To read Kenneth Irby is to experience the attentive gestures of perceptive life. As he observes (via Sir Thomas Browne): “To live indeed is to be again our selves … Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever.” Carl O. Sauer’s geographic and cultural sense of morphology informs the complex spiritual depth in Irby’s lucid writing. He is preoccupied with lands that have insisted on my attention, too: Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, California; so for me to read his poetry invites a sympathetic and friendly perspective, one constructed adjacently on the plains of the Midwest. A spiritual geography takes shape through the pressures of attention he gives to these regions. A body of love is extended by habits of perception, renewing affection for place through the careful pursuit of a feeling mind.
Irby’s writing, moreover, attempts to conjoin the visible and invisible terrains that confront him. A narrative adheres in the lyric accumulation of his art to reveal the dispersed self in words, something located beyond memory and beyond action. His art contributes a narrative of creative imaginings, advancing what Kenneth Burke once called a qualitative progression of formal appeal. Such arrangements are dispersed through echoes, returns, incongruent ruptures, restatements of key themes, paradoxes, and variances in the incremental movements that give art adherence, its present tense. While Irby’s work has appeared in small editions over several decades, the effect of reading The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962–2006 (2009) is like encountering a major symphonic event (the inspired romanticism of Frederick Delius informs with lush splendor the qualitative movement of the serial sequences here).
Irby upholds Charles Olson’s consideration of geography and North American space; Edward Dorn’s sense of the West as divided topography; Robert Duncan’s attention to spiritual depths and correspondences; Walt Whitman’s body of feeling as sexual gateway; and Nerval’s romanticizing power. While he draws on these figures to enable his art, Irby’s writing is devoted also to a body of feeling that is uniquely his own, one that attempts again and again to register the depth of home or homecoming “across the gap,” between phenomenal experience and the imagined realities superimposed on the sensuous textures of place. Throughout the restless search arranged in the body of his work, there is a primary sense of place as homeward recognition and recall in the variant pulsations of life.
Major themes, literary and geographic resonances, and proprioceptive acknowledgments were discussed in regards to Irby’s work by 1979. That year Robert J. Bertholf’s journal Credences devoted an issue to Irby’s writing. The biographic, textual, and historic particulars of the early poems are addressed with enthusiasm by luminaries of the period like Don Byrd, Thomas Meyer, Jed Rasula, Theodore Enslin, Robert Kelly, and others. For me now, 1979 stands out as a moment of the beginning of closure for the openness and investigations of the 1960s. Within a year Ronald Reagan would begin extending the dollar sign over everything, and a new pacing in poetic temperament in the US would start to take place, shifting emphasis away from the New American writing so firmly articulated with Donald Allen’s seminal anthology. Instead, a preference for the terms of the academy and the creative writing workshop would displace the expansive and speculative approaches seen in Normon O. Brown, Henry Corbin, Sherman Paul, and others who influenced much of the writing of the 1970s.
The forms of serial poetry initiated by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and notably taken up by Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Ted Enslin, Irby, and others, would settle into a literary background largely informed instead by the mashup of linguistic and cultural themes taken up in Language Poetry. 1979 was a gateway year, pivoting between the hippie, open experience of Kerouac’s road and a new institutionalized order of experience. But this, too, is an illusion, as all attempts to measure cultural value ultimately strand the argument in the limited perspective of the critic. Recall, for instance, Robert Duncan’s description of how Pound’s renewal of the image of Persephone was articulated as a cultural figure significant to that particular milieu in the early decades of the last century. Each generation takes from the previous necessary tropes and concerns. If Madam Blavatsky and the Order of the Golden Dawn influenced 1909 London and Paris the way Zizek has been distilled for us today, we begin to see how cultural motives are absorbed, traced, retracked, and finally abandoned for other concerns. Irby’s work straddles literary attention to the cultural geography associated with Black Mountain while also being pressured by the motives of a new era of cultural concern. More importantly, his writing is situated with resolve among the ravines, hillocks, fence posts, and skies of the West. If, as Guy Davenport argues, Pound used the Cantos to build a city “as the one clear conquest of civilization,” and Olson searched for home in the spiritual remains of Gloucester, Irby actualizes the open field, casting a watchful eye on the urban penetration and civil conquests of the rural West. He defines his poetics outside the city walls in fields of wheat and sunflower.
Irby’s writing after 1979 continues to trace the morphology of the continent established in books like Kansas–New Mexico, Relations, To Max Douglas, and Catalpa, but the qualitative progression of form registers new critical perspectives. Ridge to Ridge (Poems 1990–2000) takes place over a decade with the serial formality established in prior work, and attention correlates a body of love to the morphology of a landscape infused with personal narrative. Generally, the longer lines establish a thoughtful inquiry that attempts to narrow the distance between self and reality in a poetic language of homecoming. Surprisingly, however, Ridge to Ridge opens with an untitled section, establishing perspective from an interior hearth rather than the wider vistas suggested by the book’s title:
a life into a few vegetables set in a half-shadowed deep window frame
black dirt gloss across flame orange carrots, ivory sprouted filaments from
upcurved fennel and cardoon stalks
how long to sit there to be seen into the painting
how long the lemon cut before glazed over, and another
but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the
short hall to the feet, and through again (523)
The opening still life frames the poem, showing perspective of landscape narrowed to the window box garden in an almost ironic relationship to the larger geographic vistas of previous work. But these lines determine Irby’s concern also for the poem, for poetry and physical geography finally intersect in the affectionate correspondence of creative imaginings. In the following serial segment a question brings this firmly to light: “how far away do you have to be to see, to be able finally to hear / the poem / and of nobility in what is lost” (523)? The concerns in Ridge to Ridge largely consider this problem of perspective. Self-imposed distances, spiritual yearning and isolation, and the shamanic barter of social negotiations are all suggested as processes in Irby’s engagement with art. Poetry in this sense becomes a tool to reveal many kinds of perspectives, including visions of the self, the landscape, and the queer morphologies of a sublimated sexual knowledge.
The longing of sensuous desire is perhaps heard in the yearning song of the sailor in the Spanish ballad, “Romance de Conde Amaldos”: “cry out to the sailor who is singing it, ‘o tell it to me, tell it to me, please!’ / but he but only answers, ‘o no, this song I only tell to him who with me goes’ / / yo no digo esta canción / sino a quien conmigo va” (523). Sexuality is expressed as dynamic energy shared by those who are willing to take risks, to “him who with me goes.” The soul, expressed as the tension of singer and auditor in the ballad, activates sexual correspondence with the body, announced as “a gesture” that “is elsewhere than the palace of administration.” In Irby’s art, the power of imagination swells and consumes the nature of the poet, requiring an attention alien to administrative forms. It is a kind of shelter:
here there is a butterfly in the knowing of that shelter that would return
to change but being there together
ascent by ink and in the black ground black hidden metallic lusters
up out of each stroke of the pen (524)
The “stroke of the pen” into the “black ground black” suggests an erotic charge of energy required in the kind of active love Irby’s imagination requires. The longing for spiritual companionship finds determining forms in an “ascent by ink.” Sexuality is not confined to genital fucking, but pulses as creative urgency across time and distance. The erotic expression is adhesive, shaped by Olson’s sexually evoked notion of energy in the composition methods of “Projective Verse”: The poem for Olson, as for Irby, must “be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” The sexually descriptive account, with masculine pressure, reconnects Whitman’s amative aims in Leaves of Grass through a more aggressive and comprehensive totality of sexual potential. Male sensual energy, while not overtly presented by Irby, registers in the descriptive urgency of his dynamic and active engagement with the formal “bodies” of his poems.
The final stanza shifts gears dramatically in a qualitative progression, abandoning the long flowing lines of creative search in favor of more compact statements. A turn to memory restores the poet’s equilibrium, grounding Irby’s resources in imagination’s twin. Imagination and memory correspond with perception and history, internalized potentials in the self as they are transacted on the formal features of geographic terrain. Irby writes:
some high new tangerine wax fancy
or pink fluorescent twin of deep lament
of children’s coloring book on through a lifetime yet
bright warm clothes that are a rug to the empyrean
elytron opened through the solid trunk of driven sheet
wrapped close and then passed on
there could not be without that fancy now
that indirection of embellishment
to be most dignity and testament
crows take the crows take the over
to teach us insufficiency
heart-wrap skin to call exultant austerity
and spring open a redbird drop cut
tierce tierce tierce tierce tierce (524)
Here the earlier “nobility in what is lost” (523) is echoed by the “dignity and testament” of ancient knowledge, a corvine pedagogy based in certain Native American traditions where the figure of crow is that of the shape-shifter, keeper of ancient laws and folkways. Crow is believed to be guide to the supernatural, and so Irby’s concern here reveals a geographically focused intent on spiritual pathways through the calling forth of local figures of transformation. The “bright warm clothes” that barter passage to “empyrean” are terrestrially figured in the “elytron,” or shard, the hard insect wing that rhymes with the crow wings and redbird wings of spring. The “bright clothes” recall the “heart-wrap skin,” and so the formal relationships continually establish echoes in morphology of self-transformation. The final line, too, persists in aligning the spiritual with the animal (tierce is the third of seven canonical hours), dallying in the metaphoric calls of birds.
If perspective comes framed by a window in the opening poem sequence, “[vistas, over Lammas]” begins “down in the furrow” (525) — a harvest poem concerned with “measuring, across the gap” (526). Relations of earth and sky, continental migration, gender and family, genital grasping, art and administration (again) provide the primary thematic structure, but the poem’s incidental form largely coheres through metaphoric claims of a vision of late summer. The human body and the landscape are established in an abiding relationship, and in the narrative of the poem a magus figure appears in an active space of “grass walk heart.” An image of a writer appears on “the land behind the ruined barn … scarring the knees and shins, spattering ink on the knuckles, leaving sores on the wrist to time” (525). The poet-magus observes “the field’s body” beside that of
the last Bard, the last mantic poet, possessor of the secret, shared, and
essential history of the whole tradition and its magic
driven to the highest crag above the brilliant torrent of the boundary
time crack raging between the worlds, sunset grandeur of cataclysm
sweeping the cloudscape away behind
at bay defies the invading army come to exterminate all the Makers
into the disappearance
This figure of the Time Visionary (“possessor of the secret”) “defies the invading army” of “the palace of administration” (523), a metonymic value cast largely over systemic forms of thought, economy, and order that contrive for the disappearance of the “essential history” possessed by the “last Bard.” This figure presides later in the poem “by the light of the full moon and the stars of the Big Dipper,” in “the commune of workers in the field of vision, in the field of making” (526). Measurement “across the gap” (against “the torrent of the boundary”) later “opens to the Islands of the Blessed and Beyond the Blessed” (525). Such attention to measurement assures that “it is not lost” in the exterminating forms of administration attempting to arrest the mind of the magus-poet. The bardic claim persists in the visionary corpus of sensual America established by Whitman, but Irby’s sense of authority is presented differently. It’s not the bardic figure who controls “the secret,” but who establishes its relation instead in almost seasonal form as witness to the bodies of the earth. Knowledge of the secret adheres by “the month of the mother” and “the month of the father,” in a “measuring, across the gap” (525). Whitman’s construction of a “bardic ethos” in Leaves of Grass requires the assent of an audience in recognizing the poet as essential holder of wisdom. Irby, however, acknowledges bardic responsibility in the sensuous measurements and observations that are built on perspectives of witness and active creative participation. The dramatic difference in poetic conception ensures Irby’s gifts of coequal engagement with a world determined by his affinities for the open spaces of the West, and it spares him of the Whitmanic role of possessor of visionary power. In other words, Irby values an active participation in the creative topography of his landscape, whereas for Whitman, the power of utterance determines and orders a perverse asymmetry between poetic vision and the experience of reading in submission to the extraordinary and distant bard. Irby humanizes the role of poet while also determining new possibilities of bardic revelation.
The qualitative progression of the poem also disrupts bardic authority, inviting readings that appeal formally through an incongruent extension of terms that organize narrative according to key clusters of imagery. “[H]istory,” “tradition,” and “magic” are modified by “the highest crag,” establishing narrative through contrasts of form and symbolic relations that activate the “sunset grandeur of cataclysm.” Narrative form progresses for Irby through contrasts and sudden enjambed features of a poetic topography that finds its greatest expression in metaphoric statements and revisions. We therefore see the active form here as a series of possible motives or developments that bring satisfaction through the accumulating and shifting features that the poem generates as its own narrative engine.
Since Irby does not overstate the importance of the bardic seer, he’s better able to examine the cyclic wobble of earth’s forces, attending the morphological coherences that inform his work from the beginning. He moves from the cosmological argument of the poem to a sensuous description of a “young man barechested holding the surveyor’s rod” (525). And he goes “beyond the mown enfolded hayfield lined up with the telephone pole” and “disappears behind the lone / monumental sumac.” While the poem sequence opens with anxious quest on behalf of the bardic figure, the landscape and its inhabitants (and its imaginary orderings) are preserved in “body clasping body, across the gap.” These gaps are by nature everywhere in the landscape, but through love bodies reach out to bridge the inevitable distances. At stake there appears to be a resistance to the death of administration, the certainty of colossal separation. But it is also a significant recognition of the body of imagination, the creative “clasping” for the other in all its forms. The humble and humane figure of the bard seeks connection through form; he does not dominate it or the reader, but invites us to perceive according to an advanced stride in the measures of topographic and spiritual “gaps” unforeseen. It is “the heart’s seed” that concerns him, and he presents this seminal figure along, once again, with crows:
what can be known of the heart any more than of the colloquy of the
crows in the field out the window
three in a great triangle, walking
and one flown away, and returned, and their calling
or now in the root crease of the field, where they gather and glean
the heart’s seed
not lost (527)
These talismanic figures of the poem initiate the gathering and gleaning of “the heart’s seed.” They are animistic features that distill the earnest reaching of the bard within the frame of perception that gives form adherence. The poet is shape shifter, coordinated in animistic relations with land and beast. Crows, as birds holding the secrets, correlate with the notion of poet as gatekeeper, or minder of the gaps, initiating possibility through the gestures of affection performed for the apprehension of concerned readers. As the avian familiar of Odin, crows also relate to the poet as seer in Nordic traditions. The significance of these birds for Irby in this poem illustrates the kind of metaphoric threading or comparisons by relation important to his art.
The qualitative appeal of Irby’s serial writing is also in large part due to the sheer delight in language and the variation of rhythms and rhymes (or off-rhymes) he presents in a kind of jazz improv, where mind and ear conjoin into active participation. For instance, this stanza from “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow]” opens a sequence where the imaginative process of memory is disclosed as poetic form in a startling sequence dense yet jubilant in its arcs. The poem begins:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the wet lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
The enveloping darkness prior to one’s being (“the years”) correlates the “new unknown,” breaking out of the “heart wrap skin” (524) that here becomes “old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations of memory.” The sequence, with its abrupt shifts and surprising turns, metaphoric density, and rhythmic aplomb, initiates witness of the self as something that coheres in the forms and images (symbolic forces) that testify through the (often fuzzy) recall of memory. The process activates as “unpredictable calling,” and in the language of the poem, with its symbolic densities and formal progressions, a semblance of what a self might be comes into a new kind of being. The projective elements here certainly recall Olson’s sense of projective verse, where the mind and the body like a jazz musician unite in quick, temperamental pursuits of “the new unknown,” to make it, not, perhaps, known, but activated as spiritual action.
Much of the work in Ridge to Ridge tries to address these dense relations of form through the image of home. The memories worked up into a present tense in the poem activate a sense of home as the accumulation of what is willed into the present through memory. If what we know is wound through a vortex of experience, sensory pulses, applied uses of culture and its forms of language, what coheres as home — as our own? I’m not talking about an ownership as identity — but as spiritual revelation of the common terms of our humanity. Whether it’s Pound’s Wagadu, the Soninke legendary city existing only in the heart, or Olson’s figure of the man with a house on his head, the notion of home retains for Irby a primary feature of identity and process. To see “ridge to ridge” or vista-by-vista is to be constantly active in attention to horizons that come into view and pass away. The past experiences of self arrive and then fade as time frames our passages through diverse situations. For Irby, personal experience is prior to one’s life advancing as creative form, and so home is also homage, an engagement with the distant figures of the imagination that composes the far vista of one’s being. Speaking of Mayan culture and the relationships that adhere across time, Irby recalls observations by Sauer of the centrality of corn, beans, and squash to the ancient diet of the Americas. But this leads him to consider Mayan forms of play, which open up a sense of play in his own “obligation to sustain” as poet-maker:
day care to high school to nursing home, the central corn stalk on the hill
of beans and squash
with its fish and seed, up the spinal column of the hemisphere, the ball
game of the continents
where the directions mesh in play, hole and ear, fiber and hair
become first concert
what play, to be consulted on?
the old grande dame of silk and wool, first dancer once, choreographer of
the lost Pinar once
teacher in the continuance, sun-to-come-up necessary dance with that
same necessary song
a child inherits and knows the obligation to sustain, homage
questions, have you?
between the reflections in the water and the incessant tremor, the short
sharp intake of breath at each intensity
each scarred knuckle smeared the same ecstatic shine (530)
The “dance” and “song” of intercultural, interpersonal progression sustain homage in the “ecstatic shine” of the artist’s visionary intensity. The insistence on vision as the inheritance of lore, dance, and song lets Irby transmit a sense of place as wholly fused with the intent on observation and willful action in the art of attention. The moral obligation of the artist, Irby suggests, is to perform with creative skill and discipline so that a world may be known in the play of its forms. Otherwise, there is no homecoming, no perception of the complex inherence that competes for attention in the process of what we call a world. Without instruments of dance, song, or play, we are limited to imposed claims of what our place in a world can be. Irby continues:
what makes you think you are not in prose because you do not know the
it is not melancholy, it is not sadness, it is not lament, but the shape and
trace of distance
is that release? is that what the concern is about homecoming, about
what home is? itself homage
where some kids have never seen an instrument to play at all, and some
adults never known the means of their production
the black ungained bottom of their unexceptioned conjugal necessity
Home is “homecoming,” a return from “the shape and trace of distance,” one’s own unwinding into the spiritual forms through which life takes shape. An invisible morphology runs parallel to that of the visible geographic and cultural morphologies. While these themes appear in earlier books, the critical gesture of the 1990s is to speak with greater frequency about what is risked in homecoming, and the larger failures of neglecting home as the symbolic frequency of one’s arrival into self-awareness. Such an account of homecoming is shoved by “memory’s emptiness / how space and time bulge with so much wanting of / until it is whatever direction is, direction as, directionless / except not-here, except all-here” (531). He speaks of a “cultivation impossible to cultivate,” acknowledging that “memory’s emptiness” is precursor to other paths, “direction as … directionless,” an “all day nakedness and coming on the edge of to explore … ” (531).
Homecoming as the ritual of youth returning to the alma mater becomes the metonymic value for something much greater in Irby’s work. A hieros gamos, a marriage of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the profane and the sacred, emerge when
out there the first home football game fills the town
in here the same shared inner track is celebration
alchemy is each pulvinus, transmutation of the touch to be like light
a paperclip is the mountain top, and the football game, whistling up
there, but to be water and its transformation out
won in the pines’ sound, lost in the pines’ sound, sound in the knobnut
leapt for and gulped
so for the marriage past, far to the Northland gone
this is the night mail, crossing
the border (533)
Such a marriage for Irby in “September Set” involves “the sphincter of arousal in the brain.” This is “pilgrimage,” from carnal flesh and mind, unified form. Here, “time is the life of the soul as it passes from one state of act and experience to another and is not outside it” (534). States of experience like “solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision.” (537). These states are shared as supernatural urgencies in “the rock ring jell in the eyes of the crow, in the cry of the jay / brought around” (541). The constant chorus of the work is renewed: “come enter again return” (544). While lovely phenomenal details of landscape are activated in the poems, the concern for Irby is with a sense of magical self-transformation — not particularly a willful change in the character of the self, but an inevitable progression of form that is in constant variance, pressure, environmental stress, and formation. In “[étude homage, Religio Medici]” he writes: “How we outlive our notions of ourselves / and never know the others in there all along / give them away, become them / only at a stretch imagine / and the stretch is good” (556). The stretch, the bodily motion, tempers spiritual concern, the inevitable patterns and mysteries of one’s variances.
By “[Ides],” the final poem of Ridge to Ridge, the “transitional affluence of life itself” gives way to grief “and wanting to watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world / to juxtapose to and let the forgetting forget itself for a while” (561). The problem of memory and forgetting, as for Augustine, interferes with a more truthful vision of what remains just beyond perceptive apprehension. The poems in this sequence, unlike others prior to it, begin to acknowledge the invisible, internal landscape that precedes and extends beyond one’s limited abilities to retrieve and process an experience and knowledge. Instead, there is a yearning to “watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world.” Such Gnostic sensitivity admires bodily form, but also entrusts perspective to a creative, generative potential just beyond reach of that bodily apparatus.
Ultimately it is the essential mysteries and purifications that possess Irby’s imagination. His writing pressures an easy sense of perception in contemporary contexts. He performs ways of knowing and seeing, measuring and valuing. His performances in poetry enact basic conditions in art that reveal, shape, renew, and reorient attention of dynamic objects in equally dynamic spatial fields. The advance Irby makes on the New American poetry is through the humble position of the bardic figure who refuses the role of tribal boss. Exemplification and the ongoing task of poetic labor figure much more predominantly. Irby’s work invites readers to measure their own readings by an effusion of art that makes both music and narrative of shared human experiences. Such an art in narrative can expand the capacities of readers by taking the qualitative progression of formal appeal as the defining feature of serial relationships. In this Irby has always been generous, though in Ridge to Ridge the views are reduced, quieted, eased forth with critical self-awareness. Through a qualitative progression that relies on a renewal of images, phrases, talismanic figures, and scenes of homecoming, Irby establishes a narrative sequence that provides intense pleasure as lyric offerings, but that also confronts readers with an essential story of change, strategies of perception and of being, and, especially, with an appreciation for the renewal of life in the constant flux of landscape. I have been privileged to read Irby for many years, and to speak with him, and to see the Kansas of his imagination. Such geographic necessity informs the heartland of awareness.
1. Syllogistic progression: advancement step by step (example: mystery stories)
2. Qualitative progression: like foreshadowing — advancement of narrative through echoes, returns, approximate relationships based on nonsyllogistic sequences (much poetry, including Irby’s serial forms, progresses in this way)
3. Repetitive form: restatement of the same thing in different ways
4. Conventional form: forms an audience takes for granted (stories with beginnings, middle, ends)
5. Incidental form: metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, etc — any of the small components that sustain a narrative
Additionally, forms can be interrelated or be in conflict. Most of the narratives we encounter are composed of conventional and nonconventional elements; they advance at times through syllogism, at others through amplification of dominant themes; their metaphorical components often produce closure or paradox, challenging our ability to intervene with our own presuppositions of form. I use this sense of qualitative progression as a way to understand serial poetry, and also as a way to address the progression of Irby’s narrative sequences.
2. See Credences 7 (February 1979), ed. Robert J. Bertholf (Kent, OH: Credences Press). Other contributors include: Eric Mottram, George Quasha, Charles Stein, Paul Metcalf, Reginald Gibbons, George Butterick, David Bromige, Paul Kahn, John Moritz, Bob Callahan, Linda Parker, Mark Karlins, Larry Goodell, Roy Gridley, and a bibliographic “checklist” by Robert J. Bertholf.
4. Following Olson and Dorn, Irby continued adjacently to pursue cultural and topographical patterns in the environment in ways Carl O. Sauer describes in his influential essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” which determined not only the disciplinary concerns of cultural geography but also motivated many of the New American poets. In essential ways, it laid the foundation for a midcentury poetics, particularly in the West, which was based on attention to the ecology and environment in a creative and physical sense. See “The Morphology of Landscape,” Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
6. See for instance Jeffrey Walker’s argument about the asymmetrical relationship between the bardic poet and his (largely his) audience in Bardic Ethos and the American Poem: Whitman, Pound, Crane, Williams, Olson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
The most important books always got to me through the hands of a friend. I don’t know who put Ken Irby’s Catalpa into my grasp but I suspect Benjamin Friedlander. In the 1980s when we both lived in the Bay Area, Ben was generally out ahead in knowing who was writing the poetry we would need to look towards as we fashioned an emerging sense of our own practice. Many poets in my pantheon I owe to him giving me a book. The flat textured blue cover of Catalpa, with only a title and author’s name and a burnt-orange-colored medallion — half of it a flower or a half peyote button or some such design, done in the publisher Lee Chapman’s hand — looked handmade enough to make the book seem a cryptic discovery, but substantive enough to say, here’s a poet who has done some good, Projectivist work.
Catalpa opens with a dense “In Place of a Preface,” mostly quotes and dictionary definitions of land, landscape, plant, and place: four terms that have dawned with huge importance for a number of us who write what we loosely think of as an ecologically informed poetry. Equally salient in this little orienting note was citation of, and a thinking-through of, ideas from ecologist Edgar Anderson, geographer Carl Sauer, and poet Charles Olson. (I knew the work of all three from significant Turtle Island publications brought out by Bob Callahan.) Irby also cites Matsuo Bashō, Osip Mandelstam, and Jorge Luis Borges, so the book promises wide-open poetry culture spaces too.
Catalpa falls into three sections of poems, the first titled “Berkeley.” This section is site-specific to California Alta — the great north coast and rolling hills, the wide Central Valley, all the crackling vegetation of the region — with precise evocations of places that had come to sit deep in my own psyche. Point Reyes, Strawberry Canyon, Marysville, the Sacramento Valley. Recognizing what I now see as a bioregional approach, Ken’s “Berkeley” defines a cultural and natural area that stretches north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and pokes over the crest of the Sierra Nevadas to the east. Historic personages rub against contemporaries in his pages — Sir Francis Drake, scout and mountain man Jedediah Smith, alongside friends named Eileen, Kelly, or Shao. Chinese ideograms occur on a few pages. Modern poets show up, some I knew something about, and some I’d not yet encountered. All this scholarship and care set into vivid street-smart lines:
circles and seeks
in the long map of California
along the Central Valley
keeping the corners out
I think this poem may have been the first time I ever saw a poet use the word watershed. History also came alive, in a way poetry had not done it for me previously. “Point Reyes Poem, 2” opens with Irby scratching a bad case of poison oak on his legs. That act leads back to Francis Drake and his British sailors, who call their California territory New Albion after they’d made landfall on the shores of Point Reyes, “past Limantour spit,” tromping the unfamiliar hillsides. In a distinct Irby gesture, the poem concludes:
what plants did Drake see growing here
that still grow here?
Turns out he and those other rough explorers came away blistering with the tarry plant (Toxicodendron) that every local knows to be careful of:
poison oak certainly
his men must have itched from
infernally, though Albion
we share across 400 years
the haze of fluid, sap
the blisters raised and lymph
on equal, heedless bodies
I’d never encountered something that made the local both comic and sacred like this, that provided my own summertime rashes of poison oak a four-hundred year backdrop. At the time I could most likely only say with awkwardness what I got out of Ken Irby’s lines, or what I hoped to emulate. But in the 1990s I would come across the term bioregion, and after that learn to stand by phrases like eco-zone, watershed, drainage system, plant community, and the like. This is the book, Catalpa — perhaps Lorine Niedecker’s poetry and Joanne Kyger’s were the other models — that showed how poetry can be made from the carefully investigated local.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, not long after receiving Catalpa, I was asked to give a poetry reading with Ken Irby in San Francisco at Canessa Park, a former bank or insurance building down the street from City Lights bookshop and Brandi Ho’s Szechuan restaurant. What an honor. Ken and I struck up a friendship at the event. We began to exchange letters. I treasure the hoard of letters Ken wrote me: dense, tightly packed, rife with information on books, poets, music, botanical detail, Great Plains culture, medieval philosophy. Once when I moved briefly to another house, Ken wrote, “what plants do you see outside your window?”
My copy of Catalpa has a postcard from Ken, which I’ve used for a bookmark since 1988. It shows a Chinese bodhisattva sculpture — a famous one, of painted wood — from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Ken selected the icon to fit with my Sanskrit and Zen studies no doubt. Just to give a flavor of his intense correspondence I’m going to quote from the postcard. About halfway through, after various greetings and personal updates, he writes —
A glorious spring for flowering here, esp. trees, the various prunus, the redbud (Cercis canadensis — flowering Judas) — & now lilac, too, early & profuse (along with Verras of late — O Walt! & Duncan: What if — lilacs last in this dooryard bloomed?) — in (undecipherable) last weekend even my uncle’s tree peony, transplant from Mississippi, was in bloom — o Li Shang-yin! Very glad you’ve been in touch with Gerrit, who speaks well, warmly, of yr rich letters — I trust you will see him when you, he tells me, go to Boston, next month is it? He also spoke of a reading for you via Michael Franco at Tapas, where the Duncan Memorial was held — may all go well! Let me hear what you’ve heard of the SF RD reading — I’ve had no word yet —may all be green & lush & a-flower w/ you all! LOVE
Ken’s fountain pen hand is not too hard at first glance to read. But it turns out that its density and the pronounced flourishes and serifs make a great many words tough to decipher, slowing you down enormously. Typically his full letters would go a couple of tight single-space typewritten pages (in the very small font-size his typewriter had), then as he broke off to sign the letter he would add margin notes, then long looping addenda that wound around the pages; then he’d begin to write where the typewriter left off, and another page or two of his compact handwritten words would come. I used to think it would be a good idea to go through each letter and type out his handwritten material so when I wanted to reread the letters I could go quicker.
Letter writing is now a cryptic, all but vanished art. Ken was one of its great exemplars.
If you look at the above half-a-postcard you’ll see its density. It gives the names of three plants — (“dignify things by giving them their names” Joanne Kyger once told me). Ken dignifies one plant with three names: the popular, the Linnaean, and a vernacular. He also names five poets, two of them friends of ours; mentions a reading series; makes a riff on a Whitman line; and quite genuinely inquires about two memorials recently held for Robert Duncan — (pc. dated 21 April 1988, about three months after the older poet’s death). It all feels utterly human.
My daughter Althea had been born a week after Robert Duncan’s death. I remember when I wrote Ken of her birth and told Ken her name was Althea Rose, he alerted me to the Althea rosea, citing the stunningly complete horticultural dictionary Zukofsky had used for 80 Flowers — a set of books I wish I had the discipline to study. The althea is the common hollyhock, Ken said, with family connections to the mallow, the rose of Sharon, and many other mostly medicinal plants. (One Greek meaning of althea is healer.) Only Ken would have taken occasion to study up these facts and load a letter with his discoveries. Thanks to his efforts this became part of my family mythology.
These types of precise study are what Ken Irby has long represented to me, a comradeship in poetry that is based on passionate friendship, close reading of texts, and direct contact with the orders of nature, with babies, and with Islamic philosophers. The center of his poetry remains for me that first book I was given: Catalpa. What I needed at the time were poems I could check out with my own eyes.
Indian Summer in Berkeley means
the fogs come back in October
At the time I was reading everything I could from the early, indigenous poetry of California, and found in Ken’s book material that might have been reworked from the notebooks of Alfred Kroeber or Jaime de Angulo. Possibly Ken received much of his work in a vision.
My head rolls on the rim of the world
My eyes are not what I see with
In the basket, in the valley
In the creek bed under the water
Ken Irby's atlas to the world
Poetry icon Kenneth Irby creates texts of sensory topographies — and so he has changed technology of the page. I remember his long-time publisher John Moritz of Tansy Press fussing about Irby’s long lines and the gap-toothed spacings and typography and original illustrations — all the ways Irby pushed the limitations of ink, paper, and bindings. This was decades ago, and I still see John grumbling as he midwived some of the most remarkable writing of our time. Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On (from North Atlantic Press), covers forty-four years, 1962 to 2006. The squarish, dense tome is blocky and weighty until opened. Then dynamic axes of typography rise from inert materials to create a map at least the size of the known world.
Irby is particular about the way his verse looks on the page, how it sounds in the ear, and what stories refire with his calibrated vocabularies. Because the printed page is stationary, it changes context as time moves around it. When performed, many variables arise; whether silent or performed, no reading is the same river of words. Irby exploits the paradox of composed verse, its simultaneous dynamism and stasis. George Butterick uses the term “interwoven incremental associations” to describe Irby’s in-motion structures. Words do not suspend in coequal solutions; rather, they impel engagement. They locate readers in geographies of real and confabulated places. Pierre Joris identifies the twinning of real and imagined territory in Irby’s work as “congruence between that dizzyingly wide open outside SPACE (as Olson spelled it) and a just as wide and even more unexplored (at least by me) post-Rimbaldian, post-Artaudian inner space.” Irby himself describes the design of one of his long poems (“Kansas–New Mexico”) as “spokes of a wheel, the center, hub, of which is never given, only implied.” A brief selection of “spokes” in an Irby piece are: storytelling; the body itself as an extended geography; allusions to writers and artists; etymologies; letters/glyphs/images; and complex page layouts. His pages are strata of artifacts arranged in spatial suspension. Space, lettering, punctuation, glyphs and layout all contribute to Irby’s unique imprints.
Excerpting Irby’s poems is particularly difficult because of the resulting truncation of broad arcs. Nonetheless, here is a later swatch of “To Max Douglas”:
The survey baseline of Northern California
anchors on Mt Diablo
the survey spread of the hand
held out, the nakwach
half, leans on the line on through the eyes
what all trace you make
moving through one whole day
there is an equivalence of hair
for all those weeks Jed Smith
tracked North along the Sacramento River (199)
All these pathways lead back to the human body — “spread of the hand,” “the eyes,” and “hair.” Jedediah Smith, another throughline of the long poem, is the first settler American to travel up the Pacific coast to Oregon, and here the journey of his body across the map traces a trail, a nautical “tack.” The orientation of surveyed land overlays the geologic — two sliding rockbeds that form, in Irby’s large view, “the hand / held out” (the body as landscape, again) and the Hopi “nakwach” image. This indigenous image represents two men shaking hands (from a dance gesture); it can be abstracted in designs as overlapping curves or interlocking, angular curves.
In parallel to this glyph, Mount Diablo lies at the convergence of upthrust and slipthrust fault lines. Its peaks appear as a double pyramid from most Bay-Area viewpoints. Irby suggests all these aspects in one polysemic image. So Irby evokes spatial experience with images and references. This content dictates the form.
I posit that no piece of Irby’s opus does not reference a place, and most directly, as the titles iterate: “Kansas–New Mexico,” “The Grasslands of North America” and “the headland of lesser Asia.” Irby is an omnivore of place, from humble to grand: yards (“The roadrunner that crossed my yard,” ); sewers (“Moss in the gratings / of a sewer vent,” ); famous mountains (“West in the mist / Tamalpais’ top floated,” ); sidewalks (“the sidewalks are all dried out after the rain,” ); and parking lots (my favorite: “I had talked to Denise Low in Alvin’s parking lot that evening,” ). Indeed, his places include the sweep of continent:
circles, and seeks
in the long map of California
along the Central Valley
keeping the corners out
open toward New Mexico
and the High Plains North, old
watersheds East and back again
of the spirit journey
looking for home. (270)
The “spirit journey / looking for home” is Odysseus, is Irby, is each of us traveling through cosmic sequence. This as-the-crow-flies view encompasses the American continent west to east, culminating in the imaginative place of “home.” Space is the first principle of home. These places are the primary glyphs on the page, implied if not drawn: cardinal directions.
Charles Olson writes further geography as meta-image. Physical expanses challenge Americans, who must contemplate journeys even if they remain static:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. … Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted.
Irby is both a rider and a staked man, according to critic John Latta, “[a]nd Irby, one thinks, in a sod house, dug in and mount’d, traversing (“uncertain wandering”) the oceanic prairie.” Static and dynamic, fixed and mutable. These are continuous and contradictory motions in Irby’s prosody. For Irby, geography is ever present, as part of his sedimentation. His lines are physical objects, as Mike McDonough describes:
As Irby’s lines pile into strata, seemingly geologic forces fracture the layers and puncture the boundaries between dream, myth, and reality. Fossilized particulars are pushed in by the waves and stranded by the outgoing tide like trash on the beaches of our attention, opening surprising vistas into “that endlessness of everyday / this is precisely eternity.”
This attention to strata shapes all of Irby’s works.
No detail of the Irby books is haphazard. The poet selects punctuation marks deliberately, and he selects his own marks, omitting others. In “To Max Douglas,” for example, Irby indicates pauses to readers by using commas. He questions (a question mark appears in “Interstate 80?,” for example), but nowhere in the poem does he stop. He never uses a period, and so constant dynamism occurs in apparently resting landscapes:
Interstate 80? especially the arch
under the arch of the ribcage the redwood seedling sprouts
the year of living in California nurture its garden in the heart
as well as Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw
all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision
as on the palm, or heart beat
strings across the belly pit of the Basin West (201)
The lines are continuous, unstopped, like the fractal infinity of physicality. Freud’s “superimposed in one vision” of multiple ages is exactly Irby’s point, and the question mark destabilizes the certainty of linear space — the highway. The lack of a final end stop further reopens all meanings. Elsewhere Irby uses brackets, dashes, quotation marks, underlining, hyphens, colons, three small stars in a row, italics for emphasis, and long lines. Lots of brackets, by the way, but no periods, ever, not even for abbreviations. I do not find semicolons, either — the punctuation mark that is a soft period. Irby selects his own signage from the toolbox of type. All marks on an Irby page, however, lead to the most unresolved organic experience, inhabitation of a body, which experiences one final period — in death. At all other times, the body, and mind, are in motion, like Irby’s verse. I have not found a period in any of the verse of The Intent On, excluding prose pieces.
Irby needs more than the Roman alphabet to explain his expansive ideas. In addition to nakwach, he references other Native glyphic traditions in a petroglyph-inspired section of Catalpa. The frontmatter acknowledges sources of images:
Other drawings are by the author, some based upon reproductions of petroglyphs and pictographs found in these works: Campbell Grant, Rock Art of the American Indian (New York, 1967); Peggy Schaafsma, Rock Art in New Mexico (Albuquerque, 1975); Forrest Kirkland and W. W. Newcomb, Jr., The Rock Art of Texas Indians (Austin, 1967). (246)
Most of these are anthropomorphic — stressing again the human form as a reference point.
Irby also uses Chinese characters within his alphabetic texts. A quotation of Lao Tzu is among the opening inscriptions for Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories, in both characters and English translation (411). The prose section of Catalpa that begins “The students from Cracow leave” includes an Asian glyph — the Chinese character hsin or mind/heart (335). The symbol is drawn with four or sometimes three brushstrokes shown here.
This symbol is one he annotates in the same poem: “February piercing the heart and setting the pericardium afire till it walked, a striding burning hsin, mind/heart, becoming in the stretch of distance and snow, such an eye” (335).
In Irby’s own drawings, which often accompany his inked signatures of books, he often adds his own character, a circled dot with three teardrops below. These resemble the three downward strokes of the hsin, perhaps, but I hesitate to limit any mark by Irby to denotative strictures. The polysemic nature of his images within the poetry extends to these glyphs.
In the original edition of Call Steps, and its reprint in The Intent On, the three teardrops appear after the obituary notice of James Malin:
These accentuate heartfelt grief expressed for the death of the esteemed Plains historian. Irby is innovative in his extension of possible marks on the page. Discussion of glyphs appears in Olson’s Mayan Letters, but that poet does not integrate glyphic figures into his verse.
Irby reaches beyond conventional typography to use, often, a circled star (✪) as a section divider, with subsections divided with small, vertical diamonds: ♦. A few variations occur. In the 1992 edition of Call Steps, the stars are simple asterisks. As early as 1971 and 1974, the circled star ✪ appears in the first two editions of To Max Douglas, and in 2009, it or the diamond consistently replaces asterisks from previous editions in all of The Intent On. If a reader is lucky to have Irby sign a book, Irby embellishes his remarkable commentary with small drawings, almost always with this circled star ✪. Here are three examples from my collection, one from a 1984 typescript poem marginalia (“[exercitation / praecipere]” ); “[syzygos],” a 1999 “chaplet” from Arcturus Editions (552); and the other from an envelope from a personal letter dated 2005.
This symbol reappears consistently through the decades. In recent conversation, Irby suggested this symbol references, though is not confined to, Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian man, who has ideal proportions.
The circled dot also is a repeated Irby wingding, added to his signature and to book inscriptions. It is an astrological symbol for the sun and alchemical symbol for gold.
Rosicrucians say it is a fertilized egg, and/or a focus of spirit in the body. For Irby it changes meanings as contexts change, and I would not reduce it to any one of these cultural allusions. Other symbols used for accent or section divisions are an outlined star (“From Some Etudes,” Tansy 9, 1978); solid dot (“For the Snow Queen,” Tansy 1, 1976); and a symbol I cannot describe in the original edition of Orexis,
replaced by a solid dot in the collected poems. The circle and angular strokes resemble the O and X of the title Orexis, the Greek word for desire. Yin and yang are easy associations. Most interesting of all Irby’s typography is the image from the back cover of Orexis, where Irby’s own image becomes a glyph:
This embeds his own roundish face within the letter O — created by photo-collagist Susan Quasha, from a photograph by Charles Stein. Body and typography merge. Although the poet did not create this glyph, he consented to it, and the image reinforces the theme of body connected to the writing, not the Cartesian separation of mind and body.
So Irby extends the technology of the page to include his own handwritten commentary, journals, and drawings — original or reproduced from the printer’s tray. And so the inscribed page becomes another aspect of the poet’s body. Margins and edges of pages do not limit Irby’s process of conversation. He writes/draws in an open, unified field, where his own life experience is integral.
Irby also uses his own larger drawings as visual commentary in some of the publications, as frontspieces or dividers (pp. 92, 144, 155, 562, for example). The drawings are intrinsic to the book composition. They modify the printed object in terms of Irby’s own invented syntax. The page is the place where the reader’s body touches the collection of thoughts sent through time from Kenneth Irby. Another example of his artwork is on the back cover of The Intent On, an abstracted, full-color drawing of hills, dated “7 April 00,” from his journals.
Some years ago Irby showed me one of his journals, and I marveled at the drawings peppered through the text. I recall he said that he made a drawing each day, if at all possible. Output from his hands, alphabetic or illustrative, contributes to one continuous drawing, which is his life work. Each Irby page has its own intrinsic composition, and this handwritten inscription shows one mode:
This is the front endpaper to my copy of Ridge to Ridge, and the open page seems designed for inscription: “This is Denise’s copy / love ✪ Ken / at the Raven / the night of snow & ice / & the reading of / John Moritz & Ken Irby / some fandangos & / rips & raps / & zips & zaps / all the years / in deep share / & ever onward! / [circled dot] / Lawrence / 1 Mar [circled dot over three teardrops] 2002.” The volume is not complete without an individualized inscription. Irby reaches as an individual to each individual reader.
Here is an example of the layout designed with a space for the author to be completed with inked inscription:
Each Irby page, whether printed or handwritten, has its own composition, specific to the day and place — a more Mayan sense of time being a sequence of unique bundles rather than repeated days. Olson, speaking of Mayan thought, wrote: “Time, in their minds, was mass & weight.” If there were hours enough, I suspect he would hand-draw each copy of each book.
When limited mostly to the Roman alphabet and selected punctuation, Irby uses a painter’s sense of composition. Here is the centerfold of “From Some Etudes,” set by Moritz for Tansy Press in 1978:
The words gain interrelationship, emphasis, reframing, and depth from not just the white space but also the four-pointed arrangement on the page. The stanzas weight the corners and so accentuate the dimension of a page. This creates an abstracted, symmetrical presentation of alphabetic language. This could be a John Cage musical score or a diagram or a map. Layout of Irby’s work is a topic for longer discussion than this commentary.
Etymology is another axis of Irby’s work. I read his writings as a young woman, and from them I learned respect for other language systems. Stranded at the very center of the continent during the twentieth century, in Kansas, this was no minor awakening. I acquired a smattering of Latin, French, and Greek from college, and these helped me to excavate layers of Irbydom. Etymologies resonate obliquely or as direct hits. They often affect the layout, as in “In Place of a Preface” (Catalpa), which is an extended definition of “Land,” “Scape,” “Landscape,” “Plant,” and “Place” (249–52). Indeed, these specific word histories resonate throughout the book Catalpa. The arrangement of this piece shows the dictionary-like composition of the lines:
The layout is recognizable immediately as “definition,” a visual cue as identifiable as a phone book or the Bible. The poet selects from the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, processing them into his own typographic formations. Greek, Latin, Spanish, and many other languages appear in the opus.
The catalogue of Irby’s places, people, flora, and fauna is exhaustive. I have come to visualize his chosen writers as points on a parallel-dimension directory, the great multidimensional structure of time and place that preserves writers’ birthplaces and birth dates. Those who know Irby know his celebration of birthdays of every great personage. Additionally, every book Irby has read is located in this literary timescape. Over the years I have had the privilege of extended conversations with Ken, and I have come to recognize some of the stations along the way. That is the best I can hope for. George Quasha notes Irby’s “availability of memory” in the poetics, and this is another angle of traction: “The use and subversion of memory is therefore a key to his work, establishing a strange complementarity active in the mind of the Reader. Now you are asked to remember a promising or luminous detail, now you are oddly thwarted.” Readers follow Irby intimately, through his physicality and individuality. We share his atlas for good long moments, yet we must remain separate, indeed “thwarted.” But then, we may reopen pages and resume connections.
The Intent On is a work of “mixed genres,” beginning with publications in the 1960s — long before the fashionable term came into use in the late 1980s and ’90s. Definitions, notes, prose poems, travelogue, diary, unsent letters, elegies, geographies, dedications, drawings, glyphs, the balance of white space to black markings, and more combine into one cloth. The consistency of narrative voice holds all these texts in orderly orbit, and that voice is amazingly steady through the decades.
From Irby I learn space as not simply empty distance, or blanks on a page, but rather essential to intervals among landmarks. The physicists call distance “black space” and explain it as an irreducible quantity like time and mass. This rhythmic order is what Irby understands so well. He embraces specificities and arranges them into patterns, newly created each day. This is a manifestation of his love for the given, manifested world, from the Berkeley Hills to Olson’s Gloucester to Denmark — with the Great Plains at the center. Irby’s opus is, like any map, subject to the micro-lens of fratals. Upon close examination, trajectories can unfold endlessly, and this paper suggests only a few. This is the frustration of an atlas; it can never be complete. But then that allows for the slippage, the human creation of reality through typographic representations of topography. Each reading of reality, with its unique compass setting and moment on the clock, energizes a new morning of creation.
February 2, 2012
2. Pierre Joris, “Kenneth Irby: The Intent On,” Nomadics: meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too(blog), December 13, 2009.
4. Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009). [The page numbers of quotations from The Intent On are hereafter indicated in parentheses in the main text. — Eds.]
6. John Latta, review of The Intent On, by Kenneth Irby, Isola Di Rifiuti (blog), March 30, 2010.
7. Mike McDonough, “the back / calm pasture of the mind” (review of The Intent On), Coldfront, April 13, 2011.
It would seem that Kenneth Irby and his work have forever been firmly located — not to say nailed down — in what Robert Duncan called “Irbyland,” i.e. the great American plains or grasslands with Fort Scott and/or Lawrence, Kansas, as bio-hub. Thus, in his first letter to Irby, Robert Duncan sorts out them apples from them oranges by suggesting that “you [Ken Irby] assigned yourself the grasslands” while he, Robert Duncan, assigned himself the European in the form of the “medieval,” via Kantorowicz, an “acolyte of the George circle.” Duncan goes on to suggest that “[a]s in your grasslands you are searching rightly for what a poem is to be in another ‘poem’ — the winds, the grass, the plains will tell you (makers of a horizon you’ve known, I’ve only seen idly in passing) what I can’t about beginning and end of ‘form.’”
It would also be easy enough to see in Irby’s work an extension/continuation — or better, an expansion and a deepening — of Olson’s concerns for the American space, which does indeed come large on this continent, and very large in Irbyland. One could thus read it even as the work on the West and the Great Plains Olson proposed at some point but didn’t do himself. A sympathetic critic such as Eric Mottram will make this link central and explicit: “The taste of Olson was pretty strong,” he writes, suggesting that Irby’s problem in the early poems was “to shift usages of Olson’s procedures … which in some places take over his own voice” while the “better poems” make good use of “the ellipses and discontinuities of Olson’s gap-jumping lyric for a much calmer end.” And indeed, in a 1971 poem based on a dream, Irby imagines Olson on his home terrain: “So Olson did come through Fort Scott / hitchhiking to Denver in the early 50’s, // with some of his students from Black Mountain / not Dorn as I had thought.” This enables him, at least in the poem, to meet Olson back then in the drugstore, where the elder poet sets young Irby a task:
… part of it was
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
In this imagined task, Irby suggests, the thrill was “finding out about all those // lines of continuity across the country / that went through Fort Scott // on off the world.” That task would indeed be very close to what Olson set himself in the Maximus. But even here I sense a push beyond Olson’s New England project in the barefoot high schooler’s (holding the The Boys Book of Chemistry) projected interest in “an era // I wanted to know of my town as / much as alchemy to make // the same transmutings now / Fort Scott’s hidden flower, gold // was opening before that war.” But by the time “you” (the imagined Olson of the poem) showed up with his instructions, “I was on my way / to internationale // attentions.”
The view, it is my argument here today, of Irby’s work as a simple or even complex extension of Olson’s quest seems too limiting to me, diminishing the achievement by proposing too reductive a reading. And if in my title I used a phrase that recalls Edward Dorn, it is not so much for the jaundiced eye with which Dorn gazed at that turbine (which he saw nearly exclusively as commerce moving clockwise) but as a more cultural turbine moving counterclockwise — thus making it a countercultural turbine? — and enriching the dustbowl soils of America. Or maybe this turbine is closer to Henry Adams’s “dynamo,” though then one would have to read a near-Hegelian “Aufhebung” in Irby’s version of the “Virgin and the Dynamo.” It may, in fact, appear strange that I, ex-Europeano who left the “old” continent to become a poet in America because that is where I saw the energies achieve a poetic art unequalled in Europe during the second part of the past century, that I would now want to link Irby back to what I left — or tried to leave — behind. If on this specific occasion I speak to the Europe that traverses and so splendidly marbles Irby’s American land- and mind-scape, it behooves me, however, to point out that any serious, i.e. at least partially complete, assessment of Irby’s oeuvre needs to investigate the poems’ mother lode of information concerning China and Latin America, two further constants in Irby’s vast spiderweb of cultural caches, two further decentered centers touched regularly by that turbine, or dynamo, or great rotating wheel whose hub and heart may lie below, but at the center, of the Great Plains — or, as Irby puts it: “the Great Wheel of the Plains / turns under Fort Scott.” But let’s see how Europe worms its way in and maybe breaks down and enriches the dry soils of the American West.
Permit me, anecdotally, to mention that the first time I laid eyes on Irby was, I remember, as he stepped into my Deal Road house in Tooting Broadway, South London in early 1973 — but that was one of Ken’s rare physical forays into Europe. He’d in fact come down from Denmark and was, if I’m not mistaken, on a trip that would get him to the southern countries of Europe. So, unlike Dorn who spent years in England, teaching, and kept returning to London (where I have an image of him standing in the same room in Deal Road somewhat later in the ’70s, as we argue — he, Ed, deeply, strangely uninterested in my proposal to publish Gunslinger in a French translation I had been working on — but that’s another story), Ken’s visits were shorter, but, it seems to me his involvement deeper and elsewhere.
During this last decade and a half I have been thinking and writing primarily about the concepts of a nomadic poetry and poetics — calling this also at times “archipelago poetics” (in homage to Edouard Glissant’s parallel investigations) — speaking of rhizomatic and dendritic processes. Interestingly enough, the terms “archipelago” and “dendritic” are also clearly there in Irby’s poetry and thinking. He could easily have found a space in the essay “Toward a Nomad Poetics” — and will do so with this belated essay. One of the areas I investigated thus was that of Maghrebian literature, particularly its francophone wing, where on close reading I distinguished what I called “ghostings” on either formal or semantic levels by the “other,” language, the spoken darijas, or vernacular versions of Arabic. I propose to use this notion of “ghostings” to speak of what in Irby’s poetry I perceive as non-American presences, inscriptions, upwellings, conjurations, or whatever guise these presences take.
Let me get back to this un-American turbine/dynamo. In Irby’s work there are of course immediately those literary sources that are not American: we know from his interview for Vort that the first literary influence, or what gave him poetry in a way, was reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the Leishman-Spender translation (found in Kansas City when he was in eighth or ninth grade). We also know of his continuous interest in Russian poetry and writing, especially that of Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, as well as Blok but also of his ongoing reading in French literature. Thus his first book, The Roadrunner Poem, which is indeed a profoundly American poem if ever there was one, is introduced by a quote from Rimbaud’s Saison en Enfer, cited in French without accompanying English translation. In “Jed Smith and the Way,” another long meditation on the American road, and, as Mottram has it, “structured, like an old Buick drive along the routes a trapper, mountain man and guide took in the early 19th century into Oregon,” the narrative drive is stopped short towards the very middle of the poem with reflections on the formal nature of the poem itself — which bring in a European contemporary of Jedediah Smith’s, the German poet Hölderlin:
Hölderlin called the lyric
“the continuous metaphor for a feeling”
the epic, “the metaphor
of an intellectual point of view”
this is the discontinuous
dendritic narrative of a journey
metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return
pastoral in that
“sluicing” meaning the juice
runs down over the head
and puddles off the fingers
The list of such transcultural citations could go on ad infinitum. But let’s look at another aspect in which America is ghosted by the nonnative, namely the geography of the West, its landscapes. For example, in the poem “Jesus,” with its “secret paths” that “lead south,” Irby links his Fort Scott landscape via a nomadic Jesus moving from the North to the South “as if a tracer through the Ice Age intestinal / dirt track, reaching down the Plains again from Asia / towards an absolutely other / Earthly Paradise”:
in the silent age of America
1952, not ripe for any
second coming out, only to scout
if all the Mesopotamian
Siberian welfare trails were still
reblazable under the shit
That would be American shit, needing to be turned into manure to fertilize a dust-bowled scape, perhaps. And having other and older cultural materials come in will help in this process, hopefully speeding it up, or at least making the creation of an inhabitable dwelling, a hearth, possible. Here the reach back is long, space-wise, to Mesopotamia and linking to Siberia, and time-wise from the Ice Age to what seems like a “communist” welfare present. At first sight this could still be read as Olsonian, i.e. as the jump back from present-day America to pre-Greek Near Eastern cultures and their roots in the Pleistocene. But this is complicated by a range of other references, such as the figure of the weird motorcycle (Hell’s Angels?), or Jesus as “an easter revolutionary … He must be a communist …” with the classical Christian fish (more ambiguously also readable as sexual — cunt or prick) as emblem, which become for Irby the “Tarot card of the Hitchhiker.” Tarot cards are European and medieval in origin, and even if another clin d’oeil to Olson is also intended, they move us firmly into a specific Irby area, namely hermetic lore and literature and to a European culture Olson has no truck with. It is worth mentioning here that Olson condemned anything European from Plato to the early twentieth century as highly suspect.
I believe that one of the essential aspects of this doubleness — or, so as not to get stuck in a dialectical binary system, this multiplicity of layers — has to do with Irby’s comprehension of landscapes as not only natural, not ever in fact only “natural” (and one should here insert a full essay on what “natural” may or may not mean — something I’d love to do on another occasion, taking my cues from Spinoza). This complexity is well set forth in a line by the geographer Edgar Anderson, quoted by Irby in the “In Place of a Preface” of Catalpa (why not call it a preface; why a place in place of? What is a place that stands in for another place, what is this supplement, the pemmican we chew instead of the actual bison filet mignon? The poetics statement of explanation instead of the poem itself? My Derridean proclivities could easily slip here into a long zigzag reflection, that in turn could get me lost in Irbyland like any number of those greenhorn conquistadores/explorers of old ... I’ll try to avoid this fate at least here, right now). So in the preface to Catalpa, Anderson (on page 250 of the Collected) says it clearly: “It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it.” So, yes, it may be obvious but bears restating: the landscape is also of the mind, or a palimpsest of geography and mind, where the one ghosts the other, so that the leaves of the trees, Catalpa or others, rhyme (Duncan-esquely) with the leaves of the books read and/or written there.
Irby himself is very clear about this, for example in the introduction to Relation, when he writes: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’” This is a direct response to a landscape that both “demands us” and “reveals us.” Here one should also place a discussion of the relation of Irby’s “pastoral” to the European and more specifically the British version thereof — but this has been done in a number of essays over time and there is no reason to repeat those analyses here now.
I do however want to locate the movement through the, through any, landscape more specifically as I perceive a ghosting — perhaps unconscious — with a range of other literary events. What I call “the nomadic” is of course very present in Irby’s work, in, for example, a definition of American poetry as the “narrative of a journey” — a narrative that I think cannot easily be fitted into the Hölderlinian definitions quoted above, as they give precedent to the metaphor. Thus a strange doubleness, in which I would in fact read an opposition, in the juxtaposition of these two lines, when after the near-Deleuzian rhizomatic definition of the work as the “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey,” the next line brings it all back home (= Europe? a certain fixity?) by restating this definition as being a “metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return.” Three loaded words here: 1) “pasture” which in this context sounds closer to the pastoral as defined by the likes of Empson, as a metaphor for another state, rather than as Irby’s own descriptions of the pastoral as a daily concern with the precise landscape of wherever we are, both as physical and as spiritual landscape. Maybe my distrust of the word here comes from its association with 2) the word “anabasis” where (and this may be personal to my own Euro-basis) I cannot but hear the title of Saint-John Perse’s poem “Anabase” not surprisingly translated into English by one T. S. Eliot, a poem that despite its title and travel components is a static, colonial venture. (Of course, the word alone in Irby’s line could also dendritically or rhizomatically spiral out to the “anabasis” moth, a genus of snout moths from the Phycitinae subfamily, or, maybe closer to home, the plant “anabasis,” a genus of desert shrubs in the Amaranthacaceae family.) And finally, word 3) “return,” which has its own problems when it comes to nomadic spaces.
So I am partial to the nomadic definition of the poem as a “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey.” And rather than return the journey to a fixed European pastoral space, breathtaking only due to the narrowness of its hedged-in bets, I want to link it to another ghosting. Irby’s journeying and the inscription of that journey into his poems is, for example, quite different from say, Kerouac’s On the Road, that mad rush from one side of the continent to the other, coast to coast with stopovers only when too exhausted to keep driving. Irby’s progress is via a range of “fixes,” bearings taken that request stages, stopovers, which I would assimilate to the physical and spiritual stops or mawqifs — as they are known in the Sufi journey — in the nomad’s progress. The discontinuity, the dendritic nature of the journey is accepted and made use of, stages for reflection, for companionship, for writing, for eating, drinking, and sex. I do, however, disagree with Eric Mottram’s assessment that with “the self asserted through a world of revelatory signs,” Irby moves “steadily towards the transcendental, a mysticism of land and mobility, of that sense of Americans being necessarily shaped by the violence of the continent.” I would suggest that the journey is towards an ever deeper immanence, that the life teachings of the movement through America are the exact experiences that show how the physical and mental journeys are or become inseparable, are of the same stuff. Irby touches on this, for example, when he writes: “Lords of the Light and Air / are Immanences, not rulers.” And if in the journey itself, in the speed of movement, there can be a giddiness that would point towards an Other beyond the horizon, some transcendental topos, it is in the mawqif, the stopping, the rest and the necessary tasks of that dailyness that immanence roots itself again. There are four lines from an early Irby work — The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream, which was the first book of his I picked up — four lines that have stayed with me and that come back to mind or to hand very often:
The light lasts on out of history or memory
in the face and turn of head toward the sink
that endlessness of every day
that is precisely eternity.
Beyond this there is one counter linked to Europe I want to briefly explore here, namely the way music, often in the shape of the classical European tradition, enters. If Olson in a memorable line condemns the piped-in version of that as mu-sick, mu-sick, he does however not seem to have much truck with music — I remember one reference to a contemporary composer, Pierre Boulez, but that was to Boulez’s ideas, not his compositions. Even the presence of John Cage at BM doesn’t seem to have jolted Olson towards music much. Irby, on the other hand, though agreeing with Olson about mu-sick — take for example the opening line of the poem “Delius,” speaking of the “Crapmusic on the radio” — has a profound and ongoing relation to both classical European music as well as to the American tradition of jazz. A reading of the poem “Delius” shows the ways its materials and its thinking move between the continents, linking the English composer to Florida, thus setting that dynamo/turbine into motion again. Even as in the poem “there would be a Delius of this / Northern Pacific redwood coast,” proposing further marvelous geographical musical chairs, the poem enacts this multiple connectedness throughout. Take for example the following stanza:
Walt Whitman along the Loing
into blackberry thickets along the Reyes coast
organizing before 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass
along the North Atlantic shore
turning in the conversation
in the living room at Grez
to the high hills, wordless
The Loing is a river in France, having its source in the Burgundy region and flowing into the Seine not too far from Paris. You may know it from a painting by the English painter Alfred Sisley who lived in the village of Moret-sur-Loing for many years. But of course Walt Whitman never walked along that river, or only in the imaginary sense in which Olson met Irby at the Fort Scott drugstore in ’53. Now, the French name of the river “Loing” — the final “g” is silent — is homophonic with the French word “loin,” meaning “far, far away.” A meaning I hear sounding the line as that far-away distance that plays itself out throughout this section of the poem, and that joins — shoving together, you could nearly say — different continental coasts (West Coast/East Coast) and actual continents (North America/Europe). Simultaneously — and on the opposite scale size-wise — the work of the poem breaks up a single location into two spaces by decomposing its complex hyphenated name. The “living-room at Grez” refers to the small village of Grez-sur-Loing where Delius stayed, a name here exploded into its two referents, river/village, while continental drift moves easily from the French river to the Pacific Reyes coast blackberry thickets only to reemerge two lines later on the North Atlantic coast. Given that this is Whitman, the East Coast reemergence may be located close to his birthplace, Long Island, the “Long” part of which needs only an “I” to become a “Loing” — an “I” the ego-strong Walt was surely not averse of inserting into any place or situation. And if the I of Island migrates to the Long, we are left with a “sland” or a slant land that will give us a slope or swerve, or as I prefer to call it, a clinamen, that will churn the North Atlantic turbine all the way to the French river.
The next stanza begins with a quote: “our job is to find ourselves / at all costs” (I nearly typed “coasts”) — and even in this poem, so focused from the title on a man, the musician Frederick Delius, in order to locate him or us (and could we locate the one without the other?) what has to be followed, to be trodden or thought through, are the “secret trails” of the journeying, as the poem makes clear a few pages later:
this explains the secret trails
from Fort Scott into the South
the secret ways Vanamee followed
into Mexico with the sheep
the Great Circle back to California
the Florida fixed between Jacksonville and St. Augustine
by Delius and Conan Doyle, the deep trails
Buchaning over Norway, foot tracks poaching
Jefferies down nets and fosse
coverts crossing and recrossing
the natural mystery
And below and between the numerous namings, the many places, the dance of vowels and consonants, that other musical ghosting always there in the work — so that now you hear the ghost of Delius, now the ghost of Ellington, Europe and America coming together, or at least living side by side and fertilizing their respective imaginations, as somewhere else a favorite pop ditty seems to sound out of three or four innocent-enough looking words strung together. Such investigations of how European composers, among others, create networks at different levels — geographical but more complexly, psychotopological — throughout the oeuvre could be multiplied. Let me close with another extract from the same poem, where an already mentioned American composer is insistently foregrounded through the triple repetition of his name, the citation of the title of his autobiography and finally a combination of mainly European geoethnic terms that bring it all back home, to America, that is to say:
Ellington, Ellington, Ellington
on the windup phonograph?
Reminiscing in Tempo the year after he died
as if a memorial to that
Floridian magic fountain music, Griegish
Germanic Yorkshirian Gallicized slavery chants, as melted
pot as America ever said it wanted.
1. Robert Duncan, letter to Ken Irby, Nomadics (blog).
One thing follows another, incessantly. This I would posit as the first principle of Kenneth Irby’s poetry, one of the qualities of attention he shares with Whitman. Accretion matters, but also — and this perhaps is a second principle — the line we cross to meet things matters. Or rather, gives to matter that hallucinatory quality dreams have when they surprise us by waking us up. But “line” is not quite the right word for characterizing the thresholds where attention quickens, for a line — that is, a line of poetry — is what crosses a border, by which I mean that the work of a line is not establishment but movement. Perception is active, an encounter with the world, and this encounter is itself a thing that poetry records: self-reflexivity swells the accretion.
The world, of course, has a temporal aspect as well as a spatial one, and perception necessarily shares in both, meeting the world where the two coincide. Again and again, perception brings us to a crossroad, a complex interplay of history and geography, memory and presence, given narrative and thematic expression in Irby’s earlier poems. The later poems instead develop a formal expression of this complexity, resulting in texts that are extraordinarily private, having less in common with storytelling than list-making, an act of attention at once expansive and compressed. The experience of such texts — a third principle — is a paradoxical combination of traversal and dwelling. Their rule is graduction, to adopt one of the spurious words from the OED, cited there as an error for graduation — an error that brings together two of the source word’s distinct senses: division into degrees and the process of concentrating by evaporation. graduction, then, is a portmanteau of gradation and reduction; a dream word for a dream-like experience.
All of which has something to do with the walk to the Paradise Garden. But before I explain what I mean by that, let me make three digressions through Irby’s work so as to illustrate the three principles I have listed: accretion, crossing, and experience. Through these principles, Irby inhabits the world in which he finds himself and adapts it to art — world and art apprehended together, in language. Two aspects of a single thing, a single act: creation.
The first of these principles, accretion, ties perception to growth. As a principle of writing, it means that poetry lives by taking in and setting forth, extending its reach perception by perception, word by word. There is an essential restlessness in this. Although Zukofsky is an important influence, Irby’s poems are a far cry from the “rested totality” of Objectivism. Their animation is a form of participation; they share in the real that they strive to represent — a Heraclitean real whose varied manifestations are neatly summed in the early title Movements/Sequences (1965). Even dreams are caught up in this flow. “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” writes Irby in The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream, 1968, a credo that helps explain the following visionary passage from the earlier “A Set Series for Roy Gridley,” in which the metaphor of growth is prominent:
The flower that is the Imagination, that we live by, blooms
from the flame the eyes burn down the very town we live in
in all our light
and then build up again
I hear in these lines a powerful apprehension of what perception yields, articulated by a sentence that resists grasp, owing to a number of slippages in the phrasing, a characteristic I associate with the late work, though Irby accounts for it as early as the preface to Movements/Sequences — the very book from which this poem comes. Speaking in that preface of the work of the imagination, conceived of as a process independent of will, Irby writes:
[W]hat means I have to participate at all is in the shifts and twisting of syntax … following my vines of twisting movement, blind but certain. … The wisteria. The roses I trimmed today. … Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain. … Following the textures and wrenching of how words follow each other, the flow. (29–30)
Caught up in that flow, the poet who trims roses is no longer gardener but gardened, the vine whose twisting movement he would follow. Moreover, in equating the twists of that vine with those of syntax — himself with the language to which he submits, blind but certain — Irby asserts that the imagination is a force that exceeds our powers of cultivation, and so is, in its way, a force of nature. Properly, then, the preface ends with a long quotation from “Projective Verse,” in which language is upheld precisely as a means of joining nature, of making contact with the real. The commonplace of our age, that language mediates, blocking our access to the matter of our lives, shaping our experience of it, has no authority in Irby’s work, though his contact with the real — sensual through and through — calls on language for help at every turn.
The intensity of this contact assumes its full significance in those later poems where the accretion of perception overwhelms the help of language, so that we sense but cannot parse the continuity of experience that Irby records; only music assures us of the wholeness of what’s perceived, moment by moment, in the flow of language. A choice example of this intensity is a queer text from 1983, in which the perception overwhelming language is, to begin with, the very attention to language that writing requires, a dizzying self-reflexivity whose one still moment is the perception of light at the end, a look up from the page, I fancy, that hands reverie over to the world it would hold:
to look into the pits of
and the blank of the word that does not come then
is its pits, to stare into that whole season of absence in its staring
seed of the seed that is not time
given in time into that
but what escapes from that black hole
is the recent angel of awareness
shriven staring, to write awareness
fresh mounted messenger from beyond the turning of the earth’s direction, back
dithyramb steward of the guardian of the bear, blazing in the forehead, plough
step to turn and return the pole
stiff is the penetrant of attention
mucoprotein gone down that drain, in the altered work, flood of each single fold
of the marriage host
from the clothing adornment, jewel wick in the nozzle of the lamp, stretched
toward this midden, back
emunctory life, paranomastically answering to the root of being
seek, seed, see’t, seen
in the gleam of the sunlight off the top of the yellow Capri parked beyond the
The second principle, crossing, asserts that perception is an activity, even when it occurs in repose. More pointedly, it asserts that perception is the crossing of a threshold, such that stories of crossing become scenes of perception. This way of speaking might seem peculiar, or at least unnecessarily metaphorical, were it not for the singular importance of crossings in Irby’s work. At least through Catalpa (1977), which ends in a flight from Chicago to Boston, crisscrossings of the continent provide narrative inspiration, opening pathways for the senses — including the historical sense (as in “Jed Smith and the Way”). I think my favorite of these literal crossings is the last of many that saturate the title poem of To Max Douglas (1971), the trek of “the Jurassic longing saurians,” who make their way across the Salinian terrain of California (218). The tread of those dinosaurs is explicitly a conduit for vision, not only because we are told that they crossed “with their tiny nearsighted // foliage-ridden eyes,” but also because we ourselves, as Irby tells us, “are the inheritors / of that gaze,” presumably because we are able to walk the same path (218). Pathways for the senses are so pervasive in Irby’s work, there is even a crossing, by accident or design, in the first line of the first poem — which is not chronologically the earliest — in Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On. This is the opening to The Roadrunner Poem (1964), a powerful act of perception whereby the object perceived becomes invested with the very being of the perceiver. The senses are that powerful for Irby: not only do they give him the world; they also, on occasion, project him into it:
The roadrunner that crossed my yard
and the roadrunner my neighbor kept as a pet
And the grain I am sunk into
staring into the wood, the bole in my hands, the window sill
Catch me as I go out along the ploughed fields
and stare there, back at me as I
at them went in come out (5)
The crossing of the roadrunner would hardly be noteworthy on its own; it becomes significant as the initiation of a chiasmus that Irby completes by crossing back (and here, to enlarge our appreciation of what this initiation yields, we might read the poem alongside Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous notes on the chiasm of perception, first published in France the same year that Irby’s poem was published in the United States).
Irby’s thematic treatments of crossing hardly hint at the number and variety of thresholds we encounter in his work. Here again I would cite the pertinence of the early title Movements/Sequences, since wherever a movement or sequence occurs there is implicitly a crossing. Movement is the more encompassing category since there can be no traversal of space that does not include a traversal of time, but even a motionless sequence involves a location in space: our existence is always both spatial and temporal; space and time mark every point with their X, hence at every point we find ourselves at a crossroad.
Irby attests to the potency of what these arrivals disclose in a short prose piece dated 1981, about a Japanese form of divination in which the questioner goes to a well-traveled road at evening, taking the first overheard words as his or her oracle. In certain poems (as in the following, from Studies ), it seems that the whole long length of the real is such a road, and all of the senses, not merely the ears, alert to its divination:
the sidewalks are all dried after the rain
except for the dark shadow around the dead squirrel
splayed out as though supplicating the concrete
fur of the spine ridge fur of the tail curled up along the spine ridge frayed up rat-
gray and gnat-thickened
yesterday late afternoon a few yards away it was sitting in the bare dirt head bent
down to the earth
bitten in the neck or by the quickest plague or simply the heart gone dropped in
carried in the night play by the same catch and turned around
so now to face me (570–71)
The third principle, experience, speaks to the character of the texts Irby produces in consequence of the first two principles, by which I mean in particular the character of the late work, poetry that seizes on the secrets of crossing and accretion — of perception as encounter and writing as its means or witness — in order to encompass and condense the real, or rather that portion of the real that Irby’s acts of attention and powers of language are able to disclose. “Not having made the world, I have created it anew each morning / in confusion Act Axe Axis,” he writes in “Notes” (from Catalpa, 275). The axis I take as a crossroad of time and space, memory and presence, a point at which perception occurs, recreating the world and placing us in it, as upon waking. The act I take as our material engagement with the world, the engagements of art certainly included (for these lines come from a poem about revolution, also about “the pages of Revolution” turned in bed while hearing Bach and thinking of Pound ). The ambiguous axe between axis and act is what confusion wields, a tool of destruction or construction, separating — that is, making distinctions between — the very things it fuses. This is the impossible task of graduction, a measuring out of the Heraclitean real that also, somehow, collapses its dimensions, a project best realized for me in the poems of Ridge to Ridge (2001) and Studies. Consider, for instance, the following short poem from the former volume, “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow].” It begins with a fine distinction that sets us deep into a darkness where the eyes falter, though the other senses — especially touch and hearing — compensate; or maybe it is the memory of those other senses that compensates. Memory, in any case, lights up the darkness, sending us well beyond the coordinates of the title, an overload of sensation perfectly captured in the last line:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
Which brings me at last — “the rapt aphasic ear” does — to the Paradise Garden; or rather, to the walk that leads to the Paradise Garden — an epoch in the life of the imagination to which I was first introduced by Irby’s “Delius” (a poem from the expanded edition of To Max Douglas ), a tribute to the British composer Frederick Delius. “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is Delius’s most famous composition, part of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, adapted from Gottfried Keller’s novella of the same name. In both novella and opera, the Paradise Garden is a tavern frequented by vagrants and the poor, but the treatments are markedly different. For Keller, the establishment has an ironic name; Cain’s descendants are the patrons. As they are for Delius, but without irony: his tavern stands at the edge of a paradise only available to those who have fallen, a possibility of happiness outside the bounds of society. That the fallen lovers shrink from this possibility is the true tragedy of Delius’s opera. Yet the lovers do find themselves tempted; their wordless walk is the opera’s crucial moment, though the absence of words and minimal action disguise its significance. Musically speaking, the “Walk” is an intermezzo — an operatic equivalent to Irby’s graduction: it characterizes the interval opened up between two discreet scenes, while compressing within that space the emotional impact of the opera as a whole.
Irby’s synopsis of the opera — or rather, his synopsis of the second half — actually downplays the walk, emphasizing instead a dream that the two lovers share, uncannily, a coincidence of experience that draws their dream into the shared world of waking reality:
Sali and Vreli before the fire
both dreamt the same dream: heard the choir
and saw the entwining cathedral light
marry them, grownup and child
couples crowned together
and so awoke, and left, already
on their way out of this world
passed through the fair of worldly
fair and wondrous things
and made the Walk
to the Paradise Gardens
that is all we ever hear from the opera
the Long Walk, nothing of the Caspar David Friedrich church
dream music, the Gardens full of whirling
dopefiend bohemians behind the Dark Fiddler
the lovers floating off in a coal barge
and fucking into oblivion
“this is the most heart-breaking music in the world” (231–32)
What Irby says here about the dream reiterates the credo I cited before, “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” a statement that appears, as noted before, in his book The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream. That this flower-bearing paradise, which dreams traverse, may have something to do with Delius’s Paradise Garden is suggested to me by a subsequent passage in the poem for Delius, an explicit reference to the credo and a beautiful summation of what the opera expresses: “Only a sensualist could so / trap the pain of parting / the endlessness of the moment of leaving / this world, this only world, for nothingness” (232). Irby has in mind here the opera’s final moment, in which the lovers drown while consummating their passion, but the “endlessness” he mentions captures perfectly for me the apprehension and expectation that linger in the walk, states of mind that swell to a melancholic grandeur in Delius’s music.
In citing this music, I do not offer it solely as an illustration of the three principles (though it handsomely illustrates the last two, crossing and experience). Its pertinence lies for me more fully in its revelation of the nature of art, of art as expression. For one important aspect of the walk is the fact that it arises in the context of an adaptation. Though Delius’s libretto transforms Keller’s novella in significant ways — the walk, for instance, is only implied in Keller’s narrative, is not described — the relationship of the opera to the novella is such that every expressive moment within it acquires, for those who know both, the hallucinatory power of a dream, a dream that haunts the waking world that shapes the dream in the first place. Such hauntings are all-pervasive in Irby’s work, which is unusually erudite without, however, requiring footnotes to be appreciated: his art is not a commentary on its sources but an adaptation of them, as dreams are an adaptation of everyday life. There are exceptions to this (and Irby’s commentary on Delius is indeed one of them), but by and large his writing is a kind of dream-work, one in which the borders between dream and waking — between art and life — are constantly crossed.
Taking “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” as a model for poetry leads me, then, to understand Irby’s art as inextricably tied to the work of adaptation. The adaptation involved in his art is not usually so literal as in the intermezzo that Delius composed for his own version of Keller’s story (which was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s story), but insofar as anything given expression must be felt, and so known, there is inevitably a process of taking possession involved. In this sense, even self-expression is a form of adaptation: a mode of cognition whereby artists adapt themselves to art. This, I think, is one of the things that Irby means by “Etude,” a type of poem that he gives its own section in Call Steps, and that fills a whole book in Studies (whose title is a translation of “etude”). Moreover, it is the fact of this study that tempts me to think of Irby’s characteristic themes and methods as matters of principle — tempts me, that is, to think of his poetry, especially in its later manifestations, as a phenomenology in performance.
And so I would like to end with a poem that exemplifies Irby’s phenomenology: a study drawing on all three principles; also an adaptation of experience, that is itself an experience, haunted — like the walk to the Paradise Garden — by what came before and what will follow:
the window shattered out into the storm lets in the storm
lets in the flood and its redfronded palm trees
lets in what waits at the end
lets out what waits for the end
in this room right now that takes all that has come before and waits
it’s time to go home
the father time the mother space
but all these people here already are
a room as vast as presidency and as invaded
the father space the mother time
that are not home but orders of perception
as home itself is an organ of perception
lets in the rain that music makes
lets out the tightly woven carpets of the rain
knows at the end whose redfronded palm trees are they? (568)
In this brief poem from Studies, to which I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph, Irby contemplates the aftereffects of a storm, presenting us with a room that has seemingly reached a point of stasis. As the poem unfolds — a manifestation of accretion — we see that this stasis is also a crossroad, one to which Irby is brought by way of contemplation, reminding us that a stasis in one realm (call it matter) and movement in another (call it mind) can occur simultaneously; that these are different orders of experience corresponding to the different orders of perception, the corporeal and imaginative. It follows from this that there are different ways of inhabiting a world, which is why Irby is able to write “it’s time to go home” while sitting in a room that may indeed be his home: not only place but the presences that abide there show us we have arrived; we go home in mind as well as in body, and we can feel ourselves displaced from home in either capacity. Irby’s room is a figure for creation: shattering out and letting in, it rests between “what waits for” and “waits at,” traversed by both as they invade or abandon, make welcome or take leave. Finding ourselves at home there, we are discovered (for home, writes Irby, “is an organ of perception”) in parental embrace by space and time. Bereft despite that embrace, we find ourselves in need of home, abiding with all that the storm delivers — its “redfronded palm trees,” a figure for the wreckage.
Figure or actuality, poem or world, wrecked or whole, mysterious or familiar: creation.
3. To better place Irby’s poems in their chronological unfolding, I have given the dates and titles of the original volumes, except in the case of work from the final section of The Intent On, “Uncollected.” There, only a date is given.
[H]e who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at. As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision … be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot. (134)
Elaborating, Merleau-Ponty writes:
We say therefore that our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees them and touches them; we say, because it is evident, that it unites these two properties within itself, and its double-belongingess to the order of the “object” and to the order of the “subject” reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders. (137)
The world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world ultimately: as flesh applied to a flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is surrounded by it. A participation in and kinship with the visible, the vision neither envelops it nor is enveloped by it definitively. … My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visible with it. (138)
Numerous corroborations of these speculative points could be found in Irby’s poetry, so much of which takes up the experience of what Merleau-Ponty calls “double-belongingess.” See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
6. In his novella, Keller amplifies the irony of his biblical allusion with four weather-worn archangels of stone, which hold up the roof of the tavern at its corners, surrounded by cherubs playing musical instruments. These instruments are a far cry from the flaming sword of Genesis, but Keller’s irony goes beyond a transposition of instruments, for his lovers do not fall for having tasted forbidden fruit; quite the contrary, their acceptance of the prohibition is what dooms them to their exile. The novella is thus an indictment of conventional morality, or in any case a dispassionate appraisal of morality’s effects. The original sin for Keller, the origin of the dispute between the families of his Romeo and Juliet, is the denial of an inheritance to a bastard son. That son, known in the story as the dark fiddler, is a human analogue for Keller’s musical angels and also an analogue for the snake of Genesis.
Delius, for his part, sidesteps social analysis, allowing the Paradise Garden to assume a significance independent of moral judgment. There are no stone angels in Delius’s libretto; his dark fiddler represents the opera itself, is more Prospero than angel or snake, though he has no power to effect a restoration. Displaced, not fallen, from grace, he is the master of a fallen paradise, and can only make suggestions, proposing to the lovers that they join him in the woods, apart from society, a prospect from which they flinch, choosing instead to consummate their love and die. Keller’s ironies are thus dissolved, like the pressures of society in a dream — not the church-wedding dream at the center of the opera, which is shaped by those pressures (a reversion to Keller’s perspective), but the dreamy song that drifts in from the river at the end, giving expression to what the lovers desire. Their intertwined voices describing that song make for one of the opera’s most exquisite moments:
Far-off sounds of music
waken trembling echoes,
moving, throbbing, swelling,
faintly dying in the sunset’s fading glow.
Where the echoes dare to wander
shall we two not dare to go?
The song from the river is something that Delius adds to Keller’s story, and what it adds reiterates the emotional content of the walk to the Paradise Garden: an apprehension of limits that might have been but will not be transcended, only transgressed.