Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Ornette Coleman

Mourning Song
for Ornette Coleman

A song crowned of crows.
A fold of notes inside a rose.
Notes broken on the road.
White horn, hover lower.

Grammar of sound
sung a crow tone low.
Broken vowels hovering
above the horn’s road.

Over a field a lone
crow flies low.
Song not gone.
Song still blown.

Horn’s tones
at dusk blow
shelter from the rust.
Each note a road.

No compass
of chords. Only
horn’s ache.
A crow moon aloft, forlorn.

Go with a stone’s throw.
A "moment’s gnosis"
making prayer
from dark chords.

There is a law in what I play.
The shape of chords to come.
Earth horn re-homed.
A white horn blows alone.

Under low stone
deep groan of horn.
A chord is nothing
but the sound of a man.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Robert Adamson's "Net Needle"

Australian poet Robert Adamson’s work is nowhere near as well recognized in America as it deserves to be. The author of twenty books, beginning with 1970’s Canticles on the Skin, and including most recently The Goldfinches of Baghdad, The Kingfisher’s Soul, and Reading the River: Selected Poems, he has also won every literary award his country can bestow on a poet, among them the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and The Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (also published by Flood).

Adamson came up the hard way, through a school of brute knocks, spending many of his teenage years incarcerated (as related in his powerful memoir Inside Out). It was in Long Bay Penitentiary he first discovered the works of Shelley and fomented the audacious desire to become a poet. Later, he found Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and in time became friends with both Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley (his poem to the latter, “Inside Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems,” from The Kingfisher’s Soul, is essential reading). This led to both poets traveling to Australia for memorable events. Duncan’s visit inspired an entire chapter, “Eros,” in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello.

These singular acts of generosity mark Adamson’s own work as well. His poems sustain themselves on a remarkable wavelength of deep receptivity to what Duncan called “the ability to respond.” For over 40 years now, Adamson has been writing incredibly supple lyrics whose investments in the romantic imagination are perfectly balanced by the precision of his investigative focus on both the inner world of memory and desire and the outer realm’s thrilling ornithological kaleidoscope.

Net Needle, his newest book, is a work of extraordinary vibrancy. A mixture of autobiographical recollections from Adamson’s youth – moments from prison, learning the craft of net making from the local fishermen – along with powerful “versions” of celebrated European masters like Trakl, Reverdy, and Rimbaud, and a continuation of his life-long attentions to the fantastic birds of Australia, these poems hum with a precise music. I don’t think I’ve read another poet so intimately attuned to the ways of the avian. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental in these highly detailed accounts of birds, no reducing them to symbols of human ambition and failure. They live their own enigmatic lives in Net Needle, as in “Harsh Song”:

a feathery
sussuration –
half song,
ratchet, or
a snake’s
the roof
of its
mouth –
a smoker’s
exhalation –
in the grapevine.

The delicacy here, the astonishing discretion, owes something to William Carlos Williams, perhaps, but is entirely its own, fully realized and miraculous. Because discretion lies at the heart of witnessing, as the poet knows. And in Adamson’s poems, nature’s mysteries are never forced into the open, never uncovered by a pile-on of qualifiers; rather, they come into being through a form of intense attention. To enter into, rather than unmask, the flight of the kingfisher, or the kookaburra catching snakes, is the poem’s desire. These acts of poetic restoration occur on a small scale, but generate an enormous and enlivening eco-poetic charge, one that places Adamson squarely in the company of John Clare, Lorine Niedecker, and W.S. Graham.

Adamson is never vatic, though. His concentrated gaze condenses from myriad details an uncanny and beautifully faithful image of how all these things vibrate and flow. Not mere images then, but the procession itself, these poems offer a marvelous lightness and ease of perception. They seem to float alongside as well as within their subjects, joining language to vision.

Net Needle weaves together a luminous directness with a hard won simplicity. It gives us the very grain of the English language, its exacting measures, its eschewal of adornment, its rhythm that is also a way of seeing, as Zukofsky knew. For longtime readers of Adamson’s work, the re-lineation of “The Kingfisher’s Soul” will delight and move. The poem has opened out. Can a kingfisher have a soul? Or rather, is the soul a kind of kingfisher, diving fiercely above the river, a missile of incarnate desire, a ravenous muscle that drives bright plumage into flight, into love?

In the old days I used to think art
That was purely imagined could fly higher

Than anything real. Now I feel a small fluttering
Bird in my own pulse, a connection to the sky.
Back then a part of me was only half alive:

The poems in Net Needle are so fully alive they fly off the page. And some of them, like “Net Maker” and “Spinoza,” are as perfect as any I have ever read. What is a “net needle’? Simply a device for repairing a fishing net.

Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell ...

they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,

or had lost

Whether loved or lost, the net re-gathers it, without judgment. The net is woven to sift everything and cherish it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Work Isn't: On Philip Levine

Philip Levine’s death last week has prompted, for a poet, that is, an unusual number of public tributes. I’ve read several in the NY Times and heard two separate eulogies on NPR. My pal Robert Archambeau has written a very eloquent elegy for Levine at his blog. All fine and well, but neither Mark Strand nor Allen Grossman, both of whom died last year and both indisputably finer poets than Levine, received this kind of attention on their passing. Of the three of these, Grossman was the Master. But his work is difficult, full of gnostic intricacies, compared to Levine’s prosaic banality and sentimentality. The poet of work, he’s been called, for mining a brief period of time in his life, before he spent over 30 years teaching.

Of course teaching is work and hard work, too, if very different. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two I did my share of hard labor on shop floors, on assembly lines, in a shipyard and a paint factory and behind broiling friers. So I know what “work” is. I also know the kind of work that involves long hours spent behind a desk, grading papers, analyzing insurance data, writing code, or reading screenplays. For Levine work seems to take place only in an industrial sphere. It’s the work only men do. Or used to. Is there any mention of the domestic labor women have done for ages in a Levine poem? I’d like to know, sincerely, but I seem to have sold off all his books, alas.

Radio producers and journalists know a meme when they see one: here’s a poet who wrote about work – the idol before which all Americans bow down to and worship – and he wrote about it in simple, straightforward language. He wrote about it in a way that elevated the worker and praised him for his stoicism and his wounds. He wrote about it in a way that was not too far removed from a WPA or WWII propaganda pamphlet. “Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?” He wrote about the alienation and suffering of a certain kind of work – labor in Detroit’s car plants, shop floor environments my father and his friends worked on – and he wrote about it with a certain pathos but without ever managing somehow to offer any powerful criticism of the forces that kept this system in place.

When Levine’s The Simple Truth came out in 1995, I gave it a glowing review, comparing him, grandiosely, absurdly, to Francois Villon, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet. This gaseous praise merited a prickly letter to the editor from Anselm Hollo and marked the beginning of our friendship, along with a transformation of my views about what poetry is. Which became for me a different kind of work than what Levine undertook.

Marjorie Perloff is still right. Levine represents Exhibit A in how experience gets ground into poetry through the most simplistic formula. A string of descriptive anecdotes rounded out by an epiphany? At least, that’s how I remember her famous and very accurate put-down, How can a poet claim to write about work and not critique the system that enslaves men and women everywhere? Jeremy Prynne, for all his bristling apostasy and hermeneutical obscurity, is a greater poet of “work” than Phillip Levine ever was. Because Levine, finally, was not a poet of ideas – a notion he would no doubt gladly ascribe too. His own work ethic blinded him to the reality of work.

His famous poem “What Work Is” is not about work as such, but a valentine to his brother, an aspiring opera singer. There’s some overcooked irony about a Jew wanting to sing Wagner in it, too, but finally it’s a poem about discipline and aspiration rather than work. A poem about wanting to escape the jail of work for the freedom of art. The scandal of Philip Levine – and the reason for his lionization – is that he has no clue what work is. To read a Levine poem about work gives one the impression that workers suffer because of mysterious unnamed forces or mere human malice and caprice. Work degrades the soul, demeans the person, exhausts the body. That’s what work is. Levine gets part of that right -- how work strips a person of their dignity -- but has no idea and has never bothered to ponder why work is. This failure to probe deeper mars his late poetry considerably, yet has managed to endear him to many readers. Still, in his early work, in books like Names of the Lost, for instance, he was capable of striking a powerful and elegaic tone.

Post-script: after further reflection and reading some thoughtful comments by readers of this post on Facebook I've toned down the rhetoric in this entry, which was needlessly harsh, and revised it somewhat. My overall point is not to castigate Levine for bad poetry -- though his late work does suffer from mannerism -- but rather a kind of bad faith. If the subject of a poem about the travails of work only portrays its sufferers as downtrodden figures deserving of our sympathy, without condemning the system that produces that suffering then these figures become mere fetishes, stand-ins for dishonest emotion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Remembering Anselm Hollo

Homage to the Raven
i.m. Anselm Hollo

“And now what time is it”?
asks the raven at the end
of the world.

Time to get with the program!

Here on planet Earth
the program demands
we transmit every message
through the fraying vocab
for belonging.

But look, says the raven.
I, too, am frayed.
Fading into the inky
blackness of my wings
where song is a structure
for the ruins of time

my croak a kind of white
melody ascendant
the spiral glyph of M31
its arms of light
a cosmic call sign
flashing plenitude
& emptiness.

“Like Marx or Helen’s ankles
at the gates of dusk”
quoth the raven.

Adios, all you “guests of space”
soon to be remanded
to an infinity of un-
troubled dust.

But my poems refuse
to get with the program.
They will destroy
entropy forever.

from SONG X, Talisman House, 2014
first pub. in SPOKE 2.1 (2014)