Kate Braverman — SPSRE Language Outlaw Laureate

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 – Friday, October 18, 2019

(This is an expanded and retitled version of Tuesday’s post)

I have found myself considering the ways in which Kate in particular is a “language outlaw.” At the very least, she was guilty of trespassing on the norms of restrained understatement that marks much of the decorous prose of the canon.

Of course, it’s more than trespassing. Let’s face it: the heavenly mansion of literary inspiration in which various rooms have the pertinent plaque: “Malcolm Lowry / Virginia Woolf / Djuna Barnes / Jean Genet / John Rechy slept here” does not have a saturated neon sign flashing “No vacancy.” Instead, it’s a largely abandoned building occupied by “squatters” such as Kate, and her willingness to live there only served as a provocation to less talented writers.

By the late 1970s, other kinds of literary “outlaws” were becoming more and more visible on the literary landscape, in particular the “language poets,” and it is perhaps not just an accident that one of them (Ted Greenwald, from NYC) read at Intellectual and Liars Bookstore in Santa Monica along with Kate Braverman. I was probably the only person in the audience who enjoyed both poets equally. After hearing each other’s work, neither Kate nor Ted saw any reason to stay in touch. Interestingly enough, neither particularly changed their poetics from that point forward. I heard Lyn Hejinian at St. Mark’s Poetry Project about 15 years ago say that Ted had continued to change and grow as he got older, but when he read he didn’t sound much different at all from that early work. Not that many poets or writers ever do decide to mutate mid-course. Yeats, maybe. It’s a short list.

There is a phrase I came up with, in my introduction to “POETRY LOVES POETRY” to describe many of the Los Angeles poets who emerged between 1970 and 1985: “the self-portrait school of romantic existentialism” (SPSRE). The two poets who exemplify that phrase most gallantly are Leland Hickman and Kate Braverman, both of whom were founding members of the Momentum workshop in Los Angeles

The Momentum workshop began meeting in the winter of 1975-1976. The fifth issue of Momentum had come out in the summer of 1975, along with issues of Invisible City (number 16), Bachy (number 8), and Beyond Baroque’s NEW magazine. Poetry was beginning to flourish in Los Angeles, and Kate Braverman was perhaps its youngest star. By the end of the decade, Jim Krusoe had published two full-length books of poetry; Lee Hickman had had his first book of poetry nominated by the Los Angeles Times as one of the five best books of poetry published in 1980; and Kate Braverman had had three books of poems (MILK RUN (Momentum Press, Bill Mohr, editor) as well as two volumes from Harper and Row). In addition, Peter Levitt’s RUNNING GRASS: Poems 1970-1977 was published by Eidolon Editions in 1979. All of these books by Kae, Lee, Jim, and Peter were preceded by Dennis Ellman’s THE HILLS OF YOUR BIRTH (Momentum Press).

* * * * *

When Lee Hickman took over as poetry editor of BACHY magazine, he initiated a series of interview with Los Angeles poets. In the final issue of Papa Bach Bookstore’s magazine, Lee published an interview he did with Kate. Here is the final passage:

LH: You’re revealing yourself in the way that certain great writers I love have, like Genet, John Rechy.

KB: Yes, Rechy’s another person who’s been a big influence and a great personal help and a strong early supporter of of mine.

LH: In the interview with him (Bachy 17), I asked him a question I’d like to ask you: Do you ever feel anxieties about revealing so much of yourself in public, in your writing?

KB: No, I feel no anxiety about it, because for one thing it’s not myself, because I and the creature have merged and are one. But I think just saying that’s a cop-out. I think what I should say is the goddamn truth of it, which is that telling the truth is its own destiny. It is its own kingdom. It is its own. It is holy. It is eternal. The truth is always freeing and transforming. So I don’t feel any anxiety. I do sometimes feel just a personal chill when I walk into a room and know that here are those there who will see me as a leper. But the truth is Lee, I have been a complete and total brat. I have lived as if posthumously, taking outrageous, unimaginable personal risks. Living out my most vivid and exotic fantasies. Collecting adventures. Flaunting my triumphs, my glamour, my absence, my desperation dn pain. And sentimentalizing my disasters. Deliberately and continually offending everybody. Demanding constant attention. Craving both awe and pity. Lusting after success with an uncontrollable and ruthless passion. Why is it so hard to say that I’m in love with danger. Not life in the fast lane but careening down the center divider. In short, playing the poetry game, falling in love with art, where the stakes are life and death. That, and the fact That I still believe in love.

Kate Braverman (1949-2019): Poet and Novelist

Monday evening, October 14, 2019 — 9:40 p.m.

bill mohr & the gang c 1976 -019
(photograph of Kate Braverman, (c) Rod Bradley)

About a dozen minutes ago, I was sitting on a sofa in the living room, grading the mid-term examination that I gave several dozen students in my “Survey of Poetry” course this afternoon. I was wondering if I had done enough for the evening when I heard Linda’s phone ring in the bedroom. At first I thought I heard Linda say it was a wrong number. If only it had been; instead, I heard the very sad news from our friend Laurel Ann Bogen that Kate Braverman died.

It’s been years since I’ve seen her. Maybe over 20 years. I think the last time I talked with her was at Dutton’s Bookstore on San Vicente Boulevard. We talked briefly about Lee Hickman, with whom both of us had very close relationships. Kate was one of the founding members of the Momentum poetry workshop, a hand-picked group of poets who met in each other houses and apartments back in the mid-1970s. We had all at one point or another been part of the Venice Poetry Workshop at Beyond Baroque earlier in the decade, but had grown impatient with poets who were unwilling to read the variety of poets we were curious about. In addition to Kate, Lee, and myself, the other members of the workshop were Jim Krusoe, Harry Northup, Dennis Ellman and Peter Levitt. These seven poets formed the majority of the poets in my first anthology, The Streets Inside. Of all the poets in the group, Kate was the one who most benefited from the criticism we gave each other. She was the most gifted of all of us in terms of having nimble access to an imagination overbrimming with lyricism. To this day, I don’t believe I have ever met anyone who is as gifted as she was.

To the best of my recollection, I was the first editor in the United States to publish Kate’s poetry. Kate was an ambitious poet, though, and certainly wanted her poems to be in the best known magazines at that time. Within a few months of that publication (the third issue of Momentum, 1974), she had poems accepted by the Paris Review. Not only did I continue to publish her work in Momentum magazine, however, I also published her first book of poems, MILK RUN. Reviewed in the Los Angeles Times by Ben Pleasant, the first run sold out fairly quickly, and I printed another 500 copies. I may not have published as many books as other independent presses did back then, but I somehow had a quirky ability to select poets who were destined to make an impact.

Kate and I stayed friends through most of the 1970s, though my suggestions for cutting the first draft of Lithium for Medea were not well received. “You’re not my editor and you’re not my friend.” The final version, in fact, reflected many of the changes I had suggested, though I believe her editors were the ones who finally coerced her into trimming the book.

Although I included Kate’s poems in my second anthology, POETRY LOVES POETRY, we rarely saw each other any more. Not too long after that she left Los Angeles for good, and only returned intermittently. The only person I knew who was in personal contact with her in recent years was Rod Bradley, who took the photograph that appears at the start of this blog entry. After a recent visit with her, he told me that she felt completely ignored by the American literary establishment. That may well be, although I suspect that Kate was at least partially responsible for that disregard. She saw no reason to compromise, at least when she was young, and why should she change? Writing sentences that oozed the scintillating excesses of color’s exquisitely warped reverberations was all she ever cared about. If you didn’t want to dance to it, then take your drum kit somewhere else. She didn’t need you to tune her guitar.

At this point, I have to begin writing an intimate memoir of that time. If I can bring myself to give a full account, I only hope that I can convey the tender respect I still feel for Kate. It may be another thirty years before she gets the recognition she wanted so badly, and truly deserved. But her work is destined to have a devoted coterie until that time arrives. Don’t worry about joining the posthumous parade of her new fans. There won’t be as many as you might imagine. It takes courage to be one of her readers. Almost as much courage, in fact, as it took her to write without flinching of the startling metamorphosis of her own incantations.

Post-Post-Script (in reverse order!)
Having posted a short set of links to Kate’s writing, as well as the first official report of her death, I am now wondering if I feel more protective of Kate or of myself. As I think back on an oral history interview that UCLA’s special collections conducted with me three or four years ago, I don’t recollect how much detail I went into about Kate, or about any of the poets I knew back then.

I know that I didn’t talk about her brief experience as a poet-in-the-schools. Although Kenneth Koch made it seem as if this introjection of living writers into K-12 settings was a NYC innovation, the idea actually derived from a small group of poets and teachers working in the San Francisco area. By the early 1970s, it was spreading throughout the state of California, and by 1974 the late Holly Prado had been hired to serve as regional coordinator in the Los Angeles area. In the spring of 1975, Kate and I were assigned to work together at a high school in Redondo Beach. On the first day, we talked about poetry with the students and read a few of our poems as well as giving them a chance to write and read their own work. Kate’s choice of a poem about her menstrual cycle might have pleased radical feminists for its topic, although they would have demurred about her admission of the degree of vulnerability that having her period generated. High school students were not quite ready for the candor of Kate’s poem. I got a phone call from the school a few days later in which they asked me to come back to the school, but not accompanied by Kate.

In retrospect, of course, I can’t help but wonder if Kate knew perfectly well what the outcome of her choice might be. In one of the interviews in the links below, Kate emphasized how much she saw writing as a highly charged transgression. Writing was akin to criminality, and to that extent one of the writers that Kate probably should be more often compared to is John Rechy, whose writing will most certainly not become canonical assignments at the average high school.

I never knew Kate to have any other job other than writing. I always assumed that Kate managed to extract from her mother enough support to pay the rent, buy food, and drugs. It was a contractural relationship, however, in that Kate had little choice but to work on a novel. If poems were a means of establishing an initial reputation as a writer, my guess is that Millicent Braverman (“the original barracuda,” was one phrase bestowed on her from that period, though not by me) made it clear that Kate was being subsidized so that she could produce work worthy of a NYC publisher’s imprint and reviews in all the important outlets. My recollection is that the arrangement got rocky at times, and Kate’s mother would pressure her to get a job. “Fine,” said Kate, and went out and got a license to drive a cab. One afternoon, at her apartment on West Washington, she pointed to the license taped to the kitchen wall and recounted her mother’s curt refusal to go along with that plan. Kate insisted that driving cab was the only job she was interested in. After all, our fellow poet and Momentum workshop member Harry Northup had driven a cab for a year before he got his role in Martin Scorsese’s film about a deranged taxi driver in NYC. And did not Lew Welch have a poem about driving a cab in Donald Allen’s anthology? Those were hardly convincing examples of how safe Kate would be driving a night shift in Los Angeles. Braverman’s mother gave in, and Kate was quickly back to work at her typewriter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019; 7:45 a.m.
I have spent the past hour digging around for links to interviews and articles. The one that will give the best sense of the Kate Braverman I knew in Los Angeles in the 1970s is in the Brooklyn Rail.





The Nobel Prize for Literature: 2018 and 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke have been awarded the Nobel Prizes for Literature, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Ms. Takarczuk’s award adds to the luster of Polish novels and poems within the Republic of Literature. I confess that I am not familiar with her work, and one might think that this award might spur me to take a look at it. If I didn’t have a full-time job, I would indeed get one of her books, but the reality is that I am primarily focused on ways to make the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes more visible to my students at CSULB. Once I achieve that, then I will indulge myself.

When I was young, I had no profession and could devote myself to reading what I was interested in. Poetry was secondary, in fact, for a couple years to theater, although I found myself especially attracted to playwrights such as Peter Handke who also wrote poetry. I have noticed that the commentaries on Handke’s work following the Nobel Prize announcement cite “Offending the Audience,” but do not mention that his book of poetry, “The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld” sold thousands of copies in Germany. My copy of it is one of the books I will most reluctantly part with, when age nudges me nearer mortality, should I be granted a slow departure.

I suppose the only way we can truly understand the controversy over Handke’s friendship with someone associated with genocide is to imagine a writer in the United States being a close friend of George W. Bush, whose war criminal status has not yet been adjudicated, or Donald Trump, who flirts with the ideals of fascist dictatorships. I doubt that writer would win a Pulitzer Prize, let alone an international award.

Of course, Handke could resolve it all by refusing the prize. Did not Jean-Paul Sartre do so? How much does it really matter to his readers whether he ever got this award? Nothing can change how much “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had as a reader.

And then there are the secondary memories: getting on my motorcycle in the mid-1970s to drive from Ocean Park to Theater Vanguard in Los Angeles for a screening of Wim Wenders’ adaptation of “A Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.” I wonder how many people are still living in Los Angeles who remember Theater Vanguard. Probably less than a thousand. The diaspora of nostalgia: the things in memory restrain our tears, when the imagination makes them real.

Art Beck: Poet and Translator

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

I attended a high school that no longer exists. If one drives to the southwestern most corner of the continental United States, one can find some fairly new housing units across the street from the western side of St. Charles Catholic parish church. Marian High School used to be on that land, but its infrastructure was bulldozed several years ago after the school moved elsewhere in San Diego County and renamed itself, though it kept the lineage of its icon: “Crusaders.” As a Catholic school, Latin was the second language of choice back in the early 1960s.

The wisps of vocabulary and grammar that I retain from my studies over a half-century ago are embedded in memories of the priests who taught me. I remember in particular one who broadly hinted that there were texts full of forbidden thoughts and desires awaiting those whose mastery of this “dead” language was nimble enough to grant entrance. I switched to French once I started college, however, and several decades went by before I became familiar with the writing the priest had no doubt savored in his final years of seminary study.

If I admire translators of certain languages, such as Latin, more than others, it is in large part probably due to my own youthful struggles with its syntax. It’s a peculiar encounter indeed to read the Latin poets. Even without the original next to a translation, I can sometimes feel the tectonic plates of language’s continental drifts begin to jostle and quiver as they must have done when the translator began her or his trek. Or at least that’s the sensation when the candor of a translator, such as Art Beck, equals that of the resourceful poet.

Not being a specialist, I can’t accord with any authority the level of praise Art Beck probably deserves. Perhaps there are many other translators of Latin poetry who surpass his skill, but I haven’t run across them in my casual forays in classical verse. I can say that I always look forward to anything Beck translates, for he has the gift of tonal invocation from the outset of a poem that is rare enough in poems written in contemporary English, let alone in a language that is now primarily a matter of scholarship.

For those who have yet to become familiar with Art Beck’s own poetry, as well as his translations, I wish to share both links and a few of his recent poems.

Luxorius: Poems translated and introduced by Art Beck

Review: The Insistent Island by Art Beck

Art Beck: Two Latin poets

Art Beck: Doctor Fell

There is also a very fine article by Beck that I cannot seem to establish a link to in this blog post. However, if you type the words: “Latin Epigram Arr Beck LARB” into your browser, you should be rewarded with a way to access directly the Los Angeles Review of Books.


A poem is a tendril that can only move by growing…

If Einstein was right, if time’s just a dimension
like the other three, our distant descendants, even as
we speak, are already soaring out into the stars. This
twinkling city of perpetual light is ancient history
and living miracle combined. Dark and bright millenia,
disaster and revelation hold hands and dance.
And the clever young man I once was, looks
at his parody in the mirror and laughs.

The Skinning of Marsyas

in Ovid, begins in medias res.
Why? – the shocked satyr screams –
are you doing this? – aghast at
the god’s senseless cruelty.

Apollo, that serene thug, answers only
with a nod to the flensers to continue.

And the slippery innards of the great
howling creature spill out like worms
writhing in sudden daylight.

No song is worth this, the bleeding wretch
manages to gasp. These are his last words.

At least, as Ovid tells the story.
But it’s an old tale he’s telling.
Everyone knew it:

Athena’s idly discarded double-aulos
glittering in the meadowgrass. Marysas’s
innocent joy as he puffed his cheeks and

heard something wholly new: his own,
deepest, unique voice born in that numinous
instrument. An irresistably personal song

that only his moist hungry lips could coax
from the heavenly flute; a never before melody

that couldn’t fail to impress the smiling lord
of poetry, music, and the sun as he ambled
by and suggested a little game.

Not really a contest, more a sort of duet.
Marsyas would pipe, Apollo could
pluck at the lyre, maybe hum a bit.
But rather than perform together in

harmony, they’d alternate, And whoever
pleased the pasture lazing Muses more

would treat the loser to whatever pleased him.
What was Marsyas thinking? Certainly, not
what seething, insulted divinity had in mind.

The Field Trips of My Catholic Childhood

The Art Institute of Chicago, 1950

The religion of my early childhood
wasn’t so far removed from those nasty
medieval wood panels – the crowd of mockers,
their jaws stuck out sneering

at the soon to be risen, but still to be crucified
Christ. A patient, bleeding God, staggering
under the weight of blind human hatred.

Or the divine brutality of those other triptychs:
God and His angels serene in the center,
the peaceful departed, ushered into
paradise at the right hand of the Trinity.

But on the left panel, the damned – flesh torn by
hooks, pitchforked by demons into the gaping
maw of hell. What hope did any kid have

not to have nightmares when sweat
cassocked priests and halitose nuns
muttered their litany of sin and punishments?
At that tender age, God’s vengeance lurked

like the comic book ghouls in Tales
from the Crypt. He was everywhere
itching to get even. He could read

your inmost thought. He knew just when
you’d die and where. Whether you’d burn
or play the harp was very much
up for grabs. Those were the stakes at ten.

By thirteen, the equation began to muddle,
new gods began to whisper in my skin.
And now the angels were naked.

Where Will the Secret Service Agents Be When Warren Needs Them in the Presidential Election Debates?

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Where Will the Secret Service Be
When Senator Elizabeth Warren Needs Them
in the Presidential Election Debates?

Reality TV impeachment is just a sideshow. The likelihood that the House of Representatives will vote to indict President Trump on charges of seeking the assistance of a foreign government in his re-election campaign should not obscure the fact that a trial in the Senate would not last more than a week, if in fact it even goes that long. Precedent will permit the Republicans in the Senate to call the question about a motion to dismiss the case, after staging a superficial examination of evidence, and the matter will become a campaign footnote.

The Senate’s “Not guilty” verdict will, unfortunately, only encourage Mr. Trump’s relentless desire to win an election by any means necessary. “Election rules are for little people,” Trump has all but said, ever since he launched his first campaign. If readers hear an echo of the infamous statement about taxes by one of Trump’s fellow members of New York’s upper crust, I assure you it is intentional.

The political necessity of impeachment is, however, akin to that ominous moment in the last election’s debates when Trump left his podium to stalk Clinton as she spoke. It was one of the most unsettling moments of male aggression in a mass media forum that I have ever witnessed, and I know that I am hardly alone in wishing that Hillary Clinton had immediately upbraided his contemptuous behavior. Linda and I watched that scene on a movie screen with hundreds of my fellow citizens at the Art Theater in Long Beach, and one could feel an immediate, palpable desire in that movie theater for Clinton to defend herself. In retrospect, she has spoken about the ambivalence she experienced as to how to act at that moment.

Given Mr. Trump’s past behavior, in fact, I believe that at least two Secret Service agents should be assigned specifically to curtail, if not preclude, such behavior on stage, should Elizabeth Warren win the nomination. No one should be caught off-guard by Mr. Trump’s tendency to repeat previous behavior that has been successful; he willingly accepted Russian’s assistance in the 2016 election, and there is substantial evidence that he has recently solicited the assistance of the president of the Ukraine in acquiring damaging material about a major potential opponent in next year’s election.

As such, it should be assumed that Mr. Trump’s stage protocol for future presidential debates will include physical intimidation, and it is the job of the Service Service to protect the candidate by any means necessary from any predation on her stage space. It is shameful — utterly shameful — that the United States is run by a man who has demonstrated so little respect for women that additional vigilance must be mounted to grant a candidate a sense of personal safety on a public stage.

“Rose Alley” in Long Beach, CA

Sunday, September 29, 2019

When Linda and I started renting our current residence in Long Beach ten years ago, we immediately started walking around and finding out little bits of local history. A huge Bay Fig tree near the corner of Sixth Street and Orizaba turned out to be the first tree planted in the neighborhood. The owners of a nearby large house that is now an apartment building had planted it. The alley next to the building, however was still a dirt path as recently as five years ago. Linda and I walked past it after several winter storms over the years and wondered how the garages back along the alley managed to get through the mud.

Thanks to a very fine artist, Cody Lusby, who lives in one of the apartments in that house with his spouse and young child, the alley is now considerably brightened up. Cody convinced all the owners of property along the alley to make their back walls available for a mural and he recruited support for both supplies as well as labor from several artists, including Katie Stubblefield, Hillary Norcross, and Linda Fry. Additional artists and assistants included Roger and Betsy, who also live and work in this neighborhood.

I look forward to seeing it when the moon is full!

Rose Alley - Lusby - FIRST

Rose Alley - Lusby - 4

Rose Alley - STENCIL -1

Rose Alley - Lusby - 1

Rose Alley - Lusby -2

Rose Alley - Lusby -3

Rose Alley - Lusby -5

Why Poets Love Noir: Lummis, Lehman, and Mohr

Sunday, September 22, 2019

In “Best American Poetry,” Suzanne Lummis and David Lehman discuss one of their favorite topics: noir films and novels and when and where they first encountered them.



As well as editing several volumes of Los Angeles-based poets, Lummis has written prize-winning plays and been the inspiring host and producer of a series of video productions, “They Write by Night”:

They Write by Night



Los Angeles has had three poet laureates so far, and I would strongly suggest that the panel who chooses the fourth consider how Suzanne Lummis would be a more than worthy candidate for this appointment. Who else in this city writes memorable poetry and can also integrate the discourse of the culture industry with the frequently contumacious poetry of LA’s scenes?


Monday morning, September 23, 2019

Of course, maybe poets love “noir” because poets have written a few of the very best “noir” novels.

My favorite “noir” writer remains Dorothy Hughes, whose novel “In a Lonely Place” is not to be read late at night. Although Hughes won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award before concentrating on prose, her writing is not so much the case of a poetic touch in the stories — in the manner of Raymond Chandler — as a deft rhythmic control that can only have a poetic consciousness as its source.

Kenneth Fearing’s “The Big Clock” and Elliott Chaze’s “Black Wings Has My Angel” are two other “noir” novels that deserve your immediate attention, too. Fearing also is known as a poet, and his work has begun appearing in anthologies used in survey courses. I confess that I found the second half of “Black Wings” to be less believable in its dramatic resolution. The decision to return to the narrator’s hometown was especially doubtful unless it is categorized as a blatant death-wish. One might say that fits the genre, and I did eventually finish the novel, but only to confirm that no surprises other than obvious irony were in the Poe-like culmination. Nevertheless, the first half of “Black Wings” is a bravura performance of ecstatic nihilism with a cinnamon swirl of sardonic sentimentality.

History, Official Lies, and Poetry

Sunday, September 15, 2019

I only recently noticed that President Trump’s casual revisions of historical events include a preposterous explanation of the Soviet Union’s motive for its invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979:

“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt.” — President Donald Trump (January, 2019)

In the early 1970s, Robert Bly wrote a long poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked At Last”; in one of its sections, a satiric recitation of the lies the President tells on a daily basis culminates in a parallel collapse of historical motivations:

“(The President) insists that Luther was never a German, and that only
the Protestants sold indulgences,
That Pope Leo X wanted to reform the church, but the “liberal elements”
prevented him,
that the Peasants’ War was fomented by Italians from the North.”

As Bly pointed out in his poem, the willingness of a populace to accept lies on this scale is a reflection of the grip of the death-wish on the nation’s culture.

I never thought I would regard the CIA as a friendly witness, but things have long surpassed any normal expectations. President Trump is so woefully ignorant that I have little choice but to call upon a government agency long known to be hostile to anything insubordinate to the corporate interests of U.S. global hegemony:


It is true that Islamic-inspired separatists engaged in terrorist activity in opposition to Russian rule at the outset of the conflict known as the Second Chechen War, but that occurred 20 years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up a puppet government. There is no evidence whatsoever to support Trump’s account of a significant conflict of the Cold War.

I have not the slightest idea of how to break the hypnotic grip of deceit that Mr. Trump has on a large segment of my fellow citizens. How is it possible that over 40 percent of the population has no problem with a president who would appear to be more interested in facilitating the dissemination of false information provided by the intelligence operations of Vladimir Putin? The Russian people deserve better, and so do we.

One of the readers of this blog, according to this site’s records, seems to be located in the “Russian Federation.” While it is a pleasant fantasy to suppose that a young Russian poet is reading this blog, it would appear more likely that it is being tracked as part of an overall assessment of Trump’s opposition. It’s hard to believe that a blog with an incredibly minuscule level of readership would be worth registering on their political scales, but perhaps the plans for rounding up the opponents of dictators, no matter how mild their protest, have accelerated far beyond our reasonable fears.

I highly recommend another outlet that is no doubt being tracked, too: Larry Smith’s recent commentary in his CALIBAN CHRONICLES:


VOLUME 9 – No. 1 WWW.CALIBANONLINE.COM Sunday, September 1st, 2019

And, of course, the usual suspects:



How “I Hate Hamlet” Leads to “Prufrock as Prince of Oyster-Shells”

September 12, 2019

About a week after my mother died, I attended the first meeting of the school year, a gathering of three dozen incoming M.A. students at CSU Long Beach. Each person in attendance was asked to introduce themselves not just with their names and citations of their alma maters as well as major research interests, but with the title of a book they read during the summer “for fun.”

The preponderance of books mentioned in the course of playing this familiar game in which one usually aspires to sound “casual yet sharp” (Dennis Cooper’s phrase about late 1970s/early 1980s West Coast wardrobe) leaned towards the high brow end of authors, but I couldn’t resist being flippant.

“Fun reading?” I asked, as if repeating the question to make sure I’d heard it correctly. “Isn’t all reading fun?” I paused. “I Hate Hamlet,” I said, “by a playwright I’d never heard of before, Paul Rudnick.” I paused again. “It’s about a television soap opera star who is cast in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet. It’s the funniest piece of meta-theater I’ve read in a long time. Instead of Hamlet’s father, though, the ghost that appears is of John Barrymore.”

I doubt my brief description convinced anyone in the room to run out and get a copy, but it’s their loss. I thought of the play again yesterday when I was teaching Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is easily the most important dramatic monologue in 20th century American and British poetry. For the first time, I truly paid attention to the line:

“No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

Why does Prufrock feel the need to include Hamlet’s rank? Why not simply:

“No, I am not Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

It’s not as if readers would confuse the citation with someone else. Seriously, what the odds of someone thinking, “Hmmm, Prufrock has mentioned Lazarus earlier, and I’ve read the Bible, so that’s an easy identification, but does Hamlet refer to the protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s most daunting plays or to some other person?”

It would seem, therefore, that even in that small touch, Eliot has nudged us with a reminder that it is not just the women who give an edge to their habitual name-dropping, and that social rank matters to this character even more than we suspected.

I should add that one of the quiet jokes in Rudnick’s play comes towards the end, when Felicia Dentine, a real estate agent, discloses that she is not familiar with this particular masterpiece by Shakespeare. In fact, having left the premiere performance after the first act for a dalliance with a new acquaintance, she asks the lead actor with all sincerity how the story turns out: “You’re king now, right?”

Mirthful sighs are rare.

There is one other line I’d like to mention in “Prufrock” that doesn’t get enough attention. Until recently, I’d always regarded “and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” as the kind of urban detail meant to indicate how Prufrock is living a double life; the social world of the working-class has more than an alluring, raffish charm for this reticent voyeur. In point of fact, the “oyster shells” have more than literal intent; rather, they are a foreshadowing symbol of the image that most tellingly reveals Prufrock’s degree of abjection: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silence seas.” And when we finish the poem, it is by looking back from the shore-line out to where we see Prufrock “not waving, but drowning” that we can appreciate what a subtle clue to the outcome Eliot offered us at the outset.

DeWayne Rail: “The Book of Days”

Sunday, September 8, 2019

This past week’s mail included a small, self-published chapbook (less than 6 x 4 inches) of a half-dozen poems by one of the most reticent members of the Hermetic Underground. I first read DeWayne Rail’s poems in an anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, edited by David Kherdian (Giligia Press, 1970). As an independent press production at that time, it was fairly successful: over 120 libraries still list it in their holdings, and it had an impact on poets with a working-class background far greater than its print run and distribution might indicate. I certainly felt that I had come into contact with some kindred spirits when I got hold of a copy in the last week of October, 1971, during a visit to a friend who had transferred from U.C.L.A. to Fresno State to continue her studies in theater.

The poets in that anthology included DeWayne Rail, who had his MFA thesis at UC Irvine, “Going Home Again,” published by Perishable Press in 1971, as well as a chapbook published by Blue Moon Press in Fresno in 1988. I remember liking his work very much, and whenever I picked up the Fresno anthology, I wondered why he had not become as well-known as several other poets in that book. I’ve never met him, so I have no idea of whether he stopped writing at a certain point, or as I myself have intermittently done at various points in the past, stopped circulating work for publication.

Rail has, however, recently published a small chapbook (perhaps about 6 x 4 inches) with a half-dozen poems entitled The Book of Days. This very slim volume has no distributor whatsoever, so you’ll need luck both to get a copy as well as to keep track of where it is on your bookshelves. Unless you have a trove of favorite saddle-stitched productions, this book could easily prove irretrievable.

The poems themselves retrieve the most stoic degree of tenderness I have encountered in any poet since last reading Christopher Buckley’s work. The conclusion of the collection’s first poem portends that our planet itself has a kind of Sisyphean task:

“In August, the earth has come round
In its great circle the zone of meteorites.
Spacerocks fall in a parody of rain
And use our oxygen for their beautiful burning.”
(“The Day of Prophecy”)

As I read and re-read the other five poems (“The Day of Patience”; “The Day It Rained”; “The Day of Good Looks”; “Ash Wednesday”; and “The Day of Contact”), I detected the influence of Donald Justice, whose poems I have been reading recently for a post-in-progress. In particular, one hears how Justice’s variant of Cesar Vallejo’s “I will die on a rainy day in Paris” becomes a droll meditation by Rail on “Ash Wednesday,” which he takes more seriously than most escutcheoned believers.

Some readers might be surprised at my affection for Justice, since his work is so different from the tone of my primary interests. However, I am less inclined than other critics to relegate a poet to the Kuiper Belt of Quietude. I suppose that will be Rail’s fate, too, although we should not be completely startled at another outcome, foretold by a dream in “The Day of Contact”:

“I will step forward from the crowd to greet them,
accepting their recognition,
babbling in that alien tongue.”

In between prophecy and apocalypse, Rail awaits the reiterations of “ordinary life” and how one’s steadfastness is the valor requisite to endure its reiterations in a landscape all too familiar to characters in a story by Chekhov. Fortitude’s ranks are larger than we suppose. Look in the distance. Rail’s poems mark yet another boundary of resilient anticipation.