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, February 17, 2012

Reconfiguring Romanticism (53): The Construction of Poems for the Millennium & the Poems It Engendered (Part Two)

[continued from previous posting]

Having plunged into a new series of poems, 50 Caprichos after Goya, just as Poems for the Millennium (the third, romanticism volume) was getting under way, and with Blake’s sense of “the Fancy” and Lorca’s “duende” always in mind, I moved toward the following concluding poem, in my terms and, I hope, in theirs: 

coda, with duendes 

Duendes sound a last
hurrah     they squeeze
a bellows, scrub a dish
with greasy hands,
a whisper
in an ear bent down
to listen.
No one sees them.
Over every duende
falls the shadow
of a greater duende.
Holy moly!
Is this not a black sound,
Mister Lorca?
Pissing olive oil
I isn’t what I seems
to be     a poor
barrel overturned,
the wine I swigs
gone rancid.
There is now an end
to everything.
What is flesh
they suck no more,
they drive the foul caprichos
out of sight.
Caprichos, Goya, Lorca,
all my duendes,
locked into a cage
at dawn, evading
sleep & dreams,
those whom they leave
behind them, fathers
raising arms
to heaven,
screaming through
their empty
mouths    like caverns
black holes
where all light
is lost.
Now is the time.                                  

            If this, then, was my interplay with Goya and Lorca, the discourse and engagement with Romanticism was linking – deliberately on my part – with still other aspects of the poetry I was then composing.  At the turning of the century and the millennium I had written and published a long series of poems – A Book of Witness (2001) – in which I explored, among other matters, the first person voice as integral to the poetic act of witnessing, even of prophecy (itself an inheritance from Romanticism) – by the poet directly or with the poet as a conduit for others.  I mean here a first person that isn’t restricted to the usual “confessional” stance but is the instrument – in language – for all acts of witnessing, the key with which, like Keats’s “chameleon poet,” we open up to voices other than our own.  There was in all of this a question of inventing and reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as “I.”  In the course of putting that identity into question, I brought in occasional and very brief first person statements by other contemporary poets – very lightly sometimes but as a further way of playing down the merely ego side of “I.”  The continuity with the first two volumes (“modern” and “postmodern”) of Poems for the Millennium seems to me obvious, no less the relation to Romantic poetics (as in the case of Keats and others), which I had still more fully to explore.
            Shortly before Jeffrey Robinson and I started on our Romantics project, I was beginning a new series of poems – fancies perhaps in the sense of Blake and Goya -- in which the operative thrust was to suppress the “I” as it had emerged in A Book of Witness, and to let world and mind interact absent direct first person intervention.  The title I gave it, A Book of Concealments, was drawn from a medieval Jewish work, Sifra diSeni’uta, from which I also drew, as with A Book of Witness, occasional and very brief statements or phrases but without further citation.  The idea of concealment, in contrast to that of witness, had many implications and was a driving force behind the work as such.  Not least of course was the concealment of the singular first person pronoun, as if that in itself might counter what Keats had called the “egotistical sublime” or Charles Olson “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” a challenging if imperious directive in the first place.
            Midway through the work and with Poems for the Millennium, volume three, already underway, I dedicated a poem to Michael McClure, with whom I had an ongoing discourse about Romanticism and Romantics as those entered into the poetry and poetics of our own time.  The poem’s title, “A Deep Romantic Chasm,” drawn from Coleridge’s seminal and truly fanciful Kubla Khan, led me to consider using the Romantic poets in Millennium as I had used the modern and postmodern poets in A Book of Witness and to break down in other ways the barrier between the poems in Concealments and the large assemblage I was simultaneously composing.  In the process I separated a group of poems under the title “Romantic Dadas” and had those published as a limited edition artist’s book, but all remained integral to A Book of Concealments and were included as such in the final publication.  The result is that the last third of the book (25 or 30 poems) has a score or more of such insertions, as in the following, with the Hopkins reference noted in the margin and the title taken from a Seneca Indian ritual source:

The Brain Turned Upside Down 

       To count time from
the future,
having the end
in view,
this is a sore reminder
of another world,
another chance
to come into the open air,
out of the darkness.
The brain turned upside
down, they told us,
gathers no moss.
No clash of symbols
half as painful
as discounted
time, ready
to plug us
one by one.
A star most spiritual,
preeminent,                               (G.M. Hopkins)
of all the golden press,
where what is dark
is not obscure,
leads rather
to another light,
a revelation
of the end of all.
For this things fly away,
the distance between
one & one
becomes a universe
no one will track.
The time to view the stars
grows scarce,
the farther we look.
A walk across the street
reckons infinity
& more.

            Looking back now I can only surmise that the work of assemblage and that of original composition were, for me at least, deeply co-dependent.  Certainly the poems in both Concealments and Caprichos (later published as a single book) would have been different were I not engaged then in the construction of Poems for the Millennium.  By the same token I needed just that sort of engagement to feel myself in an active exchange with those poets whom Jeffrey Robinson and I were weaving into our larger composition.  It is something like this that I found years ago in Pound’s construction of “an active anthology,” and the use of the word “active” in the title of the present volume again brings that thrust to mind.  Whatever it is that goes to create a canon – a word and concept we could well do without – or to perpetuate it through a canonical anthology or series of such, an active and thereby transformative idea of anthology, as of our lives in general, is by far the greater work to aim at.
            The fancy (as capricho and duende) demands nothing less of us.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Truly beautiful poem one, happiness-inducing in its jauntiness. There's this lovely minor third from that in the subject matter, but I hear caverns as caravan nevertheless. You heal your duende, his duende heals and his duende and his duende and his duende all down the line.

Poem two radiates out of that, the all-important encounter of the duende with the rational world, even sadder as its vision knows no limits. As in Rilke: "Lange errang ers im Anschaun. / Sterne brachen ins Knie / unter dem ringenden Aufblick. / Oder er anschaute es knieend, / und seines Instands Duft / machte ein Göttliches müd, / dass es ihm lächelte schlafend.