Joanne Kyger: The Interview

Andrew Schilling

Interview: Joanne Kyger

The following interview took place in August and September, 2011, by email. Joanne Kyger was in Bolinas, California, and Andrew Schelling in Boulder, Colorado. The reference to Peter Berg (1937-2011) in the interview was occasioned by a series of memorials. One of the foundational activists and writers on bioregionalism & watershed awareness, Berg founded the Planet Drum Foundation. He died on July 28. The exchange late in the interview on Pai-chang and the fox is a reference to Case 2 in the Zen koan collection Mumonkan: various translations are available.
                                                                        —A.S.


Andrew Schilling: In your poetry you allow entry to animals—or I could say, ‘the animal realm’— more than any other poet I know. Animals and birds are familiars, though they are generally not domestic animals, and you do not use them as symbols or emblems. Deer, skunk, jay, hummingbird, and dozens of others including mice in the house and offshore mammals show up, and you often address them as people. One of your books, Up My Coast, is a poetic and projectivist recounting of tales collected by the unusual ethnographer and doctor, C. Hart Merriam. Those tales depict a time before the present world got established, when people were animals or animals people.

            First, there were the First People
And the First People changed
into trees, plants, rocks, stars, hail and
Animals
and then Animals made Our People.

JK UpMyJoanne Kyger: UP MY COAST was an attempt to write the history of part of this coast—’pre-invasion’. I am fascinated by the First People, a way of speaking of ancient history.  An animistic path. Where finally Animals create the people we are familiar with.

AS: How far back does this sensibility reach for you? Did the natural world engage you as child? Were animal stories part of your consciousness growing up? I wonder if either of your parents told you animal story-cycles. You might also say a word about why your selection of tales, which you made into poems, was distinctively Californian.

JK: I read the usual books as a child—for example the Dr Doolittle books, where animals were able to talk, the Oz books where animals and humans conversed and had adventures together. I grew up with the Brownies and Girl Scouts who always engaged in outdoor activities, camps etc. Bird and tree identification were always of interest. From the ages of 6-10, I lived along the shores of Lake Michigan and found real magic and excitement in seasonal changes, the arrival of spring wild flowers—ordinary  things but so different from the California life I knew. Then, of course the Greek Myths in their simple Edith Hamilton retelling introduced the wonderful notion that birds could be harbingers of events  to come.  And that the ‘gods’ were many and often able to turn into an animal of choice.

C.Hart. Merriam’s book, THE DAWN OF THE WORLD. Myths and Weird Tales Told by the Mewan Indians of California, published in 1910, was my source for ‘Up My Coast”—my adaptation of Coast Miwok people’s creation stories. Coast Miwok territory included all of Marin County, where I live,  up to Bodega Bay in Sonoma County where I lived before I moved here.  I felt I needed to find a history of this area pre-‘conquest’.   The stories, parts that remain from  larger cycles of oral-tradition stories told only in the winter time rainy season, are the remaining history that I could find of the local people, who lived here before there was any such thing as ‘California’.  I always appreciated the fact that the Coast Miwok tribes have Coyote Man, the creator, coming to this shore by crossing the Pacific on a raft.  The Bering Strait theory proposed by anthropologists who were unacquainted with celestial navigation always seemed very pat—that all ‘aboriginal’ peoples crossed the land bridge and walked all the way down to Oaxaca! for example.

AS: Some of your poet friends—surely Lew Welch, and to some extent Gary Snyder—appear to be in search of (or have found) medicine animals. Welch’s poem “Song of Tamalpais,” with its wheeling turkey vultures is a good example. You could use that poem as an example of the search for spirit animals that Jaime de Angulo has written of so often—in Pit River or Achumawi the term would be dama’agome: medicine animal or spirit power. This might be treading too close to something deeply personal, but do you have a spirit helper?

JK: I took peyote several times and in February of 1959,  I had a quite unpleasant experience of massed black energy intercut with animal faces.  The fact I was taking this trip in my apartment, which was over a bar in North Beach, and was not feeling well added to a very unstable sense of ‘reality’.  I gave an animal name to this energy, hoping to focus it. A wild animal, which I noted whenever I saw it mentioned.   For years I was afraid of stepping over some edge into a loss of self, or a schizophrenic duality.  Living in Japan and seeing the guardian warriors outside temples, with fierce expressions,  I finally realized that these were protectors.  If they scared you off, then you could be spooked easily, and didn’t have enough courage or self-knowledge to enter into the Buddha hall.  I think I was fearful of the energy of the ‘animal’ self, whatever I thought that was.

In 1967 I met Carlos Castenada and Michael Harner at Don Allen’s one evening.  I remember telling Castenada of this experience—seeing the demonic as a protector guardian energy—and him nodding his head wisely.  Later I read his first book on the experiences with ‘Don Juan’ with amazement and some degree of familiarity.

I was raised with phrases like, ‘don’t act like an animal’, ‘you have manners like an animal’—one should rid themselves of ‘animal’ nature—which was a debased sensibility towards the nonhuman world.  Understanding that one does not have to ‘suppress’ one’s animal nature in order to be civilized, is something I gained while living a less  urban life, one in which there was no ‘cut-off’ between human and non-human life. We shared the same air and small territory together.

AS: When I read your poetry, the first entry I find is to a deeply animistic world. There are also numerous references to figures from the Buddhist pantheon, and a wry approach to impermanence. Under those more surface-level aspects of the poem, I find a signal approach to the world—ahimsa or non-harming—to do as little harm as possible to any creature. In your poems the doors and windows of your house often let in small critters, and one image I keep replaying is either you or Donald freeing some animal caught in the human house. Can you draw a line from the animist sensibility to the Buddhist?

JK: I’m not a big fan of letting critters live in the same room with me.  And at this point I don’t really care for ‘pets’—which has become for many the link between the human and the animal world—and in which wildness and freedom have been ‘domesticated’ away.  One is ‘using’ an animal companion in a relationship of dependence and, often, emotional superiority.

Buddhist sensibility, as far as I understand it, has us all interconnected in a non-hierarchical lineage.  It’s okay to be born a worm. That’s why one is respectful to the worm as it turns through the compost.

AS: Do you study up much on the non-human orders? use field guides? learn about your own watershed, or the drainage systems and eco-zones of other people?

JK: I was just reviewing again Peter Berg’s term ‘bioregionalism’—in which one informs oneself of all the aspects—historical, cultural, natural—of one’s ‘home’.  And of course, field guides are enormously handy and informative. So is just looking. That’s why I so appreciate the reality of the ‘First People’ who themselves turned into the sacred spots of the geography we experience today. In Japan, Shinto Shrines often encompass these spots. Two large old trees, tied together with a magical rope, indicate their history together, their marriage.

AS: Did you know Peter Berg personally? I’d also like to stretch the question a bit, and see if you could address the significance of bioregional thought—or practice—for your poetry.

JK: I met Peter Berg in the late 60s when he was part of the Digger organization in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury.  But I  especially remember him as being part of the Reinhabitory Theater in their recreation of Northern California coyote stories.  The theater did a cycle of stories in a canyon near Bolinas in May of 1977, and he was a memorable Lizard Man, who in his winning  argument with Coyote over how ‘man’ should be made, gave us five fingers ‘just like his own’ instead of paws.  This was, of course, a great gift to mankind.

Along with Raymond Dasmann, Peter also  produced a great and useful word—’bioregion’.  A way to designate natural, watershed boundaries as opposed to sharp political lines.  One became aware of the  authenticity of the local with it’s attendant history and natural multiplicities.  I became a detective of place, out of respect and an obligation to observe and inform myself of everything  I could of the land west of the coast range.

AS: I suppose if we want to regard bioregion not just as a collection of helpful thoughts, but as a practice, then the key term would be Berg’s notion of reinhabitation. Is that what you mean when you say you’ve become a detective of place? That this is a key practice for you? My own sense is that, for those of us who want to live according to the tenets of bioregional thought, the watershed world or our local ecology is coextensive with the spirit realm. Would you say this is close to your own perception?

And could you speak a bit to the region you investigate, “west of the coast range”? It is one of the richer areas in terms of biodiversity, and from pre-contact times until today has had about the greatest diversity of human languages & cultures in North America.

JK: If one thinks about the origins of the word ‘spirit’ coming from ‘spiritus’—breath or ‘spirare’—to breath—then one understands that in  a ‘bioregion’ we all share the same air. So yes, there is a ‘coexistence’ with the spirit realm.  We share the same arena of breathing existence. And being attentive to that interconnected net is when one becomes a ‘detective’ of place with all its history and animistic locations.

AS: I know you have made a long-standing practice of using notebooks or journals. Most of your poems of the past several decades are dated, which suggests a specific relationship to place and time. In a way this is exactly what naturalists do—birdwatchers, and mountaineers, and botanists. So the interest in the bioregion would link those other disciplined observers of the natural orders with the poet. Do you still write regularly in journals? Is it a daily practice or routine?

JK: I think of myself as keeping a ‘notebook’.  Writing notations, short observations, names, etc.Things I want to remember.  Often I think of the page as a ‘document’.  The date, time, and place putting it into an historic occasion—the first letter on a blank page, the note of the moment, unencumbered by a karmic dialogue, is a very pure act.

AS: Do you have a sense of journal writing being close to Buddhist practice? Many poets I can think of who draw on their journals for poetry seem to have ties to Buddhist discipline. Of your generation, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, yourself, Allen Ginsberg, have all published journals. And I know younger writers such as Shin Yu Pai have extended the sense of the journal to a disciplined blog-site.

JK: I think of notebook writing like a practice—I try and do it whether I have anything good or bad or interesting to say.  And the chronology becomes the narrative, a history of a writing ‘self’. It is such an open form, anything can be included, it’s very free.

AS: The one volume of journals you’ve published are The Japan & India Journals, which got retitled Strange Big Moon when North Atlantic Publishers reissued the book. Most of it was written while you lived in Japan. Were you aware at the time of the long rich tradition of nikki or journal writing as a genre there? Not only poets and literary women of the Heian Court like Murasaki Shikibuu, Sei Shonagon, and some who are still “anonymous”—but Buddhist nuns, and then later poets like Matsuo Basho—pushed the journal to a high level of literary accomplishment. How much did their example spur you on? Or was it more a question of poet friends?

seishonagongaJK: I didn’t become acquainted with Sei Shonagon and some of the ‘pillow book’ writers of Japan’s court until much after I had left Japan.  I had kept journals, diaries, etc since I was very young. It was a matter of deciding what exactly it was that I wanted to write down during my stay in Japan.   I was aware that both Whalen and Snyder kept daily journals.  And Ginsberg of course.  They gave it a sort of ‘literary permission’.  Like it was an authentic form in itself.

AS: Do you have journals other than The Japan & India Journals of the early sixties that you would consider editing and publishing?

JK: In 2007,  LO AND BEHOLD: HOUSEHOLD AND THRESHOLD ON CALIFORNIA’S NORTH COAST 1980-1992 was published.  It contains a culling from notebook entries for those years which make a kind of portrait of place, of a heightened sense of community. I found that to be a useful way to make a little history—taking incidents, phrases, ‘awakenings’, and keeping them in their ‘notational’  and chronological form.  And yes, I do think about doing more of that.  I have all my notebooks in the their somewhat disheveled and traveled forms, and whenever I open them there is usually a flash of memory and recognition.  I only wish I had written more down, but really that can become a dogged act.

AS: Let me ask about those “disheveled and traveled forms”—which anyone who keeps notebooks through the years can relate to. Is there anything particular you do for these notebooks, either when preparing to use them, or for organizing them later? For instance I learnt from Thoreau—who’s sort of a patron saint of the North American notebook tradition—the almost obvious idea to create an index for each notebook. And to keep them in chronological order on a bookshelf. Even to maintain an ongoing list of vocabulary, or plant and bird encounters. How do you organize or work with your notebooks to help with memory & recognition?

JK: What a splendid idea to index each notebook.  A simple chronological order is all I have achieved so far, with notebooks tucked into ziplock bags with attendant ephemeral postcards, clippings, and notes.  They provide a kind of rangy history of self, and encounters with, at least, the weather.

Bird sightings have their own book, where the dates of returning flocks are noted—for example two years ago the large mixed species flock of sparrows which used to show up like magic on April 23 and leave on September 21 have stopped arriving, after almost 40 years of hosting them locally near my house.  At least there is a record.  And the yearly nesting of the quail flock, which lives here, is noted, along with the offspring that have survived cats and hawks.

AS: Any idea how many notebooks you have? And is there any particular type of notebook you like to work with?

JK: I have over 200 notebooks.  I like to use a spiral binding, as I can lay the book flat to write on.  Art stores  usually carry the 5.5” x 8.5” sketch books with a  medium weight paper that takes ink well, and I use those.  I also keep little spiral bound books that can be carried in the pocket for short observations, and the ever continuing list of things to do. 

AS: John Whalen-Bridge, the scholar who specializes in Buddhist influence on North American writers, did an interview with you a couple of years ago. I could not quite get from it whether you have had any formal Buddhist training. Did you learn to sit meditation in Japan?

JK: I learned to sit on my own, from books of course.  In 1959 I joined Shunryu Suzuki after he had arrived in San Francisco as abbot of Japan Town’s Sokoji Temple on Bush Street.  He started early morning sitting at the temple, a new innovation.  I was living a few blocks away at the East West House, so it was not a heavy task to get there. Getting up early for 6am sitting was more difficult. Suzuki’s English was almost non-existent at the time, but it went well with Soto Zen’s ‘just sitting’ practice of meditation.

During the four years I lived in Japan [1960-1964] I sat at Ryosen-an, the First Zen Institute’s Zendo in Kyoto, and then later at Daitoku-ji’s main temple where, at one point,  they made a place for a few foreigners to sit.  I never had a formal teacher for sanzen [going to a Zen teacher for individual instruction] as there was a mutual language difficulty—my Japanese never became that skilled, and there were no teachers that were speaking English.

There were almost no books in English on Zen, or translations of sutras.  The feeling was, one just sat and ‘discovered’ on one’s own their ‘Buddha nature’.

AS: With so many appearances of non-human animals in your poetry, I’d think some of the Zen folklore would excite you. A number of famous koans, like Pai-chang and the fox, have central figures that are non-human. What Buddhist literature has drawn you the most? Zen collections? Tibetan biographies? Jataka Tales (former lives of the Buddha, often in animal form)?

JK: Don’t you think that Buddhist literature in English is a fairly new phenomenon?

I met up with the Jataka Tales, in English in the early 60s in India, and was delighted by many aspects  of non-human Buddha-hood. Even before the birth of the Buddha.

All of Evans-Wentz’s translations seemed important in the 60s to me—especially  the life of Milarepa.  Lama Govinda’s books were full of Tibetan Buddhism but also magic and adventures in the Himalayas.  And someone as simple and dogged as Alexandra David-Neel was very attractive to read. All those early Buddhist travelers who actually had to endure hard and difficult conditions in order to find their sources in Tibet were amazing.

MONKEY as translated by Arthur Waley is a delightful folk  mixture of monkey, pig and monk on the road to the west to find a sacred Buddhist text—the Tripitika.

I can’t think of koans as literature in the usual sense—but the wild fox in Japan is a mysterious and often dangerous other worldly creature, and not above cause and effect by any means. Better watch out for fox women in Japan! They aren’t of this world.

AS: Do the fox women remind us that cause and effect still operate in poetry?

JK: I don’t think poetry is free from cause and effect, in fact it rattles around with it. And Fox Spirit Woman, being both animal and human, with the ability to create illusion-like realities, is not free from causation even though she is ‘supernatural’.  She can bear children with a human form, is a devoted wife, and probably operates in an inspiring manner within the realm of poetry.

AS: One of the poetic gifts Japan has provided the world is haiku. I saw one critic call it Japan’s greatest “post-war export.” It has become an international form, with all sorts of little innovations attached—and if you go into a bookstore you are likely to find lots of anthologies and how-to books for writing it. It was your generation that really brought North America’s attention to haiku, with that sensitivity to the seasons, to the little moments of nature and human nature, and gave us a way of writing poetry that I find refreshingly free from prophetic, oracular, metaphysical or epic noise. Yet haiku is profoundly spiritual in intent, and gets closely identified with Zen insight. Do you feel that a Zen sensibility, or a blinking open of spiritual insight through language, is one of the goals or attitudes of your own poetry?

JK: As for haiku,  and writing in general, yes one hopes to give  flashes of spirit and insight which could be called ‘Zen’, but could survive without that label. But I don’t know if it’s a ‘goal’ as such—that would be a bit self conscious. It’s the ordinary, after all, that mostly provides ‘spiritual insight’.  Traditional haiku’s formality is not really useful to my writing. I always loved how Jack Collom described haiku—“They are short poems, but they must be very, very short.”

Some of the grand masters of the haiku/senryu tradition right now, like John Brandi and Steve Sanfield are really razor sharp. Besides writing their own books, they exchange lines in a haiku correspondence which bring one, often, to that ‘aha!’ place. Which is why I love to read them. Some of the ‘prettier’ and more self conscious attempts at Haiku translated into three line English poems  make one think why bother with all those rules. Just be as concise and aware as possible.

AS: I Know you and Donald are about to leave for Oaxaca. You spend a lot of time in Mexico. What does life south of the border provide for your poetry? Animism? Catholicism? Or just the ordinary?

JK: Life in Mexico provides lots and lots of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’.  It’s fascinating to observe very old civilizations in their archeological sites, and realize that the many ‘indigenous’ tribes of people there today are part of that history—here on this North American continent. The Catholicism practiced in Mexico today is often a cover story for the old religious practices and festivals. And yes, the everyday on a much simpler and direct level, is absorbing to participate in—like the daily market.


This interview first appeared in Quo Anima: innovation and spirituality in contemporary women’s poetry Ed. Jennifer Phelps and Elizabeth Robinson. The University of Akron Press: Akron, Ohio, 2019. Published with permission of the interviewer.

 

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Society | 1 Comment

The Poet Learns To Surf

The Poet Learns To Surf

In which Carl Wendt, poet, flaneur, and walking anachronism, dips his gnarled toes into the waters of the cyberverse to find it not as cold as he’d anticipated. Although still in the shallow end with his gaze directed toward the creative horizon of a setting sun, the prospect for poetry as he knows it does not look so good.

From Ode To Sunset,
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A Fiction by Pat Nolan

 

 He was introduced to computers rather late, getting rid of his old Royal, appropriately, at the turn of the century. First through the glacially slow desktop stations in the library, owning one then beyond his means, and subsequently picking up someone’s cast-off, after they’d purged the hard drive. “Knowing you, Wendt” was a common assumption, plagiarism allegations following him around like he’d stepped in dog shit. And he’d learned the hard way to make back-ups and hard copies, friends letting him have use of a printer or an office machine. The last one, an obsolete laptop Angie had let him have, was not Wi-Fi capable, though it had come with one of her old printers.

“I don’t know what to do with them, they just pile up like broken toasters,” she’d complained.

He couldn’t figure it, an earth conscious stalwart like Angie and she couldn’t make the jump to recycling them. He’d thought to get a cell phone and a tablet. Short of robbing a jewelry store and that wasn’t going to happen. Then he met Oren Rickles. Or was finally introduced to him, by Stoddard Leary, a slightly rotund man with a head of oily dark curls and beard, signature orange Converse. Friend of Kay Sayrah’s, and apparently IT consultant to the poets.

A sign read poetry is code over a workbench strewn with a rat’s nest of wires, stripped armatures, and solder studded green motherboards. Rickles had taken a look at his laptop when he’d asked if it was worth upgrading with a wireless connection. The tech looked at the top and the bottom without opening it and then had shrugged handing it back, saying “I dunno, paper weight, museum, boat anchor?”

It struck him then how dependent on his computing device he’d become. He didn’t think he wanted or could, even if he tried to, go back to not being able to record himself through the magic of electrons. It wasn’t exactly a deal with the devil, but he did upgrade to a used laptop with Wi-Fi, charger thrown in, word processor software, an updated version of the one he was already familiar with. Once he got the hang of the web browser, well, the world was at his fingertips like never before, every and any arcane fantasy could be called up at a key stroke, mouse click, dark, unknown corners brought to light in the course of a browse to spiral further down that autodidacts’ rabbit hole. It had taken about a week to scare up a down payment from various sources, the bulk of which came from Nora who reasoned that an improvement in his prospects was an improvement in her prospects of being repaid the money he owed her.

But he had to draw the line somewhere or redraw it, at least, and branding himself as had been suggested as a path to success, was it. He wasn’t interested in the shiny lamination of a presentable product, a definable entity encased in plastic like a fly in amber. It offered a dubious immortality and in a disposable culture the chances of being recycled were slim. Facebook, Twitter, he didn’t have time for their compelling hypnotic appeal. There had to be a demarcation, a perforation between the tectonic plate of one generation and the next. And where the plates shifted, that’s when the energy was generated, a friction felt along the fault line that filled the air with static electricity. There he drew the line.

Yet there was a treasure hoard of nostalgia, the open sesame to which was whatever one wanted it to be as long as it comprised eight characters and at a minimum upper and lower case characters and numerals. Arcane lore and magical science, showrooms of innovation and museums of ancestral excellence, documents and documentaries, the past represented in grainy photo and remnants of shadow on yellowing celluloid. To his everlasting delight he had found footage of the jazz giants in his pantheon of greats and lovingly indulged in every move, mannerism and expression of his heroes in the delineation of the music that resonated in the depth of his being. To their videos he gave himself unconditionally as if in a dream with a fixity that excluded all else.

And this was only one facet of the holographic cyberinth, there were so many corners to turn, so many surfaces to explore, so many directions to follow without a thought to ever finding the exit. And then there was porn, the brothel for the eyes, that alone providing enough proof for the primacy of the visual cortex in processing consciousness let alone on-demand woody. Never had the uses of anatomy been so graphic and sex so boring, after the first five minutes at least. Porn, he came to understand, was fascinating more on a metaphysical level than on a sexual one. It was an outsized athleticism, a fiction of equine proportions and juicy Junoesque dimensions consumed for its mockery of the absurdity of sex as a cruel collective spectacle. And it made men into voyeurs, a world of Chauncey Gardeners who liked to watch. Porn couldn’t capture two of the most essential aspects of sex, intimacy and scent. If there were any lessons to be learned, one was that all vaginas were not created equal, and that not all penises could tell the difference. Also the male was on automatic and soon ran out of gas. The female was on manual but once started wouldn’t stop. The only thing worse than porn’s hypnotic repetitious inanity were cat videos. Yet now anything of visual stimulation by the abundance of choices glossily presented was deigned porn for its salacious appeal which naturally enough encourage consumer orgies of which the economy so much depends upon.

 

 

Oren Rickles was an odd egg but fairly personable for someone with borderline autism. His workshop/squat took up the rear of an industrial building in the flats off of Third and one of the State streets. Apart from being a computer nerd, he fancied himself a poet and a literary theoretician, but because he was a tech no one would take him seriously when he spoke his ideas about poetry. It was, yeah, thanks for fixing my computer but I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say about literature. So typical of English majors. And because Rickles was letting him buy the reconditioned laptop on time, and that he needed to be talked through the open source operating system, its quirks and whistles, and the kind of product review that only a guy totally obsessed in discerning the x-y coordinates of every aspect of the technosphere could give, he had lent a superficially sympathetic ear.

What transpired during these tutorials along with helpful hints and various shortcuts was a recitation of Rickles’ opinions on the failings and future of poetry in the cyber age. Such as the internet had exposed a vast wasteland of writers of poetry whose only definition of the art came from the dictionary and children’s nursery rhymes, and that they far outnumbered the really intelligent working artists, threatening to redefine poetry by their sheer number and shameless ignorance, and comparing the situation to the cult movie Idiocracy. Also, that a tsunami of shit poetry would wipe out any accumulated innovation and reset the bar to ground zero. In his opinion, authentic poetry would rise from the obliterating sameness in an adjacent possible where it would flourish in ways unknowable as a creative adaptation to new technology. Language changes, he’d insisted, because new words are needed for new concepts which are then parsed as common denominators. And, in turn, that affects the direction of cultural drift. Rickles had a lot of other crazy ideas. He’d even quoted Italo Calvino to him. “The author, that spoiled child of ignorance and romantic myth, vanishes and gives way to a more thoughtful person, a person who knows the author is a machine and knows how the machine works.”

He’d come to similar conclusions. Now with his own personal access to the internet and the millions upon millions who wrote poetry, he understood that good or bad was no longer a valid standard, that whether a poem was good or bad really didn’t matter. Obeying the laws of entropy, poetry was becoming static, flat, dissipated, an infinity of poetry particles whose repulsive polarity, no longer negative or positive, was, as a consequence, losing its energy. It didn’t matter if he had written a good poem or a bad poem. What mattered was who his friends were, who he knew in advantageous positions, and who could exercise their power by awarding him boons or influence others to do so. Yet poet was such a solitary occupation. And success required social skills, the one seemingly a betrayal of the other. That left only the luck of the draw.

Though certainly less tactile than a cocktail party, there was a similarity to online interactions. Internet poetry groups were like children lost in a forest calling out their positions or locations to each other or merely, as birds in distant trees or thickets, defining the edges of their territory with song. They represented not so much an avant-garde poetry underground as they did isolated instances of undifferentiated ground litter. And as in the actual world, the cyber world of poets was its own kind of hell. Well-meaning intention could count on being easy prey for poetry trolls and grammar ogres eager to exploit potential for conflict.

The faith of these poets in their simpleminded intent reflected a particular innocence. Uninformed of the latest developments, their poetry was lacking in the most basic acquaintance with the breadth of literature and its significant history. These Volk or folk poets were often driven by self-righteousness and exhibitionism similar to those of itinerate preachers or evangelicals. In spirit, they believed in a true poetry, unhampered by the petty questions and quarrels that made up the dark matter of the literary universe. On the other hand, and not surprisingly, theirs was also a very conservative poetry, one not so much devoid of inspiration as perhaps of innovation and imagination. The styles adopted or imitated were modern only in the sense that they were developed in the Twentieth Century. In some ways, they could be considered zombie poets, living off the dead in a clueless regurgitation of great art.

And that went for those who recited free associated lists as a claim to a pedestrian edginess as well. Their poems championed a self-conscious abstraction. Abstraction, the deadliest of language mires, was the beacon of pretenders. Ironically, only parodies of abstractions were actually bearable and anywhere near being truly abstract. But presenting this metaphorical porridge as jambalaya was criminal not to mention nauseating.

Still others wrote the poetry of misguided journalists whose feeble ironies served only cliché while yet others aimed to be photographers, subjective in their Ansel Adams black and white objectivity. Poetry workshops and writing groups, to further the muddy the waters, fostered a self-esteem that verged on delusions of reference in which celebrity was the ultimate attainment. What all of them could not comprehend was that poetry was tautegorical, not intellectual. The poem did not represent the thing, it was the thing. Poetry belongs to the sphere of affectivity and will.

Poets surround themselves with words to assimilate the world of objects. The poetic mind never perceives passively, never contemplates things, and all its observations spring from some act of participation, some act of emotion and resolve. Even as the poetic imagination materializes in poems and presents the definitive outlines of an objective world, the significance becomes clear only if the dynamic sense of life from which it originally arose can be detected. Only when it expresses itself as love or hate, fear or hope, joy or sorrow is the poetic imagination roused to the pitch of excitement at which it begets a definite world of representation through the agency of the poem. And only when the entire self is surrendered, possessed by a singular impression, is there the utmost tension between subject and object, the outer and inner world. Then external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated but overwhelms with its sheer immediacy, with fear, hope, terror, or wish fulfillment. A spark jumps the synaptic gap and the tension finds release as subjective excitement becomes objectified and confronts the poet as a poem. The earliest products of poetic thinking neither are permanent, self-identical, or clearly distinguished as poems, nor are they immaterial inklings. They are like elements of a dream, objects endowed with poetic import, haunted places, accidental shapes in nature resembling something of portent, all manner of shape shifting fantastic images which speak of larger ineffable ideas of good and evil, life and death. Their common trait being that they evoke awe in the connectedness of all life. Poetry does not give rise to discursive understanding. Nor does it beget apperception by sorting out concepts and relating them to distinct patterns. A poem tends to bring together great complexities of related ideas in which all distinct features are merged and assimilated. He’d said as much to the two women who had come to interview him.


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018)He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  Nolan is also publisher of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.


New To the Society’s Shelves 

Lucille Friesen,  Blue Bicycle, Ideal Café Editions, 2020
Robert Hébert, Coulisses, La Compagnie a Numero, 2020
Sandy Berrigan,  Viajes, Private Edition, 2020
Elizabeth C. Herron,  Insistent Grace, Fernwood Press, 2020
Bruce Holsapple, The Birth Of The Imagination, University of New Mexico, 2015
Matt Turner, Wave 9: Collages, Flying Island Books, 2021
Last Gasp Swoop
(Fell Swoop #164), Joel Dailey, et al. 2020

 

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Meditations In An Emergency~Part Two~

MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
~Part Two~

By David Perry

The Cosmopolitan, the Quotidian, and the Anthropocene Turn
in Sun Dong’s 2020 Pandemic Poetry

“春天在人类纪 欲呼无气,欲加口罩” — 孙冬《注视》
“Spring in the Anthropocene You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask”
— Sun Dong, “Fixed Gaze”

空山不見人,   但聞人語響。
— 王維《鹿柴》
Empty mountains: no one to be seen. Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes.
— Gary Snyder’s translation of Wang Wei’s “Lù Zhái”

“I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”

None of this is to say that Sun Dong’s poetry is about “the Anthropocene,” per se. Not at all. Sun Dong writes, more so, in her recent poems, of love and family (including beautiful poems addressed to elderly, ailing or departed parents). She is playful and inventive, and her range of cultural references run from the Book of Genesis to Qu Yuan to Thoreau to bodiless lacquerware (脱胎漆器). The point is, rather, that this deep-time consciousness simultaneously grounds her poems in the physical world and lends a fluid, dissolving quality to them — a double consciousness that reckons with the profound ecological loss relentlessly accumulating around us, registering within us, and constituting us as we constitute it in the process of going about our quotidian business. Like the best poetry, her work is about being alive in the poet’s time — about embodied desires and loss, about the life of the mind, and life lived among and with others. This poet’s time, however, is “Spring in the Anthropocene.” Just as modernists worked to acclimate readers and publishers to work that left classical and pastoralist tropes behind in order to write the realities of the industrial age, or postmodern writers insisted on reflecting the shattering and fragmentation of grand narratives and the mirage of the “post-industrial”, this kind of work seeks to open our eyes to the realities of change, albeit change that registers in planetary geologic time as much as, if not more, than human-historical time.

Returning to a poem like “Thinking of Frank O’Hara Mid-Epidemic,” then, there’s something of the terrible human awkwardness inherent in blurting out a comment about, say, looming ecological catastrophe in the midst of a pleasant dinner among new friends and acquaintances while enjoying a beautiful view (something I refrained from while enjoying incredible home-cooked meals with my Chenjiapu hosts). It’s the mark of that nagging double consciousness of our time that reminds us that the energy we use today to peruse our phones and share photos of stunning landscapes contributes its little bit to the cumulative enormity of a growing human transformation of the planet into something post-O’Hara and post-Holocene, as the finale of “Thinking of Frank O’Hara” rather awkwardly notes:

…in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive, though he died at forty
defeated by a reckless young couple

Defeated, we’re alive, at least
for now

Today, thinking of O’Hara again
I have to concede that I’m defeated by him
along with all those defeated others who say
in a sense
we all lose

 

……弗兰克 奥哈拉说
在某种意义上讲我们都赢了
我们还活着,可他四十岁就死了
一对轻率的年轻人打败了他

可被打败的是他,我们还活着,至少
现在此刻

今天,我又想起了奥哈拉
不得不承认我们还是被他打败了
我们中被打败的说
在某种意义上讲
我们都输了

Sun Dong and David Perry, Chenjiapu

The sense of loss that so many have felt as 2020’s coronavirus pandemic grinds its way through our lives, with all of its economic, political and psychological collateral damage, resonates throughout Sun Dong’s “early 2020 poems” (as if the first three or four months of the year comprised a full era — but isn’t that just it? The crisis accelerates, dilates, elasticizes our perception of time to the point that it might as well be). The pleasures of the everyday take on a new valence in memory and in memorialization, as in “Forced Adaptation” (《应变》), which transposes a measure of O’Hara-esque urban excitement and compression onto her home metropolis, Nanjing:

Back then we’d find ourselves flush up against the piano in Shiwangfu
sitting at the top of the steps to the stage, which later became                                                      [the  spot at Wuyuecheng where we
shared steak and onion soup before it became the movie theater                                                      [where we caught whatever was
showing before it in turn became the Lizhi Building

我们曾在狮王府紧挨着钢琴的
中层台阶上落座,在同一地点的吾悦城里吃牛排喝洋葱汤又在后
来改成荔枝大厦的电影院

O’Hara’s present-tense excitement, here, has given way to Sun Dong’s backwards look, which isn’t just tinged with nostalgia (“Nostalgia” is the title of another of these poems, 《怀旧》), but also what Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, or “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” — an emotion arising less from missing the old days than, as it turns out, from missing the old planet. “Forced Adaptation” continues, picking up from memories of a Nanjing cityscape, encoded with deeply personal memories, that has transformed repeatedly:

So we’ve seen that movie already and the building goes                                                                                                 [nameless now
as we find ourselves mid-epidemic and recovery
lurks within its own latency

看过电影而今这座没有名字的大厦
处在没有从疫情中恢复的
潜性当中

“Recovery” — 恢复— is by its nature hidden, as undetectable in its way as the virus was in its outbreak and spread, and the return to the normal, even the normal state in which one might indulge in nostalgia, is no longer there, even in moments of apparent domestic tranquility:

And now we’re home side-by-side frying up a few dishes
to cram into the overstuffed refrigerator
while downloading movies onto the computer while still                                                                                                [watching
theatrical scenes

Sometimes we even mix the place names up
but maybe we don’t
really care

我们现在在家里炒两个小菜
把冰箱塞得满满的
在电脑上下载电影甚至还能看
戏剧现场

有时我们还会说错地名
但也许我们也不那么
真的在乎

Domesticity is indeed a temporary refuge, one in which many couples and families have found opportunities to renew connections frayed by the pre-pandemic pace of life, yet, in the wash of digital representations of experiences, of narratives of others’ fabricated lives, and of news of unfolding disaster, something goes missing and, it seems, will not be restored: the desire to go back, to return to “how it was before.” Representations mediate experience in our social-media era even more intensively than they did in the recently departed television age, driving us deeper into distraction (technological hyper-mediation is another running theme in these poems.) And in the context of the rest of her 2020 work, it’s hard not to read “forced adaptation” as being about adapting to the Anthropocene and not just well-documented and commented-upon rapid transformations of modern urban space, or to a quarantine that will, eventually, lift and allow life to return to “normal.”


It’s easy to forget all this when, after months of confinement in the city, one has the opportunity to escape into “nature.” Chenjiapu offered that, despite my own sense of solastalgia and of living in shadowtime, of living in the Anthropocene which, by definition, means virtually no nature that hasn’t been altered at some level, visible or not, by humankind. It had stayed with me on the high-speed train as it raced through a countryside built up to an incredible degree, in which farmed land blurs into newly built high-rise apartment blocks, factories, power plants, high-intensity power line towers, and other features of eastern China’s intensive industrial development, flashing past travelers sitting, chatting on and staring at their phones. But that feeling did indeed dissipate as I walked into Chenjiapu — the car could take me no further — and down narrow stairs onto the path that led to my home for the next two weeks, with its view of mist-shrouded peaks and the calls of birds and drone of cicadas drowning out memories of the city’s clamor.

I might not have expected O’Hara, but I could have anticipated Wang Wei — along with Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Juyi2 and a handful of other famous Tang poets. Sure enough, one evening mid-way through my stay, he came up in dinner conversation. My hosts and a few of their friends took turns cooking dinners served on an open-air table overlooking the valley. The meals were fantastic, often featuring vegetables raised in village gardens, bamboo shoots and other delicacies foraged from the forest accompanied by one of the chickens that range freely throughout Chenjiapu’s steep, winding lanes. A young entrepreneur hoping to launch his own bookstore and cafe was visiting to research Librairie Avant-Garde. He introduced himself as Ethan and joined us, eager to talk poetry and translation.

We were admiring the view as the setting sun cast dramatic shadows across the landscape when Ethan asked if I had read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited with commentary by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. The concept is simple. In chronological order, starting in 1919, Weinberger presents and critiques various translations of Wang Wei’s poem 《鹿柴》. The first edition ends with Gary Snyder’s 1979 untitled rendition; the expanded edition ends with 2006’s “Deer Park,” translated by J.P. Seaton. It’s a book that I love and frequently teach at NYU Shanghai. I responded to Ethan’s question with an enthusiastic “yes!”, adding that I was a bit surprised that he knew of the book. Native Chinese speakers can simply read Wang Wei, after all. His response surprised me more: “Oh, it’s quite well known here!” This minor mystery was cleared up for me shortly thereafter, when my hosts gave me the gift of the 2019 translation into Chinese of Weinberger and Paz’s expanded edition (which adds an additional nineteen translations). It’s a gorgeous edition, translated into Chinese by Guang Zhe (光哲) as《观看王维的十九种方式》.3

Wang Wei is, among other things, often thought of as a consummate nature poet, and 《鹿柴》— most often, but not always — translated as “Deer Park,” is as a good an example as any of why. Kenneth Rexroth’s title for his 1970 translation provides a clear example of how this poem imagines “nature”: “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness.” And when sitting by a clear-running stream a bit outside of Chenjiapu just below a small waterfall, looking out at the pine-studded ridges and bamboo-clad peaks rising above the valley below, I could almost believe that I was there, too, deep in the mountain wilderness, that I’d “escaped into nature.” But I was actually sitting on a slab of concrete presumably hauled up the ravine to help channel the stream, which waters the garden plots below. And I was online, no doubt thanks to that microwave tower just visible in the distance through the branches of a twisted pine. I could see a car, then a truck crawl along the two-lane highway on the valley floor as an airliner plowed the Anthropocene skies above, its contrail mingling with the high cirrus.

When did the Anthropocene begin? The current consensus is the mid-Twentieth Century, with fallout from nuclear weapons testing as a prime geological stratigraphic marker. But paleoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman argues that we can discern the beginning of the Anthropocene some 7,000 years ago, with the advent of widespread rice cultivation in what is now China and resulting spikes in the greenhouse gas methane, legible in ice core and lakebed samples. Ruddiman’s “early Anthropocene” theory has no chance of being endorsed by the international body of Earth System scientists responsible for the Geologic Time Scale (they’re currently considering whether to make the Anthropocene official and declare the end of the Holocene), but, as Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin note in The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, the theory “has been tested again and again, as all promising theories should be, and has emerged even stronger.” The point? We humans have been a planet-shaping force for a long time, and “nature” without some degree of human influence is, increasingly, a fiction.

In Nineteen Ways, Weinberger favors Gary Snyder’s untitled translations of Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》, writing that it is surely “one of the best translations, partially because of Snyder’s lifelong forest experience. Like Rexroth, he can see the scene.” Snyder, however, sees it differently. He closes his 2016 essay “‘Wild’ in China” with his 《鹿柴》translation, commenting on how poetry like Wang Wei’s helped change his relationship to the idea of “nature”:

I first came onto Chinese poems in translation at nineteen, when my ideal of nature was a 45 degree ice slope on a volcano, or an absolutely virgin rainforest. They helped me to “see” fields, farms, tangles of brush, the azaleas in the back of an old brick apartment. They freed me from excessive attachment to wild mountains, with their almost subliminal way of presenting even the wildest hills as a place where people, also, live.

So instead of “wilderness” or “nature” as a landscape empty of the human, or within which the human plays a minor or even insignificant role, Snyder sees in verses like 《鹿柴》the indelible mark of the human: “Empty mountains: no one to be seen. / Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes. / Returning sunlight enters the dark woods; / Again shining on the green moss, above.” Even in “the empty mountains” of Wang Wei’s time, there were “human sounds and echoes.” Several scholars propose the sounds are those of woodsmen on Wang Wei’s estate whose job it would have been to cut trees, hunt, and otherwise manage the “wild” forest. One might speculate that Wang Wei, a devout Chan Buddhist, no doubt intended to present a kind of koan (from the Chan 公案 gōng’àn), a paradox of “emptiness” that gives rise to sense perceptions of the phenomenal world which necessarily fall back into emptiness.

Sun Dong is more of a city poet than a “nature” poet, though “nature,” as in a poem like “Fixed Gaze,” permeates her urban world. Her cosmopolitan verse references Eastern and Western literary, philosophical, and religious traditions with equal facility. She is not a Buddhist, though her work often draws on Buddhist philosophical themes and references, as it does in the final stanza of my favorite of her early 2020 poems, with its reference to 合十, which I translate as “palms pressed in blessing.” There’s no obvious Anthropocene reference here, though within the pattern of the set of poems the strange admonition to “inform those passers-by / who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night” does suggest that we have overtaxed nature, and, as in Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》that our human strivings and desires have always-already fallen back into emptiness. I find it to be a beautiful, soothing poem, one that calms a mind agitated by reading of collapsing glaciers and ice shelves, of massive wildfires and heat-fed superstorms, and that says we may yet, together, somehow rise to meet the challenges that come with pandemics, ecological upheaval, and concomitant geopolitical strife. “Do you recall the bell,” it insistently asks, nudging me — and maybe you, too — from a moment of crisis-news induced paralysis:

Balloon with a Bell Inside

Day gave birth to night, night not fully formed yet
like bodiless lacquerware, a wisp of black limning the horizon
swelling, a pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish

Inform those passers-by
who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night,
like a balloon with a bell inside, so loud in the midst of its                                                                [darkness that the deaf can hear it all
without themselves being able to form the slightest sound

Do you recall the bell, speaking in a dream city of sleepless                                                                                                             [nights
one pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish
another letting spring rain fall from between palms pressed in                                                                 [blessing, the balloon slipping
skyward
ringing & ringing

 

气球里的铃铛

昼生下了夜,夜还不稳
如脱胎漆器,一抹流动的黑色在天边
欲滴,有一双手打磨完毕

把过路人的举动告诉
透支春天的人,当夜生下夜晚,
他们像气球里的铃铛,在黑暗中振聋发聩
却发不出半点声音

你还记得那个铃铛,在梦里说着不夜城
一双手打磨完毕
另一双手让春雨合十,滑落在气球外面
叮咚作响


  1. Che Qianzi’s first full collection in English translation, No Poetry, translated by Yunte Huang, is now available from Polymorph Editions.
  2. O’Hara identifies himself with Bai Juyi in his 1954 poem “To John Ashbery”: “I can’t believe there’s not / another world where we will sit / and read new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind. / You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i…” Tang poetry in translation was in vogue among US American poets of the time.
  3. Beijing: The Commercial Press (商务印书馆), 2019.

    Sun Dong’s poems translated by David Perry: Poems by Sun Dong


David Perry lives in Shanghai with the artist Monika Lin and their daughter. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai and, with Monika Lin, runs Seaweed Salad Editions, a small press currently focused on publishing bilingual editions of contemporary Chinese poetry. You can follow him on Twitter at @DvdPerry or at his website David Perry


Many thanks to Paper Republic, where this article first appeared, for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to repost it for the information and edification of the membership.

The translation of the title, Meditations In An Emergency, is by Chen Dongmei.  She also translated the article into Chinese, available here where there are also more pictures of the Chenjaipu Residency.

 

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Meditations In An Emergency ~Part One~

MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
~Part One~

By David Perry

The Cosmopolitan, the Quotidian, and the Anthropocene Turn
in Sun Dong’s 2020 Pandemic Poetry

“春天在人类纪 欲呼无气,欲加口罩” — 孙冬《注视》
“Spring in the Anthropocene You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask”
— Sun Dong, “Fixed Gaze”

空山不見人,   但聞人語響。
— 王維《鹿柴》
Empty mountains: no one to be seen. Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes.
— Gary Snyder’s translation of Wang Wei’s “Lù Zhái”

“I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”

Generally, we encounter writers in two ways: through their writing and, at times, in person. (Encounters via translation add another, stranger dimension.) When I departed Shanghai via high-speed train for Lishui, where I would meet the driver who would take me up to the mountain village of Chenjiapu, I anticipated spending time both in person and on the page with the Nanjing-based poet Sun Dong. We would meet after I’d drafted translations of her new poems — all written in the first few months of 2020 — during my two-week literary translation residency in a place that has, in recent years, gone from remote “hollowed-out village” to a burgeoning writers’ colony and boutique travel destination. Chenjiapu retains its rustic charm, with longtime residents still cultivating small plots cut from a mountainside so rugged that the village is car free of necessity, even as scores of tourists amble about on any given day, whether they’re coming from the Stray Birds Art Hotel, hiking up from a B&B further down the mountain, or pouring forth from a bus parked just outside the village where the winding road to Chenjiapu ends.

I knew, too, that I’d likely encounter other Chinese writers, ancient, classical, modern and contemporary. Despite being in a village of some 500 permanent inhabitants, I would be staying in a comfortable studio in a renovated old home right across a picturesque ravine from the remarkable Chenjiapu outpost of Librairie Avant-Garde (先锋书店) which, in partnership with Paper Republic, sponsored my Chenjiapu translation residency. Their range of books is impressive and includes a fantastic poetry section, so there would be plenty of opportunities for on-the-page encounters. There was the chance, too, that I’d meet one or more of the writers who have their own studios in the area in person. And not long after my arrival I learned that poets Chen Dongdong (陈东东), Zhang Dinghao (张定浩) and Hu Sang (胡桑) would be coming to give talks and workshops (sadly, I had to return to Shanghai just before their arrival).

I hadn’t, however, expected Frank O’Hara. And I certainly hadn’t expected a Chinese-speaking O’Hara offering ghostly cold comfort in these overheated times of global pandemic and deepening ecological crisis. Yet as I began my work the day after arriving there he was, his words, in Sun Dong’s translation, aglow on my screen. Outside my window, tendrils of mist laced their way over and through the forested slopes, obscuring brick-and-clay walls and black-tiled rooftops, as well as a distant, gleaming microwave tower that delivered the admirably stable Songyang County public wifi signal to my laptop (a truly classic contemporary Chinese landscape scene). Meanwhile, from my screen O’Hara addressed our 2020 pandemic planet from late 1950s Atomic-Age Manhattan. The poem begins:

Thinking of O’Hara Mid-Epidemic

Thinking of Frank O’Hara on the Lunar New Year
I said to myself

Geological strata sink and shear into conflicting opinions, the                                                                         [problem an impossible knot
My shoes still aren’t broken in, one more phantom enemy
The event is yet to happen, but

Frank O’Hara says
in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive…

疫情中又想起奥哈拉

新年那天我想起了奥哈拉
我对自己说

地质层陷入分歧, 问题打成死结
鞋没有变得舒服,假想敌又多了一个,
事件仍未发生,然而

弗兰克 奥哈拉说
在某种意义上讲我们都赢了
我们还活着……

Chenjiapu

My initial surprise at finding O’Hara in Chenjiapu soon faded. It suddenly seemed natural that he would be there, his lines from his 1964 Lunch Poem “Steps” echoing in Sun Dong’s Chinese. She’s a cosmopolitan, global poet as much as she’s a Chinese poet, frequently translating her own work into English and, as a professor in Nanjing, teaching Anglophone literature and Western literary theory. I first encountered her and her work at a 2018 conference in Suzhou where she appeared with New York poet and publisher James Sherry, then again later in Shanghai when I hosted her for a reading with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and translator Forrest Gander at NYU Shanghai. The Suzhou conference had been organized by the poet Che Qianzi, whose work1, like that of Sun Dong and many other contemporary Chinese poets, draws significantly upon modern and contemporary American writing, including the New York School, Language Poetry, and other experimental 20th century veins.

Yet a deeper surprise persisted — an uneasy one, less the delight of recognition than a doubly uncanny sense of what Sun Dong terms “the betrayal of déjà vu” (似曾相识的背叛) in her poem “Fixed Gaze” (注视). It’s the feeling of living in a 21st century “shadowtime,” which British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has defined as “the sense of living in two or more orders of temporal scale simultaneously.” It’s a problem that the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty tackles in work like his essay “Anthropocene Time,” calling for us to find ways to think and feel “human‐historical time and the time of geology” simultaneously as we irrevocably change the planet and as planetary changes (including outbreaks of diseases new and old) inevitably change us. Her work is suffused with this awareness, insisting quietly and steadily — and at times forcefully — that the reader, too, see our contemporary world as it is, not as it was or as we might wish it to be.

Since the turn of the century, when Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen led the effort to popularize the idea that the planet has entered the Anthropocene — a new geological epoch in which human influence has become the primary force in driving planetary change — writers and artists have done much to forward a conversation that otherwise might remain obscure to those outside the sciences. The hallmarks of the Anthropocene are terrifying: climate disruption, mass extinction of species, acidifying oceans, saturation of soil and water with microplastics, intensifying flooding in some areas and drought in others, and so on. As I worked further into that first translation, my surprise subsided once again. Sun Dong is one of many writers globally working, to one degree or another, in an “ecopoetic” vein.

The sense of uneasy awareness remained, however — an effect, I argue, that is a mark of much of the most important and compelling contemporary writing of our time. This feeling simmered beneath the surface as I worked, arising like mist from the fissure in the poem over which the reader must awkwardly leap to get from the cosmopolitan sophistication and cultured pleasures embodied by O’Hara to a line about “geological strata” and “conflicting opinions” in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not in O’Hara’s 20th century world anymore. We’re not even in 2019’s world. We’re probably not in the Holocene Epoch any more: so goes the Anthropocene thesis. But the pasts we leave behind haunt us, as do our increasingly strange possible futures as they colonize our shaky, protean present. I began to understand something about what I find so compelling in her work: the juxtaposition of literary wit and aesthetic acuity with not only the everyday pleasures and pains of living as we do (“My shoes haven’t broken in”) but also with an awareness of the Anthropocene. In “Fixed Gaze” she explicitly names it; elsewhere, it permeates the work, contaminating with the new abnormal:

Fixed Gaze

Spring in the Anthropocene
You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask

Don’t pick your nose or suck on your fingers
No getting together and no making love
Don’t start rumors and don’t spread rumors, get it?
Got it?

The wind’s fixed gaze through the barely slit blinds
The webcam’s fixed gaze from the top of the screen
Shall my existence be fixed here in this instance, exist
henceforth hereafter

Even more than the bedroom the kitchen resembles a classroom
Packed tight with boundless desire
Hung thick with all manner of torture implements
Smash what’s smashed,
Cut what’s cut,
Roast what’s roasted

The betrayal of déjà vu, in spring
the flowers bloom and wither, the swallows return, life thrives
in this divide-and-collide Human Epoch
whose existence shall be fixed by whose gaze
hereafter thereafter

春天在人类纪
欲呼无气,欲加口罩

不抠鼻子不吸吮手指
不聚集不做爱
不造谣不传谣,你明白了吗?
听懂了吗?

风从百叶窗的微缝里注视
摄像头从屏幕上注视
将我存在于此,存在于
从此以后

厨房比卧室更像教室
装满无限渴望
挂满各种刑具
粉碎的粉碎,
切割的切割,
烧烤地烧烤

似曾相识的背叛,在春天
花开花谢,燕子归来,众生安好,
隔着人类纪
谁的注视将他们存在于此
存在于从此之后

It’s not just the eventual exhaustion of our individual persons or youthful adventures that we must contemplate, à la O’Hara in 1957’s “Meditations in an Emergency” — “[e]ach time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous … but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.” And it’s not the historical tragedy of a fallen dynasty or state that is to be mourned, or even the death of a culture: it is rather life as we know it in its geologically recent abundance and variety. “Fixed Gaze,” while obviously addressing the surveillance state and its management of the coronavirus outbreak in China, is also, inescapably, rooted in — or perhaps better said to be uprooted from — the deeper ground from which the outbreak arose, as the opening couplet makes clear.

This element isn’t new to Sun Dong’s poetry, and it is, I think, the element that first drew me to her work. Since moving to Shanghai over ten years ago, I’ve become increasingly interested in how writers and artists in China are engaging not only with crises of pollution, wildlife habitat loss, and fragmentation (a driver of zoomorphic virus transmission to human populations) and other obvious effects of accelerated development, but with the overarching questions of climate change and the Anthropocene. Thus, Sun Dong’s engagement with geologic time — a key component of the Anthropocene turn — resonated with me when, several years ago, I read Josh Stenberg’s translation of an earlier poem, “Wall,” which begins:

Geographic change is too slow

a species goes extinct too slowly the years roll on

everything is the opposite of the poetic

the carrot top is a little conspirator Brodsky also drank
                                                                                         [gutter oil

Again, the quotidian (“carrot top”) nestles within the awareness of larger, longer, slower processes (extinction, “geographic change”) from which mere history unrolls. It’s a blunt material account that, being the “opposite of poetic,” may constitute the most honest kind of poetry left to us. Its lineage lies in a cosmopolitan, global, literary tradition, in this case signaled by the reference to Joseph Brodsky — another poet, as it turns out, with an interest in geoscience, having worked as a geologist’s assistant in Russia prior to his emigration to the United States. Though unlike Brodsky, or Forrest Gander, who studied geology prior to becoming a poet, Sun Dong has no formal background in geosciences, she frequently references deep time — geological, “geographical,” and evolutionary timescales — in her work.

Consider, for example, from her 2020 poem “The Contemporary” (《当代》): “In this Museum / I believe in the ginkgo and cockroaches alone / these two most ancient of creatures” (这座博物馆 / 我只相信银杏和蟑螂 / 这两种最古老的生物). Likewise, from “Dog Rose and Wild Pear (《狗蔷薇和野梨》): “My dog ​​rose has lived 40 million years already / My wild pear too is older than humankind / I tend to their lives, facing earth’s childhood, offer / a greeting, pay homage to humankind’s earliest efforts at cultivation / Pure species should not vanish”(我的狗蔷薇已经生活了4000万年 / 我的野梨也比人类更老 / 我打理它们的生活,只是向地球的童年 / 致敬,向最早驯化他们的人类致敬 / 单纯的物种不该绝迹). And though the longer poem “The Conversation” (《谈话》)seems, primarily, to be about the epistemological and ontological crises of the psyche under pressure of surveillance, the “I” of the poem, in the course of being interrogated within a “kind of homogenized dreamworld” (一种均匀的梦境), finds herself being questioned about “that chance encounter between you and that extinct bird,” to which she responds, “Of course something like that must have taken place long ago / The extinct bird is not contained by time” (你与绝迹之鸟之间的短暂邂逅 / 发生在哪一年?/ 那是很久之外的一个事件 / 绝迹之鸟,它不在时间的控制之内).

Sun Dong

It was, in part, this side of her work that led me to invite her to read at NYU Shanghai last year with Gander, who was in China at the invitation of Shanghai poet Wang Yin for a poetry festival. Gander, author of key ecopoetics texts, such as “The Future of the Past: The Carboniferous and Ecopoetics,” is also a prolific translator. Sun Dong’s own interest in translation is central to her poetic practice — she co-edited with Sherry the experimental Reciprocal Translation Project, which invited Chinese and American poets to translate one another, and she frequently creates her own freely experimental translations into English from Chinese of her own poems. As it turns out, Gander chose to read primarily from his translations of Spanish-language poets in their joint reading, and a conversation that foregrounded translation — the sine qua non of cosmopolitan connections of the sort necessary to think “global” in the first place — resulted, renewing poetry as a site of hope, inquiry and vital connection for an international audience all too aware of our times crises and risks.

—Part Two on Meditations In An Emergency will post February 12th—


David Perry lives in Shanghai with the artist Monika Lin and their daughter. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai and, with Monika Lin, runs Seaweed Salad Editions, a small press currently focused on publishing bilingual editions of contemporary Chinese poetry. You can follow him on Twitter at @DvdPerry or at his website David Perry


Many thanks to Paper Republic, where this article first appeared, for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to repost it for the information and edification of the membership.

The translation of the title, Meditations In An Emergency, is by Chen Dongmei.  She also translated the article into Chinese, available here.  There are also more pictures of the Chenjaipu Residency.

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“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)” Part Two

“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”:
Early Scalapino, Late Whalen
Part Two

by Bruce Holsapple

It’s salient, then, that although we’re intended to combine recurrent thoughts—for example, comments on being employed, the weather, having money, worries about ethical action and the afterlife—these concerns are as obviously set ajar in nonsensical ways.

—3—

There are six sections to Considering how exaggerated music is, each one long poem. I won’t discuss them in detail, but I would underscore that they are distinctly vocal projects. The second section, “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” for instance, is a remembered discussion of early memories between a female and a 35 year old male whom she once knew on close terms, but who she now refers to simply as “the man.” The segments switch between them, each recounting travelogues, Europe, Mexico, India, Egypt, Mozambique, the West Indies, the man (in ten segments, always in quotes) speaking of his father and brothers, his missing (deceased) mother, and his prior wives. The narrator in contrast often speaks directly to him in six of the segments (the remaining two spoken by other women). Both persons are in their retellings foreigners, and their estrangement is a shared topic, though this isn’t really “an exchange.” The male refers, regularly, to his first and second wives, his dead mother and his father’s drunken mistress, so given a text written “after I had ceased to know the man”—an odd description—the references to pregnancy and childbirth and to the inability to speak (dead people with their lips sewn, the child who refuses to speak, the mistress spitting up a cicada, the wife “practically mute,” her dream of a hook in her mouth, her husband’s dream of making her swallow a bell, and so forth) take on a noticeable density. One is hard put not to align that content with the boat tightly circling round and round, or the car circling the hotel (both driven by men) or the man later dancing in circles, whose mind the narrator can read. Clearly, there’s a critique involved. The man doesn’t fully know the story he’s telling.

Perloff spoke (above) of hmmmm as simulating “ordinary speech” which becomes conspicuously unnatural as we read (Radical Artifice 50-1). That strangeness can be specified, for the book employs a studied use of talk— sentence construction is a distinct project, and sentence style varies by section. While the clauses of hmmmm don’t per se require scrutiny, they employ formulaic, conversational locutions such as “Let me explain,” “Isn’t it interesting,”  “Suppose,” “Haven’t I said,” “Let me say,” “How was I to know,” “Anyway,” and they are studded with warrants such as “seriously,” “really,” “literally,” and “sure,” so a conversational, offhand intimacy is mimicked and undermined. That’s to say, as well, sentence variety and use of speech formulas (and comments on tone) make evident that manner of speaking—voice—is being signaled as an interpretive factor.

Let me give a quick example. In the odd retellings of “The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,” recollections are conspicuously interrupted by subordinating clauses, interjections, and parentheticals, indices of conversational immediacy, people thinking as they speak, and it’s a manner both speakers share. Note below how the woman postpones completing the initiating clause:

What the man whom we saw     (he looked like a derelict)     wanted
(we didn’t know him, of course) running like that alongside the car
we were in (we were in downtown traffic—he seemed to want in with
us,     the way he was running beside us,     without a word—
so that I said to the person I was with that I was reminded of me     ,
having refused to talk when I was young);     I don’t know. (38)

By postponing reference (to what the man wanted), the narrator suspends the  interrogative as she fills in details, bringing the story forward in a broken rush, and that movement foregrounds her refusal to talk when young. As a consequence, the missing referent, when it does arrive, becomes a concession, a plaintive “I don’t know,” oddly set off on its own. In a similar way, the rhythms and repetition of “in” (line three) suggest the man “whom we saw” wanting in with us as somehow iconic, reminding the speaker of that refusal to talk. The remaining lines in the piece compare the above derelict to an equally mysterious, impoverished woman, also left behind. It’s not explained why they’re significant, but both are active memories and exemplify an abandonment. That ineffable absence consequently becomes the topic.

The sentences of “Instead of an Animal” tell of a more oblique imagining, involving the objectivity of what one sees. Most of its segments report on an alien population, in third person, as if it were anthropological literature. The observations largely concern that alien population’s nursing and sexual behavior. The speaker is not altogether comfortable with what she witnesses, adult women suckling in public, for instance, and locates herself decisively outside of their sphere by use of clichéd locutions like “the mating couple” or “the adult male,” often referring to people in terms of whether or not they’re sexually mature (an issue that resurfaces in that they were at the beach). While her reports would establish an observational distance from the subject populace—and the natives do resemble ourselves in a sort of Swiftian satire—the speaker’s pretense to objectivity is also marked, for the reports are as warped as the behavior which they’d document, made so by formulaic, impersonal phrasing, by a conspicuous vagueness or lack of specification (the Gricean maxim of Manner[1]), and by unnecessary modification, for example, the frequent use of “some” (55, 57, 61, 62, 66, 67).

A related lack of focus features in several segments, some rendered fragmentary by misuse of locutions like “for instance,” where the topic simply is not provided (67). Or consider the use of contrast below. (And notice how Scalapino’s rimes unify her lines into a cadence that highlights the final, clinical moment.)

Young females will often compare

their surprise

to the time

when they first became aware

that they were able to suck the fluid out of the male’s organ. (63)

One wants to infer what the girls’ new surprise amounts to, but the gap left by the unstated topic can’t be bridged. So while the behavior she’d document is odd and at issue, so is this pretend distance at issue. Or better, that distance is self-reflexive, making the observer, as in Whalen’s text, the object of observation.

Sentence construction and coherence are major issues with “This eating and walking at the same time is associated all right,” problems that reappear in subsequent books. The poem is composed of 35 segments, four to five lines each, as a running commentary on daily events. We’re forced to guess the context, for while the speaker (I’ll assume it’s a woman) does reiterate concerns and establishes a discernable presence, the linkage between topics is a special problem, viewpoints are often contradictory, and her expressed concerns are curiously ambiguous.

It’s salient, then, that although we’re intended to combine recurrent thoughts—for example, comments on being employed, the weather, having money, worries about ethical action and the afterlife—these concerns are as obviously set ajar in nonsensical ways. Here’s an instance:

I ate and then if I go out anywhere when the weather is sultry as

if it were

the beginning of a monsoon

and I am going to communicate with someone who has died

I will have to have a lot of money. (76)

One might iron this out, e.g., if I go out in sultry weather, I’ll need money, but to make it cohere is a mistake. The stem “[I] ate and” opens five such segments and, as the title suggests, is associated with walking. “Associate” provides a better approach, for topics more clearly link by unspoken associations. Note, above, her use of conjunctives “and then,” “when,” “as if,” “if” and “and.” These provide signs of continuity, although markedly ingenuine. That is, while the syntax portends to coherence—evident in repeated use of subordinate and coordinate conjunctions—the propositions are deliberately set askew.

The above verse is followed by a closely related segment:

I was unemployed and the social hierarchy operates even after we’ve

died

so I’ve

been more excited

wanted sex regularly. (77)

Being unemployed easily relates to having money (in the prior verse), and having died aligns with communicating with the dead. So again this portends to relationship, a misshapen causality, but why, otherwise than to wreck the mind? Noticeable here are references to time and to conditionality. In the poem, the conjunction “if” is used 27 times. That is because this speaker is preoccupied with explaining what she’s done, what she is doing, and what she will do (if she can), and we’re presented with past, present and future sometimes in a single sentence, for example, “We’re not related and I’d like him and he’d hated objects” (94). There are as well notable problems with predication (e.g. “jealousy is in plants” [92]). Scalapino speaks of these segments as forms, “psychic configurations,” as if from “inner turmoil” pressing against—perhaps disfigured by—“a surface that’s also inside,” producing “a kind of helpless conflict” (Foster 40). The obsessive concerns and reiterations, then, the abbreviated acausal linkages, the elliptical commentary, shifting use of tense, the repetition of “I’ve changed my mind” (three times), and the many hypotheticals (“I’d be angry”) all indicate that thought processes rather than utterances are in the foreground. These are interior monologues. Rimbaud’s disordering of the senses has become a disordering of the sentences.

—4—

But it would be odd to ascribe the illogicality to Scalapino, even though the writing resembles, by ellipsis, fragmentation, and grammatical shortcuts, someone talking to themselves—or to borrow Scalapino’s term, ventriloquism, Scalapino as other.

The preoccupations in the title piece of “Considering how exaggerated music is” relate to what Scalapino calls the “public world,” and here I’d single out a second set of features in order to bridge to her next book, that they were at the beach, and to conclude. The settings are of two sorts, public gatherings (parties, restaurants and beaches), and street scenes, points of transition, the speaker drifting through a downtown area into neighborhoods. “I wanted to be wholly transparent” that narrator states, and would consequently “tell people details of my activities,” though she never discloses why she shares herself in this way.

One gathers that perhaps she’s motivated by alienation—she retells of experience from a period when she withdrew from others and makes frequent reference to insincerity, social acceptance, “incestuous” group behavior, class, rejection and shaming, major themes for Scalapino. Her mood, when she’d “go out,” is elevated, yet her treatment of others decidedly impersonal. A notable aspect of those excursions is the foggy sense of progression. The diction suggests that fog located in how she focuses, for the speaker frequently uses of locutions like “I had the sense,” “it seemed,” “I felt,” “the feeling I had,” “the sense I had,” as if she was negotiating at a disadvantage, perhaps not knowing what her role is. There’s likely no formal plot, but there is development, for whereas initial sections function by disassociation, she gradually projects forward, indicated by increasing use of auxiliaries “might” and “should.” In some instances, the narrator also talks hypothetically as if sketching a play:

The sense I had of a man on the street was that he had a family yet was ambivalent toward the place or setting at that moment, an area where there were small businesses and restaurants, and not where he lives. There shouldn’t be anything sexy say; he should be in a normal state and have no sex actually occur then or around that time and then have it occur later. Have slower ability. (133)

This emergent “setting” provides an orienting sense of what should occur, according to how it seems, for the speaker projects a situation she’d have agency over. Inasmuch as Scalapino tracks “motions of mind,” the verse traces that bridging of interior to the outside; yet as a critique, she would dismantle the illusion that the two are separate (i.e. her alienation).

As suggested, related gestures occur in that they were at the beach, her second major collection, and I’d show briefly how voicing plays out there, if less overtly.[2] The title poem, for instance, opens by focusing on a recalled volley ball game between schoolgirls, Scalapino’s team getting “creamed”:

Playing ball—so it’s like paradise, not because it’s in the past, we’re on a field; we are creamed by the girls who get together on the other team.  They’re nubile, but in age they’re thirteen or so—so they’re strong.

My initial point is simply that this is biographical, and the passage functions as self-talk. The opposing girls are remarked as “nubile,” but all girls are the same age, “thirteen or so.” The speaker’s puberty is at issue—she’s “immature in age.” Second, tone proves crucial. After the above observation, there’s a parenthetical comment (dropping down one bar), and perspective and tone change:[3]

(No one knows each other, aligning according to race as it happens, the color of the girls, and our being creamed in the foreground—as part of it’s being that—the net is behind us).  (17)

Asides ordinarily involve a tonal marker, but this one also reveals an underlying structure, and Scalapino slides into a third tonal register in the passage following this, labeling that initial scene “a microcosm” and “so it was an instance of the main [public] world” but one of girls only. Collectively, such perspectives join with others in a deliberately incoherent sort of jigsaw, one that’s in flux, all pieces “groundless.”

In terms of my argument, another obvious feature is the layering of these perspectives, how Scalapino cinematically blends states of dream, waking and memory, as well as provides past, present and future in a single fabric, “seamlessly.” As a consequence, her speaker negotiates inner worlds of dream and the outer public world as a single event, by a singular kind of imagining. Several underlying conflicts push the poem onward and, as often occurs in Scalapino’s work, a series of violations follow: a mugging, a strike, a drunken transient thrown from a restaurant, two thefts, the speaker cheated in selling a car, offending a new boss (a lawyer no less), a riot, an arrest and court scene, and more.

There’s also continuing focus on the linkage between clauses and on predication. The poem is riddled with logical connectors, “therefore,” “because,” “for that reason,” “since,” “so that,” and they are brought to attention by their predominance and seemingly illogical use.[4] Semantic relations are scuttled, and there’s an endemic vagueness. But if I’m granted that her method is mimicry, it would be inaccurate to say Scalapino is impersonating someone “other” than herself—again, these are biographical incidents; the author’s subjectivity is the subject. Nor would it explain much to say she’s being facetious. But it would be odd to ascribe the illogicality to Scalapino, even though the writing resembles, by ellipsis, fragmentation, and grammatical shortcuts, someone talking to themselves—or to borrow Scalapino’s term, ventriloquism, Scalapino as other. What her connectors signal, rather, is that she’s making what Wilson and Sperber call “interpretive use” of those linkages, much as one does with metaphor, hyperbole and irony. That is, her use of causal links is interpretive rather than descriptive, not directly as thought but as “disassociated” from thought, “echoed” in Sperber and Wilson’s terms (138-9, 142-52), or for my purposes, detached from thought. The attitude expressed relates to their imaginative use, rather than to her beliefs.

One sees this tracking of mind most clearly in the “Chameleon Series,” at the conclusion to that they were at the beach, where the mind’s convolutions are manifestly in focus. In the opening verse, for instance, the speaker confides that

I think of the passers-by

in the vicinity as

not having that thought—of urinating outside

It was a warm afternoon

I was worn out—not because of them

though aware

of it then.  (65)

She opens by thinking back to “passers-by / in the vicinity,” imagining their not having thought to urinate in public—a social violation—though that negation presupposes that earlier she thought they had thought to urinate. She’s rethinks that. It’s a projection.
This series also makes conspicuous use of line breaks as indications of voice. In the second verse, note how the speaker guides intonation of “bourgeoisie” by line break (as well as rhythmically highlighting the formulaic “in the vicinity”):

A man—this is the bourgeoi-

sie

as it happens

is going to the store in the vicinity,

the people who’d I’d thought had urinated

being there—my only afterwards having thought that they had done that.  (66)

When Scalapino reads this aloud, she halts at “bourgeoi- / sie,” to convey uncertainty, and therein “bourgeoisie” is hoisted into prominence, although that this speaker would label persons in this way tells us more about her than about them.[5] To label someone “bourgeois” isn’t a complement and bespeaks a social distance; she gives no supporting detail. That she “only afterwards” thought they’d urinated outside—not really a bourgeois trait, is it? especially in a group setting—is added abruptly to clarify exactly when that thought occurred. That is, it forms part of an explanation, part of her sorting through experience, Scalapino miming Scalapino.

In the third verse, she discloses herself as belonging to the bourgeoisie:

They were warm—my

walking by them

—This is—myself as well—the bourgeoisie

but with

my

being very depressed then

The feeling of depression coming from me.  (67)

The speaker notes that her depression is distinct from thoughts about the passers-by. Her concern after all is with its source. Mark as well a preoccupation with sequence, imagined as causal. The focus isn’t on statements per se, but on consequence, hence her mention of “and so I thought of them,” that is, she’s focused on modulations in how she perceives the situation, her iterations, her thoughts.

Whether or not anyone had urinated isn’t (of course?) made clear, because what motivates the poem is (at least in part) whether she can predicate an act or property to those passers-by that doesn’t also implicate herself, inner and outer.[6] Her thought of urinating outside becomes their thought of urinating, then it’s negated. Their being bourgeois is her being bourgeois, and their pleasure becomes her pleasure, consequently her thought of pending death later becomes their death, for in this context, the “they” is what creates her world, her thought, through the mechanics of social fabrication. The series is an instance, as Scalapino later wrote, of a syntax that “pairs one’s interior . . . with the outside social context that is creating it” in order to arrive at “the origin of interior and the origin of outside at once” (R-hu 64-5).

Safe to conclude, then, that the author assesses thought through her speakers, as distinct from “self,” a self able to reach a point of “no experience,” yet the texts are marked by dissociations, by distance from thought, hence the doubling effect. To state that differently: As with Whalen, the speaker’s inventions are under scrutiny, and Scalapino’s early narrators stand in as mimes to disclose those as inventions, a tracking and critique. To that point, she remarks, in her interview with Ed Foster, that one struggles “with the fact that the entire fabric of what one is seeing and writing is illusory, but is very focused in an attempt to understand the thing you’re observing” (Foster 34). The “dropping of that construct,” she notes of Whalen’s work, “would create a different history” (How Phenomena 136). Elsewhere, she mentions poets have “mutated and become ventriloquists who speak ‘inner’ unspoken ‘movements’ and various types of speech at the same time.” Such miming constitutes, she explains, both a demonstration of thought and of action (Public World 26, 56).


[1] That is, to avoid obscurity or ambiguity in conversation (27).

[2] In turning to that book let me add, as Scalapino’s work evolves, projects gain in scope, vocabulary changes, and the more obvious aspects of voice, the focus on conversation, say, drop away.

[3] These are clearly marked by tonal shifts when Scalapino reads this aloud (at the Ear Inn in 1984) and I speak to that performance—for the miming is vocal at base. This reading is online at Penn Sound at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Scalapino.php

[4] To that point, in a Segue Panel on “Language Poetry and the Body” in 2007, Scalapino spoke of how, in parts of that they were at the beach, she had widened the distance “between instigation and any aftereffect so we can see in reading there being no cause and effect” (2). She understands cause and effect as a form of cultural fabrication.

[5] Scalapino’s speakers are acutely sensitive to racial and social ranking, as her dislike of hierarchies (racial or otherwise) and comments on waitresses and the homeless attest. In the opening seven verses of “Chameleon Series,” the speaker uses of “bourgeoisie” and “bourgeois” sixteen times. In way, her third book, she likewise hyphenates “so-cial” and “con-vention” in telling ways, and often reads declaratives with a rising (interrogative) intonation, changing statements into questions.

[6] In what follows, when she mentions dying, death is projected onto a man seen entering a store. Then discussion shifts to “life coming apart,” and the effect that dissolution has on others— “that life / causes the other / lives / to come apart” (87) and “mine // coming apart—when—or because / theirs / does” (85).


Bibliography

Bernstein, Charles. Content’s Dream, Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon,        1986.
de Man, Paul. “Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory:  Riffaterre and Jauss.” In Lyric            Poetry:  Beyond New Criticism. Eds. Chavia Hosek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1985. 55-72.
Foster, Edward. “Interview with Leslie Scalapino.” Talisman 8 (Spring 1992): 32- 41
Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
Holsapple, Bruce.“On Whalen’s Use of Voice.” Paideuma 35.3 (Winter 2006): 119-63.
Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P,             2004.
—. “The Portrait of the Language Poet as Autobiographer: The Case of Ron Silliman”2/14/2020.
http://marjorieperloff.blog/essays/silliman-autobiographer/#ixzz6DwwIYfXz

—. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1991.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Illuminations and Other Prose Poems. Rev. ed. Trans. Louise Varèse.   New York: New Directions, 1957.
Scalapino, Leslie. Considering how exaggerated music is. San Francisco: North Point,      1982.
—. Green and Black: Selected Writings. Jersey City: Talisman, 1996.
—. How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold. Brooklyn: Litmus, 2011.
—. “Interior Scrutiny: Example of H.D.” In H.D. and Poets After. Ed. Donna Krolik.
Hollenberg.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000.
—. O and Other Poems. Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1976.
—. The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1999.
—. The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion, A Trilogy. San Francisco, North Point,
1991.
—. R-hu. Berkeley: Atelos, 2000.
—. that they were at the beach. San Francisco: North Point, 1985.
Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd ed.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Stein, Gertrude. Writings 1932-1946. New York: Library of America, 1988.
Whalen, Philip. The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. Ed. Michael Rothenberg.
Lebanon: Wesleyan UP, 2007.
Wilson, Deirdre and Dan Sperber. “Representation and Relevance.” In Mental
Representations: The Interface between Language and Reality. Ed. Ruth M.
Kempson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1988. 133-53.


Bruce Holsapple is a retired speech-language pathologist living in central New Mexico. He earned a PhD from SUNY Buffalo in 1991 and has published essays on William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, John Clarke, and Philip Whalen. He has published seven books of poetry, most recently Wayward Shadow. His book-length study of Williams’s poetry, The Birth of the Imagination, was published by the University of New Mexico in 2016.

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“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”

 

“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”:
Early Scalapino, Late Whalen
Part One

by Bruce Holsapple

                                                                  —1—

Leslie Scalapino’s tangled, darkish narratives would seem remote in approach from Philip Whalen’s emotionally varied—variegated—lyrics, yet Scalapino repeatedly championed Whalen’s work, and the two, beyond friendship, had affinities. Both regarded their poetry as investigating subjectivity and both proposed dismantling conventional ways of seeing—stripping perception of its overlays—in projects that entailed not only transforming their own thought processes but challenging the reader’s as well, seen in Scalpino’s adoption of a singular phrase from Whalen, namely, that the poetry be designed to “wreck your mind.” At a less than obvious level, both innovated on the lyric subject, the speaker, as the vehicle but also in the manner (speaking) by which they’d accomplish that goal. To that point, their self-reflexive meditations on the role of self in perception would open both author and reader to states of mind that confound conventional thought. An important route, then, into Scalapino’s work is through that speaking subject, and in the following, I’d bring Scalapino’s insights into Whalen’s uses of voice to her own early poetry, making evident the importance that voice has in her methods.[1] I also would tease out how that might change readers.

A part of my title comes from Whalen’s 1964 “Preface” to Every Day where he explains the book’s intended effect on readers, speculating on poetry as

A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines—“continuous” within a certain time-limit . . . to move smoothly past the reader’s eyes, across his brain: the moving sheet has shaped holes in it which trip the synapse finger-levers of reader’s brain causing great sections of his nervous system—distant galaxies hitherto unsuspected . . . to LIGHT UP. (Collected Poems 835)

The poems would read as a moving sheet or fabric that’s designed, like musical notations for a player piano, to trip keys—synapses—in the reader’s brain, demonstrating unsuspected areas inside. The notion of such a fabric is central to Scalapino.

Whalen also talks of his poetry in 1959 as “a picture or graph of a mind moving,” the poem focused upon self-exploration, but explicitly not grounded in representations of self or in assertions and insights—rather in “motions” of mind as it composes, another point Scalapino picks up on. Here’s an oblique instance, the opening lines of “Birthday Poem,” written during his first visit to Japan in 1967:

Thank God, I don’t have to write a poem
All those primulas raving potted hybrids
Mossy brim of brick fish pond

Only the biggest yellow-flowering one
Saves this day from death’s vagrom fingers gloom & sad

Thank God none of those who read my poems don’t see me
Don’t realize I’m crazy, what book shall I carry with me
Lonesome for my own handwriting

A year among strangers, the Japanese all are mad
They look at me, can’t forgive me for being funny-looking (571)

One can read this cranky, slightly paranoid stuff at face value, as representing Whalen, but the ironic opening feint, expressing his relief at not feeling compelled to write, obviously untrue—his use of hyperbole and the coy double negative, deft use of imagery, rushed phrasing and oddly sophisticated vocabulary, all signal a sensibility that counters taking the comments at “face” value. That is, there’s a doubleness at play between the author and speaker, a reflexive seeing through that makes palpable Whalen’s insight into his own processes.[2] More narrowly, this doubling effect posits distance between speaker and author, even though that speaker is given as the author. Such renditions indicate that self is under scrutiny, chiefly in terms of whether or not one’s perceptions are reliably representing the world. Obviously they’re not. That is also to say, Whalen plays upon a self-reflexive region between the speaker—himself—and the author—himself—in a sort of pantomime, resulting in a calculated but telling goofiness, a calculated, telling exasperation with self.

“if you exist any day you are not the same as any other day no nor any minute of the day because you have inside you being existing.”

There are five places where Scalapino discusses Whalen, all contained in the second edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. I’ll focus on three. The first occurs in the title essay, developed from a 1989 Naropa talk on poetic form, where Scalapino speaks to “Birthday Poem” (above) and focuses on “how one sees (locationally and spatially) within the work composing an order” (116), an often illusory order, and on the apparent simultaneity of events occurring inside the poem. That is, Scalapino stresses that although “Birthday Poem” was ostensibly written on Whalen’s birthday, it was composed from notebooks written over the following two years, simultaneously but disjunctively presenting past, present and future as unified, for locale and time shift without markers. I’d add here that Scalapino restricts this talk to aesthetic experience, how phenomena unfold inside works of art. That restriction doesn’t hold for all of her statements on past and future, but for simplicity, I’ll stick with that.

How things appear in “Birthday Poem” emerge from both inside and outside, she explains, specifically, from inside the speaker as the subject (perhaps “in” a location) and from events “seen to be ‘outside’ and really therefore called up thus seemingly created” (116). It’s from the outside that an impression of history occurs. Scalapino then quotes from Gertrude Stein’s “Narration” (which Whalen had quoted), on the gnarly topic of inside and outside, where Stein distinguishes experiencer from experience in terms of what’s existing and what’s happening. The outside continuously occurs, Stein points out, which one knows because “inside” that event, and “if you exist any day you are not the same as any other day no nor any minute of the day because you have inside you being existing.” She then elaborates: “well the inside and the outside are not the inside and the outside inside,” that is, the two don’t exist totally “inside,” nor can they happen totally outside.[3] Happening and existing—difference and identity—are interdependent; they require each other, and Scalapino reads them as simultaneously creating each other. At the conclusion of this talk on form, Scalapino states she’s concerned “with the sense that phenomena appear to unfold” inside her work and asks “(What is it or) how is it that the viewer sees the impression of history created, created by oneself though it’s occurring outside?” That “outside” informs our view of the poem, but we bring that into the poem. It’s a social construct. She proposes alternately that it is by moving through “multiple perspective ” in which “viewer and speaker are ‘within’ (being its inside) the work, [that] allows reality to leak from many holes all around” (127).

In an “Introduction” to Whalen’s Overdrive: Selected Poems, Scalapino advances on two thoughts. Whalen’s writing, she posits, “is imitation of his own speaking,” a ventriloquism “which by being sensitive scrutiny of himself is actual conversation” (139). This is the self-reflexive doubleness I’ve mentioned. But inasmuch as his “sound/shape” constructions are mind-phenomena [140]), made “overt as voices simultaneously as their being the ego of the speaker,” so constructing the poem displaces that ego (“wrecks the mind”) (139). Second, Scalapino talks of Whalen’s writing as “the occurrence of time as being, or being as time” where past, present and future occur simultaneously, for in his work there are layers or levels that result from writing about or within what the mind was doing at various times and locations—multiple perspectives or “layers as states of mind as if these are the sound/shapes that’s the writing” (140). These discrete layers are presented without explanatory connections, disjunctively, and such poems become in effect “history as disjunction,” wherein the impression of history comes undone: “all times being brought together and separate simultaneously (‘wrecks the mind’) is there being no ‘history’ then” (140). As regards our reader, “The syntax and structure of the poetry imitates or duplicates the process of the reader’s own mind-phenomena, so that one is reading as going through the process that is one’s own mind” (137).

Scalapino expands on these observations in “Language as Transient Act,” an introduction to Whalen’s Collected Poems. She again refers to the simultaneity of past, present and future of time-as-being, although here that simultaneity relates to the leaping effects in Whalen’s verse, for one often must jump from phrase to juxtaposed phrase, without explanatory linkage, that is, jump between perspectives, inside and out. The lack of linkage leaves one the impression, she notes, that such phrases produce each other, arise simultaneously. This allows the reader’s mind “to be nowhere in formation,” disengage from constructing an explanatory coherence for the text. “So the present is only empty there (has no nature as itself, is words) and the future and past being a series of such presents-without-entity appear to arise from each other.” She terms this the disjunctive present, “which is no-separation of self and outside” (132-3). That lack of separation relates to a Buddhist notion of “free fall,” phenomena arising as in a “giant web where the only reality is the imposed inter-relations of the entities.”  The mind recognizes that “entire fabric of constructed order” as produced by mind itself and so goes into free fall, nonattached (134-5).

All avant-garde movements, Scalapino contends, would break down or otherwise remove a barrier “between the spectator/reader and their being that present time,” that is, their being both inner and outer, a project she also speaks of in terms of puncturing through an illusory mind/body split, similar to the holes through which reality was (above) said to leak. Whalen’s project, she posits, is an “examination of mind itself as shape and movement itself, or stillness, even extending that movement or shape to see the mind as inseparable from history . . . .” (129-30). By focusing on self-talk, Whalen turns inward, toward what Scalapino terms “interior scrutiny,” using voice as a means by which to explore mind as it composes—to observe himself observing. The purpose behind this doubling is a liberation—obviously a freedom from illusion, but further so that one arrive at a “point of no appearance” (123).[4] Scalapino further argues Whalen’s writing “is sound schemes, frequently the leaps and omissions of conversational exchange whose space and process are active mind phenomena. Conversation,” she elaborates, “implies more than one voice, also implies the mind creating self, and simulation of history, the inside and the outside together” (132). As a result of this doubling: “The attention of the mind (of either the speaker’s, or the reader’s or listener’s) in reading the text or during the performance, is neither in nor outside of that experience” (123), where “the mind examining the mind is the point of no appearance” (124). The mind recognizes mind as phenomena, yet finds itself outside of that experience, dismantling history as ‘a hierarchal construct that conceals relation” (130).[5] I read this disclosure of interrelation as a major motive in her own work, and I read the detachment as self-reflexive, “a gesture regarding itself” (Public World 51).

The triviality of the speaker’s pursuits, often presented as a struggle, is the focus, a sort of Mad Magazine in verse. In point of fact, most of Scalapino’s early speakers are in some way peculiar. They don’t fit socially and often imitate others as a way of belonging.

                                                               —2—

Scalapino obviously speaks to her own project through Whalen, and her insights are readily transposed to her work by way of her use of terms “mime” and “imitate.” In her introduction to How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold, for example, she speaks of her intention “to mime and demonstrate—be (and be seeing) the process and the instant of—the inside and the outside simultaneously creating each other . . . .”  She speaks of one essay as imitating H.D. (in order to understand her), of another as mirroring Ron Silliman’s concept that “syntax mimes space,” and of others, collectively, as imitating motion as gesture, with late essays as sound-structure-syntax conceptually miming cultural terrains (1-3, 6-9). Surely, then, mime is a recurrent strategy. In one late essay, Scalapino also speaks of her “methods of ‘examination’” as creating (a view of one [in]) a seamless reality” in order to prick holes in it (270), that the light funnel through, much as she earlier described punching holes in appearance (Green and Black 1; Phenomena 211). Scalapino’s miming, then, simultaneously tracks and critiques. That’s where a doubling emerges. The mimicry occurs by way of the lyric subject through the use of voice, and Scalapino talks of this doubled aspect as a “speaking” that goes past the bounds of speaking (Public World 56-7).

Use of mime occurs in her first published book, O and Other Poems, 18 lyrics, chiefly in first person, where her speaker emerges as an interpretive problem. Below is “Whistler.” Note how cleanly her narrative is structured: theme, complication, development, and resolution:

I wanted to be a champion whistler.

As an exercise I decided to capture in whistling
the buzz of a fly.
This is difficult because I could pay no attention
to the tune
but mimicked the stumbling of the fly from one key
to another.

At first it was necessary to whistle on scrambled
notes
and often these were shrill and painful
or very low
(the exact buzz impossible to render).

But finally I succeeded in a facsimile.

What’s that noise? people asked me
at first annoyed as I sat whistling on the living
room sofa
or broke into a whistle at the breakfast table.

They recalled something
however distant.

It’s the sound of the buzz of the fly, I said.     (No pagination)

Her ambition to be a champion whistler foregrounds a telling eccentricity, and note we’re signaled immediately to focus on the speaker rather than through the speaker to a topic, because if that ambition wasn’t odd enough, the speaker would accomplish this by imitating a fly, does so by mimicking how it “stumbles” from key to key. In contrast, the formal precision of her conclusion (“the sound of the buzz of the fly”) announces that this rendition is accomplished. She’s caused the audience to recall “something / however distant,” just as the author slyly mirrors something in ourselves, our own pretension. Note also that the speaker lives with intimates—the context is social, perhaps familial, kitchen table, couch—yet her perspective is that of an outsider, addressing the others as “people,” and she annoys them with that whistling. Nor does she ever finish her story, for that isn’t the point. And I don’t think the author is simply making fun, although this poem does seem part of a running joke. A second poem speaks of watching a fly, a third of separating M & Ms by color (before eating them), a fourth of staring at the ceiling, a fifth of cleaning one’s room by an odd numbering system. The triviality of the speaker’s pursuits, often presented as a struggle, is the focus, a sort of Mad Magazine in verse. In point of fact, most of Scalapino’s early speakers are in some way peculiar. They don’t fit socially and often imitate others as a way of belonging. But the poem operates by transgression, by spurning an expectation of what poems should do—literary convention—even though this poem presents itself in a perfectly polite way, as a straightforward narrative in first person (with unadorned diction and conversational rhythms) of an unusual—tellable—experience. That is, there’s a dichotomy between its status as a lyric and its significance as such, for the speaker never discloses anything of significance. It refuses to play that game. Although portending to be guileless, it violates our expectation of disclosure, if not also how we produce meaning, invoking instead imitation of a fly. It likewise flouts Grice’s cooperative maxim of Relation.[6]

Voice becomes a more conspicuous focus in Scalapino’s first major collection, Considering how exaggerated music is, where the credibility of her speakers is flagrantly at issue. The first section, hmmmm, for example, opens with someone who reports upon a prior speaking event. The curious opening line reads: “Consider certain emotions such as falling asleep, I said.” That is, the speaker has asked a prior audience to consider falling asleep to be similar to anger, fear, and fainting, for she feels that sleep is induced in her—it’s a time when blood is “forced into veins,” causing her (for one) to lose focus: “My tongue is numb / and so large it is like the long tongue of a calf or / the tongue of a goat or of a sheep” (3). “What’s more,” she positively loves this sensation, and when in private, she bleats. “No wonder I say that I love to sleep,” she concludes, as though she hadn’t known quite why she’s moved in this way. As Marjorie Perloff points out, her argument isn’t logical, and Perloff discusses how “decentering the subject foregrounds the artifice of the verbal process,” how Scalapino again plays with convention (as before), and how her language simulates “ordinary speech, with its short phrases, irregular rhythms, and gratuitous repetitions” (Radical Artifice 50-1). That might be pushed further, for the speaker’s relationship to the prior audience would seem central. Why, for instance, did she ask them to consider falling asleep (on one’s feet no less) to be an emotion?  One infers this prior occasion was a testimonial. We could ask, then, what is there about such “emotions” that she’d testify to? For there is a submerged argument about affect at play, about surrendering everyday consciousness to sensation, such that losing one’s focus (and one’s speech), when blood is “forced” into the arteries (not the veins, as she’s said), induces pleasure, and further, that uncovering these “emotions” testifies to an underlying element in human nature, a sort of inner animal. But if Scalapino is putting us on about this element, to what purpose?

The second poem opens, “Suppose I was [sic] thinking something, say, not knowing I was thinking it” (4), so again the topic of thought is invoked, such that acting without knowing what you think and losing focus are linked. In this segment, a dog approaches her with its tongue “lolling” and “whining the way human heads / loll forward in sleep and whinny,” sounds that are similar to our own sounds. But, she adds, it was “something so hesitant and low” that she compares it to “a neigh, the way we neigh, not thinking, when we are nervously mimicking a horse” (4), that is, she’s again broaching a boundary between human and animal in terms of thought. “So,” the speaker states—with “so” being a sign of inference, “I mimicked him, the dog, right back.” letting her tongue slide forward between her lips, “really laughing” (4). That inference occurs, as does her mimicry, on the basis of kinship, shared features. One wonders, consequently, what unconscious thought might have motivated this? And if we listen to that opening line (given recourse to the use of voice), the speaker’s stress on “was” above indicates her retelling is (once again) part of an argument, with the concession that she may have subconsciously thought this out, as in, “Okay, suppose I was thinking something,” but without knowing quite that she was thinking. Can one think without knowing you think? Perhaps. But if so, what happens to cogito ergo sum?

Perloff discusses this speaker in a second essay, citing another segment from hmmmm, this one about an encounter with a woman on a bus.[7] A stranger pretends to lose her balance and grabs the speaker by the arm, pinching her hard. Perloff comments, “But of course the real focus of this paragraph is not on the stranger but on the ‘I,’ who reads . . . sinister motives into the most ordinary of incidents. Somehow—how?—her mind’s not right, or is it that her suspicion is merely the emblem of the larger, depersonalized, tooth-and-claw survival of the fittest that characterizes the postmodern metropolis?” (How Phenomena Appear 269). Perloff’s reference to Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is a calculated one—she reads Scalapino’s poem as employing a confessional model in order to “turn it inside out” (Radical Artifice 50). Scalapino’s speaker concludes:

Though I believed    (looking at her sideways,
and seeing only that her lips were parted slightly, with her snout
breathing softly)     that during the two or three minutes
in which this pain lasted, she was saying (or at least I imagined                                                                                                     [so
from the length of time that she held on to my arm
before releasing me)     I wish that I could make you yelp just                                                                                                  [once .  (21)

Perloff considers this piece and the overall tone of hmmmm to be “just barely controlled hysteria” (269). But Scalapino felt that Perloff misread her and objected (in an essay) that she wasn’t being represented by that subject “I,” nor was that “I”  projecting a malignancy (in the head) onto an urban landscape. Scalapino also discloses that the above segment was built from a dream that had “in it an earlier event from childhood,” so involves three perspectives. She comments: “In the real (childhood) event I’d noticed someone wasn’t human (a woman pinching me viciously with a gleeful expression in her eyes) and so realized I had a conception of that (what’s human)” (269). The question of what is or is not human is helpful. But those described events weren’t representing something, Scalapino insisted. They were “motions in space and commentary on these”—where “motion” clearly relates to Whalen’s “graph of the mind moving,” that is, with tracking the mind—and were intended as “breakdowns of prior constructions of events,” emphatically not “proceeding as doctrine.” Tone in hmmmm, Scalapino responds, “was actually very intentional—what is laughing? The tone gives the reader a surface that is non-readable—disingenuous and facetious and sincerity-as-vulnerable really being exactly the same. So it takes ‘one’ outside of socially controlled exchange” (Phenomena 269-70), in effect, I’d add, wrecking the mind. Mark that Scalapino doesn’t want her poem sewn back into a fabric she was at pains to unravel. Being disingenuous, I’d also note, violates the Gricean maxim of Quality.[8]

Acts of miming and pretend, of peering into mirrors and of seeing oneself as ‘other,’ a mountain, for instance, or a gosling, comprise most of the episodes of hmmmm. Imitation is its primary mode, the ticket out.

There’s much in hmmmm that’s facetious, many jokes, preposterous gestures, disingenuous things confessed, and perhaps a cover up (of one’s vulnerability), for there’s also much that’s sincere. The “tonal surface” is nonreadable because the text doesn’t indicate ways to distinguish between those gestures. This particular poem expresses related ambiguities. But when ambiguity is intentional, readers don’t require that such gestures to be separated. “How as I to know,” the speaker laments, that a stranger would fake losing her balance in order to injure me? Perhaps she couldn’t know. She’s an innocent, as some of Scalapino’s figures are. Mark however that in pretending to fall the stranger preserves a social “veneer,” and that the speaker is careful not to look at her directly—that is, she doesn’t violate personal space—so that the transaction occurs in secret. The stranger parts her lips to show her canines, but surreptitiously, “slightly.” The duration of her pinch signals it’s intentional, but that’s also a secret. The speaker’s response? She believes, perhaps imagines the woman to be saying “I wish you would yelp like a dog,” namely, show yourself also to be canine. Yet what would that show, besides the stranger’s dominance? It would make her inner nature public, get the speaker “down on all fours” as Scalapino later phrases it (19). This message, however, unfolds inside the speaker and elicits, according to Scalapino, the opposite, recognition of what it means to be human.

Scalapino elsewhere rejects interpretations based on exemplification and content—she counters that her work is “contentless” (“Interior Scrutiny” 206; Public World 50-1). That is likely because it’s “in motion,” “a gesture regarding itself,” self-reflexive (Public World 51). At the risk of reinstating what Scalapino wished disassembled, however, there are elements intended to be linked, thematic subjects, and ways to approach this text, in Scalapino’s terms, as both writing and critique, especially so when through the speaking subject, for almost all of the segments in hmmmm are expressed in first person, by someone given not only as a young woman, but a poet named Leslie (17, 25, 29), and this person coyly confides in her readers, so an exchange of some sort is at stake. Although what she confides is subject to interpretation, the occasions are noticeably public and the tone intimate, offhand. Her topic however is invariably private, for these segments function as disclosures.

I’d go further, for I read the poems as impersonations, but not impersonations of others, although Scalapino does that too—rather, impersonations of “Leslie” imagining herself as other, through the use of mimicry, voice, and in this section of the book, she imagines herself predominantly an animal, with kinship to other creatures, hence her emphasis on imitated sounds and her calculated childishness (sticking out her tongue), but enabled as well to participate, say, in the social life of a dog, for they often respond positively to her, even though the woman above does not. There are projections involved—she likewise sees through herself to the animal in others, as above, in reference to the woman’s snout and teeth. Note however that the observation was marked as the speaker’s imagining.

Scalapino makes that project most evident in the following segment:

As Rimbaud said,   I thought today sitting in the library
absentmindedly leafing through a book on the habits of birds,
isn’t the way we find happiness precisely by losing our senses
(oversimplified, of course, I was being    facetious.) But still
I can see imitating a bird’s call such as that of the fledgling
of a goose or a swan (here I referred to the book) by forcing
myself into a swoon. And,   by way of finishing the thought, I,
for the sake of appearances, since there were people sitting
in the chairs around me, merely sagged forward in my seat and
whistled as if I were asleep. Ssss, it came out, sort of a hiss,
like the noise of a goose. So, almost before I knew it,
I followed this by a low and guttural cough
and leaned forward simply to expel some phlegm. Then quickly
I took a glance around before I wiped my mouth. Feeling weary.  (17)

Citing Rimbaud’s Lettres du Voyant above on the “disordering of all the senses” is a giveaway, even if the speaker disavows any intention of finding happiness by “losing her senses.” While it’s perhaps “oversimplified” for her to seek happiness in that way, it’s also a bit more than that (even when you’re being facetious). This is a literate speaker, and Rimbaud’s intent was not to find happiness or even to “lose” his senses. It was “to arrive at the unknown,” to disorder his senses in order to become a visionary.[9] The account deviates from Rimbaud in sloppy deliberate ways. She absently leafs through a book on bird habits and lays out her plan: “But still / I can see imitating a bird’s call” by forcing herself into a swoon, although again she’s sensitive to social context, pretending to be asleep at the table. Could she actually accomplish this project in a public library? No, this is pretense. Yet note how careful she is to “complete” her thought, that thought is again the topic, and almost before she notices, she’s spitting on the floor. The speaker has marked affinities with our other, earlier champion whistler, and she imitates birds in order to eclipse an unstated but markedly human dilemma involving thinking, in order to get beyond that dilemma, by secretly experimenting with consciousness, an imaginative escapade intent on altering perception.

Acts of miming and pretend, of peering into mirrors and of seeing oneself as ‘other,’ a mountain, for instance, or a gosling, comprise most of the episodes of hmmmm. Imitation is its primary mode, the ticket out. And tone of voice is critical. “So far,” muses one woman, “the idea of the dog’s bark is sim- / ply the way I have found to describe a man’s sounds.” (One man is said to be led by his mistress as on a leash.) But “How can I help myself,” another queries, from thinking about men, with all their kissing and barking, “as being like a seal,” for as she reveals, “I am fascinated by the way a seal moves” (11). Or again, “Isn’t it interesting how a woman like me / pursues in man after man / the same face or even same foot or hand” (6). That is, being likewise compelled. And obviously, to read such passages without attending to tone of voice—voicing—is to miss altogether their intention.


[1] Most critics talk of “voice” as a figure of speech (most famously, de Man), but the importance of sound in poetry indicates that the figure derives from the function of voice. Linguistic rhythm, after all, can’t be determined without recourse to voice. By voice, I don’t mean “psychological parameters” unifying style around a “notion of self” as “the primary feature of writing” (Bernstein 407-8). I mean a package of events above the phonemic level, the suprasegmentals: stress, intonation, loudness, pitch, duration, juncture, rate, and focus, what linguists term “prosody,” and what Pound formulated as the total articulation of the poem. That would include punctuation, line breaks, and spacing.

[2] I speak of this doubleness in detail in “On Whalen’s Use of Voice.”

[3] Stein reiterates: “The inside and the outside, the outside which is outside and the inside which is inside are not when they are inside and outside are not inside in short they are not existing, that is inside, and when the outside is entirely outside that is is not at all inside then it is not at all inside and so it is not existing” (346). Stein also talks in this lecture of “at the same time while you are listening to be telling inside yourself and outside yourself anything that is happening . . . .” (342), i.e., the same doubleness.

[4] The phrase occurs in a poem by Steve Benson which Scalapino quotes and discusses.

[5] Experience for Scalapino is a matter of convention, social fabrication (e.g. Return of Painting 202).

[6] Grice posits that a “cooperative principle” underlies conversation, and he provides four norms or maxims, those of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner. The maxim of Relation is that the speaker make contributions appropriate to the needs of the transaction (28). My point is not that the poem should obey this norm, but that, inasmuch as the poem portends conversation, deliberately violating that maxim becomes an interpretive factor. For advances on Grice’s model, see Sperber and Wilson.

[7]The essay originally appeared in Critical Inquiry 25 (Spring 1999). When Perloff republished the essay in Differentials, the passage on Scalapino was excised. The original version, however (as of 2/14/2020) is posted on Perloff’s website http://marjorieperloff.blog/essays/silliman-autobiographer/#_ednref7. I refer largely to passages that Scalapino quotes in her response to Perloff.

[8] The maxim of Quality involves not saying what you believe to be false (27). Being false in a poem is an interpretive factor, one that runs the risk of having the poem discounted entirely. That’s not the case here.

[9] Rimbaud’s famous first letter to George Izambard reads partly: “Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a visionary: you won’t possibly understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point.” Rimbaud follows this with another comment relevant to reading Scalapino: “I is some one else. So much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin . . . .” (xxvii).


Bruce Holsapple is a retired speech-language pathologist living in central New Mexico. He earned a PhD from SUNY Buffalo in 1991 and has published essays on William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, John Clarke, and Philip Whalen. He has published seven books of poetry, most recently Wayward Shadow. His book-length study of Williams’s poetry, The Birth of the Imagination, was published by the University of New Mexico in 2016.

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Beyond Haiku

Beyond Haiku

“If Western poetic originated in the Greek encounter with drama, giving us a crucial interest in mimesis or representation, Japanese poetic derives from encounters with lyric poetry. . .assumed from lyricism that literature is distinguished from other human activity by human response to something that moves one.”         —Ezra Pound

Chain of Fools
Haiku, like jazz, is an indigenous form that has worldwide appeal and popularity. Just as there are musicians from Finland to New Zealand who come together to play jazz, an African American music, there are poets who hail from Austin to Zagreb whose sole focus is haiku, a hybrid and distinctly Japanese poetry. Artists the world over have claimed jazz or haiku as a universal source for their creativity. Few of them are Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, Basho or Buson, but they all contribute to the resonance of their adopted form. To participate in playing jazz requires an assured virtuosity with a musical instrument. Haiku requires nothing more than felicity with one’s own language and a sense of place or grounding. A musical note is the same the world over. Not so with language or culture. Imagine if anyone who wrote haiku had to write it in the language of its origin. There would undoubtedly be more people learning Japanese, but proportionally fewer people writing haiku.

What is haiku’s appeal, particularly among Western literary cultures? Is it a certain transcendence that requires no greater conceit or rhetoric than the actualization of the moment? Could it be a mysteriousness that hints at the profound while remaining impenetrable and ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations like a Magic 8 Ball? Maybe it offers a metaphysical key to unlock the mysteries of the self and the possibility of epiphany. The embrace of haiku by foreigners or “gaijin” might very well be a rejection of the stale, conventional, irrelevant, and overbearing baggage that is Western literature.

Haiku, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg. That iceberg is Japanese literature at whose synthesis Westerners will always be amateurs. Perhaps to mark the distinction, non-Japanese haiku should be called “gaiku.”  So many Western writers of haiku have no clue of haiku’s origins and literary backstory yet come on like aphoristic factories spewing pretentious platitudes in the guise of cosmic synchronicity.

The Real Dirt On Haiku
Haiku has taken on a life of its own in the West, hybridized with lineation, free from the strictures of syllabic count while the practitioners insisting on arcane rules to establish rites of passage in an effort to maintain a borrowed esthetic purity. The constraints imposed are just as tiresome as any found in Western prosody. Westerners want their poems regimented in stanzas. The concept of stanza in Japanese poetry may not have existed before its translation and appropriation. Traditionally, the haiku is a one line poem. Hiroaki Sato, in the translator’s note to Hosai Ozaki’s Right under the big sky, I don’t wear a hat, cites the critic Sugaya Kiuo, “The haiku is a poetic form based on the contradiction that, while making a bisectional structure an inherent part of it, it never externalizes that structure as a two line poem.”

Lineation in haiku overlooks the rhythm of syllables in a five-seven-five pattern while emphasizing the syllabic count for each line. Nor are syllables in English equivalent to vowel rich Japanese phonetics. The five-seven-five rhythm is analogous to meter in Western prosody in that it serves the native flow of utterance. The dominant natural rhythm in English is apparently something close to iambic pentameter. If succinctness of utterance in accepting discourse with the moment can be transformed into poetic significance, the gulf may be crossed between Japanese and Western haiku. Utterance is framed by what came ahead of it and what will follow even if it is only a pause or silence in a colloquy of utterances (speech flow).

Japanese culture is highly attuned to sentiment. Traditional poetry is pure sentiment, sentiment of the instant tinged by the past, and expressed as an affirmation. And it works at a very elemental level. Sentimentality has a universality similar to music. Gaijin attempting the same ultimately fail. Why then does the same expression of sentiment seem so clichéd and weighted with affectation, and, with few exceptions, sound a false note in the West? The formality of sentiment in Western poetry cushions it, and that formality, fraught with allusion, interposes itself between the sentiment and the utterance. In Japanese poetry there is no such separation between the two to lessen the impact and attest to the genuineness of the sentiment. It is an unflinching grasp of mortality that those schooled in the afterlife will never get—their sentiment equivocates.

Because of its perceived simplicity and succinctness with a strong sentimental signature, haiku in the West has become a literary confection, a poetry snack. Yet at one time haiku (or properly, hokku) played a primary role as the opening stanza of a collaborative group poetry activity known as haikai no renga. 

Dog Renga
Basho, Buson were not haiku poets. Each was recognized as a haikai master and for their opening verse, the hokku, in haikai sessions. Hokku functions as the opening utterance to haikai no renga’s poetic colloquy that can number anywhere from twelve stanzas, known as a sishan, thirty-six stanzas, kasen, and one hundred stanzas, huyuken. It is composed collaboratively by two to five poets or practitioners of “dog” or commoner renga in a verbal volleyball contest with rules as complex as those of chess or Go. It should be understood that when designating the linked parts of the haikai as stanzas, that this is a label applied to a literature whose development is totally outside the purview of the Western canon. In vowel rich Japanese, the five-seven-five syllabic units are a rhythmic construct whose roots go back to call and response harvest songs, as are their responses, the seven-seven syllabic cap,.  The poems were not, at the height of haikai popularity, arranged into three line or two line stanzas—that is entirely a western adaptation, some might say aberration. Early translators of Japanese poetry into European languages would not or could not accept poems consisting of a single line and converted hokku then haiku by breaking them at their syllabic joints which essentially maimed in concept and execution what is unique about Japanese poetry. Ironically, in the minimalist phase of Americano poetry in the 70’s, one line, even one word poems were not unheard of and effectively render the original objection moot.

In Basho’s time, late 17th Century Japan, haikai was at the height of its vogue. So popular was haikai no renga that schools sprang up like mushrooms or martial arts studios and spread like crabgrass. Collections of seasonally appropriate hokku were guaranteed best sellers. The compilers, like anthologists, privileged examples of opening stanzas from among their own cadre. Schools were very competitive and successful haikai teachers such as Basho and Buson had many adherents among a largely marginalized professional and mercantile class. The aristocracy and upper echelon samurai practiced renga, the older traditional form of linking poetry.

Haikai’s popularity was such that how-to-guides consisting of seasonal word cribs, charts to indicate when a seasonal word could be used, gridded pages with cues to composition, and notes to myriad salient points of process were published and in huge demand. Eventually, over the course of a few centuries, the form became tired and banal to such an extent that writing haikai resembled paint-by-numbers. Shiki, a late 19th Century Meiji era poet, was haikai’s severest critic and helped popularize the hokku as a poem of its own unique value designated as haiku. The ensuing popularity of haiku was a cultural shift away from the collaborative poetics of renga, haikai in particular, and reflects the influence of Western individualism.

You Really Don’t Know Haiku
Haikai is at the source of haiku, and if you don’t know haikai, you really don’t know haiku. At the core of Japanese poetry is a meaningful call and response custom in the linking of verse, a folk tradition appropriated by the pre-millennial aristocracy of the Emperor’s Court and made into intimate and stylized exchanges between courtiers which lent itself to the rhythmic utterance of waka (poem) as a personal deeply felt awareness of being in the world connected to a respondent by intelligent sophisticated sentiment. In the introduction to The Thousand Marvels of Every Moment (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019), Pat Nolan writes, “The courtly love culture of medieval Japan adapted the folk tradition as the exchange of verse between courtiers requiring a cap or response to bring the poem to a subtle esoteric often erotic resolution. Eventually the practice transformed into a unified singular verse, the waka, a poem of two minds as the literary affectation of one mind.” Tanka is the modern name of this thirty-one syllable poem. At the heart of renga and haikai is waka, the poem of two minds returned to its original colloquy of call and response but now as an exchange of erudition, wit, empathy, sympathy as well as scatological humor and thinly veiled eroticism. The resonance of one utterance of a seventeen syllable five-seven-five rhythm is attenuated by the modulation of the responding utterance’s seven-seven rhythm.

As Earl Miner examples (Japanese Linked Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1970; The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, Princeton University Press, 1981) in his rendering of haikai no renga by the leading haikai poets of their time, waka is always present. In linking, the call and response, response and call form a chain of individual poems whose syllabic count are waka’s thirty-one, and contribute to the exacting depth of composition. Poets linking to previous verses must also be conscious of the waka that will be brought into existence as part of the process of linking and how that link might affect the composition of the following poet’s contribution. Additionally, two sequential verses may address continuity but the subsequent verse should not. The rules of haikai discourage the thread, the piling on of like circumstances to infer and continue a narrative. The result is an unfolding of unpredictable yet purposeful discontinuity. As well certain turns in the composition are pre-designated moon or flower (blossom) verses to return focus on the literary occasion. The intended purpose in the composition of haikai no renga was to memorialize the seasonal moons and cherry blossom viewings as well as test the participants’ wit and sensitivity in a unique cultural challenge. Collections of successful haikai sessions were in popular demand and their model defined the esthetic of communal composition as well providing kaleidoscopic narratives whose finesse was in the lyric sentiment evoked. Sato in his One Hundred Frogs (Weatherhill, 1983) points out that haikai written in any other way than in the immediate presence of the other poets has the tendency to produce too many sparklers (show-offy links) which disrupt the subtle flow of complementarity with untoward displays of ego.

There is no denying haiku’s appeal. For Ezra Pound it represents “an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time.” The compression of meaning unpacks as a stop action flower blossoming out into an intuitive comprehension of the moment. Haikai, on the other hand, is the art of utterance engaged in lyric conversation, of spontaneous speech. Each expression is its own solar point and shines its light on the semantic system in its orbit. Subsequent utterances, no less integral, signify with their own light until a galaxy of many meaning systems emerges. And it may be that all Japanese poetry is part of a dialogic, a discourse, from court poetry, poetic diaries, to renga and haikai. Haiku and to an extent tanka suffer from Western individualism when practiced outside the discourse, though in effect they are satellites to the discourse and not necessarily excluded.

Why Isn’t Everyone Doing The Renku?
So why aren’t more poets, particularly those who specialize in haiku, engaging in haikai activity? Not that the activity is absolutely unknown in Western practice. The long shuttered Simply Haiku magazine hosted a column by David Darlington featuring various examples of haikai no renga now referred to as renku by contemporary practitioners. William Higginson’s online encyclopedia of Japanese arts related to haiku has multiple examples and articles on contemporary renku. There are even examples of renku practice as a peripheral activity among poets whose primary focus is more in line with modernist Americano canons. Included in the anthology of collaborative poetry, Saints of Hysteria (Soft Skull, 2007), are linked verse by a number of better known American poets including Maureen Owen, Elaine Equi, Amy Gestler, and Keith Kumasen Abbott. Poetry For Sale (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2016) is such a selection of haikai no renga composed by a diverse group of poets not identified with haiku coteries. Just as the practice of tanka and haibun has gained in popularity similar to haiku, haikai may be the ultimate poetry interaction of that particular tradition. Ideally haikai requires the engagement of more than one person, the potential for delightful ambiguity exponentially expanded with each participant. The biggest sticking point might be overcoming the convention that writing poetry is a solo activity. Haiku related poetry is unique in its complexity as well as ability to touch all the requisite resonances that strike the chord of a common humanity.

And composing renku can be compared to playing jazz in that it allows each poet in the session to contribute to the whole in a collaborative effort that is shapely and skillful and arrives at its final form as something unthought, unplanned, but still in possession of all the right cultural tropes. As well, participation in a haikai session can be a highly entertaining and rewarding endeavor. The close almost telepathic work of a jazz combo on a small stage is analogous to a trio or a quartet of poets in close quartered haikai improvisation. Yet renku, as a modern hybrid, can be pulled together outside the constraints of the in-person assembly. The poets featured in Poetry For Sale wrote their renku through the US mail over a span of thirty years, often taking months to complete a thirty-six verse kasen. There were many sparklers but also much commentary and discussion among the poets in a learning process based on informed inquiry and practice. Later examples were completed via email which sped things up considerably, and the communication was such that it was conceivable that poets could renku in a way similar to an in-person session through email exchanges to a chain of participants. It has undoubtedly been done and is old news now. The potential for distance haikai sessions was given a boost with Twitter and the advent of what is known as twitterture.

Twitterture
The complaints are legion as to what social media is doing to the literate experience, degrading it, downgrading it. To be sure, that is happening to a certain extent. But the lesson learned in this increasingly complex technoverse is how to manage expectations. Things are no longer black or white but viewed as a spectrum. Technology is faulted by saying “Digital devices discretely hijack our attention.”  In some sense they are like the orgasm ball in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. They give instant feedback, whether pleasurable or anxiety producing. They also support, like a cast of the dice, the implication that the next instant might be surprisingly different given the seemingly infinite amount of information available, and promote self-reinforcing addiction-like behavior. Twitter, in particular, is called out as epitomizing the transition from using the written word as a means to think to using language as a platform for self-promotion, exhibitionism, and other permutations of the post literate spectacle.  There are those who might argue that in some respects it is a throwback to oral culture, as befitting a cognitively superficial activity. Yet what it really feels like is a forward pass. Toward the colloquy of the lyric and away from the isolation of the page.

What Twitter (and similar media) highlights is the underlying fragmentation of language strings as a normal process of building or weaving those loose strands into a larger context of meaning and communication. There is an underlying genius natural to language as wit or epiphanies or lightning insight that takes two thousands of a second to find the appropriate words and string them out as mots justes. Twitter exposes and expresses the elements of language by the word limit constraints related to the syllabic count of haikai and haiku. The trend toward succinctness reveals the communal nature of language. To organize the large swaths of fragments as a cohesive whole would require a certain amount of skill and education, say that of a poet or poets.

In Twitter is found a new medium for poetry, renku in particular, as it allows for individual, reflexive, wry, self-deprecating perceptions and whimsical social commentary as utterance and that as a chain of utterance, puts itself ahead of the narrative. Social media such as Twitter would seem ideal for the practice of linking verse in the renku manner. (This has no doubt also been done.) Threads outline the designated poets’ links with each other until the requisite number of stanzas is reached. Once complete, the session and the various stanzas are opened to commentary. A moderator of course, usually a ranking poet, as even haiku poets can get unruly with the passion of their righteousness. Renku then becomes a play of incredibly literate complexity. Which poses the next question: should twitter situated poetry collaboration still be called renku? Might it not be better known as twitterku, or maybe just twiku? But caveat lector! Just when you were getting comfortable writing with your thumbs along comes Zoom. The prospect of Zoom renku sessions looms. The interaction are more visceral, the subtleties of expression more evident, offering a greater complexity and depth to the post literate literary experience. Could Zoom-ku  (zo-ku?) conceivably be in the future of literature, a way to engage in collectedness rather than separatedness?

North American English (Americano) has a noticeable range of culture and regional expression but its general tendency is for taciturn, terse, understated, often ironic, sometimes exaggerated utterance. Writing Americano poetry utilizing a Japanese form seems like an ideal match of linguistic inclination. The only shortcoming is that in competitive Western culture there is a propensity for one-upmanship. Haikai no renga can be thought of as a poetry of consensus within a formal field. Perhaps it would be better practiced by women or with women whose presence might lessen occasions of chest thumping and encourage a constructive mindfulness. On the other hand, cutting wit is in no short supply if examples of twitterture by women are any indication. Wit and unpredictability are as prized as sensitivity and compassion in haikai linking. It is a quality often on display in the twitter feeds of woke (or semi-groggy) individuals even if the usual fare is fodder for the snark tank. The rules of renku and the tech of social media would seem like just the tools to fashion a genre beyond haiku. Someone should give it a try.

Submitted to the membership by
the Parole Officer
12/01/2020


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This Heaven Where We Live As Music

Rounding out Philip Whalen Month is a previously published succinct and insightful review of The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen by Keith Kumasen Abbott who has authored numerous essay and lectures on the American poet and Zen monk appearing in this blog: Nothing Is Forever. Rhythm-A-NingLittle Mag Art. A Diamond Wired For Sound.

This Heaven Where We Live As Music

by Keith Kumasen Abbott

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. Edited by Michael Rothenberg, Foreword by Gary Snyder, Introduction by Leslie Scalapino, Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Zen Priest Philip Zenshin Ryufu Whalen lived so intensely that he often needed to share these experiences. He characterized his urge thusly: “My concern is to arrange immediate BREAKTHROUGH/into this heaven where we live/ as music.”  Toward his goal he wrote enough for his large Collected Poems to display the startling breadth of his interests and talents.

            Typically, chronological collected poems are for scholars, and editor Michael Rothenberg has performed those duties splendidly, especially by the inclusion of Whalen’s revealing Prefaces and Essays about his poetic and contemplative practices. In Whalen’s works the scholarship possibilities prove rich—encompassing artists of the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation, the history of West Coast Zen Buddhism and Whalen’s uses of the American Song Book, jazz and avant-garde music.

            Essentially a poet of celebration, Whalen sought out those contemporary artists who gave him their permission to illumine moments “for yr. own joy” as his friend Kerouac advised. This volume also illuminates Whalen’s constant engagements with past poetic and philosophical masters. As Gary Snyder notes in his Foreword, at Reed College Whalen went beyond “our official modernist mentors Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Williams and Stevens” to use “Pali Buddhist texts” to fashion “poetry out of the territory of those readings.” 

            His stylistic roots were also nourished by 18th Century English writers, Swift, Gibbon and Johnson; then extended through Austen, Blake and Whitman. From 1949 forward, his early poems emulated Eliot and W. C. Williams’ poetics.

From “Advent”:

To make the necessary simplification
Of all the orthodox confusions
So elaborately wrought
In our bereaved seclusion 

Dry wit, abstract feminine rhymes, and the assonance of “or-tho-dox with the unrhymed line’s last word “wrought” are reminiscent of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”.

From “November First”:

At the bus stop
I saw two crisp spiders
Each clamped onto his own slowly warming stones
Black stars in the unexpected sunlight. 

The precision of the spiders’ placement in an urban landscape first, then the spiders morphing into a cosmological metaphor, also resembles a Williams’ trope.

            From the mid-1950s on, the Zen tradition of living in each moment fully (and often humorously) remained his main resource for his breakthroughs. Whalen continuously monitored and revealed his ecstatic and darkest contemplations. Stylistically, his motto seemed to become “Why not?”  In his guise of an acerbic yet delighted hermit, Whalen composed his idiosyncratic comedies of Zen arrows and errors meeting in the mid-flight. From his Kyoto book-length poem Scenes of Life at The Capital:

At home, the vegetable supply
A Dutch still-life set on reversed lid of nabe
Half a red carrot half a giant radish half a head of hokusai

A completely monumental potato
China will sail across big Zen soup to me

THE BAD NEWS INCUBUS SERVICE

            They peer down through my ceiling
            “Poor old man he’s too fat to live much longer.”  

            In “Friday Already Half-” a 1963 meditation on sunyata, aka the void, Whalen invents patterns very close to Zen philosopher Dogen’s remarkable paradoxical concatenations of negative logic, years before his essays became widely available in English. (In the early 1980s Whalen became a co-translator of Dogen with Kaz Tanahashi.)  

The unthinkable is not a blank, not a non-entity
Not to be dismissed as imaginary, not death, not sleep  

            During his habitual deep doubts Whalen can be as bleak as Hakuin during that master’s most blunt and scathing self-assessments, pointing directly at our tangles of desire and impermanence.

From: “For C”:

 .  . . I can’t say that being born is a chance
To learn, to love and to save each other from ourselves:
Live ignorance rots us worse than any grave. 

And, from “Unfinished, 3:xii: 55”:

A single waking moment destroys us
And we cannot live without
Ourselves

You come to me for an answer? I
Invented it all. I
Am your tormentor, there no
Escape, no redress

You are powerless against me; You
Must suffer agonies until you know
You are suffering.

Work on that. 

This embodies Whalen’s dramatic version of the essential Buddhist truth that all our thoughts have no self but thoughts maintain that illusion, thereby creating the roots of our suffering.

            Technically, Whalen’s work sometimes resembles a funhouse mirror version of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. Some commentators call his freewheeling poems either mobiles or collages; in either case, the most diverting verse techniques commingle. A giddy cartoon bubble caption may link with very complex poetry, as in “I Return To San Francisco”:

RIGHT NOW

If I had a pet rabbit right now
I’d pinch it & make it squeak
NOBODY pays any attention to me & I really need LOTS
                                       of loving

*

Since you won’t come to me
I’ll think about mountain cypress trees
Something has taken the bark away the wood weathers orange & twisty 

Such juxtapositions create a comic portrait of our forlorn narrator, one simpatico with Ginsberg’s desperate yet slapstick narrator in “America” and with Kerouac’s hapless yet eager amateur mountaineer in The Dharma Bums. All three authors shared an appreciation of Krazy Kat comics and their buoyant visual and verbal farces.

            In the last stanza Whalen’s classical musical training, love of jazz and meticulous poetic ear produces improvisations on tetrameter rhythms with an evolving pattern of displaced accents, shifting meters and masculine and feminine rhymes. He expands from a condensed four-beat first line to an irregular iambic pentameter second line. In the third octameter line a caesura divides it into two four-beat lines—the first slightly variable iambic tetrameter, the last compressed and beautifully irregular.

Something has taken the bark away / the wood weathers orange & twisty

Of the Beat Generation writers, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and Whalen display the most sustained skillful uses of jazz rhythms—i.e. condensed and expansive motifs and resolutions. All celebrated the heavenly bliss and energy that jazz aroused.

            Truly spontaneous art arises from long hard practice, and for Whalen Western calligraphy was a daily routine. His works were first written in his Italic hand. Such disciplined exercises created his best concise lyrics but also fueled his most wayward and minor productions. Rothenberg’s inclusion of calligraphy may spark a revelation, i.e. in “March 1964” where the extravagant swash serif capital letters enhance the presentation of “What’s your platform? / Ressurexion / Renaissance / Total Paradise.”  Or these extravagances may irritate readers and verify for them Whalen’s indulgent self-absorption.

            Whalen dated most poems. But this is no poetic diary, like The Pillow Book, due to his intentions and compositional methods. Whalen’s longer poems arrange main themes and conclusions without benefit of Shonagon’s dramatic characters, domestic settings and societal structures. However, their finales are assiduously imagistic and/or anecdotal, as in his longest poem, Scenes of Life at the Capital, the decayed temple trees.

Another propped up with poles and timbers
Part of it fixed with straw rope
Exploding white blossoms not only from twigs
And branches but from shattered trunk itself,
Old and ruined, all rotted and broken up
These plum trees function gorgeously
A few days every year
In a way nobody else does.  

His mid-size lyrics are organized around innovative rhetorical improvisations; usually rhythmic pictorial resolutions end those, too. From “Birthday Poem”:

 Awake or asleep I live by the light of a hollow pearl 

            In a late poem Whalen himself denied his status as “a great POET!” and characterized that notion as “Misunderstanding brought on by overpayment.”  He’d surely be as modest about these 799 pages. Still, in its scope, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen is uniquely Zen, American and Whitmanesque; it does contain multitudes and masterpieces.


End Notes
For an overview of the Buddhist structures in Whalen’s long poem ‘Sourdough Mountain Lookout” and his poetry in general, see Bruce Holsapple’s “A Dirty Bird in Square Time: Whalen’s Poetry” in Continuous Flame, A Tribute to Philip Whalen (Fish Drum, Inc. Vol. 18/19).
For an analysis of Whalen’s poetic use of a Zen koan see Abbott’s comments in  “Satori Kitty Roshi Style (Or, Enlightenment Practices For Stones)” as a pdf here
For an account of Whalen’s relationship to jazz structures, specifically Thelonious Monk, see Abbott’s essay “Rhythm-A-Ning”  here.


Keith Kumasen Abbott (1944-2019), poet, novelist, scholar, ordained Zen monk, and calligrapher, authored numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).


NEW TO THE SOCIETY’S SHELVES

Kent Johnson, Because Of Poetry I Have A Big House, Shearsman Books, 2020
Barbara Henning, Digigrams, United Artist Books, 2020
Ekl Parts, This, Farflungland Editions (letterpress, limited), 2020
Iklipz Dopplur, Tapered Pitch, Farflungland Editions (limited, letterpress), 2020
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon Press, 1969
Samuel Beckett, Mercier And Camier, Grove Press, 1974
Joseph Stroud, My Diamond Sutra, Bancroft Library Press, 2016
Sandy Berrigan, The Tall Man, private edition, ND
Sandy Berrigan, Crow Poems, private edition, ND
John Johnson, Idiomatic, private letterpress edition, 2013
Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless, Grove Press, 1988
Joel Dailey, Futures, The Moron Channel, 2020
Sotere Torregian, Hardware, Fell Swoop, 2020
Gherasim Luca, Invention of Love and Other Writings, (trans. Julian and Laura Semilian, intro, Andrei Codrescu), Black Widow Press, 2009

 

 

 

  

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In Close Proximity—Part Two

In Close Proximity—Part Two

Excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect, came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufu would be of interest to others. It takes place during a golden decade (early 70s to early 80s) of the San Francisco Zen Center in what Whalen called his “life of elegant retirement,” and covers a period of 18 months. This is Part Two of excerpts from the unpublished manuscript.


—10 May 81—

Philip and Joanne Kyger gave a poetry reading together at the New College last Friday night. Years ago Philip had been enamoured of Joanne, but she’d left him for another, younger man. Philip had then written some stunning heartbroken poems. So the evening had a kind of edge to it. Philip and Joanne seem friends now—a kind of rough and tumble affection. It does sometimes get rough. Carol said it right when she compared them to Ralph and Alice of The Honeymooners.

"Joanne Kyger" reduction print from the Smoking Poets series

“Joanne Kyger” reduction print from the Smoking Poets series

They came in together about 8:15, Philip holding a bowl full of nasturtiums, and they began to complain immediately. Philip started up about the lack of air in the room, and Joanne too about that, and the light. Couldn’t they rearrange the room she wanted to know.

Philip said, “It’s alright, there’s nobody here anyway.” Which wasn’t true. In addition to the Bolinas crowd and the Zen contingents, there were writers and listeners of many kinds—about 80 people. Joanne wore a clingy black dress, slit no small distance up each thigh. She looked great. Philip wore blue jeans, his blue China jacket, and a cap. Carol said he looked sexy.

While we were waiting, Carol asked me if Philip got nervous before giving a reading. I said to look. He was sitting slumped in plastic chair, watching Joanne fuss. From time to time he issued loud, leonine yawns. The fact that he wanted to go home early and get to bed was a point of contention in his repartee with Joanne.

Joanne announced that she would read first, though only for a short while; then before the break Philip would read, “So he can go home and go to bed.” After the break she would read again. “Did that take long?” she asked Philip in front of everyone.

He slowly and elegantly raised his arm, turned his wrist, inspected his watch. Joanne asked several times, after finally beginning to read, how long she’d been going. Sometimes Philip just laughed at her and waved her on; sometimes he told her. Once he gave minutes and seconds. Joanne began to warm up to her work and forgot to ask about time. She read very well, and once going, seemed reluctant to stop.

“Do I have time for one more?”

Philip frowned a giant theatrical frown, raised his watch to eye level, squinted at it, her, it, the audience, and finally smiled. Joanne, of course, had already begun the poem. She read zippy Bolinas life stuff—kind of funny and delightful.

When Philip rose to read, he hitched up his pants, held On Bear’s Head aloft and said, “Now I’m going to read all this really heavy, beautiful poetry, and bring you all way, way, DOWN!”

It turned out to be the opposite of that. He electrified people, and his many little asides and jokes were loudly appreciated.

“I don’t understand,” he said, at one point. “This is all really, really SERIOUS, and HEAVY! It’s all about REAL LIFE and SUFFERING and like that.”

He read from On Bear’s Head, Severance Pay, and then a long take from The Diamond Noodle, which commanded enthusiastic applause. He continued with material from The Kindness of Strangers, Enough Said, and finally from loose sheets in a folder, which were handwritten.

Early in his reading, which ran 40 solid minutes, Joanne interrupted him and said, “Do you realize Philip that you haven’t ONCE looked at your audience? Not once. You just keep looking down that book. You’ve GOT to look up at people…,” she trailed off, laughing hard. As soon as she had started this little speech, Philip had taken a bookmark from On Bear’s Head and walked toward her, holding it with his arm extended in front of him, as if he were approaching Dracula with a silver cross.

“I want them to read the book,” he said, and went on. Joanne saucily asked permission to move to the back so she could smoke.

When he began to read from Enough Said, he called out, “Where is that girl? Where is she? Oh! Yeah, OK, this is the one you said you didn’t understand. Now listen carefully—it’s really quite simple.”

When he finished, Joanne said, “Well it is kind of HARD, don’t you think?”

“No, not at all—it’s perfectly simple. Oh well.”

At the conclusion of his reading, Philip received a fine ovation, and made ready to leave. Joanne rushed to the front to clutch him. “You’re not leaving now are you? Please, please stay. You remember, we made a deal. You can’t leave now, just stay for a while. It won’t be long.”

Everyone hushed to see what held do. He turned slowly from packing his books, and said loudly and distinctly, in the voice of an ancient prophet, “The tongue of a strange woman is sweet as honey, but her latter end is bitter…as…GALL!” The last words were an emotional growl. The room sort of exploded. Philip calmly packed his books and sat back down. Joanne called for a SHORT break.

After it, she read poems from a folder. Philip sat very attentively in the front row, guffawing at every joke, raising his eyebrows at little outrages, but completely stonewalling any Buddhist references. She mentioned one of the members of the Tibetan pantheon in a questioning tone of voice, stepped a step closer to Philip, and paused a little for some help. He just looked up at her with interest, and blinked. Joanne went on with the poem, but shook a loosely formed fist at him, in kind of a sexy way. That didn’t seem to faze him either.

I certainly never heard him read better, and Joanne was obviously a big factor. Carol said she loved seeing Philip like that, “Just so obviously in love…I mean, he sat there like a little kid with his mouth practically hanging open.”

Besides all the nudging from Joanne, I think the bad room actually worked to the poets’ advantage. The readers had indeed been cramped into a sort of a cul-de-sac, while the audience had had a lot of space, because the room opened out in that half. Being literally up against the wall seemed to focus their energy. The crowd, a little drunk, a little high, was just right to push against. It wasn’t a stupid crowd, and it was fundamentally sympathetic, so it seemed that the poets could push pretty hard. Everyone agreed that a very fine performance had been called forth.

Talking about it earlier in the day, Philip had said this would probably be the last reading he’d give for a long time. “It’s hard and it’s boring, and I don’t have anything new to read. I’m only doing it because Leslie (Scalapino) asked me.”

“Oh. Well, did you see that McClure and Corso are reading day after tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he slurred. “I wanna go!”

—15 May 81—

“Oh Gregory’s always like that. Right away he comes on like he’s trying to get me to hit him—you know, to see how far he can push. He always comes around and talks to me later, though.”

We were leaving the McClure-Corso reading at the intermission, because it was so crowded and because we’d had enough real magic to hold us for that night. It had also been a long hard day, and we both had to get up about 4 the next morning. It certainly felt better walking up Columbus St. in the cool evening than it had sitting in the hot room.

We’d left Zen Center early, about 5:15 pm, to avoid the ruckus of setting up for the “Music Night.” Philip also wanted to try out a new restaurant—U Lee—where the Lemon-Chicken dish had been recommended to him by Al Wong. It had been difficult to park, so by the time we were seated my already lousy stomach could stand only soup. We ate, talked, and explained in pidgin English to one of the Chinese women who ran the restaurant that yes, we were indeed Buddhist priests, but no, we didn’t say mantras on our beads.

We told her, “Chan! Chan!” which us Chinese for “Zen! Zen!” We said other things like “Sitting! Sitting! Sit monk.” She did a very funny caricature of a monk practicing zazen, to indicate that she knew who we were and what we did.

After dinner we headed over to the Ecology Center in North Beach, Philip aiding my driving by screaming things: “Oh oh! …LOOK OUT! …Oh GOD! …Oh my nerves! My poor nerves are totally shot to hell.”

It had actually been a beautiful U-turn on Columbus St. and a Chinese guy had just barely beat me to the parking space. Eventually we found another space and started back toward where the reading would be held—an impossibly small room on lower Columbus. Philip began discoursing on what the buildings we passed had once been. He explained first about the Barbary Coast in general, then told me that the pale green building that Francis Ford Coppola now owns had once been home to a newspaper outfit.

“And this Chinese restaurant used to be really high-class. They served smoked duck in here. Now let’s see…” He wandered over, squinting at the menu taped in the window. I came and stood beside him, and found smoked duck. Suddenly a grating voice with a New York accent said, from practically over our shoulders, “It’s a good thing that you’re looking at prices, ‘cause I’ll tell you something. Tonight you’re going to PAY.”

I looked around and saw first tousled gray hair, so messy and massive it seemed to dominate the short thick man beneath it. Then I saw intense, slightly crossed eyes—I looked down into them—and then incredibly crooked teeth. This man was so fired up about how Philip was going to have to pay that I remember him as having smoke coming out of his nose. “I want you to PAY! You hear? Really!”

Philip finished reading the menu, turned around slowly with a smile and said “Hi, Gregory.”

“Listen, I want you to PAY! I paid for your shot with McClure last fall, and I want you to pay tonight, you hear?”

“McClure said he left my name at the door.”

“NO NAMES AT THE DOOR, GODDAMN IT!!” Gregory was jumping up and down. “I DON’T CARE WHAT McCLURE SAID! You pay 4 dollars to go see Star Wars, don’t you?”

“No, man.” Philip said, very cool, very hipster. “I rarely go to the movies.”

“Well, don’t you think you ought to pay for Poetry?”

“No way, baby. I never go to poetry readings.”

Gregory smiled and hugged Philip and said, “How the hell are you anyway?…. Listen, you know the best part of you ran down your mother’s leg?”

Philip laughed and got red. They started down the sidewalk together, Gregory with his arm up around Philip, talking at his ear. “What do I need you for, I already got one asshole.” Philip laughed again, but I couldn’t understand what was going on.

“You know, you’re looking good. How does it feel down there?” Gregory reached down towards Philip’s ass crotch, and groped there for a while, the both of them still walking along.

“Feels good. Feels real good.”

Philip nodded in assent.

“But you know what,” Gregory said, as they arrived at the Ecology Center. “I want you to PAY!”

“Fuck that shit,” Philip said calmly. “I’m going home.”

Gregory went inside and told everybody not to let ANYBODY in, unless they PAID! Philip and I stood around on the sidewalk in beautiful North Beach, and I suddenly felt I needed a doughnut and coffee. I walked back up to Winchells, got one and came back. I paid and went in. Philip was inside, sitting by the door.

“Did you pay?”

“Of course not.”

The Ecology Center was crammed to the rafters. Both Micheal and Gregory read their newest poems very well, and the crowd cheered and clapped and shouted and stamped after each poem. It was very hot and electric. Philip sat near the door “so I can get out first.” He held his hands cupped around both ears, and kept asking me, “What did he say?” He thought, somehow, that both poets had done well.

At intermission we stepped out, and Gregory came out on the sidewalk and stood with us. “Great, Gregory. Really great.”

“You like the new poems, then?”

“Oh yes.”

“You know,” Gregory said, pulling down his reading glasses, dead-pan expression and Yiddish accent, “I don’t think I live this poetry life too good, you know? I mean, like you—you stay in one place, you’re patient, like that. But me? I’m always crashing through, you know what I mean?”

Philip threw his head back and bellowed with laughter. Then he put his arms around Gregory and said, “No, Gregory, it’s OK, ‘cause you got the real genius.”

“Take my picture!” Gregory shouted to an angel-faced guy with a camera. “Take my picture with the MAN!” While the guy was shooting, Gregory noticed me. “Where’d you find him? Zen Center, I bet. Huh?”  Then, “You got my picture with the man?”

Philip tried to introduce Gregory to the photographer. “Do you know Chris….”

“Yeah I know him,” Gregory said, and made a down-waving gesture with his hand. He suddenly seemed dejected—almost as if Philip’s attempt at civility had been a bring-down. He walked away. I heard later he’d been pretty wild in the second half of the reading.

Philip and I started up Columbus. “Gregory’s always like that….”

—30 June 81—

The great poet and teacher Ted Berrigan was in town for 5 days last week, with his two eldest children, David and Kate. He came to give two readings and two talks, which constituted a “Residency” at 80 Langton St. Philip and Ted have been friends for several years; moreover they are sincere admirers of one another’s work. Ted said this time, in a talk on the genesis of his own poetry, that in 1963, when Donald Allen came out with his anthology, New American Poetry, the book contained very little, if anything, in the way of a formal ‘breakthrough.’ There were breakthroughs, he conceded, in terms of stance. He then singled out Philip’s poems and said that they had indeed seemed different, but that he, Ted, couldn’t think of them as breakthroughs simply because, “Philip was already through. He was just doing it…. But it turns out,” Ted went on, “Philip Whalen is just this big hick from the Northwest who has everything going for him.”

“That Ted Berrigan,” Philip said one day in the small kitchen. “He knows a thing or two. He’s a real toughie.” These are Philip’s highest praises, practically for anyone.

“Is he the priest?” somebody asked.

“NO!” Philip said in exasperation. “Ted Berrigan lives with Alice Notley. You know old Alice. Well, she’s a genius, and Ted has kept up all these years at a very, very high level, and they have these little babies, and they all live in dire poverty, which is located in New York City.”

“They have no money?”

“Well, Ted you know, I mean he’s just incredibly fat and he lies around in bed all day eating Oreos and drinking Pepsi, reading junk novels and writing gorgeous poetry. Oh—and taking pills. He must be in terrible shape by now.”

 

“Ted” linoleum print from the Smoking Poets series

Ted did seem in physical pain this trip, but also conveyed a big sturdiness. He is not as fat as Philip is, but he’s much taller. “A monster.” Philip called him when Ellie asked who the Ted we were talking about was.

“Is he Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend?” She’d heard Allen’s name in conjunction with Ted’s acupuncture treatments.

“No. He’s Alice Notley’s boyfriend.”

“I’m not really as in awe of Philip as I’ve been sounding,” Ted said to me, after his first reading. We’d just been introduced, and several of us were standing on Valencia St., listening. He hadn’t sounded particularly in awe of Philip to me, but I’m not objective. “I would like to have a short visit with him, because Alice will strangle me, if I don’t at least go talk to him and seduce him into saying something nice about her.”

Carol, John, and I all assured Ted that we’d make the arrangements.

Ted said, “I’ll get back to New York, and Alice will ask me ‘Did Philip say anything about me?’ and I’ll tell her, ‘No…. Philip didn’t seem to remember you at all….’”

Ted had a long week of readings. First, one at the New College, then 4 successive nights at 80 Langton St. I went to all of it, and Philip asked each day how it had been. “How was Uncle Ted last night?” We couldn’t get Philip out of the house though. On one of the nights, Norman, Carol and I almost managed it, but then Philip said he had dishes to do, and a headache, and that “anything at night was too hard….”

We all three leaned pretty hard on Philip to get him to come, but he made it clear finally that he wasn’t up to it. We ran off without him.

Norman did manage to arrange a visit for Ted to see Philip at home the next day. Ted reported later that he’d gotten a good anecdote for Alice, and then told how Philip had set out cups, and brought tea, and then run into the kitchen. “He came shuffling out,” Ted said, “holding a little can of Pepsi, and grinning an idiot grin. It really touched me. Then he went and got another one!” Ted said it had been a problem to keep Philip from bringing him a third Pepsi.

Ted’s last reading was Saturday night, and Philip finally attended. We’d sort of caravanned down there after a big dinner at Carol’s. After pleasantries at the door with Ted, Philip went in. Ted said he was “still admirer enough and fan enough to be totally flattered when Philip Whalen comes to a reading of mine.”

Ted only read for 30 – 40 minutes. Carol and I sat a row in front of Philip and we could hear him laughing with delight the whole time. It was very wonderful to be listening to Ted Berrigan in front, and Philip Whalen behind. Ted unveiled what he called his “new Anne Waldman style of reading.” When he finished the reading, and with it the Residency, he walked over near us, and squatted next to Philip, remarking that his new style was very exhausting—almost apologizing for the brevity of the reading. Philip wouldn’t hear of it. He had only praise for the work, and told Ted the reading had been “very solid.”

—20 Feb. 82—

The phone rang. I could tell from what Philip said that it was someone from 80 Langton St., inviting him to be the Writer-in-Residence there. Barry Watten and Bob Perelman had approached me earlier, asking if I thought Philip would be interested. I’d told them I’d sound him out. Philip had said yes, he was interested in the $800, but that also right now he was busy three nights a week with classes, and with running a zendo in the days… maybe later, late spring, early summer. He said he wasn’t sure he could come up with anything anyway, but he told me I could tell them he was “interested.”

I passed all this along to Barry, and Philip said it all again on the phone. But whoever it was must have said something to push one of Philip’s buttons, not that it would have taken much in his frazzled condition.

“No, No! It’s all too tight down there. It’s getting very much like Clayton Eschelman-land or something….”

Then there was a long pause.

“No. You guys remind me of the NFR of 30 years ago – you know, trying to run the universe and what not. Who needs it?”

Another pause, then, “Well then, I guess we have to make it ‘No,’ OK?”

“That was your friend Barrett Watten calling about the 80 Langton thing.”

“And you told him no?”

“I’m just too busy is all. I’m afraid he may give you the what for next time he sees you.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I just told him that I wasn’t interested in what he and those kids are doing down there. He apparently thinks 80 Langton St. is this very big deal, and I compared him to the NFR. Then he said I had to tell him yes or no. He said he wasn’t going to hold the door open so I could walk in, so I told him no.”

Philip’s description of the conversation, and actually the conversation itself from his side, the side I’d heard, had been mostly civil. It was interesting that someone should try to tell Barrett Watten anything.

When I got back to Zen Center there were messages to call Barry. A message at Carol’s house too. I got hold of him mid-afternoon, and the first thing he said was that I could give Philip the finger for him, next time I saw him. Then he complained about how he’d been mistreated, and put down, and so on, venting for quite a while. He misquoted and more, to make his case sound convincing. Of course he didn’t know that I’d overheard Philip’s side of the conversation. I didn’t really want to tell him either, but even if I had want to, it would have been hard, because Barry was being pretty put-out and vocal.

I said I was sorry he’d had to go through an unpleasant scene, and I tried to tell him my observation of how busy P. really was, and how sick. I added that Philip was a well-known crank.

“I don’t buy that ‘crank’ business,” Barry said. “I think it’s a specific marketing strategy. It’s like painters who only show their work in certain galleries, so it’s more exclusive and more expensive.”

I tried to tell him that Philip was very far from that sort of thinking, but Barry said he intended to write him a letter…on and on. I mentioned that Philip had turned down his good friend Allen Ginsberg, who’d wanted him to come to Boulder for the Kerouac Conference celebration, and that a year or two ago, he’d also turned down an invitation to some big Lew Welch commemoration.

“I can understand both those decisions,” Barry said. “In fact, I can even understand this one. I just don’t like the way he did it. It was really, really awful.”

Later I related all this to Philip over the telephone. He didn’t seem at all surprised, even at the misquoting.

“People do it all the time. All the time.”

“Oh yeah, Barry did say that I was supposed to give you the finger next time I saw you.”

“Oh! OK. Thank you very much.”


David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (UC Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.

 

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In Close Proximity—Part One

In Close Proximity—Part One

excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufu would be of interest to others. The journal takes place over a period of 18 months, towards the end of Whalen’s 12 years living in Zen Center housing, a period he called his “life of elegant retirement.” These months, directly before the scandal of 1983 tore it apart, was a sort of golden age for the San Francisco Zen Center. David Schneider was 29 years old and had been living at Zen Center for nearly a decade when he began this journal. He arrived in 1972, about a month after Philip Whalen took up residence there. The Zen Center was held in high regard in the spiritual imagination, if not the actual spiritual life, of many so inclined Northern California residents as a place where one could practice intensively, study, live in the city or the monastery, and find work in Zen Center associated enterprises, or on the farm. Many interesting and creative and intelligent people passed through its doors, including the great teachers from every Buddhist lineage. It was a real scene, and Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufuwas central to it all.


—6 March 81—

A very lovely day. To prolong the conversation I was having with Philip in the sun and light wind, I said, “I think this must be one of the greatest American novels,” pulling A Farewell to Arms out of my book-bag and holding it up for him.

“Wha..what do you have there dear boy ? Oh. Oh, well, you have to read all the really SERIOUS American arthers before you can say that.”

“Like who?”

“Oh, you know, really SERIOUS types like Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James….”

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip rarely gives a clear opinion of any author, short of total admiration for him—or her, more usually: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Murasaki Shikibu, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson. Even if he makes a pronouncement about someone’s work, or some part of it, it’s very likely that next time you talk to him about it, he’ll widen the context of that work or that author so as to throw an entirely different light on it/him/her.

Now he seemed to be putting Hemingway down, but I remember the time he typed up a descriptive passage about a lake in a valley, and didn’t credit the writing on the typed sheet. He posted it an the bulletin board outside the small kitchen. A bunch of us were standing around drinking coffee, getting ready for the day, gazing in our usual vacant way at the bulletin board. Philip appeared behind us and asked, “Do you know who wrote that ?”

We all looked carefully at the passage, stalling. I wanted to say “Hemingway,” but I wasn’t sure and didn’t think I could afford the embarrassment.

Philip said, “It’s from The Green Hills of Africa—isn’t it lovely ?”

“I knew it was Hemingway!”

He chuckled, as we all, including him, read it again. It was a lovely passage, but it was even more lovely to see Philip so thoroughly enraptured by the writing as to risk educating us.

During the course of my re-reading Hemingway this time, Philip has spent hours listening to my questions and opinions, and discussing them with me. One day he came into an office where I was trying to type a long dull list, and delivered a two hour lecture on Hemingway: the superiority of the short stories to the novels (“The novels get a little thin sometimes—you can poke your finger through them,”), the history of the writing of The Snows of Kilamanjaro, and Hemingway’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He read aloud from a stack of biographies, and supplemented the stories with his own insights. It was a great lecture, but not at all an uncommon thing for him to do.

Everyone knows of Philip’s devotion to literature, but not everyone can imagine his effort to transmit it. Complicating this is the fact that Philip does not shine as a classroom teacher, or rarely. (A set of lectures on how to read, delivered at Tassajara, was a notable exception.) Mostly, he just doesn’t think classrooms are where you learn. Philip has read, and continues to read all the time everything and is glad to encourage anyone willing to join him for even any part of that. He honestly feels that people have got to find out things for themselves, and this includes developing “chops” as a writer. Here again, though, he is incredibly generous about reading works his acquaintances show him. He can devastate people with his criticism, but he aims to help.

—12 April 81—

Philip asked, “Her name isn’t Somer…Sumer…something is it ?”

Blanche said, “Yes, it is.”

“Oh FUCK , if you’ll excuse the expression. That’s the same lady who’s been writing to me for months, even though I’ve written back and told her I am absolutely not going to tell her anything more than I already have about haiku poetry.”

“She’s this Phd. student from Germany and now she’s arrived here and wants us to go pick her up at the Airporter Terminal. I guess we shouldn’t go too far out of our way. I mean I’ve told her already we couldn’t do it, and even so I’ve been debating with myself about did we have cars and people enough to go get her.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Philip

“I’ve told her she can take a bus or taxi,” Blanche went on,  “but she says she is travelling on scholarship and must be very careful about expenses. And so we should spend the money to go get her, right? I mean she doesn’t say that but….”

“It doesn’t matter, I tell you, because she’s got this IDEE FIXE about haiku. See, she belongs to this vast European society of haiku-writers, and they’ve all got this THEORY, you know, this really heavy German THEORY about haiku, to show how they’re all absolutely RIGHT…. And it’s all INSUFFERABLE TWADDLE ! But the point is, she’ll be here.”

“We could tell her we haven’t heard about Philip Whalen, recently…‘Oh, him, well he used to practice here, but….’”

“It won’t work. People like that are maniacal. She’ll find me.”

“Couldn’t you contrive to have a sore throat or something, and be indisposed to talk?”

“She’d wait. These people will track you down no matter what. They’d follow you into the bathroom for Christ sakes and ask you questions while you’re shitting. I can tell you from past experience.”

“And also, she’s got it all confused about where she’s staying. She says when she was in Los Angeles, the Zen Center there just came right out and picked her up.”

“Blanche! Just face it, she’ll be here in no time, operating 500 miles a minute, and she’s probably just wonderful and so we should just cover her in flowers and incense and Buddhas.”

“But we don’t have to go pick her up.”

“Well, if she says you do, you do.”

Hysteria all around. I said, “Philip, what about if when she arrives at your apartment there happens to be this other young Zen monk on hand….”

“That might be useful….”

“ …who, immediately upon seeing her young, German Phd. body, begins….”

“Gently. Gently, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Oh aw, hell!” said  Philip. “I guess I’ll just go over to the store and buy some garlic.”

“What? To wear around your neck?”

“Right.”

—17 April 1981—

I’ve been reading finally I Remain, The Letters of Lew Welch, and talking to Philip about them, though only a little, because I think his feelings about Lew Welch and talking about Lew Welch are complicated. They were “best friends” and Lew’s disappearance or suicide was strange in the extreme.

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip is usually willing to discuss almost anything, but the stance he’ll take is very unpredictable. He might come on short & irritated, or be very long and rambling; or like today, he might be sympathetic to your interest in finding out about, for example, Lew Welch.

In the section of the book where Welch started getting things published, he wrote many letters about the fine work printer Dave Haselwood did on Wobbly Rock and on pieces by other poets, notably Memoirs From an Inter-Glacial Age, by Philip. I love a beautifully printed book, and I know Philip does too, almost as much as he dislikes an inferior, badly designed, or sloppily executed one. I asked if perhaps he had a copy of the first edition Wobbly Rock and he said he did, nodding his head, anticipating my next request. I therefore went on and asked if sometime I might see this and other specimens of Dave Haselwood’s work.

Before Philip could answer Dan Welch walked in the front door of Zen Center and came over to say hi. Philip and I teased him a bit about Welch’s several letters mentioning Dan—or more accurately, letters in which Dan figures as a kind of hero.

“Aw, it was just one incident…” said Dan, in own defense, but the fact is that Welch had written at least three ecstatic letters about Dan and his older sister. Dan eventually owned up to the fact that well, maybe there was another reference somewhere to some event or another…. Even though Dan was clearly embarrassed by our teasing, he was also not without a pride on the subject.

“I’ll run go get the books,” said Philip, launching himself. “Where are you going to be?”

“Hiding in the Third Office.”

Soon Philip was back with his copies of Wobbly Rock and On Out both old, both lovingly inscribed to him, and both beautifully printed with letter press. I admired them and returned them to Philip, and I remarked that Welch had distinctive, rhythmic handwriting.

“Oh yeah, Lewie made that up himself.”

I went back to work amid the continuous opening & closing of doors, ringing of phones, calling back and forth of all sorts of people. Philip usually watches this with amused detachment, clucking and shaking his head at the amount of complication an outfit like Zen Center, dedicated to silent meditation can manufacture. Today though, he just disappeared. When I got back to my room later, a copy of Welch’s Hermit Poems—an exquisite little book entirely reproduced from Welch’s own handwriting—was sitting in the middle of my desk.

Later that afternoon I formed a plan to get P. to help me on a book design. I was going to have to work in North Beach & wanted him to come along. I fell into step with him as he walked slowly down the Zen Center front hall.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Lec-tur-ring.” he said as he stopped short and turned to face me.

“Oh yeah? Yeah, great,” I started walking again. “And after that what?”

“Oh, I dunno—nothing I guess.”

“Well I was wondering, if, um….”

“Try to breathe dear boy. Stand up straight.”

“Oh, yeah, anyway. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to have the China lunch, and then maybe walk on up to Peter Bailey’s place and look at those type samples I was telling you about.”

“Yeah, O.K. That sounds O.K.”

“Great. I’ll call Peter.”

“Al-right.”

I went away to call Peter, still thinking about Lew Welch actually, and Philip lecturing, and specifically about the time Philip lectured on Lew Welch. It was a couple or three years ago.

Philip came in, did the bows, seated himself, and began to talk about the Four Unlimited States of Mind, a theme, incidentally, he has taken up again. In this first lecture though, he ran through them all rather rapidly, giving standard definitions, and pointing out that really what counted was if you could put them into practice or not. Everyday. This much of the lecture took about fifteen minutes. Lectures usually run forty minutes to an hour.

Suddenly he said “Now I’m going to tell you what I really want to talk about: Lewie. Lewis Barrett Welch. He was my friend.…”

Philip then gave a close account of Lew’s background, and of their friendship. He discussed Lew’s disappearance in 1971,

“I told him, ‘Lewie, it’s a mistake. You shouldn’t have done that.’” He speculated that perhaps Lew was off in Florida somewhere selling insurance or something and would turn up, but that more probably he was dead. He told a few Lew Welch stories and then very carefully read Welch’s Song of the Turkey Buzzard. Philip read this more beautifully than I’d ever heard him read. The times I had heard him read before, he’d just thrown away lots of it, rushing through his poems in machine-gun style. But this time—in fact every time since this time—he’s read the material very clearly as it’s written, whether it was his own work, or someone else’s. (I especially recall him visibly shaken, reading aloud the last pages of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.)

The Song of the Turkey Buzzard can be seen as Welch’s suicide note, and Philip read it with incredible feeling. We were all riveted to our zafus, and many, like me, were in tears. When he finished, Philips said, “I thought I could read this here, in this Buddha Hall, because it is one man’s truth, his Dharma, and so I felt justified in presenting it to you.”

—29 April 81—

I came in from a particularly exhausting produce-shopping trip, and found breakfast at the Zen Center to be (by now) cold cornmeal cereal, yogurt, some nasty-looking peanuts and raisins. I’d been thinking about a Spanish omelette, hash browns, toast & coffee. I’d eat, sit and write in this journal, away from Zen Center and telephones. As I was standing in the front hall, dreaming of this plan, Philip came shuffling by.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was thinking about breakfast, I’m hungry.”

“Well, where are you going to eat it?”

“Nick’s maybe. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Oh, like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

“You ought to go back to bed then, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the truth, I think it’d do me more good to walk around.”

“Well, if you want to come out with me….”

I trailed off. I was tired, this was going to take a long time, and of course, I could hardly write about Philip if I were sitting having breakfast with him.

“If you just wait here, I’ll go get out of this coat, and get a hat.”

“You do want to go then?”

“Yes. I need to walk. And I need a bodyguard.”

We set out. It was a smoggy, hot morning. As we passed the fence where the morning-glories grew, I told him the story about Hammett and Hemingway that Carol had told me. (Carol’s been reading Lillian Hellman) The story was about Hemingway’s bending a spoon in the crook of his arm, then offering Hammett a spoon so he could match the feat. Hammett’s reply, about how when he used to do such things, it was for Pinkerton money and wouldn’t Hemingway like to go roll a hoop in the park?, slew Philip. He stopped, hit his thigh, and howled with delight.

“What’d Hemingway do then? Hit him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well probably if he was sober enough to hear what Hammett said, he’d have hit him.”

“I understand that Hammett was mad at Hemingway for being patronizing toward Fitzgerald, whom Hammett considered to be the better writer.”

“Kid, you know, I hear that EVERYWHERE. Everybody loves that guy—everyone from Gertrude Stein to…Dashiell Hammett now—thinks that Fitzgerald was just the greatest thing that ever was, and it’s NONSENSE I tell you.”

We stepped off the curb by Larry’s Liquors, and started under the freeway.

“He was a magazine writer for God’s sake, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Gertrude Stein says he wrote naturally in sentences.”

I gazed at the lengths of cement block overhead, idly wandering how they’d come apart in an earthquake. “What does that mean—that his thoughts came out the same length as sentences or something?”

“No—he wrote naturally in sentences. It means she thought it was all wonderful and interesting.”

“Well, they made us read The Great Gatsby in high school. Seems like the end of that wasn’t bad.”

“I know,” he said, “Everybody says so, it just sounds like a magazine to me. I mean, he gets some characters set up, sort of, and then in the middle of that book he gets totally lost. He just lost sight of what he was doing, and flounders around, and by the time you get to the big O’Henry ending—who needs it? And besides, Hemingway already told the whole story in The Sun Also Rises, about how if you’re rich and don’t have enough to do, you end up all…you know….”

“Destructive? Not worth it?”

“Not worth it, yeah. And then that other book, his first one, This Side of Paradise was just incredibly popular. Scribners took it and made it really big, and it somehow caught on. Everybody was reading it and talking about it—but, you know, as writing it was just DRECK. The poor guy was a feeb. Everybody loved him though, so that by the time he actually got to Paris, he was already famous. He and Zelda had already jumped in the fountain, and done all sorts of marvelous and expensive things.”

Philip went on to tell several more stories about Fitzgerald. He seemed to know an awful lot about someone whose writing he didn’t like. We turned off a very hot flat Page St. and onto a heavily trafficked Gough St. I put on my sunglasses and said, “You know, I’ve got this idea about Hemingway. I’ve been reading the short stories and I’ve got this theory. It seems to me he was, well, kind of dumb—kind of stupid, but he had all these stories to tell.”

“That’s what he wanted you to think anyway. That’s what he was trying to sell you.”

“You mean he wasn’t dumb.”

“Yes. I know what you mean, though. To read it you’d think there wasn’t any learning or sensibility at all there, when actually there was all kinds of learning and sensibility. But he wanted you to think he was just this big cock and muscles who told stories about going fishing. Because actually, he thought that the upper classes and intellectuals had ruined the world. And they had, to a certain extent—at least they seemed to have brought on the First World War. So he was coming from this place of being just a good old boy who liked to hunt and fight and lay as many women as possible, because that’s what real people did, and everybody knew that.”

We emerged from some shade we’d found on Gough, and crossed Market.

“But see, he read all the time. That’s what he did. He’d either be drinking or reading, to cool out from the writing. But he could never be like Bill Williams, though. He couldn’t just be a guy who did a job and also wrote. Hemingway had worked in newspapers so long that he had to create this big…big….”

“Story?”

“Big persona about who he was. And eventually it killed him. Ran right up his ass and ate him.”

We turned into Nick’s—a large lunch-counter place, with only a sign saying Broiled Burgers to identify it. We found a table, and my waitress friend came over.

“Good morning David,” she said, looking straight at Philip.

“Hi Sylvia, Going OK?”

“OK, can I get you something?” she said, still looking at Philip.

“Honey,” Philip said, “I’m not feeling too well this morning. Maybe you’d just better bring me some juice.”

“Alright. What kind would you like?”

“Pepsi, a large one.”

I ordered an omelette. While she brought the silverware and Philip’s Pepsi, I tried again.

“What I mean about Hemingway is that he’s kind of straight ahead: very much sort of point-A-to-point-B. You know? And if he does use a literary device of some sort, it’s telegraphed, like a punch. It’s like he says, ‘OK, here comes this device, here it is, there it went.’”

Philip smiled. “Yes, but those stories are GOOD. It’s very hard to do that, you know. Lots of people tried to imitate him and failed. They couldn’t make it go, and he could, and it’s very interesting how he does it.”

Sylvia brought a large omelette, with lots of trimmings, and set it on the table between us.

“There,” Philip said, “that ought to keep you happy, for a little while.”


David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (University of California Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.

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