I. Under the gazebo
We gathered at the white gazebo at the center of an ocean-side park. The turf was near-bare, blown by wind currents; it rolled south to the water and a baseball field. Midsummer sun, strong into the evening, reflected from the ocean, sparkling. Children were playing around the cement drums, where barbeque coals are dumped. And off to the southeast, out of the wind-blasted earth, a cliff of granite stood, the height accessible by narrow wooded paths. As if painted by Theresa Bernstein, it was a scene of New England enjoyed openly and demotically; nearby, the metal ring securing a flag clanked against its flagpole.
To triangulate our whereabouts for a literary readership, the cabin where Charles Olson had spent his childhood summers stood on land directly to our northwest; the Eliot family cottage, lodged in young Thomas’s imagination, was perched southeast across the harbor; and the home of Romantic poet Hiram Rich, once diagonal to a ropewalk, sat squat on Stacy Boulevard, across the Blynman Bridge. These are largely unknown coordinates, however. Fishermen’s Field, with its one arm, a grassed-over fort where cannons rust, thrust into the harbor, and its belly, Cressys Beach, fronting the ocean, was, that evening, pleasurable surroundings. Cool air ripe with salt broke the heat.
It was James, coeditor of the magazine with Zach, who emceed, talking with his back to the water. Lisa and I, leaning against the white-painted metal rail on the opposite side of the gazebo, near the entry steps, faced the sun-dappled but quiet ocean. Kenneth Irby, Joseph Torra, Donald Wellman, and Jim Dunn were there, and others, sitting on the gazebo’s concrete floor, leaning on the rail, or resting in foldout camping chairs. I was reminded of a folk festival I had been to in Lowell: sport sandals, shorts, t-shirts, restless children, snacks in zippered cooler bags.
Gerrit Lansing sat in the folding chair designated for readers. Light of sunset fell on his clean-cut face, and he wore red wraparound sunglasses. In round elocutionary tones he recited from Diane Di Prima’s Seminary Poems. There is a patient, guiding Will in Lansing’s voice when he performs; a Will that draws strength from deeper harmony, rather than discordant show or mastery: the Will to be in tune, rather than the orator’s Will to turn a crowd. His song is chant, or, to be more accurate, incantation.
The flag-ring continued to clank out of beat against its metal pole. Lansing then read, with hunted clarity, his poem “Till Dawn’s Early Light”:
dancing in the dark
united states american
old song crack’d and dissolute reverberating far
hound sound melancholy hound sound melancholy hound sound
melancholy your sweet bitch
This song rings true because it is hard-earned, and long-forged; it takes a poet who in his youth had embraced American Exceptionalism, Olsonian or Lawrencian, as had Lansing, to put words to soured American hopes, and dashed American enthusiasms. He had written, in his literary magazine SET, that “American life” had “swarming possibilities,” that the way “Americans, now, receive time differentiates us from others,” and that “energy,” freed from dead “kulchur,” was, at last, liberated “to recognize itself.” Lansing had been, in this way, a New American. Europe, suicided by two world wars, was rebuilding in shock. New Americans, like Charles Olson, were keen to cast off inherited forms, literary, philosophical, and religious; postwar American “possibilities” would receive a “poetic exploration.” Lansing, having outlived many contemporaries, measures the American Century: chances lost, dreams foiled, ground given up, the “old song crack’d and dissolute.”
The prim, municipal gazebo, where I remember my brother lining up for prom photos in a gray tuxedo and sky blue bow tie, swiftly absorbed Lansing’s plumbed words; like a cloud burst onto a dry, puckered land, his lines were soaked up by concrete, tangled in metal rail. But as his voice rose and fell, neglected geometries were brought to light, without the aid of document. Fishermen’s Field was again a parade ground. Tricentennial crowds thronged the granite cliff where, cast in bronze, anchors heralded an historic plaque. 1923 was now, and reenactors, dressed as seventeenth-century Puritans, were beset by children and gawkers. Brass bands were stalled on the uphill approach to the gazebo, and by camera-eye I saw consecrated the future site of Craske’s anonymous, heroic statue.
dancing in the dark
united states american
Lisa and I published a poem by Gerrit Lansing last year, in our now-concluded literary journal Process. “Strolling Pebble Beach in February,” it is called; it fronted an issue that included Robert Kelly and Clayton Eshleman. The poem is a sensuous nature-encounter, luminous with sky, rock, vine. Refined and controlled, it seems, to my limited knowledge of the subject, to be Crowlean: vectors of concentration brought to a single locus-point at a key, physically-charged moment.
To reproduce the poem’s second half:
This is looking at a lot of paintings in the sky
but seeing one master scrawl.
Underlies, it does, spread of choices
Wamba’s fan-shaped destiny,
to find, to find,
I tread on the side of caution, with Lansing’s references. Wamba, I looked up, was the last strong Visigothic king of Spain. Legends say, in several variants, that Wamba, a king’s son living as a cowherd, far from court, was recalled by chieftains eager for the heir to rule; in refutation of their appeal, he thrust his walking stick into the ground and was surprised to see, sprouting supernaturally from the stick-head, a lush fan of green leaves signifying, the story seemed to say, God’s Will that he take the throne.
How the fable of Wamba, or whatever historical record survives of Wamba’s rule, might enrich the poem, and whether, if indeed, the Wamba of Lansing’s reference is identical to the Wamba of my little research, is beyond me to answer. My sense is that Lansing’s poems are music-note clusters, taken from longer chants composed privately; what we, as readers, access on his page is the “master scrawl,” selected out. Hunting old books for Wamba, like an academic bred on minutiae, is to stray from the mark.
The music matters to get the ritual right, to hymn with accuracy. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but here and there I hear, faintly, under the songs of Lansing, a Stefan George time signature: like George, Lansing will mate like-sounding sounds, not fearing rhyme; ballad and harvest song are his to use. Lansing erects the Georgian exclamation point where others would place a chaste period. I do not mean to overstate the matter, since Lansing has drawn lines, already, to Rilke, Nerval, and Mallarmé, but somehow George is there too, as my ear receives it, in what Kenneth Irby called Lansing’s “work song over the compost heap,” his “chant of genital intensity.” Spring, fragrant, verdant, and fierce; a single, lingering hour with the nameless companion; intimations of sorcery. Wenn sich der gott in dir regt / Wenn dein geliebter dir raunt …
Sex on earth is rhymed angelic motion.
“Stanzas of Hyparxis”
When all the malls go up in flame,
and jails the mighty built,
then we the newly free proclaim
the Law: Do What Thou Wilt!
“Quatrain for Contemporary
‘Amazing Grace’ Stanza Collection”
Now I approach matter that is foreign to me. There is, from my outsider-vantage, not having been and not desiring to be initiated, a vital constellation in Lansing’s poems, of figure- or god-scheme. There is tantrism, or an Americanized version of tantra. Yoga too, also Americanized, though not commercialized. I should say, before going further, that I see Lansing’s writing, in part, as a bridge between Between-the-Wars occultism, in particular Aleister Crowley, and, on the other side of the span, the “New Age” “counterculture” of the mid- and latter twentieth century.
Nineteenth-century Romance splintered English Protestantism: allure of symbol, ritual, mystery, and human agency drew some to Catholicism, others to the occult. Those drawn to the occult chose Will over Charity, Destiny over Judgment. The Trinitarian Ages of Joachim Fiore, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were reimagined as Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Isis for matriarchy and mother-goddesses; Osiris for patriarchy and father-gods; Horus, presumably our Age, of “self-realization,” and the Child.
“Self-realization,” the Child-Will, “Do What Thou Wilt.” Repressed Protestants seeking sex-magick. Not my nature is it, to share this philosophy. Neither do I find it intriguing or titillating. But this: a historically-conditioned social release of the upper-middle class. For a time, Society-fashionable. Clearly of artistic benefit to those few, with canny habit of self-control, who used it without being used up. Lansing’s song is radiant: here supple like summer leaf, there mineral rock-hard; from auld material Lansing, like Yeats before him, has made magic from “Magick.” Others, of the “New Age,” did not fare so well.
Lansing’s poems breathe out-of-doors, far from the séance parlor, far from the dropout commune-house: his words fill with Spring mist. His Eros dispenses with Theosophic costume. Back down the path are those timid, antiquated souls needing “Egyptian ritual” or “Eleusinian Mystery” to be confident in sex. Lost are the overdosers, the addicts. Melancholy, in retrospect: many were left behind, but are mourned for. But there is fraternal love. Not the gnostic’s contempt only. A generous strain: from where?
Walt Whitman, I wager. Unashamed, amative, world-walking and world-embracing Whitman. He is surely a presence in Lansing’s writing. The comradeship of men, without spell or astral-projection: in construction boots, like Lansing in winter, dungarees and a plaid coat. Lansing has brought open-faced, demotic Whitman and esoteric, mesmerizing Crowley together, but not hierarchically. In no wise are they ranked: not Whitman for the demos, Crowley for the initiates; but by some alchemy they unite, by some alchemy beyond my ken. They are, however, there.
Dark has fallen, but the heat hasn’t lifted. The air carries salt. I turn the ignition and pull away from the grass shoulder, below Gerrit’s hedgerow. Nearby is the castle, and the crypt, of Jack Hammond. Gray-granite Medieval, unlike his parents’ Tudor mansion. Mining-money, and technological marvels. The casino-royale of Magnolia razed, the Oceanside: the millionaire, the royal, the pretender gone to other pleasure-domes. Wonders of the age, to dirt.
At Gerrit’s, the party lingers, and his hospitality nourishes. From open windows warm light. Conversation pours forth sparkling, like light on the water it does. Tonight there are stars. Not every night has stars.
In Northern Earth
The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,
cats of many colors run among the sumach
that roots in human stomachs long gone back
to long enduring earth, and what is length
of days or seasons in astronomy of death?
Endurance is calamity if earth speaks true
and the measurement of time is not posterity.
How the line must lengthen if the sun endures
and the poem report advanced celebrity!
Dissolve, coagulate, the chemists say:
but the first darkness blinds the human eyes
that climb the ladder of the visionary spinal chord to issue in the thousand-petalled sun.
Or, notes toward an essay
For out there lies the great campaign that comes first and last, the ultimate adventure of the individual into himself.
John Whiteside Parsons, Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword
This reliquary could never do a halfway decent job of getting down everything I want to say about Gerrit Lansing, but that’s not the purpose of these relics, for they exist to help me out of the cave of my mind. They are but signposts to the beginning of friendship, which all began with a discussion of John Uri Lloyd’s book Etidorhpa, within which we find, “Come, my friend, let us enter the expanses of the Unknown Country. You will soon behold the original of your vision, the hope of humanity, and will rest in the land of Etidorhpa. Come, my friend, let us hasten.” Through knowing Gerrit, I have come to better un-know myself, to decipher the strange paradoxes of what I thought I knew, and in turn ease the continual pressure to be entirely aware and to reside in a field of broadened consciousness.
It must have been in the winter of 2007 that Mike and Tanya County introduced me to Gerrit in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Meeting Gerrit helped me to better know the cosmos within myself. The first ‘gateway book’ Gerrit gave me was John Anthony West’s Serpent in the Sky, knowing the research for my first novel needed a broader context. West’s Serpent presents the Egyptological work of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, who was radically ignored by scholars for years, keeping alive access to civilizations outside of our own.
Ohio is common ground. I mentioned d. a. levy and Gerrit recalled Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookstore in Cleveland. Sometimes our conversation travels to his childhood home near Chagrin Falls and the sculpture of Henry Church, a primitive American artist who not only fashioned his family gravestone but also was the creator of a towering relief carving overlooking the Chagrin River called “The Rape of the Indian Tribes by the White Men.” Gerrit grew up in this part of Ohio when it was all farmland and Starbuck was just a character in Moby Dick. Like myself, it was H. P. Lovecraft who gave him his first glimpse of New England through those strange shadowy stories. I’ll remain jealous of Gerrit’s Northeast Ohio, mine was a nasty suburban hellish high school experience followed by a cacophony of cars and bars.
A consummate bibliophile, the shelves towering and stacked deep with a coterie of adepts, Gerrit has a book for all of us, not just any book, but the book we were missing all along. It’s happened countless times and between us exists a fast-paced two-way lending library and serious addiction to all things Ex Libris. With our seasonal trips to Weiser Antiquarian Books in York Beach, Maine, I have had to add a couple of bookshelves to my own collection, most of which focus around the work of Austin Osman Spare (AOS).
In fact it was on my first trip to Weiser during the summer after our meeting, that I arrived by invitation to one of the world’s premiere dealers of esoteric books and found the very book I had been trying to locate since beginning work on my novel. The Serpent Mound, by E. O. Randall, was published by the Ohio State Archeological Society in 1907 — it was the resource I had been wondering if I’d ever locate, and here it was sitting on a shelf in what was once a gallery for the artist Walt Kuhn. Gerrit was finding yet another way to get a book into my hands.
It is the artist, Austin Osman Spare, for whom I’m most indebted to Gerrit for bringing me along on somebody’s oeuvre of work I would have never located through the traditional channels of art school or even at the far from traditional Kerouac School where I last studied. Spare has left bruises on my mind that will linger. Spare like any of us only sought to fulfill the desire of the subconscious or in Zizekian terms he had used fantasy to stage his desire into infinity. On loan, until I could afford my own copies, I had Gerrit’s books on Spare, including the stunning three volume From the Inferno to Zos: The Writings and Images of Austin Osman Spare, published by First Impressions in 1993. I was eventually able to purchase these books from Keith and Marilyn Richmond at Weiser who always give Gerrit and me the most graceful and magickal customer service one could hope for. Inferno to Zos opened AOS to me as more than any one of his chosen paths. AOS was an artist, chaos magician, illustrator, occultist, philosopher, and sigilizer. His dedication to multiple pathways forged for me the spirit and spit to carry on in my own directions. I began painting portraits of Spare a couple of years ago and there is something about them that is at once a nuisance and a devious delight. Many people never see them on the walls, others notice them at once, and like Gerrit they differentiate and meet their viewers at many levels.
Gerrit also has given me Gloucester, through our drives, walks, and in the stories of its core inhabitants. From his arrival to town and short stay at the Hammond Castle, to his current residence across from Stage Fort Park, Gerrit has shared it all openly with me over many hours of spirited conversation. I have a golf ball from the oldest cemetery in Gloucester sitting on my bookshelf. I grabbed it on a day when we hit four cemeteries including Beechbrook Cemetery, where Ipsissimus Charlemagne rests in peace. Jonathan Bayliss once said of Charlemagne, “I’d hate to be his employee or employer — yet he’s just the kind of teacher I need. He knows more than I do about everything except steam cleaners, and I must admit that he understands me better than I understand him.”
Most importantly Gerrit has written poems, specifically he has written the poem, “One of the Company of Light,” which to me is a damn fine poem that gives me chills each time I read it. “One of the Company of Light” was published in The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (North Atlantic, 1977), Heavenly Tree Soluble Forest (Talisman House, 1995), and most recently in Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (North Atlantic, 2009). It is a poem of immense solitude and fortune-hopping, a song for dark nights. It begins, “The star man in my heart / is young and moves with all the strength / memory masters.” Like many of Gerrit’s poems it is eye-opening, aligned with star and stone, a mystery lodged in my mind and on the tip of my tongue. I feel like I’ve read these words before, but know that it’s the voice I recognize, the depth of care in each syllable, that for me Gerrit becomes his poem, “He moves in the untold vigil / of / the children of others, / the warrior behind the dolor of actual war game stupidity.”
In 2008 I painted a portrait of/for Gerrit after his poem, “One of the Company of Light.” I titled my painting the same and included the following epigraph from Christopher Smart, “For I am ready for the trumpet & alarm to fight, to die & to rise again.” Smart, another shared pleasure, for me is a litmus test for taste, one that Gerrit passes with the highest marks. The painting features a portrait of Gerrit based on a picture I took of him in Stage Fort Park during a picnic lunch with James, Amanda, Abigail, and Sam Cook in the summer of 2008. He dons a well-worn Red Sox cap, Terminator sunglasses, and the slightest hint of annoyance in noticing the camera aimed his way; above him in a flood are royal colors that shake loose red sigils and the familiar for whom Gerrit’s bookstore was named, Abraxas.
Currently we are planning an excursion to Lynn, Massachusetts, to visit High Rock where Spiritualist John Murray Spear built his mechanical messiah also known as, New Motive Power, a machine which could collect and disseminate the universal motion of all things. There is some required reading for this mission that I’m still working on and hope to finish soon, I’ve yet to uncover the story of the destruction of Spear’s machine and the crowd who did it with pitchforks and fire.
I look forward to every visit with Gerrit, knowing that I’ll be surprised at the range of our conversation and the willingness on his part to listen attentively as my mind races to catch up. I always leave his house feeling refreshed, driven, and inspired. His warm spirit continues to unlock the light in many.
The Dragon and the Unicorn is Kenneth Rexroth’s second long philosophical poem about World War II. As in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” he quests for some saving source of hope in a stricken world, this time through firsthand inspection of America and Europe. Rexroth dates the composition “1944–50” to establish its connection with the last years of the war and those immediately afterward — obviously a period of massive emotional upheaval. He had already observed the extreme swing between pervasive disillusionment during the war and the giddy rebounding of optimism afterward, even as people reeled from the nearly unfathomable nightmare — the explosion of the first atom bombs.
Rexroth’s war poems joined a number of other long modernist poems produced in reaction to the war’s horrors: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), H.D.’s Trilogy (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1944, Tribute to the Angels, 1945, The Flowering of the Rod, 1946), some of the later poems of Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain: The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn” and “Three Poems of the Atomic Age” (1947), Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), and William Carlos Williams’s “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower” (1951). With respect to Eliot and Pound, Rexroth was consciously taking a counter-position in The Dragon and the Unicorn to that of the Four Quartets and the “Cantos” (leading up to and including The Pisan Cantos). In “The Dragon,” Rexroth refers to The Pisan Cantos:
Stumbled to the pitiful
Conclusion of the longest
And most highly decorated
Hymn of hate in literature.
Rexroth intended his poem to stand as a hymn of love to counterbalance the anti-Semitism that sours the Cantos.
Further, Rexroth wanted his personalist poetics to stand against Eliot’s and Pound’s artifice of an impersonal persona and the New Critics’ aestheticism. In “The Dragon,” as in his other writings, he was heralding a directly expressive lyricism and calling on others to join him in revitalizing American poetry by returning social force to it. Now, some could argue that the crisis of imprisonment made Pound unmask himself in The Pisan Cantos. Certainly, he expresses suffering, though with scant trace of remorse: “Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence the faltered.” But his mode of expression is mostly indirect and often veiled in metaphor or in a foreign language. The closest the reader is allowed in perhaps is Pound’s revelation: “the loneliness of death came upon me / (at 3 P.M., for an instant) δακρύων ἐντευ̂θεν.”
In the first section of The Dragon and the Unicorn, Rexroth responds to the beginning of “Burnt Norton” where Eliot deduces, as if paced to a metronome:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
In rejoinder, Rexroth writes:
… In experience each present
Time includes the past and as the
Future appears it is included
In it. … / … no one has ever
Seen either the past or the
Future, we live in the present.
Rexroth’s meditation on serial, quantified time dismisses it as an artificial concept in comparison with the organic patterns of time:
Actually, the concept
Of time arose from the weaving
Together of the great organic
Cycles of the universe,
Sunrise and sunset, the moon
Waxing and waning, the changing
Stars and seasons, the climbing
And declining sun in heaven,
The round of sowing and harvest,
And the life and death of man.
In refutation of Eliot’s and Pound’s evasive poetics of impersonality, Rexroth reveals himself in The Dragon and the Unicorn to be as flawed and wanting as the world around him. Among the personal faults he displays are: reverse snobbery, pride in his sexual potency, idealizing and recommending himself, scurrility, and rage. As Geoffrey Gardner explains in “The Cast Snakeskin and the Uncut Stone,” Rexroth’s self-disclosure has a double purpose:
His faults of character are so patent and transparent that there is little ground here in which any form of psychoanalysis can dig. In fact, part of the argument of the poem is that psychoanalysis, despite all its pretensions to the contrary, can at best go only a very short way towards answering the questions the poem poses. It cannot unravel the mystery of evil, and it guides us very little in our moral choices. By showing his faults and excesses, Rexroth means to present himself as exemplary, in his problems and confusions, of all people at mid-century.
The Dragon and the Unicorn is structured between narrative and philosophical poles, a dynamic interplay ultimately subsumed by a contemplative perspective. The first four parts of the poem, from spring through the autumn of 1949, chart Rexroth’s picaresque journey from California to Europe and back as he unfolds his philosophy. The concluding fifth part briefly sums up his anarchist and mystical philosophy, and then in its main lines moves through a succession of longer lyrics, progressing through the seasons over the course of a full year from winter till the end of another autumn. The first-person, present tense travelogue is straightforward in contrast to the highly complex philosophy. Running at parallels, the narrative and the philosophy alternate, providing exempla, argument and challenge for one another. As Gardner elucidates:
The two strands diverge and come close and diverge again throughout the poem. Out of this constant juxtaposition, there slowly emerges for Rexroth a kind of master perspective encompassing both philosophy and experience. It is this perspective that opens what glimpses of renewal the poem can offer while also disclosing that no philosophy can be adequate to account for the intricacy of experience whose accumulating wastes of sorrow and destruction necessarily spill beyond the confines of any philosophy.
The poem’s movement is the traditional course of mystical work, the climbing of the ladder of thought to its limits and then ascent into an increasingly sustained contemplative mode.
The title itself links the opposing elements of earth and air, thus introducing the structural and thematic explorations of the creative and destructive aspects of existence. As Rexroth proposes:
All things have an apparent
Meaning and an opposite
Hidden brought forth by fire.
The phoenix and the tortoise,
The dragon and the unicorn,
Man, eagle, bull and lion.
The alchemy of fire enables the phoenix to rise again from the ashes, just as it can transform the dragon’s fire to constructive use.
The dragon and the unicorn are opposite emblems of each other — of destruction and creation, wrath and gentleness, fire and earth — and as well, the reverse. The dragon is slain by the heroes of Western myths and fairy tales, and demonized in Christianity as the fire-breathing monster defeated by the archangel Michael. But in Chinese symbolism, the dragon stands for happiness, immortality, procreation, fertility, and activity. The unicorn represents innocence, purity, and beauty, but also lust, ferocity, and viciousness. The unicorn’s horn can be a cruel weapon, though the creature can be tamed by the love of a virgin. The dragon, too, can be subdued by love. The pairing of opposites in the title thus announces the comparative examination of polarities in the poem: community versus collectivity, love versus hate, passion versus lust, sexual communion versus sexual exploitation, and the extreme poles of consciousness (dreaming and waking), and those of reality (being and not being).
The span, range, and registry of The Dragon and the Unicorn are wide, massive, and complex. Rexroth sweeps together abstract statements, tantalizing descriptions of meals, intimate assignations, denunciatory opinions, majestic and miniature descriptions of nature, nearly gratuitous glorification of whores, and harsh satirical exposés of corrupt government and church practices. This mixed registry “establishes a continuum of language and experience within which all the diverse and conflicting material Rexroth introduces are free to contend,” as Gardner notes.
Rexroth considers further and at greater length the question raised in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” of how it is possible to live, love, and create art in a rent and battered post World War II world. He begins by having a self-interested authority figure, Pontius Pilate, ask “What is love?” and wash his hands. To signal the subject of his poem, Rexroth substitutes the word “love” for the “truth” that Pilate requests of the crowd vilifying Christ. “The Dragon” is largely a response to this question. Rexroth examines practical relationships between politics, religion, and sex in the contemporary situation and throughout the history of Western civilization. “It is love and love alone … as it says in the old popular song” that is the wellspring of living community, as he later went on to write in the introduction to The Collected Longer Poems.
Of grave concern to Rexroth is the morbid avoidance of experience by most Americans. He sets his own intense immersion in experience as a counter example and rues the fact that all the rites of passage — birth, “Childhood, puberty, fucking / Parenthood, vocation, growing / Old and dying,” which are “the matter of / The sacraments in more normal / Societies — baptism, / Confirmation, marriage, / Orders, communion, unction —” are treated as “actual serious sickness” instead of “Windows into reality.” He surveys:
… a / Picture of a nation gone
Stark raving mad, in the grip
Of mutually homicidal
Paranoia. So it is
Fitting that its sacrament
Should be the atom bomb
… / The blazing mushroom cloud is
Just such a mystical vision
As one would expect of the
Managers of the Dupont
Industries and their enslaved
The journey begins and ends with Rexroth on his own. Initially, to assuage his loneliness and longing, he partakes in a number of amorous encounters. Their brevity accentuates his yearning for love and introduces the motif that heartbreak and loss define the human condition and that such suffering, experienced or witnessed, can nourish a sense of compassion:
Pain, waste and loss are inherent
In the world of contingency.
Death, sickness, suffering may
Fill us with an agony of
Rexroth is then joined by his American lover at the time, Marthe, whom he represents as his wife in sacred marriage. Even after he is left solitary again as he nears the end of his quest, his reflections are illuminated by the sacrament of love. He ascends from desperate horror at America and the ruined world he sees at large through erotic abandon into sacramental marriage and redemptive enlightenment, as he finds reassuring signs of the persistence of the community of love. Rexroth commences the poem just before Easter, repeating the symbolic temporal setting of “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” and once again aligning himself with Dante’s great spiritual odyssey.
The central tension in “The Dragon” is the deadly struggle between “members of communities” and “members of collectivities” who are ruled by the State and the Capitalist system:
Mankind will sink only deeper
Into mutual murder
As long as collectivity
Robs them of their persons, starves
And dehumanizes them,
Deranges their desires, crazes
Them with insane appetites
Instead of the satisfactions
Of mutual love, provides them
With commodities which turn
To guns in their hands and bullets
In their bowels, and leaves them
Finally perfect, abstract
Integers, anonymous white
X’s in battlefield graveyards.
Rexroth advises: “There are no most men, / As there are no most trees or stars. / Behind the collection stands, / One by one, a person.” With Kant, Rexroth sees that “The moral atom of this world, / The irreducible minimum” is each particular person. Each person is to be regarded and treated as an end, and never used as a means. Mutual love is the principle that enables community, which grows in love, a process that Rexroth terms “extrapersonalization” and suggests is the antidote to the State’s depersonalization. Its immediate ends are freedom and peace. Community begins with lovers:
The person is transcended
By the reflexion of himself
In the other in love, the
Unique is universalized
In the dual, any important
Crux of reality is
On the emergence of
A person into a love
Has no other real content.”
As Rexroth would tell Cyrena N. Pondrom in a 1969 interview for Contemporary Literature: “The personalization of reality … is its terms, that is, its poles. Reality flows between the two poles of personalization, and the fulfillment of reality is, so to speak, saturation with this charge.”
Love, then, is the root of all human community. At the deepest level of understanding, reality is not “an Absolute / And its aspects, or a Creator / And his contingent creatures.” Rather, it is a community of lovers in which
Person’s experience grows
From an insignificant
Indivisible atom to
An infinite universe.
Sexual love fuses the fundamental polarity between self and other, and therefore represents the wholeness of vision that comes with contemplation, which “Is the satisfaction of fulfilled / Love relationships, union with / The beloved object.” The contemplative perspective conjoins the dual “rays / Called Artemis and Apollo, Helios, Luna, Sun and Moon.”
The Dragon and the Unicorn concludes with the transcendent perspective arising precisely from contending in the natural and human realms of existence, moving between the negative pole of grasping appetite and the positive pole of unselfish love, agape. The frail, flawed nature of being is the very origin and completion of its sacred dimension, just as “The Phoenix” depicts the way to light originating in the experience of darkness.
The reciprocal dynamic of love and contemplation encapsulates the interdependent reflexive nature of the cosmos:
It is the dark of the moon.
… / …
… Coming up the road
Through the black oak shadows, I
See ahead of me, glinting
Everywhere from the dusty
Gravel, tiny points of cold
Blue light, like the sparkle of
Iron snow. I suspect what it is,
And kneel to see. Under each
Pebble and oak leaf is a
Spider, her eyes shining at
Me with my reflected light
Across immeasurable distance.
With ease, as if by chance, Rexroth comes upon the visionary image of the Jewel Net of Indra and intuits the significance of its infinite web of relationship.
The Dragon and the Unicorn, as James Laughlin summarizes in his introduction to excerpts in New Directions XIII (1951) is Rexroth’s eloquent response to the “world mess … On the surface level it is the travel diary of a European tour; … On the deeper level it is the great journey that the major poets attempt into the wilderness of life’s meaning.” Richard Eberhart likewise observes in his laudatory review that Rexroth takes “a voyage of the spirit.”
The Dragon and the Unicorn also drew rapturous praise from other poets. Charles Olson was so knocked over that he immediately wrote to Rexroth in June 1951 about the nourishing “pleasure” of reading it, extolling his accomplishment: “yr form unrolls like the Eastern scroll that it is … you are … contemplative …. crazy, how you manage it, the metric…. I am full of thanks …. This is the most interesting poem I have put inside me in a very long time.” Olson also commented to Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan: “That long poem of his, The Dragon and the Unicorn, that’s really something! He gets the whole thing down there.”
Robert Duncan, whose mysticism and reverence for D. H. Lawrence, matched Rexroth’s, regarded The Dragon and the Unicorn with exalted admiration. Duncan commended its seamless artistry to Denise Levertov: “Changes wedded to the change in address, from the travel diary to the metaphysics that at first I was not aware how subtly it had been wrought — I was taking it for granted.” He also shared with “Denny” his enchantment with Rexroth’s reference to Zoroaster’s remark about poetry making apparent the unapparent, exclaiming: “how thoroughly I adore Kenneth.” He especially approved of Rexroth’s conjuring of mystical enlightenment as “The sleep which fell on Adam / Was the deep lassitude / Of divine contemplation.”
Duncan went on to tell Rexroth directly about his deep appreciation of his poetry. In 1953, he wrote about his having been dazzled by The Signature of All Things, Beyond the Mountains, and The Dragon and the Unicorn:
You take a microscope to any area and find it beautifully measured but the urgency of the statement, or the presence of a world is such that the achievement of the art is only a way. There is no abstracted response to these poems, but unless the feeling of the universe be aroused the achievement of the line, the measure, is wedded to it. 
He mused further on “The Dragon:”
The integration … thru the poem — of anger, of tendresse, of worldly wisdoms and of personality — … I came to you in the dreams of a kinship with the good, a love as a way, of which so much of the poem rises, that informs visions of the natural world. … This is a letter to you, an old friend because my soul has come to a door which is guarded by your spirit. And to tell you that your spirit was, in the dream, tender and good, that it was you indeed and to tell you that I am engaged with your work.
Such was the intensity of Robert’s regard for Kenneth that sooner or later it was bound to fizzle out. This nearly worshipful attitude, combined with the fact of their similarly passionate demeanor — talkers commanding the spotlight — portended an eventual dramatic break. But for now, their intellectual fraternity was deeply grounded and intact.
Rexroth was to persist in the anti–New Critics stance that the “Dragon” demonstrates vividly and at length. Nearly a decade after its publication in 1952, in “The New American Poetry,” published in the New York Times Book Review (February 12, 1961), he denounces the “powerful Reactionary Generation” and the punitive affect of
a willful provincialism, a deliberate cutting off of American verse from the main stream of world poetry of the twentieth century. Sidney Lanier was far more important to the Southern Agrarians than was Goethe … let alone Baudelaire or Apollinaire.
The main thrust of “The New American Poetry” is to declare that the New Critics’ reign is over and to point out the ascendancy of a tradition derived from Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Their internationalism and visionary mode were inspiring Creeley, Duncan, Everson, Levertov, Lamantia, Olson, among others. Duncan agreed with Rexroth that Lawrence’s darkly erotic mysticism and Williams’s poetic epiphanies formed a crucial basis for contemporary American poetry. And this “line of affinities … comes together in Yeats,” as Rexroth was to repeat over the years. Rexroth was instrumental in this development, though he gives himself no explicit credit in the essay, likely either out of modesty or to avoid stating the obvious. But how he describes this poetics is clearly reflective of his own:
The young poets who have come into notice since the Second World War have certain common characteristics, and they are certainly wholesome ones. Primary is an emphasis on direct, personal communication. All of them have something to say and are anxious to have other people pay attention. In some this has taken the form of poetry of explicit social protest.
In stressing the poets’ independence, Rexroth was also asserting the importance of the West Coast creative community:
One of the most interesting things about these young postwar poets is their decentralization (it has never been noticed that this is also true of the contemporary novelists). They grew up not only in independence of the capital — the literary marketplace — but far away from it and in deliberate antagonism to it.
Essential is this protective isolation from the commercial publishing houses that had already kidnapped the Beats, using the social phenomenon for profit in tourism and advertising.
Instead of mentioning his own considerable influence, Rexroth hands the mantle of leadership over to Olson and to Duncan. He credits Olson for exerting
great influence on the entire group as a teacher and theorist. Like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, in fact like all these people, he owes a great deal to William Carlos Williams. He owes even more to Ezra Pound’s Cantos. For several years he has been writing a long spiritual epic, a tighter, drier, less gaudy descendant of the Cantos — the Maximus Poems. This work is in the same tradition as the “interior epics,” actually philosophical reveries, of the Twenties — Zukofsky’s A or Lowenfels’s Some Deaths. Olson lacks the passion and trouble and concern of his predecessors and he lacks the intensity of Creeley and Levertov. No one could quarrel with his scope. His canvas is as broad as Pound’s, but his material makes more sense in terms of actual life. I suppose the best comparison is William Carlos Williams’s own “epic,” Paterson. Olson’s shorter poems have a ruminative complexity a little like the later long poems of Wallace Stevens.
Rexroth then turns to Duncan, examining his:
special quality of temper which he shares with Edmund Wilson or Pandit Nehru, he is a Good European. Although Duncan has been singularly open to all the influences of all times and places, and has learned from all the Old Masters of Modernism, from Reubén Darío to Yves Bonnefoy, his distinguishing characteristic is not the breadth of his influences, but the depth and humanness of his heart. Now that he is approaching early middle age he has begun to take on something of the forgotten grandeur of the great nineteenth-century “men of the world” of letters — Monckton Milnes or Walter Bagehot. I can think of no other poet of my time of which anything like this could be said — with most, the very idea is ridiculous. As mentor and example, Duncan’s influence on the younger men of the new New Poetry has been incalculable.
At the close of the article, Rexroth all but acknowledges his leadership, as would be apparent to anyone who had a clue about the contemporary literary scene and recent cultural history:
Someone once said of one of the older leaders of this new renaissance that he made poetry a social force in San Francisco. This is about as complimentary a remark as could be made about a poet. Whatever else they have done, our young poets have returned poetry to society. Today in America, more than anywhere else in the world, large numbers of people find poetry interesting. It says something to them, something meaningful in their dilemmas and exultations. This is no small accomplishment.
This was a characteristically generous stroke, for he emphasizes the result, not his part in it.
Many years later, in 1985, Duncan gave an interview for Sagetrieb, a literary magazine dedicated to the poetics of Pound and Williams and their successors. He returns the credit to Rexroth, noting their mutual attraction to the numinous, mystical quality of Williams’s poetry and that they discerned what some readers missed: “the crucial experience in art is coming upon something.” Duncan then outlines Williams’s approach – “everything appears as an epiphany to him” — indicating that this was equally his approach and Rexroth’s. Finally, Duncan goes on to say that “Rexroth would have been a root” for himself and for many third-generation American modernist poets even if “Rexroth gets isolated out as a loner.”
Drawn from excerpts of A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth, chapter 7, “Through the Crystal Deep”; chapter 8, “‘The Holiness of the Real’: Visionary Poetry”; chapter 9, “Sparks in the Tinder of Knowing”; and chapter 14, “Upbeat But Out of Joint.”
1. Strictly speaking, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” predates WWII; it was written in 1935. But its mood of foreboding, introduced through the motifs of the fall from the Garden of Eden and that “humankind cannot bear too much reality,” offers a fitting introduction to the three wartime quartets: “East Coker” (1940), “Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942).
18. In part 2, the narrative suddenly shifts into the plural “we,” with Marthe simply coming into the picture without any fanfare. The first indication she has joined Rexroth is everyone exclaiming at “a peasant auberge” over the “velos” (bicycles) that he and Marthe have ridden from Paris: “De Paris à Italie? / Incroyable! Formidable!” Then, Rexroth refers to “We weep … / … We shake / Hands … / We camp on the Loire” (The Dragon and the Unicorn, 32; CP: 358).
Olsonian poetics of the body in Rosmarie Waldrop's "A Form / of Taking / It All"
Charles Olson’s body-based poetics becomes an influential source for women poets attempting to redefine feminist projects after the 1960s. As Kim Whitehead’s Feminist Poetry Movement shows, much writing inspired by second-wave feminism draws on liberal models of selfhood and political recognition, viewing women’s “confession” of private experiences as the basis for the empathy and solidarity that form collective public identity. Such a model conceives gender (as well as other forms of embodied identity) as a particular or nonessential characteristic of an otherwise universal democratic subject who merits equality and respect in the public sphere. Yet the abstraction of this universal subject whose private voice should translate transparently into a neutral public arena can all too easily silence or fail to take into account how embodied identity affects communication in the social context within which such political fictions are embedded.
Disillusionment with the inadequacy of liberal models of self and public space has generated a range of post-liberal revisions of the social, among them the revival of Hannah Arendt’s challenge to the private-public distinction in conceiving public identity as a site of “world-making and self-disclosure” and Wendy Brown’s Freudian analyses of political subject formation, in which an “identity of self rooted in injury” can erode the desire for liberal definitions of freedom. Paul Gilroy and Judith Butler critique the fiction of the liberal subject as a falsely disembodied ideal of Enlightenment self-realization grounded in a Hegelian master-slave dichotomy that abjects embodied identity, thus ignoring or silencing the role the body plays in identity construction.
In this context, Olson’s poetics of the physical “organism” subject to the “kinetics” of energy transfer in an environment conceived as force field (13, 16) provides a useful model for exploring the relation of embodied subjectivity to the social processes through which it is constructed. The prominence of the masculine body in Olson’s work has made him a powerful example to engage and resist for women writers with feminist projects. As Linda Kinnahan argues for William Carlos Williams, the strong connection between masculinity and poetic creativity in Olson’s work exposes the role of gender in constructing social and imaginary space in new ways and leads women writers to explore similar connections between femininity and writing. In translating the unspeakable, Kathleen Fraser credits Olson with inspiring experimental women’s writing that views the “page as a graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind” (186).
The Olsonian imagery of the force field that pervades Waldrop’s poetics reveals language to be a significant site for exploring embodied identity, specifically gender. Assuming that Olson’s body-based poetics is “the commonplace that rhythm has a physical basis: breath and pulse,” Waldrop’s 1977 essay “Charles Olson: Process and Relationship” discusses the importance of relational identity in the field. Because an object is “no nucleus of tangibility but instead a system of relationships,” touch represents “the contiguity of man and his environment” that places “the soul … in the skin” and defines human growth as “outward” into and through interaction with place conceived as “horizontal” “topography” or continuum. Embodiment is extensively informed by heterosexual difference. While Waldrop analyzes several examples from the Maximus Poems, her choice of “Tyrian Business” as a “negative example” of limited prescriptions of “the way man and woman should move” and her questioning whether “M and G” in Part II are “Maximus and Gloucester” or “Man and Girl” recognize (or read in) the possible conflation of heterosexual relation with the gendered relation between “man” and nature (Dissonance, 58, 60, 64, 70, 76–78).
Judith Butler’s critique of the intimate connection between gender and materiality illuminates Waldrop’s conflation of body and language as they shape her meditations on gender. Building on Foucault’s analysis of sexual identity as an effect of power made to seem natural through its location in the body, Butler conceives of physicality as a social construction, “a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Bodies, 9). For Butler, assigning bodies gender establishes both the materiality of gender and the gender of matter. The sexed body becomes the form (morphe) through which we imagine identity. Matter is gendered through compulsory heterosexuality’s “abjection” of one sex or the other from the individual (Bodies, 3). Butler traces the gendering of the form-matter dichotomy from Plato’s transformation of a potentially mutual informing of two different kinds of matter into masculine “autogenesis” of identity through form substantiated by feminine matter as passive, unformed “receptacle” (chora) (Bodies, 50–51). Because the body is subject to heterosexual difference, it is difficult to think of self independent of the forms the gendered body imposes.
Olson’s imagery of the gravitation and kinetics of the body in the force field informs Waldrop’s lifelong exploration of the erotic forces shaping self and the social in a world where heterosexuality pervades matter. One of her deepest engagements with Olson’s work comes in the late 1980s, as she experiments with formal strategies for writing about gender. These experiments range from attempts to flee the body’s form in lyrics like “Saltwoman,” which imagines the dispersal of the Keresan salt goddess into the mineral salt, to Waldrop’s denser contextualization of family and intergenerational influence on gender identity in the novel A Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. Unusual in Waldrop’s oeuvre for the wealth of historical and social context in which she embeds her characters, A Form / of Taking / It All adapts “Projective Verse” to trace the formation of embodied consciousness through social practice. A Form critiques Olson’s idealization of non-Western cultures as living in harmony with a feminized natural world and reveals the sexual politics of both conquest and science that reinforces gender hierarchy. This strikingly original revision of Olson attempts to imagine social space and forms of knowledge that free her characters from imagining the world in heterosexual terms.
Waldrop sets A Form in Mexico, engaging both Olson’s search among Native American peoples for a language closer to nature than that of European abstraction and his interest in the “form” of European colonial encounters with American peoples. Abundant themes and imagery that allude to Olson’s early poetry and essays (colonial encounters, collaging of historical sources, images of birds, dance, jewels, and the pendulum from “Human Universe,” “Mayan Letters,” “Apollonius of Tyana”) recontextualize Olson’s Mexico to critique its gender politics. “Human Universe” idealizes Mayan glyphs — inscriptions on stone — because they “retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (58), expressing a “circuit” of immediacy between Mayan bodies, cultural production, and nature as the immediate expression of “flesh” not alienated from nature. While Olson describes the glyphs in relatively gender-neutral terms, his adaptation of this idea in his own writing reinforces masculine imposition of form on feminine matter. The Mayan myths Olson retells in “Mayan Letters” focus on submission of feminine moon to masculine sun who “puts her eye out” for infidelity, and Olson’s portrayal of embodied identity through dance in “Apollonius of Tyana” reinforces gender hierarchies in Apollonius’s vertical self-articulation against prone, feminized place. Andrew Mossin describes Olson’s conception of “form” as “the act of discovering the woman” where revelation is the right to impose form on her (32).
While Waldrop credits Olson with freeing her from the closed equivalences of metaphor that subordinate the individual to the pre-fabricated abstractions of Western metaphysics, she criticizes his gender politics as just such a closed system. Against Olson’s desire to experience American nature without mediation or to discover such immediacy in native peoples, the characters’ contact with primitive peoples in the Mexico of A Form is highly mediated. Written during a stay in Europe when Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop held Amy Lowell and Alexander von Humboldt fellowships, respectively, A Form reverses the direction of Waldrop’s travel and explores Mexico whimsically through the artificial structure of imagining the interaction between Lowell and Humboldt. Neither the explorers nor the primitive peoples achieve Olson’s fantasy of immediate harmony with nature. To his fleshly Maya, Waldrop opposes the imperialist Aztecs, whose mass human sacrifices to provide the sun with the blood they believed necessary to sustain it implicate the body immediately but violently in the cosmos. Waldrop parodies the training of native women to walk in full expression of feminine beauty as “feeling their genitals with every step, … as if every move gave birth,” a movement that is not natural but taught by a “mistress” with a whip who prepares the women to ascend the sacrificial altar gracefully, “as if carried by a cool wind” (173, 209). Explorers do not recover immediate contact with nature but perpetuate a “Kosmos-Machine” that asserts their masculinity through control and mapping of the feminine in Columbus’s earth as “pear-shaped” body with “nipple” and Humboldt’s universe as “splendid white flower” (166) opening before them. Waldrop’s “description” of sex as involving the lover’s tattooing his coat of arms on his beloved’s belly before “exploring” it relates masculine geographic and sexual knowledge to possession of a feminine body.
Nature is mere “scaffolding” for Humboldt’s scientific project, which seeks to order physical forms in “lines isodynamic, isoclinal, isothermal stretching between all the petals of the fall-blooming annual” (180), a self-fashioning project mocked in his striped clothing. The vehicle of such alignment as metaphor — “impl[ying] a relationship between two terms which are thus brought together in the muscle” (186), “a muscle whose action is to contract and thus to bring together the two structures to which it is attached” (164) — naturalizes the connections by which such systems of knowledge come to govern the cultural organism’s thought and motion. Feminized nature supports the bonds between men that consolidate masculine identity through scientific authority. Humboldt depends on botanist Aimé Bonpland, whose black clothes are designed to blend into the background (187), and commemorates the homoerotic relation with Reinhard von Haeften in an island Humboldt names but whose “interior [is] unpenetrated, unexplored” (174). Waldrop traces the homosocial and homoerotic relations grounding scientific knowledge, as Amy Lowell’s friend John admits to perpetuating this tradition in that his biography of Humboldt is “[a] mirror to discover things about himself” (215).
In contrast to the plenitude of nature and the body in Olson’s work and the assumption of heterosexual eros governing the relation and coherence of the universe, Waldrop represents the context shaping Amy as a fascinatingly discontinuous near-pastiche of nature, architecture, and queer body whose discontinuity and disorienting power are expressed in “A Form of Vertigo.” In the Mexico to which Amy travels, the seemingly solid earth grounding femininity is anything but stable. Amy’s relief at being on solid ground after her plane trip (“on the ground, you at least see the holes”) reminds us that both air and land have “holes.” Her friend Victoria perceives the land as mere crust over a volatile interior, “earthquake” and “volcano country” (161). If Amy’s “queasy” feeling of motion sickness from the flight reveals her body to be out of sync with the ground, the idea that she could achieve stability by realigning her body with the earth’s motion is undermined by her consciousness of the sun as an alternate center around which the earth orbits. Her involuntary muscle motions contrast with Humboldt’s voluntary ones, which measure and align nature purposefully.
Amy can hardly hold herself together on the spinning earth, much less sustain a relation to multiple centers. “[I]f she suddenly experiences the other, much faster movement around the sun, then she is truly lost, bits of naked flesh spinning into vast spaces, swallowed whole and instantly forgotten, at best caught in the large twilight zone that slips continually around the globe and abolishes all outsides” (177). The twilight zone as a mingling of sun’s light and earth’s darkness (or perhaps the moon’s derivative but reflected light) destroys the boundaries of objects reminiscent of the act or “edge” that defines Olson’s “man” as distinct from nature. Yet this twilight does not seem to reveal insides or to yield a new form of knowledge to replace what is lost. Dual centers scatter the body, fragmenting the security of its definition in relation to one center. Humboldt is no more at home. “No part of his body felt altogether comfortable” (167). He suffers from peeling sunburn, yellow fever and mosquitoes, although his homosocial bond with Bonpland shelters him somewhat from nature. Bonpland’s recitation of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum imposes order on the wilderness, and, in accompanying Humboldt, Bonpland bears the brunt of the violence from both the volcano and native peoples. (Bringing up the rear, Bonpland is clubbed on the head, leaving Humboldt free to measure natural phenomena with his many instruments.
Amy’s architectural placement further dissolves the integrity of body defined in relation to the earth. While she wishes someone would “paint a ceiling” on the air whose “holes” “take you unawares” in the airplane, her childhood memories strain against the clothing and architectures that frame her as feminine. “[A] fat little girl sits on a chair, buttoned into her coat. Laces her shoes, says thank you, says please …. Says ‘I’” (165). Self is superimposed on gendered body and exceeds heterosexual frames. While Amy remembers her body as too big against “wallpaper splotched with a steady downpour of roses” (167), her memory of “stuccoed fruit” on the ceiling whose falling she both fears and seems to desire or at least expect suggests consciousness of socially constructed femininity as a false imitation of nature. In defying the child’s natural sense of gravity, the stucco fruit both closes off the anxiety-creating holes and withholds the knowledge its “fall” might enable. Unlike this childhood body confined in socially constructed interiors, the adult Amy in her Mexican room contemplates a window frame with closed blinds through which she glimpses the changing light of an unseen sun. Imagining “trying to squeeze through” these slits as through her eyelids (162), she experiences the attempt to escape this architecture of femininity as the escape from her body rendered essentially feminine by the heterosexually informed gaze, yet the sheer abstraction and constructedness of these rooms convey a vertiginous sense of social space as an incoherent, artificial stage set suspended in indeterminate space.
Amy’s consciousness of her body can extend beyond these frames and reshape social space through desire. The homoerotic desire for Ada recalled by John’s voice “revived an amputated nerve she feels a remote fury in her muscles, things that had not been said [sic]” (163). Silenced and marginalized desire truncates the body and feeling that could extend beyond heteronormative form to new spaces, languages and relationships. “She used to think her memory was a cave, but perhaps it is a muscle connected to this child, contracting now, bringing her terribly close” (165). No longer conceived as an inner space, memory can connect structures to displace self through time and alter self’s relation to the present. What may be Amy’s or an implicit narrator’s memory serves this function. After Amy’s memory of childhood discomfort at being framed as a girl, Waldrop inserts what seems to be a quoted scientific observation into the narrative. “Between their legs, the young birds had a thick lump of edible fat” (167). While the sentence may reflect Amy’s reflection on her own sexuality, the incongruous comparison of her feminine body to a nonhuman one disrupts the heteronormative eros and meaning assigned women’s bodies. This disruption leads to the possibility of motion. “[R]ubbing her eyes” replaces objectification with touch in what may be a conflation of vision with autoeroticism to alter her environment. In generating the power to make “everything move,” to create a new world she “can’t depend on,” Amy extends agency to new centers or interactions between things. While unpredictable, the ensuing motion of both things and words obeys not only wind and the earth’s rotation, but also “heat, … earthquakes, … motor and muscle, … malice” (165), freeing words to leave the feminine body and cohere around unseen eros (heat), subterranean and ungendered bodily forces, and even damaging or subversive intent.
Within this social architecture of gender, Amy’s love for Ada opens a new world that challenges the heterosexual closure of Humboldt’s. Associated with birds, flight, and the color blue, Ada seems oriented to “a sky of her own, exotic” (163), the possibility of a horizon and universe outside the conventional. Ada’s role as performer takes Amy backstage, accentuating the social as theatrical rather than natural. Seeing behind the scenes opens new possibilities for language. Oddly populated with “mailboxes” of a “lovely blue” that recalls Ada’s sky, the illusory, self-contained scenery on which gender is performed is in fact open to messages from unknown communicants on the margins whose identity and location are undefined. As a figure who moves between center and margin, Ada has both a different relation to the earth and gravitation around her own center. Her walk, “pulled by the moon or tides of a piano or simply her feet” (167) responds to multiple centers outside the traditional model of the universe. Whether her own body, other bodies or art, these centers open the gravitational force of eros to objects beyond the heterosexual, even to the possibility of self-created forms. Not subject to the gender-framing gaze that places Amy as a child, Ada’s sense of touch establishes a comfortable relation to the earth, “blindly pulled, as if she saw with her feet,” her weight “distributed equally over their entire surface” (172). The sense Ada conveys of “this precise, even motion we are part of, which breath and pulse play against” (164), contrasts with Amy’s and Humboldt’s discomfort and disorientation. Ada’s balance reflects her self-centered axis of vision. She delights in watching the dervish-like cat chase its tail, an activity that makes the heterosexually tyrannized Amy “dizzy.” That this motion seems to allow Ada to “delve into disappearance, a surface of hard work beyond all solids” (172) suggests the dancer’s power to transform the (gendered) form and substance of the body into something sui generis through her own form of bodily motion.
Amy’s admiration of Ada opens a new vision of language as severed from conventional meaning that adheres to the heterosexual body.
Muffled sounds, incomprehensible, from all directions. A rolling, a rattle, a crack across the American voice. Terracaliente, she makes out, adios and tiempodelagarua. They are not words because she has no meaning for them, instead, glistening objects in the middle of a page, jewels on Cortés’s velvet cloak, adding incalculable weight in the heat. Or else buzzing insects, covering Alexander von Humboldt’s body till no part of it feels altogether comfortable, getting inside his clothes, their sting causing swellings which last for several weeks. (171)
Waldrop recontextualizes Olson’s image of non-Western language falsely understood by Western scholars, which for him “diminishes the energy once here expended into the sieve phonetic words have become to be offered like one of nature’s pastes that we call jewels to be hung as a decoration of knowledge upon some Christian and therefore eternal and holy neck” (63). While language for Olson is more beautiful and genuine when it refers to nature and not to Christian metaphysics, Amy would free words even from adherence to nature and body. Described as beautiful ornaments on the page imagined as a conqueror’s cloak, foreign words stripped of meaning and experienced sensually adorn a garment of power that obscures rather than accentuates the body’s shape. While potentially uncomfortable in the “heat” of the foreign environment, the “incalculable weight” the jewels add to the cloak suggests the new, unexpected substance these words take on when separated from the body’s gendered form. Humboldt reacts differently. Unintelligible words bother and infect his body; rather than appreciating their independent beauty, he fears their ability to penetrate, distort, and poison his body. Juxtaposing these metaphors that establish different relationships between language and the body, the passage opens multiple transformative possibilities for language use.
Despite the intriguing possibilities that love between Amy and Ada holds for transforming social space informed by heterosexual bonds, the novel ultimately represses rather than develops the potential for reconstructing both nature and gender that this same-sex relationship suggests. Although the narrative hints occasionally that Ada and Amy may have had a sexual relationship, Ada seems disconcerted by Amy’s desire and retreats into the role of fussy mother caring for her son Paul. The last section, “A Form of Doubt,” isolates Amy in the other characters’ discussions of heterosexual family (among others, with Victoria and Isabel, queens of empire). Victoria asserts motherhood as the only possible feminine plenitude (“The only time I have felt really at home in my body was when I was nursing [228–29]). Unable to sustain her effort, Amy finds herself reflecting that it is “[h]ard to wrest one’s independence from the force of gravity or gender patterns” (223).
Not only is Ada absent, but neither individual nor cultural memory provides a way out of this web. Amy’s memory of looking at a statue of the goddess Coatlicue in a museum is inhibited by John’s gaze, which seems to expect “some special reaction from her, news from the mother country, a test of sexuality” (223). In his presence, Amy feels nothing. Her queer, excessive body — not fixed natural essence but a nature-culture hybrid, “great archetypal mass of body and cigar,” “[b]ig body and bad habits” (218) — becomes a blank space. She feels caught in a web of lines that connect the goddess to the heterosexual family. These lines “link Victoria and John and the child, link Ada and Paul … yet [break] off, link fence, leaving a white area around her, snow crystals packed tight” (224). In a novel where heat suggests eros, snow crystals isolate and perhaps numb the body.
The mirror of Amy’s isolation is the Medusan “absent eye” of the goddess (220–21), whose decapitated body (the head supposedly severed by colonizers who could not bear its expression) spouts jets of blood in the form of serpents. A faceless combination of body parts — “the serpent squirts of blood where the face should be, the necklace of severed heads and hands” that evoke “desolation, anguish, glands or secret wishes, not with the breath of this language or that” (220–21) — the goddess’s resemblance to Medusa, whose powerful gaze is destroyed by Perseus, suggests the violent truncation of the body perpetuated by gender antagonism. The narrative is haunted by Humboldt’s and Ada’s corpses — Humboldt’s described through what seem to be passages from one of Waldrop’s sources, Sanitary Science for the Undertaker, and Ada’s through Amy’s fantasies that the dead Ada’s fingernails and hair continue to grow, indicating the continued agency of the more extensive body driven underground by the heteronormative social imaginary. The naturally “marshy” ground of the national capital Washington, DC, in which Waldrop locates herself at the end of the novel, is rendered stable only by intensive engineering in massive foundations and a pump system.
The blank space to which Amy is assigned foreshadows Waldrop’s shift from gravity and “forms” to a post-Newtonian physics that stresses the emptiness of the atom in the novel’s last section, “Unpredicted Particles,” as well as the focus on the feminine womb or “matrix” as a productive empty space in feminine body and language in Waldrop’s later work. While Waldrop’s increasing focus on the textual construction of gender may be due to the influence of French feminism that Ann Vickery traces as a significant influence on women Language poets at this time, A Form suggests the claustrophobic pressure of heteronormativity as the reason Waldrop abandons exploration of other kinds of erotic and affective bonds for what she has called linguistic “gap gardening.” Amy’s fuller ranges of social relationships and body-consciousness haunt space of the blank page, with its potential for freedom from specific setting and voice that Waldrop goes on to explore in subsequent work. The more fluid, disembodied voices of Waldrop’s later prose poetry may free subjectivity from the limitations of power structuring social space and embodied identity to redefine the feminine in the relative absence of social setting. Waldrop’s turn from more intensive social context for identity formation after A Form leads us to ask whether what may seem to be poetry happening in a vacuum liberates the development of alternative feminist identities, reflects a sense of disenfranchisement that hinders women’s attempt to construct such alternatives in real public space, or performs some combination of the two.
3. This essay also introduces the idea of “rupture” from Blanchot, Jabès and Kristeva as “very different from Olson’s outward growth” (Dissonance, 79), foreshadowing the shift toward exploration of emptiness in Waldrop’s later writing.
The materiality of the body and that of language are inseparable, and Waldrop’s later statements on poetics develop more fully the idea that language and the body are both “things” in the force field informed by sexual difference. Her 1996 “Form and Discontent” describes the poem’s origin in “a vague nucleus of energy” that “charges” a “semantic field” and develops by “listening to the sound, the ‘body’ of the starter words … [that] reveals their own vectors and affinities” (Dissonance, 203). This body is clearly gendered along heterosexual lines. Good writing is “androgynous, … partak[ing] of both male and female modes of thinking” (“Conversation,” 362) While language is informed by and preserves traces of the body, it also has a body of its own. This materiality of language is not that of an artificial medium but is rather inseparable from the gendered body, as stylistic choices are “leaps,” “limp[s],” or “defects,” and “[a] sentence is made by coupling” (“Conversation,” 349, 362, 364, 368). That Waldrop can in the same interview describe language as a “palimpsest” stresses the presence of historical and social usage as an additional force in her interaction with language (“Conversation,” 369). For discussion of Waldrop’s writing that relates it to Michael Davidson’s “palimptexts” as writing over or revising its sources, see Lynn Keller’s “‘Fields of Pattern,’” 380–81.
4. Donald Wellman also traces the feminine as a figure of “display” admitting male penetration or inscription (56). Mossin traces a homosocial function of this writing of the feminine as a triangle of communication between Olson, Boldereff, and Creeley much like the homosocial/homoerotic generation of identity Waldrop constructs in her portrayal of Alexander von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, and Reinhard von Haeften.
6. Waldrop’s “Charles Olson” essay contrasts skin as an immediate organ to the muscle and cranium lodged deeper in the body and thus “insulat[ing]” “the traditional soul” placed “deep inside” the body (Dissonance, 64).
Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
———. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Fraser, Kathleen. Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Grieve-Carlson, Gary, ed. Olson’s Prose. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
Keller, Lynn. “‘Fields of Pattern — Bounded Unpredictability’: Recent Palimptexts by Rosmarie Waldrop and Joan Retallack.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2 (2001): 376–412.
———. “‘Just one of / the girls: — / normal in the extreme’: Experimentalists-To-Be Starting Out in the 1960s.” Differences: Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 47–69.
Kinnahan, Linda. The Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Mossin, Andrew. “‘In Thicket’: Charles Olson, Frances Boldereff, Robert Creeley, and the Crisis of Masculinity at Mid-Century.” In Grieve-Carlson, Olson’s Prose, 16–46.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Edited by Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.
Retallack, Joan. “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop.” Contemporary Literature 40, no. 3 (1999): 328–77.
Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Waldrop, Rosmarie. Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
———. The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter & A Form / of Taking / It All. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986.
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002.
Wellman, Donald. “Olson and Subjectivity: Projective Verse and the Uncertainties of Sex.” In Grieve-Carlson, Olson’s Prose, 47–61.
Maximus at Gloucester High School
Eyes in the polis
Where are you from? Where do you live now? What are your haunts? And what do people say about those places? Does it depend on who you ask? What’s their agenda? Who tells you what it means to be from your hometown or to live where you do? What do you know about these places? And how do you know? And what do you have to say about it?
These questions motivate the Gloucester Project, a multi-genre exploration of Cape Ann art and culture that concludes the junior year for my students at Gloucester High School. Each year during fourth quarter students immerse themselves in a piece of the local artistic and cultural environment for five to ten weeks.
Charles Olson is the project’s presiding spirit, haunting it from beginning to end. Students encounter — sometimes sympathetically, sometimes skeptically — Olson’s attitudes, depictions, and uses of Gloucester. More importantly Olson, as a powerful, persistent, and imaginative reader, researcher, walker, and observer, points the way toward the students’ own explorations.
There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
(Olson’s “Letter 6”)
… a verb, to find out for yourself:
’istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)
Following Olson’s lead students read widely about Cape Ann culture, producing reader-response notes and an annotated bibliography. Further, they follow his lead by investigating on foot, walking around and paying attention. They also investigate memory, their own and others’ through oral history. (A great deal of Olson’s own memories and others’ stories find their way into the Maximus Poems, especially but not exclusively in the early poems written when he was away from Gloucester and unable to observe it directly when composing.) Students synthesize reading, on-foot observations, and memory into a researched argument, a personal experience essay, poems, and a short play. I won’t pretend that all students embrace the project. I also won’t pretend that there’s nothing artificial about how the project plays out in an institutional setting. I will claim, however, that most students exhibit a higher degree of engagement, attention, and care during the project than at any other time during the year.
or in every human head I’ve known is
the attention, and
however much each of us
chooses our own
Students, indeed, choose their concentration. Over the last eight years, students have chosen a range of topics: from Olson himself, to his friends (Jonathan Bayliss, Peter Anastas, Vincent Ferrini), to subjects of his writing (Fitz Lane, Marsden Hartley, Dogtown, Stage Fort Park, the Fort), to his nemeses (T. S. Eliot, Winslow Homer, and occasional nemesis, historian Joseph Garland), to topics that at least seem not to intersect with Olson in any way. The most popular topic, by far, is St. Peter’s Fiesta, the annual Sicilian American celebration of the patron saint of fishing that has grown into a citywide demonstration of civic pride, debauchery, piety, and machismo. Most years Fiesta begins just days after the students complete their last assignments — so it is at the forefront of many minds as school days dwindle.
Ed Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out” and Olson’s “Letter 3” offer depictions of Fiesta that my students find recognizable but strange:
But never to forget
when we came out of the tavern
and wandered through the carnival.
They were playing the Washington post march
but I mistook it for manhattan beach
for all around were the colored lights
to the left the boats
and ahead of us, past the shoulders
of St. Peter the magician of those fishermen
stood, and immediately in it the silent
inclined pole where tomorrow the young men
of this colony
so dangerous on the street
will fall harmlessly
into the water.
(Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out”)
I was not born there, came, as so many of the people came,
from elsewhere. That is, my father did. And not from the Provinces,
not from Newfoundland. But we came early enough. When he came,
there were three hundred sail could fill the harbor,
if they were all in, as for the Races, say
Or as now the Italians are in, for San Pietro
and the way it is from Town Landing, all band-concert,
(Olson’s “Letter 3”)
A young person in Gloucester might have a strong feeling that others have gotten there before her and that her own perceptions (and imaginative uses of those perceptions) are impeded, distorted, invalidated by prior commercial and artistic representations hovering between the student and the city like a haze.
of all things to eat: dirty
And words, words, words
all over everything
No eyes or ears left
to do their own doings (all
invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses
including the mind, that worker on what is
(“The Songs of the Maximus, Song 1”)
Some students, of course, really like the picture postcard, Chamber of Commerce, Team Gloucester depiction of the city — and believe such depictions convey the truth of the place. Other students see the local reality as irredeemably tawdry and backward — “sketchy” and “lame” — compared with the possibilities for better living promised elsewhere. There are often socioeconomic and cultural insider/outsider dynamics at work in the students’ attitudes toward this place but, whatever the reasons and wherever a student falls on the “Three cheers for Gloucester” / “Gloucester sucks” spectrum, the Gloucester Project resists easy navigation but offers ample rewards to those who complete the journey.
The mu-sick of localism
Students on the cheerleading end of the spectrum tend to be excited about the project but then frustrated that I keep prodding them to do more investigative reading, to do more listening and looking, and to render their own characterizations and evaluations instead of merely repeating the ones they’ve received from sources promoting an easy, unproblematic, romanticized Gloucester exceptionalism. Examples of such sources are legion in official Gloucester literature and in a good deal of the artistic output inspired by the city. “An Heroic City,” an 1892 text found in Memorial of the celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Gloucester, Mass., includes the following passage:
This gray old city by the sea has an individuality as rugged and picturesque as the granite cliffs which hedge its outer harbor. Its existence has been a perpetual struggle in which the courage and the cunning of the man have been pitted against the mighty power of the elements. The town is strong and prosperous now. It is a seat of wealth and culture. But the stranger sailing in from the ocean and catching his first glimpse of the long line of wharves and warehouses, with the trees and roofs and steeples rising behind them, somehow cannot get it out of his fancy that Gloucester is clinging to its rocky hillsides as her sailors cling to their reeling decks.
Seeming to pick up this sentiment more than a century later, “Good Harbor, Home,” written by the poet John Ronan for the 2002 inauguration of Mayor John Bell (while Vincent Ferrini was still the city’s Poet Laureate) begins:
Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,
fire-formed and hard, headland granite -
no coddled cape, no sandbar,
and nothing soft in her city, no knickknack,
Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.
The 1892 celebratory text continues:
Gloucester, we have said, has a strong individuality. There are many small towns, but no other large city like it on our Atlantic coast. It lives by and from the sea. Its chief industries are such as to nurture manliness. For generations it has been drawing to it bold spirits from all over the world. It is by no chance of blind fortune that Gloucester has added to its fleets and wealth, while the fleets of its competitors have dwindled. Its safe and capacious harbor is one factor in its prosperity; its nearness to great markets another. But something more than that was needed, and it was found in the skill and indomitable perseverance, pluck, and energy of its citizens.
These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy in one of the most arduous and hazardous callings in which men are anywhere engaged.
And here I quote a review of Mark Kurlansky’s book The Last Fish Tale by San Diego-based writer Richard Amero, a 1942 graduate of Gloucester High School, to suggest how the heroic image might persist but evolve when the industries that “nurture manliness” fade:
As in so many towns in the United States, the "Gloucester spirit" had a lot to do with the feats of local high school football, baseball, and basketball players. (In the 1940's it was mainly football.) It was these players who were, for a season at least, the city's heroes. But regardless of whatever was first in public conversation or in newspapers, the fickle and haunting presence of the sea was always in people’s minds, shaping their thoughts and fears and hopes.
Football remains first in the newspaper at least during the fall and in many conversations throughout the year, especially around the corner from me at George’s Coffee Shop. (Briefly, in the autumns of ’06 and ’07, my soccer teams grabbed a share of the press and the chatter by winning the program’s first two conference championships.) My students readily see the link between the idea of Gloucester as presented by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous or by the “Man at the Wheel” statue, on the one hand, and gridiron glory on the other. My students also readily see the gender implications. A heroism of endurance – not action – is shown in the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial by Morgan Faulds Pike dedicated in 2001. And when women display athletic valor during the Fiesta seine boat races, they’re consigned to a second-tier; both the men and the boys are given priority. (A few young women have used the Gloucester Project to propose counter-narratives of female agency in Gloucester beginning with proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, author of the 1790 essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”.)
High school students live and interact with many projections of masculine heroism: the aforementioned “Man at the Wheel” statue by Leonard Craske, located along Stacy Boulevard five minutes from the high school; the plaque on Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park (in foul territory down the leftfield line of Sam Parisi Field where the high school baseball team plays its home games), which reads in part, “On this site in 1623, a company of fishermen and farmers from Dorchester, England, under the direction of Rev. John White, founded THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY”; a sign at the entrance to the downtown area after one has crossed the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge (which Olson characterized as “a mole/to get at Tyre”) announcing Gloucester as America’s oldest fishing port; in the high school’s nickname, the Fishermen or, informally, the Fighting Fishermen, the ubiquitous logo for which is a simplified version of the “Man at the Wheel”; “greasy pole” winners being carried on the shoulders of fellow competitors through the dense crowds at Pavillion Beach, up Beach Court, and over to the St. Peter’s Club every June during Fiesta; tragic heroism in the 1997 book and 2000 film The Perfect Storm; the 2007 “Gloucester reads Lone Voyager” initiative to get the city to read Joseph Garland’s account of Howard Blackburn’s life, beginning with an account of how he froze his hands to his oars after his dory was separated from its mothership during a snow squall; stories about neighbors, relatives, fathers of friends, fathers of relatives of friends, fathers of friends of friends, etc. Manifestations of heroism abound but what do they mean to a young person forging an identity?
The romantically heroic image (and language) of the city motivated Olson’s imagination, but his insistence on particulars – particular documents, particular memories, and the particular movement of projected utterance in response to a particular occasion – engenders more complex, more challenging depictions of heroism. (A desire to look more closely at Olson and the manly hero led me into a consideration of his childhood summers in Gloucester, his letters with Frances Boldereff, and Charles Stein’s take on the matter in The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum. What I found is too multifaceted to be dealt with sufficiently here; I’ll have to save those notes for another project.) During his summers in Gloucester Olson was physically at the epicenter of several heroic projections. The area around Tablet Rock – which included his family’s summer dwelling, Oceanwood – must have seemed (especially in memory) hallowed ground of the American epic. The plaque commemorating the original farmers and fishermen was affixed to the rock when Olson was twelve. When he was fourteen, the Man at the Wheel appeared on the Boulevard, a short walk away. Later he deepened his engagement through research and his own judgments (“that bad sculpture of a fisherman”). I encourage my students who are proud of Gloucester to avoid received generalities and boosterism – “These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy” – in favor of particulars harvested from their own reading and experience and in favor of a more complex understanding of the place and their relationship to it that makes use of those particulars. To this end students are encouraged to interrogate the characterizations that have come down to them from locals and outsiders alike. Peter Anastas, explicating a portion of Charles Olson’s December 22, 1962 letter to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times in his book Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, writes, “To Olson, [Winslow] Homer, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and [Rudyard] Kipling were examples of artists and writers who, while having popular ‘international’ reputations, nevertheless sentimentalized Gloucester subjects, thereby depriving them of local specificity and power and, consequently of authenticity.” (Art critic Greg Cook has pointed out to me that it is precisely the lure of the authentic – however constructed – that has drawn most of Gloucester’s significant artists and writers.)
Romanticized constructions of Gloucester’s identity – official, semi-official, and popular – become dangerous when we use them to police what Gloucester is and what it isn’t. While the interlopers Homer, Longfellow, and Kipling may have distorted Gloucester though sentimentality, locals will sometimes distort Gloucester though exclusion. I’ve already mentioned how in the dominant narrative women are permitted a Penelope-like heroism of endurance but not of agency and action. Exclusion, in Gloucester as elsewhere, takes many forms. A friend tells the story of organizing a lunchtime gathering for a colleague moving out of town. When my friend suggested Thai Choice, a favorite downtown lunchtime venue, others dissented saying the restaurant wasn’t “Gloucester” enough – despite the relationships that many of the workers there have developed with patrons over the years. At the high school I heard a couple of students mocking Brazilian-Americans for venerating the Black Madonna during the St. Peter’s Fiesta religious procession, though to the credit of Fiesta organizers the group is included, as are Portuguese groups despite the Sicilian-American origins of the event. (As Olson put it “Gloucester/is heterogeneous, and so can know polis/not as localism, that mu-sick….”) Gloucester’s participation with Dutch Suriname in the triangle trade has been more successfully excluded from the city’s understanding of itself. Though, as my friend David Rich points out, Olson alludes to the trade in the Maximus Poems, most Gloucester citizens are blithely ignorant – as I was until a year ago – that a significant amount of Gloucester’s nineteenth century wealth was gained through an economic enterprise underwritten by slavery.
In the last several paragraphs I’ve taken pains to show that at its best the Gloucester Project pushes students toward discoveries that render preconceptions – and any single narrative – inadequate to characterize or explain the realities they encountered. Even when the gist of a student’s prior conception – Gloucester is a city of heroes, for example – is unchanged by his explorations, the prior understanding is fleshed out, given another dimension. A student has thought, for example, about legendary shipwreck survivor Howard Blackburn, the crew of the We’re Here in Captains Courageous, Olson’s Maximus persona, & contemporary figures (a fishermen/activist, a local football star, a greasy pole champion, etc.) all as related but distinct projections of the heroic masculinity common in depictions of the city. Let me offer another example, one more related to romantic sentimentality than to romantic heroism. A student writing about the experiences of Sicilian-Americans in Gloucester began his project portraying immigrant life as a strife-free, idyllic scene (described to him by his grandmother) of unlocked houses, food sharing, and general neighborliness. He made little mention of the rigors of labor or of clashes between ethnic groups. When a guest speaker complicated the student’s understanding of Gloucester’s downtown neighborhoods in the early and mid-twentieth century by talking about the conditions in fish processing plants and fights between neighborhood and ethnic gangs, the student thought the speaker was guilty of mischaracterization and hyperbole. After some additional research the student revised his stance, but never changed his view that his grandmother was essentially right and that the speaker’s experiences and observations were unrepresentative outliers. However, for his short play set on the Fort, a Sicilian-American neighborhood where Olson rented an apartment at 28 Fort Square, the student created a sympathetic character based on the speaker’s views and other new information. The student’s depiction of the Fort remained romantic at its core – many would say some of Olson’s depictions are romantic too – but at least the play captured some of the complexity of immigrant experiences in twentieth-century Gloucester even if conflicts were confined to the periphery.
Going contrary and singing
Students who’d rather have nothing to do with Gloucester – who already reject heroic depictions of its past and present, who see little of value in their surroundings, who fear being trapped here forever, who are plotting their escape (as I plotted my escape from my hometown), who want to know more about other places, about the world-at-large, about anything else – tend to be annoyed by the project until, as often happens, they discover something of interest hidden beneath the city’s surface or sometimes hiding in plain sight, something they hadn’t heard of before, something that cracks Gloucester open so it stands more revealed or something that opens a portal between Gloucester and the world beyond. Students have researched Maakies cartoonist Tony Millionaire and the rock musician Willie Alexander, both subcultural icons; some have investigated Magnolia’s now gone giant hotel, a thriving playland for the rich, the famous, and the pretenders; a few have immersed themselves in Peter Anastas’ Broken Trip, connected stories about people living with brutality and hope in the margins of Gloucester’s more tourist-friendly narratives; several have looked into Dogtown, a source of inspiration and mystery; etc. Sometimes these discoveries excite a student because they intersect with a pre-existing area of interest (comics, say, or music) or with a student’s experience (a depiction of the socioeconomic reality in his neighborhood or a response to the sexism she’s endured). Sometimes these discoveries explode the static tropes about what Gloucester – or some part of Gloucester – is and isn’t, tropes which exclude many of the students and their experiences and which, therefore, these students resent and reject. The project can help students discover space for their experiences and burgeoning identities.
Though not always successful, the project encourages students to discover that the portion of reality that surrounds them – its present and antecedent existence – matters, something is at stake here in our wards and precincts, in the geography of our being. Fueled by the sense that the polis matters, that it’s not all happening somewhere else, students might persist in their reading, listening, looking, caring, struggling, and resisting; they might continue to find out for themselves, and so oppose the drift Olson observed: “Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surface so attractive to all.”
The geography of what we find out we are
The particular Scylla and Charybdis – or Norman’s Woe – of sentimental enthusiasm and foreclosed cynicism are both transformed by “attention and care” – attention and care toward one’s reading, one’s listening, one’s direct observation. In The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum Charles Stein writes that as a reader Olson “interpolates, quotes, abuses, converses with, corrects, supplies addenda to, ridicules, annotates, or other wise interacts with” the texts he encounters. On Olson as a listener Gerrit Lansing reports “one of Charles’s most common expressions was ‘I hear you’ when the quality of your own articulated attention matched his and the sound was true” (Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester); “Later,” Lansing writes, “in the course of frequently walking the streets of Gloucester with Charles, along the bank of the Annisquam River by the high school, paths of Dogtown, I became aware how thorough was the attention he gave to whatever object we stopped to look at.” Olson provides a model for the mindfulness I expect from my students.
An intensely open engagement with objects, language, and people leads on not to mastery but to mystery – “secrets objects share,” as Olson has it in “Projective Verse” – a dwelling within the manifest traum of being:
… to find out for yourself
‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere
at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot
– live television or what – is a lie
as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being
self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary: that no event
is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)
The pro-Gloucester enthusiasts and anti-Gloucester skeptics among my students need not disavow their predilections or cast away their lenses in order to take another look around, to read widely and interactively in the Gloucester shelf and active storage of the Sawyer Free Library, to get one’s feet on the ground and to put an ear to the ground, to open oneself with bristling attentiveness to imaginative acts of reading and sensing. Olson’s own explorations led him both into sacramental enthusiasm – he writes in a letter to the historian Joseph Garland, “The nature of my involvement in the subject of Gloucester keeps me always in Ward 4 and in Heaven simultaneously” – and into bitter skepticism – he writes in a “Scream” to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, “oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition destroying/its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.…” I hear these tones (and others) jangle in student work, too – work informed by each student’s own forms of finding out.
I tell my students explicitly that Gloucester is not the only ground for such finding out. Wherever they travel, wherever they’ll live, there will be opportunities for exploration of those places too. I often draw their attention to Robin Blaser in Henry Ferrini’s film Polis Is This; Blaser reports that when he told Olson he’d been looking into Gloucester’s history Olson responded, “Oh, don’t do that. This is my place. Go do it for yours.” We might investigate whatever places are ours. Places we’re born in. Places we come to during the summers of our childhood and later live in. Places we move to when we graduate from college, as I did, following my then girlfriend, now wife back to her hometown. Places we’re driven to understand no matter why. I didn’t create the project to inculcate my students with civic pride but rather to give them a chance to find out for themselves and to project an understanding of the geography of their being.