Homage to Ella Fitzgerald by Paul Vangelisti

The citation of Ella Fitzgerald in two recent blog posts elicited the arrival of an unpublished poem by Paul Vangelisti, which I have obtained permission to circulate in today’s post.

(From a work-in-progress, “LIQUID PRISONERS,” begun in June, 2018)


Passage of landscape where the eyes have it,
impersonal as that may seem, one bears
aging sentiments too often pricked out,
dim as a watery look maundering
in ragged slippers around the garden.
A morning to savor the chill on flesh
and begin to romance another day,
forlorn as the ruthless dark may have left it.
Imperfection’s what makes the impersonal
so beguiling. That excruciatingly
superlative engine, as Ella scatting all
the while home and Oscar Peterson scalding
on Benny Goodman’s “Special Delivery.”
Hand in hand a state of emergency.

According to the note that accompanied Vangelisti’s poem, “Liquid Prisoners” will eventually culminate in some 77 sonnets following Shakespeare’s even-numbered sonnets. The odd-numbered ones are being addressed by a friend.

* * * * *

During the past half-century, no other poet-editor-publisher-translator in the United States has upheld the ideals of a literary life that encompasses all of those activities in Paul Vangelisti’s manner. For those unfamiliar with his poetry, I would refer you to an essay I wrote back in the first decade of this century that was published in the Chicago Review. Here are the opening paragraphs, which I hope will tempt you to read the entire commentary.

ISSUE 51:01/02

Likelihood of Survival: Paul Vangelisti’s Poetry

If the avant-garde in American poetry since the defeat of the United States in Viet Nam has focused on the distinctions between poems written in lines on the one hand and prose in which the logic of inquiry operates with all the modulations of poetic syntax on the other, then Paul Vangelisti’s Embarrassment of Survival (Selected Poems 1970-2000) demonstrates his singular contribution to the development of that avant-garde. Vangelisti’s career-long dedication to long poems and his playful flexibility and variations of genre might make this collection appear forbidding at first. But if seemingly willful obscurity is often a deterrent in reading or viewing work from any avantgarde, Vangelisti’s poems are replete with a sustained clarity that invites us to savor these moments without being penalized for letting go of that which seems inaccessible. The reader who fears secret remonstrances from the author hidden in the text, c.o.d., can relax. The title is meant only for the author, who was born in San Francisco in 1945, and moved to Los Angeles in 1968.

Vangelisti shifted from the conventional free verse lyric popular in the late 1960s towards an experimental mode at an early point in his career. In the five-page title poem of his first full-length collection, Air, Vangelisti combined a self-portrait of the young artist with prose retrieved from newspapers and magazines, ranging from five women’s responses to the question “Do you have a sexy outfit?” to the piquant weariness of a diplomat signing a peace treaty. “Air’s” collage includes an indented paragraph of self-critique wedged between his stark delineation of the writer at the keyboard:

honk the honk of barrio wedding
goddamn plaster every time the door
tailpipe strut on Alvarado north
my one day off
this is Saturday afternoon
or is it or is it

Vangelisti accomplished the trick with a magic incantation,
declaring by fiat that “Marx’ most profound commitment was to the
primacy of existence over consciousness.” This is nonsense. Marx’
most profound commitment was to freedom, that is, the ability of
human beings, acting through their consciousness, to change the
facts of their existence to meet their needs and desires.

cockroach under typewriter
hesitate my fingers
listen to the words
to the voice of the word ‘cockroach’
like a face for a woman in another car
tip of my finger stare at what surrounds you
the reader barely possible

Unusual as the foregrounding of Marxist theory within a poem that simultaneously juxtaposes prose and verse might have seemed in 1973, Vangelisti’s argumentative arrangement would not have been particularly surprising to readers of Invisible City, the journal he founded with poet and graphic artist John McBride in 1971. Their first issue opened with a front-page essay by Vangelisti entitled “Why I Am a Socialist”; over the next ten years Vangelisti and McBride would publish excerpts from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and essays by the Caribbean revolutionary writer Rene Depestre and African-American radical poet-critic Amiri Baraka (whose selected poems, Trans-bluesency, Vangelisti edited for Marsilio in 1995). But Vangelisti’s assessment in “Air” of the social relations implicit in any creative act refuses to settle for a perfunctory critique of the need for change: he’s all too aware that no revolution will be able to liberate language sufficiently to make visible even a small portion of the potential poems around us, although their presence may seem to be palpable. Setting out from the stoically engaged poetics of George Oppen, who wrote a brief introduction to Vangelisti’s first chapbook, Communion, Vangelisti envisions the self’s relationship to the exterior world as a continual interrogation of the yearning to be pragmatic. His protest requires that any action taken, or suggested, initially examine the tantalizing gap that punctuates the distinction between object and metaphor. …

Comments are closed.