To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, August 18, 2017

Jess’s O! : An Unknown Masterwork (by Jack Foley)

Even is come; and from the dark park, hark.
            What do W. C. Fields, the Mona Lisa, an upside down Tarot card, and the capitalized phrase, “GOOD NIGHT, PAPA” have in common? Not much, except that they all grace the cover of an almost unknown masterwork by the San Francisco artist, Jess. 

            O!, a pamphlet of Jess’s poetry and collages—his preferred word is “paste-up”—was published by Jerome Rothenberg’s Hawk’s Well Press in 1960. It sold for $.50. The book must have seemed fresh, even amazing at the time. Fifty-seven years later, out of print and impossible to find except in Rare Book Rooms, it is still fresh and amazing. 

            The upside-down Tarot card is “The Hanged Man,” but, upside down, the figure looks like a dancer. W. C. Fields is saying, “FANCY—IMAGINATION!” It’s a joke: fancy that, imagination! But it’s also a play on Coleridge’s categories of mentation, Fancy and Imagination. A sharp-pointed piece of metal seems to be penetrating W. C. Fields’ ear. Fields’ face is stuck onto the Mona Lisa’s, so we don’t see her at all: we see his head (with straw hat) above Mona Lisa’s bosom. The resulting figure is androgynous—part male, part female—but it is created in an extremely playful way: Jess does nothing at all to disguise the fact that he is deliberately manipulating these images. At the top of the page is a statement attributed to Montaigne—a kind of credo for the entire book: “I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” 

            Quotation, disruption, imaginative play, and a sentimental if ironic evocation of childhood are all elements of O!, as is a subtle, persistent homoerotic content. The book has a “Pre-Face” by Robert Duncan, who calls O! “art that is that very genuine phony fifty dollar bill—but it’s a three dollar bill.” (“Queer as a three dollar bill” was still current in 1960 America.) 

            Duncan goes on to comment that in this book, “which is in every detail derivative,” “something funny”— “amusing,” but also “odd,” “queer”— “is going on.” In O!’s “multiphasic” context—in which anything may be anything else—W. C. Fields, “stuck on” the Mona Lisa, may well be the phony fifty/three-dollar “Bill” (as the comedian was known to friends), a figure for the artist himself. Across the page from Duncan’s comment is a diagram of a lunar eclipse, in which the word “moon” becomes “moo”—the sound of the cow jumping over it—and “earth” drops its first and last letters to become “art.” “Jess,” writes Duncan, “has swallowed Dada”—cf. “PAPA”—“whole.” 

            In Secret Exhibition, a book dealing with West Coast Beat art, Rebecca Solnit has a chapter on Jess as a “painter among poets.” Jess cites “Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Antoni Gaudi, and San Francisco’s rococo Playland-at-the-Beach (particularly the funhouse) as important influences,” Solnit  writes. “The impurity and the levity [of his work] were an a way that is hard to imagine in the laissez-faire art world of the present...[I]f the work of Jess, [Wallace] Berman, [Bruce] Conner, and [Edward] Kienholz is considered as part of the canon of American art, it becomes clear that surrealism, with its insurrectionary wit and adoration of the absurd,...became a potent way to address the incongruous realm of American experience.” One thinks as well of Chester Hines, whose novels often have surrealist elements: indeed, for Hines a “racist” society is an “absurd”—and so a “surreal”—society. 

            The underground world in which these artists functioned, Solnit goes on, “has remained a kind of public secret—some of Jack Kerouac’s novels take place on its periphery, and its literary aspect has been touched upon in books about the Beat Generation—but the importance of the artists in this time and place is still a well-kept secret.” “Barely acknowledged at the time [Beat] poetry was acclaimed,” Beat art “is some of the most lasting and influential to have been made during those years.” 

            O! contains many fragments of verse as part of its texture. Often they appear in something  like comic strip balloons, so that figures in the paste-ups appear to be speaking them. But this book is particularly significant because it is one of the few presentations of Jess’s own poetry, which is little known. (When I mentioned Jess’s poetry to poet Thom Gunn, a close friend of Duncan’s and Jess’s, he said immediately, “Jess doesn’t write poetry.”) The influences here are primarily Lewis Carroll and James Joyce—particularly the Joyce of Finnegans Wake. Jess’s first poem was written in response to the Wake, of which he owns a signed edition. Here is a sample: 

                                                PTARRYDACTYL   I

                                                            I’d need
                                                a linnet on a spinet to be infinite
                                                a spider as a glider’d not be wider).
                                                            But the butterfly
                                                            ought to utter why
                                                new roses don’t suppose us worth the gnosis. 

            The poems are presented in white boxes, in which we can consider them  separately from their surroundings—images, fragments of quotations, etc. Yet the surroundings constantly impinge upon the poems. “Ptarrydactyl I” is presented sideways on a page which includes, among other things, “Ptarrydactyl II,” bits and pieces of sheet music, diagrams probably lifted from the pages of Scientific American (Jess began his working life as a chemist), a Cupid perched on a child’s shoulder (the Cupid appears to be driving a nail into the child’s head, just as the child is driving a nail into a top hat), the word “VOLTAIR,” and the punning phrase “SCENE IN TEXAS.” 

            Images and phrases also extend across both sides of the book’s pages. We find unattached hands, animals (a zebra, a gnu, a tiny fox slinking away and saying, “O it is monstrous! monstrous!”), a man’s profile (the ear is on one page, the eye, nose and mouth on the other), smaller versions of the Cupid on the boy’s shoulder, and a trolley car with the word “VACUUM” on its side. The more you look, the more you see. The poems in the boxes thus seem to be emerging out of a teeming world which is at once orderly (we see reflections, parallels, verbal and visual puns) and vastly chaotic—a parallel universe which contains everything present in our own, but changed, distorted: reminiscent but wildly different. 

            Duncan rightly calls O! “a masterly hodgepodge.” Its prose and poetry, its fragments, its marvelous, resonant images create a picture of mind or self as an infinitely shapely chaos, charged at all points with what the artist will call later, quoting Shakespeare’s Troilus, “changeful potency.” In the book’s persistently free environs, boundaries are at once asserted and demolished; childhood merges into deep history; realism turns to magic—to say nothing of kitsch. Indeed, though Jess never considered himself to be part of the Beat movement, “Beat” is present here too, and it is present precisely as it is in Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues—as the ecstatic manifestation of the simultaneously infinite and finite character of the mind: 

                                                What are they? A child’s simple prattle,
                                                       A breath on the Infinite ear 


                                                Beats may be produced by singing

            Ludwig Wittgenstein answered the famous opening sentence of his Tractatus, “The world is all that is the case,” with a sentence in Philosophical Investigations (I:95): “Thought can be of what is not the case.” Jess’s book is a boisterous ride through a mind blissfully open to its endlessly unraveling uncertainties, through what is precisely “not the case.” It is utterly of its time and utterly beyond it. I first came upon it almost by accident in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, where you can still find it. You can also find it, reproduced—one might say reconstructed—in Michael Duncan’s Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica (siglio: 2012). Jess’s “heart irregularly igneous” is present throughout: 

                                                So patter me with formulae
                                                with syllables-a-mercy,
                                                and tell me that the poem you see
                                                is better late than early,
                                                and draw me that the scene you hear
                                                overestimates the nucleus;
                                                the particles will pester Guenevere
                                                in my heart irregularly igneous.


“My dear Degas, poems are not made with ideas but with words.”
            —Stéphane Mallarmé 

I’d need
a linnet on a spinet to be infinite
a spider as a glider’d not be wider).
            But the butterfly
            ought to utter why
new roses don’t suppose us worth the gnosis.

At the very center of Jess’s poetry is rhyme. In the recent resurgence of formal poetry, one often finds poets used to free verse attempting to force their “ideas” into the prison of rhyme: “Rhyme,” one of them remarked to the formalist X.J. Kennedy, “won’t let me say what I want to say.” “Yes!” Kennedy answered. In Jess’s work, as in Kennedy’s, rhyme is not an imprisoning element but a liberating one. Jess does not begin with “ideas”; he begins with words—rhyming words. “Meaning” is not something that exists previous to the rhymes; on the contrary, “meaning” is what rhyme can discover. 

What then is rhyme? The sudden conjunction, through sound, of words that are in themselves entirely disparate.
What is collage? The sudden conjunction, through juxtaposition, of images that are in themselves quite disparate: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Lautréamont).
The internet has this to say about Lautréamont’s famous sentence:

 “This metaphor captures one of the most important principles of surrealist aesthetic: the enforced juxtaposition of two completely alien realities that challenges an observer’s preconditioned perception of reality. German surrealist Max Ernst would also refer to Lautréamont’s sewing machine and umbrella to define the structure of the surrealist painting as ‘a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.’”  

“A linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them.” Isn’t that precisely what rhyme does? 

And doesn’t chance—“le Hasard” in Mallarmé’s famous phrase—haunt both procedures?

Jess’s work is a discovery of rhyme as collage.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Technicians of the Sacred: Ethnopoetics and the New Indigenous Poetries (A Talk & Reading in Melbourne)

Technicians of the Sacred: Ethnopoetics and the New Indigenous Poetries from Arts Unimelb on Vimeo.

Coinciding with the publication of an expanded 50th anniversary edition of his anthology Technicians of the Sacred, poet, translator and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg will explore the early history of ethnopoetics.

Drawing from the new introduction to the book, he will begin the talk discussing the emergence in the 1950s and 1960s of ethnopoetics as a collaborative work of poets and scholars to which he was a close witness and active participant. He will then propose a link to the survival and revival of many indigenous languages and poetries in the early 21st century, with a sense that change rather than stasis has been at the heart of these poetries as well as of our own.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Jack Foley: from “Grief Songs” (Sagging Mencius Press, 2017)

Publisher Jacob Smullyan writes:

“On June 4th, 2016, poet Jack Foley’s wife, Adelle Foley, who was (as she told her doctor) ‘never sick,’ was diagnosed with stomach cancer; she died on June 27th. They had been married for nearly fifty-five years and were an exceptionally close couple. Adelle was also a poet and, like Jack, had published widely. He wrote about her, ‘How can there be sunlight and you not in it?’
“In the months after her death, with extraordinary courage and directness, Jack opened his heart with a series of poems and letters to his friends, many of whom responded with poems of their own. These documents of intense necessity, brought together, make up the deeply moving collection that is Grief Songs: an expression, certainly, of a year of desperate grief, but more essentially, of a lifetime of love.”
*                   What do we do with the dead
And with what the dead left behind
Especially when they left behind so much.
Dead the with do we do what
Behind left dead the what with and
Much so behind left they when especially.
            —Jack Foley



I think that, recently, neither
of us
the date
of our first
but it was preserved
in a cartoon:
November 18, 1960.
I sat
in an ice cream shop
with my friends
Paul and Vu
and Vu’s daughter Kaitlin.
I fell silent
uncertain whether
the date were today, November 13
or the next Friday, November 18.
The 18th won out
but I had to wait
until the sweetness and good humor
of my friends had ended.
We parted, smiling.
But tears poured out of me
as soon as I was alone.
I suddenly remembered
the moment when Adelle and I first tongue kissed
in a “date parlor”
in Towson, Maryland
(November 18)
and I began to feel
the love
that will stay with me
till the end of my days



Matthew Fox writes, “One of the most wonderful concepts that Hildegard [von Bingen] gifts us with is a term that I have never found in any other theologian...the word viriditas or greening power” (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen). The word suggests “veritas,” truth, as well as “veridicus,” speaking the truth. Wikipedia: “The definition of viriditas or ‘greenness’ is an earthly expression of the heavenly in an integrity that overcomes dualisms. This greenness or power of life appears frequently in Hildegard’s works.”

Some years ago, Poetry Flash editor Joyce Jenkins challenged me to “write a nature poem” for her Watershed event. I found my mind returning to Kore / Persephone, especially to her aspect as seed, thrust underground but emerging to flower. I remembered as well W.C. Williams’ poem, “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” and Denise Levertov’s book of nature poems, The Life Around Us. Adelle was diagnosed with cancer on Saturday, June 4, 2016. I told her doctor, “We want to keep her.” Adelle chimed in, “I want to be kept.” The doctor remarked that Adelle was “taking the news well.” She then asked, “What about him?”—me. Adelle answered, accurately, “A little less well.”

In 1960—we were both twenty—she sang an ancient French song, “A la Claire Fontaine,” to me. It was a sweet gesture of young love. The refrain of the song is “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime / Jamais je ne t’oublierai” (“I have loved you for a long time / I will never forget you”). Over the years we often sang the song together. In 2016 I sang the song to her as she lay dying in the hospital: “I have loved you for a long time / I will never forget you.” She died at 5 a.m. on June 27, 2016. I wrote many years ago:

It’s not a dream
We lose those we love
                                                                         but we love

I read “Viriditas” to Adelle shortly before her death.


the dream
of a green

It is not
to say
“the life around us”—
we are
“the life around us”

it is not possible
to be
(“natura naturans”)

the conditions
in which
are serious, tentative, and limited
this dream
of green

I am that flower
you hold
in your

we are
coming to consciousness
men & women
of light

what is mind
but light?
what is body?

“Make LIGHT of it,”
writes my friend

I vanish into light—

Kora—the seed—
above ground—under—        
                                                                        the need
to follow her—down the rabbit hole
                                                                                    following the
of resurrection—

time vanishes/returns    we grow
in branch and root
in winged or finny stuff
or cloven hoof
in bird-
sound, animal alarm or
(describe a scene—
scene vanishes—
mind appears—)

Kore      woman
                                    No need
that is not satisfied
of food
or sex—

            greenness, love:
as you lie in this moment
of danger,
as you sleep
wondering if the next sleep
will be death,
“this greeny flower,”
this green
comes to you
the power of life



What you discover in such a situation
is what Rousseau called
le néant des choses humaines
the nothingness of human affairs
Adelle’s concerns—the laundry, our finances,
her plants, dinner, people at AC Transit, people
in the local community, poetry people, whether
I parked the car close enough to the curb,
her VISA card, the Toyota, her haiku, the goldfish, me,
the light in the leaves as she passed by in the morning,
credit cards, J.R.R. Tolkien, Octavia Butler, Miss Fisher’s Murder
Mysteries, the egrets at Lake Merritt,
the homeless on her way to AC Transit
(to whom she gave money and boxes of raisins),
her son and daughter in law,
hundreds of others
in a complex web of caring—
all disappeared poof in a few moments
on the afternoon of June 25, 2016
in a Kaiser hospital room
when she fainted in “septic shock” and her dear heart stopped.
Suddenly, all of that was gone
as if it never existed
le néant des choses humaines
I remember it, some of it—even most of it—but for her
it’s a spider web someone brushed off a window—
It is this that we make poems and stories and beautiful lies
to avoid:
this sudden view
when a long-loved, long-known, long-accepted person dies
& we see it
deep and clear


AUGUST 15, 2016

It’s your birthday
My dear, dead love
I had begun a birthday poem
My wife
My life
And had already bought some gifts for you
A Monday—Moon Day
“Looney” in our Dellwackian fantasy
Who paired with the tiny sun,
“Salvador Dully”
You made a cartoon for me
Eight days before your death
(Six before the day
You forever lost consciousness)
I am trying to find
Another life to fit me
But what could ever fit me
So well as the life we made
As Moon and Sun
As Dell Dell and Jack Wack
As the EEE Monster
And the DDD Monster
As all the phantasmagoria
That rose out of our love,
That kept our love
Forever alive:
They never stopped loving
Even when you and I faltered
They wondered why Dellwackia
Suddenly looked
Like a hospital room.
I’ve cooked dinner for you tonight
Polpette, purpettes,
A meal you loved
That came from my mother’s
Long Calabrese line.
Dear friends will join me
And then we’ll watch
A favorite film:
Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent
Looney and Salvador Dully
Will watch it too
And Dell Dell and Jack Wack
And the Monsters.
Everyone loves
The poems I’ve been writing
About your death
You were always my Muse
And today is the birthday
You could not celebrate.
Our love remains
In all these figures
In all these words
While you
Whirl through the universe
(If such things are true)
Forgetting birth and death
Forgetting Dellwackia and me
Remembering only
The deep configurations
Of Life and Love.

[The names mentioned are cartoon characters in a joint fantasy that Adelle and I maintained for years. We drew pictures for each other and gave the characters voices. She was Dell Dell—a name her father gave to her when she was a child. I, “J.W. Foley,” was Jack Wack. The DDD Monster and the EEE Monster, etc. all figured into this fantasy, which took place in a country named for the queen and king: Dellwackia. We had a ritual for turning out the bedroom lights at night. The Dellwackians didn’t understand electricity but they would all gather and in their various voices “blow out the candle.” After the lights were out, I would say, “’Night, Dell.” She would answer, “’Night, Wack.” The lights are still on in our bedroom.]


YAHRZEIT (June 27, 2017)
for Adelle 

It is
What the Jews call Yahrzeit,
A year since your death. 
The word stings.
If you retain any consciousness of the world
You know 
That I have found a new love. 
She has been 
A wonder and a comfort
In my grief for you. 
I think you would have liked her
(And mothered her!).
Going through your dresser drawer
As we attempt to find room for her things,
She found
A fancy, almost comically sexy garter. 
I had forgotten it
But recognized it immediately. 
You wore it only once,
On the night of December 21, 1961,
Our wedding night;
You kept it, as you kept many other things, for all these years. 
How we formed each other. 
How we treasured each other’s hearts. 
If the stories are true,
You may be in bliss
While I find my way through this quivering wall of sorrow and tears.
And love.
My first love, my dear first love,
It has been a year
(Has it been a year?),

Your ashes 
Remain     in the vanishing morning light. 

[N.B. GRIEF SONGS is currently available at SPD: