To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Keith Kumasen Abbott, Honorary Member of The New Black Bart Poetry Society Subject: Philip Whalen’s Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Anything can function in a Philip Whalen poem; anything can happen; anyone may enter the poem, talk for a while and leave whenever their contribution is considered over. Think of a big room where all the objects and presences inside it are animate. These may talk or move or mutely present themselves. Whalen’s poems range widely in their references. Poet Ron Loewinsohn remarked [Cf. Ron Loewinsohn Philip Whalen Bancroft Library] that Whalen’s longer poems “can refer in a casual, often playful way to pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, figures from Hindu mythology and Buddhist lore, sports, events from European or American history, TV programs, popular songs, science, Japanese and Chinese artists, even quotations from teen-agers walking down the street, and more.”
What holds the poem together is the reader’s acceptance that there are spaces between the parts where we might occupy and view the relationships between those parts. We’re not necessarily the listener, but rather a participating presence as we collect and monitor the effects of our perceptions. While we may have the sensation of being addressed personally, we may also be eavesdropping on someone else besides Philip Whalen, poet. Slippery personas, masks, radio speakers, animals, minerals, and vegetables may all insinuate their way into the poem and present themselves for our attention.
Loewinsohn characterizes such experiences thusly: “In Whalen’s poems these snippets from the already-created world, together with his own perceptions, connections and insights, are arranged in interwoven patterns of scenes or sequences that are related to each other in a rich network of multiple connections. People have attempted to compare Whalen’s poems to mosaics or collages, and while that’s a useful approximation, his poems are really more like mobiles. The scenes or sequences are suspended in relation to each other, so that as you read past them the relationships between the scenes or sequences are constantly changing, like a mobile, whose pieces are constantly moving in relation to each other.”
Once I was in a museum where a Calder mobile was installed. The hanging metal parts and objects on the floor were so constructed that when ever anyone gave a yank on the parts, the mobile would dip and wobble and turn, with some of the metal pendants going low enough to whack, scrape or bounce across metal and ceramic plates placed on the floor. The resulting concerts were delightfully random: Calder at his best interactive circus mania. The museum guard would start the concert off, usually because patrons were too inhibited to touch or play with the art. Once someone did it, then everyone would join in, taking turns, trying different motions: jittering yanks, big sweeping rolling tosses, etc. Notes, chords, clonks, melodies, triads, bonks, etc. ensued. The effect on the audience was amazement and delight, sometimes uncontrollable laughter, at its ridiculously melodic and whacko music. It was if the Marx Brothers were cut loose with hammers, mallets and backscratchers in a room of full of xylophones and Chinese chimes. But more than that, this randomness mirrored our lives in some fundamental way, just how our days were subjected to the vagaries of chance.
This spirit of happy yet interpenetrating and interlocking levels models for us how one can read Whalen’s poems. Loewinsohn characterizes Whalen’s aims thusly, and then quotes from a Whalen poem. “His commitment to this multi-dimensional world, and to sharing its sacramental nature with the reader are two of Whalen’s major aims. As he puts it,
‘What do I know or care about life and death
My concern is to arrange immediate BREAKTHROUGH into this heaven
where we live as music’”
This desire for a breakthrough is intensely Buddhist: its refuge vow states that one must dedicate one’s practice to the instant liberation of all sentient beings.
If we consider his Sourdough Mountain Lookout poem, we begin our adventure with a Chinese poet’s lament about his inability to be in the mountains followed by the benefits of their presence in his life. The dedication to poet Kenneth Rexroth acknowledges that he had climbed these mountains and wrote about them before Whalen. Then the poem proper begins with the author’s statement of why he won’t go back to the mountains. And next we hear the raspy whining voice of a mule packer’s complaints while taking Whalen up the mountain to his fire lookout.
Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Tsung Ping (375-443): “Now I am old and infirm. I fear I shall no more be
able to roam among the beautiful mountains. Clarifying my mind, I meditate
on the mountain trails and wander about only in dreams.”
− In The Spirit of the Brush, tr. by Shio Sakanishi, p. 34.
F O R K E N N E T H R E X R O T H
I always say I won’t go back to the mountains
I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules
And pancakes every morning of the world
Mr. Edward Wyman (63)
Steams along the trail ahead of us all
Moaning, “My poor old feet ache, my back
Is tired and I’ve got a stiff prick”
Uprooting alder shoots in the rain
There follows a description of the insistently magical conditions of solitary life in a “glass house on a ridge.” Whalen describes the unstoppable brilliant life he lives there, as if by virtue of his 360-degree lookout windows he exists in the middle of a diamond wired for sound.
Then I’m alone in a glass house on a ridge
Encircled by chiming mountains
With one sun roaring through the house all day
& the others crashing through the glass all night
Conscious even while sleeping
The range of Whalen’s consciousness displayed is so lively and variable and huge. This panorama of perceptions and thoughts does not resemble at all the standard points of view for stock characters of the Chinese poetry or its usual landscape for mountain poetry; scrolls populated with what Gary Snyder terms “little travelers in the snow”. This life for Whalen is presented in close-ups, pans, pullbacks, jumpcuts etc. as if his perceptions were a documentary film with sensory attachments and a collage of voiceovers. There are few writers who can get the simultaneity of Whalen’s effects.
Courtesy of his isolation and curiosity Whalen finds himself included in an entirely natural world of animals, insects and birds. But just as quickly via his notebook jottings, he locates himself in an English literary tradition, the Romantic landscapes.
Ptarmigan hunt for bugs in the snow
Bear peers through the wall at noon
Deer crowd up to see the lamp
A mouse nearly drowns in the honey
I see my bootprints mingle with deer-foot
Bear-paw mule-shoe in the dusty path to the privy
Much later I write down:
“raging. Viking sunrise
The gorgeous death of summer in the east”
(Influence of a Byronic landscape
Bent pages exhibiting depravity of style.)
Whalen contrasts the outside world with his inside reality. The bright and dark worlds of a lookout create unorganized and dysfunctional perceptions, hard to gather up as one experience without resorting to allusions and uncomfortable comparisons to past writers, nature writers or no. In a mountain climbing notebook from this period Whalen notes how the high mountains by their altitude alone divorce his consciousness from the habits of his mundane life below. (Bancroft Library Box 1:1)
Outside the lookout I lay nude on the granite
Mountain hot September sun but inside my head
Calm dark night with all the other stars
HERACLITUS; “The walking have one common world
But the sleeping turn aside
Each into a world of his own.”
I keep telling myself what I really like
Are music, books, certain land and seascapes
The way light falls across them, diffusion of
Light through agate, light itself . . . I suppose
I’m still afraid of the dark
“Remember smart-guy there’s something
Bigger something smarter than you.”
Ireland’s fear of unknown holies drives
My father’s voice (a country neither he
Nor his great-grandfather ever saw)
A sparkly tomb a plated grave
A holy thumb beneath a wave
This last couplet reads like something Whalen has lifted or imitated from Yeats most baroque Celtic twilight days of worshipping the ancestors and their relics.
Everything else they hauled across Atlantic
Scattered and lost in the buffalo plains
Among these trees and mountains
From Duns Scotus to this page
A thousand years
After this broken field run through his thoughts Whalen tries to find out why he’s having these sensations. The causes are manifold, various and familial. Given his ancestors’ Shanty Irish roots—(Whalen once told me that a relative had been hung in the south for some crime but not killed, and then the venerable ancestor “failed his way across America”)—there is something remarkable about the miracle of his being there as a writer and intellectual which he counts also as a triumph. He gauges how much of a triumph over early American social class warfare (re: the Irish Need Not Apply job signs of institutionalized 19th Century American racism) by quoting Samuel Johnson’s demeaning sexist comment on the occasion of women writing and reading, implying that this would easily have been applied to his social class and Irish immigrants.
(“ . . . a dog walking on his hind legs—
not that he does it well but that he
does it at all.”)
Whalen moves on with his usual sharp wit to considering the sexual politics under our Democratic ideals with its myth of our classless society and what that notion describes for individual citizens.
Virtually a blank except for the hypothesis
That there is more to a man
Than the contents of his jock-strap
The word “hypothesis” is delicately chosen with the relish of a Jonathan Swift satire. Not that any framers of our Constitution bothered to inquire about the bestial mob that so frightened them. Rather than linger on our Republic’s founding fathers’ hopes and nightmares about a faceless mob for a populace, Whalen moves on to a Greek philosopher’s notion of how our lives are lived and contrasts his take with what the study of rocks and fossils might bring to that Socratic discussion. With his usual humor he inserts a cautionary note for any dinosaur ghosts who might be listening in.
EMPEDOCLES: “At one time all the limbs
Which are the body’s portion are brought together
By Love in blooming life’s high season; at another
Severed by cruel Strife, they wander each alone
By the breakers of life’s sea.”
Fire and pressure from the sun bear down
Bear down centipede shadow of palm-frond
A limestone lithograph − oysters and clams of stone
Half a black rock bomb displaying brilliant crystals
Fire and pressure Love and Strife bear down
Brontosaurus, look away
Whalen’s gaze goes outward to the present moment and he notices that he’s contributing his little bit to the aging of lapidary thrones via his body’s waste product’s obedience to gravity.
My sweat runs down the rock
HERACLITUS: “The transformations of fire
are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea
is earth, half whirlwind . . . .
It scatters and it gathers; it advances
I move out of a sweaty pool
And sit up higher on the rock
The metamorphosis of Whalen’s thought returns him to his reading for more fuel but again his present moment intrudes, not without rhyming the Greek’s vision of water’s motions. The notion of fire reminds him that he is there as a fire lookout, and so he leaves his book to look around and ask the proper question for a man of his position.
Is anything burning?
But only the day is hot and once that duty is done after an implied scan of the horizon for smoke, he returns to meditate on geological time and the meaning of passing time and its products and how they got that way.
The sun itself! Dying
Pooping out, exhausted
Having produced brontosaurus, Heraclitus
This rock, me,
To no purpose
I tell you anyway (as a kind of loving) . . .
Flies & other insects come from miles around
To listen I also address the rock, the heather,
The alpine fir
BUDDHA: “All the constituents of being are
Transitory: Work out your salvation with diligence.”
(And everything, as one eminent disciple of that master
Pointed out, has been tediously complex ever since.)
So there are no easy answers for sagacity or enlightenment, but Whalen has an inspired moment and asks the immediate surroundings to listen to his version of why he has to comment on these random objects and events without apparent purpose; why he has to assume the Whitmanesque pose of lecturer to the supposedly inanimate, inchoate and fossilized past. This segues into some Buddhist history and Whalen’s hilariously irritated rejoinder about the problems of applying such vatic pronouncements to life. The ontology of the present moment attracts his attention next; thus creating a need to rehearse how certain birds evolved into social nuisances in cities and into dead meat in certain shop windows.
There was a bird
Lived in an egg
And by ingenious chemistry
Wrought molecules of albumen
To beak and eye
Gizzard and craw
Feather and claw
My grandmother said:
“Look at them poor bed-
And the sign in McAlister Street:
“IF YOU CAN’T COME IN
SMILE AS YOU GO BY
But do we love the butcher? Can we? And smile at his butchery? Perhaps. When hungry the destruction he wreaks keeps us alive. Having dealt with the food chain and its rewards and ironies, Whalen’s mind returns to the first causes of Greek philosophy, and how those got transformed into poetry—again Whalen sounds like Yeats’ famous query about how do we tell the dancer from the dance—as he creates some dichotomies.
I destroy myself, the universe (an egg)
And time − to get an answer:
There are a smiler, a sleeper and a dancer
We repeat our conversation in the glittering dark
Floating beside the sleeper.
The child remarks, “You knew it all the time.”
I: “I keep forgetting that the smiler is
Sleeping; the sleeper, dancing.”
The interchangeable elements of this dream (or vision of ecstasy), with its floating bodies and its generic child with its own wisdom, seems to beckon Whalen to morph into a fluid state of perpetual painless shape-shifting.
From this disembodied dream, he abruptly returns to the here and now of being a lookout, remembering his past glass houses on peaks and their views. This leads him to more considerations about exactly how this place may be described and known.
From Sauk Lookout two years before
Some of the view was down the Skagit
To Puget Sound: From above the lower ranges,
Deep in forest-lighthouses on clear nights.
This year’s rock is a spur from the main range
Cuts the valley in two and is broken
By the river; Ross Dam repairs the break,
Makes trolley buses run
Through the streets of dim Seattle far away.
I’m surrounded by mountains here
A circle of 108 beads, originally seeds
of ficus religiosa Bo-
A circle, continuous, one odd bead
Larger than the rest and bearing
A tassel (hair-tuft) (the man who sat
under the tree)
In the center of the circle,
A void, an empty figure containing
All that’s multiplied;
Each bead a repetition, a world
Of ignorance and sleep.
A meditation on the mountaintops ringing his lookout allows him to see them as beads on a bracelet and that shifts into meditations on Whalen’s mala, his Buddhist prayer beads. From that circular object arises the Buddhist notion that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. That phrase comes from the Prajnaparamita sutra’s teaching on the void. Out of that teaching comes the notion that all events have a repetitive nature, shifting between these two states of emptiness or form (or both occupying both). As Whalen later wrote in his poem Mahayana, “Samsara and Nirvana are one”.
But his stay as a fire lookout is nearly over, and he announces it with an improvisation off an old folk saying.
Today is the day the goose gets cooked
Day of liberation for the crumbling flower
Knobcone pinecone in the flames
Brandy in the sun
Which, as I said, will disappear
Anyway it’ll be invisible soon
Exchanging places with stars now in my head
To be growing rice in China through the night.
Magnetic storms across the solar plains
Make Aurora Borealis shimmy bright
Beyond the mountains to the north.
Closing the lookout in the morning
Thick ice on the shutters
Coyote almost whistling on a nearby ridge
The mountain is THERE (between two lakes)
I brought back a piece of its rock
Heavy dark-honey color
With a seam of crystal, some of the quartz
Stained by its matrix
A shift from opacity to brilliance
(The Zenbos say, “Lightning-flash & flint-spark”)
Like the mountains where it was made
Through a series of jumpcuts and flash-forwards, Whalen’s nerve movie proceeds toward its simultaneous ends. He closes the wooden shutters on the lookout and they instantly ice up from the cold wind while instantaneously he is already down the trail, looking back at the mountain where he spent the summer. The Sourdough Mountain rock souvenir’s seams of crystal and quartz remind him of where he’s been and also of a Zen metaphor for the moment of enlightenment. That metaphor shifts him back to the central tenet of Buddhism, the impermanence of the material and mental aspects.
What we see of the world is the mind’s
Invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies
Can shift instantly
A dirty bird in a square time
Into the cool
In earlier versions of this poem Whalen quoted the end of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha!” (O Bodhi, gone, gone gone to the other shore, landed at the other shore, Svaha!) but then substituted his own colloquial and hipster version above. Now at the bottom of the trail to the mountain he closes the poem with a contradiction that he’s still on the mountain, which may be seen as an assertion that he now exists inside the Buddhist metaphor of the mountain top as a perpetual place for enlightenment: once there always there.
Like they say, “Four times up,
Three times down.” I’m still on the mountain.
Keith Kumasen Abbott is currently working on organizing his literary and art archive. A new French edition of his Brautigan memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America will be published by Éditions Cambourakis.
New To The Society’s Shelves:
Gerald Nicosia, Night Train To Shanghai (Grizzly Peak Press, 2014)
Alice Notley, Negativity’s Kiss (PURH, 2014)
William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Vol. II (New Directions, 2001)
John Yau, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012)
Zong-Qi Cai, editor, How To Read Chinese Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2008)
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