Articles - December 2012

Projecting Amy Lowell

Olsonian poetics of the body in Rosmarie Waldrop's "A Form / of Taking / It All"

Charles Olson’s body-based poetics becomes an influential source for women poets attempting to redefine feminist projects after the 1960s. As Kim Whitehead’s Feminist Poetry Movement shows, much writing inspired by second-wave feminism draws on liberal models of selfhood and political recognition, viewing women’s “confession” of private experiences as the basis for the empathy and solidarity that form collective public identity. Such a model conceives gender (as well as other forms of embodied identity) as a particular or nonessential characteristic of an otherwise universal democratic subject who merits equality and respect in the public sphere. Yet the abstraction of this universal subject whose private voice should translate transparently into a neutral public arena can all too easily silence or fail to take into account how embodied identity affects communication in the social context within which such political fictions are embedded.

Disillusionment with the inadequacy of liberal models of self and public space has generated a range of post-liberal revisions of the social, among them the revival of Hannah Arendt’s challenge to the private-public distinction in conceiving public identity as a site of “world-making and self-disclosure” and Wendy Brown’s Freudian analyses of political subject formation, in which an “identity of self rooted in injury” can erode the desire for liberal definitions of freedom. Paul Gilroy and Judith Butler critique the fiction of the liberal subject as a falsely disembodied ideal of Enlightenment self-realization grounded in a Hegelian master-slave dichotomy that abjects embodied identity,[1] thus ignoring or silencing the role the body plays in identity construction.

In this context, Olson’s poetics of the physical “organism” subject to the “kinetics” of energy transfer in an environment conceived as force field (13, 16) provides a useful model for exploring the relation of embodied subjectivity to the social processes through which it is constructed. The prominence of the masculine body in Olson’s work has made him a powerful example to engage and resist for women writers with feminist projects. As Linda Kinnahan argues for William Carlos Williams, the strong connection between masculinity and poetic creativity in Olson’s work exposes the role of gender in constructing social and imaginary space in new ways and leads women writers to explore similar connections between femininity and writing. In translating the unspeakable, Kathleen Fraser credits Olson with inspiring experimental women’s writing that views the “page as a graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind” (186).[2]

The Olsonian imagery of the force field that pervades Waldrop’s poetics reveals language to be a significant site for exploring embodied identity, specifically gender. Assuming that Olson’s body-based poetics is “the commonplace that rhythm has a physical basis: breath and pulse,” Waldrop’s 1977 essay “Charles Olson: Process and Relationship” discusses the importance of relational identity in the field. Because an object is “no nucleus of tangibility but instead a system of relationships,” touch represents “the contiguity of man and his environment” that places “the soul … in the skin” and defines human growth as “outward” into and through interaction with place conceived as “horizontal” “topography” or continuum. Embodiment is extensively informed by heterosexual difference. While Waldrop analyzes several examples from the Maximus Poems, her choice of “Tyrian Business” as a “negative example” of limited prescriptions of “the way man and woman should move” and her questioning whether “M and G” in Part II are “Maximus and Gloucester” or “Man and Girl” recognize (or read in) the possible conflation of heterosexual relation with the gendered relation between “man” and nature (Dissonance, 58, 60, 64, 70, 76–78).[3]

Judith Butler’s critique of the intimate connection between gender and materiality illuminates Waldrop’s conflation of body and language as they shape her meditations on gender. Building on Foucault’s analysis of sexual identity as an effect of power made to seem natural through its location in the body, Butler conceives of physicality as a social construction, “a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Bodies, 9). For Butler, assigning bodies gender establishes both the materiality of gender and the gender of matter. The sexed body becomes the form (morphe) through which we imagine identity. Matter is gendered through compulsory heterosexuality’s “abjection” of one sex or the other from the individual (Bodies, 3). Butler traces the gendering of the form-matter dichotomy from Plato’s transformation of a potentially mutual informing of two different kinds of matter into masculine “autogenesis” of identity through form substantiated by feminine matter as passive, unformed “receptacle” (chora) (Bodies, 50–51). Because the body is subject to heterosexual difference, it is difficult to think of self independent of the forms the gendered body imposes.

Olson’s imagery of the gravitation and kinetics of the body in the force field informs Waldrop’s lifelong exploration of the erotic forces shaping self and the social in a world where heterosexuality pervades matter. One of her deepest engagements with Olson’s work comes in the late 1980s, as she experiments with formal strategies for writing about gender. These experiments range from attempts to flee the body’s form in lyrics like “Saltwoman,” which imagines the dispersal of the Keresan salt goddess into the mineral salt, to Waldrop’s denser contextualization of family and intergenerational influence on gender identity in the novel A Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. Unusual in Waldrop’s oeuvre for the wealth of historical and social context in which she embeds her characters, A Form / of Taking / It All adapts “Projective Verse” to trace the formation of embodied consciousness through social practice. A Form critiques Olson’s idealization of non-Western cultures as living in harmony with a feminized natural world and reveals the sexual politics of both conquest and science that reinforces gender hierarchy. This strikingly original revision of Olson attempts to imagine social space and forms of knowledge that free her characters from imagining the world in heterosexual terms.

Waldrop sets A Form in Mexico, engaging both Olson’s search among Native American peoples for a language closer to nature than that of European abstraction and his interest in the “form” of European colonial encounters with American peoples. Abundant themes and imagery that allude to Olson’s early poetry and essays (colonial encounters, collaging of historical sources, images of birds, dance, jewels, and the pendulum from “Human Universe,” “Mayan Letters,” “Apollonius of Tyana”) recontextualize Olson’s Mexico to critique its gender politics. “Human Universe” idealizes Mayan glyphs — inscriptions on stone — because they “retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (58), expressing a “circuit” of immediacy between Mayan bodies, cultural production, and nature as the immediate expression of “flesh” not alienated from nature. While Olson describes the glyphs in relatively gender-neutral terms, his adaptation of this idea in his own writing reinforces masculine imposition of form on feminine matter. The Mayan myths Olson retells in “Mayan Letters” focus on submission of feminine moon to masculine sun who “puts her eye out” for infidelity, and Olson’s portrayal of embodied identity through dance in “Apollonius of Tyana” reinforces gender hierarchies in Apollonius’s vertical self-articulation against prone, feminized place. Andrew Mossin describes Olson’s conception of “form” as “the act of discovering the woman” where revelation is the right to impose form on her (32).[4]

While Waldrop credits Olson with freeing her from the closed equivalences of metaphor that subordinate the individual to the pre-fabricated abstractions of Western metaphysics, she criticizes his gender politics as just such a closed system. Against Olson’s desire to experience American nature without mediation or to discover such immediacy in native peoples, the characters’ contact with primitive peoples in the Mexico of A Form is highly mediated. Written during a stay in Europe when Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop held Amy Lowell and Alexander von Humboldt fellowships, respectively, A Form reverses the direction of Waldrop’s travel and explores Mexico whimsically through the artificial structure of imagining the interaction between Lowell and Humboldt. Neither the explorers nor the primitive peoples achieve Olson’s fantasy of immediate harmony with nature. To his fleshly Maya, Waldrop opposes the imperialist Aztecs, whose mass human sacrifices to provide the sun with the blood they believed necessary to sustain it implicate the body immediately but violently in the cosmos. Waldrop parodies the training of native women to walk in full expression of feminine beauty as “feeling their genitals with every step, … as if every move gave birth,” a movement that is not natural but taught by a “mistress” with a whip who prepares the women to ascend the sacrificial altar gracefully, “as if carried by a cool wind” (173, 209). Explorers do not recover immediate contact with nature but perpetuate a “Kosmos-Machine” that asserts their masculinity through control and mapping of the feminine in Columbus’s earth as “pear-shaped” body with “nipple” and Humboldt’s universe as “splendid white flower” (166) opening before them. Waldrop’s “description” of sex as involving the lover’s tattooing his coat of arms on his beloved’s belly before “exploring” it relates masculine geographic and sexual knowledge to possession of a feminine body.[5]

Nature is mere “scaffolding” for Humboldt’s scientific project, which seeks to order physical forms in “lines isodynamic, isoclinal, isothermal stretching between all the petals of the fall-blooming annual” (180), a self-fashioning project mocked in his striped clothing. The vehicle of such alignment as metaphor — “impl[ying] a relationship between two terms which are thus brought together in the muscle” (186), “a muscle whose action is to contract and thus to bring together the two structures to which it is attached” (164) — naturalizes the connections by which such systems of knowledge come to govern the cultural organism’s thought and motion. Feminized nature supports the bonds between men that consolidate masculine identity through scientific authority. Humboldt depends on botanist Aimé Bonpland, whose black clothes are designed to blend into the background (187), and commemorates the homoerotic relation with Reinhard von Haeften in an island Humboldt names but whose “interior [is] unpenetrated, unexplored” (174). Waldrop traces the homosocial and homoerotic relations grounding scientific knowledge, as Amy Lowell’s friend John admits to perpetuating this tradition in that his biography of Humboldt is “[a] mirror to discover things about himself” (215).

In contrast to the plenitude of nature and the body in Olson’s work and the assumption of heterosexual eros governing the relation and coherence of the universe, Waldrop represents the context shaping Amy as a fascinatingly discontinuous near-pastiche of nature, architecture, and queer body whose discontinuity and disorienting power are expressed in “A Form of Vertigo.” In the Mexico to which Amy travels, the seemingly solid earth grounding femininity is anything but stable. Amy’s relief at being on solid ground after her plane trip (“on the ground, you at least see the holes”) reminds us that both air and land have “holes.” Her friend Victoria perceives the land as mere crust over a volatile interior, “earthquake” and “volcano country” (161). If Amy’s “queasy” feeling of motion sickness from the flight reveals her body to be out of sync with the ground, the idea that she could achieve stability by realigning her body with the earth’s motion is undermined by her consciousness of the sun as an alternate center around which the earth orbits. Her involuntary muscle motions contrast with Humboldt’s voluntary ones, which measure and align nature purposefully.[6]

Amy can hardly hold herself together on the spinning earth, much less sustain a relation to multiple centers. “[I]f she suddenly experiences the other, much faster movement around the sun, then she is truly lost, bits of naked flesh spinning into vast spaces, swallowed whole and instantly forgotten, at best caught in the large twilight zone that slips continually around the globe and abolishes all outsides” (177). The twilight zone as a mingling of sun’s light and earth’s darkness (or perhaps the moon’s derivative but reflected light) destroys the boundaries of objects reminiscent of the act or “edge” that defines Olson’s “man” as distinct from nature. Yet this twilight does not seem to reveal insides or to yield a new form of knowledge to replace what is lost. Dual centers scatter the body, fragmenting the security of its definition in relation to one center. Humboldt is no more at home. “No part of his body felt altogether comfortable” (167). He suffers from peeling sunburn, yellow fever and mosquitoes, although his homosocial bond with Bonpland shelters him somewhat from nature. Bonpland’s recitation of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum imposes order on the wilderness, and, in accompanying Humboldt, Bonpland bears the brunt of the violence from both the volcano and native peoples. (Bringing up the rear, Bonpland is clubbed on the head, leaving Humboldt free to measure natural phenomena with his many instruments.

Amy’s architectural placement further dissolves the integrity of body defined in relation to the earth. While she wishes someone would “paint a ceiling” on the air whose “holes” “take you unawares” in the airplane, her childhood memories strain against the clothing and architectures that frame her as feminine. “[A] fat little girl sits on a chair, buttoned into her coat. Laces her shoes, says thank you, says please …. Says ‘I’” (165). Self is superimposed on gendered body and exceeds heterosexual frames. While Amy remembers her body as too big against “wallpaper splotched with a steady downpour of roses” (167), her memory of “stuccoed fruit” on the ceiling whose falling she both fears and seems to desire or at least expect suggests consciousness of socially constructed femininity as a false imitation of nature. In defying the child’s natural sense of gravity, the stucco fruit both closes off the anxiety-creating holes and withholds the knowledge its “fall” might enable. Unlike this childhood body confined in socially constructed interiors, the adult Amy in her Mexican room contemplates a window frame with closed blinds through which she glimpses the changing light of an unseen sun. Imagining “trying to squeeze through” these slits as through her eyelids (162), she experiences the attempt to escape this architecture of femininity as the escape from her body rendered essentially feminine by the heterosexually informed gaze, yet the sheer abstraction and constructedness of these rooms convey a vertiginous sense of social space as an incoherent, artificial stage set suspended in indeterminate space.

Amy’s consciousness of her body can extend beyond these frames and reshape social space through desire. The homoerotic desire for Ada recalled by John’s voice “revived an amputated nerve she feels a remote fury in her muscles, things that had not been said [sic]” (163). Silenced and marginalized desire truncates the body and feeling that could extend beyond heteronormative form to new spaces, languages and relationships. “She used to think her memory was a cave, but perhaps it is a muscle connected to this child, contracting now, bringing her terribly close” (165). No longer conceived as an inner space, memory can connect structures to displace self through time and alter self’s relation to the present. What may be Amy’s or an implicit narrator’s memory serves this function. After Amy’s memory of childhood discomfort at being framed as a girl, Waldrop inserts what seems to be a quoted scientific observation into the narrative. “Between their legs, the young birds had a thick lump of edible fat” (167). While the sentence may reflect Amy’s reflection on her own sexuality, the incongruous comparison of her feminine body to a nonhuman one disrupts the heteronormative eros and meaning assigned women’s bodies. This disruption leads to the possibility of motion. “[R]ubbing her eyes” replaces objectification with touch in what may be a conflation of vision with autoeroticism to alter her environment. In generating the power to make “everything move,” to create a new world she “can’t depend on,” Amy extends agency to new centers or interactions between things. While unpredictable, the ensuing motion of both things and words obeys not only wind and the earth’s rotation, but also “heat, … earthquakes, … motor and muscle, … malice” (165), freeing words to leave the feminine body and cohere around unseen eros (heat), subterranean and ungendered bodily forces, and even damaging or subversive intent.[7]

Within this social architecture of gender, Amy’s love for Ada opens a new world that challenges the heterosexual closure of Humboldt’s. Associated with birds, flight, and the color blue, Ada seems oriented to “a sky of her own, exotic” (163), the possibility of a horizon and universe outside the conventional. Ada’s role as performer takes Amy backstage, accentuating the social as theatrical rather than natural. Seeing behind the scenes opens new possibilities for language. Oddly populated with “mailboxes” of a “lovely blue” that recalls Ada’s sky, the illusory, self-contained scenery on which gender is performed is in fact open to messages from unknown communicants on the margins whose identity and location are undefined. As a figure who moves between center and margin, Ada has both a different relation to the earth and gravitation around her own center. Her walk, “pulled by the moon or tides of a piano or simply her feet” (167) responds to multiple centers outside the traditional model of the universe. Whether her own body, other bodies or art, these centers open the gravitational force of eros to objects beyond the heterosexual, even to the possibility of self-created forms. Not subject to the gender-framing gaze that places Amy as a child, Ada’s sense of touch establishes a comfortable relation to the earth, “blindly pulled, as if she saw with her feet,” her weight “distributed equally over their entire surface” (172). The sense Ada conveys of “this precise, even motion we are part of, which breath and pulse play against” (164), contrasts with Amy’s and Humboldt’s discomfort and disorientation. Ada’s balance reflects her self-centered axis of vision. She delights in watching the dervish-like cat chase its tail, an activity that makes the heterosexually tyrannized Amy “dizzy.” That this motion seems to allow Ada to “delve into disappearance, a surface of hard work beyond all solids” (172) suggests the dancer’s power to transform the (gendered) form and substance of the body into something sui generis through her own form of bodily motion.

Amy’s admiration of Ada opens a new vision of language as severed from conventional meaning that adheres to the heterosexual body.

Muffled sounds, incomprehensible, from all directions. A rolling, a rattle, a crack across the American voice. Terracaliente, she makes out, adios and tiempodelagarua. They are not words because she has no meaning for them, instead, glistening objects in the middle of a page, jewels on Cortés’s velvet cloak, adding incalculable weight in the heat. Or else buzzing insects, covering Alexander von Humboldt’s body till no part of it feels altogether comfortable, getting inside his clothes, their sting causing swellings which last for several weeks. (171)

Waldrop recontextualizes Olson’s image of non-Western language falsely understood by Western scholars, which for him “diminishes the energy once here expended into the sieve phonetic words have become to be offered like one of nature’s pastes that we call jewels to be hung as a decoration of knowledge upon some Christian and therefore eternal and holy neck” (63). While language for Olson is more beautiful and genuine when it refers to nature and not to Christian metaphysics, Amy would free words even from adherence to nature and body. Described as beautiful ornaments on the page imagined as a conqueror’s cloak, foreign words stripped of meaning and experienced sensually adorn a garment of power that obscures rather than accentuates the body’s shape. While potentially uncomfortable in the “heat” of the foreign environment, the “incalculable weight” the jewels add to the cloak suggests the new, unexpected substance these words take on when separated from the body’s gendered form. Humboldt reacts differently. Unintelligible words bother and infect his body; rather than appreciating their independent beauty, he fears their ability to penetrate, distort, and poison his body. Juxtaposing these metaphors that establish different relationships between language and the body, the passage opens multiple transformative possibilities for language use.

Despite the intriguing possibilities that love between Amy and Ada holds for transforming social space informed by heterosexual bonds, the novel ultimately represses rather than develops the potential for reconstructing both nature and gender that this same-sex relationship suggests. Although the narrative hints occasionally that Ada and Amy may have had a sexual relationship, Ada seems disconcerted by Amy’s desire and retreats into the role of fussy mother caring for her son Paul. The last section, “A Form of Doubt,” isolates Amy in the other characters’ discussions of heterosexual family (among others, with Victoria and Isabel, queens of empire). Victoria asserts motherhood as the only possible feminine plenitude (“The only time I have felt really at home in my body was when I was nursing [228–29]). Unable to sustain her effort, Amy finds herself reflecting that it is “[h]ard to wrest one’s independence from the force of gravity or gender patterns” (223).

Not only is Ada absent, but neither individual nor cultural memory provides a way out of this web. Amy’s memory of looking at a statue of the goddess Coatlicue in a museum is inhibited by John’s gaze, which seems to expect “some special reaction from her, news from the mother country, a test of sexuality” (223). In his presence, Amy feels nothing. Her queer, excessive body — not fixed natural essence but a nature-culture hybrid, “great archetypal mass of body and cigar,” “[b]ig body and bad habits” (218) — becomes a blank space. She feels caught in a web of lines that connect the goddess to the heterosexual family. These lines “link Victoria and John and the child, link Ada and Paul … yet [break] off, link fence, leaving a white area around her, snow crystals packed tight” (224). In a novel where heat suggests eros, snow crystals isolate and perhaps numb the body.

The mirror of Amy’s isolation is the Medusan “absent eye” of the goddess (220–21), whose decapitated body (the head supposedly severed by colonizers who could not bear its expression) spouts jets of blood in the form of serpents. A faceless combination of body parts — “the serpent squirts of blood where the face should be, the necklace of severed heads and hands” that evoke “desolation, anguish, glands or secret wishes, not with the breath of this language or that” (220–21) — the goddess’s resemblance to Medusa, whose powerful gaze is destroyed by Perseus, suggests the violent truncation of the body perpetuated by gender antagonism. The narrative is haunted by Humboldt’s and Ada’s corpses — Humboldt’s described through what seem to be passages from one of Waldrop’s sources, Sanitary Science for the Undertaker, and Ada’s through Amy’s fantasies that the dead Ada’s fingernails and hair continue to grow, indicating the continued agency of the more extensive body driven underground by the heteronormative social imaginary. The naturally “marshy” ground of the national capital Washington, DC, in which Waldrop locates herself at the end of the novel, is rendered stable only by intensive engineering in massive foundations and a pump system.

The blank space to which Amy is assigned foreshadows Waldrop’s shift from gravity and “forms” to a post-Newtonian physics that stresses the emptiness of the atom in the novel’s last section, “Unpredicted Particles,” as well as the focus on the feminine womb or “matrix” as a productive empty space in feminine body and language in Waldrop’s later work. While Waldrop’s increasing focus on the textual construction of gender may be due to the influence of French feminism that Ann Vickery traces as a significant influence on women Language poets at this time,[8] A Form suggests the claustrophobic pressure of heteronormativity as the reason Waldrop abandons exploration of other kinds of erotic and affective bonds for what she has called linguistic “gap gardening.” Amy’s fuller ranges of social relationships and body-consciousness haunt space of the blank page, with its potential for freedom from specific setting and voice that Waldrop goes on to explore in subsequent work. The more fluid, disembodied voices of Waldrop’s later prose poetry may free subjectivity from the limitations of power structuring social space and embodied identity to redefine the feminine in the relative absence of social setting. Waldrop’s turn from more intensive social context for identity formation after A Form leads us to ask whether what may seem to be poetry happening in a vacuum liberates the development of alternative feminist identities, reflects a sense of disenfranchisement that hinders women’s attempt to construct such alternatives in real public space, or performs some combination of the two.

 


 

1. See, for example, Michael Warner’s discussion of Arendt’s significance to recent feminist thought (59), Gilroy (50–53), and Butler (Psychic Life, 37ff).

2. Such experimentation includes a wide range of literary production, from Susan Howe’s mapping of patriarchal power as a force in American history to Joan Retallack’s more transformative “poethics.”

3. This essay also introduces the idea of “rupture” from Blanchot, Jabès and Kristeva as “very different from Olson’s outward growth” (Dissonance, 79), foreshadowing the shift toward exploration of emptiness in Waldrop’s later writing.

The materiality of the body and that of language are inseparable, and Waldrop’s later statements on poetics develop more fully the idea that language and the body are both “things” in the force field informed by sexual difference. Her 1996 “Form and Discontent” describes the poem’s origin in “a vague nucleus of energy” that “charges” a “semantic field” and develops by “listening to the sound, the ‘body’ of the starter words … [that] reveals their own vectors and affinities” (Dissonance, 203). This body is clearly gendered along heterosexual lines. Good writing is “androgynous, … partak[ing] of both male and female modes of thinking” (“Conversation,” 362) While language is informed by and preserves traces of the body, it also has a body of its own. This materiality of language is not that of an artificial medium but is rather inseparable from the gendered body, as stylistic choices are “leaps,” “limp[s],” or “defects,” and “[a] sentence is made by coupling” (“Conversation,” 349, 362, 364, 368). That Waldrop can in the same interview describe language as a “palimpsest” stresses the presence of historical and social usage as an additional force in her interaction with language (“Conversation,” 369). For discussion of Waldrop’s writing that relates it to Michael Davidson’s “palimptexts” as writing over or revising its sources, see Lynn Keller’s “‘Fields of Pattern,’” 380–81.

4. Donald Wellman also traces the feminine as a figure of “display” admitting male penetration or inscription (56). Mossin traces a homosocial function of this writing of the feminine as a triangle of communication between Olson, Boldereff, and Creeley much like the homosocial/homoerotic generation of identity Waldrop constructs in her portrayal of Alexander von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, and Reinhard von Haeften.

5. That some variants on this passage state that one may change the pronouns to make the beloved a “he” again suggests the homoerotic charge in the homosocial interaction of the scientists.

6. Waldrop’s “Charles Olson” essay contrasts skin as an immediate organ to the muscle and cranium lodged deeper in the body and thus “insulat[ing]” “the traditional soul” placed “deep inside” the body (Dissonance, 64).

7. Alternately imagined as a “chemical” “injected” into the body and “[i]nfectious” (166), the past can change the body’s functioning.

8. Vickery describes this influence as the “view that women’s experience was constituted by language (rather than merely ‘reflected’ by it)” (50).

 


 

Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

———. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Fraser, Kathleen. Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Grieve-Carlson, Gary, ed. Olson’s Prose. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Keller, Lynn. “‘Fields of Pattern — Bounded Unpredictability’: Recent Palimptexts by Rosmarie Waldrop and Joan Retallack.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2 (2001): 376–412.

———. “‘Just one of / the girls: — / normal in the extreme’: Experimentalists-To-Be Starting Out in the 1960s.” Differences: Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 47–69.

Kinnahan, Linda. The Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Mossin, Andrew. “‘In Thicket’: Charles Olson, Frances Boldereff, Robert Creeley, and the Crisis of Masculinity at Mid-Century.” In Grieve-Carlson, Olson’s Prose, 16–46.

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Edited by Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.

Retallack, Joan. “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop.” Contemporary Literature 40, no. 3 (1999): 328–77.

Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

———. The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter & A Form / of Taking / It All. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Wellman, Donald. “Olson and Subjectivity: Projective Verse and the Uncertainties of Sex.” In Grieve-Carlson, Olson’s Prose, 47–61.

"To find out for yourself"

Maximus at Gloucester High School

Eyes in the polis

Where are you from? Where do you live now? What are your haunts? And what do people say about those places? Does it depend on who you ask? What’s their agenda? Who tells you what it means to be from your hometown or to live where you do? What do you know about these places? And how do you know? And what do you have to say about it?

These questions motivate the Gloucester Project, a multi-genre exploration of Cape Ann art and culture that concludes the junior year for my students at Gloucester High School. Each year during fourth quarter students immerse themselves in a piece of the local artistic and cultural environment for five to ten weeks.

Charles Olson is the project’s presiding spirit, haunting it from beginning to end. Students encounter — sometimes sympathetically, sometimes skeptically — Olson’s attitudes, depictions, and uses of Gloucester. More importantly Olson, as a powerful, persistent, and imaginative reader, researcher, walker, and observer, points the way toward the students’ own explorations.

There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
(Olson’s “Letter 6”)

… a verb, to find out for yourself:
’istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self …
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

Following Olson’s lead students read widely about Cape Ann culture, producing reader-response notes and an annotated bibliography. Further, they follow his lead by investigating on foot, walking around and paying attention. They also investigate memory, their own and others’ through oral history. (A great deal of Olson’s own memories and others’ stories find their way into the Maximus Poems, especially but not exclusively in the early poems written when he was away from Gloucester and unable to observe it directly when composing.) Students synthesize reading, on-foot observations, and memory into a researched argument, a personal experience essay, poems, and a short play. I won’t pretend that all students embrace the project. I also won’t pretend that there’s nothing artificial about how the project plays out in an institutional setting. I will claim, however, that most students exhibit a higher degree of engagement, attention, and care during the project than at any other time during the year.

Eyes,
& polis,
fishermen,
& poets
                or in every human head I’ve known is
 
               busy
both:
the attention, and
the care
                however much each of us
                chooses our own
                kin and
                concentration
(“Letter 6”)

Students, indeed, choose their concentration. Over the last eight years, students have chosen a range of topics: from Olson himself, to his friends (Jonathan Bayliss, Peter Anastas, Vincent Ferrini), to subjects of his writing (Fitz Lane, Marsden Hartley, Dogtown, Stage Fort Park, the Fort), to his nemeses (T. S. Eliot, Winslow Homer, and occasional nemesis, historian Joseph Garland), to topics that at least seem not to intersect with Olson in any way. The most popular topic, by far, is St. Peter’s Fiesta, the annual Sicilian American celebration of the patron saint of fishing that has grown into a citywide demonstration of civic pride, debauchery, piety, and machismo. Most years Fiesta begins just days after the students complete their last assignments — so it is at the forefront of many minds as school days dwindle.

Ed Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out” and Olson’s “Letter 3” offer depictions of Fiesta that my students find recognizable but strange:

But never to forget
                                    that moment

when we came out of the tavern
and wandered through the carnival.
They were playing the Washington post march
but I mistook it for manhattan beach
for all around were the colored lights
of delirium
                      to the left the boats
of Italians
and ahead of us, past the shoulders
of St. Peter the magician of those fishermen

the bay
stood, and immediately in it the silent
inclined pole where tomorrow the young men
of this colony
so dangerous on the street
will fall harmlessly
into the water.
(Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out”) 

*

I was not born there, came, as so many of the people came,
from elsewhere. That is, my father did. And not from the Provinces,
not from Newfoundland. But we came early enough. When he came,
there were three hundred sail could fill the harbor,
if they were all in, as for the Races, say
Or as now the Italians are in, for San Pietro
and the way it is from Town Landing, all band-concert,
and fireworks
(Olson’s “Letter 3”)

A young person in Gloucester might have a strong feeling that others have gotten there before her and that her own perceptions (and imaginative uses of those perceptions) are impeded, distorted, invalidated by prior commercial and artistic representations hovering between the student and the city like a haze.

colored pictures
of all things to eat: dirty
postcards
                   And words, words, words
all over everything
                                    No eyes or ears left
to do their own doings (all

invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses

including the mind, that worker on what is
(“The Songs of the Maximus, Song 1”)

Some students, of course, really like the picture postcard, Chamber of Commerce, Team Gloucester depiction of the city — and believe such depictions convey the truth of the place. Other students see the local reality as irredeemably tawdry and backward — “sketchy” and “lame” — compared with the possibilities for better living promised elsewhere. There are often socioeconomic and cultural insider/outsider dynamics at work in the students’ attitudes toward this place but, whatever the reasons and wherever a student falls on the “Three cheers for Gloucester” / “Gloucester sucks” spectrum, the Gloucester Project resists easy navigation but offers ample rewards to those who complete the journey.


The mu-sick of localism

Students on the cheerleading end of the spectrum tend to be excited about the project but then frustrated that I keep prodding them to do more investigative reading, to do more listening and looking, and to render their own characterizations and evaluations instead of merely repeating the ones they’ve received from sources promoting an easy, unproblematic, romanticized Gloucester exceptionalism. Examples of such sources are legion in official Gloucester literature and in a good deal of the artistic output inspired by the city. “An Heroic City,” an 1892 text found in Memorial of the celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Gloucester, Mass., includes the following passage:

This gray old city by the sea has an individuality as rugged and picturesque as the granite cliffs which hedge its outer harbor. Its existence has been a perpetual struggle in which the courage and the cunning of the man have been pitted against the mighty power of the elements. The town is strong and prosperous now. It is a seat of wealth and culture. But the stranger sailing in from the ocean and catching his first glimpse of the long line of wharves and warehouses, with the trees and roofs and steeples rising behind them, somehow cannot get it out of his fancy that Gloucester is clinging to its rocky hillsides as her sailors cling to their reeling decks.

Seeming to pick up this sentiment more than a century later, “Good Harbor, Home,” written by the poet John Ronan for the 2002 inauguration of Mayor John Bell (while Vincent Ferrini was still the city’s Poet Laureate) begins:

Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,
fire-formed and hard, headland granite -
no coddled cape, no sandbar,
and nothing soft in her city, no knickknack,
Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.

The 1892 celebratory text continues:

Gloucester, we have said, has a strong individuality. There are many small towns, but no other large city like it on our Atlantic coast. It lives by and from the sea. Its chief industries are such as to nurture manliness. For generations it has been drawing to it bold spirits from all over the world. It is by no chance of blind fortune that Gloucester has added to its fleets and wealth, while the fleets of its competitors have dwindled. Its safe and capacious harbor is one factor in its prosperity; its nearness to great markets another. But something more than that was needed, and it was found in the skill and indomitable perseverance, pluck, and energy of its citizens.

These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy in one of the most arduous and hazardous callings in which men are anywhere engaged.

And here I quote a review of Mark Kurlansky’s book The Last Fish Tale by San Diego-based writer Richard Amero, a 1942 graduate of Gloucester High School, to suggest how the heroic image might persist but evolve when the industries that “nurture manliness” fade:

As in so many towns in the United States, the "Gloucester spirit" had a lot to do with the feats of local high school football, baseball, and basketball players. (In the 1940's it was mainly football.) It was these players who were, for a season at least, the city's heroes. But regardless of whatever was first in public conversation or in newspapers, the fickle and haunting presence of the sea was always in people’s minds, shaping their thoughts and fears and hopes.

Football remains first in the newspaper at least during the fall and in many conversations throughout the year, especially around the corner from me at George’s Coffee Shop. (Briefly, in the autumns of ’06 and ’07, my soccer teams grabbed a share of the press and the chatter by winning the program’s first two conference championships.) My students readily see the link between the idea of Gloucester as presented by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous or by the “Man at the Wheel” statue, on the one hand, and gridiron glory on the other. My students also readily see the gender implications. A heroism of endurance – not action – is shown in the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial by Morgan Faulds Pike dedicated in 2001. And when women display athletic valor during the Fiesta seine boat races, they’re consigned to a second-tier; both the men and the boys are given priority. (A few young women have used the Gloucester Project to propose counter-narratives of female agency in Gloucester beginning with proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, author of the 1790 essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”.)

High school students live and interact with many projections of masculine heroism: the aforementioned “Man at the Wheel” statue by Leonard Craske, located along Stacy Boulevard five minutes from the high school; the plaque on Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park (in foul territory down the leftfield line of Sam Parisi Field where the high school baseball team plays its home games), which reads in part, “On this site in 1623, a company of fishermen and farmers from Dorchester, England, under the direction of Rev. John White, founded THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY”; a sign at the entrance to the downtown area after one has crossed the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge (which Olson characterized as “a mole/to get at Tyre”) announcing Gloucester as America’s oldest fishing port; in the high school’s nickname, the Fishermen or, informally, the Fighting Fishermen, the ubiquitous logo for which is a simplified version of the “Man at the Wheel”; “greasy pole” winners being carried on the shoulders of fellow competitors through the dense crowds at Pavillion Beach, up Beach Court, and over to the St. Peter’s Club every June during Fiesta; tragic heroism in the 1997 book and 2000 film The Perfect Storm; the 2007 “Gloucester reads Lone Voyager” initiative to get the city to read Joseph Garland’s account of Howard Blackburn’s life, beginning with an account of how he froze his hands to his oars after his dory was separated from its mothership during a snow squall; stories about neighbors, relatives, fathers of friends, fathers of relatives of friends, fathers of friends of friends, etc. Manifestations of heroism abound but what do they mean to a young person forging an identity?

The romantically heroic image (and language) of the city motivated Olson’s imagination, but his insistence on particulars – particular documents, particular memories, and the particular movement of projected utterance in response to a particular occasion – engenders more complex, more challenging depictions of heroism. (A desire to look more closely at Olson and the manly hero led me into a consideration of his childhood summers in Gloucester, his letters with Frances Boldereff, and Charles Stein’s take on the matter in The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum. What I found is too multifaceted to be dealt with sufficiently here; I’ll have to save those notes for another project.) During his summers in Gloucester Olson was physically at the epicenter of several heroic projections. The area around Tablet Rock – which included his family’s summer dwelling, Oceanwood – must have seemed (especially in memory) hallowed ground of the American epic. The plaque commemorating the original farmers and fishermen was affixed to the rock when Olson was twelve. When he was fourteen, the Man at the Wheel appeared on the Boulevard, a short walk away. Later he deepened his engagement through research and his own judgments (“that bad sculpture of a fisherman”). I encourage my students who are proud of Gloucester to avoid received generalities and boosterism – “These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy” – in favor of particulars harvested from their own reading and experience and in favor of a more complex understanding of the place and their relationship to it that makes use of those particulars. To this end students are encouraged to interrogate the characterizations that have come down to them from locals and outsiders alike. Peter Anastas, explicating a portion of Charles Olson’s December 22, 1962 letter to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times in his book Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, writes, “To Olson, [Winslow] Homer, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and [Rudyard] Kipling were examples of artists and writers who, while having popular ‘international’ reputations, nevertheless sentimentalized Gloucester subjects, thereby depriving them of local specificity and power and, consequently of authenticity.” (Art critic Greg Cook has pointed out to me that it is precisely the lure of the authentic – however constructed – that has drawn most of Gloucester’s significant artists and writers.)

Romanticized constructions of Gloucester’s identity – official, semi-official, and popular – become dangerous when we use them to police what Gloucester is and what it isn’t. While the interlopers Homer, Longfellow, and Kipling may have distorted Gloucester though sentimentality, locals will sometimes distort Gloucester though exclusion. I’ve already mentioned how in the dominant narrative women are permitted a Penelope-like heroism of endurance but not of agency and action. Exclusion, in Gloucester as elsewhere, takes many forms. A friend tells the story of organizing a lunchtime gathering for a colleague moving out of town. When my friend suggested Thai Choice, a favorite downtown lunchtime venue, others dissented saying the restaurant wasn’t “Gloucester” enough – despite the relationships that many of the workers there have developed with patrons over the years. At the high school I heard a couple of students mocking Brazilian-Americans for venerating the Black Madonna during the St. Peter’s Fiesta religious procession, though to the credit of Fiesta organizers the group is included, as are Portuguese groups despite the Sicilian-American origins of the event. (As Olson put it “Gloucester/is heterogeneous, and so can know polis/not as localism, that mu-sick….”) Gloucester’s participation with Dutch Suriname in the triangle trade has been more successfully excluded from the city’s understanding of itself. Though, as my friend David Rich points out, Olson alludes to the trade in the Maximus Poems, most Gloucester citizens are blithely ignorant – as I was until a year ago – that a significant amount of Gloucester’s nineteenth century wealth was gained through an economic enterprise underwritten by slavery.

In the last several paragraphs I’ve taken pains to show that at its best the Gloucester Project pushes students toward discoveries that render preconceptions – and any single narrative – inadequate to characterize or explain the realities they encountered. Even when the gist of a student’s prior conception – Gloucester is a city of heroes, for example – is unchanged by his explorations, the prior understanding is fleshed out, given another dimension. A student has thought, for example, about legendary shipwreck survivor Howard Blackburn, the crew of the We’re Here in Captains Courageous, Olson’s Maximus persona, & contemporary figures (a fishermen/activist, a local football star, a greasy pole champion, etc.) all as related but distinct projections of the heroic masculinity common in depictions of the city. Let me offer another example, one more related to romantic sentimentality than to romantic heroism. A student writing about the experiences of Sicilian-Americans in Gloucester began his project portraying immigrant life as a strife-free, idyllic scene (described to him by his grandmother) of unlocked houses, food sharing, and general neighborliness. He made little mention of the rigors of labor or of clashes between ethnic groups. When a guest speaker complicated the student’s understanding of Gloucester’s downtown neighborhoods in the early and mid-twentieth century by talking about the conditions in fish processing plants and fights between neighborhood and ethnic gangs, the student thought the speaker was guilty of mischaracterization and hyperbole. After some additional research the student revised his stance, but never changed his view that his grandmother was essentially right and that the speaker’s experiences and observations were unrepresentative outliers. However, for his short play set on the Fort, a Sicilian-American neighborhood where Olson rented an apartment at 28 Fort Square, the student created a sympathetic character based on the speaker’s views and other new information. The student’s depiction of the Fort remained romantic at its core – many would say some of Olson’s depictions are romantic too – but at least the play captured some of the complexity of immigrant experiences in twentieth-century Gloucester even if conflicts were confined to the periphery.


Going contrary and singing

Students who’d rather have nothing to do with Gloucester – who already reject heroic depictions of its past and present, who see little of value in their surroundings, who fear being trapped here forever, who are plotting their escape (as I plotted my escape from my hometown), who want to know more about other places, about the world-at-large, about anything else – tend to be annoyed by the project until, as often happens, they discover something of interest hidden beneath the city’s surface or sometimes hiding in plain sight, something they hadn’t heard of before, something that cracks Gloucester open so it stands more revealed or something that opens a portal between Gloucester and the world beyond. Students have researched Maakies cartoonist Tony Millionaire and the rock musician Willie Alexander, both subcultural icons; some have investigated Magnolia’s now gone giant hotel, a thriving playland for the rich, the famous, and the pretenders; a few have immersed themselves in Peter Anastas’ Broken Trip, connected stories about people living with brutality and hope in the margins of Gloucester’s more tourist-friendly narratives; several have looked into Dogtown, a source of inspiration and mystery; etc. Sometimes these discoveries excite a student because they intersect with a pre-existing area of interest (comics, say, or music) or with a student’s experience (a depiction of the socioeconomic reality in his neighborhood or a response to the sexism she’s endured). Sometimes these discoveries explode the static tropes about what Gloucester – or some part of Gloucester – is and isn’t, tropes which exclude many of the students and their experiences and which, therefore, these students resent and reject. The project can help students discover space for their experiences and burgeoning identities.

Though not always successful, the project encourages students to discover that the portion of reality that surrounds them – its present and antecedent existence – matters, something is at stake here in our wards and precincts, in the geography of our being. Fueled by the sense that the polis matters, that it’s not all happening somewhere else, students might persist in their reading, listening, looking, caring, struggling, and resisting; they might continue to find out for themselves, and so oppose the drift Olson observed: “Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surface so attractive to all.”


The geography of what we find out we are

The particular Scylla and Charybdis – or Norman’s Woe – of sentimental enthusiasm and foreclosed cynicism are both transformed by “attention and care” – attention and care toward one’s reading, one’s listening, one’s direct observation. In The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum Charles Stein writes that as a reader Olson “interpolates, quotes, abuses, converses with, corrects, supplies addenda to, ridicules, annotates, or other wise interacts with” the texts he encounters. On Olson as a listener Gerrit Lansing reports “one of Charles’s most common expressions was ‘I hear you’ when the quality of your own articulated attention matched his and the sound was true” (Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester); “Later,” Lansing writes, “in the course of frequently walking the streets of Gloucester with Charles, along the bank of the Annisquam River by the high school, paths of Dogtown, I became aware how thorough was the attention he gave to whatever object we stopped to look at.” Olson provides a model for the mindfulness I expect from my students.

An intensely open engagement with objects, language, and people leads on not to mastery but to mystery – “secrets objects share,” as Olson has it in “Projective Verse” – a dwelling within the manifest traum of being:

… to find out for yourself
‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere

at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

– live television or what – is a lie

as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being
self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary: that no event

is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal
event
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

The pro-Gloucester enthusiasts and anti-Gloucester skeptics among my students need not disavow their predilections or cast away their lenses in order to take another look around, to read widely and interactively in the Gloucester shelf and active storage of the Sawyer Free Library, to get one’s feet on the ground and to put an ear to the ground, to open oneself with bristling attentiveness to imaginative acts of reading and sensing. Olson’s own explorations led him both into sacramental enthusiasm – he writes in a letter to the historian Joseph Garland, “The nature of my involvement in the subject of Gloucester keeps me always in Ward 4 and in Heaven simultaneously” – and into bitter skepticism – he writes in a “Scream” to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, “oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition destroying/its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.…” I hear these tones (and others) jangle in student work, too – work informed by each student’s own forms of finding out.

I tell my students explicitly that Gloucester is not the only ground for such finding out. Wherever they travel, wherever they’ll live, there will be opportunities for exploration of those places too. I often draw their attention to Robin Blaser in Henry Ferrini’s film Polis Is This; Blaser reports that when he told Olson he’d been looking into Gloucester’s history Olson responded, “Oh, don’t do that. This is my place. Go do it for yours.” We might investigate whatever places are ours. Places we’re born in. Places we come to during the summers of our childhood and later live in. Places we move to when we graduate from college, as I did, following my then girlfriend, now wife back to her hometown. Places we’re driven to understand no matter why. I didn’t create the project to inculcate my students with civic pride but rather to give them a chance to find out for themselves and to project an understanding of the geography of their being.

'The most beautiful and truest'

Collecting the letters of John Wieners

Like many (most?) of us, I fell in love with the poetry of John Wieners the minute I plunged into The Hotel Wentley Poems, its palpable ache and epic scope — I was knocked out by this twenty-four-year-old lyric poet in a rundown hotel making the beyond-audacious declaration that he was “taking away / from God his sound.” I read the poems in rapid succession, then again and again, slower each time. I’d entered my doctoral program — entered the room — intending to focus on nineteenth-century American fiction, but by the time I went home I’d blown through Wentley and Ace of Pentacles and I knew that whatever my dissertation wound up being, it was going to be centered on the work of John Wieners.

After a brief flash of anger — how did I go thirty-four years (at the time) and not hear about John Wieners? Who failed to tell me? Who can I blame? — I got to work, continually shocked at the dearth of critical attention and available material. I read all the books of poetry and journals — the twisted lyricism of 707 Scott Street, Bootstrap Press’s amazing Book of Prophecies and Kidnap Notes Next — but from there, if I wanted more of John Wieners I had to go into the Special Collections at the million libraries where his letters and journals are scattered. His own papers are held in several different collections — most notably at Boston College, the University of Delaware, Syracuse University, and the University of Connecticut — but the real corpus of his writing, the letters he sent out constantly, are dispersed far beyond those libraries, hidden in other writers’ papers and private collections.

I started with the easiest and, in many ways, most central correspondence for my research, that between Wieners and his mentor Charles Olson. Their letters are split between two collections — Wieners’s letters to Olson are in the latter’s papers at Connecticut, and Olson’s own letters are in Wieners’s papers at Boston College — and so gathering them was no problem (my friend and college Robert Dewhurst, who’s currently gathering Wieners poems for a Collected Poems, helped me with reproductions from Boston that I was unable to get) — the only real trouble was Olson’s notoriously cryptic handwriting. It took a crew of readers and code-breakers to help me transcribe those letters, a process less akin to transcription than to argument-based graphomancy. We preserved one postcard of Olson’s handwriting in the chapbook,[1] when he replied to Wieners immediately after reading “Acts of Youth” to say that it was “one of the most beautiful and finest of poems I have ever read.” Well, that’s what we thought it said; I got a letter from Ralph Maud after he got the chapbooks, telling me, based on the facsimile of the postcard, that he was certain Olson had written not “finest” but “truest.” I looked at it again and he was of course correct — it should read “Ages of Youth” (Olson misremembered the title, and Wieners preserved the mistake as the poem’s section title in Ace of Pentacles) “is one of the most beautiful and truest of poems I have ever read.”

There are two moments in the Wieners-Olson letters that really stand out for me. The first concerns that tour de force, “Acts of Youth,” and the circumstances of its creation. Wieners writes on December 5, 1961, anxious about traveling to New York to see a play of his performed (he hadn’t traveled in a year, after a cross-country road trip from San Francisco to Boston ended with his forced institutionalization); a few weeks later he writes Olson again, saying that all went well, and that he’d written a poem (dated at the bottom, December 5, 1961) that he said “had merit in places.” This was “Acts of Youth,” and Olson’s reply was the postcard quoted above.

The second is from a few years before, before San Francisco and Wentley, when twenty-three-year-old Wieners was staying briefly in New York with Frank O’Hara and his longtime friend and roommate Joe LeSueur in 1957. O’Hara and Wieners had met the prior year, when they both worked on the same play at the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, and became fast friends. LeSueur recounted their visit from the colorful young poet, quoted in Brad Gooch’s excellent O’Hara biography City Poet:

John went to do some sort of research at the Forty-Second Street public library while we went to see The Curse of Frankenstein at Loew’s Sheridan. That evening John, high on Benzedrine, came home and told us about the horrifying, hallucinatory experience he’d had at the library. Later I said to Frank, “Isn’t it funny, we go to a horror movie and don’t feel a thing and John goes to the library and is scared out of his wits.”[2]

O’Hara commemorated that visit from twenty-three-year-old Wieners in “To a Young Poet,” in which he recounts that “while we are seeing The Curse of Frankenstein he / sits in / the 42nd Street Library, reading about Sumerians.”

The day after the epic trip to the library, Wieners wrote to Olson to report back on his research, a spiral out from Sumerian, Egyptian, and Tinguian mythology to astrological formations and out to the streets of New York beyond the library, the patterns of jewels in the windows at Tiffany’s, the calls of random passers-by. It’s a dizzying letter, and in the context of the Wieners-Olson letters the letter can be seen for what it is: a scene of pedagogy, of the eager student back to the teacher, expanding on the work of the classroom. In this case, the classroom was the one that gave birth to “The Special View of History” and “The Curriculum of the Soul,” and so it is natural — thrilling, really — to see the student taking the lessons in such reckless, amphetamine-fueled, brilliant webs of meaning. It is, in my opinion, the greatest term paper ever submitted:

[New York City]
Sept 22 & 23 1957[3]

Dear Charles:

Just back from 8 hrs with near every book S Noah-Kramer[4] ever wrote, at NY PLib. Except he aint no noah. I cant understand why the Sumerians did so little for him, that he can impose on them : find as fault their lack of ‘epistemology’ cause & effect, ‘logic’. Of course, this is mainly From the Tablets of Sumer (Falcon’s Wing Press 1956) & it is a write down. The one done 12 yrs earlier, which I hope I’ll get tomorrow, for the texts (translations alone), better. that’s the only value of his labor, what he makes available. Not one phrase from the man himself. Which is harsh, but 8 solid hours, is too long to be kept waiting. When I should have looked only for their words.

                                                                                                                                             I remember some of the loveliest poems being told by you before. When Inanna lost it in the garden.

The main purpose of this is to serve as cover for the enclosed, which is the prize. They told me you wouldnt have reproductions in the house, but I want you to see this anyway. So lucky to have it at all. The original is possibly a 1/5th larger. Beside it/ the only other of his I could find:  THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE.  Would you say that is a capella in the upper left corner of PARADISE?

I spent last night again on da capo & it is much better. But still want to wait a few days before sending.  I want you to know how much I feel you laid on me (out for me) last Tuesday & Wednesday. The Rimbaud of mine is not improved turning into paragraphs, form like Illum. but da capo has come full swerve from this that’s it’s more packed/ but no immediate hooks for any reader, I fear.

I have thgt. too along the way, that Orion: O’Ryan is of the secret of secrets. I want you to know this, that whatever I might stumble on shall not be revealed. I agree, you pass it through the work, until someone else makes breaks its surface or // thru their work // then no one [arrow from “thru their work” to:] into the source. else shall be turned on the stars [arrow down to bottom of page, where he’s handwritten: until then no one else shall be turned your stars (i.e. per me)]. Ican find nothing encouraging out about Capricorn, & wonder how I should have adopted him, so strong. Only the horn, and the Blood that breaks thru. Like Dionysius’. No ATTENTION AT ALL TO RITE IN Kramer! Which is what I want. Dates, and objects, and how often and many. Like we have it so clear from the Indians, the little I know. Orion can lead you. (I only read #2); leads you into as much field … “Capricorn is part of the earthly triad; it is the place of the creation of Saturn (with Aquarius); it governs the thighs and knees.” I wd rather be under Aries’ horn,

(OH YES: it is covered wagon:)    Perseus and mother put into chest and thrown into the sea, the children (Zeus, etc) of Uranus imprisoned in the body of their mother, the earth. That is an actual:chronos
                                                                                          reverse
-apochtastasis (?) fact
                                                                                                                      (happening).
Or am I taking it wrong. That being locked
up with them, does not prove they are carried
in us. Except we know they are. I wrote something
long time ago, (12 mos.) about the way I hold my cigarette like She does. over to Page II

And I will send that. Once I can get a corner out there. Also on the Boston train from Gloucester, I wrote like crazy, which I’ll send. Maybe the cigarette one tonight. Just throw it away afterwards.

Did you know this? I dont see how so confidently now but it does bring Pharmakos: Fool together, a little.

“Hebrews knew him as Kesil, the Foolish or Self-Confident, or as Gibbor, the Giant, identified with Nimrod and tied to the heavens for impiety.”

And “Peruvians believe a criminal held in by two condors”

This morning with the dawn I went out and begin walking up
Fifth Avenue from Washington Square, where they yelled at me: “ Oh Ham-let!
                                                                                                                         Oh phelia  ”

but I went on from one window to the next, passed along. Until I came to Tiffany’s #727, and they have a relatively small window for jewels, etc. Only each one had every detail like an undeveloped negative drops OF THE ZODIAC. It filled six windows. It is simply that, I think. A process used on an some original MAP, but I am going back tomorrow, Monday. And try to talk me into one, which I will send to you. It was as laid / more than eye wants / out like Roxbury-Malden in Earth’s orbit, eclipitica, and precise drawings of every constellation, the 1st and 2nd magnitudes carried jewels (well, the first one of any sort of the sky I have ever seen.) That the face on the prow of ARGOS is you! The mouth no, not as much.

The sun does enter the world again under our sign, but Aries it says ‘early mythologies identify the Ram with Zeus, with AMMON, the ram god of Egypt.’

And look, why RA died. But you told us that before. I have my parents, both kinds.  It’s the Grand ones I’m looking for, that it is the time now for them to begin to hide or as Miss Stein:

“When I grow up, you can be the old Grandfather and come live with us!”

 

This is all there is on alan as I first got it. But I find now: the Hebrew means (tho out of use): small-eared dog.
                                       “alan Tinguian  (Philippine Islands)”
“Spirits, half-human, half-bird with toes and fingers reversed. They are sometimes mischievous or hostile, but are usually friendly.(?) They are described as hanging, bat-like from trees and as living in forests. In Tinguian mythology and folk tales they appear as foster-mothers of the leading characters and are pictured frequently as living in houses of gold.”

Also now that I think of it, that our goat must come in with some blood on his hoof or horn from the sacrifice of the king → of Saturn the very day same day → or one before. Again, tho, I mix the movement of the stars, with myths surrounding them. That the bird alan might have something hidden in the salaman-der “sometimes a bird, living in fire”

And Rigel (you again must know) sometimes is The Foot in the Mud also known as The Double Axe. That I just see this: “In astrology, Capricorn {→ I somehow see him (Le Fou) as unable to fall — unless he cuts his own foot off} is a feminine nocturnal sign, movable, cardinal, and melancholy, and in nature, cold, dry and earthy. The mansion of Saturn and the exaltation of Mars” (All those adjectives, I mistrust it.) Plus I don’t like “her” clothes. But there are leads.

[…]

Please pardon the mess — it is such a displeasure to read. But I am in PO across from Penn Sta. On the way out.

Last night the living nightmare, so today trembles.
from Union Square, the rain on the newspaper stand
we sat in it.

There was a stakeout to bag junkys. And, I amble in after typing this. Alan’s red shirt was my banner. I joined the confederates again. No one was busted. // Much love

 


 

1. “the sea under the house:” The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson, ed. Michael Seth Stewart, 2 vols., Lost & Found Series III, May 2012.

2. Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 301.

3. Series II, Folder 220, Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. Reprinted by permission of the Charles Olson Estate.

4. Samuel Noah Kramer (1897–1990), Ukrainian-born American scholar whose work in Sumerian mythology was integral to Olson’s sense of history.

Beginzone: "There's Ridgeway Lane forever" (the message)

Before our January 6 interview with poet John Wieners on Beacon Hill, I called up an old friend, Bill Wellington, the night librarian and all around nice guy of the UMass–Dartmouth Library, to find out if he had a message to relay to poet Wieners …. the connection is that of two young Beantown beatniks.

Bill playing his jazz up and down the coast, backing Billie and Bird, eventually having to give up the horn because of personal and medical reasons. The other, a shy young poet with a circle of dear friends in Beacon Hill, and Bill was one of them, scripting down and out scene-verse that caught the spirit of youth, the flailing passionate heartache of it all, moments of time strung together with words like pearls on string.

After the years have rolled into each other, the magical nights on the Hill become these stories, tales told to an attentive English Lit undergrad by a cool and raspy-voiced jazzman-turned-librarian, who returns to the poems of an old friend as evidence of the magic, the time gone by.

(BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MESSAGE?)

It’s a message of creativity, youth, of the human capacity to care deeply about the quality of another’s life, why some still hold the word, the idea — as sacred. Enjoy.

"Nor … ever some place else": Wieners in Boston

John Wieners at his last public reading in February 2002 (still from a video by Derek Fenner).

To backtrack to the beginning of Robert Creeley’s preface to John Wieners’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston,” which about sums it up:

If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: “How is it far if you think it?” I don’t truly know. It doesn’t seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either feeling or thinking. They’re here, as we are — certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?

Wieners makes an absence horribly or heartbreakingly present:
 
“The walls are alive with pictures.
Faces haunt the dark.”
(from Wieners’s “A Series, 5.8,” Ace of Pentacles)
 
“Poetry is a trance
of make-believe.”
(“Concentration,” Nerves)
 
“The man I’m kissing
lives right here
despite all odds
 
on my lips”
(“Osterreich,” Nerves)
 
“and the gossamer twilights on Boston Common, and Arlington Street
adrift in the mind”
(After Symond’s “Venice,” Nerves)
 
And from “5.9”:
“Dread night is gone,
you see suspended in a bar against the blackness
the mighty lord, who makes his way
Love in his eyes as a bride might say
To put away all fear.”
 
Is it Duncan’s open field Wieners refers to in “The Meadow Where All Things Grow According to Their Own Design”?
 
“Destiny lies behind our forces
and what lives in the soul
dies not. It inhabits our dreams
as perpetual as light.”
 
Am I stretching the point to suggest that though Wieners often writes in form and sometimes in rather formal language there is an organic aspect of his poetry, that his belief that all forms are organic pervades his poetry?
 
If as Creeley delineates, the poem is there because of the intensity of Wieners’s thought and feeling, so Gerrit Lansing’s elegant restraint gives us poetry that is always there, meditative, in a world un-fragmented, distilled, accepting: “guiltless I milked the cow, / slaughtered chicken, / swam with snakes” (“How We Sizzled in the Pasture,” Working in the Lower Red Field).
 
To both, the world is filled with myriad creatures not only from written traditions but from lived experience. Gerrit ends his poem “For John
Wieners, 1934–2002” (Poems Uncollected, Old and New):
 
“the sound of drums in early afternoon, the poems
echoing our marvelous faults, their fruits.”
 
The marvelous, the human, the humane, the ambiguous “their fruits,” everything is taken in, dealt with.
 
What else do the two share? Gentleness, constant devotion to craft. Massachusetts. Each underrated though those who know their writing feel immensely appreciative and are aware of its worth. I recall Creeley reading at Stone Soup in Boston eons ago & dedicating his reading to Wieners, who listened happily in the audience. Gerrit always precise, at times understated, loving but with clear boundaries. What little I knew of Wieners makes me feel he was endlessly openhearted, despairing, enthusiastic, wild. Gerrit knows his place, meaning he is in himself, self-contained, knowing his place is everywhere.
 
Have visited Gerrit several times & each time he has commented on my aura, which apparently fluctuates or at least varies. He has one of the fullest libraries I know of & seems to have read most everything in it, retaining most of that, I hear.
 
Having been subjected to quadruple bypass heart surgery recently, Gerrit (looking ruddy) still seems undaunted by death. Where has his meditation taken him — certainly to equanimity. Wieners was elsewhere, looking for love.
 
When I moved to Cambridge in 1971, I saw Wieners in Temple Bar Bookstore on Massachusetts Ave. Excited and nervous, I approached him, and he asked, “Do I know you from Georgia O’Keefe’s house?” No. “Are you a Medici?” Heading back to my apartment, where a poem of Wieners hung on my wall, I glowed.
 
Gerrit offers OJ or booze, seems willing to discuss Vedanta with my Vedantic friend, happy to hang out with Simon Pettit to talk about the paranormal (he’s an encyclopedia, according to Simon), calm in disagreeing with a relative of mine about haiku, and indulgent when asked over-general questions about the spiritual life.
 
His house is a treasure, up the hill and across the divided highway from the ocean, in down-home Gloucester. The rooms are large and packed and his intriguing housemate John can sometimes be seen moving books up to the top floor, even more books hiding there, waiting to spill over into the living room. He collects mushrooms, meditates, plays classical piano. One can imagine him living the aesthetic life in New York though he now finds comfort at the seaside: “Old and new dependencies, good harbor, deserted beach of seaweed brown” (“XVIII, The Soluble Forest”).
 
The younger poets in his area adore him and care for him and hang at his house. Amanda Cook, he tells me, waited five hours at the hospital with Gerrit’s nephew until his operation was over. He gives parties, still. Such friends as Ken Irby stay in his guesthouse out back in summer.
 
He combines traditions, high and low culture, sex and spirit, all is one:
 
Thomas Burnet, in The Sacred Theory of the Earth, posited that the earth had formed as a smooth, regular sphere with a thin surface, below which was a vast ocean. The Great Flood, he believed, had occurred when the surface of the earth broke open, for God had willed it so, and fell down into that ocean.
 
Here is the fourth section of Gerrit’s “In Erasmus Darwin’s Generous Light”:
 
Telluris sacra theoria [The Sacred Theory of the Earth]
 
If you consider the sacred theory of the earth,
water below and water above,
the egg cracked and split, the spirit spurting out
flood and ark of sacred origin, waterfall of starry jism
the milk of the stars from her paps
on uplifted ecstatic faces and lovers locked in happy freedom in their crucible …
 
in my garden, Erasmus Darwin said, blooms
bright surprise galore on bright surprise
and from their volant passion splurge cataracts of eyes.
 
In the tulgey wood the light consoles
and in the generous light of Erasmus Darwin’s ripe exuberance
(and he knew the caves below where sun at midnight shone)
the fields, his very strawberry fields, are Eleusinian.
 
Genesis and Alice in Wonderland in the mix. The sublimity and chaos of nature. Charles Darwin’s poet grandfather (whom Gerrit described in his reading at the Boston Athaeneum in June as a poet of sexuality and plant life) and God. Jism and the sacred natural world. Contradictions and acceptance. The Beatles and the Eleusinian fields, the dwelling of the blessed, in the stream of Okeanos, the Ocean. And the caves below where sun at midnight shone? Jesus, born in a cave, brings the world light at the solstice? Coleridge, who was influenced by Burnet? For Gerrit, as for his friend Robert Duncan, these are not simply allusions, they are lived places of the mind.
 
The Ace of Pentacles, in the Tarot, is apparently about making one’s dreams come to pass. The Empress is the womb where the idea gestates. And so goes Wieners’s “The Imperatrice.”
 
The Empress is an extreme card — one minute things are wonderful, the next, horrible. One’s labors may come to fruition, so it seems Wieners is carrying forward The Ace of Pentacles’ hope. Wieners’s The Imperatrice sits on the left page; on the right, a poem I have long remembered, for “My Mother,” “talking to strange men on the subway,”
 
“‘But I love her in the underground
        and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
        talking together between the wire grates of a cage.”
 
The Imperatrice, “who sits supreme above all human ecstasy,” “Lady of the blue / robe. Scent of sperm / a cloud of devotion to her nostrils,”
 
“Or with the objects of eternity
        about her and
           on display
for our eyes worn out with love.”
 
These two tasters of life have in common their absorption in nontraditional as well as traditional spiritual ways of seeing and experiencing the world, their acceptance of seeming opposites, their love of life, as intense as any despair, finally. Hallucinations of truth. Intimations of … Expecting/hoping for a new time to come; in Gerrit’s belief system, that is a non-persona, universal world. As Gerrit knows the world as real and unreal, so too does Wieners, despite his attachment to it:
 
From Wieners’s “Dreams of the Day”:
 
There are other realities
   besides those existing before
        your eyes.
 
   Secrets of the mind
   where phantoms dwell
   and people pass who never
              lived
   on the face of the earth.
 
   Dark veils cover their faces.
 

 
    causes high tides
 
    To roar upon the shore
 
    That is the mind.
 
    Where no one ever is
      But those who never were.
 
Yet Wieners, filled with spirits, longing, agony, IS there; Gerrit all the while in equipoise; both seers and lovers. Both having dived into the occult: From Wieners’s “Le Chariot” (Ace of Pentacles):
 
“To ride in your heart instead of heaven.
This is the card that reads as seven.”
 
If Gerrit knows it in a more spiritual sense, Wieners is familiar with the emotional ride of what we can’t know intellectually yet which can dominate the senses and feelings. To continue with Creeley: “The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptional human beauty — as if there were ever any other. There is in it such commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us.”

There you have it from the mouth of Black Mountain that Wieners is not only a lyric poet and a sonneteer, a troubadour and the tenor in the opera, he is a poet of daily life, including the bizarre daily life under all our covers.
 
As is Gerrit — connected to the earth, the ocean, New York, he flies upward and outward and inside to realms just as intimate and interconnected as anything more mundane. As Gerrit says of Thoreau (“Henry Thoreau and Cosmic Concord”), [he] “made of his daily and local experiences a rich mythological fabric … He feels along his nerves the reflections of all things in all things …” How could I neglect to mention Wieners’s book Nerves in this context, though admittedly it is often horrific in its imagery — yet full of beauty still.
 
In 1965, Wieners wrote a subjective, insightful preface to Gerrit’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (a Motto Book, New York, 1966). In it, he gives us hints as to what they share by letting us know what he reacts to & feels: “The title is ‘wrong’: alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards towards heaven.” Self-deprecating, he makes me laugh when he claims: “For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit to write without it is even more difficult.”

While Gerrit’s work reveals an enormous vocabulary, sense of history and the paranormal throughout it, clearly Wieners — even in his talking of the alchemical — unravels his knowledge of the arcane throughout his own writing. “The discontinuity of image, the ‘confused’ mind you will think you will find there. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.” Wieners might as well be talking about himself. His critics be damned, he is coherent emotionally, in the way of Baudelaire and with sometimes equally strong conceits, metaphors that are in a visceral way images, they live so fully on the page.
“Rhythm is that elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards.” And this is Wieners’s line as well as Gerrit’s phrasing — elegance, even for Wieners amidst all the devastation. “No, the wild tulip shall outlast the prison wall / no matter what grows within” (“Private Estate,” Asylum Poems).
 
“Now I have to learn to carry them [Gerrit’s poems] with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.” Those who imagine Wieners’s poetry “limited” to the personal would do well to look again; he was all too well aware of the injustices and distortions of our “society” that Gerrit’s words would wipe away and transform, magically.
 
And sound, Wieners and sound, my God. Even in his sweet autograph to me in 1998 in my old Ace of Pentacles, he was concerned with lining up similar sounds:
 
                “Just To A Fan
                 John Wieners Fondly
                [@ John Wieners 1964 was printed here]
Offered to Ruth Epson
                  Exeter Street”
 
Sometimes Gerrit writes a gorgeous lyrical line: “The night is warm he walks the mountain road” (“Melanthus in the Mountains,” Working in the Lower Red Field). When mellifluous sounds are apt, he is the sorcerer who can create that spell.
 
Gerrit played tennis with John Ashbery weekly at Harvard. Once I saw Wieners, dressed as a woman, lying along the Charles River, cops questioning him. Tonight there will be a meteor shower, visible if the clouds dissipate. This, then, is what the two gentlemen have in common — a glimpse of the inexorable, the glorious and the beautiful, the terrible and the grand, the numinous. Or the knowledge of what Gerrit describes in his Thoreau essay, “the universe as a net of glittering jewels.” (A February Sheaf).
 
The differences:
 
Words and thoughts that come to mind when hearing Wieners: acute, raw, dissipated, aching, howling, feverish, clamoring, nocturnal, blindfolded with his eyes open, his colors red, purple, and black, like a glimpse of a peacock in the dead of night. Did he have to strain to see? An open question. Erotic yet with a tone more of longing then of titillation. Felt the pull of fate and destiny.
 
Gerrit’s language gives a sense of repose, spice, effervescence, concord, brightness, effulgence, sometimes seems crystalline, is balanced and proportionate. The erotic in him is high-toned in that it is one with all of life, alchemical: “We flow together like molten gold and molten gold” (“Alba” Working in the Lower Red Field); “This sex is more than sex, under the will of the God of sex” (“A Poem of Love in Eleven Lines,” Inscriptions). He adds grace notes, sings hymns, plays the flute. Sometimes the sax: “Whose joint? Pass me one, please” puns on the title “The Joint is Jumping” (Working in the Lower Red Field).
 
Admittedly, Gerrit lives in a world of magic, contentment, intellectual history, spirituality, and even publishing that Wieners when distraught may not have had access to. Like Blake, he knows that “The word of Sin was always Restriction” (“La p(l)age poetique”) and lives an unrestricted life to the degree one can in “the Vulgar Advent,” as he calls it in “Statement: How Set Was Conceived.” He locates his essay: “Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the Equinox of Fall,” noting that “To discover our spacetime address we must fix our position in time as well as in space” (“The Burden of Set #1”).

(And as with Louis Zukofsky, for Gerrit numbers have connections to the macrocosmic world: “is the number 18 / the tablets are empty / everybody’s crossed over / and no one has ever gone over” (“XVIII”) plays with the Hebrew chai, good fortune.)
 
Yet in the same essay, quoting Stevens, he reminds us that “poetry increases the feeling for reality” and in “La p(l)age poetique” that “Making the soul is always particular” and in these ways is in unity again with Wieners.
 
Yet neither is didactic. Both have the feel of flickers of the absolute, of visions obscured and sometimes revealed. Both are link-boys, who could be dangerous. Many couldn’t hold a candle to them.