion –
thou are over exposed.

Without a word doth life occure
without a word.
Hug thy tricks to coin, prayerful –
thou hast stolen from babes.
No easy theft, mark you –
th’ cries of innocence
dismember universe(s).
Check th’ lust of thy attention,
Holy –
suffer’t y’rself.

Goodly companion Tobacco –
most medicinal witness,
thou art nation.

O contending suitors of Belief –
So what thy over-praised Zions
hate us that we would not chase,
would not praise –
What care we, th’ people,
I, this hand, th’ earth –?
(art thous not praised well enough
slave by thy slaves
in th’ far fear?)

Th’ field is not a mouth,
nor a house made of mouth.
By (th’) field this poem life,
this hand.
When th’ ‘eternal’ of history(s)
has completed
th’ field lives yet.
I am th’ field, not God.
I am asleep, not awake.
I am time before count, my own.
My only sky
th’ ever still hills –
flowers my only stars.
Th’ shadows of my seasons
strata within me
my true clouds.
My total knowing is only life.
Death knows only dead.
I am not ye.
Temple not upon me.

Unnamed nature my only name.
I am without a game.
Verse is my signature.
I know nothing of space.
I am earth uncreated.
There is nothing of God about me.

I am a hand that
holds a cigarette, writes.

Good darkness, pre darkness –
I salute myself.

I’m not going to argue that this is great or, for that matter, even good verse, tho there are examples of such in the Collected, as in:

Leave us Presume
thy eye’s the
thy mouth’s the moon –
Thy Death’s disbanded calliope’s in society
too soon – my room,
my mind’s the loom.

The underlying influence of Blake in both pieces is palpable (plus Whitman, Ginsberg, McClure & Bremser in the first poem), but Doyle is hardly alone in heeding Blake in his generation, from Roethke to Duncan to Ginsberg. Where Doyle’s at his best – say, at the start of the passage from Pre American Ode & all of the untitled piece – eye & ear are both at work & there’s a level of specificity to the writing. But towards the end of this excerpt of Pre American Ode, a poem he continued to work on, so far as I can tell, the rest of his life, tho there were apparently long bouts of not writing as well, his attention flags. The poem lapses into predictability.

There are, of course, always people on the fringe of any literary scene who get caught up in the energy of a collective activity – the excitement is contagious & to some degree so is the writing (this is one of the great secrets of literary groups & movements – that the process itself makes all of its members better writers, at least for a time) – and one way to read Doyle is as an instance of this phenomenon. As a part of the Beat scene, the writing makes a kind of sense that it will later lack once that scene has moved on. Pre American Ode has never been published in book form, but one wonders if the context for it as a book exists in 2006. Or even if the manuscript survives: Doyle died in San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital – essentially the City’s charity facility – after “a long illness.”

There is a lot of discussion, in his obit in the San Francisco Chronicle & in the memorial site on Empty Mirror, of the impact that drugs & alcohol played in Doyle’s later life. One comment on the latter site that has the ring of authority is T. Walden’s “Doyle's drug use was clearly an attempt to ‘self-medicate’ a severe mental illness.” This would hardly be a first. Indeed, poetry is one field – from John Clare to John Wieners to Jimmy Schuyler to Hannah Weiner to Robert Lowell – in which a person with a serious psychiatric condition is not necessarily at a disadvantage. There is, in fact, a history yet to be written about this genre’s role in the history of disability in general – think, for example, of Larry Eigner with his profound physical challenges.

But Doyle here deserves the last word. Here is a link to a 15 minute reading of his (in WMA format) from Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Berkeley, CA : Fantasy Records, 1993.