Articles - December 2012

What Gerrit gives us

Gerrit Lansing (photo by Marc Sanchez).

I.

When I first reckoned the project of writing about Gerrit Lansing’s work, poems that for a long time have been very important to me and influential upon my own work, and possess erudition far beyond anything one is likely to encounter in contemporary poetry — I felt a sense of intimidation. How could I, a product of the late-twentieth-century public education system, still a young poet by comparison, write anything of any profundity about a body of work so vast in subject and so catholic in its influence, drawing upon sources Eastern and Western, arcane and academic? Upon further consideration, however, I realized that this reaction was wholly inappropriate; for Gerrit’s[1] poems, like all things sublime, invite.

I realized that my trepidation comes from having come of age at a time when the shibboleth of transparency was held in high regard, due to a reaction against High Modernism, and the influence of the Confessionals and the newly-burgeoning MFA culture on US poetry. Despite my disdain for many of these institutions, those of my generation cannot help but be dumbstruck when we face an oeuvre rooted in traditions predating or transcending those grounds of our initial instruction. Whether we flee in fear from perceived “difficulty,” or gravitate toward it, we cannot help but be seized by a sensation of being “out of our depth,” because the depths in which we learned to swim were indeed shallow. Like those reared in the desert, we come upon the sublime sea and are rendered mute by it. Woe to us if today’s poets had been explorers, who upon seeing said sea said, “this is beautiful and dangerous, it cannot be crossed.” But the crossing is not the only gauntlet, as evinced by the brutal consequences of so many explorations, so many discoveries. “Of the godly uncanny it is wise to beware.”[2]


II.


The ego longs to be obliterated. Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” looks out upon the morass and hears the call of the sirens therein, the crash of the waves on rocks become the pulse of the life force; he is master of himself, only and that self would fain dissolve. The ego looks upon Mount Vesuvius, and would swim in lava, with the salamanders, and be “as molten gold and molten gold.”[3] The real reaction to the sublime is not so much fear as longing. This longing is ever-present in Gerrit’s work, longing for you, longing for me, and longing for the loss of self that occurs when one is left by the god to “dream with eyes open all night long.”[4]


III.

The Industrial Revolution and the resulting age erected great barriers between the individual ego and the sublime, replaced longing-fear with fear-fear and compelled us to sheathe our bodies and mind in armor, forming what Wilhelm Reich called “mechanistic civilization”: “It is just this freedom intrinsic in nature which makes our mechanists anxious when they encounter it.”[5] Reich was outspoken in his criticism of the paradigm of Western thought in the twentieth century, though it is no surprise that we armor ourselves in the midst of those shrieking warplanes and rattling machine gun emplacements that eat young men quick. Modern man has wandered far from the animism that Reich advocates as the fundamental force in the universe; Gerrit speaks to a similar animate cosmos, but instead of admonishing us, Gerrit seeks to teach — by invitation, by example, by song, by “salvific toot.”[6]

If Reich is unforgiving, Gerrit forgives, for we are those unforgiven for whom he appeals to the universal mother, his own mother wearing the mask of Marpessa who jilted abstract divinity for functional reality:

Our Lady of the unforgiven of this world
forgive us out of darkness and the warmth of summer nights
and let our benedictions echo in the body’s cave.

It is a mistake to call Gerrit a metaphysical poet, for his vision is an intensely physical one, eschewing what Reich calls the physics of the mechanist, whereby “all physical problems are essentially solved,” but nevertheless engaged with the animistic physical properties of the real reality.[7] What Gerrit espouses is a kind of intercourse with the world, for he knows that when one is ridden[8] by a daemon, it is not a possession but a union. Likewise, when one is but observing, knowledge is also sexual union, as was Adam’s task in the garden — to find his mate by way of experimentation.

In Eden, where our dreams of happiness are carefully conserved,
stored as juicy essences the virgin of the world put up,
we eat each other endlessly,
apples sadly rarely shared in what is unjust history.[9]

“To name is to count. You will hear a golden bell.”[10]

Insofar as all who are quick are involved in this congress with the universe, Gerrit’s homoeroticism, while personal, political, and anecdotal, is also universal, for we are all engaged in that process of congress with the universe, our own image, and the holistic gem of our fractured selves. Gerrit portrays the universal force as both masculine and feminine and gradations thereof balanced in alchemical harmony. The milk of the universal mother is manifest in the seed of male lovers:

                The sweetness of men is also her bounty
the milk of the stars from her paps runs sweet in their first jaculations
in automobile cowboy privacy of nights in Dogtown
where the sweet smell of clethra
                                      along the woodlots road

fills the moonlit air where her nectar falls on the fires of spring
and the gusher of spirit exults.[11]

The impetus towards orgasm (Reich’s “orgone energy,” though the man himself was quizzically hostile towards those he perceived as “sexual deviants”) is not procreative, but rather reflexive, the mechanism whereby we come to know — and by knowing lose and transcend — the universe and ourselves.


IV.

Our mechanistic world sees only through a lens, be it glass or corneal. Those seers of other kinds of sight having been stripped of their laurels and labeled first heretics and later fools or insane — the Halloween party witch, the party magician, the schizophrenic oracle. First by the sociopolitical designs of Christianity and then by the dynamo-fearing acolytes of mechanistic science, the character of the Magus has been marginalized and maligned for centuries — mere centuries — for some have drank from the well of noumenon for countless centuries prior and countless hence. It is that aspect of Gerrit’s work that some may be tempted to label “mystic” (although animistic is the better appellation) that perhaps will give the rank-and-file contemporary reader pause, compelled so by those two competing modern dogmas of “Religion” or “Science,” despite the fact that the worldview embodied in this work unites elements of both in holy matrimony.

This may be because the Magus is indeed all he is cracked up to be: charlatan, trickster, rogue, liar, demagogue, hedonist, and more, for the Magus is the wielder of paradox just as the prophet is the wielder of supposed “truth,” although “prophet” has its root in “prophecy,” which is the demesne of the oracle. The Magus makes a mockery of the notion of knowledge as finite and transparent (“this naming / is gaming.”[12]), and is likely to make a fool of those seeking finalities and transparencies. Which is not to say his truths are lies, but rather, his lies truth, since truth and lie lie together in the bower of the universe. 

Above all else, the Magus is artist, creating or dispelling illusion or shades of both. We have become unaccustomed to seeing him as such, particularly in the light of the Modern eschewal of trompe l’oeil and art that misleads or fools for art which distilled abstract truths, although the speech of the oracle does the same. Who once commanded fear and respect has been relegated by the mechanistic paradigm and its intimate relationship to the former to the object of skepticism and scorn. However, such things are of no consequence to him.

While some modern writers have understood his character (Ursula LeGuin’s Ged comes immediately to mind), few have depicted the Magus as artist and scribe better than Shakespeare in his Prospero. It is said of the character that he is the avatar of the author himself, but he is also the model for the pre-mechanistic Magus, wielder of Baconian science and illusionism alike, master of ceremonies, and pivot of disparate narratives. The revelations of the play are also his undoing. “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair,”[13] for Prospero is also the trinity of he and his agents, Caliban[14] and Ariel: civilized man, humus and ether. The Magus is equal parts cthonic wisdom, whimsy and human rhetoric and is most powerful as the conjunction of these, the functional human — “Let your indulgence set me free.” As in the unsundered Prospero, these elements form the pith of and are given free reign in Gerrit’s work, the next great characterization, and fuller realization, of the mage-artisan in English literature:

Mournful angels spire down his black syntax
To health. Mad and warm as children, they splash
and couple in the joyous summer sea.


V.

In the above-quoted “Dark Grammarian,” Gerrit names himself by way of a pun, “His garret overhangs the green subtle slum / where nothing culminates,” and depicts himself, Prospero-like, as agent of the various forces that come to life in his work. This Grammarian is dark not in the sense of the Western binary of the goodness of light and the darkness of evil, but rather as one who has engaged in the hero’s katabasis — the plumbing and subsequent return from the underworld, as Orpheus has, and more particularly the speaker of Nérval’s “Les Chimeres” has “two times crossed & won the Acheron”[15] and that of Tammuz, who appears in “The Cutting of the Lotus,” “Underneath the underground tree / Shamash and Tammuz in the Shade.” Katabasis is the process by which potent enigmas are internalized, intellectually and bodily by the perceiver. We proceed to the underworld by going the “Wrong Way,” by subsuming our knowledge in anti-knowledge, closing eyes to see the clearer. “His right hand takes the left hand path, the Sign / Is born and flowers in the sudden damp.”[16] The act of flowering, and the flower itself in its omnisexual purity comprises another important element in Gerrit’s cosmology.

This descent is emblematic, also, of the seasons and of terrestrial order — katabasis is the process by which one intuits the knowledge of the earth and its phenomena, the scientific method insofar as it applies to the empirical, the Humanities, insofar as to be “human” is to bury the dead in the earth and to be buried in turn:

Who bury the dead
must from the grave
establish a habit …

Who bury the dead
to rise again.[17]

This katabasic knowledge is a persistent theme in Gerrit’s work, from “3 Poems of the Underworld(s),” to “Dark Grammarian,” to “The Soluble Forest,” where again the descent/ascent is named Gerrit’s own name:

               From the center of nothing something spreads out, that then
there now. From zero jumps two, two being how something is appre-
hended. Only a stone’s throw from writing to root. The rite of winter is
the root of spring.

              The house stands on its cellar and grows up. Also grows down
from its garret invisibly, as the crown of a tree flourishes the idea of its
root.

The ego seeks obliteration to know its own name, and to name and thereby make agents of its deeper, truer urges. To grow forth must first be swallowed by the dirt, from whence arises the “thousand-petalled sun.”[18]


VI.

Knowledge is not austere. Static hubris is the enemy of sight. To be mercurial is to be as quick (“living”) silver and likewise resist containment always. To be as the spirits of the air and to “Do as Thou Wilt.” The whim is sacred, divine fancy. The oracular tradition bedecked the profound with riddles, and knew that that purest intuition is perceived sidelong — the eclipsing sun and moon through a pinhole, “the first darkness blinds the human eyes.”[19]

In the “Soluble Forest,” the wisdom of katabasis is couched in riddling terms:

“Spelt from the mummy’s tomb:
                                            a cereal poem:

              it die and be
              it comes as it goes

                               Eleusinian.”

The poem is an onion of puns, double entendres and riddles. The opening line puns on George Manley Hopkins’ “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” as well as the definition of “spelt,” being an archaic spelling of “spelled,” but also the grain spelt, giving rise to the “cereal poem,” not to mention the “spell” itself, the text of the Eleusinian mysteries of the cult of Demeter, recalling Hopkins’s own prosody-cult of the meter, prefiguring Jack Spicer’s metaphysics and serial poems, which give rise to the next line. The line is both a refutation of and homage to the Berkeley Renaissance, a (too) obvious precedent for this poem, which is indeed serial and cereal insofar as it is seminal and germinal.

The second stanza puns on “be / ing” and the “be / coming,” and the “it,” which literally comes (orgasms) as it goes — into the underworld, bower of Demeter’s daughter. Going down, coming. The right hand taking the left-hand path.

The wisdom of Gerrit’s poems most often operates in this manner, by way of the left-hand path, and a network of associations — sonic, intellectual, and contextual. Trickster wisdom is an affront to the mechanistic model of “knowledge” and “accuracy.” That which is unheimlich is not of necessity profound or similar — as evinced in “3 Anecdotes of the Uncanny,” whereby accounts are given of an encounter with an extraterrestrial Old One, a traveler who gets a surprise stepping on some unexpected fauna during a “melancholy-romantic” ramble in the dark, and a tiger disguised as a man hoping to crash a mountain tryst. What lies at the limits of human understanding is not H. P. Lovecraft’s quivering chaos, but quelle surprise! “Over the hills and far away / Teletubbies come out to play.”[20]

The universe teems with life, and life’s motility is ecstatic expansion, “It begins and ends in bamboozle / fuming in delightful delusion.”[21]

                                          Only fluctuate,
auto-erotize, tune in, not forget,
                         and emerges a new decisive property

                                                     quasithermodynamical

                                                                                               playful

                                                           tiptoploftical

                                             and your multiverse

                                                                      teetotally

                                                                                tintinnabulates

as former parts, PONG, cohere anew.[22]

All things advance towards the naught of The Fool, who is no dummy.


VII.

The shaman lives at the edge of town, but he is of the town. The oracle did not merely tell but shaped the destiny she scryed. Prospero stewards his domain; it is a mistake to say that one who is above and below is one apart. The oracle’s is also the orator’s art, and likewise Gerrit speaks, like Maximus, to the Polis — cosmo, metro and meta. The citizen looks to the will of the order of the Law, which is Love, and the oracle is avatar of the will of the heavens, which is also Love. It is a mistake to say the object of metaphysics is a place apart, rather it looks to a place within, and each within begins in the without of the Polis. Likewise Gerrit speaks to and for same. He sings the song of Amphion, who raised up Thebes, “Open to darkness, open to light, a muse / in the shifting, a shape in the hands of the winds”:[23]

Here are the tenements
Yet green in their cerements
These are the gay movements, benedict
Music of the city of earth
City of earth[24]

“The Wizard of Oz in the Blizzard of Oz” maps a route for the erstwhile liege through said blizzard, which is the stupefaction of this United (“Disunited”) States by the stink tanks of filthy lucre (so named in the poem): “American Enterprise Foundation, Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Competitive Enterprise Foundation, Council for Social and Economic Studies, Center for Security Policy”). Here is the Whitmanian project of political reconciliation of self-knowledge, veneration of what is human in the city and the city in the human. “The Curve” recommends “making the place by placing the place, live / (or live, change vowel eye, heart” in order to brook the burden of the city for the land belongs to he who would make the best use of it:

it is to smell
to dig with the hand
to demonstrate
                           and at least

                  to reclaim
                  to come in
                  like Indians!

                                                   on this curve

from the ravening wood

                                          to a city

                                          we once could be citizens of.

The restored Eden, wherein the names have liquefied and rejoined the soluble forest, congeries of unarmored bodies at the work of breathing and breathing together — “polis is / eyes.”[25]


VIII.

There is nothing solemn in this house, so do not come solemn-eyed. Gerrit’s poems travel a great distance and the way is sometimes uncertain, and indeed at times there is no way at all. But Gerrit is always at the crown of the hill, perhaps disappearing into the pines with a peal of fox laugher, the white fox of “Annisquam Nights.” Not the shaman, but the spirit-guide itself, of no fixed form or inclination. That cannot be understood, which is the knowledge of going under, ununderstanding in the big lap of the loss of ego. “Running in blue light / the hunter’s moon will eat his mind at night.”[26]

A section of Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth is named “Portals,” and this is indeed what is offered therein. There is no destination. Each is an opening of language into a field beyond language. The Aum — a resplendent syllabary whereby the fetters of material consciousness are shooed and eschewed. Fundamentally, the Magus is teacher, guide and lover. That knowing is a verb, to do is to be. What Gerrit gives us is a steadfast being, the keys to a library that is also a greenhouse, each book being a flower that is a flowering of a human mind, the author’s or otherwise. 

Who is rich in love will lay
An autumn table for his guest
And shape in autumn ornaments
The shapes and omens of his love[27]

For a poem is more and less than an author’s mind, “The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,” where play the “cats of many colors.” Gerrit’s is the rain that deepens the hue of our own stones, which are hewn from that standing herm somewhere under verdant canopies, “Enceladus-immense,”[28] a silent, knowing God. In this herm is a gate that Gerrit has made, an opening of words, blessed be the travelers who go to the gate that Gerrit has given us, and blessed be the gate, the aperture by which that which is within looks out, upon us and our silly universe.

 


 

1. I use the given name here, because it is the name that Gerrit himself offers us in poems such as “A Red Ghazel for C.B.L.,” “The Dark Grammarian,” and “A Ghazel of Absence.” All poems from Gerrit Lansing, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2009).

2. “On the Right Use of Simples.”

3. “Alba.”

4. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik nach Likymnius.”

5. Wilhelm Reich, Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1960).

6. “A Toast.”

7. Reich, 277.

8. I use the terminology of the Houngan (cf. Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti [Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2004]) here.

9. “To the Boy Charioteer.”

10. “The Cutting of the Lotus.”

11. “The Milk of the Stars from Her Paps.”

12. “The Soluble Forest.”

13. The Tempest, V.i.

14. Prospero’s intended agent, although he cannot completely control him.

15. Gérard de Nerval, “The Chimeras,” trans. Mark Lamoureux, Fascicle no. 1 (Summer 2005).

16. “The Dark Grammarian.”

17. “The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward.”

18. “Northern Earth.”

19. Ibid.

20. “The Wizard of Oz in the Blizzard of Oz.”

21. Ibid.

22. “When Locality Fails.”

23. “Amphion.”

24. Ibid.

25. Charles Olson, “Letter 6,” in The Maximus Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 30.

26. “Stanzas of Hyparxis”

27. “October Song”

28. “The Boulder Behind the House”

The dark grammarian

Gerrit Lansing with Yukon Jack, October 2011 (photo by Jim Dunn).

The title is “wrong”; alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards toward heaven. These books of poems reach that way; reach many ways.

It is not downwards; it is toward the sky, we go there if we are to reach heaven. These poems reach that way.

And the devil steps between each word.

The “poetic process” here is toward heaven; it is a cleansing of life so that we may strive toward perfection. Pound says the love of a thing consists in the understanding of its perfection.

For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit Lansing to write without it is even more difficult.


2

Metaphysics is a difficult subject; it springs out of the mind without control, much as passion does. It is a different arousal. It centers on different cells and causes a different action in the brain. Nothing else kindles such red-hot coals in the mind as a line of poetry. You will find quite a lot of them here. Dynamite.

You will be dismayed at the new. You will reject it; regret it.

The discontinuity of image, the “confused” mind you will think you will find here. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.

You will find the continuity of rhythms, of image without process; in the use of the words as bent spoons gash hounds bright cock flame, much as rain falls in different drops; these poems fall in the mind. As wind blows through the rain will you rhythm enmeshing these pieces.

Rhythm is the elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards. It is that flowering of thought; so many petals blow through the mind; the wind of imagination.

This is not a book of poems to read by; it is to live with. The heavenly tree does grow downward. Into the mind, new thought.


3

It is a cleansing perfection we encounter, without the poet knowing it. Let us hope he continues. Complexity of perfection is found here, simple, pure, and purposeful.

The complications of formal statement, of familial relations would be diminished if we were to remain naked longer in our lives. Without them we would be naked too, but in a different way. These poems force us to this. I thank their presence and creator in my room.

Now I have to learn to carry them with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.


Note: Preface to the first edition of Gerrit Lansing’s
The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, published by Matter Books, 1966, not reprinted in subsequent editions of the book. — Kevin Gallagher

Gerrit Lansing: Under the gazebo / evening

Jim Dunn and Gerrit Lansing in front of the Erik Lomen Mural, Beverly MA, September 2011 (photo by Angela Dunn).

I. Under the gazebo
 
We gathered at the white gazebo at the center of an ocean-side park. The turf was near-bare, blown by wind currents; it rolled south to the water and a baseball field. Midsummer sun, strong into the evening, reflected from the ocean, sparkling. Children were playing around the cement drums, where barbeque coals are dumped. And off to the southeast, out of the wind-blasted earth, a cliff of granite stood, the height accessible by narrow wooded paths. As if painted by Theresa Bernstein, it was a scene of New England enjoyed openly and demotically; nearby, the metal ring securing a flag clanked against its flagpole.
 
To triangulate our whereabouts for a literary readership, the cabin where Charles Olson had spent his childhood summers stood on land directly to our northwest; the Eliot family cottage, lodged in young Thomas’s imagination, was perched southeast across the harbor; and the home of Romantic poet Hiram Rich, once diagonal to a ropewalk, sat squat on Stacy Boulevard, across the Blynman Bridge. These are largely unknown coordinates, however. Fishermen’s Field, with its one arm, a grassed-over fort where cannons rust, thrust into the harbor, and its belly, Cressys Beach, fronting the ocean, was, that evening, pleasurable surroundings. Cool air ripe with salt broke the heat.
 
It was James, coeditor of the magazine with Zach, who emceed, talking with his back to the water. Lisa and I, leaning against the white-painted metal rail on the opposite side of the gazebo, near the entry steps, faced the sun-dappled but quiet ocean. Kenneth Irby, Joseph Torra, Donald Wellman, and Jim Dunn were there, and others, sitting on the gazebo’s concrete floor, leaning on the rail, or resting in foldout camping chairs. I was reminded of a folk festival I had been to in Lowell: sport sandals, shorts, t-shirts, restless children, snacks in zippered cooler bags.
 
Gerrit Lansing sat in the folding chair designated for readers. Light of sunset fell on his clean-cut face, and he wore red wraparound sunglasses. In round elocutionary tones he recited from Diane Di Prima’s Seminary Poems. There is a patient, guiding Will in Lansing’s voice when he performs; a Will that draws strength from deeper harmony, rather than discordant show or mastery: the Will to be in tune, rather than the orator’s Will to turn a crowd. His song is chant, or, to be more accurate, incantation.
 
The flag-ring continued to clank out of beat against its metal pole. Lansing then read, with hunted clarity, his poem “Till Dawn’s Early Light”:

No
sleep
last night
only words
dancing in the dark
united states american
old song crack’d and dissolute reverberating far
hound sound melancholy hound sound melancholy hound sound
              melancholy your sweet bitch

This song rings true because it is hard-earned, and long-forged; it takes a poet who in his youth had embraced American Exceptionalism, Olsonian or Lawrencian, as had Lansing, to put words to soured American hopes, and dashed American enthusiasms. He had written, in his literary magazine SET, that “American life” had “swarming possibilities,” that the way “Americans, now, receive time differentiates us from others,” and that “energy,” freed from dead “kulchur,” was, at last, liberated “to recognize itself.” Lansing had been, in this way, a New American. Europe, suicided by two world wars, was rebuilding in shock. New Americans, like Charles Olson, were keen to cast off inherited forms, literary, philosophical, and religious; postwar American “possibilities” would receive a “poetic exploration.” Lansing, having outlived many contemporaries, measures the American Century: chances lost, dreams foiled, ground given up, the “old song crack’d and dissolute.”
 
The prim, municipal gazebo, where I remember my brother lining up for prom photos in a gray tuxedo and sky blue bow tie, swiftly absorbed Lansing’s plumbed words; like a cloud burst onto a dry, puckered land, his lines were soaked up by concrete, tangled in metal rail. But as his voice rose and fell, neglected geometries were brought to light, without the aid of document. Fishermen’s Field was again a parade ground. Tricentennial crowds thronged the granite cliff where, cast in bronze, anchors heralded an historic plaque. 1923 was now, and reenactors, dressed as seventeenth-century Puritans, were beset by children and gawkers. Brass bands were stalled on the uphill approach to the gazebo, and by camera-eye I saw consecrated the future site of Craske’s anonymous, heroic statue.

only words
dancing in the dark
united states american

 
II. Wamba
 
Lisa and I published a poem by Gerrit Lansing last year, in our now-concluded literary journal Process. “Strolling Pebble Beach in February,” it is called; it fronted an issue that included Robert Kelly and Clayton Eshleman. The poem is a sensuous nature-encounter, luminous with sky, rock, vine. Refined and controlled, it seems, to my limited knowledge of the subject, to be Crowlean: vectors of concentration brought to a single locus-point at a key, physically-charged moment.
 
To reproduce the poem’s second half:

This is looking at a lot of paintings in the sky
but seeing one master scrawl.
 
              Underlies, it does, spread of choices
              Wamba’s fan-shaped destiny,
 
rocky patternings
              to find, to find,
                                          refined
                                                        perception.   

I tread on the side of caution, with Lansing’s references. Wamba, I looked up, was the last strong Visigothic king of Spain. Legends say, in several variants, that Wamba, a king’s son living as a cowherd, far from court, was recalled by chieftains eager for the heir to rule; in refutation of their appeal, he thrust his walking stick into the ground and was surprised to see, sprouting supernaturally from the stick-head, a lush fan of green leaves signifying, the story seemed to say, God’s Will that he take the throne.
 
How the fable of Wamba, or whatever historical record survives of Wamba’s rule, might enrich the poem, and whether, if indeed, the Wamba of Lansing’s reference is identical to the Wamba of my little research, is beyond me to answer. My sense is that Lansing’s poems are music-note clusters, taken from longer chants composed privately; what we, as readers, access on his page is the “master scrawl,” selected out. Hunting old books for Wamba, like an academic bred on minutiae, is to stray from the mark.
 
The music matters to get the ritual right, to hymn with accuracy. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but here and there I hear, faintly, under the songs of Lansing, a Stefan George time signature: like George, Lansing will mate like-sounding sounds, not fearing rhyme; ballad and harvest song are his to use. Lansing erects the Georgian exclamation point where others would place a chaste period. I do not mean to overstate the matter, since Lansing has drawn lines, already, to Rilke, Nerval, and Mallarmé, but somehow George is there too, as my ear receives it, in what Kenneth Irby called Lansing’s “work song over the compost heap,” his “chant of genital intensity.” Spring, fragrant, verdant, and fierce; a single, lingering hour with the nameless companion; intimations of sorcery. Wenn sich der gott in dir regt / Wenn dein geliebter dir raunt
 

III. Thelema

Sex on earth is rhymed angelic motion.
 
Gerrit Lansing
“Stanzas of Hyparxis”
 
When all the malls go up in flame,
             and jails the mighty built,
then we the newly free proclaim
             the Law: Do What Thou Wilt!
 
Gerrit Lansing
“Quatrain for Contemporary
‘Amazing Grace’ Stanza Collection”

Now I approach matter that is foreign to me. There is, from my outsider-vantage, not having been and not desiring to be initiated, a vital constellation in Lansing’s poems, of figure- or god-scheme. There is tantrism, or an Americanized version of tantra. Yoga too, also Americanized, though not commercialized. I should say, before going further, that I see Lansing’s writing, in part, as a bridge between Between-the-Wars occultism, in particular Aleister Crowley, and, on the other side of the span, the “New Age” “counterculture” of the mid- and latter twentieth century.
 
Nineteenth-century Romance splintered English Protestantism: allure of symbol, ritual, mystery, and human agency drew some to Catholicism, others to the occult. Those drawn to the occult chose Will over Charity, Destiny over Judgment. The Trinitarian Ages of Joachim Fiore, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were reimagined as Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Isis for matriarchy and mother-goddesses; Osiris for patriarchy and father-gods; Horus, presumably our Age, of “self-realization,” and the Child.
 
“Self-realization,” the Child-Will, “Do What Thou Wilt.” Repressed Protestants seeking sex-magick. Not my nature is it, to share this philosophy. Neither do I find it intriguing or titillating. But this: a historically-conditioned social release of the upper-middle class. For a time, Society-fashionable. Clearly of artistic benefit to those few, with canny habit of self-control, who used it without being used up. Lansing’s song is radiant: here supple like summer leaf, there mineral rock-hard; from auld material Lansing, like Yeats before him, has made magic from “Magick.” Others, of the “New Age,” did not fare so well. 
 
Lansing’s poems breathe out-of-doors, far from the séance parlor, far from the dropout commune-house: his words fill with Spring mist. His Eros dispenses with Theosophic costume. Back down the path are those timid, antiquated souls needing “Egyptian ritual” or “Eleusinian Mystery” to be confident in sex. Lost are the overdosers, the addicts. Melancholy, in retrospect: many were left behind, but are mourned for. But there is fraternal love. Not the gnostic’s contempt only. A generous strain: from where?
 
Walt Whitman, I wager. Unashamed, amative, world-walking and world-embracing Whitman. He is surely a presence in Lansing’s writing. The comradeship of men, without spell or astral-projection: in construction boots, like Lansing in winter, dungarees and a plaid coat. Lansing has brought open-faced, demotic Whitman and esoteric, mesmerizing Crowley together, but not hierarchically. In no wise are they ranked: not Whitman for the demos, Crowley for the initiates; but by some alchemy they unite, by some alchemy beyond my ken. They are, however, there.
 

IV. Evening

 
Dark has fallen, but the heat hasn’t lifted. The air carries salt. I turn the ignition and pull away from the grass shoulder, below Gerrit’s hedgerow. Nearby is the castle, and the crypt, of Jack Hammond. Gray-granite Medieval, unlike his parents’ Tudor mansion. Mining-money, and technological marvels. The casino-royale of Magnolia razed, the Oceanside: the millionaire, the royal, the pretender gone to other pleasure-domes. Wonders of the age, to dirt. 
 
At Gerrit’s, the party lingers, and his hospitality nourishes. From open windows warm light. Conversation pours forth sparkling, like light on the water it does. Tonight there are stars. Not every night has stars.

In Northern Earth
Gerrit Lansing
 
The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,
cats of many colors run among the sumach
that roots in human stomachs long gone back
to long enduring earth, and what is length
of days or seasons in astronomy of death?
Endurance is calamity if earth speaks true
and the measurement of time is not posterity.
How the line must lengthen if the sun endures
and the poem report advanced celebrity!
Dissolve, coagulate, the chemists say:
but the first darkness blinds the human eyes
that climb the ladder of the visionary spinal chord to issue in the thousand-petalled sun.

Gerrit Lansing: A personal reliquary

Or, notes toward an essay

“One of the Company of Light” by Derek Fenner, 2008.

For out there lies the great campaign that comes first and last, the ultimate adventure of the individual into himself.

John Whiteside Parsons, Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword

This reliquary could never do a halfway decent job of getting down everything I want to say about Gerrit Lansing, but that’s not the purpose of these relics, for they exist to help me out of the cave of my mind. They are but signposts to the beginning of friendship, which all began with a discussion of John Uri Lloyd’s book Etidorhpa, within which we find, “Come, my friend, let us enter the expanses of the Unknown Country. You will soon behold the original of your vision, the hope of humanity, and will rest in the land of Etidorhpa. Come, my friend, let us hasten.”[1] Through knowing Gerrit, I have come to better un-know myself, to decipher the strange paradoxes of what I thought I knew, and in turn ease the continual pressure to be entirely aware and to reside in a field of broadened consciousness.

It must have been in the winter of 2007 that Mike and Tanya County introduced me to Gerrit in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Meeting Gerrit helped me to better know the cosmos within myself. The first ‘gateway book’ Gerrit gave me was John Anthony West’s Serpent in the Sky, knowing the research for my first novel needed a broader context. West’s Serpent presents the Egyptological work of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, who was radically ignored by scholars for years, keeping alive access to civilizations outside of our own.

Ohio is common ground. I mentioned d. a. levy and Gerrit recalled Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookstore in Cleveland. Sometimes our conversation travels to his childhood home near Chagrin Falls and the sculpture of Henry Church, a primitive American artist who not only fashioned his family gravestone but also was the creator of a towering relief carving overlooking the Chagrin River called “The Rape of the Indian Tribes by the White Men.” Gerrit grew up in this part of Ohio when it was all farmland and Starbuck was just a character in Moby Dick. Like myself, it was H. P. Lovecraft who gave him his first glimpse of New England through those strange shadowy stories. I’ll remain jealous of Gerrit’s Northeast Ohio, mine was a nasty suburban hellish high school experience followed by a cacophony of cars and bars.

A consummate bibliophile, the shelves towering and stacked deep with a coterie of adepts, Gerrit has a book for all of us, not just any book, but the book we were missing all along. It’s happened countless times and between us exists a fast-paced two-way lending library and serious addiction to all things Ex Libris. With our seasonal trips to Weiser Antiquarian Books in York Beach, Maine, I have had to add a couple of bookshelves to my own collection, most of which focus around the work of Austin Osman Spare (AOS).

In fact it was on my first trip to Weiser during the summer after our meeting, that I arrived by invitation to one of the world’s premiere dealers of esoteric books and found the very book I had been trying to locate since beginning work on my novel. The Serpent Mound, by E. O. Randall, was published by the Ohio State Archeological Society in 1907 — it was the resource I had been wondering if I’d ever locate, and here it was sitting on a shelf in what was once a gallery for the artist Walt Kuhn. Gerrit was finding yet another way to get a book into my hands. 

It is the artist, Austin Osman Spare, for whom I’m most indebted to Gerrit for bringing me along on somebody’s oeuvre of work I would have never located through the traditional channels of art school or even at the far from traditional Kerouac School where I last studied. Spare has left bruises on my mind that will linger. Spare like any of us only sought to fulfill the desire of the subconscious or in Zizekian terms he had used fantasy to stage his desire into infinity. On loan, until I could afford my own copies, I had Gerrit’s books on Spare, including the stunning three volume From the Inferno to Zos: The Writings and Images of Austin Osman Spare, published by First Impressions in 1993. I was eventually able to purchase these books from Keith and Marilyn Richmond at Weiser who always give Gerrit and me the most graceful and magickal customer service one could hope for. Inferno to Zos opened AOS to me as more than any one of his chosen paths. AOS was an artist, chaos magician, illustrator, occultist, philosopher, and sigilizer. His dedication to multiple pathways forged for me the spirit and spit to carry on in my own directions. I began painting portraits of Spare a couple of years ago and there is something about them that is at once a nuisance and a devious delight. Many people never see them on the walls, others notice them at once, and like Gerrit they differentiate and meet their viewers at many levels.

Gerrit also has given me Gloucester, through our drives, walks, and in the stories of its core inhabitants. From his arrival to town and short stay at the Hammond Castle, to his current residence across from Stage Fort Park, Gerrit has shared it all openly with me over many hours of spirited conversation. I have a golf ball from the oldest cemetery in Gloucester sitting on my bookshelf. I grabbed it on a day when we hit four cemeteries including Beechbrook Cemetery, where Ipsissimus Charlemagne rests in peace. Jonathan Bayliss once said of Charlemagne, “I’d hate to be his employee or employer — yet he’s just the kind of teacher I need. He knows more than I do about everything except steam cleaners, and I must admit that he understands me better than I understand him.”[2]

Most importantly Gerrit has written poems, specifically he has written the poem, “One of the Company of Light,” which to me is a damn fine poem that gives me chills each time I read it. “One of the Company of Light” was published in The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (North Atlantic, 1977), Heavenly Tree Soluble Forest (Talisman House, 1995), and most recently in Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (North Atlantic, 2009). It is a poem of immense solitude and fortune-hopping, a song for dark nights. It begins, “The star man in my heart / is young and moves with all the strength / memory masters.” Like many of Gerrit’s poems it is eye-opening, aligned with star and stone, a mystery lodged in my mind and on the tip of my tongue. I feel like I’ve read these words before, but know that it’s the voice I recognize, the depth of care in each syllable, that for me Gerrit becomes his poem, “He moves in the untold vigil / of / the children of others, / the warrior behind the dolor of actual war game stupidity.”[3]

In 2008 I painted a portrait of/for Gerrit after his poem, “One of the Company of Light.” I titled my painting the same and included the following epigraph from Christopher Smart, “For I am ready for the trumpet & alarm to fight, to die & to rise again.”[4] Smart, another shared pleasure, for me is a litmus test for taste, one that Gerrit passes with the highest marks. The painting features a portrait of Gerrit based on a picture I took of him in Stage Fort Park during a picnic lunch with James, Amanda, Abigail, and Sam Cook in the summer of 2008. He dons a well-worn Red Sox cap, Terminator sunglasses, and the slightest hint of annoyance in noticing the camera aimed his way; above him in a flood are royal colors that shake loose red sigils and the familiar for whom Gerrit’s bookstore was named, Abraxas.

Currently we are planning an excursion to Lynn, Massachusetts, to visit High Rock where Spiritualist John Murray Spear built his mechanical messiah also known as, New Motive Power, a machine which could collect and disseminate the universal motion of all things. There is some required reading for this mission that I’m still working on and hope to finish soon, I’ve yet to uncover the story of the destruction of Spear’s machine and the crowd who did it with pitchforks and fire.[5]

I look forward to every visit with Gerrit, knowing that I’ll be surprised at the range of our conversation and the willingness on his part to listen attentively as my mind races to catch up. I always leave his house feeling refreshed, driven, and inspired. His warm spirit continues to unlock the light in many.


(Winter 2010)


 

1. John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company, 1896), 350.

2. Jonathan Bayliss, Gloucesterbook (Massachusetts, 1992), 16.

3. Gerrit Lansing, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009), 66.

4. Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), 47.

5. John Benedict Buescher, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear (Indiana: Notre Dame, 2006).

Rexroth's "The Dragon and the Unicorn"

The Dragon and the Unicorn is Kenneth Rexroth’s second long philosophical poem about World War II. As in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” he quests for some saving source of hope in a stricken world, this time through firsthand inspection of America and Europe. Rexroth dates the composition “1944–50” to establish its connection with the last years of the war and those immediately afterward — obviously a period of massive emotional upheaval. He had already observed the extreme swing between pervasive disillusionment during the war and the giddy rebounding of optimism afterward, even as people reeled from the nearly unfathomable nightmare — the explosion of the first atom bombs.

Rexroth’s war poems joined a number of other long modernist poems produced in reaction to the war’s horrors: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943),[1] H.D.’s Trilogy (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1944, Tribute to the Angels, 1945, The Flowering of the Rod, 1946), some of the later poems of Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain: The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn” and “Three Poems of the Atomic Age” (1947), Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), and William Carlos Williams’s “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower” (1951). With respect to Eliot and Pound, Rexroth was consciously taking a counter-position in The Dragon and the Unicorn to that of the Four Quartets and the “Cantos” (leading up to and including The Pisan Cantos). In “The Dragon,” Rexroth refers to The Pisan Cantos:

 

                   Here Pound
Stumbled to the pitiful
Conclusion of the longest
And most highly decorated
Hymn of hate in literature.[2

Rexroth intended his poem to stand as a hymn of love to counterbalance the anti-Semitism that sours the Cantos.

Further, Rexroth wanted his personalist poetics to stand against Eliot’s and Pound’s artifice of an impersonal persona and the New Critics’ aestheticism. In “The Dragon,” as in his other writings, he was heralding a directly expressive lyricism and calling on others to join him in revitalizing American poetry by returning social force to it. Now, some could argue that the crisis of imprisonment made Pound unmask himself in The Pisan Cantos. Certainly, he expresses suffering, though with scant trace of remorse: “Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence the faltered.”[3] But his mode of expression is mostly indirect and often veiled in metaphor or in a foreign language. The closest the reader is allowed in perhaps is Pound’s revelation: “the loneliness of death came upon me / (at 3 P.M., for an instant) δακρύων ἐντευ̂θεν.”[4][5]

In the first section of The Dragon and the Unicorn, Rexroth responds to the beginning of “Burnt Norton” where Eliot deduces, as if paced to a metronome:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.[6]

In rejoinder, Rexroth writes:

… In experience each present
Time includes the past and as the
Future appears it is included
In it. … / … no one has ever
Seen either the past or the
Future, we live in the present.[7]

Rexroth’s meditation on serial, quantified time dismisses it as an artificial concept in comparison with the organic patterns of time:

Actually, the concept
Of time arose from the weaving
Together of the great organic
Cycles of the universe,
Sunrise and sunset, the moon
Waxing and waning, the changing
Stars and seasons, the climbing
And declining sun in heaven,
The round of sowing and harvest,
And the life and death of man.

In refutation of Eliot’s and Pound’s evasive poetics of impersonality, Rexroth reveals himself in The Dragon and the Unicorn to be as flawed and wanting as the world around him. Among the personal faults he displays are: reverse snobbery, pride in his sexual potency, idealizing and recommending himself, scurrility, and rage. As Geoffrey Gardner explains in “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone,” Rexroth’s self-disclosure has a double purpose:

His faults of character are so patent and transparent that there is little ground here in which any form of psychoanalysis can dig. In fact, part of the argument of the poem is that psychoanalysis, despite all its pretensions to the contrary, can at best go only a very short way towards answering the questions the poem poses. It cannot unravel the mystery of evil, and it guides us very little in our moral choices. By showing his faults and excesses, Rexroth means to present himself as exemplary, in his problems and confusions, of all people at mid-century.[8]

The Dragon and the Unicorn is structured between narrative and philosophical poles, a dynamic interplay ultimately subsumed by a contemplative perspective. The first four parts of the poem, from spring through the autumn of 1949, chart Rexroth’s picaresque journey from California to Europe and back as he unfolds his philosophy. The concluding fifth part briefly sums up his anarchist and mystical philosophy, and then in its main lines moves through a succession of longer lyrics, progressing through the seasons over the course of a full year from winter till the end of another autumn. The first-person, present tense travelogue is straightforward in contrast to the highly complex philosophy. Running at parallels, the narrative and the philosophy alternate, providing exempla, argument and challenge for one another. As Gardner elucidates:

The two strands diverge and come close and diverge again throughout the poem. Out of this constant juxtaposition, there slowly emerges for Rexroth a kind of master perspective encompassing both philosophy and experience. It is this perspective that opens what glimpses of renewal the poem can offer while also disclosing that no philosophy can be adequate to account for the intricacy of experience whose accumulating wastes of sorrow and destruction necessarily spill beyond the confines of any philosophy.[9]

The poem’s movement is the traditional course of mystical work, the climbing of the ladder of thought to its limits and then ascent into an increasingly sustained contemplative mode.

The title itself links the opposing elements of earth and air, thus introducing the structural and thematic explorations of the creative and destructive aspects of existence.[10] As Rexroth proposes:

All things have an apparent
Meaning and an opposite
Hidden brought forth by fire.
The phoenix and the tortoise,
The dragon and the unicorn,
Man, eagle, bull and lion.[11]

The alchemy of fire enables the phoenix to rise again from the ashes, just as it can transform the dragon’s fire to constructive use.

The dragon and the unicorn are opposite emblems of each other — of destruction and creation, wrath and gentleness, fire and earth — and as well, the reverse. The dragon is slain by the heroes of Western myths and fairy tales, and demonized in Christianity as the fire-breathing monster defeated by the archangel Michael. But in Chinese symbolism, the dragon stands for happiness, immortality, procreation, fertility, and activity. The unicorn represents innocence, purity, and beauty, but also lust, ferocity, and viciousness. The unicorn’s horn can be a cruel weapon, though the creature can be tamed by the love of a virgin. The dragon, too, can be subdued by love. The pairing of opposites in the title thus announces the comparative examination of polarities in the poem: community versus collectivity, love versus hate, passion versus lust, sexual communion versus sexual exploitation, and the extreme poles of consciousness (dreaming and waking), and those of reality (being and not being).

The span, range, and registry of The Dragon and the Unicorn are wide, massive, and complex. Rexroth sweeps together abstract statements, tantalizing descriptions of meals, intimate assignations, denunciatory opinions, majestic and miniature descriptions of nature, nearly gratuitous glorification of whores, and harsh satirical exposés of corrupt government and church practices. This mixed registry “establishes a continuum of language and experience within which all the diverse and conflicting material Rexroth introduces are free to contend,” as Gardner notes.[12]

Rexroth considers further and at greater length the question raised in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” of how it is possible to live, love, and create art in a rent and battered post World War II world. He begins by having a self-interested authority figure, Pontius Pilate, ask “What is love?and wash his hands. To signal the subject of his poem, Rexroth substitutes the word “love” for the “truth” that Pilate requests of the crowd vilifying Christ.[13] “The Dragon” is largely a response to this question. Rexroth examines practical relationships between politics, religion, and sex in the contemporary situation and throughout the history of Western civilization. “It is love and love alone … as it says in the old popular song” that is the wellspring of living community, as he later went on to write in the introduction to The Collected Longer Poems.[14]

Of grave concern to Rexroth is the morbid avoidance of experience by most Americans. He sets his own intense immersion in experience as a counter example and rues the fact that all the rites of passage — birth, “Childhood, puberty, fucking / Parenthood, vocation, growing / Old and dying,” which are “the matter of / The sacraments in more normal / Societies — baptism, / Confirmation, marriage, / Orders, communion, unction —” are treated as “actual serious sickness” instead of “Windows into reality.”[15] He surveys:

… a / Picture of a nation gone
Stark raving mad, in the grip
Of mutually homicidal
Paranoia. So it is
Fitting that its sacrament
Should be the atom bomb
… / The blazing mushroom cloud is
Just such a mystical vision
As one would expect of the
Managers of the Dupont
Industries and their enslaved
Physicists …[16]

The journey begins and ends with Rexroth on his own. Initially, to assuage his loneliness and longing, he partakes in a number of amorous encounters. Their brevity accentuates his yearning for love and introduces the motif that heartbreak and loss define the human condition and that such suffering, experienced or witnessed, can nourish a sense of compassion:

Pain, waste and loss are inherent
In the world of contingency.
Death, sickness, suffering may
Fill us with an agony of
Compassion.[17

Rexroth is then joined by his American lover at the time, Marthe, whom he represents as his wife in sacred marriage.[18] Even after he is left solitary again as he nears the end of his quest, his reflections are illuminated by the sacrament of love. He ascends from desperate horror at America and the ruined world he sees at large through erotic abandon into sacramental marriage and redemptive enlightenment, as he finds reassuring signs of the persistence of the community of love. Rexroth commences the poem just before Easter, repeating the symbolic temporal setting of “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” and once again aligning himself with Dante’s great spiritual odyssey.

The central tension in “The Dragon” is the deadly struggle between “members of communities” and “members of collectivities” who are ruled by the State and the Capitalist system:

Mankind will sink only deeper
Into mutual murder
As long as collectivity
Robs them of their persons, starves
And dehumanizes them,
Deranges their desires, crazes
Them with insane appetites
Instead of the satisfactions
Of mutual love, provides them
With commodities which turn
To guns in their hands and bullets
In their bowels, and leaves them
Finally perfect, abstract
Integers, anonymous white
X’s in battlefield graveyards.[19]

Rexroth advises: “There are no most men, / As there are no most trees or stars. / Behind the collection stands, / One by one, a person.”[20] With Kant, Rexroth sees that “The moral atom of this world, / The irreducible minimum” is each particular person. Each person is to be regarded and treated as an end, and never used as a means. Mutual love is the principle that enables community, which grows in love, a process that Rexroth terms “extrapersonalization” and suggests is the antidote to the State’s depersonalization. Its immediate ends are freedom and peace. Community begins with lovers:

The person is transcended
By the reflexion of himself
In the other in love, the
Unique is universalized
In the dual, any important
Crux of reality is
On the emergence of
A person into a love
Perspective, experience
Has no other real content.”[21]

As Rexroth would tell Cyrena N. Pondrom in a 1969 interview for Contemporary Literature: “The personalization of reality … is its terms, that is, its poles. Reality flows between the two poles of personalization, and the fulfillment of reality is, so to speak, saturation with this charge.”[22]

Love, then, is the root of all human community. At the deepest level of understanding, reality is not “an Absolute / And its aspects, or a Creator / And his contingent creatures.” Rather, it is a community of lovers in which

                                       Each
Person’s experience grows
From an insignificant
Indivisible atom to
An infinite universe.[23]

Sexual love fuses the fundamental polarity between self and other, and therefore represents the wholeness of vision that comes with contemplation, which “Is the satisfaction of fulfilled / Love relationships, union with / The beloved object.”[24] The contemplative perspective conjoins the dual “rays / Called Artemis and Apollo, Helios, Luna, Sun and Moon.”[25]

The Dragon and the Unicorn concludes with the transcendent perspective arising precisely from contending in the natural and human realms of existence, moving between the negative pole of grasping appetite and the positive pole of unselfish love, agape. The frail, flawed nature of being is the very origin and completion of its sacred dimension, just as “The Phoenix” depicts the way to light originating in the experience of darkness.

The reciprocal dynamic of love and contemplation encapsulates the interdependent reflexive nature of the cosmos:

It is the dark of the moon.
… / …
… Coming up the road
Through the black oak shadows, I
See ahead of me, glinting
Everywhere from the dusty
Gravel, tiny points of cold
Blue light, like the sparkle of
Iron snow. I suspect what it is,
And kneel to see. Under each
Pebble and oak leaf is a
Spider, her eyes shining at
Me with my reflected light
Across immeasurable distance.[26]

With ease, as if by chance, Rexroth comes upon the visionary image of the Jewel Net of Indra and intuits the significance of its infinite web of relationship.

The Dragon and the Unicorn, as James Laughlin summarizes in his introduction to excerpts in New Directions XIII (1951) is Rexroth’s eloquent response to the “world mess … On the surface level it is the travel diary of a European tour; … On the deeper level it is the great journey that the major poets attempt into the wilderness of life’s meaning.”[27] Richard Eberhart likewise observes in his laudatory review that Rexroth takes “a voyage of the spirit.”[28]

The Dragon and the Unicorn also drew rapturous praise from other poets. Charles Olson was so knocked over that he immediately wrote to Rexroth in June 1951 about the nourishing “pleasure” of reading it, extolling his accomplishment: “yr form unrolls like the Eastern scroll that it is … you are … contemplative …. crazy, how you manage it, the metric…. I am full of thanks …. This is the most interesting poem I have put inside me in a very long time.”[29] Olson also commented to Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan: “That long poem of his, The Dragon and the Unicorn, that’s really something! He gets the whole thing down there.”[30

Robert Duncan, whose mysticism and reverence for D. H. Lawrence, matched Rexroth’s, regarded The Dragon and the Unicorn with exalted admiration. Duncan commended its seamless artistry to Denise Levertov: “Changes wedded to the change in address, from the travel diary to the metaphysics that at first I was not aware how subtly it had been wrought — I was taking it for granted.”[31] He also shared with “Denny” his enchantment with Rexroth’s reference to Zoroaster’s remark about poetry making apparent the unapparent, exclaiming: “how thoroughly I adore Kenneth.” He especially approved of Rexroth’s conjuring of mystical enlightenment as “The sleep which fell on Adam / Was the deep lassitude / Of divine contemplation.”[32]

Duncan went on to tell Rexroth directly about his deep appreciation of his poetry. In 1953, he wrote about his having been dazzled by The Signature of All Things, Beyond the Mountains, and The Dragon and the Unicorn:

You take a microscope to any area and find it beautifully measured but the urgency of the statement, or the presence of a world is such that the achievement of the art is only a way. There is no abstracted response to these poems, but unless the feeling of the universe be aroused the achievement of the line, the measure, is wedded to it. [33

He mused further on “The Dragon:”

The integration … thru the poem — of anger, of tendresse, of worldly wisdoms and of personality — … I came to you in the dreams of a kinship with the good, a love as a way, of which so much of the poem rises, that informs visions of the natural world. … This is a letter to you, an old friend because my soul has come to a door which is guarded by your spirit. And to tell you that your spirit was, in the dream, tender and good, that it was you indeed and to tell you that I am engaged with your work.[34]

Such was the intensity of Robert’s regard for Kenneth that sooner or later it was bound to fizzle out. This nearly worshipful attitude, combined with the fact of their similarly passionate demeanor — talkers commanding the spotlight — portended an eventual dramatic break. But for now, their intellectual fraternity was deeply grounded and intact.

Rexroth was to persist in the anti–New Critics stance that the “Dragon” demonstrates vividly and at length. Nearly a decade after its publication in 1952, in “The New American Poetry,” published in the New York Times Book Review (February 12, 1961), he denounces the “powerful Reactionary Generation” and the punitive affect of

a willful provincialism, a deliberate cutting off of American verse from the main stream of world poetry of the twentieth century. Sidney Lanier was far more important to the Southern Agrarians than was Goethe … let alone Baudelaire or Apollinaire.[35]

The main thrust of “The New American Poetry” is to declare that the New Critics’ reign is over and to point out the ascendancy of a tradition derived from Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Their internationalism and visionary mode were inspiring Creeley, Duncan, Everson, Levertov, Lamantia, Olson, among others. Duncan agreed with Rexroth that Lawrence’s darkly erotic mysticism and Williams’s poetic epiphanies formed a crucial basis for contemporary American poetry. And this “line of affinities … comes together in Yeats,” as Rexroth was to repeat over the years.[36] Rexroth was instrumental in this development, though he gives himself no explicit credit in the essay, likely either out of modesty or to avoid stating the obvious. But how he describes this poetics is clearly reflective of his own:

The young poets who have come into notice since the Second World War have certain common characteristics, and they are certainly wholesome ones. Primary is an emphasis on direct, personal communication. All of them have something to say and are anxious to have other people pay attention. In some this has taken the form of poetry of explicit social protest.[37]

In stressing the poets’ independence, Rexroth was also asserting the importance of the West Coast creative community:

One of the most interesting things about these young postwar poets is their decentralization (it has never been noticed that this is also true of the contemporary novelists). They grew up not only in independence of the capital — the literary marketplace — but far away from it and in deliberate antagonism to it.[38]

Essential is this protective isolation from the commercial publishing houses that had already kidnapped the Beats, using the social phenomenon for profit in tourism and advertising.

Instead of mentioning his own considerable influence, Rexroth hands the mantle of leadership over to Olson and to Duncan. He credits Olson for exerting

great influence on the entire group as a teacher and theorist. Like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, in fact like all these people, he owes a great deal to William Carlos Williams. He owes even more to Ezra Pound’s Cantos. For several years he has been writing a long spiritual epic, a tighter, drier, less gaudy descendant of the Cantos — the Maximus Poems. This work is in the same tradition as the “interior epics,” actually philosophical reveries, of the Twenties — Zukofsky’s A or Lowenfels’s Some Deaths. Olson lacks the passion and trouble and concern of his predecessors and he lacks the intensity of Creeley and Levertov. No one could quarrel with his scope. His canvas is as broad as Pound’s, but his material makes more sense in terms of actual life. I suppose the best comparison is William Carlos Williams’s own “epic,” Paterson. Olson’s shorter poems have a ruminative complexity a little like the later long poems of Wallace Stevens.[39]

Rexroth then turns to Duncan, examining his:

special quality of temper which he shares with Edmund Wilson or Pandit Nehru, he is a Good European. Although Duncan has been singularly open to all the influences of all times and places, and has learned from all the Old Masters of Modernism, from Reubén Darío to Yves Bonnefoy, his distinguishing characteristic is not the breadth of his influences, but the depth and humanness of his heart. Now that he is approaching early middle age he has begun to take on something of the forgotten grandeur of the great nineteenth-century “men of the world” of letters — Monckton Milnes or Walter Bagehot. I can think of no other poet of my time of which anything like this could be said — with most, the very idea is ridiculous. As mentor and example, Duncan’s influence on the younger men of the new New Poetry has been incalculable.[40]

At the close of the article, Rexroth all but acknowledges his leadership, as would be apparent to anyone who had a clue about the contemporary literary scene and recent cultural history:

Someone once said of one of the older leaders of this new renaissance that he made poetry a social force in San Francisco. This is about as complimentary a remark as could be made about a poet. Whatever else they have done, our young poets have returned poetry to society. Today in America, more than anywhere else in the world, large numbers of people find poetry interesting. It says something to them, something meaningful in their dilemmas and exultations. This is no small accomplishment.[41]

This was a characteristically generous stroke, for he emphasizes the result, not his part in it.

Many years later, in 1985, Duncan gave an interview for Sagetrieb, a literary magazine dedicated to the poetics of Pound and Williams and their successors. He returns the credit to Rexroth, noting their mutual attraction to the numinous, mystical quality of Williams’s poetry and that they discerned what some readers missed: “the crucial experience in art is coming upon something.”[42] Duncan then outlines Williams’s approach – “everything appears as an epiphany to him” — indicating that this was equally his approach and Rexroth’s.[43] Finally, Duncan goes on to say that “Rexroth would have been a root” for himself and for many third-generation American modernist poets even if “Rexroth gets isolated out as a loner.”[44]


Drawn from excerpts of
A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth, chapter 7, “Through the Crystal Deep”; chapter 8, “‘The Holiness of the Real’: Visionary Poetry”; chapter 9, “Sparks in the Tinder of Knowing”; and chapter 14, “Upbeat But Out of Joint.”

 


 

1. Strictly speaking, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” predates WWII; it was written in 1935. But its mood of foreboding, introduced through the motifs of the fall from the Garden of Eden and that “humankind cannot bear too much reality,” offers a fitting introduction to the three wartime quartets: “East Coker” (1940), “Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942).

2. Kenneth Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 63; CP: 395.

3. Ezra Pound, “Canto LXXXI,” in The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1981), 522.

4. The Greek means “I weep therefore I am.”

5. Pound, “Canto LXXXI,” 527.

6. Eliot, Four Quartets, 1959, reprinted 1970, 13.

7. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 3, 11; CP: 334–35.

8. Geoffrey Gardner, “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone” (unpublished essay), 22.

9. Ibid., 3. My discussion of The Dragon and the Unicorn throughout is indebted to this essay.

10. UCLA: KR: 175/2/1 of 2 notes for Orestia and D & U: “notes 1948, mostly for Orestia” but also travel journal, holograph notes for the 1949 trip.

11. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 56; CP: 387.

12. Gardner, “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone,” 2.

13. Pilate was the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Christ (John 18:38).

14. Rexroth, introduction to The Collected Longer Poems, ix.

15. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 96; CP: 434–35.

16. Ibid., 97; CP: 435.

17. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 114; CP: 456.

18. In part 2, the narrative suddenly shifts into the plural “we,” with Marthe simply coming into the picture without any fanfare. The first indication she has joined Rexroth is everyone exclaiming at “a peasant auberge” over the “velos” (bicycles) that he and Marthe have ridden from Paris: “De Paris à Italie? / Incroyable! Formidable!” Then, Rexroth refers to “We weep … / … We shake / Hands … / We camp on the Loire” (The Dragon and the Unicorn, 32; CP: 358).

19. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 126–27; CP: 469.

20. Ibid., 140; CP: 488.

21. Ibid., 47.

22. Interview conducted by Cyrena N. Pondrom, Contemporary Literature 10, no. 3 (Summer 1969): 329–30.

23. Rexroth, The Dragon and the Unicorn, 74; CP: 407.

24. Ibid., 165; CP: 515.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 171; CP: 522.

27. James Laughlin, “Editor’s Notes,” in New Directions XIII, ed. James Laughlin (Parsippany, NJ: New Directions, 1951), 9.

28. Richard Eberhart, “A Voyage of the Spirit,” New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1953, 215.

29. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/12: Charles Olson: CO to KR, June 4, 1951.

30. Charles Olson cited in Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan, “Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982,” Third Rail 8, ed. John Solt and Uri Hertz (1987): 10.

31. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004): Letter 15, August 24, 1955, RD to DL, 25.

32. Ibid.

33. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/3: Robert Duncan: RD to KR, July 22, 1953. 

34. UCLA Rexroth Collection: 175/1/3: Robert Duncan: RD to KR, August 30, 1955.

35. “The New American Poetry,” New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1961.

36. Michael Andre Bernstein and Burton Hatlen, “Interview with Robert Duncan,” Sagetrieb 4, nos. 2–3 (Fall/Winter 1985): 109.

37. “The New American Poetry.”

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Bernstein and Hatlen, “Interview with Robert Duncan,” 93.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., 124.