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Kora Lives! [by Vincent Katz]

WKCR is on, as it often is at this time of day, and they are playing selections from Miles Davis’s fusion period — “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Splashdown,” to name two. It is providing the right vibe, as the radio often does, to composing thoughts about two books that are on my mind. When I was a teenager, a little after those Miles tunes were released, I had some favorite books of poetry. They were talismans, I carried them with me, they could ward off depression and evil by their mere presence, without even needing to be opened, or read. Part of that had to do with their physical presence. I remember the series of books Gary Snyder published with New Directions, especially, one summer, Earth House Hold. Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, published by Grove Press (the edition with the red and purple cover overlaying a photo of O’Hara seated on a Gothic stool). The same poet’s Lunch Poems, from City Lights Books’ Pocket Poets Series, back when the covers were not glossy. They were printed on soft card stock, each title in identifying format and design, differentiated by the color combinations. Lunch Poems will always recall the orange and blue in its layout. Another book I carried with me everywhere that summer I was 15 was another title from the Pocket Poets Series, William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations.

Kora front cover

I loved Kora in Hell. Just gazing at its cover was of inestimable benefit to me, and I enjoyed reading it. It felt very adult, its jokes easily understood, its thought-connections sublime and not necessarily accessible to all. It represented a kind of secret knowledge. This was unlike some of Williams’s better known poetry, which prided itself on using everyday language and meeting the reader halfway. That poetry was modern, in that it didn’t always feel like what poetry was supposed to feel like, but it was anti-modernist, or maybe non-modernist, in its ratcheting down of degree of difficulty. Anybody could read those poems (though not anybody can write them!). Kora was different. I liked the classical reference in the title, the Greek word kora itself, coupled with that word “Improvisations.” I think that was the one that got me the most. I was listening to a lot of jazz; the idea of improvising a book, or sections that made up a book, was thrilling to me.

Looking around last year, I realized I no longer had that copy of Kora, so I ordered another one. I made sure to order one from one of the earlier printings, a first edition it looks like. I just wanted to make sure I got one that looked and felt like the originals, as though it was made of cotton, dyed red. “March had always been my favorite month…” the prologue tells us. And, “What I had permitted myself could not by any stretch of the imagination be called verse.” I agree with Williams that these are not like French prose poems, but to my mind they are poems in prose, or rather, one long poem in prose:

“Fools have big wombs. For the rest? — here is pennyroyal if one knows to use it. But time is only another liar, so go along the wall a little further : if blackberries prove bitter there’ll be mushrooms, fairy-ring mushrooms, in the grass, sweetest of all fungi.”

Kora back cover

That is the first section of the first “chapter”. Each chapter is composed of three numbered sections, some have which have corresponding texts in italics. I was going to say that my reading this time, some forty-odd years later, showed that these early experiments of Williams’s were not as successful as I remembered. But the reading, the looking at the text, does not allow me such an easy assessment. A poem can be made of anything we are told in Chapter XX. In the final chapter, we learn, “The particular thing… dwarfs the imagination, makes logic a butterfly, offers a finality that sends us spinning through space, a fixity the mind could climb forever, a revolving mountain, a complexity with a surface of glass; the gist of poetry.” A little more on imagination’s transformative power (“How ridiculous!”), how leaves blowing on the ground have forgotten the branch on which they grew, yet "somehow invoke a burst of warm days  not of the past  nothing decayed : crisp summer!” And the final paragraph informs us:

“Seeing the leaves dropping from the high and low branches the thought rises : this day of all others is the one chosen, all other days fall away from it on either side and only itself remains in perfect fullness.”

Maybe it’s the way I read it that needs to change. Instead of starting at the beginning and attempting to forge straight through, I should glimpse things here and there, creating my own patterns within those suggested by the poet in his improvisations. Kora was first published in 1920 by the Four Seas Co. of Boston. At that time, Williams was half the age he would be (74) when the next edition, published by City Lights, came out.

Anne Waldman has a granddaughter named Kora. Anne the adept of so many traditions, including the Greek. I’ve been reading her many books, trying to keep up with her, delighted. Lately, I got focused on her 2004 book, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble, published by Penguin in the Penguin Poets series. The books Waldman has published with Penguin form a remarkable series in that they are not so much collections of separate poems as book-length meditations on specific areas of consciousness: Marriage: A Sentence, Structure of the World, Manatee/Humanity, Gossamurmur, Trickster Feminism.

Structure may be the most particular of all, as it is devoted to a specific subject, a specific location, a specific object, a specific man-made holy sanctuary devoted to the veneration of the divine: the Borobudur stupa, built in the 9th century CE in Java, Indonesia. An introductory note explains: “Designed as both mandala or psychological map for the Buddhist pilgrim, as well as a spiritual challenge to the curious layperson or secular aesthete, Borobudur was built on a hill that sits on Java’s lush Kedu plain. It has a long and complex history and was almost lost until its ‘discovery’ in the nineteenth century… Most powerful at this site perhaps is the narrative sequence of reliefs carved into the million stones, narratives which teach a spiritual, gentle, and harmonious way of life. The reliefs are arranged so that as one ascends the stupa the stories turn complicated and abstract… Borobudur is essentially an image of the world according to the Buddhism of the Mahayana.”

Waldman Structure front cover

Waldman’s book is not so much about the stupa as it is a guide to Mahayana in the form of experimental poetry for which the poet has become known. Waldman has taken cues from Williams’ In the American Grain, his epic poem Paterson, and Charles Olson’s call for “a saturation job,” applying study to a wide range of topics. In Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble, the reader is treated to Waldman’s takes on the “Four Noble Truths,” “Walking out of Six Styles of Imprisonment” (hell realm, hungry ghost realm, animal realm, human realm, warring god realm, god realm), 4th century stories of the Buddha, “Mantra” (with paraphrase of Milton), “Steps of a Bodhisattva,” “Mudra,” “An Aside on Karma,” “Peregrinations of the Dakini” a Glossary and Bibliography. A Magnificent, Beneficent Tome! All should carry it with them! Come to the River, Put Down your Book, and Dive!

 

“Nations are narrations

Spiritual sites are narrations

Ineluctable witnesses to other narrations

Are the panoptic meditators in their own bell jars…

A connotative splendor resides here…”


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly

Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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