Category Archives: Books

“The Alphabet” by Ron Silliman (a review from ten years ago)

This review of Ron Silliman’s THE ALPHABET was published around ten years ago in Paul Vangelisti’s magazine, OR, which issued from the Otis College of Art and Design. My thanks to both Paul and Otis for their support over the years.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *

Efficient detail: an essay on assembling and re-assembling Ron Silliman’s
The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008, 1062 pages)

“what is a road but drainage, a city but an encrustation of debris, latching onto itself, growing, coral or guano?”
“Jones,” 137

“Velcro mind in a Teflon world.”
–“You” (part X), 911

If the publication of The Age of Huts (University of California Press, 2007) reinforces, yet once again, Ron Silliman’s crucial role as a poet, critic and anthologist in shaping and defining the various articulations of Language writing, the long-awaited arrival of The Alphabet provides a complementary chance to look back on the origins of Language writing, and assess the accumulating significance of Silliman’s life-long project.1 Although Silliman achieved very early success, publishing his work in the mid-1960s in well-established literary magazines such as Poetry Northwest, by the beginning of the 1970s, he had dedicated himself to reviving segments of the avant-garde in American poetry in a rigorous manner that linked up critical theory, cultural critique, and a poetics that gave precedence to marginal canonical figures such as the modernist prose poet, Gertrude Stein, and Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky. Three decades later, clocking in at over 1,000 pages, Silliman’s The Alphabet establishes by the sheer magnitude of heft its eligibility to be compared with many shorter, but similarly daunting, long poems of the modernist and post-modernist period. The list is more substantial than the majority of critics of contemporary poetry suspect, and I intend to leave the comparisons of the merits of The Alphabet to proportionate projects by H.D., Pound, Williams, Crane, Olson, McGrath, etc., to their elucidation. My assignment in this essay is primarily limited to an examination of some of the structural features of The Alphabet and an initial chance to evaluate its efficiency as a long poem.2
Sometimes, faced with a monumentally sized project, the most feasible start is with an obvious, straightforward definition: An alphabet is a sequence of letters that can be combined in various ways to produce entities called words. In part, through his invocation of this armature, Silliman shares with several other progenitors of Language writing a desire to emphasize the description of this process as the central material feature of the social mediation that language entails. As the title of Silliman’s book suggests, this book-length poem is made up of sections that can be combined in multitudinous permutations, each of which would yield a distinct conjuncture. “Language poem: may require some assembly” is one of dozens of notations throughout The Alphabet that refer to what Silliman characterizes as an instantiating “moment” of avant-garde poetry, though its impact has lingered sufficiently for at least one critic to claim, mistakenly, that Language writing is the longest-lived movement of 20th century American poetry. Invoking the dreaded disclaimer attached to children’s toys about to be unwrapped on holidays, this quip would also remind alert readers that “assembly” is actually not an option when it comes to the purpose of Language writing, which always implies an audience whose “assembly,” in holding a mirror up to language, is a response to the “form and pressure of the age.” If Hamlet’s advice to the players about the purpose of playing implicitly addresses the audience, Silliman is even more acutely dedicated to reminding the reader of the contextual ramifications he embeds his writing within, and to destabilizing the reader’s perceptual experience of language: “The specificity of the avant-garde audience is sociological” (111). The sudden appearance of an italicized “of” may be one way in which Silliman is reminding his reader that the assembly of his audience will require at least as much effort and commitment as is needed to assemble the imbricated meaning of that apparently impetuous accenting of “of.” Or perhaps not. Enabling a reader to gauge her or his specific relationship to “the avant-garde audience” might well be one of the unintended side-events of Silliman’s The Alphabet. As one assembles the sentences in The Alphabet, how does one know if one’s assembly of the words is what Silliman intended?
“The cheap orange plastic of the road gang’s vest – they trudge along the tracks. Someone’s left a coffeecup atop the mailbox. This is about my emotions. Silhouettes of gulls backlit by the sun (bay invisible thru the polluted air. Motorcyclist on the sidewalk – how come, in the cold air, her breath doesn’t fog up her face shield?” (“Ink,” 103).
What I have just quoted seems to be a representative sample of Silliman’s pointillistic prosody. Details are palpably invoked amidst claims (“This is about my emotions.”) that come closer to being the kind of ironic disclaimers that fueled the antagonisms of the Language poets’ peers in the 1970s. All too often, I would argue, the opponents of Language writing let their emotions get in the way of comprehending not only the subtlety of Silliman’s imagery, but how efficiently the materiality of his ideas is compressed into vivid interrogations of referential consciousness.
I first spotted Silliman’s writing in Michael Lally’s anthology, None of the Above, but did not find it especially intriguing work. His four-page poem, “Berkeley,” hardly seemed to compare in quality to the level of work being done by an elder poet such as Tim Reynolds, or sagacious Los Angeles poets such as Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, and Jim Krusoe, let alone poets whose work I regularly saw in the pages of Invisible City (Christine Zawadiwsky, Ray DiPalma, and Leslie Scalapino). Reading Ketjak, however, proved to be an entirely different experience. Written in 1974-1975 and published by Barrett Watten’s This Press in 1978, it still seems to be the best single piece of work Silliman has ever written, and it remains a tantalizing and invigorating poem, easily the equal of Spring & All, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Holly Prado’s Feasts. “Poets to come, justify me,” Whitman pleaded, and Silliman has far more in common with Whitman than most readers suspect. In addition to framing their life-time projects as ever-expanding entities, both Silliman and Whitman challenge the boundary between poetry and prose, and both revel in seeking out and incorporating into their poems the most ordinary details of quotidian life.
Ketjak was followed by Tjanting an even longer book-length prose poem, which also forms a portion of the huge poem, “Ketjak,” of which The Alphabet is the culmination. Encompassing 26 different distinct movements, almost all of which have been published previously, The Alphabet required several decades to complete. Details in the poem have an uncanny relevance. Here’s a sentence from “Demo,” written between 1980 and 1981: “At Smith-Barney, we make money the old-fashioned way: we steal it.” I read that sentence on September 30, 2008 as I was listening on the radio to the so-called “bailout” proposals being foisted on the American public. The arrogance of capital, so perfectly captured in Silliman’s parody of an advertising line, seemed freshly palpable as banking institutions in this nation managed to up the ante, with an almost unfathomable amount of duplicity, in record-breaking time. It was nothing short of a hostile take-over of the public treasury. Another instance of Silliman’s commentary remaining relevant would be the way the recent release of the biopic, Milk, gives an extra edge of bereft sarcasm to his lines:
Oliver North
is the man
Dan White always wanted to be. (513)
Having been written over a period of almost 10,000 days and nights, The Alphabet registers both small and huge alterations in the social landscape:
Next to me on the airplane is a woman with a long pair of scissors, cutting coupons she’s torn out of old papers, trimming the edges with great exactness, placing them carefully in a box too small to have held shoes which she’s placed in the lap of her sleeping husband, while I wonder at the wisdom of sharp objects in a vehicle proceeding at 600 mph.
Other changes are at the nominal level and are not necessarily adhered to throughout The Alphabet: “What once were mudflats we now call the wetlands” (117). In the last section of The Alphabet, “Zyxt,” however, “mudflats” prove to be more contumacious than one might have anticipated (“shore birds still in the mudflats”) (973).
Throughout all these changes, however, The Alphabet more than occasionally provides an implicit simulacrum of hanging out with a witty acquaintance, a self-described “first generation / mallie” (“What,” 857) with whom you stop in front of a restaurant and glance at a Health Department warning posted near the entrance. “Eminent ptomaine,” he quips, and one smiles. But rarely does surprise, that all too neglected emotion, generate anything resembling sustained laughter. A “Spell Czech” (679) kind of wit happens with the regularity of California’s seismic turpitude. The needle on the Richter scale is always already jostling, and The Alphabet is a thousand pages of squiggles and abrupt shifts. Those who expect a culminating jolt will be disappointed. Very mild chuckles are outnumbered by barely audible titters. One yearns at a certain point for a good, sustained laugh, but a poetics in which “Verb tense and sentence length are all you need of narrative” (364) will have a tendency to career a little too often in the direction of amusing patter. Much of Silliman’s wit aligns itself with parody, and popular songs often provide the template: “My name is Captain Greysquirrel and I go which way the wind blows.” (“Paradise,” 421); “Tie / a yellow ribbon ‘round the hot crime scene.” (WHAT, 857); “This is the dawn / ing of the / age of / blanched asparagus” (VOG, 675), or “The yellow rose of praxis” (974). As Silliman observes, though, “the middle of the century seems a long time ago,” and I wonder how many readers will finish this poem without wishing they could have access to an annotated edition. To that extent, Silliman’s long poem is didactic in the way that Pound’s Cantos attempt to be.
If anything surprises me about The Alphabet, it is Silliman’s comment in his “Notes” at the end of the book: “I suggest to new readers that they start with What, which was first published by The Figures press.” Why Silliman would direct a reader to “What” remains an utter puzzle to me, unless somehow he believes that “What” is more “accessible,” and that readers should be eased into an acquaintance with what might prove to be more daunting poems in The Alphabet. (“It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers.” — “Albany,” 1). Perhaps, after decades and decades of hard work and public readings and talks, Silliman has finally grown weary: “O.K., folks, you want enlightenment, but you don’t want to work too hard. Start here.” Perhaps, behind Silliman’s suggestion, is the quiet sigh of a post-structuralist Boddisatva, which I have not detected. In any case, I see no reason whatsoever for new readers not to begin with the new version of “Ketjak” in The Alphabet. I put this “Ketjak” in quotation marks because at this point it is not a separate poem, as the prose poem Ketjak (1978) is. This “Ketjak” is an expanded version of the original poem, adding in words that are not in the original. In popular music terms, one could think of it as an expanded version of a song – the EP re-mix.
Yet if Silliman seems unable to gauge what might prove most interesting to a first-time reader, and errs on the side of accessibility, it might be because some of his readers have overheard rants about Language writing (“Language poetry is puke, sez Black Oak Books”), and Silliman’s poetry in particular, such as a review of Paradise that Silliman quotes towards the end of Non. “Paradise is too disjointed to work on any level. It is not a novel; there is no plot, no characters, no beginning, no middle, no end. There are, granted, recurring motifs, but they seem to be present only because the author’s pen ran dry, and he filled it back up with the first old phrase that came to mind. Perhaps it is intended to be one long, rambling prose poem, with images splashed across the image like a Jackson Pollack painting.” The irony of quoting a review so replete with overdetermined misapprehensions seems somewhat self-defeating, but it does enable me to puzzle ruefully over the obstacles many readers deliberately seem to set up between themselves and writing that engages in anything that resembles experimentation — an odd situation given that the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses is just around the corner.3
So where is one to start, especially if one is a casual, or very young, reader of poetry? In his weblog, Silliman has written about his excitement in encountering William Carlos Williams as a young teenager, and I have no doubt that aspiring poets in the next couple of years will find in portions of The Alphabet the confirmation of her or his raw intuition that writing poetry (which is different from “being a poet”) is an endeavor worthy of the indignities that are certain to come. In addition to “Ketjak 2,” my favorite sections are “Lit,” “Manifest,” “Oz,” and “Under”; any of these would be a viable starting point for a reader who resists starting with “Albany.” But in terms of resolving the question of where to start, perhaps the answer is that, no matter where one starts, if one reads enough of The Alphabet, one will begin to notice recurrences of phrases and images. Often these citations are of the writing of philosophers or poets, such as Wittgenstein: “The world is whatever is the case.” Later on, that proposition is demolished, “The world is what is the vase,” which then is flung and shattered, only to resurrect eventually as, “The world is all that’s in your face” (“Non,” 350). In between, another variant serves to launch a passage that could be taken as representative of much of The Alphabet’s impetus:
“The word is all that is your face. Shit, boy, wipe yo’ mouth, you got chocolate smeared on your beard like dingleberries on a hairy ass. Sparrow’s shadow travels up stucco wall. Problem of drought etiquette: whether or not a friend’s house, to flush. The Nortonsville dead are for the most part Welsh, recruited to the Black Diamond coal fields of California, suffocating for low grade or in the 1870s, five towns no longer visible even in abandonment, house moved elsewhere (to Antioch or Concord), hawk in a low glide over the dry hills, tombstones chopped under a grove of cypress, tho from down the hill, facing north through the valley, you can see the Sacramento River right at the point where the delta ends. The quality of mercy is not strange. Foggy, pronounced “fodgy” – the purpose of intimate nonsense, babytalk among lovers, is to articulate a space apart. Your turn to have the car today. . . . Seamy ontics. Bright rug atop pale carpet. Parsley in a pot. Thin wire mesh of screen before fireplace. Ich bin ein Satz. The opposite field. Desperately seeking Godot. Well, I was hoping you were writing something about this delicious dinner I just cooked you. Digestion recollected in tranquility. Smoke spills from the holes of the barbecue’s lids. Dents on my car hood from where crack dealers sit on it during the day time. How do you spell agapantha? Trimmed tree, as hard-edged as the patio it lines. Unheated pool on a cool day. Mao cap with a logo – this one reads “Tsing Tao.” Young man carrying a bicycle up the flight of stairs. What does not charge is the will to charge. Marilyn Monroe had six toes on her left foot. A net sack for thistle seed, intended for finches, hanging empty, swinging in the soft breeze. Hum of motorscooter’s engine as it shifts down to climb the hill (“Non,” 345-346).

As if constructing the verbal equivalent of Watts Towers, Silliman folds popular culture (Desperately Seeking Susan) with the elusive titular figure of Becklett’s existential classic, labor history, quirky trivia, a baseball term, and a hidden haiku (subtract “intended for finches”). One also notices, of course, Silliman’s alteration of “the will to change.” He makes constant use of well-known lines by other (mostly male) poets, ranging from Robert Duncan (“Often I am permitted to return to a method” is Silliman’s variant) to Charles Olson, Lew Welch, Ezra Pound, Cesar Vallejo, and William Stafford. William Carlos Williams is a frequent source, both in what is almost immediate juxtaposition —
The dissent beckons
as the assent beckoned (514)

The dissent bickers
As the assent battered
Harmony.

Is a kind of
Deceivement. (515)

as well as what is quarreled with (“the pure products of America”) at considerable distance (pages 32 and 951). In addition to quotations, similar situations repeat themselves in the course of The Alphabet, though it is difficult to tell if they are distinct instances, or merely the same situation being described in more detail the second time. “Two deaf persons signaling to one another simultaneously” make a cameo appearance in “Ink” (107), but the final sentence of “Of Grammatology” in Vog could be taken as an elaboration: “At first I notice only that the two young men are speaking to one another in sign language, so only gradually do I begin to notice that they’re also flirting” (595). While parallels and resemblances impel the assembly of The Alphabet, the re-assembly of the poem is the genuine task of pleasure, especially as one begins to notice how certain words revolve through the poem. In part two of one of the shorter poems, “Skies,” for instance, Silliman braids together the verbal equivalent of a sculptural environment by James Turrell through a semi-anaphoric, barn-dance dosey-do reiteration, each pairing responded to with hemispheres of grace notes.
Blood & glass:
Muscle & blood:
Root & muscle:
Stem & root:
Base & Stem:
Mound & base:
Level & mound:
Bent & level:
Weary & bent:
Wild & weary:
Young & wild:
Sturdy & young:
Flowering & sturdy:
The stitching and counter-stitch proceeds through a list that includes plants, domestic objects, conveyances, and minerals. The sequence concludes by circling back to the beginning, with glass, window, and curtain completing the turn:
Glare & glass:
Steam & glare:
Mortar & steel:
Shingle & mortar:
Porch & shingle:
Drainpipe & porch:
Clothesline & drainpipe:
Window & clothesline:
Curtain & window:
Shadow & curtain:

“ Gradually, the poem begins to circle itself,” Silliman notes, but this gliding vortex becomes more visible when one takes note of the end words in the short poem that makes up “Quindecagon”: bench, black, boy, chairs, fog, friends, harmony, pose, round, screen, stone, sun, table, weighted, will. If one integrates this round into the above list, this congregation of keywords, in alphabetical order, would read: “air, angled, babytears, base, bench, bent, black, blood, bows, boy, brazen, brassy, brooms, buckets, bunches, canes, carrots, chairs, caught, conceived, considered, cosmos, crips, culture, curtain, drainpipes, dry, dump, dust, elevators, flakes, flaming, flickering, flowering, fog, friends, frosted, garden, glare, glass, gifted, glistening, harmony, heads, high, iron, jasper, level, mildew, mortar, mound, mulch, muscle, overturned, overwrought, pints, porch, pose, quartz, rhodochrosite, root, roped, rot, round, screen, shadow, shady, shingle, sifted, silver, slush, soot, spotted, snow, soot, sought, staked, steam, stem, stone, strained, striped, sturdy, sun, system, table, tourmaline, umbrellas, vests, walkers, weary, weighted, whisks, white, wild, will, window, young, yellow.” Reading through this list, I’m reminded of Michael McClure’s “Personal Universe Deck,” a method of selecting a list of words with intimate imaginative associations. If not directly influenced by McClure, who taught workshops about this deck during the early 1970s, in setting up a rotating field of invocations, Silliman in his youth seems to have absorbed some portion of this practice. Whatever the case might be, the words cited in the above list appear far more frequently throughout The Alphabet than their normal reoccurrence in written or spoken language. Although Silliman cautions that “there is no privilege in an end” (NON, 329), the above list of words modulates the incremental shifts of detail in that they tend to appear, at the very least, towards the end of a poem, or at a turning point. In “Garfield,” for instance, which consists of 21 paragraphs of 21 sentences each, here is a passage almost exactly at its mid-point:
The air is cool, discounting rain. Such difficult constructions serve to put me off balance. High-pitched tight farts vs. feigned cough. The cactus’ despair. I took the names out. Thick patch of babytears in the damp behind the tree. Slice the rind away from the meat. Take a bunch of vitamin C. Marketing the Cube with using the name. Because a balance is struck in this decentered freedom a soft black dog can sleep on the porch. The separateness of the lines in stanza.”

A reader of this review, at this point, can look back at the first sustained passage I quoted (the one beginning: “The cheap orange plastic…”), and perhaps experience the same quiet shock transforming into discreet elation as I did back when I was revising an early draft of this review. I couldn’t believe that a passage, which I had picked more or less at random, also turned out to have several of these “keywords” (air, sun, vest). Once this circularity is noticed, a line such as, “Stalk to me. Sunflower bends, weary of its own weight,” which appears four lines from the end of “Oz,” takes on an exponential tensile strength, acting much like a cable on a suspension bridge. “Words without which every other word feels trapped,” Silliman comments, and in repeating – as if it were an elaborately syncopated chant – certain words, Silliman expands the “single point of contact” (953) that each word in the text “represents” and amplifies the context without which, he argues, the use of anything, including words, simply ends up concealing power and the meanings it accrues to its hierarchical predications. The choice of “angle” to be one of the “single point(s) of contact” in The Alphabet’s final line (“The angle of my pen as it brushes this page”) reminds the reader of the materiality of writing as an emancipation project, and nudges the reader to consider the angle of the eye and page.
One additional set of repetitions involves personal tensions that might well be autobiographical. Silliman’s continuously pulsating juxtapositions generate a sensation of an internal control group at work that is moderating a very polite panel of talking heads. On one hand, The Alphabet takes note of melancholy social stratification: “At what point do you realize that you will rent for the rest of your life?” On the other hand, The Alphabet contains propositions that prove difficult for the poem as a whole to substantiate. “Emotion is only an ideological commitment stated (felt) irrationally – irrational because overdetermined (there’s a conflict)” (Demo, 30). While one could mount an argument in support of that proposition (and the early days of Language writing seemed to emphasize a deliberate elimination of emotion from the writing, except whatever fondness one might possess for grammar, evident in “Silliman for Lieutenant Grammarian”), details that seem to refer to the author’s life point to a persistent emotional struggle.

When I’m mad at you (as,
at this moment, I would seem
to be) it is not (directly)
your actions to which I
react, but how, rather,
I am put back in touch with
this old permanent storm
within.
(“Oz,” 401-402)
The frequency with which Silliman mentions his father, who abandoned his mother at a very early point in Silliman’s childhood, would lead most readers to suspect a link between “this old permanent storm” (Oz,” 402) and the father’s callous dereliction of his first family. “Against this quiet, all the anger I feel still at never having had a father. Now that I have lived 5 days longer than he ever did” (“Oz,” 384). His father, of whom Silliman says he has not a single photo, was killed in a horrific industrial accident: “blown by the explosion four storeys into the air, third degree burns over eighty percent of his body” (“Ink,” 106). Knowledge alone proves to be an enduring trauma. “Our emotions tint / The filtered world,” Silliman argues, but what does the filtering: description? ideology? emotions themselves? Silliman points to a crucial emotion, trust, in articulating the relationship involved in the verbal composition of imagined consciousness:

Hot sun glares down over the slow traffic.
Thighs ache for muscle’s sake. A word in the hand
speaks to the bush. Shells of sunflower seed
litter the gutter. Between writing and speech
lies the process of translation. Advantage
is like a sigh but with a purpose,
a party held in your honor. Everyone
at the reading knows one another
but you. Flavored seltzer. Mind
over batter. The fist is but
a fetal position for the hand. Gladiolas
on a long stem. The social contract
between writer and reader demands trust:
distance not absorption, is the intended effect.
(“What,” 858)
One will note in this passage the recurrence of words from the core list (sun, glare, muscle, stem) prior to the qualification that Silliman imposes on the connotations of “trust,” which he asserts can only be maintained by distance. Since trust frequently engenders some measure of intimacy, the question of how to avoid absorption as an unintended side effect remains unanswered. By writing, “I am not interested in description, but detail, transforming…” (“Oz,” 474), Silliman seems to suggest, through the non-stop refocusing of attention, that a reader might find, in the undulating liminality of transformation, the trust needed to sustain attention. Again and again, like an indefatigable detective, Silliman returns to the primal stomping grounds of the hemidemisemiquaver of the instant before appetite can identify its target (“We bend / web end” – “Zyxt, ” 992).
In addition to an overoptimistic estimate of an audience’s generous patience, Silliman’s trust in the most ordinary instances of human perception is both a source of immense strength and more than occasional weakness. In reading The Alphabet, I am reminded of Jean Epstein’s cinematic goal: “I want films in which not so much nothing happens as nothing very much happens. Have no fear, misunderstandings will not arise. The humblest detail sounds the note of drama that is latent.” 3 The Alphabet contains many passages of vigorous language and memorable detail, but all too often, especially in the final 400 pages, one feels that one is having one’s attention called to something that is not worth noticing, or at least that the language used to call attention to the perception is not worth one’s devotion. “At the service / station / a man in a brown / jumpsuit / slowly waves / a customer into / the proper bay.” A certain kind of monotony sets in, rather like someone having the same kind of pancakes every morning, 365 days a year. At a certain point, latent drama does not have to become blatant, but Silliman’s preference for minor details finally wears out my welcome.
Perhaps Silliman does not care if a reader decides that an old joke is one too many (“I pick up the paper to read the latest lies”) and puts his poem aside. I can’t say that I would scold anyone who did not finish this poem. “Whoever lives by the aphorism dies by the cliché” appears on the same page as, “Returning in the rain from the old brick bank to the car, I realize that I forgot to feed the meter, had scurried right past it in my hurry to stay dry, only to have gotten by without a ticket, little gift of fate.” Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg were equally self-indulgent in presenting extracts from their diaries, and while their audiences tolerated it with good humor in public, I wonder how long they actually leaned and loafed on their living room floors, mulling over the pertinacity of such an anecdote to the imperatives of their circumstances?
Ezra Pound observed that “the general reader(‘s) job is to enjoy what he reads and to read what he enjoys.”5 I would argue that this chiastic rule of thumb has nothing to do with the so-called difficulty of the writing. One can enjoy a difficult poem; in fact, it could well be the process of untangling the difficulties that makes the reading enjoyable. As The Alphabet concludes, I don’t find myself wishing it were longer. Details confine their choreography to the trampoline of redundancy, and while they may not stop transforming altogether, they all too often mumble to themselves in a variant of post-modernist self-hypnosis. At those points, and they become more plentiful as the poem gets longer, The Alphabet stalls and runs the risk of appealing primarily to what Pound called “a specialist’s interests.” Even as a specialist, with some demonstrated interest in the avant-garde, I need more bounce for my buck.
Silliman has announced an even longer poem, The Universe, as the follow-up to The Alphabet. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he is one of the hardest working writers around, and I have no doubt he is capable of writing a longer poem than The Alphabet. “Marooned on a planet of slackers” was his recent rejoinder on his blog to an inquiry about how he manages to accomplish so much. To make this new long poem more enjoyable, I would urge him to make the difficulties more playful. What exactly is the role of the subjunctive in his imagination? I would prefer more metaphor and fewer puns. The proportion of compelling metaphors to clever puns is weighted heavily on the latter’s side in The Alphabet. One reasonable question, of course, involves whether there is actually a need for another long poem by Ron Silliman. If so, it would have to be radically different in content to make it worth the trek. It’s possible that he has at least one major new question to ask that can only be delineated in a poem that is 1,500 or 2,000 pages long. Writing a poem that long simply to find out if one can discover such a question, however, is perhaps a less than auspicious equation.
In the past, Silliman has proven to be an exceptionally articulate and provocative theorist, and his new project might be best served by an essay or two in which he discusses what urgent surprise is missing in The Alphabet that so desperately requires its enunciation in The Universe. Perhaps a set of playful alternative autobiographies (a concept hinted at in The Alphabet) interspersed with biographical research might yield the chorography of a labyrinth that rewards its spelunkers in proportion to the effort. “Can I trust this poet?” each reader has a right to ask, and she deserves a sincere answer. In general, the avant-garde is the province of the young, and it is not exactly blessed with a reputation for appreciating sincerity or trust. Perhaps Silliman could continue to change that reputation. How much of a contribution his next long poem could make, in terms of intermingling ineluctable form and innovative content, to the avant-garde will depend on how much he is able to redefine “trust” so that it re-organizes every point of contact with the distant intimacy that has marked his writing up to this point.

Bruce Andrews: “Fluorescent Butch Wax”

The cliche about the Language “school” or “movement” is that the poets involved had committed themselves to a program of non-referentiality and that anyone who reassembled the expectations of vocabulary and syntax could produce a “Language” poem. I recollect seeing more than a few examples of such poems produced by those whose antipathy to Language writing verged on paranoia. One problem with their attempts to satirize Language writing is that their examples undermined their intent. “Where’s the meaning in this poem?” they would ask, assuming that because they had let go of their usual anecdotal recollections of some biographically based memory as the basis for a poem that they had destroyed any semblance of meaning. On the contrary, the possibilities of meaning had only shifted their contexts, but following up on the implications of those new thresholds would have required more intellectual work than they were willing to engage in.

I dip back into my recollection of a particular period in the Anthology Wars (early 1980s) as a preface to today’s meditation on a set words in a poem that I heard Bruce Andrews read many years ago: “fluorescent butch wax.” In the accelerated collage of images I heard Andrews reading, this one instigated a startling moment in which ideology’s pomp and circumstance got punctured with all the suddenness of the “b’loop” of Basho’s frog.

Let’s start with the sound: I’ve always heard “butch wax” as a single unit, or at least compressed in its pronunciation to be equivalent to “jump-start.” The approximately similar duration of “fluorescent” and “butch wax” keeps the shimmer of the signifiers tugging at each other in a kind of motionless spinning; there is a subtle rhythm that makes the right hand of vowels and the left hand of consonants strike a harmonious burst on the keyboard.

If the sound catches our ears, it is the summoning of the chronotope of time and place that stirs the suspicions of the mind’s heart: the 1950s classroom in which all the insidious propaganda of a militaristic nation-state was fomented by the willing naive accomplices of teachers and educational administrators. Fluorescent light is, of course, artificial, and its presence as a modifier is meant to problematize the performance of gender signified by “butch wax.” The hyper-masculinity that this product represents is equivalent in its artificialness to the light that enables students to read the narratives of history (the Revolutionary War; the Civil War, etc.) that are supposed to reinforce the students’ ideas of citizenship. White citizenship. Butch wax was a product associated with white males. Check out the website for baseball cards for this period if you want the full crewcut monty of race and gender.

Pound’s image of the crowd in the metro used vegetation to congest its apparitional aura. Andrews conjures up the apparition of pedagogical ideology and reveals the theatrical context of the performance needed to prop up its tenuous legitimacy. In a room glistened with this patriarchal power, no doubt is permitted or recognized. No hands are raised, other than in obedience. Language writing was in direct opposition to the collaboration with power that so much of mainstream poetry represented in an anthology such as “The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets.” Anyone who thinks that the Anthology Wars ended in the early 1960s is not paying attention, nor are they reading at a level beyond that required in a classroom lit by fluorescent butch wax.

For those unfamiliar with this hairstyle, I recommend the following site:

Butch Wax

*. *. *. *

In contrast with my reaction to “fluorescent butch wax,” I direct the reader to:

http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/andrews/about/dworkin.html

Michael McClure (1932-2020): The Exemplary Mammal Patriot

“I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE”: In Memory of Michael McCLure

“The mind, Ferrini,
is as much a labor
as to lift an arm
flawlessly.”
— Charles Olson, THE MAXIMUS POEMS

Of all the Beat poets, I felt most personally comfortable in the presence of Michael McClure, with whom I had the good fortune to study in the 1970s both as a poet (at Squaw Valley) and as a playwright (at the Padua Hills Theater Festival). Although very different from Brecht, McClure is as rare as Brecht in being both a masterful poet and playwright. As a playwright, I remember in particular the productions staged by the Company Theater in Los Angeles, both when it was based in its first space on Robertson Blvd. as well as other venues. At the former, McClure’s “Spider Rabbit” still caroms in my memory for the intensity required of the actor. As an antiwar play, it possesses a macabre gaiety of insolent logic that if administered universally might serve as a vaccine to the madness of state-mandated murder. I hope that McClure’s plays are someday gathered in a massive volume so that The Beard, which gets an inordinate amount of attention due to its legal travails, can be read within the larger context of his theatrical work.

As a poet, McClure remains one of the few original members of the Beat insurgency in San Francisco not to have been welcomed into the Academic canon. It’s possible that Rita Dove write McClure and asked him what poems he would like to represent his work in the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, but I doubt it. The story I heard was that Ginsberg’s estate asked for too much money to reprint his poems, and therefore (along with Plath) was not included in that anthology. Dove’s anthology is an above average endeavor in representing the variety of American poetry, but it is very weak in the area of Beat poetry and replacing Ginsberg with McClure would have given the book a respite from the flush left versification that warehouses that volume’s poems.

As Jed Rasula’s survey of American poetry anthologies demonstrated, anthologies are the reputation-making sifting agent of literary stature within the Academy. A quick consultation of the appendices provided by Rasula in The American Poetry Wax Museum confirms my recollection of McClure’s absence from mainstream anthologies in the 1980s. The pivot towards a safe, commodity-based poetry with a professional aura was epitomized in that decade by the Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets, very few of whom — if any — would be inclined to encourage their students to read McClure’s poetry. It was not just his practice of centering lines of poetry on the page that would probably put them off; rather, I suspect that they wouldn’t willing to acknowledge his adamant themes of anti-patriarchal hierarchies. “I AM A MAMMAL PATRIOT,” demanded implicitly that we take sides, and it was easier to ignore the ecological choices that McClure proposed than to accept the necessity of listening closely to his poems. McClure was one of the first poets to write in an ecological mode (“Poisoned Wheat”) as well as to speak openly about drug experiences in his poems. It is not just a coincidence that McClure disappears from the rosters of anthologies in the 1980s, the era in which the President’s spouse insisted that young people should “just say no” to drugs.

In addition, because anthologies are disinclined to print long poems, but prefer to emphasize the short, anecdotal lyric poem, some of McClure’s very best work has gone unrecognized. “The Antechamber of the Night” is a great poem, one of the best of the past century. When was the last time you saw it in an anthology? Or for that matter, listed in an anthology as “recommended further reading”?

Perhaps no other poet I have ever read has had an imagination so alert to the recuperative powers of proprioceptive empathy. At the same time, McClure had an “ear” for the language that made mellifluousness seem a natural component of consciousness while also having a luscious eye for visual detail; McClure painted images that were as buoyant as the best of William Blake’s verse.

My comments might make it seem as if McClure had only a “minor” standing in American poetry, and I certainly don’t want that inference to be made. Among those whose imaginations are embedded in discourses outside of the often provincial concerns of university presses, McClure was a major poet of the 20th century, and he had not one but two “selected poems” that attempted to account for the respect his work engendered. In the second of these pair of volumes, Leslie Scalapino’s quirky choice of McClure’s poems in Of Indigo and Saffron made a crucial intervention in emphasizing the gestural embodiments that make McClure’s poems an event in the cosmos of becoming. Of the poems I wished she had included is one I first encountered as a broadside produced in 1966 by Dave Hasselwood (1931-2014). It begins:

I KNOW NOW WHAT I DID NOT KNOW BEFORE
that to stand with the instrument with the arms
thrown outward…

In a body of work that stands apart from the avant-garde and yet remains utterly committed to in its reiterations of visions worthy of the Romantic tradition that fuels the so-called “experimental,” McClure remains an exemplary inspiration for anyone in need of a transformative encounter. “I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE,” he says in the penultimate line of Hasselwood’s broadside. The sculptures of his poems await our extended arms, too, and a grip that extends from fingertips to ears.

“Fucking Peasants”: An Alternate Ending to Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday”

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The spring semester is almost over; in addition to finishing my assessments of M.A. exams, I’ve turned in grades for two of my classes, and am starting to read the seminar papers by my graduate students in “West Coast Literature after World War II.” However, I’ll be teaching a compressed course in the first summer session, which starts in less than two weeks, so there is not much time to catch up with unfinished projects this spring. On the “finished” side of the ledger, I am happy to report that Eileen Aronson Ireland’s first book of poems will soon be out from Brooks Roddan’s IFSF Publishing. I have more or less served as the unofficial executive editor of her book the past two years, doing everything from collating the poems electronically and transmitting them to the book designer, proofreading the text, tracking the revisions to the poems, securing blurbs, writing an introduction, and finding a cover photograph and other visual material, on top of serving as an intermediary in other ways.

The mid-week movie screening turned out to be Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, which proved to be a disappointment except in the acting. Himesh Patel is pitch-perfect in generating the essential disparity between his character’s actual talent as a musician and songwriter and the flamboyant nuances of popular music as produced in a collaborative effort such as The Beatles. The songs, for the most part, still resonant with their original charisma; Patel does an exceptional job at being the latest version of a cover band. If his career as an actor ever falters, he won’t need a day job. He could skip the costume changes. In his hands, the songs dispense with the need for period ornamentation.

The script of Yesterday, however, is another matter, especially in the last half-hour. While the use of John Lennon’s song, “Help” as a song to comment on the predicament of a sincere plagiarist becoming an international success is a wise, if fairly obvious, choice as textual irony, the story not only ignores the ethical implications and consequences of plagiarism, but comes close to rewarding its perpetrator for his appropriation. Plagiarism is just another plot device in a late-blooming coming-of-age story. Yeah, just what we need right now in at atmosphere of permeating misinformation.

While watching this film, I thought once again of Norman Klein’s emphasis on erasure as an essential part of the “social imaginary.” What gets erased in Yesterday is John Lennon’s acrid rebuke of “phony Beatlemania” (as the Clash termed it in a song that must have had its lyric replaced in the search engine efforts of the film’s protagonist). It would have been a far more honest assessment of the impact of the Beatles’ music to end the film at Wemley with “The Dream Is Over,” followed by “Working Class Hero”: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

And indeed we are, if we succumb to the superficiality of this film’s interrogation of cultural work.

“A Painter of Our Time” by David James

A little less than a year ago, a painter named Lance Gravett had his paintings exhibited for the first time in over 30 years. They were only up for one weekend, and I myself did not get a chance to see them in person, but it turned out that one of my oldest and best friends, the poet and scholar David James, had written a poem for Gravett as well as some artistic commentary inspired by his memory. With David’s permission, I share this material with you and urge to type Gravett’s name into your browser and follow the links.

IN MEMORY OF LANCE GRAVETT

*. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *

A Painter of Our Time

by David James

X–you know his real name–was initially a neo-realist, so I guess he went to school in the mid-seventies. He probably studied with someone who studied with Robert Bechtle or John Salt or Ralph Goings, people like that. His early paintings were unremarkable, all variations on your basic “old car outside a diner in the mid-west” routine. I’ll just tell you about one of them. It was of a Chevy Biscayne, coming in diagonally to half-fill the picture-frame with its hood. It was meticulously painted with intricate reflections on the chrome and in the window glass. Two things distinguished it. First it had a “For Sale” sign in the passenger window. I read this as referring to both the car and the painting, and so expressing a wry recognition of the latter’s own commodity status, not exactly resistance to the compromises of neo-realism and its collusiveness in what was clearly becoming a reactionary art world, but perhaps a self-consciousness about them. The other thing was the color. The car itself was a kind of pukey green, a real fifties pastel, but since it was rusting, the green was eaten away in spots and generally edged with brown, so it looked like the paint was coming off both car and canvas.

I mention this one because it came to my mind whenever I saw X’s later work, the work that made his fortune. These paintings moved me strongly, even though I was not sure whether they too were not compromised, whether the various sublations they mobilized ever really worked. I used to argue about them with my friend Stephen Eisenman. He was clear in his understanding of what, following Adorno, he called “the echo of their untruth,” but I could never get my position satisfactorily worked out. I always hedged by saying that all good work didn’t have to be politically correct.

As the eighties set in, X’s training in neo-realism stood him in good stead. Following the revival of melodrama that made jerks like Robert Longo blue chip, he started painting people under various kinds of duress or terror. But they all had something extra. The first one I liked showed a couple of shadowy figures in raincoats, plotting under a lamppost. I can’t see it too well now, but I remember it could have been a scene from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It was painted in a dark, metallic blue, something like the color of the mohair suits Ray Charles used to wear around the time he was secularizing gospel music. It had a general feel of depression and violence, but running across that a weird exhilaration. He called it “Conceptual Terrorists.” I liked the pun.

He did several more in the same vein. Men in danger or anxiety, mostly in blue, highlighted or cut through with streetlamp mercury. But then he started juxtaposing this melodramatic realism with areas of virtually straight Frankenthaler or Olitski color field. I know that pastiches and quotations of previous eras in art essentially floated eighties’ painting, but these didn’t seem arbitrary rip-offs like David Salle or Julian Schnable. Rather than just jamming references together in an abrupt, collagist, ungrammaticality, these works very deliberately constructed meaning from one part of the painting to the other. The articulated compromises of the one mode supplied the preconditions of the other and vice-versa, so that the painting became the scene of translation between what otherwise were two mutually incompatible –and incomplete– languages. It was as if he had found a way of reclaiming the idealism of the color fielders by narrating the man-in-nature cosmic location through the dangers of modern social life. Let me just describe one. I think it was the first in which this synthesis was fully articulated.

The canvas was about eight feet tall and four wide, essentially one square on top of another. The bottom half showed a corpse being handled into a police van and a man being arrested. It was at night and evidently one macho artist had wasted another in a warehouse district on the wrong side of the tracks. The internal light of the wagon illuminated a long slash all down the guy’s gut. The scene was lurid and gross, with shadowy police uniforms standing around. But in the top half of the painting–almost like a paradise the unfortunates below might ascend to–floated this soft field of pale green edged round with a fleshy earth tone–the green and rust from the neo-realist Chevvy! Again the relationship between the colors was more than formal. It was as if the paint were slipping off the canvas to reveal something more fundamental, or as if maybe canvas couldn’t hold paint any more.

X completed this painting just around the time he was having a studio show. I don’t know if it was a studio sale; I doubt it could have been since the melodrama paintings had been well known for three years or so and the combination paintings were beginning to get heavy-duty critical attention. Maybe it was just a show for dealers or friends. But in any case, he stood this painting in a corridor off the main studio and put a notice on it that said it wasn’t for sale. I remember seeing it, half-covered with a sheet. I looked at it briefly, but without giving it much thought I went in to the party.

The next time I went to his studio it was there with maybe a dozen more, all with essentially the same structure. But what was new about this series was that in the interim, he had realized that the “not-for-sale” notice was not something outside the picture, but rather inside it. And in that border-zone between the top and the bottom of each painting –between heaven and hell– he had stenciled in the sign: THIS PAINTING IS NOT FOR SALE.

The rest you know. They were thought to be very hip and the museums all wanted one. He sold them for a lot of money and then quit the whole art-world scene. He started making small oils, sublime landscapes and sunsets, which he gave away to friends.

As he did so, his practice came to resemble that of Lance Gravett, who was torn apart by the tensions this tale illustrates and in whose memory I wrote it.

The Eyes

(for Lance Gravett

The chief practitioners of seeing
these days are cultic
Most rigorous in the finesse
of their cultivation, they are
our only true epicures
but awed by their inexorable pursuit
of more exact discrimination
we forgive them this excess

For the rest of us
the eyes are a neglected function
largely theoretical
made gross by Xerox
& the instamatic clickery
of fotographers who are without doubt
our least interesting seers
They remain useful
only as a kind of starter
for the profound narcosis
of tv & like the nose
they will soon be obsolete
a life support system
unnoticed till it fails

But by then
there will be nothing left to see

Robert Mezey (1935-2020)

Thursday, April 30th

Yesterday evening, having learned of Robert Mezey’s death, I wrote the one person I knew for whom the news would involve the kind of sadness that only a lamp and a chair with soft cushions can begin to bring solace. While Mezey first became known as a poet in his mid-twenties, it was an anthology he co-edited with Stephen Berg, Naked Poetry, that made him far more visible to a generation of young poets on the West Coast. It was the first post-World War II anthology to have the first three featured be individuals associated in a significant way with the West Coast: Theodore Roethke, Weldon Kees, and Kenneth Patchen. Other West Coast poets in that anthology included Gary Snyder and William Stafford. In addition, Denise Levertov had taught at UC Berkeley for several years; among her students was Rae Armantrout.

While I had already begun assiduously reading Roethke and Kees by the Fall of 1968, I knew nothing of Patchen’s work, for he was not talked of at all in any undergraduate course I took. Mezey’s inclusion of a poem such as “The Orange Bears” was a revelation to me, the first of many I owe to Mezey’s poetic wisdom. Mezey went on to edit a second edition of Naked Poetry, which reflected the impact of feminist impatience with anthologies overstocked with males. Among the poets included in the second edition, Muriel Rukeyser’s inclusion was a rare acknowledgement of the value of her work.

I had first heard Robert Mezey read at San Diego State College in the spring, 1968. Allen Ginsberg had read there, too, in the academic year 1967-1968, and so had Philip Levine. For a twenty year old aspiring poet who was off to a very late start in learning about contemporary poetry, these readings helped catch me up and provided an enduring example of how a reading could make a memorable poem even more enduring. Mezey read a love poem that had as its central image of a bottle of drinking water that he was bringing to his wife. The poem lifted itself to my lips, and to the heart of my lips.

The last time I heard Bob Mezey read was at Beyond Baroque. Suzanne Lummis, of course, was there, too, and we both savored hearing him read his poem about Orpheus and Eurydice. I don’t remember whether he read “Hardy,” which is one of my favorite sonnets of all time. He didn’t need to. The poem has already perfected itself in the afterglow of its first encounter, years ago. I believe he read “Beau Jack,” which is one of Suzanne’s favorites, for equally profound reasons.

Mezey worked on behalf of poetry far more than most poets who win the “Poet Laureate” award from a city, state, or this nation. His second anthology, Poems of the American West, contained work by a large number of poets who have worked in the years since Naked Poetry first appeared to justify its emphasis on poets west of the Mississippi. In particular, I was grateful for his praise and advocacy of a poet I published both in my magazine, Momentum, as well as issuing a full-length collection of his work. Dick Barnes’s A Lake on the Earth remains among my personal favorites of my Momentum Press project, but it was Mezey who got behind a posthumous edition of Barnes’s poetry. He was also the essential mediator in getting the work of Virginia Hamilton Adair (Ants on the Melon) into print.

The obituary in the LA Times is a fairly reliable account of Mezey life. The one detail that seemed slightly off was its assignment of Mezey’s renewed commitment to formal poetry as a return to roots occasion that took place “close to the end of the century.” In point of fact, we poets in Los Angeles knew of this shift back in the early 1980s. It was at that point that the poet and editor Lee Hickman published some of Mezey’s “Couplets” in Bachy magazine, which was published by Papa Bach Bookstore.

I don’t need to lit up a candle in Bob Mezey’s memory. The one he lit within me has never gone out.

“Wicked Enchantment”: Wanda Coleman’s Selected Poems

WICKED ENCHANTMENT: selected poems, by Wanda Coleman; edited by Terrance Hayes.
(Black Sparrow: Godine; 2020)

Wanda Coleman’s first posthumous volume of “selected poems” has just been published under the imprint with which she associated for most of her life: Black Sparrow. Now operated by Godine, on the East Coast, this collection reflects the difference in editorial poetics between John Martin, the founding publisher of Black Sparrow, and the sensibility that marks East Coast canonical preferences. For those who know and admire Coleman’s poetry, the obvious thought experiment is to imagine this book as having been edited by John Martin, and then to set that volume side by side with this one. What makes Coleman a poet worth re-reading is, of course, the extreme likelihood that neither of those volumes would be the one assembled by any of Coleman’s most insouciant admirers. Martin, Hayes, and myself, for example, all agree that Coleman is an exceptionally impressive poet; our disagreement, ironically, is precisely why she merits her a secure spot in the American canon. Temporary occupants of the canon tend to be poets on whom the critics can easily agree about a set of core poems. It’s the quirky, unpredictable poets — the ones who give the canon makers fits because of their contumacious non-alignment with any one school — that end up being the long distance runners in canon formation. The divergence in choices, therefore, of work that deserves to be considered most representative is precisely the aspect that distinguishes Coleman’s poetry. To continue the thought experiment, for a brief moment, consider how this volume might have turned out if Quincey Troupe had been chosen to edit it.

In pondering all these possibilities, I would like to start by citing Darnton’s “communications circuit” and noticing how the publisher is given a coeval position in the book’s coming-into-existence, its displacement from the private to the public. The erasure of publication history in almost all literary commentary is standard procedure, and this approach undermines any comprehensive understanding of the social meaning of a literary life. The erasure of Martin, for instance, as Coleman’s most important editorial mentor is a typical example of the casual way this aporia is generated. If the standard page at the beginning of a “new and selected” collection of poems provides an overview of other publications (“Also by….”), one notes that the publisher is not listed next to each of Coleman’s 17 titles. The majority of Coleman’s titles would be from Black Sparrow, and imagine how the repetition of that name down the column of titles would point to the value of a reliable ally in a life of a writer who looked social disorder right in the eye, and was more than occasionally forced to blink in disbelief at the racist obstreperousness she confronted.

In point of fact, there should be other titles listed in Coleman’s literary chronology. Her first collection from Black Sparrow, Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, is inexplicably not listed; however, Wicked Enchantment is not meant to be a scholarly edition, but rather a “take” on her work by one of the most important poets working in the United States today. His passion for Coleman’s work was quite evident at the time of her death; he made a trip to Los Angeles to pay tribute to her at a memorial service at the Los Angeles Public Library. I remember his moments on the stage as among the most effusively haunting of that occasion.

In expressing my hope that this book finds its way into hundreds of libraries, however, I need to pause for full disclosure, for I am hardly an impartial observer. I was the first editor in this country to publish Wanda Coleman’s poetry in three different issues of a literary magazine; I was also the first editor to include her poetry in a significant anthology. My poet-friend Lee Hickman was also one of the first to publish Wanda in more than one issue of a magazine. Coleman had the support of her fellow Los Angeles poets, but the city as one of her prime subjects is hardly visible in this collection. Is it possible to understand the urgency with which Coleman speaks in “American Sonnet 16” unless one has also read “Los Angeles Death-Trip”?

I have a couple of problems with the book, the first of which is the staging of the poems. While the table of contents does break up the list of poems with a bold header that foregrounds the title of the book in which the poem first appeared, the poems run consecutively in the book without any break for book divisions. My guess is that Godine wanted to save money on the printing and make every page pay its freight. The problem is that this arrangement ends up diminishing the presence of one of her best known poems, “I Live for My Car.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the challenge of running an independent publisher, but would it really have been prohibitive to have the arrangement of the poems be:
Page 29 — “Beaches: Why I Don’t Care for Them”
Page 30 — Blank
Page 31 — IMAGOES
Page 32 — Blank
Page 33 — “I Live for My Car”

Quite frankly, this is the kind of design arrangement that is provided for any “selected poems” by a significant writer when one wants to make a case for their accomplishments. Such a design accentuates the accomplishment of having many volumes of poetry published in the course of a career and delineates the maturation of the writer. It’s a form of literary cartography. If Wanda were alive, I don’t think she would not notice this unnecessary compression, and since she isn’t here, I’m speaking up for her. This truncation verges on being disrespectful. If you can’t afford to do a first-class edition of poems, then start a GoFundMe campaign and raise the extra money you need to give these poem the formal presentation that they deserve.

Quite frankly, this is the kind of design arrangement that is provided for any “selected poems” by any significant writer. If Wanda were alive, I don’t think she would not notice this unnecessary compression in Godine’s edition, and since she isn’t here, I’m speaking up for her. This truncation is disrespectful. If you can’t afford to do the book with class, then start a GoFundMe campaign and raise the extra money you need to give these poem the formal presentation that they deserve.

The second problem concerns the emphasis on the “painterly” side of Wanda Coleman’s work. She published over 1000 poems, and some of the best known are meant to be provocative. There will be readers of this volume for whom this selection is their first encounter with her writing, and it will come as a shock to them some day, when her “Collected Poems” is published, to discover poems such as “Where I Live” were left out of the “Selected Poems.” The absence of the sequence of poems entitled “Art in the Court of the Blue Fag” and “South Central Death Trip” will additionally leave that future reader even more confounded about their initial exposure to Coleman’s work. Am I saying that Hayes has “cleaned up” Coleman for an academic audition? If we are to speculate about what the mid-21st century canon of American poetry might look like, it would be naive to think that formal considerations will not come into play. The inclusion of so many “American Sonnets” might well prove to be a smart move by Hayes in his advocacy of Coleman’s canonical standing. In fact, it might well assist the “sooner rather than later” appearance of a “Collected Poems.” On the other hand, Coleman was in the vanguard of “Black Lives Matter” when the leaders of hat movement was still in grade school. That aspect of her work deserves inclusion.

The final problem I have with Wicked Enchantment is the erasure of Wanda’s poet-husband, Austin Straus, from any mention in the book. If Austin were still alive, I wonder if this collection would appear without mentioning him. To the best of my knowledge, he would have been in charge of Wanda’s literary estate, and I have a hard time believing that he would have given permission to end the book short of including a citation of The Love Project: A Marriage Made in Poetry (Red Hen Press, 2014). Wicked Enchantment includes poems dedicated to Eloise Klein Healy, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anna Halpern, Tim & Kathy Joyce, Robert Mezey, Dennis Brutus, Tessa Christensen, and Gloria Macklin. Where, therefore, is Wanda Coleman’s “Sonnet to Austin”? Or why wasn’t one of her early classic “Stand Up” poems, “Pigging Out,” which is dedicated to Austin, included? For that matter, why isn’t Wanda’s membership as an OSU (original Stand Up) poet cited in the introduction? “Chair Affair,” for example, is obviously a card-carrying member of the Stand Up poetry movement, which had its origins in the city Wanda Coleman was born and raised in, and which she fused into a home base of a trope. As a major figure in the Stand Up movement, therefore, when someone undertakes to write the introduction to her “Collected Poems,” I hope that that contextual aspect of her work’s reception by her fellow Los Angeles poets will be noted, along with her contributions to spoken word projects produced by the legendary master-of-ceremonies/producer Harvey Robert Kubernik? The recent release of a new album by X, with lyrics largely written by Exene Cervenka, should serve as a reminder — with this book’s appearance at almost the same time — that Exene and Wanda shared a full-length vinyl album, Twin Sisters.

With these reservations in mind, Wicked Enchantment is still an absolutely necessary part of any library’s selection of contemporary poetry. If some of my favorite poems by Wanda Coleman are missing from this volume, I must also say that several poems chosen by Hayes, which I had neglected in the past to categorize as being among her best, prove what a discerning touch Terrance Hayes has brought to this project; and I back his decision to follow Coleman’s lead in the way she distributed the sequences of her poems among larger groupings. In most editions of a selected poems, a three-poem such as Coleman’s “Earthmother” would no doubt be printed consecutively. Instead, Hayes keeps the stutter-step distribution of the poem intact: Part 1 appears on page 178; Part 2 on page 182, and part 3 on page 209. This undulation of emergence and submerging of a sequence of poems allows the reader to absorb the layering effect that Coleman’s poems as a body of work fuse with a critique that never relents. Resistance is palimpsestual, and Coleman calls on us to look closely at the writing underneath the shrieks of protest.

Another outstanding poem chosen by Hayes which I did not fully appreciate before reading it in “Wicked Enchantment” is “Things No One Knows.” It has a Villonesque last-will-and-testament feel to it that makes me wish we had easy access to a recording of Wanda reading the poem. One of the things that Terrance Hayes does not emphasize enough was the extraordinary charisma that Wanda’s voice brought to each of her words. Here is the final stanza of “Things No One Knows”:

I am trapped in the hold of my greedy grief
and expect to keep circling. I expect my son to escape
and my husband to die during exquisite crisis. the federal
bureau of pajamas is after my hot cross buns. I expect to
awaken from sleep soon. I expect my banana nut bread to
go stale and uneaten I expect to die poem less and to be
cremated in state ovens. I expect my ashes
to be scattered like pollen, to take wing on the wind

like buddhaflies.

“Rhythm is the total sound of a line’s movement,” Karl Shapiro emphasized. The dominant anapestic movement in the stanza enfolds the images into an aching threnody, but the total sound of these words would be amplified to maximum subtlety in the “ear of the mind” of most readers if they could first hear Wanda Coleman reading the poem out loud.

So what are some of the aspects of the poems by Coleman which Hayes has selected that I would like other critics to be alert to? I would urge others to pay attention to the way her poems are in dialogue with other projects that might not readily come to mind. For example, Anna Deveare Smith’s TWILIGHT has a monologue by Elaine Brown in which her main point is that growing old as a revolutionary is perhaps the most revolutionary act of all. This point is part of the impetus behind Coleman’s “American Sonnet 16,” which is on page 116.

Above all, I would like to see critics take on the challenge of a close reading of “Salvation Wax,” a poem that is over 20 pages long, but almost gets lost within the vast number of “American Sonnets” that are featured in the book. Long poems such as “Salvation Wax” were one of key features of Los Angeles-based poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, and a poem on the scale of “Salvation Wax” reflects the influence of poets such as Lee Hickman, Kate Braverman, Harry Northup, Paul Vangelisti, and Dennis Phillips.

Hayes is at his best in selecting the poems in Imagoes. Heavy Daughter Blues, and African Sleeping Sickness. How rare it is to have almost 50 straight pages of rambunctious audacity refusing to let up! Among the poems that caught me off-guard was “Nosomania,” which somehow I didn’t remember reading before, but which is now one of my favorite poems of Coleman, on an equal backbeat footing with “I Love the Dark,” “Nocturne,” and “How does it hurt?” As strong as the editing is in this portion of Wicked Enchantment, I wish the book had added another 25 to 30 pages of work from her writing in the 1970s. There are 88 poems in Wanda Coleman’s first book, Mad Dog Black Lady, the title phrase of which was first published in my magazine, Momentum. Hayes chooses only eight of those 88 poems as being worthy of appearing in Wicked Enchantment. In addition to “Where I Live,” which is given a close reading by Laurence Goldstein in Poetry Los Angeles (University of Michigan Press), other poems that should have been selected from MDBL include “Son of a,” “Luz,” “Beyond Sisters,” “His Old Flame, Lady Venice,” “”The Emotional Con Meets a Virginal Ideal,” “Sweet Mama Wanda Tells Fortunes for a Price,” “Drone,” “Poet Surgery,” “Word Game,” “Dear Little Boy,” and “Coffee.” If all dozen of these poems were included, one would have a better understanding of Coleman’s debut as a poet.

Another critic who appreciates Coleman’s early work is David James. In “Poetry/Punk/Production: Some Postmodern Writing in L.A.” David James argues that Charles Bukowski, “more than any other single writer, made a place for Los Angeles on the map of contemporary poetry. In being L.A.’s “exemplary (poetic) practitioner,” Bukowski put his stamp on the city’s poetic vernacular as “decisively working-class. …. Though the notion of a school overseas the commonality of those poets who wrote in Bukowski’s tow, as well as contradicting his axiomatic social isolation, still his mode can be found everywhere. Wanda Coleman’s change of key,…. easily segues from the white working-class male to the black working-class female experience. Poems like “Where I live” feature the same working-class streets and businesses, the same casual violence and sexuality, the same problems with landlords and police, an dthe sideswiping of the same cars that comprised Bukowski’s world and, apart from the changes in ethnicity and gender, celebrated them with the same wry machismo.

the county is her pimp and she can turn a trick
swifter than any bitch ever graced this earth
she’s the baddest piece of ass on the west coast
named black Los Angeles
(from POWER MISSES: Essays Across (Un)popular Culture (London: Verso, 1996); 192-193)

In his introduction, Terrance Hayes claims that “There is no poet, black or otherwise, writing with as much wicked candor and passion.” I only wish that that candor had been given a chance to run at top speed in this volume. There is an abundance of candor and passion awaiting readers in Wicked Enchantment, but this volume is only a down payment on the unflinching vision that will be revealed in Coleman’s yet-to-be-collected poems.

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SOME ANTHOLOGIES IN WHICH WANDA COLEMAN’S POETRY APPEARED

“POETRY LOVES POETRY (Momentum Press, 1985), edited by Bill Mohr
“Eyes Bleed Pictures: Tales of a Black Adventurer”
“San Diego”
“Clown Show”
“6AM & Dicksboro”

THE MAVERICK POETS, edited by Steve Kowit
“Somewhere”
“luz”
“untitled” (“she was the perfect woman….”)

STAND UP POETRY (first edition, 1992) — Charles Harper Webb
“I Live for My Car”
“Pigging Out” — for Austin

INVOCATION L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry, edited by Michelle T. Clinton, Sesshu Foster, and Naomi Quinonez.
“Dream 28”
“Where I Live”

THE OUTLAW BIBLE OF AMERICAN POETRY, 1999), edited by Alan Kaufman
“South Central Death Trip, 1982” parts one through nine, pages 160=164.
NOTE: The omission of this poem from WICKED ENCHANTMENT is particularly striking, given that it did appear in this significant anthology of “underground” poetry.

WIDE AWAKE: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Suzanne Lummis
“I Live for My Car”
“Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead?”
“Sonnet for Austin”
“Neruda”

“ACADEMIC” TEACHING ANTHOLOGIES

NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POSTMODERN POETRY, edited by Paul Hoover
“Brute Strength”
“Essay On Language”
“African Sleeping Sickness”

NEW ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN POETS: Postmodernists (1950-present), edited by Steven Axelrod, Camille Roman, and Thomas Travisano.
“Dear Mama (4)
African Sleeping Sickness
African Sleeping Sickness (3) (after Theodore Roethke)
“Disconnections
“Supermarket Suite”

POST-SCRIPT
Wanda Coleman’s poetry does not appear in Andrei Codrescu’s Up Late nor Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th century American Poetry. But then again, neither does Bukowski appear in Dove’s anthology. The absence of Coleman’s poems from Dove’s anthology is particularly troubling, in that it makes me wonder if there is still afoot a desire to ostracize her for her honest review of a volume of poems by Maya Angelou. According to Hayes, Wanda had a reputation in some circles (who do not have the courage to speak for attribution) for being “mean,” but it was more the case in the years after that review that people who should have championed Coleman’s work were mean to her. And they know who they are.

P.P.S. The May 18th issue of the New Yorker magazine has an article entitled “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A. Greatest Poets,” in which Dan Chiasson states that Wanda Coleman is “one of the greatest poets ever to come out of L.A.,” and “that she shaped the city’s literary scene like few before her.” Unfortunately, the article provides no details that would illuminate readers about how she specifically “shaped” L.A.’s communities of poets. Quite frankly, I did not get a sense from the article that Mr. Chiasson was truly familiar with her work before he decided to write this article. I am pleased, of course, that Wanda Coleman is having her poetry receive a lengthy review in the New Yorker. If I could go back a half-century and show Wanda and John Martin a copy of this magazine side-by-side with a print-out of my blog article on her book, I know which one would have meant the most to her.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/18/the-fearless-invention-of-one-of-las-greatest-poets

Kevin Opstedal on Lewis MacAdams

April 23, 2020

Bill,

I saw your write-up about Lewis passing today, & like you I was dismayed that all the press/obits are centered on his work w/the river. I wouldn’t take anything away from that, it was/is amazing what he did, but for me Lewis was/is always about “The Poems”. I met him in the 70s, that is I met him thru his poems. It wasn’t until ’86 or so that I had a chance to sit down & talk w/him. An interview at his home in Silver Lake about the Bolinas poets. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to publish his poems in many of the rogue magazines I edited, & when Mike Price & I started Blue Press Books in 1998, the motivation behind it all was to print The River: Books One & Two, which was the first chapbook to appear under the Blue Press imprint. I went on to publish 5 books by Lewis, including the expanded River: Books One, Two, & Three. He was a most gracious man, tough minded, challenging at times (which I loved), a great friend, & one of the finest poets I have ever known.

Thanks for acknowledging the importance of the Poet Lewis MacAdams.

Kevin (Opstedal)

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And for a review of Lewis MacAdams’s Dear Oxygen: New & Selected Poems 1966-2011, which was edited by Kevin Opstedal, here is a link to Joe Safdie’s astute commentary:

http://www.bigbridge.org/BB16/prose/prosejsafdie.htm

Here is a brief excerpt from it:
“I’d been intending to start this review with a story about Lewis performing at one of the readings in memory of Ed Dorn that had been organized by Michael Rothenberg a few years ago; when it was his turn at the podium, he said “Ed Dorn was the coolest white man I ever met”—notable praise, not only because one of Lewis’ non-fiction works, Birth of the Cool, charted a number of notable artists and musicians of the American mid-century (“Yeah, well, I guess you could call that journal ism”—Section XVI of “News from Niman Farm,” 97), but because I always thought he was the coolest white guy I’d ever met, similar to his description of Otis Redding in “Dreams to Remember”: “a dynamo of act, laughing, crooning, sweating, dancing and shouting ‘Bamalama into the earth’s microphone from every one of the silent rooms” (78)

— Joe Safdie

Giorgio Agamben on the Plague behind the Scrim(mage) of the Pandemic

GIORGIO AGAMBEN ON THE PLAGUE BEHIND THE SCRIM(MAGE) OF THE VIRUS
April 23, 2020

The band X recently decided to release Alphabetland, its first album in over three decades, on the 40th anniversary of the release of their first album, Los Angeles. In an interview with Randall Roberts, in the L.A. Times, John Doe commented that “(W)hen you see celebrities saying that we’re all in this together. No, we’re not. You’re on your boat. We’re here.” Doe is leaning on the word “this” in particular. Celebrities want to embrace multitudes by pretending that they are pointing at something specific, but Doe’s immediate objection underlines how such cheap rhetoric is just another shoddy magic trick of ideology, and that such comments only end up registering as antibodies in the suppurating complacency that is at the heart of the plague behind the scrim(mage) of this pandemic.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has recently posted several short essays on the social ramifications of the pandemic, which caught the attention of poet and translator Paul Vangelisti. He has obtained the permission of Agamben to publish his translations of Agamben’s pieces on my blog. With gratitude to both the author and translator, I post the following for your consideration:

April 13, 2020: “A Question” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)
April 6, 2020: “Social Distancing” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)
March 27, 2020: “Reflections on the Plague” by Giorgio Agamben (translated by Paul Vangelisti)

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A Question

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague…
Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether
they would be spared to attain the object.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War,II,53

I would like to share with whomever wishes a question upon which for more than a month I haven’t stopped reflecting. How could it happen that without being aware of it an entire country has ethically and politically collapsed in the face of a sickness? The words I’ve used to formulate the question have been one by one carefully weighed. The measure of abandoning these very ethical and political principles is, in fact, rather simple: it involves asking oneself what is the limit beyond which one is ready to renounce them. I believe that the reader who will go to the trouble of considering the following points won’t fail to agree – without being aware or pretending not to be aware – that the threshold separating humanity from barbarism has already been crossed.

1) The first point, and perhaps most serious, concerns the corpses of dead persons. How could we have accepted, simply in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, that persons dear to us, and human beings in general, not only might die alone, but also – what has never taken place historically from Antigone to the present – that their corpses were burned without a funeral?

2) We accepted with no real fuss, simply in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, to restrict our freedom of movement on a scale never before seen in our country’s history, not even during the two World Wars (blackouts were only in place during certain hours). Consequently we’ve accepted, in the name of a risk unable to be clearly defined, to suspend our contacts with friends and lovers, because the next has become a possible source of contagion.
3) This could only have happened – and here we get at the root of the phenomenon – because we have cleaved apart the unity of our life experience, which is always bodily and spiritually conjoined, into a purely biological entity on the one hand and an emotional and cultural one on the other. Ivan Illich, as David Cayley here recently recalled, demonstrated modern medicine’s responsibility for this schism, which is taken for granted and which instead is one of the greatest of abstractions. I understand well enough that this abstraction was accomplished by modern science through the use of reanimation techniques that are able to maintain a body in a pure state of vegetative life.
But if we extend this condition beyond its proper spatial and temporal limits, as we are today attempting to do, making it a kind of principle of social behavior, then we fall into a contradiction from which there is no escape.

I know someone will immediately answer that we’re dealing with a temporally limited condition, after which all will be as before. It’s truly peculiar that one may repeat this if not in bad faith, as the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency won’t stop reminding us that when the emergency is over, we will need to keep observing the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it’s been called with a telling euphemism, will become the new principle for social organization. And, in any case, that which, in good or bad faith, we’ve accepted to endure may not be cancelled.

At this point, because I’ve singled out the responsibility some of us have, I can’t fail to mention the even more critical responsibilities of those who had the task of keeping watch over human dignity. Above all the Church, that making itself the handmaid of science, by now the true religion of our time, has radically renounced its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope called Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. Has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is to visit the sick. Has forgotten that the martyrs teach us that we have to be ready to sacrifice life rather than our faith. Has forgotten that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing our faith. Another group that hasn’t lived up to its job is the judiciary. For some time we’ve grown used to the thoughtless use of emergency orders through which in fact executive power takes the place of the legislative, abolishing that principle of separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been overstepped, and one has the impression that the words of the prime minister or the head of public safety have, as we once said of the Fuhrer’s, the immediate force of law. And we don’t see how, once the limits of the decrees’ temporal validity have expired, these restrictions on freedom, as have been announced, may be maintained. With what juridical contrivances? With a state of permanent emergency? It’s the judges’ task to verify that constitutional regulations are respected, but the judges are silent. Quare silete iuristae in munere vestro?

I know that invariably someone will answer that this surely grave sacrifice was made in the name of moral principles. And for them I must recall that Eichmann, apparently in good faith, never tired of repeating that he had done what he had done according to his conscience, obeying those precepts he believed to be Kantian morality. A norm, affirming that one must renounce good in order to uphold the good, is certainly as false and contradictory as that which, in order to protect liberty, demands that we renounce liberty.

Giorgio Agamben
April 13, 2020

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Social Distancing

“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The
premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has
unlearned to serve. To know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.”
Michel de Montaigne

Since history teaches us that every social phenomenon has or may have political implications, it’s worth carefully taking note of the new concept that has today entered the Western political lexicon: “social distancing.” Although the term was probably manufactured as a euphemism in respect to the crudeness of the term “confinement” used up to now, one ought to ask oneself what a political order based on this might look like. Thus it’s much more urgent, given that we’re dealing with a not purely theoretical hypothesis, if it’s true, as we’ve begun hearing from many sides, that the actual health emergency may be considered as a laboratory in which we prepare the new political and social structures that await humanity.

Even though there are, as always happens, the foolish who suggest that such a situation may be certainly considered positive and that the new digital technologies have for some time freely permitted communicating from a distance, I don’t believe that a community founded upon “social distancing” may be humanly and politically livable. In any case, whatever the perspective, it seems to me that it is upon this theme that we ought to reflect.

A primary consideration concerns the truly singular nature of the phenomenon that “social distancing” measures have produced. Canetti, in that masterpiece Crowds and Power, defines crowds upon which power is based by the inversion of the fear of being touched. While men usually fear being touched by the extraneous and all the distances that men institute around themselves are born out of this fear, the crowd is the only situation in which such fear turns into its opposite. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched . . . As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch . . . The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body . . . This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.”

I don’t know what Canetti would think of this new phenomenology of the crowd that we find before us: that which “social distancing” measures and panic have created is certainly a crowd – but a crowd so to speak turned upside down, made up of individuals who keep themselves at all costs at a distance from one another. A crowd, then, that isn’t dense but rarefied and that, in every way, is still a crowd; if this, as Canetti clarifies shortly thereafter, is defined by its density and by its passivity, in the sense that “truly free movement wouldn’t be in any way possible . . . it awaits, awaits a head, who must be revealed.”

A few pages later, Canetti describes the crowd that forms by means of a prohibition, “in which many people brought together don’t wish to do more than until that moment they had done as a single person. The prohibition is unexpected: they alone impose it … in each case it happens with the maximum force. It is categorical like an order; its negative character is nevertheless decisive.” It’s important not to overlook that a community based on social distancing would have anything to do, as we might ingenuously believe, with an individualism pushed to the limits: it would be, much to the contrary, like what we see around us today, a rarefied crowd based on prohibition and, exactly in this way, especially dense and passive.

April 6, 2020
Giorgio Agamben

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Reflections on the Plague

The following reflections aren’t in regard to the plague, but what we may understand about people’s reactions to it. It’s a matter, then, of reflecting on the ease with which an entire society felt it had been contaminated, isolating itself in their houses and suspending normal living conditions, work relationships, those of friendship, love and even its religious and political convictions. Why were there, as it would have been easy to imagine and often occurs in these cases, no protests or opposition? The hypothesis I’d like to suggest is that in some way, perhaps even unknowingly, the plague was already here. Evidently the conditions of people’s lives were such that it was enough for an unexpected sign to appear showing how it really was, that is, intolerable, as with a plague. And, in a certain sense, this is the only positive given that we can take from the present situation: it’s possible that, at some later date, people may ask themselves if the way in which we lived was right.

And to a no lesser extent it’s worth reflecting on the need for religion that the situation brings to light. There’s a clue in the media’s hammering use of terminology taken from eschatological vocabularies that, describing the phenomenon, recurs obsessively, above all in the American press, with the word “apocalypse,” often explicitly evoking the end of the world. It’s as if this religious need, which the Church is no longer able to satisfy, seeks gropingly for it elsewhere, and has found it in what by now has become the religion of our time: science. This, like any religion, can produce superstition and fear or, in any case, may be used to spread them. Never before as today have we taken part in a spectacle, typical of religions in moments of crisis, of differing and contradictory opinions and prescriptions, ranging from those of an heretical minority (represented even by prestigious scientists) denying the phenomenon’s gravity to the orthodox, dominant discourse affirming it and, nevertheless, often radically diverging on the means of facing the problem. And, as always in these cases, certain experts or those self-styled as such are able to secure the favor of the monarch who, as in those times of religious disputes that divided Christianity, took sides for this or that current of thought according to his own interests and imposed his own measures.

Another thing that gives one pause is the obvious collapse of any common belief or faith. One might say that humans no longer believe in anything – except for bare biological existence that needs be saved at any cost. But upon the fear of losing one’s life we can only base tyranny, only the monstrous Leviathan with his bloody sword.

Because of this – once the emergency , the plague, is declared over, if it may ever be – I don’t believe that, at least for those who have conserved a minimum of lucidity, it may be possible to return to living as before. And today this is perhaps the most discouraging thing – even if, as was said, “only to those who have no more hope has hope been given.”

March 27, 2020
Giorgio Agamben

Happy 50th Anniversary, Earth Day!! Hurrah for Jim Grabill’s Poetry!!!

April 22, 2020

Poet and ecological activist Lewis MacAdams died yesterday, and there is a part of me that believes he chose to leave this planet yesterday so that attention would be called not just to the L.A. River, but to all the rivers of Mother Earth.

In thinking of all the rivers as “One River,” I recall that one of the first books of poetry I published was Jim Grabill’s One River. I would to proclaim him as my choice for Poet Laureate of Mother Earth. If there is any poet who will be seen in retrospect as a William Blake of this period — someone who worked to a large extent in obscurity, but whose vision was the most pertinent — then I believe it will be Jim Grabill, a poet I have never met in person and perhaps never will.

May he somehow learn the high esteem I retain for his work. Should you wish to find some of his work in a magazine that shares my enthusiasm and that will also put you in touch with similar poetics at work, then I recommend Larry Smith’s Caliban, which will wrap up publication with the upcoming appearance of its 40th issues, many of which have contained Grabill’s writing.

EARTH DAY CELEBRATION OF POETRY THIS COMING WEEKEND: