As this is my final post as guest author, I would like to cast my net and highlight some of the interesting books that have come across my desk in recent months:
Diane di Prima Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007)
Forrest Gander, Eiko & Koma (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #8, 2013)
Ferreira Guilar, Dirty Poem (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #18, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Leland Guyer
Mike DeCapite, Radiant Fog (Sparkle Street Books, 2013)
Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014)
Thomas Devaney, Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
Elaine Equi, Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015)
David Meltzer, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow Press, 2000)
I have been getting more and more involved in the work of Diane di Prima of late. This summer I taught a course at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program entitled “Theogonies: What Poets Do When They Write Gods.” We examined the role of theogonies in poetry, particularly epic poetry, beginning with Hesiod, looked at Plato’s objections to Hesiod and Homer, and then jumped to the 20th century, where we studied how Charles Olson took epic and the idea of modern mythologies in a completely different direction. We took a careful look at di Prima’s work, in particular her Revolutionary Letters, which attains epic sweep in its role of speaking for the tribe, elucidating its beliefs, and stirring it to action. We also looked at her epic Loba, which embodies a shamanistic, feminist, animist, and animalist worldview.
While at AWP last spring, I picked up two pamphlets from the new New Directions series. At 85, Ferreira Guilar continues to be an important figure in contemporary Brazilian poetry. He started out an ally of Concrete Poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari, among others), who were based in São Paulo. Guilar, who was living in Rio, branched off on his own path of neo-concretism, embracing the Communist Party after the military coup of 1964 and pursuing poetry of a humanist bent, while reveling in informality of style and language. Many Brazilian artists had to flee the dictatorship, and Guilar wrote his remarkable poem while in exile in Buenos Aires in 1975. In it, he attempts to return to the city of his youth and to re-create all he experienced then:
we wake up early and stay
in bed musing through
the early-morning process:
the first steps in the street
sounds in the kitchen
until from rooster to rooster
(in the backyard)
and the tap of the laundry tub
opens to gush the morning
Forrest Gander’s contribution to the ND pamphlet series is a group of texts that work around the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma, who have been performing their spectacular, primal, work for over four decades now. Gander uses a constantly shifting poetic approach to come to terms with their timeless, yet highly physical, performances, in which they often perform completely naked in slow, writhing, movements that suddenly explode into new situations. In “Entanglement,” Gander writes:
This as love story. His hand,
his hand feeling for her.
Face, emphatically angular. Her in-bent
arms spread like a cormorant’s.
He wobbles toward her spasmodic,
through invisible web…
Mike DeCapite writes in prose, yet I think of him as a poet, as he is constantly working through moods and situations, rather than in narratives per se. He is, on the other hand, not like William Burroughs, intentionally exploding narrative through the disruption of cut-up technique. Rather, DeCapite takes the reader on unexpected rides through unfamiliar (at least to most readers I would wager) places. In the Preface to Radiant Fog, he explains how he earned a nickname from a boxing coach in San Francisco, who had known guys in Brooklyn with names like Frankie Bats and Joey Braciol’:
Once, he said, “You’re always outside, sitting on a bench, out walking around, looking at the puddles, looking at the leaves. I’m gonna give you the name Mikey Outside.”
I said, “What, because I go for a walk? That’s so bizarre to you it earns me a nickname?
“Mikey Outside,” he said.
And of course Outside has more than one meaning; perhaps the coach was something of a literary critic himself, as he divined the essential nature that makes DeCapite a poet.
As to the other poets on my list — Thomas Devaney, Elaine Equi, and David Meltzer — in their quite different ways, one could say they form a troika of the pinnacles of contemporary poetic practice. Devaney’s Calamity Jane came into being as a libretto for performance artist Jeanine Oleson, and the book contains a cogent foreword by Brenda Coultas. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book, apart from the Western ambience that strangely, because of its dislocation, reminds me of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger in places, is that the poems are in the voice of Jane, that is, Tom writing as Jane. As Coultas points out, Jane herself was gender-obscuring. And strangely, too, at times one begins to hear Tom through the voice of Jane:
Whatever I might look like, wherever
I might be — it wasn’t in my eyes,
it was the whole me — a burning nag
with a heart. All mettle.
Never not wild.
Write that down.
Elaine Equi is our poet laureate, no matter what anyone says. She will be. She speaks for everyone, out of a particular space and language that is hers alone. How she does that will likely remain a mystery. At this point, her lines shimmer with the ecstasy of being right, every time. Not that you would know that from asking her. Her self-deprecating humor would never allow her to take the mantle. Fortunately, for us, it is already a given. Her newest book notches up that mastery. Her sense of history, as well as the immediate moment, is unerring. In “Zukofsky Revision,” she writes:
If I wish to convey this accurately,
I must choose not the exact right word,
but rather the right inexact word
that allows for a similar amount
of vagueness and ambiguity.
David Meltzer is uniquely positioned to craft a meditation on jazz legend Lester Young. A musician himself, who grew up amid the jazz worlds of New York and Los Angeles, Meltzer is also a poet of the most refined subtlety. He is the ultimate outsider, who is simultaneously caretaker of a vast knowledge of alternative pathways, poetic, musical, spiritual. His book-length work, No Eyes: Lester Young, published in 2000, was based on a photograph taken during Young’s last year, when he was staying at the Arvin hotel and would look out the window to chart the activity of the clubs across the street:
clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
beserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning