IN THE BLACK
by Pat Nolan
Bob Kaufman, The Collected Poem of Bob Kaufman, City Lights Books, 2019
Upfromsumdirt, Deifying A Total Darkness, Harry Tankoos Books, 2020
John Keene. Punks, Selected Poems, The Song Cave, 2021
Will Alexander, Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) City Lights Pocket Poets Series #63, 2022
There are numerous ways to navigate the tangle of a National literature dependent on diverse regional voices and make one’s bones as a poet. Among them, legitimacy in the trappings of the academy where the poet is sanctioned by peer prizes and institutional chairs in prestigious cultural zoos. On the other hand, native inspiration is at the source of poetry’s role in the earliest emergence of language, an ineffable lexical glimmer grasped as analogy, and is available to everyone regardless of any academic affiliation. At its roots, poetry was always an engagement with the quotidian, perceptual epiphanies elevated above the dreary red dust of existence. The poet’s role was to recognize in the diurnal that which could be held up for praise or viewed in alarm, often guised as the truth speaking eccentric. Knowledge of words themselves, malleable, magical, possessed of an elusive power, can transmute the most leaden notion into gold, opening the way to verbal innovation of a greater complexity.
It is a poet’s task to contest a prevalent privileging bourgeois mentality, the urge to gentrify the authentic, make it fit the overall décor of colonized culture. Glossy, commercial, unimaginative, derivative, prepackage verse (Cf. The New Yorker) litter the shoulders of the career path. The self-solemn agenda of virtue signaling canonizes social climbing, hitch your wagon to someone’s star careerism of a partisan saccharine servility. Here the distinction must be made between the court poet, as Robert Graves would have it, whose function is ceremonial and attendant to social hierarchy, and the “goddess poet” channeling inspiration directly from the psyche, uncensored by the stipulations of an irrelevant metric.
The academy has destroyed the field with its insistence on technique, inbred jargon, and self-promotion which serves as a model of exchange among the overeducated clones to make up for their complete lack of imagination. The cult of exclusion is typical of the litmus test mentality of know nothing wannabe know-it-alls, guardians at the velvet rope. Legitimacy should never be in question yet it is always used to posit the supremacy of exclusivity in a fraudulent pyramid scheme of hierarchal dominance.
Poetry has lost its voice as song, as celebration, and now functions only as self-aggrandizing polemical sentiment and critique. The cerebrations of the page can go no further without the lift (and lilt) of the tongue. Yet the intellect cannot be overlooked nor can the need to display it in a cultured context. It is the mind moving, as Philip Whalen has said, the intellect, the flag indicating inspiration’s speed and direction.
In this context, Americans poets of African descent contribute a uniqueness that challenges the conventions of the imperial canon, partly sub voce, in ways similar to bilingual code switching, allowing them to speak with persuasive brilliance past the privileging control of a dynastic Anglo literature. These poets have an ear for the music that makes language attractive.
John Keene, MacArthur Fellow, and Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University, received a National Book Award in 2021 for a selection of his poetry titled Punks published by The Song Cave, an independent publisher “dedicated to recovering a lost sensibility and creating a new one.” The poems in John Keene’s Punks reinforce an idea that romanticism is incurable and particularly virulent among gay men. Most men, poets in particular, will recognize themselves in these poems. The selection offers a checklist of the modern intricacies of the form as practiced by various schools of the faddishly adept and socially ambitious. The poems are familiar in their studied nonchalance, marginally adventurous in an au courant post writing workshop context. The work mirrors a style that is legal tender among the daring and darling of a certain literary strata, not without an unerring accuracy in emphasizing its strengths but at the same time highlighting a weaknesses that verges on pastiche.
Keene tunes into the American canon’s conundrum in “A Report On The ‘What’s American About American Poetry’ Conference At The New School” and establishes his cred by presenting, as synopsis of the symposium, a montage of attitudes and challenges faced by marginalized writers in the US. The poem does not commit to any resolution other than what is already obvious: that it is a mixed bag still heavily under the influential thumb of the imperial glot. In Punks there are hints of various styles that run the gamut from 70’s minimalism, conceptualism, prose as poem, the cosmopolitanism of O’Hara and Ashbery to appropriation, erasure, and cutting edge biopoetics.
Keene has been acclaimed as “one of the preeminent writers of experimental literature in English” offering a “choice between confessional lyric or Language-style parataxis.” Unfortunately, experimental poetry in the contemporary American catalog is experimental mostly on the surface. It is an artifact in search of meaning or of abstracted nuance, something made up, constructed by confusion and deconstructed as abdicated voice. Experimental poetry (xpo?) is lost in a forest of latent intent. No matter the muddle, it must have “meaning,” and one sanctioned by the flagships of Anglo American literary hegemony–the greatest threat to the American canon is in the colonized institutions of “higher learning.” For poetry to be truly experimental, it will have to own up to its meaninglessness and acknowledge that it is not merely ink on a page or pixels on a screen but an aperture, a portal into associated consciousness.
Not as an afterthought but certainly to the point, Keene is a poet who is black and homosexual which imparts to his poetry an aura of pride as well as confessionalism. The Song Cave’s presentation of Keene’s Punks pays close attention to the artful distinctions of how a prestigious selection of poems is presented. Otherwise, Keene toes the acceptable line with learned virtuosity, fully deserving of the plaudits of his peers no matter the consequence or the compromise.
American writers of African descent remind readers of the distinctiveness of their platform in the face of the racist apartheid of the system, that, in spite of the effort to relegate and segregate with tokenism, their exceptional attainments are due the respect of their mastery within the context of American and, indeed, World literature, and that those of exemplary achievement be held up as models of their cultural genius.
Bob Kaufman will be remembered as a “Beat” poet although that is a wide and not very discriminating brush that paints a large swath of writers in the post-War era as radicals and outliers. He was also celebrated in France as the “Black Rimbaud,” and represents a polar opposite to Keene. The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell, with an introduction by devorah major, offers a cogent overview of the poet’s life and work, collecting his three books, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, New Directions, 1965, Golden Sardines, City Lights Pocket Poets Series Number 21, 1967, and The Ancient Rain, Poems 1956-1978, selected by Raymond Foye, New Directions, 1981 as well as miscellany of uncollected poetry. A chronology and photo gallery introduces the poetry and offers a visual and historical ground upon which to view the man and his work.
Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925 and died in San Francisco in 1986. Kaufman’s early years as a merchant seaman afforded him an invaluable education and set his political orientation for the rest of his life. Long voyages on merchant ships were the ideal heuristic university where the mess hall, cargo holds, and sleeping compartments were hotbeds of political radicalism and the months at sea were occupied not only playing tonk or whist but in vociferous dialectic decrying the oppression and exploitation of the working class. Merchant seamen, for the most part, were not an uneducated rabble. Many were self-educated intellectual outliers grounded in a proletarian stance, independent thinkers isolated by their radical views and under active government suspicion and suppression in the post war years. Kaufman’s activism in the maritime seaman’s union brought him to the attention of the FBI resulting in his mariner’s credentials being revoked. San Francisco became his home base in the early Fifties. In the gallery of pictures, a 1959 Kaufman appears almost angelic as a handsome young poet. By the time of Chris Felver’s 1982 photo portrait, he is the primordial poet drenched by an ancient rain.
The text of Bob Kaufman’s “OCT. 5TH. 1963” (ostensibly a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle) begins
Arriving back in San Francisco to be greeted by a blacklist and eviction, I am writing these lines to the responsible non-people. One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else bearable.
Kaufman then proceeds to riff off the theme of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a Brit flick from 1962 about disaffected youth. And as a jazz musician might do with a standard like “How High The Moon” or “All The Things That You Are,” he inflects it with his own brand of wordplay. “Why are all blacklists white?” is the rhetorical inquiry. And, as in jazz, there is improvisation: “the colors of an earthquake are black, brown & beige, on the Ellington scale, such sweet thunder, there is a silent beat in between the drums.”
Kaufman’s poems are displays in an historical context of an authentic wilderness of untouched axons and dendrites interacting in the cerebral preserve. All proclaimed poets should be so lucky. One of his most well-known texts is the “Abomunist Manifesto” from Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, a satirical parody undercutting the redbaiting paranoia of the Fifties & early Sixties. His all caps poems predate the assumption of shouting of a future social media: upper case, lower case, what did it matter if the poet/poem is egalitarian and/or too much in the throes of inspiration to unlock the caps key.
Magical, not necessarily literary, Kaufman was always an ancient shaman with an unpretentious directness whose mode was most effective as poetry. There are no socio-academic aspirations other than revolution in his inventive irreverent plain speech, for to speak playfully is to speak freely and for its own pleasure. Poetry should clean (renew) the ear like the babble of brooks. Negation and reversal is a rhetorical formula that can be hit or miss, but in Kaufman’s barrage of assertions and declarations, the intent overrides the content as a concentration of uncannily prescient and perceptive shots popping the balloon of illusion promoted by the Man. His slings and arrows are aimed at subverting the desperate authoritarianism of commie paranoia similar in cant to the editorial barbs launched by political satirists of that era (Mort Sahl), and anticipate the emergence of standup coffee house pundits (George Carlin) sharing a revolutionary passion on the dais with poets such as Kaufman.
The poems in Golden Sardine are rife with aphoristic sound bite riffs, rants, and goofs. It is for others to make serious the playfulness of the untamed spirit. “I put my eyes on a diet, my tears are gaining too much weight” he says in “Heavy Water Blues.” The tang of irony is of a less desperate jouissance.
“Michelangelo” The Elder
I live alone, like pith in a tree,
My teeth rattle, like musical instruments.
In one ear a spider spins its web of eyes,
In the other a cricket chirps all night.
This is the end,
Which art, that proves my glory has brought me,
I would die for Poetry.
—from Golden Sardine
Kaufman’s rhythms are of jazz, a free jazz following melodious leads, and share the incantatory of accompanied spoken texts, street corner signifying that has come to be associated with stream of consciousness improvisation, Beat poets, and the inspired—the kind of poem accompanied by a rhythm section or a solo saxophone couched in the hip lexicon of Lester Young and Lord Buckley. His poetry might also be categorized as a classical Surrealism of the kind practiced by Philippe Soupault, Robert Desnos, and Benjiman Peret. Their oneiric non sequitur juxtapositions, the sustained crescendo of outrageously shocking declarations of which Ferlinghetti, Kaufman’s publisher, was quite familiar with, and recognized in his poetry. His writing is consistently surprising, jolts of playful wisdom poking the reader in the eye. He Incants the delusion of a collective fever, expelling and naming what ails us. These are not literary constructs but live wire communications. Yet Bob Kaufman is still considered a naïf by some and for the struggle, that may not be enough compared to Baraka and his brother fire breathers.
Ironically, Kaufman’s two most significant books, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness and Golden Sardines were published during the years of his vowed silence after the Kennedy assassination, a silence that lasted for ten years. The last years of Bob Kaufman’s life were peripatetic. The chronology is sparse toward the end. It does not reflect that in 1983 he lived briefly in Black Bart country along the lower Russian River, published in Life Of Crime, the newsletter of the original Black Bart Poetry Society, and in May of that year, read, along with Joanne Kyger, Alan Bernheimer, Alastair Johnston, Andrei Codrescu, and Darrel Gray at the On Broadway in San Francisco, at a benefit for the Poetry Society hosted by Pat Nolan and Steven Lavoie. Bob once stated, echoing Pushkin, “I wish to be forgotten.” That doesn’t seem likely.
Will Alexander comes across as an innovative presence with a 2022 selection of poems, Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane). Alexander, by his own admission, is a Surrealist of the revolutionary persuasion espoused by Aimé Césaire. In his poetry, the ear is at play in the field of the muse as a Latinate soundscape of oratory. As a postmodern argot, the multi-syllabic utterances of his poems fill the mouth like the pebbles of Democritus. Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane), published in the Pocket Poets Series by City Lights, is a master class on what makes Alexander’s work so unique. He is one of those well-known authors who suffers from regional myopia aka “not NYC.” Recognition for Alexander, a lifelong Angeleno, has finally arrived even though he has published in literary magazines and by independent presses since the mid-eighties. It is among publishers associated with a nominal avant-garde such as City Lights and New Directions that Alexander, like Bob Kaufman, has found an appreciative venue. City Lights published an earlier selection, Compression & Purity, in 2011. Refractive Africa, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2022, was published by New Directions in 2021.
Alliterative polyrhythms drive the pace of a poetry replete with the archaic, the formal, and the technical. The improvised juxtapositions provide the ontological surprises. Alexander shoulders some heavy intellectual timber in his associations, fusing in discord distinct lexical polarities. There is an implied oppression that marginalizes the ornate, the hyperbolic, and the arabesque in the Anglo-American cano. His poems, mosaics couched in the innocuities of stipulated language, are weaves of an intricate fabric of proclaimed relationships that resonate from within, down to their philological roots.
“Divine Blue Lights: Sudden Ungraspable Nomadics,” the core poem of this 2022 selection, is a praise song to John Coltrane, the immortal saxophonist. The reflex that rolls out music as meaning, “not simply shrill supplications as noise/ but spectral realms of themselves” abides here. The poem’s functions is that of a panegyric in its tone and movement, a praise song in the ancient style capturing the raptures and interpreting the music as words of a similar vocal volatility. It parallels a musicianship of choruses and invention. With an Intensity and intricacy, kaleidoscopic turns of lines are rebreathed, the tempo determined by chorded phrasing. Anyone who has listened to Coltrane, really listened to Coltrane, will nod their head in affirmation.
There are few delicate melodies in this selection of poems. The prevailing sentiment addresses an underlying earnestness and sobriety, not the decadent self-referential frippery of a privileged world. Some discordance can occasion re-listening/ rereading to catch certain off key resonances as revealing a playful virtuosity. The formality of address delineates, sometimes purposefully strident in its percussiveness, a cacophony of layered connotation and sonic overlap. As for meaning, Alexander has constructed Escher-esque literary mazes with lexical trapdoors and resonant secret passageways. His use of language places the poem in an enigmatic dimension occupied by abstract modules, a fractal pointillism in which meaning unfolds and refolds with the complexity of an organism.
To address Alexander’s claim to Surrealism, it is necessary to remember that surrealism was the revolution before it was coopted and became the purview of poseurs. Recall also that “surreal” has become a catchphrase denoting anything out of the ordinary or unusual but certainly not revolutionary in the sense that experience becomes enhanced by an ultra-reality focused on an entirely new way of perceiving. Surrealism is a worldwide art movement, the first of its kind, meant to effect a revolution that would override prevailing esthetic assumptions. Revolution is an evident quality in Alexander’s multilayered arguments and exhortations. His work sources the broader theoretical reaches of a universal esthetic, actively participant in the innovative and “experimental.”
A putative manifesto, “Language: Replete With Transformative Monsters,” opens by foreshadowing a parallelism that determines the rhythm of its semantic intent and keeps the poem moving toward the reckoning crescendo. The polysyllabic staccato as counterpoint lays down a complex and multilayered pattern and patter.
as scaled erisma
as amplification that burns
& activates its own neter or principle
that blazes via written skill or utterance
& sonically blinds with its own display
Semantic formulae drive rhetorical points home in poetic ostinato: “as” or its negation, “sans” enforcing cadence and rhythm —“as” being the ride cymbal of equivalence. “it multiplies & insults the stillness of precursive rational stillness,” Iteration and reiteration creates depth of language and inherent equivocality as multidirectional transformative potential. The intricate texture of the poems’ semantic surfaces and the percussive pulse of their voicing results in meaning that exists as a pattern of lexical illusion, indeterminacy, and the intentional unintentional.
Alexander’s lyric excursions often occupy multiple pages in their thematic development, incorporating a variety of cognitive angles and extended improvisation in the creation of sound waves of vocabulary. Yet his innate sense of language, a combination of spare precision and joyful ambiguity, is encapsulated in this minimalist distillation.
Under Corporate Worship
being elliptically feigned
Beyond the surface meaning(s), the imbedded orality of phonetic sequence captures the beat of the mind at play deep in conversation with itself.
Deifying A Total Darkness by Lexington, Kentucky based poet and artist Upfromsumdirt introduces a compelling vernacular voice as one of a group of African American originals in the shadow of Appalachia known collectively as Affrilachians.
The cover of Upfromsumdirt’s Deifying A Total Darkness depicts the figure of a black man in a tilted blue ballcap, red jersey, sword in one hand, holding up a signifying finger, blue sneakered foot on the neck of a tawny lion with a severed paw. A black faced sun shines down on the scene. The woodcut illustration by the author, a talented artist as well as poet, is embossed into the thick paper stock of the cover. There are definitely old school book design and production values in the presentation of this 109 pages of poetry that, along with the colophon caboose, are reminiscent of the refinements of craft printing of a predigital publishing era. The unusual font choices give the texts an unaffected handcrafted appearance, subtle touches denote attention to the details of fine art book making. In an age of slick print-on-demand publications, this volume stands out as authentic.
A confident self-possession and ranging imagination informs the poems with a wry wisdom firmly anchored in the now. Their barbed intelligence hooks the attention and a garrulous energy engages the reader to affirm and reaffirm like minds on the nuances of culture and the arts, features that can be indicated as meaningful as well as whimsical in the merge of sentience of waking days. The American experience, particularly that of a black man in an antagonistic white world, gets a creative embellishment through celebrations of African roots in mythology, cultural American blackness, and the popular accessories (properly disparaged) that adorn a consumer society, i.e., the world we have all bought into.
“A cultural critic who writes philosophy history mythology and anarchy through prose and calls it poetry” reads Ronald Davis’ social-media bio-blurb from a decade ago, before he settled into writing as Upfromsumdirt. His poetry does not stay strictly within the lines of the literary but appropriates what’s available, what’s handy, what’s most likely to get the point across as journal entries, stage direction, documentation, proclamation, self-mythologizing verse, and magic spells among other assorted forms of artifice. His cross referential range and delight in detail might be considered scholarly by some, or “nerdish,” but in a good way, as nerd in this instance is simply someone with a passion for particulars who would like nothing better than sharing that passion, that of a wide and relevant cultural erudition that covers everything from the arcane of Africa to the popular accents of music and entertainment. As a visual artist, Upfromsumdirt has a sense of proportion and how it sits in the visual cortex, how words can depict with the direct economy of oratory. His poetry embodies the vernacular tradition. Some of the greatest poetry in the Western canon was sourced from the vernacular in the shadow of the imperial tongue. The importance of the colloquial, in its true sense, is not lost on black writers in the US.
Contemporary American poetry lacks imagination. There is too much of the workshop exercise, checking the appropriate boxes, with originality in the grip of political rigidity, and not enough joyful participation in the vagaries of the every day. What is called for is an artistic jouissance: carefree, skewed, shrewd, witty, a poetry committed to dropping the masquerade of the literary and just being and meaning itself.
“In Deifying A Total Blackness” the poem that titles this poetry selection begins “there is an absence of light on the dark side of the moon/that lacks mystery once it’s been googled” locating in space time our era. “i feel an extemporaneous cancer closing in; I wonder/ if illness, in its wildest dream, will cite a romance/ in our destruction. will malignancy beatbox in couplets?” soars as irrevocable song later in the poem as “our lust for lumens is a sacred art for there is no nasdaq for/ the dark and the damp. no prize money for our sweaty sloe.” A play of words of a higher order occupies the poem as a continual affirmation of the mutability of language and how it is processed by the auditory cortex in metrics of a persuasive rhythm, building to a poignant finale: “as soft as it caliginous/ its umbra cast in marble.”
The table of contents clues the audacity of the titled poems within. “Meth Lab At The Lollipop Guild,” a putative list of which number 14 is “scene 1: at last: AWP / and how many poets does it take/ to ekphrasis a lightbulb? A commercial break begins in 8 seconds/ and then we pedagogy in plain sight / ‘slowly he turned step by step’” is certain to release a Niagara Falls of relevant associations. As will “Just Put Your Lips Together And Blow” call up images of Becky Bacall and Bogie in the film version of Hemingway’s To Have And To Have Not. And the slanted punning in the title “Caul & Response,” a nod perhaps to Coppola’s The Conversation, where the poet (his I as another) “was born to have voodoo doo wop through poetry/ where culturally broken words chisel a façade” and “language is a lawn chair for the living dead.” There is trickster magic in these poems, a giddy snickering in the shadows at the white man’s folly, having the last laugh in the laughing place of poetry.
“Cul De Sac Safari” comes off as a mocking signifying standup routine with the vocabulary weight of literature. For all the joy and joking throughout, Upfromsumdirt breathes fire in a cautionary tale of travel in the arctic suburban wastes and how to interact with the natives and their police state. “DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR VEHICLE” is useful advice from the field notes to surviving such a safari through a joyless jungle of assumptions and prejudice. As is “keep your hands inside the ride at all times.” Items to carry in backpacks as swaps or bribes include brie, “any vonnegut/ most bukowski the beatles (white album).” And places to avoid: “but most importantly/ stay out of florida, // arizona, much of/ the deep south, most /of the upper north. . .” and “if you safari// in one of those lands, / then let a loved one know/ far in advance.”
“After The Electro-Magnetic Pulse Has Failed To Kill Us” is a philo-prophetic post-apocalyptic sci-fi poem with a Sun Ra score. A sonic nod to Shelley, “Bysshe, Please,” vibrates on a number of frequencies: “My hope was to write a sonnet wet enough to drown you.” “Crissy, From The Creek,” an avowal of love poem in the post-classical manner. “Black Poet Persona” is a poem with footnotes such as #5 “hello 9-1-1? There’s a black man with/a threatening smile & informal prose/in my poetry journal.” In “Help Me Get The Body In The Trunk” is one of those “poems that resonate with my daddy’s gruff guffaw & mama’s/hymnal hum; life-songs, love-songs, rap-songs, sonnets; dirges//that excrete rainbow where the black embrace is thickest.” “To Have The Wish I Wish Tonight,” a poem of fifth, begins “to float as pollen above the hive.” In the frequent punning in appreciation of language’s double faced ambiguity the poems delight as lyrically inventive swift flights of fancy that stop for no one, headlong into a multilayered word salad with a purity of intent that is the hallmark of American genius.
The extended narratives of “Time Unraveller’s Travel Journal” and “Protoplasmic Phrenology” an extended bio blurb as a propoetic text, round out and reiterate the themes of Deifying A Total Darkness. The legitimate righteous lament and complaint, the sense of a humanistic betrayal visited upon a population is palpable. To read the Time Unraveller’s entries is some bitter truth medicine. There is no denying it. A truth for all to admit if there is to be a pan-racial utopia (if one buys into that taxonomic fallacy) or preferably a reconciled accord recognizing our unique origins as a relatedness that spans epochs in the development of a common species.
A Small Poem To Let You Know The End Is Near
enjoy the stillness, this serene
comfort where thick, luscious
moss grows over the scars on
our backs; wounds of which
are now a modern currency.
It is difficult to be objective when only superlatives come calling. What is particularly exciting about this selection of poems is its accessibility and vibrant invention. Throughout there is a humor and humanity tagging base, and getting home free. The poems ride the somber urgent vernacular of a convincing orator, a persuasive tone that argues to the ear. Their intensity is not lacking, The truth is testified to in these poems, brutal af, yet with cold coiled wit, astute in its naming of the American malaise. The message is loud and clear, “We ain’t going nowhere.” The American canon thrives in the rich loam of this fertile albeit volatile soil. It is from poets like Upfromsundirt that it will realize its genius.*
*Unsolicited promotion: Wayne State University Press will be publishing a selection of poems by Upfromsumdirt titled The Second Stop Is Jupiter in September of 2023; pre-orders are encouraged.
Pictured, Bob Kaufman being interviewed by Pat Nolan on the occasion of the first (& only) benefit for the original Black Bart Poetry Society and its newsletter, Life Of Crime, at the On Broadway in San Francisco in May of 1983. Photo: Maureen Hurley
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