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

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Frank Kuenstler: Two Poems from The Enormous Chorus, with an Introduction by Michael O’Brien

[To celebrate the publication earlier this year of Frank Kuenstler’s The Enormous Chorus (Pressed Wafer, Boston), I’m posting Michael O’Brien’s Introduction and two of Kuenstler’s poems.  In praise of Kuenstler and his work I wrote the following: “The retrieval here of a fair portion of Frank Kuenstler’s prolific work is an event of the utmost importance toward the mapping of a true history of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.  It is also a delight to see & to read so much of it now & to marvel, as I did for the small part of it I knew from before, at the brilliant flights (of ‘fancy’ I would like to say) between different worlds & levels of discourse.  Others have tried & some have succeeded, but none with more grace & élan than what he shows here.”  The Enormous Chorus can be ordered in paper from Small Press Distribution.  (J.R.)]


A day of snow on the Riviera, the burlesque queens
are mermaids, simple as the moon. Another New Year’s
Day in Havana, without discourse, they who cultivated
the dimensions of their bodies, like lizards
are regimented as our shadows. That’s bad news,
The natural gambler opined. A traveller on the steps of Odessa
      in distress & the going is hard & slow,
      Enormous snowflakes stripped as the voice you know.

   I should really be writing a letter to everybody
saying what I mean. I mean the bodies are blonde, brown
as sunshine, while my feet are cold. There is no news
   in the world for us, only images grasped at, or fed us
   like straws. The possible dimensions are what remind
Us that we were born once upon a time, & yelled like dawn.
      The gamblers have moved south to oil & coffee country.
   The television sets up north transmit pictures.
   Snow is socialized. A rumor persists
   that estimates of the life of the sun have been wildly exaggerated.
   In the thirties it was Egypt & the other Alexandria
You cannot know.

      I will walk in the snow & get my feet wet. I will go
to the movies. I will hope. The bloody braille of the sun
is my tongue. The king was executed just because he thought
   he could be happy. He enjoyed his job. He enjoyed
   having his friends around. He enjoyed having money.
He enjoyed Marilyn Monroe, if such a thing was possible.
   Degree by degree I went blind, thinking of the sun in Havana,
   thinking its eye was as narrow & wide as a pair of hips.

I will walk in Autumn. The Eiffel Tower will greet me, tell
      me in Turkish the way to Afghanistan. Apollinaire & Vergil
      will guide me, because I am blind, the way to the Far East
      dimension of the world’s highway, O South
      The way musicians named Ossian have always been led by clarinets
& apprentice butchers since the world was young.


 & nobody alive knows no more what love is supposed to mean
because poets are engineers of the soul who build machines
for living; & anthology succeeds anthology as the night the
night; & the Cockney movie had no subtitles; & the banana
cake was delivered with tea leaves in it, reminiscent of tong
wars, from New Jersey, baked by a chicken-sexer; & still
they tell me, “Say ‘Garden State’”, & I say, “Garden State”;
& the Princeton tiger came like Christ the kite, in September;
& TS Eliot read his poetry to a packed house; I mean auditorium;
& the best modern furniture is designed by architects;
& Jack Smith is gonna die of happiness; & there’ll be peace
in Viet Nam & we’ll all be beautiful again (the typewriter
will write a poem entitled “Manufacture”, or “War & Peace”
just for the poet & his friend); & the coin will stop spinning
& all the plays will be witty & largely beautiful; actresses
will acquiesce in their diction; & the gangster movie will be
produced, shot on location in Kansas, directed by a Frenchman;
the ‘new wave’ will roll to a dead halt on a black & white
highway; successful tycoons will burn all their paintings,
like nihilists, or Rouault, each in his Golden Pavilion; & the
lunch waiters will run the country, having taken over the newspapers;
& Grace Kelly & Robt. Kelly will tour paradise & Heaven,
remark Billie Holiday teaching Robt. Young how to play Daddy
& the saxophone; & Michelet will give us a worthy cosmology;
& the FBI will invent a twittering machine that works; &
there goes Richie Schmidt all dressed up, looking like a priest
INTRODUCTION (by Michael O’Brien)

 Frank Kuenstler’s “Canto 33” opens

                         In medias res, the human voice, crystal,

making a kind of rubric: three propositions at the outset of something said, or, better, Duke Ellington laying out the terms of a song. In medias res comes from Horace: “in the midst of the thing,” the place where we begin a story, a day, between a beginning we can’t remember and the end which is an end to all remembering.  Here. Now. In what Wallace Stevens calls “The the.” And what we find, in all this immediacy, this perpetual ongoing middle, is the human voice. The poems show a constant appetite for it, for engaging with its unbroken rivers of talk. And that voice is crystal: “clear as crystal,” as we say, but also “a structure consisting of periodically repeated, identically constructed congruent unit cells.” (This sounds like a description of Lens, his first, most radical book.) To crystallize is “to take on definite and permanent form.” Granted the way his mind worked, crystal is also probably not far from a crystal set, a radio housing voices, nor from Stendhal’s On Love, in which crystallization is the process of an emotion finding its form.  A lot of work for seven words, and with a rhyme as well. But consider the associative processes that run these poems, their density of reference, the swiftness of their transitions. The internet works like this, all interacting simultaneities. And the glue that holds it all together is human speech:

                         The world hangs by a thread of verbs & nouns.

The poems’ openness to the overtones of words is unfailing, sometimes to the exclusion of their everyday workhorse lives. The point was to find a way to bring that abundance to bear in the moment of the poem. Many poets proceed by cutting out the overload; he tried to make room for it. He didn’t write as if English were in a museum, and he didn’t write to put it there. Poetry was, by its nature, provisional; that’s why he wrote so much of it. He was steadily intelligent but not at all high-minded; if puns were good enough for Joyce, they were good enough for him. Likewise gobbledygook—“trying to talk to Mama,” as he once described it. He was discerning without prejudice: junk had its uses—cartoons, cheesy movies, newspaper headlines. To move between the sublime and the ridiculous, as he did, programmatically, all the time, and with great rapidity, wasn’t a blunder—they were parts of the same terrain. He never treated his materials with superiority, though often with compounded ironies. There is great sadness and anger in some of the poems, and sometimes a blank opacity more troubling than either. But, inexhaustibly, there is something like joy at the level of language.

Sometimes he says it into being:

                        If summer is the image of a string of pearls
                        There is music everywhere.

where assertion does the work of discovery. Other times the world is not posited but simply, or not so simply, given as found. For his findings were seldom simple.  Simplicity surprised him, as it surprises us when it turns up in the poems.

One mustn’t leave out how funny they are, how much pleasure they give, how responsive their quickness—“Who runs may read.” At their best, as, say, in “Blind Ossian Addresses the Sun Again,” their reach is immense. Over and over inchoate feelings take shape, change, move on. Fixity is rare in them, something stale and lifeless. It often seems as if he were doing six things at once, changing trains and levels of thought as he speaks: more than one person is talking, and all at once.  Precarious to negotiate such a Babel. The stakes of the poems were very high: to come to some kind of terms with the rich, rolling chaos of the world, make something commensurate with it. What they do is this:

                         Praise what was ordered a second in the mind


Hard to make a selection of the poems of someone whose every impulse was for inclusion. Much remains to be done. A reprint of Lens—for the book defies editing—is the next thing needed. Then manuscripts need to be looked at—this selection draws only on the books that he published. The Rabbi Kyoto Poems should be gathered and published, and The Baseball Book, meant to secure his old age.  Friends should be consulted: sometimes the post office was his publisher. He was abundant.

There is good news: tapes of two of his readings can be found at PennSound
(, likewise five of the films, restored by Anthology Film Archives; his last two books, In Which and The Seafarer, B.Q.E., and Other Poems, are available from Cairn Editions ( But time passes. When Lady Murasaki is asked by the Prince why she writes she says So there will never be a time when people don’t know these things happened. His work should not be lost.

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