The Raven at the End of the World:
Anselm Hollo’s Dangerous Language
A Review of Corvus by Patrick Pritchett
N.B.: an earlier version of this review appeared in The Boulder Daily Camera and LA View.
For over thirty years, Anselm Hollo has been brilliantly weaving together the pioneering sensibilities of a high-modernist European with a postmodern American vernacular to produce a poetry of extraordinary grace, wit, and power. In his latest work, Corvus, he surpasses himself — it’s more beautiful and assured than anything he’s yet written. These new poems ripple with an elegant clarity while offering a delightfully subversive edge. Hollo’s poetry performs the seemingly impossible, delivering the ancient satisfactions of sheer pleasure within a radical form that challenges the reader to think differently about what “literature” might be. A master at leaping effortlessly between the high note and the low, between sonorous, elegiac rhythms and the slyly comic mordant aside, he can swerve from these lines, in “West is Left on the Map”:
a puff of dust where the lampshade bloom’d
Marlene forever young
like Marx or Helen’s ankles
at the gates of dusk
to the deadpan observation of:
many thoughts return marked insufficient
For sheer dexterity, he has few equals. There’s a protean suppleness at work throughout this book, which by turns is bracingly skeptical, ruefully laconic, and flat out wondrously enheartening.
In Hollo’s poems, the sublime and ridiculous are more than just strange bedfellows, but markers for the circulating energies of an endless play of perpetually reconstituted meanings. The deeper we read Corvus the more we come to see that these polar nodes are tropes for generating a mysteriously liberating force, and that if we are quick enough to glimpse it, we might be endowed with a saving sense of beautiful absurdity.
hand me my spear my little secret book
desperately singing in harm’s way
yes yes that does describe your arbitrary foci
dream of big live teddy bear that “wants” “you”
Like another great original, the French Surrealist Robert Desnos, Hollo sees his poems forming “one continuous poem.” Viewed in this light, it might be tempting to cast Hollo’s corpus as an epic, say, along the lines of Pound’s Cantos or Olson’s Maximus Poems. Nothing could be more misleading. Hollo eschews the grandiose and the macroscopic in favor of the intimate and the local. For the special genius of his work is the way it articulates a kind of anti-epic, a discrete series of poems — linked by the tonal and thematic concerns of a wry, deft sensibility — that focus on the marvels and inanities of the quotidian, on friends, the literary world, the procedures of art and science (to name but a few of the amazingly diverse range of topics he addresses), and the exasperating and often hilarious ironies attendant on all of these. The possibility for “epic” contained in the notion of “one continuous poem” is realized, if one may call it that, in the puncturing of the ambitions and pretensions of the epic. Instead, we are given the most rewarding and humane alternative — a conversation.
Much of the tone in Corvus is retrospective. It is a book of looking back, taking stock, summing up. In many ways, it is book of elegies, and among those recalled are the poet’s sister, Irina, whom he memorializes in the austere and haunting “1991,” as well as the cosmopolitan poet Piero Heliczer, and American poets Joe Cardarelli and Ted Berrigan. The exuberant Berrigan figures prominently in Corvus. The section entitled “Lines From Ted: An Ars Poetica” is a transcription, Hollo writes in his fascinating Notes (an appended sub-book that is as rich in detail as the main text), of talks given by Berrigan at Naropa in 1982. The result is a remarkable posthumous “collaboration” that outlines what might be called “the way of the poem.”
You have to make your work at your own pace
It is made of words
One word after another
Some people do it in phrases
Others are beautiful writers of sentences
& some are beautiful writers
of one word at a time
+ + + +
But what I think happens when a poem works is
That it rises into the air of its own powers
And in doing so it has formed a circle
And it becomes something like the sun or a star
Or a planet
I like the idea of it being up in the air
To have no idea is a good idea
If it helps you to make a poem
I have to go now
I have to go and think about this for a thousand years
And a thousand years would only be a start. “Lines From Ted” magnificently performs not just what poetry can bring us — its enigmatic news from beyond, its invigorating power of play — but what poetry is. As warm and fresh as a talk with a dear, old friend, it also shrewdly meditates on the materialist character of the poem, a thing made out of that most recalcitrant and unyielding of substances, words, that nevertheless transcends its origin to achieve a wild, emotive life all its own.
Hollo is undoubtedly one of our most erudite poets, but while Corvus bristles with a wealth of allusions, it never feels top-heavy, nor is the music ever impeded by the learning. Indeed, one of this poet’s greatest accomplishments is the way he weds acute intelligence to the rhythmic demands of song. His praxis is deceptively simple, as he notes in “The Word Thing”:
method is effortless:
translation of autonomous objects
from adept to zygote
in rhapsodic rises & falls
Particularly striking is the sonnet sequence “Not a Form at All But a State of Mind” (the title comes from William Carlos Williams), which offers a sharp rebuttal to criticism that experimental work can’t also be formally rigorous. Hollo’s startling verbal agility and quicksilver emotional registers transform the sonnet from a threadbare object of nostalgia and poetic propriety into a dazzling display of intellection and pathos.
underground trees slow darkness
and fear has lien upon the heart of me
magpie steals silver spoon it is gone forever
like the eyeglasses of the less fortunate
in a terrifying gray light from the future
the carnival continues a place where a sad horde
of such as love and whom love tortures
point to the moon and break it
Using an Oulipian word algorithm, Hollo repeats — or better still, replays — certain key phrases at differing junctures throughout the twelve sonnet sequence so that the overall effect of reading them straight through is like hearing an extended sonata, with motifs like “landing a B-52 in a desk drawer,” or “I have woven my heart into this net of branches” reappearing with an unexpected sharpness and power.
But the chief pleasure of Corvus is its deeply human music. From the recondite “The Word Thing,” to the playful farce of “Why There Is A Cat Curfew In Our House,” to his earthy translations from the Greek Anthology, or the intimate, lyrical benediction of “And,” a poem that, among others things, praises the work of his wife, the artist Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, he strikes an expansive and ennobling panoply of notes.
friends die before their time
& that is a matter of grief
but she dreams she is swimming
in her studio
her paintings on its walls
make his head swim
into spaces as free of words
as die Musik when it pulls away
into angelic telepathy
shuts up the ape ever scheming
heavy with greed & war
lights him up
so light he becomes
invisible to himself
in a vortex of notes
audible only to the soul
Whatever we ask of poetry — and what more could we ask of it than this? — is to be found here: that it lift us like this, requiring nothing more (which is everything) but that we sit still, and listen.
Each poem in Corvus is never less than itself, integral and complete. There are no poses here, no sleights-of-hand, except for the verbal kind that continually surprises, or else those the poet delights in exposing with a wink, a nudge, and an exquisitely formed bon mot. Over the entire book is stamped the Chinese ideogram for sincerity, which Ezra Pound translates as “the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally.” Sinceritas, Hollo amply shows, is not a quality to be associated with some sort of simple-minded naiveté, but rather is the product of the fully engaged moral imagination of the poet as he casts an alternately ironic and tender eye on the folly and clumsiness of mortal doings. For beneath all the bright, bristling wit, the marvelous, impish wordplay, the impeccable sense of rhythm, the sharp pitch and stress of diction, another note can be sometimes heard: the sound of twilight drawing its raven wing over the edge of the sky.
think about each word and why it is where it is
moon splashes borrowed light on the wall
across the street of distant galaxies
slowly turning their tails to point to the first letter
Which is also always the beginning again of language. The unceasingness of poetry, as Keats notes, will continue beyond us. That seems straightforward enough. But Hollo sees the underside as well, the way in which language is twisted by the professional class of liars, the politicians and those others who use it as a tool for power over others, rather than as an instrument of liberation. Hence the sublime directness of the modest poem, “Proposal,” as barbed as anything in Swift or Juvenal:
For war memorial
to end all war memorials:
plain granite slab
David Jones style lettering
text by Ted Berrigan:
THE WAR GOES ON
AND WAR IS SHIT
Hollo enjoins us to “always treat language like a dangerous toy.” In his poems, as perhaps nowhere else, what delights can endanger — and what endangers can delight. And beyond the much needed political critiques, beauty itself, Hollo recognizes, may be the most potent form of subversion available to us, since it is generated by and occupies an interior space outside the reach of the State, the Church, and all other enslaving institutions. All of which is only to say — caution: these poems may produce thoughts not sanctioned by the Authorities!
In his introductory note, Hollo tells us that corvus is Latin for raven, which is what his own surname signifies in Finnish. This is appropriate, since one of the mythic roles played by the raven was that of psychopomp, or guide of souls to the Underworld, a function which poets, as purveyors of news from afar, have been playing for the species since Orpheus made his descent to Hades. The title seems triply appropriate, then — or is that quadruply? — for the way in which Hollo pays homage to his dead, not by stiffly memorializing them, but by continuing the conversation. This bit of association also brings to mind Hollo’s own translation of the great Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko:
And I asked him,
Who is identical with myself,
I asked him for the road, and he said:
It is best to leave early.
Anselm Hollo has always been leaving early, “ahead of all departure,” as Rilke puts it, checking out the bends in the meandering psychic road ahead of us and relaying back the information with subtle precision and enormous panache. In a time when so many poets tread timidly about the poem, afraid of disturbing its marmoreal slumber, or else exhaust their energies in endless debates about theory, the unflaggingly abundant inventiveness of his poetry seems all the rarer, all the greater a gift for those of us fortunate enough to be alive to read it.