The poetry of Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson
“It would not necessarily be the case that the poems of a native of another land would be composed of that land. But a Tennessean has no choice. O Jerusalem. O Appalachia.”
“Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.”
— Wallace Stevens
It is not surprising that readers of American poetry sometimes pair the names Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson. Although Irby and Johnson had little direct contact, they were born within a year of one another and grew up on opposite sides of the state of Kansas (Irby in the southeast, in Fort Scott; Johnson in the southwest, in Ashland). Both spent formative years in the “Oz” of the Bay Area, and both took the modernist legacy in self-consciously neo-Romantic directions. Neither Irby nor Johnson achieved the notoriety of some of their contemporaries, but both have been “rediscovered” and admired by a new generation of readers.
The biographical and stylistic similarities are most apparent early in their careers: upbringing in Kansas, stint in the army, stint at the University of Kansas, followed by several years of travel, and first major publications in the mid-60s. Those publications bear certain interesting resemblances, not least of all for the presence of “Kansas” (both idea and place) in them. Both Johnson and his critics have noted the influence of Charles Olson on early poems such as “Quivera” and “Circumstances, Of Circum Stances,” in their combination of local history and autobiography, as well as in the style of composition; and the same could be said of some of Irby’s work from the mid-60s, such as “The Roadrunner Poem” and “Kansas–New Mexico.” “Kansas,” has a certain mythology, or at least aura, surrounding it, and one suspects that neither poet could forbear from delving into it.
And clearly, the influence of Olson (and before and behind him, Ezra Pound) is obvious in the early work of both men. Take, for instance, this litany of flora and fauna from Irby’s early “Roadrunner Poem” (1964):
Nodding wild rye
Andropogon — Bison — Canis
Andropogon — Bouteloua — Bison — Antilocapra
Andropogon — Bulibilis — Bison — Antilocapra (12–13)
The Latin translated into English and fleshed out: the bluestem and grama grasses feed the bison and pronghorns, who in turn feed the wolves. These lines are followed by a paragraph from former University of Kansas history professor James C. Malin’s The Grasslands of North America, a canonical source text for Irby, which begins: “No line on a map can be drawn to represent in any realistic manner the actual conditions found in nature.” The scientific attention to detail, to naming, to change over time, and to sources all bespeak an Olson-influenced poetics — as does the open form, combining justified and indented stanzas, long lines, short lines, prose, lists, Latin and English — not to mention a certain concern for the relation of written lines to the actually-existing world.
Likewise, Johnson’s early poems strike an Olsonian chord in both style and material. “Indian Corn” begins:
Columbus, as the first Western eyes, called it
panic grass — Maize, of a ‘quaking’ ancestry, i.e., the
attempt, always, at classification. (38)
As Patrick Prichett points out: “The poem’s appeal to an overlooked historical detail that contains, seed-like, a parable about the advent of European perception on American shores; the pun on ‘panic’; the scholarly aside, couched in analytic language and overladen with commas … these are hallmarks of Olson’s allusive style that Johnson mimes with perfect fidelity.” Likewise, in the early “Kansas” poem, “Of Circumstance, The Circum Stances,” Johnson begins with local, family history, combined with personal recollection:
It is thus I break these furrows, for my grandfather, Henry Clay
Mayse, in his grave
on the hill above where I passed
this spring of 1961, west
one ocean at his head
& at his feet, another (VMG, 64)
The poem goes on to include a paragraph from Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux, and then interweaves that book with the poet’s own desire to connect with the native soil:
It was also a custom of
the Sioux women to save the navel cord
of the first-born
& in spite of a damnable
sense of form, that ‘rough skin bundle’ poems
kept in a turtle shaped buckskin
carapace of quills (67–68)
The passage ends with an expression of a desire for poems that likewise might be “built by hand / – that we might determine our own // intervals between / objects” (69). The juxtaposition of the present and the past, the autobiographical and the historical, in a more-or-less representational manner, characterizes Johnson’s first book, A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees (1964); in The Book of the Green Man (1967), written during a trip to England in 1962, Johnson likewise blends contemporary observation and English (and European) history.
That Olson would be a point of reference in the mid-1960s for two young poets interested in what we now call “The New American Poetry” is no surprise. But the similarities between Irby and Johnson were soon to become more attenuated. Johnson, having published two books of open-field poetry rich with local history and documentary sources combined with personal details, made a rather sudden and self-conscious break, both formally and thematically, in “The Different Musics,” a group of four longer poems written in 1966–67. The lineation and arrangement of the verse has changed. Rather than justifying the lines against the left margin or using the entire field via indented stanzas and dropped lines, as Johnson does earlier, now he has hit upon what was to be his preferred form for the next thirty years: lines centered on the page, meant to emulate the bilateral symmetry of natural forms, as well as the stability of an unwobbling spiritual pivot. In “Letters to Walt Whitman,” the poet asks:
But are these landscapes to be imagined,
or an actual
Kansas — the central, earthy prosaic core of us?
Or is the seen always winged, an eidolon only to us — & never
the certain capture
of great, golden, unembroidered
All is Oz.
The dusty cottonwoods, by the creek,
rustle an Emerald City.
And the mystic, immemorial city
is rooted in earth.
All is Oz & inextricable,
bound up in the unquenchable flames of double suns. (VMG, 97)
The desire for a sacramental presence of the transcendent in the immanent — and a declaration of same — will be a constant in the rest of Johnson’s work. While “the mystic, immemorial city” may be “rooted in earth,” the All is being subsumed into Oz, the cottonwoods into the Emerald City, and the double suns are decidedly symbolic ones. In a later interview, Johnson would recount that the Oz books offered solace and escape from the physically and culturally desolate western Kansas in which he lived. He goes on to declare that “writing to me is a means of making the world where anything is possible and in which the imagination lives.”
In the eponymous poem “The Different Musics,” dedicated to Robert Duncan, the scale seems to have decidedly tipped towards “Oz”:
And night comes opening its arms like smokes to enfold us:
Where their feet touch the earth
an encircling of plume, diaphanous featherings.
THE DANCE! THE DANCING OUTWARD!
A spreading effulgence!
A resplendent ‘hood’ of light!
A choric turbulence, to which the worlds keep time … (87–88)
The guiding Muse here is not so much Duncan as a particular version of Blake — or maybe a particularly ebullient mood of Whitman’s — and certainly the verse lacks grounding in an actual Kansas or anywhere else. That this shift should happen around the same time that Johnson discovered, and settled down in, San Francisco, is perhaps not insignificant. Johnson, who had the misfortune to grow up gay in Kansas, by his own account had been searching for Oz since childhood. When asked why so many writers and artists of his generation were born in Kansas, Johnson responded, “Everybody wanted to get to Oz and San Francisco is” (“Ronald Johnson” 550). If you find it and get a toehold there (geographically or ontologically), why move?
By the same token, he intended his opus, ARK, “to be without history,” a performative inversion of Ezra Pound’s project in the Cantos. ARK is to be, like the Facteur Cheval’s grand construction in Hauterives, a Palais Idéal. So in ARK, there is little of an actual Kansas, but rather a symbolic or tonal one. For the later Johnson, the most (or only?) important place in Kansas is St. Jacob’s Well, the “bottomless” spring near his hometown of Ashland, near the Oklahoma line. This large watering-hole on the dry plains, important to the Northern Cheyenne, as well as to early explorers, white settlers, and cattle drivers from Texas, becomes a mythopoetic constant in the poetry, even as its history is evacuated:
keel manifold, sped bones in colloquy steep wheatear
… if hell indeed rein time stood still
and paradise thus daily fall
on usual shoulders,
scrawl on my stone bois d’arc pulled off Great Plains
– Pegasus every point maximum surface –
ATTEMPTED THIS LADDER FOR ST. JACOB
ASTRADDLE BOTTOMLESS WELL
R. J. FECIT (ARK 65, “Windmill Spire,” np)
Kansas here becomes a fanciful (keeled) ark; the “arc” of bois d’arc becomes the curve of a limitless (metaphorical) horizon; and the buried allusion to Pound’s Canto XLV is written imaginatively (and ironically) on a ladder to heaven arising from a bottomless well (the name of the physical well literalized so as to make it metaphysical). In ARK 30, Johnson rewrites T. S. Eliot’s Weltschmerz (at the end of “The Hollow Men”) around the same “place”:
This is the way the word begins, the world begins,
… Around a center
no one can see the end of, at the Well of The Bottomless,
I have placed parallels of bright guardians (np)
Meanwhile, Irby’s interests in memory, travel, and natural history continued unabated (and even intensified) into the late 1960s and 1970s. The poems often treat the history of the places Irby lived in or passed through, and the roads inevitably lead back to or through Kansas. To Max Douglas (1971), and Catalpa (1977), for instance, are rich with history and geography, often straight from the sources (books or conversation), and almost always related to the poet’s own peregrinations. In To Max Douglas, we hear from Malin again, alongside Kansas political boss Cy Leland and newspaper poet Eugene C. Ware:
was all mastery
the closest poetry
stayed to that in Kansas
was Ironquill Ware
whose poetry ‘stinks’
said Malin, ‘yes, it stinks’
the smell was in my adolescent nose
I knew who lived in his old house
3 blocks on down my street
flapdoodle jingo verse, cut East to be
Commissioner of Pensions, wet
his wit flits yet above
some lunchcounter present
avatar of that high interview
the point is, exiles … (191)
The slide from regional history book to conversational anecdote with the historian to personal recollection to local history to a broader point about being a spiritual or cultural exile (and heading west, as Irby himself did), all show a poet who, unlike Johnson, has not finished extending and revising the Pound-Olson tradition and has not done with poems containing history.
“Jed Smith and the Way,” in Catalpa, is a long poem that relates the trek of the Jedediah Smith party through the western US (1826–1830), by way of a similar road trip taken by the author. This work might today be called a “docupoem”: it narrates history, based on research and first-person testimony. For instance, Smith’s men, “a hard, rapacious, horny lot,” making their way through what is now the US Pacific northwest, stop to trade with a wary party of Kalliwakset. One of these is beaten by the “Yankees,” one of whom “missed a skinning knife and a hatchet”:
right then and there the Kalliwakset would have retaliated but one powerful chief
still voted for restraint
till he, fancying a ride on Harrison Rogers, Smith’s first clerk’s, choice steed
was ordered down at gunpoint after a circuit of the camp
and that, as Lord Buckley said, do it, and the Indians snapped (286)
The material here is documentary in the original sense of teaching (history, in this case). But the poem is equally about memory, and about the poet’s coming to terms with what might be called personal geography. “[T]his is the discontinuous / dendritic narrative of a journey / metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return” we read later (288), as the two historical journeys become a single one containing metaphorical and spiritual, as well as historical significance. Even “the country South of Philomath / looked Kansas,” leading, somewhat incongruously, to thoughts of:
The soul of another
of one dead, what lasts after
and makes us remember
where will I meet again
my dog Oscar, dead since summer 1944 (285)
The historical, biographical, geographical, metaphorical trip constitutes a plan “to yield home again, fresh again / drive into country and know this was the spot to take us in” which reminds him that “Kansas always promised and demanded there must be, it wasn’t, you must find, the plains / demand a lot that way” (282). The poem ends with the declaration (in quotes) that “‘you always / have to get there … / this is the Secret History / of the Continent’” (293). The secret personal history and ever-deferred homecoming seems to parallel the (collective, bloody) material history, which can never be subsumed into the former. The personal and historical, pastoral and epic, are never very far apart, and the thrill of discovery is never far removed from a feeling of exile from and gravitational pull of home, in every sense — a sense exacerbated by and exacerbating the itch or need to move.
Of course, one also finds the visionary mode in Irby’s work — the land transformed by the imagination or by its own indwelling glory or grace. “The Roadrunner Poem” ends:
where we do walk beside the opened fields
and the bloom of that intensity
blooms, is the flower
that is full of the earth
is full (24–5)
But even this passage begins “where were ploughed fields / but are now housing developments” (24). As Edward Schelb puts it, “Irby incessantly repeats metaphysical abstractions to embody them, to make them submit to the demands of a certain place”; he “resists the temptation to surrender the self into a visionary reality, into an ease of devotion beyond the flat regularity of the plains.” Irby makes this point clear in the introduction to “Relation”: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’ What plants grow in my backyard, 1614½ A Russell, Berkeley, California; and how am I aware of them …” (94).
Moreover, as Irby’s career progresses, the plains, in the poems, are often stained by blood. The story does not end with any decisive transcendence or transfiguration; it is as much about frustration, defeat, and violence. These things Johnson could not abide. But somehow, Irby seems determined to work through them. Johnson settles down into lines that are centered on the page, that are meant to imitate organic symmetry. Irby’s sensibility remains spatial — or as Olson says, each poem’s form is the extension (in the philosophical sense of manifesting in space) of its content, and not according to a blueprint determined beforehand. If Johnson conceived of ARK as a structure (or garden), Irby’s oeuvre is a trip (in more than one sense). For the former, natural forms and language can and do coincide; for the latter, that connection always eludes, always produces longing, produces long lines.
However, from the 1980s on, the historical mode is less pronounced in Irby’s work — at least in the form of the grand continental sweep or the “deep mapping” of Kansas. This fact is unsurprising if one considers that Irby moved back to Kansas in the late 1970s, to the college town of Lawrence (where he still resides). “Some people have accused me of writing about a place in a poem only when I’m not there,” Irby would say in an interview, “which is something we’ve all experienced. Thomas Wolfe can only get impassioned about the United States when he’s in Europe.” And if one needs to go away to write about home, then a literal homecoming might have the opposite effect. The later poems are still about Kansas; but the Kansas of plants in backyards, the dead squirrel at the curb, or the students in the apartment complex, taking out the laundry. The poetry seems more interested in the micro rather than macro, when compared to the earlier work, as in this passage from 1999’s Studies:
leaving behind an old pair of wornout levis in the grass by the road, been there a
long long while
pockets empty but for a few odds and ends
a marble or two, a couple of pebbles, some smashed links of a chain, a nut, a foreign coin
(how did it get left?), faded matted ticket stubs
all that it mattered to life to keep always along (572)
For Johnson, “Everywhere is Oz.” For Irby, “you have to become / a stranger / to have / a homecoming” (654) — which is why one first experiences the algia for the nostos. And only thus does one experience any numinous, utopian, or transmogrified reality — via one’s immanent, temporal, quotidian, local existence. Ronald Johnson is always seeking to return to The Garden. Kenneth Irby returns to an actual Kansas containing (among other things):
patchouli from Mark and Janice’s garden, and a big freezer bag of herbs, four
plum tomatoes, one quite ripe goldenyellow globe, a couple of jalapeños (569)
Meanwhile, the balance of Irby’s poetic explorations shifts from transcontinental journeys through the layered history of North America to explorations of dreamscape, of symbol, of syntax. Kansas, in the form of Fort Scott, is explored occasionally as Memory is explored. The poet has read the books, made the journeys and chronicled them. And all of these are brought to bear in a central point. The form of the poems steadies into long lines — lines that could go on forever. Odysseus returns to Ithaca and goes further instead of farther.
But Johnson also returned to Kansas — and to the geographical specifics of the place — later in his career. The poet’s cancer, HIV, and economic marginality compelled him to “go home again” — this time to live with his father in Topeka. The remarkable poem written on the journey eastward in 1993, “Road Side: Desert to Prairie,” returns the poet to the actual Kansas by the side of the road — with all its detritus intact (“a hubcap (Mercury) / cast onto asphalt,” “blue high / heeled shoe”) — not ideal palaces or enchanted wells. When the Johnsons near Ashland, the poet seems to see Kansas as sadder and more physical than it has ever been:
a quivering cottonwood,
the wind unceasing woven
silk frieze of grasses,
meadowlark loft fencepost
the red, red bluffs of home,
white towers based in mirage
flat as infinity,
jet trails X gigantic ghost
— sickle moon in immense blown dome,
to vanishing point. (np)
Indeed, these (left-justified) lines are not out of place next to Johnson’s early work — or Irby’s, for that matter. The road sense of loss and the strangeness of “home” is palpable, and conveyed via particulars of the landscape.
In his last years, in Topeka, Johnson wrote The Shrubberies, the little poems that, in my view, rival anything in ARK for their precision and emotional force. That power comes from the poet’s honest, receptive account of the world around him — not The Garden this time, but a garden — specifically, the botanical garden adjoining the historic Ward-Meade House, where the poet worked in his final years. Kansas history, plants, weather, make their way back into even these short verses:
desk cleared for planting
first coneflowers, a large
pink daisy with a bronze
center in the shape of hive
as well native of Kansas
knives into green air (14)
ferry long gone
Santa Fe Trail
all lost! (38)
One approaches the Ward-Meade House, the grand home built by one of Topeka’s prosperous early settlers, via “Old Prairie Town,” a “town” composed of relocated historic buildings from western Kansas’s cowboy past. They remind me of the young Johnson, asking:
When was it I came to know …
how the stark vertical courthouse
had its relation to people, those builders
of frontier facades
for saloons & of farmhouses
opposition to horizontal prairie? (VGM 65)
If you continue past the historical horizontal facades, past the grand architecture of the palatial house, one arrives in the gardens, where Johnson was a gardener (literally, this time). It is as though the walk from the parking lot to the far end of the park were a physical map of his poetic career. There is even a plaque to Johnson inside this locus amoenus; but standing next to it, one is never unaware of the sounds of Interstate 70 hurrying near, just below.
For both Irby and Johnson, there is a Kansas of the land, and there is a Kansas of the mind — though the ratio of each is quite different for each poet. Irby shares Johnson’s romantic tendency to look, if not see, into the heart of things, but what he finds, in Kansas or anywhere else, is always provisional — as often interrogative as declarative — as though the speaker of the poem — the “poet” — is saying “can it really be thus? — and if so, what is one to make of it?” Reconciling the natural world to the human, and the historical to the autobiographical, is never an easy task for him, whether in Kansas, New Mexico, California, or anywhere else. Johnson’s mind and words, by contrast, can transform anyplace into Oz (or at least Ozymandias). But he has to destroy the actually existing Ashland, Kansas, where he grew up (in ARK 47), in order to save it for his Vision.
This difference might be accounted for by the people/places distinction that Stevens famously delineated. While both poets begin their writing careers by writing about the people and places of Kansas, Johnson’s poetry increasingly becomes an affair of places more than people — places real and (especially) imagined; whereas Irby’s poetry is, first and last, a poetry of relationships: with both land and people — named individuals — friends, especially, whether via direct contact, reading, or both. As the poet writes in his first book, The Roadrunner Poem (1964), “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it” (9). What he remembers of the Lawrence to Albuquerque trip in 1963 “is the farm west of Plains / is the family on it” (10). However, people living into the land involves physical and economic realities:
What is not
is that care
does not make it theirs (10)
Prichett reads Johnson’s turn away from history as marking an embrace of an erotic utopia — of a specifically gay utopia that existed nowhere except, perhaps, the Castro. The facts on the ground in Kansas were never very congenial: of Ashland, the poet said flatly, “It was a horrible place.” Indeed, the contrast between western Kansas and San Francisco for an openly gay man in the 1960s or ’70s must have been as great as that between Dorothy’s Kansas and the Wizard’s Oz.
But the turn toward the local and more immediate in Irby’s more recent career could be seen as an extension of the concerns that led him, in earlier work, towards the vastnessnesses of the American West and Midwest — including those of western Kansas, far distant from his own wooded, humid southeastern Kansas home. In a 1987 interview, Irby says, “I’m interested in micro-relation, that we all must deal with the local. Malin’s proposal that it all has to happen some place, that there has to be a particular place where things are going on — and thus all history really is local” (116). In the poem “[Developments from a dream the night of 2–3 Feb 1971],” the poet/speaker dreams a meeting, during his high school years, with Olson in Fort Scott. The older poet enjoins him:
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
of yourself (606)
In recent years, Irby has recorded pieces of the social life of Lawrence, Kansas, a place he has lived longer than anywhere else. The poems from the 1990s and 2000s often start out in very particular places in Lawrence, rendered mimetically — say, listening to a recording of Coleman Hawkins on a car stereo in the parking lot of Alvin’s liquor store — only to end with:
… the bronze amethyst chrysanthemums
drunk from the color, no matter their antidote
steel topaz the air, to the heart of the blossomings and back out again, carved in the
and slowness more charged than season can unfold (574–75)
Or, someone cutting in line at (the now-defunct) Borders bookstore at the corner of New Hampshire and 7th leads to an outburst of anger, which in turn leads to more (recurrent) memories and self-reflection:
the discipline of care
kept the care of true exchange
light a candle for us all
for the goose boy and the goose yard and the geese gone
and the foxy dog gone
and all gone everywhere
be patient for
as I have not
to care (581)
While these poems begin with a dailiness that reminds one more of late O’Hara than Olson, they end, as Olson’s often do, by asserting the simultaneous presence of the historic and the mythic — or, as Irby intuited early on, “There is nothing, then, that does not / contain the divine” (66). For Johnson, we might say, it is the divine that contains the things. But both poets, finally, like many of their American contemporaries and precursors, accept the simultaneous presence of both. The actual Kansas is the one under our particular feet, in this particular social and economic locale, with all its ugliness intact. And that is the philosopher’s stone, common as any pebble in the street.
3. In an interview twenty years later, Irby confesses that “when I first went to Harvard there was this built-in sense of wanting to outrage people, of pushing, in reaction to that milieu, where one came from. What I didn’t realize was that so many of the people who I was trying to push this on came from the same places. But I never thought of myself as being a ‘Kansas poet.’” “Kenneth Irby: ‘The Breath on the Edge of the Lip’” (interview), in Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, ed. Lee Bartlett (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), 111.
4. All quotations from Kenneth Irby poems and books are taken from The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009). [The page numbers of these quotations are indicated parenthetically in the main body of the text. — Eds.]
10. Johnson’s turn toward concrete poetry in the late ’60s and ’70s can also be read as a further movement away from historical representation. Likewise, Radi Os (Berkeley, CA: Sand Dollar, 1977) is a Romantic millennial rewriting of Paradise Lost in which “Man” is “the chosen” rather than the creature fallen into a time-bound world.
12. This monument of “naïve” architectural art by Ferdinand Cheval (1836–1924), like the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, served Johnson as an inspiration and formal model for the construction of ARK. For images of the Palais, see “The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace.”
14. For more on docupoetry, its nature, potential, and limitations, see my “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2, October 27, 2011.
17. Many thanks to Robert Webb of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for introducing me to this poem and allowing me to read his copy of this rare broadside/chaplet. Ronald Johnson, Road Side: Desert to Prairie, Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, 15 (Ellsworth, ME: Backwoods Broadsides, 1996).
To read Kenneth Irby is to experience the attentive gestures of perceptive life. As he observes (via Sir Thomas Browne): “To live indeed is to be again our selves … Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever.” Carl O. Sauer’s geographic and cultural sense of morphology informs the complex spiritual depth in Irby’s lucid writing. He is preoccupied with lands that have insisted on my attention, too: Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, California; so for me to read his poetry invites a sympathetic and friendly perspective, one constructed adjacently on the plains of the Midwest. A spiritual geography takes shape through the pressures of attention he gives to these regions. A body of love is extended by habits of perception, renewing affection for place through the careful pursuit of a feeling mind.
Irby’s writing, moreover, attempts to conjoin the visible and invisible terrains that confront him. A narrative adheres in the lyric accumulation of his art to reveal the dispersed self in words, something located beyond memory and beyond action. His art contributes a narrative of creative imaginings, advancing what Kenneth Burke once called a qualitative progression of formal appeal. Such arrangements are dispersed through echoes, returns, incongruent ruptures, restatements of key themes, paradoxes, and variances in the incremental movements that give art adherence, its present tense. While Irby’s work has appeared in small editions over several decades, the effect of reading The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962–2006 (2009) is like encountering a major symphonic event (the inspired romanticism of Frederick Delius informs with lush splendor the qualitative movement of the serial sequences here).
Irby upholds Charles Olson’s consideration of geography and North American space; Edward Dorn’s sense of the West as divided topography; Robert Duncan’s attention to spiritual depths and correspondences; Walt Whitman’s body of feeling as sexual gateway; and Nerval’s romanticizing power. While he draws on these figures to enable his art, Irby’s writing is devoted also to a body of feeling that is uniquely his own, one that attempts again and again to register the depth of home or homecoming “across the gap,” between phenomenal experience and the imagined realities superimposed on the sensuous textures of place. Throughout the restless search arranged in the body of his work, there is a primary sense of place as homeward recognition and recall in the variant pulsations of life.
Major themes, literary and geographic resonances, and proprioceptive acknowledgments were discussed in regards to Irby’s work by 1979. That year Robert J. Bertholf’s journal Credences devoted an issue to Irby’s writing. The biographic, textual, and historic particulars of the early poems are addressed with enthusiasm by luminaries of the period like Don Byrd, Thomas Meyer, Jed Rasula, Theodore Enslin, Robert Kelly, and others. For me now, 1979 stands out as a moment of the beginning of closure for the openness and investigations of the 1960s. Within a year Ronald Reagan would begin extending the dollar sign over everything, and a new pacing in poetic temperament in the US would start to take place, shifting emphasis away from the New American writing so firmly articulated with Donald Allen’s seminal anthology. Instead, a preference for the terms of the academy and the creative writing workshop would displace the expansive and speculative approaches seen in Normon O. Brown, Henry Corbin, Sherman Paul, and others who influenced much of the writing of the 1970s.
The forms of serial poetry initiated by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and notably taken up by Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Ted Enslin, Irby, and others, would settle into a literary background largely informed instead by the mashup of linguistic and cultural themes taken up in Language Poetry. 1979 was a gateway year, pivoting between the hippie, open experience of Kerouac’s road and a new institutionalized order of experience. But this, too, is an illusion, as all attempts to measure cultural value ultimately strand the argument in the limited perspective of the critic. Recall, for instance, Robert Duncan’s description of how Pound’s renewal of the image of Persephone was articulated as a cultural figure significant to that particular milieu in the early decades of the last century. Each generation takes from the previous necessary tropes and concerns. If Madam Blavatsky and the Order of the Golden Dawn influenced 1909 London and Paris the way Zizek has been distilled for us today, we begin to see how cultural motives are absorbed, traced, retracked, and finally abandoned for other concerns. Irby’s work straddles literary attention to the cultural geography associated with Black Mountain while also being pressured by the motives of a new era of cultural concern. More importantly, his writing is situated with resolve among the ravines, hillocks, fence posts, and skies of the West. If, as Guy Davenport argues, Pound used the Cantos to build a city “as the one clear conquest of civilization,” and Olson searched for home in the spiritual remains of Gloucester, Irby actualizes the open field, casting a watchful eye on the urban penetration and civil conquests of the rural West. He defines his poetics outside the city walls in fields of wheat and sunflower.
Irby’s writing after 1979 continues to trace the morphology of the continent established in books like Kansas–New Mexico, Relations, To Max Douglas, and Catalpa, but the qualitative progression of form registers new critical perspectives. Ridge to Ridge (Poems 1990–2000) takes place over a decade with the serial formality established in prior work, and attention correlates a body of love to the morphology of a landscape infused with personal narrative. Generally, the longer lines establish a thoughtful inquiry that attempts to narrow the distance between self and reality in a poetic language of homecoming. Surprisingly, however, Ridge to Ridge opens with an untitled section, establishing perspective from an interior hearth rather than the wider vistas suggested by the book’s title:
a life into a few vegetables set in a half-shadowed deep window frame
black dirt gloss across flame orange carrots, ivory sprouted filaments from
upcurved fennel and cardoon stalks
how long to sit there to be seen into the painting
how long the lemon cut before glazed over, and another
but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the
short hall to the feet, and through again (523)
The opening still life frames the poem, showing perspective of landscape narrowed to the window box garden in an almost ironic relationship to the larger geographic vistas of previous work. But these lines determine Irby’s concern also for the poem, for poetry and physical geography finally intersect in the affectionate correspondence of creative imaginings. In the following serial segment a question brings this firmly to light: “how far away do you have to be to see, to be able finally to hear / the poem / and of nobility in what is lost” (523)? The concerns in Ridge to Ridge largely consider this problem of perspective. Self-imposed distances, spiritual yearning and isolation, and the shamanic barter of social negotiations are all suggested as processes in Irby’s engagement with art. Poetry in this sense becomes a tool to reveal many kinds of perspectives, including visions of the self, the landscape, and the queer morphologies of a sublimated sexual knowledge.
The longing of sensuous desire is perhaps heard in the yearning song of the sailor in the Spanish ballad, “Romance de Conde Amaldos”: “cry out to the sailor who is singing it, ‘o tell it to me, tell it to me, please!’ / but he but only answers, ‘o no, this song I only tell to him who with me goes’ / / yo no digo esta canción / sino a quien conmigo va” (523). Sexuality is expressed as dynamic energy shared by those who are willing to take risks, to “him who with me goes.” The soul, expressed as the tension of singer and auditor in the ballad, activates sexual correspondence with the body, announced as “a gesture” that “is elsewhere than the palace of administration.” In Irby’s art, the power of imagination swells and consumes the nature of the poet, requiring an attention alien to administrative forms. It is a kind of shelter:
here there is a butterfly in the knowing of that shelter that would return
to change but being there together
ascent by ink and in the black ground black hidden metallic lusters
up out of each stroke of the pen (524)
The “stroke of the pen” into the “black ground black” suggests an erotic charge of energy required in the kind of active love Irby’s imagination requires. The longing for spiritual companionship finds determining forms in an “ascent by ink.” Sexuality is not confined to genital fucking, but pulses as creative urgency across time and distance. The erotic expression is adhesive, shaped by Olson’s sexually evoked notion of energy in the composition methods of “Projective Verse”: The poem for Olson, as for Irby, must “be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” The sexually descriptive account, with masculine pressure, reconnects Whitman’s amative aims in Leaves of Grass through a more aggressive and comprehensive totality of sexual potential. Male sensual energy, while not overtly presented by Irby, registers in the descriptive urgency of his dynamic and active engagement with the formal “bodies” of his poems.
The final stanza shifts gears dramatically in a qualitative progression, abandoning the long flowing lines of creative search in favor of more compact statements. A turn to memory restores the poet’s equilibrium, grounding Irby’s resources in imagination’s twin. Imagination and memory correspond with perception and history, internalized potentials in the self as they are transacted on the formal features of geographic terrain. Irby writes:
some high new tangerine wax fancy
or pink fluorescent twin of deep lament
of children’s coloring book on through a lifetime yet
bright warm clothes that are a rug to the empyrean
elytron opened through the solid trunk of driven sheet
wrapped close and then passed on
there could not be without that fancy now
that indirection of embellishment
to be most dignity and testament
crows take the crows take the over
to teach us insufficiency
heart-wrap skin to call exultant austerity
and spring open a redbird drop cut
tierce tierce tierce tierce tierce (524)
Here the earlier “nobility in what is lost” (523) is echoed by the “dignity and testament” of ancient knowledge, a corvine pedagogy based in certain Native American traditions where the figure of crow is that of the shape-shifter, keeper of ancient laws and folkways. Crow is believed to be guide to the supernatural, and so Irby’s concern here reveals a geographically focused intent on spiritual pathways through the calling forth of local figures of transformation. The “bright warm clothes” that barter passage to “empyrean” are terrestrially figured in the “elytron,” or shard, the hard insect wing that rhymes with the crow wings and redbird wings of spring. The “bright clothes” recall the “heart-wrap skin,” and so the formal relationships continually establish echoes in morphology of self-transformation. The final line, too, persists in aligning the spiritual with the animal (tierce is the third of seven canonical hours), dallying in the metaphoric calls of birds.
If perspective comes framed by a window in the opening poem sequence, “[vistas, over Lammas]” begins “down in the furrow” (525) — a harvest poem concerned with “measuring, across the gap” (526). Relations of earth and sky, continental migration, gender and family, genital grasping, art and administration (again) provide the primary thematic structure, but the poem’s incidental form largely coheres through metaphoric claims of a vision of late summer. The human body and the landscape are established in an abiding relationship, and in the narrative of the poem a magus figure appears in an active space of “grass walk heart.” An image of a writer appears on “the land behind the ruined barn … scarring the knees and shins, spattering ink on the knuckles, leaving sores on the wrist to time” (525). The poet-magus observes “the field’s body” beside that of
the last Bard, the last mantic poet, possessor of the secret, shared, and
essential history of the whole tradition and its magic
driven to the highest crag above the brilliant torrent of the boundary
time crack raging between the worlds, sunset grandeur of cataclysm
sweeping the cloudscape away behind
at bay defies the invading army come to exterminate all the Makers
into the disappearance
This figure of the Time Visionary (“possessor of the secret”) “defies the invading army” of “the palace of administration” (523), a metonymic value cast largely over systemic forms of thought, economy, and order that contrive for the disappearance of the “essential history” possessed by the “last Bard.” This figure presides later in the poem “by the light of the full moon and the stars of the Big Dipper,” in “the commune of workers in the field of vision, in the field of making” (526). Measurement “across the gap” (against “the torrent of the boundary”) later “opens to the Islands of the Blessed and Beyond the Blessed” (525). Such attention to measurement assures that “it is not lost” in the exterminating forms of administration attempting to arrest the mind of the magus-poet. The bardic claim persists in the visionary corpus of sensual America established by Whitman, but Irby’s sense of authority is presented differently. It’s not the bardic figure who controls “the secret,” but who establishes its relation instead in almost seasonal form as witness to the bodies of the earth. Knowledge of the secret adheres by “the month of the mother” and “the month of the father,” in a “measuring, across the gap” (525). Whitman’s construction of a “bardic ethos” in Leaves of Grass requires the assent of an audience in recognizing the poet as essential holder of wisdom. Irby, however, acknowledges bardic responsibility in the sensuous measurements and observations that are built on perspectives of witness and active creative participation. The dramatic difference in poetic conception ensures Irby’s gifts of coequal engagement with a world determined by his affinities for the open spaces of the West, and it spares him of the Whitmanic role of possessor of visionary power. In other words, Irby values an active participation in the creative topography of his landscape, whereas for Whitman, the power of utterance determines and orders a perverse asymmetry between poetic vision and the experience of reading in submission to the extraordinary and distant bard. Irby humanizes the role of poet while also determining new possibilities of bardic revelation.
The qualitative progression of the poem also disrupts bardic authority, inviting readings that appeal formally through an incongruent extension of terms that organize narrative according to key clusters of imagery. “[H]istory,” “tradition,” and “magic” are modified by “the highest crag,” establishing narrative through contrasts of form and symbolic relations that activate the “sunset grandeur of cataclysm.” Narrative form progresses for Irby through contrasts and sudden enjambed features of a poetic topography that finds its greatest expression in metaphoric statements and revisions. We therefore see the active form here as a series of possible motives or developments that bring satisfaction through the accumulating and shifting features that the poem generates as its own narrative engine.
Since Irby does not overstate the importance of the bardic seer, he’s better able to examine the cyclic wobble of earth’s forces, attending the morphological coherences that inform his work from the beginning. He moves from the cosmological argument of the poem to a sensuous description of a “young man barechested holding the surveyor’s rod” (525). And he goes “beyond the mown enfolded hayfield lined up with the telephone pole” and “disappears behind the lone / monumental sumac.” While the poem sequence opens with anxious quest on behalf of the bardic figure, the landscape and its inhabitants (and its imaginary orderings) are preserved in “body clasping body, across the gap.” These gaps are by nature everywhere in the landscape, but through love bodies reach out to bridge the inevitable distances. At stake there appears to be a resistance to the death of administration, the certainty of colossal separation. But it is also a significant recognition of the body of imagination, the creative “clasping” for the other in all its forms. The humble and humane figure of the bard seeks connection through form; he does not dominate it or the reader, but invites us to perceive according to an advanced stride in the measures of topographic and spiritual “gaps” unforeseen. It is “the heart’s seed” that concerns him, and he presents this seminal figure along, once again, with crows:
what can be known of the heart any more than of the colloquy of the
crows in the field out the window
three in a great triangle, walking
and one flown away, and returned, and their calling
or now in the root crease of the field, where they gather and glean
the heart’s seed
not lost (527)
These talismanic figures of the poem initiate the gathering and gleaning of “the heart’s seed.” They are animistic features that distill the earnest reaching of the bard within the frame of perception that gives form adherence. The poet is shape shifter, coordinated in animistic relations with land and beast. Crows, as birds holding the secrets, correlate with the notion of poet as gatekeeper, or minder of the gaps, initiating possibility through the gestures of affection performed for the apprehension of concerned readers. As the avian familiar of Odin, crows also relate to the poet as seer in Nordic traditions. The significance of these birds for Irby in this poem illustrates the kind of metaphoric threading or comparisons by relation important to his art.
The qualitative appeal of Irby’s serial writing is also in large part due to the sheer delight in language and the variation of rhythms and rhymes (or off-rhymes) he presents in a kind of jazz improv, where mind and ear conjoin into active participation. For instance, this stanza from “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow]” opens a sequence where the imaginative process of memory is disclosed as poetic form in a startling sequence dense yet jubilant in its arcs. The poem begins:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the wet lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
The enveloping darkness prior to one’s being (“the years”) correlates the “new unknown,” breaking out of the “heart wrap skin” (524) that here becomes “old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations of memory.” The sequence, with its abrupt shifts and surprising turns, metaphoric density, and rhythmic aplomb, initiates witness of the self as something that coheres in the forms and images (symbolic forces) that testify through the (often fuzzy) recall of memory. The process activates as “unpredictable calling,” and in the language of the poem, with its symbolic densities and formal progressions, a semblance of what a self might be comes into a new kind of being. The projective elements here certainly recall Olson’s sense of projective verse, where the mind and the body like a jazz musician unite in quick, temperamental pursuits of “the new unknown,” to make it, not, perhaps, known, but activated as spiritual action.
Much of the work in Ridge to Ridge tries to address these dense relations of form through the image of home. The memories worked up into a present tense in the poem activate a sense of home as the accumulation of what is willed into the present through memory. If what we know is wound through a vortex of experience, sensory pulses, applied uses of culture and its forms of language, what coheres as home — as our own? I’m not talking about an ownership as identity — but as spiritual revelation of the common terms of our humanity. Whether it’s Pound’s Wagadu, the Soninke legendary city existing only in the heart, or Olson’s figure of the man with a house on his head, the notion of home retains for Irby a primary feature of identity and process. To see “ridge to ridge” or vista-by-vista is to be constantly active in attention to horizons that come into view and pass away. The past experiences of self arrive and then fade as time frames our passages through diverse situations. For Irby, personal experience is prior to one’s life advancing as creative form, and so home is also homage, an engagement with the distant figures of the imagination that composes the far vista of one’s being. Speaking of Mayan culture and the relationships that adhere across time, Irby recalls observations by Sauer of the centrality of corn, beans, and squash to the ancient diet of the Americas. But this leads him to consider Mayan forms of play, which open up a sense of play in his own “obligation to sustain” as poet-maker:
day care to high school to nursing home, the central corn stalk on the hill
of beans and squash
with its fish and seed, up the spinal column of the hemisphere, the ball
game of the continents
where the directions mesh in play, hole and ear, fiber and hair
become first concert
what play, to be consulted on?
the old grande dame of silk and wool, first dancer once, choreographer of
the lost Pinar once
teacher in the continuance, sun-to-come-up necessary dance with that
same necessary song
a child inherits and knows the obligation to sustain, homage
questions, have you?
between the reflections in the water and the incessant tremor, the short
sharp intake of breath at each intensity
each scarred knuckle smeared the same ecstatic shine (530)
The “dance” and “song” of intercultural, interpersonal progression sustain homage in the “ecstatic shine” of the artist’s visionary intensity. The insistence on vision as the inheritance of lore, dance, and song lets Irby transmit a sense of place as wholly fused with the intent on observation and willful action in the art of attention. The moral obligation of the artist, Irby suggests, is to perform with creative skill and discipline so that a world may be known in the play of its forms. Otherwise, there is no homecoming, no perception of the complex inherence that competes for attention in the process of what we call a world. Without instruments of dance, song, or play, we are limited to imposed claims of what our place in a world can be. Irby continues:
what makes you think you are not in prose because you do not know the
it is not melancholy, it is not sadness, it is not lament, but the shape and
trace of distance
is that release? is that what the concern is about homecoming, about
what home is? itself homage
where some kids have never seen an instrument to play at all, and some
adults never known the means of their production
the black ungained bottom of their unexceptioned conjugal necessity
Home is “homecoming,” a return from “the shape and trace of distance,” one’s own unwinding into the spiritual forms through which life takes shape. An invisible morphology runs parallel to that of the visible geographic and cultural morphologies. While these themes appear in earlier books, the critical gesture of the 1990s is to speak with greater frequency about what is risked in homecoming, and the larger failures of neglecting home as the symbolic frequency of one’s arrival into self-awareness. Such an account of homecoming is shoved by “memory’s emptiness / how space and time bulge with so much wanting of / until it is whatever direction is, direction as, directionless / except not-here, except all-here” (531). He speaks of a “cultivation impossible to cultivate,” acknowledging that “memory’s emptiness” is precursor to other paths, “direction as … directionless,” an “all day nakedness and coming on the edge of to explore … ” (531).
Homecoming as the ritual of youth returning to the alma mater becomes the metonymic value for something much greater in Irby’s work. A hieros gamos, a marriage of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the profane and the sacred, emerge when
out there the first home football game fills the town
in here the same shared inner track is celebration
alchemy is each pulvinus, transmutation of the touch to be like light
a paperclip is the mountain top, and the football game, whistling up
there, but to be water and its transformation out
won in the pines’ sound, lost in the pines’ sound, sound in the knobnut
leapt for and gulped
so for the marriage past, far to the Northland gone
this is the night mail, crossing
the border (533)
Such a marriage for Irby in “September Set” involves “the sphincter of arousal in the brain.” This is “pilgrimage,” from carnal flesh and mind, unified form. Here, “time is the life of the soul as it passes from one state of act and experience to another and is not outside it” (534). States of experience like “solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision.” (537). These states are shared as supernatural urgencies in “the rock ring jell in the eyes of the crow, in the cry of the jay / brought around” (541). The constant chorus of the work is renewed: “come enter again return” (544). While lovely phenomenal details of landscape are activated in the poems, the concern for Irby is with a sense of magical self-transformation — not particularly a willful change in the character of the self, but an inevitable progression of form that is in constant variance, pressure, environmental stress, and formation. In “[étude homage, Religio Medici]” he writes: “How we outlive our notions of ourselves / and never know the others in there all along / give them away, become them / only at a stretch imagine / and the stretch is good” (556). The stretch, the bodily motion, tempers spiritual concern, the inevitable patterns and mysteries of one’s variances.
By “[Ides],” the final poem of Ridge to Ridge, the “transitional affluence of life itself” gives way to grief “and wanting to watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world / to juxtapose to and let the forgetting forget itself for a while” (561). The problem of memory and forgetting, as for Augustine, interferes with a more truthful vision of what remains just beyond perceptive apprehension. The poems in this sequence, unlike others prior to it, begin to acknowledge the invisible, internal landscape that precedes and extends beyond one’s limited abilities to retrieve and process an experience and knowledge. Instead, there is a yearning to “watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world.” Such Gnostic sensitivity admires bodily form, but also entrusts perspective to a creative, generative potential just beyond reach of that bodily apparatus.
Ultimately it is the essential mysteries and purifications that possess Irby’s imagination. His writing pressures an easy sense of perception in contemporary contexts. He performs ways of knowing and seeing, measuring and valuing. His performances in poetry enact basic conditions in art that reveal, shape, renew, and reorient attention of dynamic objects in equally dynamic spatial fields. The advance Irby makes on the New American poetry is through the humble position of the bardic figure who refuses the role of tribal boss. Exemplification and the ongoing task of poetic labor figure much more predominantly. Irby’s work invites readers to measure their own readings by an effusion of art that makes both music and narrative of shared human experiences. Such an art in narrative can expand the capacities of readers by taking the qualitative progression of formal appeal as the defining feature of serial relationships. In this Irby has always been generous, though in Ridge to Ridge the views are reduced, quieted, eased forth with critical self-awareness. Through a qualitative progression that relies on a renewal of images, phrases, talismanic figures, and scenes of homecoming, Irby establishes a narrative sequence that provides intense pleasure as lyric offerings, but that also confronts readers with an essential story of change, strategies of perception and of being, and, especially, with an appreciation for the renewal of life in the constant flux of landscape. I have been privileged to read Irby for many years, and to speak with him, and to see the Kansas of his imagination. Such geographic necessity informs the heartland of awareness.
1. Syllogistic progression: advancement step by step (example: mystery stories)
2. Qualitative progression: like foreshadowing — advancement of narrative through echoes, returns, approximate relationships based on nonsyllogistic sequences (much poetry, including Irby’s serial forms, progresses in this way)
3. Repetitive form: restatement of the same thing in different ways
4. Conventional form: forms an audience takes for granted (stories with beginnings, middle, ends)
5. Incidental form: metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, etc — any of the small components that sustain a narrative
Additionally, forms can be interrelated or be in conflict. Most of the narratives we encounter are composed of conventional and nonconventional elements; they advance at times through syllogism, at others through amplification of dominant themes; their metaphorical components often produce closure or paradox, challenging our ability to intervene with our own presuppositions of form. I use this sense of qualitative progression as a way to understand serial poetry, and also as a way to address the progression of Irby’s narrative sequences.
2. See Credences 7 (February 1979), ed. Robert J. Bertholf (Kent, OH: Credences Press). Other contributors include: Eric Mottram, George Quasha, Charles Stein, Paul Metcalf, Reginald Gibbons, George Butterick, David Bromige, Paul Kahn, John Moritz, Bob Callahan, Linda Parker, Mark Karlins, Larry Goodell, Roy Gridley, and a bibliographic “checklist” by Robert J. Bertholf.
4. Following Olson and Dorn, Irby continued adjacently to pursue cultural and topographical patterns in the environment in ways Carl O. Sauer describes in his influential essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” which determined not only the disciplinary concerns of cultural geography but also motivated many of the New American poets. In essential ways, it laid the foundation for a midcentury poetics, particularly in the West, which was based on attention to the ecology and environment in a creative and physical sense. See “The Morphology of Landscape,” Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
6. See for instance Jeffrey Walker’s argument about the asymmetrical relationship between the bardic poet and his (largely his) audience in Bardic Ethos and the American Poem: Whitman, Pound, Crane, Williams, Olson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
The most important books always got to me through the hands of a friend. I don’t know who put Ken Irby’s Catalpa into my grasp but I suspect Benjamin Friedlander. In the 1980s when we both lived in the Bay Area, Ben was generally out ahead in knowing who was writing the poetry we would need to look towards as we fashioned an emerging sense of our own practice. Many poets in my pantheon I owe to him giving me a book. The flat textured blue cover of Catalpa, with only a title and author’s name and a burnt-orange-colored medallion — half of it a flower or a half peyote button or some such design, done in the publisher Lee Chapman’s hand — looked handmade enough to make the book seem a cryptic discovery, but substantive enough to say, here’s a poet who has done some good, Projectivist work.
Catalpa opens with a dense “In Place of a Preface,” mostly quotes and dictionary definitions of land, landscape, plant, and place: four terms that have dawned with huge importance for a number of us who write what we loosely think of as an ecologically informed poetry. Equally salient in this little orienting note was citation of, and a thinking-through of, ideas from ecologist Edgar Anderson, geographer Carl Sauer, and poet Charles Olson. (I knew the work of all three from significant Turtle Island publications brought out by Bob Callahan.) Irby also cites Matsuo Bashō, Osip Mandelstam, and Jorge Luis Borges, so the book promises wide-open poetry culture spaces too.
Catalpa falls into three sections of poems, the first titled “Berkeley.” This section is site-specific to California Alta — the great north coast and rolling hills, the wide Central Valley, all the crackling vegetation of the region — with precise evocations of places that had come to sit deep in my own psyche. Point Reyes, Strawberry Canyon, Marysville, the Sacramento Valley. Recognizing what I now see as a bioregional approach, Ken’s “Berkeley” defines a cultural and natural area that stretches north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and pokes over the crest of the Sierra Nevadas to the east. Historic personages rub against contemporaries in his pages — Sir Francis Drake, scout and mountain man Jedediah Smith, alongside friends named Eileen, Kelly, or Shao. Chinese ideograms occur on a few pages. Modern poets show up, some I knew something about, and some I’d not yet encountered. All this scholarship and care set into vivid street-smart lines:
circles and seeks
in the long map of California
along the Central Valley
keeping the corners out
I think this poem may have been the first time I ever saw a poet use the word watershed. History also came alive, in a way poetry had not done it for me previously. “Point Reyes Poem, 2” opens with Irby scratching a bad case of poison oak on his legs. That act leads back to Francis Drake and his British sailors, who call their California territory New Albion after they’d made landfall on the shores of Point Reyes, “past Limantour spit,” tromping the unfamiliar hillsides. In a distinct Irby gesture, the poem concludes:
what plants did Drake see growing here
that still grow here?
Turns out he and those other rough explorers came away blistering with the tarry plant (Toxicodendron) that every local knows to be careful of:
poison oak certainly
his men must have itched from
infernally, though Albion
we share across 400 years
the haze of fluid, sap
the blisters raised and lymph
on equal, heedless bodies
I’d never encountered something that made the local both comic and sacred like this, that provided my own summertime rashes of poison oak a four-hundred year backdrop. At the time I could most likely only say with awkwardness what I got out of Ken Irby’s lines, or what I hoped to emulate. But in the 1990s I would come across the term bioregion, and after that learn to stand by phrases like eco-zone, watershed, drainage system, plant community, and the like. This is the book, Catalpa — perhaps Lorine Niedecker’s poetry and Joanne Kyger’s were the other models — that showed how poetry can be made from the carefully investigated local.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, not long after receiving Catalpa, I was asked to give a poetry reading with Ken Irby in San Francisco at Canessa Park, a former bank or insurance building down the street from City Lights bookshop and Brandi Ho’s Szechuan restaurant. What an honor. Ken and I struck up a friendship at the event. We began to exchange letters. I treasure the hoard of letters Ken wrote me: dense, tightly packed, rife with information on books, poets, music, botanical detail, Great Plains culture, medieval philosophy. Once when I moved briefly to another house, Ken wrote, “what plants do you see outside your window?”
My copy of Catalpa has a postcard from Ken, which I’ve used for a bookmark since 1988. It shows a Chinese bodhisattva sculpture — a famous one, of painted wood — from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Ken selected the icon to fit with my Sanskrit and Zen studies no doubt. Just to give a flavor of his intense correspondence I’m going to quote from the postcard. About halfway through, after various greetings and personal updates, he writes —
A glorious spring for flowering here, esp. trees, the various prunus, the redbud (Cercis canadensis — flowering Judas) — & now lilac, too, early & profuse (along with Verras of late — O Walt! & Duncan: What if — lilacs last in this dooryard bloomed?) — in (undecipherable) last weekend even my uncle’s tree peony, transplant from Mississippi, was in bloom — o Li Shang-yin! Very glad you’ve been in touch with Gerrit, who speaks well, warmly, of yr rich letters — I trust you will see him when you, he tells me, go to Boston, next month is it? He also spoke of a reading for you via Michael Franco at Tapas, where the Duncan Memorial was held — may all go well! Let me hear what you’ve heard of the SF RD reading — I’ve had no word yet —may all be green & lush & a-flower w/ you all! LOVE
Ken’s fountain pen hand is not too hard at first glance to read. But it turns out that its density and the pronounced flourishes and serifs make a great many words tough to decipher, slowing you down enormously. Typically his full letters would go a couple of tight single-space typewritten pages (in the very small font-size his typewriter had), then as he broke off to sign the letter he would add margin notes, then long looping addenda that wound around the pages; then he’d begin to write where the typewriter left off, and another page or two of his compact handwritten words would come. I used to think it would be a good idea to go through each letter and type out his handwritten material so when I wanted to reread the letters I could go quicker.
Letter writing is now a cryptic, all but vanished art. Ken was one of its great exemplars.
If you look at the above half-a-postcard you’ll see its density. It gives the names of three plants — (“dignify things by giving them their names” Joanne Kyger once told me). Ken dignifies one plant with three names: the popular, the Linnaean, and a vernacular. He also names five poets, two of them friends of ours; mentions a reading series; makes a riff on a Whitman line; and quite genuinely inquires about two memorials recently held for Robert Duncan — (pc. dated 21 April 1988, about three months after the older poet’s death). It all feels utterly human.
My daughter Althea had been born a week after Robert Duncan’s death. I remember when I wrote Ken of her birth and told Ken her name was Althea Rose, he alerted me to the Althea rosea, citing the stunningly complete horticultural dictionary Zukofsky had used for 80 Flowers — a set of books I wish I had the discipline to study. The althea is the common hollyhock, Ken said, with family connections to the mallow, the rose of Sharon, and many other mostly medicinal plants. (One Greek meaning of althea is healer.) Only Ken would have taken occasion to study up these facts and load a letter with his discoveries. Thanks to his efforts this became part of my family mythology.
These types of precise study are what Ken Irby has long represented to me, a comradeship in poetry that is based on passionate friendship, close reading of texts, and direct contact with the orders of nature, with babies, and with Islamic philosophers. The center of his poetry remains for me that first book I was given: Catalpa. What I needed at the time were poems I could check out with my own eyes.
Indian Summer in Berkeley means
the fogs come back in October
At the time I was reading everything I could from the early, indigenous poetry of California, and found in Ken’s book material that might have been reworked from the notebooks of Alfred Kroeber or Jaime de Angulo. Possibly Ken received much of his work in a vision.
My head rolls on the rim of the world
My eyes are not what I see with
In the basket, in the valley
In the creek bed under the water
Ken Irby's atlas to the world
Poetry icon Kenneth Irby creates texts of sensory topographies — and so he has changed technology of the page. I remember his long-time publisher John Moritz of Tansy Press fussing about Irby’s long lines and the gap-toothed spacings and typography and original illustrations — all the ways Irby pushed the limitations of ink, paper, and bindings. This was decades ago, and I still see John grumbling as he midwived some of the most remarkable writing of our time. Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On (from North Atlantic Press), covers forty-four years, 1962 to 2006. The squarish, dense tome is blocky and weighty until opened. Then dynamic axes of typography rise from inert materials to create a map at least the size of the known world.
Irby is particular about the way his verse looks on the page, how it sounds in the ear, and what stories refire with his calibrated vocabularies. Because the printed page is stationary, it changes context as time moves around it. When performed, many variables arise; whether silent or performed, no reading is the same river of words. Irby exploits the paradox of composed verse, its simultaneous dynamism and stasis. George Butterick uses the term “interwoven incremental associations” to describe Irby’s in-motion structures. Words do not suspend in coequal solutions; rather, they impel engagement. They locate readers in geographies of real and confabulated places. Pierre Joris identifies the twinning of real and imagined territory in Irby’s work as “congruence between that dizzyingly wide open outside SPACE (as Olson spelled it) and a just as wide and even more unexplored (at least by me) post-Rimbaldian, post-Artaudian inner space.” Irby himself describes the design of one of his long poems (“Kansas–New Mexico”) as “spokes of a wheel, the center, hub, of which is never given, only implied.” A brief selection of “spokes” in an Irby piece are: storytelling; the body itself as an extended geography; allusions to writers and artists; etymologies; letters/glyphs/images; and complex page layouts. His pages are strata of artifacts arranged in spatial suspension. Space, lettering, punctuation, glyphs and layout all contribute to Irby’s unique imprints.
Excerpting Irby’s poems is particularly difficult because of the resulting truncation of broad arcs. Nonetheless, here is a later swatch of “To Max Douglas”:
The survey baseline of Northern California
anchors on Mt Diablo
the survey spread of the hand
held out, the nakwach
half, leans on the line on through the eyes
what all trace you make
moving through one whole day
there is an equivalence of hair
for all those weeks Jed Smith
tracked North along the Sacramento River (199)
All these pathways lead back to the human body — “spread of the hand,” “the eyes,” and “hair.” Jedediah Smith, another throughline of the long poem, is the first settler American to travel up the Pacific coast to Oregon, and here the journey of his body across the map traces a trail, a nautical “tack.” The orientation of surveyed land overlays the geologic — two sliding rockbeds that form, in Irby’s large view, “the hand / held out” (the body as landscape, again) and the Hopi “nakwach” image. This indigenous image represents two men shaking hands (from a dance gesture); it can be abstracted in designs as overlapping curves or interlocking, angular curves.
In parallel to this glyph, Mount Diablo lies at the convergence of upthrust and slipthrust fault lines. Its peaks appear as a double pyramid from most Bay-Area viewpoints. Irby suggests all these aspects in one polysemic image. So Irby evokes spatial experience with images and references. This content dictates the form.
I posit that no piece of Irby’s opus does not reference a place, and most directly, as the titles iterate: “Kansas–New Mexico,” “The Grasslands of North America” and “the headland of lesser Asia.” Irby is an omnivore of place, from humble to grand: yards (“The roadrunner that crossed my yard,” ); sewers (“Moss in the gratings / of a sewer vent,” ); famous mountains (“West in the mist / Tamalpais’ top floated,” ); sidewalks (“the sidewalks are all dried out after the rain,” ); and parking lots (my favorite: “I had talked to Denise Low in Alvin’s parking lot that evening,” ). Indeed, his places include the sweep of continent:
circles, and seeks
in the long map of California
along the Central Valley
keeping the corners out
open toward New Mexico
and the High Plains North, old
watersheds East and back again
of the spirit journey
looking for home. (270)
The “spirit journey / looking for home” is Odysseus, is Irby, is each of us traveling through cosmic sequence. This as-the-crow-flies view encompasses the American continent west to east, culminating in the imaginative place of “home.” Space is the first principle of home. These places are the primary glyphs on the page, implied if not drawn: cardinal directions.
Charles Olson writes further geography as meta-image. Physical expanses challenge Americans, who must contemplate journeys even if they remain static:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. … Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted.
Irby is both a rider and a staked man, according to critic John Latta, “[a]nd Irby, one thinks, in a sod house, dug in and mount’d, traversing (“uncertain wandering”) the oceanic prairie.” Static and dynamic, fixed and mutable. These are continuous and contradictory motions in Irby’s prosody. For Irby, geography is ever present, as part of his sedimentation. His lines are physical objects, as Mike McDonough describes:
As Irby’s lines pile into strata, seemingly geologic forces fracture the layers and puncture the boundaries between dream, myth, and reality. Fossilized particulars are pushed in by the waves and stranded by the outgoing tide like trash on the beaches of our attention, opening surprising vistas into “that endlessness of everyday / this is precisely eternity.”
This attention to strata shapes all of Irby’s works.
No detail of the Irby books is haphazard. The poet selects punctuation marks deliberately, and he selects his own marks, omitting others. In “To Max Douglas,” for example, Irby indicates pauses to readers by using commas. He questions (a question mark appears in “Interstate 80?,” for example), but nowhere in the poem does he stop. He never uses a period, and so constant dynamism occurs in apparently resting landscapes:
Interstate 80? especially the arch
under the arch of the ribcage the redwood seedling sprouts
the year of living in California nurture its garden in the heart
as well as Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw
all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision
as on the palm, or heart beat
strings across the belly pit of the Basin West (201)
The lines are continuous, unstopped, like the fractal infinity of physicality. Freud’s “superimposed in one vision” of multiple ages is exactly Irby’s point, and the question mark destabilizes the certainty of linear space — the highway. The lack of a final end stop further reopens all meanings. Elsewhere Irby uses brackets, dashes, quotation marks, underlining, hyphens, colons, three small stars in a row, italics for emphasis, and long lines. Lots of brackets, by the way, but no periods, ever, not even for abbreviations. I do not find semicolons, either — the punctuation mark that is a soft period. Irby selects his own signage from the toolbox of type. All marks on an Irby page, however, lead to the most unresolved organic experience, inhabitation of a body, which experiences one final period — in death. At all other times, the body, and mind, are in motion, like Irby’s verse. I have not found a period in any of the verse of The Intent On, excluding prose pieces.
Irby needs more than the Roman alphabet to explain his expansive ideas. In addition to nakwach, he references other Native glyphic traditions in a petroglyph-inspired section of Catalpa. The frontmatter acknowledges sources of images:
Other drawings are by the author, some based upon reproductions of petroglyphs and pictographs found in these works: Campbell Grant, Rock Art of the American Indian (New York, 1967); Peggy Schaafsma, Rock Art in New Mexico (Albuquerque, 1975); Forrest Kirkland and W. W. Newcomb, Jr., The Rock Art of Texas Indians (Austin, 1967). (246)
Most of these are anthropomorphic — stressing again the human form as a reference point.
Irby also uses Chinese characters within his alphabetic texts. A quotation of Lao Tzu is among the opening inscriptions for Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories, in both characters and English translation (411). The prose section of Catalpa that begins “The students from Cracow leave” includes an Asian glyph — the Chinese character hsin or mind/heart (335). The symbol is drawn with four or sometimes three brushstrokes shown here.
This symbol is one he annotates in the same poem: “February piercing the heart and setting the pericardium afire till it walked, a striding burning hsin, mind/heart, becoming in the stretch of distance and snow, such an eye” (335).
In Irby’s own drawings, which often accompany his inked signatures of books, he often adds his own character, a circled dot with three teardrops below. These resemble the three downward strokes of the hsin, perhaps, but I hesitate to limit any mark by Irby to denotative strictures. The polysemic nature of his images within the poetry extends to these glyphs.
In the original edition of Call Steps, and its reprint in The Intent On, the three teardrops appear after the obituary notice of James Malin:
These accentuate heartfelt grief expressed for the death of the esteemed Plains historian. Irby is innovative in his extension of possible marks on the page. Discussion of glyphs appears in Olson’s Mayan Letters, but that poet does not integrate glyphic figures into his verse.
Irby reaches beyond conventional typography to use, often, a circled star (✪) as a section divider, with subsections divided with small, vertical diamonds: ♦. A few variations occur. In the 1992 edition of Call Steps, the stars are simple asterisks. As early as 1971 and 1974, the circled star ✪ appears in the first two editions of To Max Douglas, and in 2009, it or the diamond consistently replaces asterisks from previous editions in all of The Intent On. If a reader is lucky to have Irby sign a book, Irby embellishes his remarkable commentary with small drawings, almost always with this circled star ✪. Here are three examples from my collection, one from a 1984 typescript poem marginalia (“[exercitation / praecipere]” ); “[syzygos],” a 1999 “chaplet” from Arcturus Editions (552); and the other from an envelope from a personal letter dated 2005.
This symbol reappears consistently through the decades. In recent conversation, Irby suggested this symbol references, though is not confined to, Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian man, who has ideal proportions.
The circled dot also is a repeated Irby wingding, added to his signature and to book inscriptions. It is an astrological symbol for the sun and alchemical symbol for gold.
Rosicrucians say it is a fertilized egg, and/or a focus of spirit in the body. For Irby it changes meanings as contexts change, and I would not reduce it to any one of these cultural allusions. Other symbols used for accent or section divisions are an outlined star (“From Some Etudes,” Tansy 9, 1978); solid dot (“For the Snow Queen,” Tansy 1, 1976); and a symbol I cannot describe in the original edition of Orexis,
replaced by a solid dot in the collected poems. The circle and angular strokes resemble the O and X of the title Orexis, the Greek word for desire. Yin and yang are easy associations. Most interesting of all Irby’s typography is the image from the back cover of Orexis, where Irby’s own image becomes a glyph:
This embeds his own roundish face within the letter O — created by photo-collagist Susan Quasha, from a photograph by Charles Stein. Body and typography merge. Although the poet did not create this glyph, he consented to it, and the image reinforces the theme of body connected to the writing, not the Cartesian separation of mind and body.
So Irby extends the technology of the page to include his own handwritten commentary, journals, and drawings — original or reproduced from the printer’s tray. And so the inscribed page becomes another aspect of the poet’s body. Margins and edges of pages do not limit Irby’s process of conversation. He writes/draws in an open, unified field, where his own life experience is integral.
Irby also uses his own larger drawings as visual commentary in some of the publications, as frontspieces or dividers (pp. 92, 144, 155, 562, for example). The drawings are intrinsic to the book composition. They modify the printed object in terms of Irby’s own invented syntax. The page is the place where the reader’s body touches the collection of thoughts sent through time from Kenneth Irby. Another example of his artwork is on the back cover of The Intent On, an abstracted, full-color drawing of hills, dated “7 April 00,” from his journals.
Some years ago Irby showed me one of his journals, and I marveled at the drawings peppered through the text. I recall he said that he made a drawing each day, if at all possible. Output from his hands, alphabetic or illustrative, contributes to one continuous drawing, which is his life work. Each Irby page has its own intrinsic composition, and this handwritten inscription shows one mode:
This is the front endpaper to my copy of Ridge to Ridge, and the open page seems designed for inscription: “This is Denise’s copy / love ✪ Ken / at the Raven / the night of snow & ice / & the reading of / John Moritz & Ken Irby / some fandangos & / rips & raps / & zips & zaps / all the years / in deep share / & ever onward! / [circled dot] / Lawrence / 1 Mar [circled dot over three teardrops] 2002.” The volume is not complete without an individualized inscription. Irby reaches as an individual to each individual reader.
Here is an example of the layout designed with a space for the author to be completed with inked inscription:
Each Irby page, whether printed or handwritten, has its own composition, specific to the day and place — a more Mayan sense of time being a sequence of unique bundles rather than repeated days. Olson, speaking of Mayan thought, wrote: “Time, in their minds, was mass & weight.” If there were hours enough, I suspect he would hand-draw each copy of each book.
When limited mostly to the Roman alphabet and selected punctuation, Irby uses a painter’s sense of composition. Here is the centerfold of “From Some Etudes,” set by Moritz for Tansy Press in 1978:
The words gain interrelationship, emphasis, reframing, and depth from not just the white space but also the four-pointed arrangement on the page. The stanzas weight the corners and so accentuate the dimension of a page. This creates an abstracted, symmetrical presentation of alphabetic language. This could be a John Cage musical score or a diagram or a map. Layout of Irby’s work is a topic for longer discussion than this commentary.
Etymology is another axis of Irby’s work. I read his writings as a young woman, and from them I learned respect for other language systems. Stranded at the very center of the continent during the twentieth century, in Kansas, this was no minor awakening. I acquired a smattering of Latin, French, and Greek from college, and these helped me to excavate layers of Irbydom. Etymologies resonate obliquely or as direct hits. They often affect the layout, as in “In Place of a Preface” (Catalpa), which is an extended definition of “Land,” “Scape,” “Landscape,” “Plant,” and “Place” (249–52). Indeed, these specific word histories resonate throughout the book Catalpa. The arrangement of this piece shows the dictionary-like composition of the lines:
The layout is recognizable immediately as “definition,” a visual cue as identifiable as a phone book or the Bible. The poet selects from the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, processing them into his own typographic formations. Greek, Latin, Spanish, and many other languages appear in the opus.
The catalogue of Irby’s places, people, flora, and fauna is exhaustive. I have come to visualize his chosen writers as points on a parallel-dimension directory, the great multidimensional structure of time and place that preserves writers’ birthplaces and birth dates. Those who know Irby know his celebration of birthdays of every great personage. Additionally, every book Irby has read is located in this literary timescape. Over the years I have had the privilege of extended conversations with Ken, and I have come to recognize some of the stations along the way. That is the best I can hope for. George Quasha notes Irby’s “availability of memory” in the poetics, and this is another angle of traction: “The use and subversion of memory is therefore a key to his work, establishing a strange complementarity active in the mind of the Reader. Now you are asked to remember a promising or luminous detail, now you are oddly thwarted.” Readers follow Irby intimately, through his physicality and individuality. We share his atlas for good long moments, yet we must remain separate, indeed “thwarted.” But then, we may reopen pages and resume connections.
The Intent On is a work of “mixed genres,” beginning with publications in the 1960s — long before the fashionable term came into use in the late 1980s and ’90s. Definitions, notes, prose poems, travelogue, diary, unsent letters, elegies, geographies, dedications, drawings, glyphs, the balance of white space to black markings, and more combine into one cloth. The consistency of narrative voice holds all these texts in orderly orbit, and that voice is amazingly steady through the decades.
From Irby I learn space as not simply empty distance, or blanks on a page, but rather essential to intervals among landmarks. The physicists call distance “black space” and explain it as an irreducible quantity like time and mass. This rhythmic order is what Irby understands so well. He embraces specificities and arranges them into patterns, newly created each day. This is a manifestation of his love for the given, manifested world, from the Berkeley Hills to Olson’s Gloucester to Denmark — with the Great Plains at the center. Irby’s opus is, like any map, subject to the micro-lens of fratals. Upon close examination, trajectories can unfold endlessly, and this paper suggests only a few. This is the frustration of an atlas; it can never be complete. But then that allows for the slippage, the human creation of reality through typographic representations of topography. Each reading of reality, with its unique compass setting and moment on the clock, energizes a new morning of creation.
February 2, 2012
2. Pierre Joris, “Kenneth Irby: The Intent On,” Nomadics: meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too(blog), December 13, 2009.
4. Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009). [The page numbers of quotations from The Intent On are hereafter indicated in parentheses in the main text. — Eds.]
6. John Latta, review of The Intent On, by Kenneth Irby, Isola Di Rifiuti (blog), March 30, 2010.
7. Mike McDonough, “the back / calm pasture of the mind” (review of The Intent On), Coldfront, April 13, 2011.
It would seem that Kenneth Irby and his work have forever been firmly located — not to say nailed down — in what Robert Duncan called “Irbyland,” i.e. the great American plains or grasslands with Fort Scott and/or Lawrence, Kansas, as bio-hub. Thus, in his first letter to Irby, Robert Duncan sorts out them apples from them oranges by suggesting that “you [Ken Irby] assigned yourself the grasslands” while he, Robert Duncan, assigned himself the European in the form of the “medieval,” via Kantorowicz, an “acolyte of the George circle.” Duncan goes on to suggest that “[a]s in your grasslands you are searching rightly for what a poem is to be in another ‘poem’ — the winds, the grass, the plains will tell you (makers of a horizon you’ve known, I’ve only seen idly in passing) what I can’t about beginning and end of ‘form.’”
It would also be easy enough to see in Irby’s work an extension/continuation — or better, an expansion and a deepening — of Olson’s concerns for the American space, which does indeed come large on this continent, and very large in Irbyland. One could thus read it even as the work on the West and the Great Plains Olson proposed at some point but didn’t do himself. A sympathetic critic such as Eric Mottram will make this link central and explicit: “The taste of Olson was pretty strong,” he writes, suggesting that Irby’s problem in the early poems was “to shift usages of Olson’s procedures … which in some places take over his own voice” while the “better poems” make good use of “the ellipses and discontinuities of Olson’s gap-jumping lyric for a much calmer end.” And indeed, in a 1971 poem based on a dream, Irby imagines Olson on his home terrain: “So Olson did come through Fort Scott / hitchhiking to Denver in the early 50’s, // with some of his students from Black Mountain / not Dorn as I had thought.” This enables him, at least in the poem, to meet Olson back then in the drugstore, where the elder poet sets young Irby a task:
… part of it was
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
In this imagined task, Irby suggests, the thrill was “finding out about all those // lines of continuity across the country / that went through Fort Scott // on off the world.” That task would indeed be very close to what Olson set himself in the Maximus. But even here I sense a push beyond Olson’s New England project in the barefoot high schooler’s (holding the The Boys Book of Chemistry) projected interest in “an era // I wanted to know of my town as / much as alchemy to make // the same transmutings now / Fort Scott’s hidden flower, gold // was opening before that war.” But by the time “you” (the imagined Olson of the poem) showed up with his instructions, “I was on my way / to internationale // attentions.”
The view, it is my argument here today, of Irby’s work as a simple or even complex extension of Olson’s quest seems too limiting to me, diminishing the achievement by proposing too reductive a reading. And if in my title I used a phrase that recalls Edward Dorn, it is not so much for the jaundiced eye with which Dorn gazed at that turbine (which he saw nearly exclusively as commerce moving clockwise) but as a more cultural turbine moving counterclockwise — thus making it a countercultural turbine? — and enriching the dustbowl soils of America. Or maybe this turbine is closer to Henry Adams’s “dynamo,” though then one would have to read a near-Hegelian “Aufhebung” in Irby’s version of the “Virgin and the Dynamo.” It may, in fact, appear strange that I, ex-Europeano who left the “old” continent to become a poet in America because that is where I saw the energies achieve a poetic art unequalled in Europe during the second part of the past century, that I would now want to link Irby back to what I left — or tried to leave — behind. If on this specific occasion I speak to the Europe that traverses and so splendidly marbles Irby’s American land- and mind-scape, it behooves me, however, to point out that any serious, i.e. at least partially complete, assessment of Irby’s oeuvre needs to investigate the poems’ mother lode of information concerning China and Latin America, two further constants in Irby’s vast spiderweb of cultural caches, two further decentered centers touched regularly by that turbine, or dynamo, or great rotating wheel whose hub and heart may lie below, but at the center, of the Great Plains — or, as Irby puts it: “the Great Wheel of the Plains / turns under Fort Scott.” But let’s see how Europe worms its way in and maybe breaks down and enriches the dry soils of the American West.
Permit me, anecdotally, to mention that the first time I laid eyes on Irby was, I remember, as he stepped into my Deal Road house in Tooting Broadway, South London in early 1973 — but that was one of Ken’s rare physical forays into Europe. He’d in fact come down from Denmark and was, if I’m not mistaken, on a trip that would get him to the southern countries of Europe. So, unlike Dorn who spent years in England, teaching, and kept returning to London (where I have an image of him standing in the same room in Deal Road somewhat later in the ’70s, as we argue — he, Ed, deeply, strangely uninterested in my proposal to publish Gunslinger in a French translation I had been working on — but that’s another story), Ken’s visits were shorter, but, it seems to me his involvement deeper and elsewhere.
During this last decade and a half I have been thinking and writing primarily about the concepts of a nomadic poetry and poetics — calling this also at times “archipelago poetics” (in homage to Edouard Glissant’s parallel investigations) — speaking of rhizomatic and dendritic processes. Interestingly enough, the terms “archipelago” and “dendritic” are also clearly there in Irby’s poetry and thinking. He could easily have found a space in the essay “Toward a Nomad Poetics” — and will do so with this belated essay. One of the areas I investigated thus was that of Maghrebian literature, particularly its francophone wing, where on close reading I distinguished what I called “ghostings” on either formal or semantic levels by the “other,” language, the spoken darijas, or vernacular versions of Arabic. I propose to use this notion of “ghostings” to speak of what in Irby’s poetry I perceive as non-American presences, inscriptions, upwellings, conjurations, or whatever guise these presences take.
Let me get back to this un-American turbine/dynamo. In Irby’s work there are of course immediately those literary sources that are not American: we know from his interview for Vort that the first literary influence, or what gave him poetry in a way, was reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the Leishman-Spender translation (found in Kansas City when he was in eighth or ninth grade). We also know of his continuous interest in Russian poetry and writing, especially that of Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, as well as Blok but also of his ongoing reading in French literature. Thus his first book, The Roadrunner Poem, which is indeed a profoundly American poem if ever there was one, is introduced by a quote from Rimbaud’s Saison en Enfer, cited in French without accompanying English translation. In “Jed Smith and the Way,” another long meditation on the American road, and, as Mottram has it, “structured, like an old Buick drive along the routes a trapper, mountain man and guide took in the early 19th century into Oregon,” the narrative drive is stopped short towards the very middle of the poem with reflections on the formal nature of the poem itself — which bring in a European contemporary of Jedediah Smith’s, the German poet Hölderlin:
Hölderlin called the lyric
“the continuous metaphor for a feeling”
the epic, “the metaphor
of an intellectual point of view”
this is the discontinuous
dendritic narrative of a journey
metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return
pastoral in that
“sluicing” meaning the juice
runs down over the head
and puddles off the fingers
The list of such transcultural citations could go on ad infinitum. But let’s look at another aspect in which America is ghosted by the nonnative, namely the geography of the West, its landscapes. For example, in the poem “Jesus,” with its “secret paths” that “lead south,” Irby links his Fort Scott landscape via a nomadic Jesus moving from the North to the South “as if a tracer through the Ice Age intestinal / dirt track, reaching down the Plains again from Asia / towards an absolutely other / Earthly Paradise”:
in the silent age of America
1952, not ripe for any
second coming out, only to scout
if all the Mesopotamian
Siberian welfare trails were still
reblazable under the shit
That would be American shit, needing to be turned into manure to fertilize a dust-bowled scape, perhaps. And having other and older cultural materials come in will help in this process, hopefully speeding it up, or at least making the creation of an inhabitable dwelling, a hearth, possible. Here the reach back is long, space-wise, to Mesopotamia and linking to Siberia, and time-wise from the Ice Age to what seems like a “communist” welfare present. At first sight this could still be read as Olsonian, i.e. as the jump back from present-day America to pre-Greek Near Eastern cultures and their roots in the Pleistocene. But this is complicated by a range of other references, such as the figure of the weird motorcycle (Hell’s Angels?), or Jesus as “an easter revolutionary … He must be a communist …” with the classical Christian fish (more ambiguously also readable as sexual — cunt or prick) as emblem, which become for Irby the “Tarot card of the Hitchhiker.” Tarot cards are European and medieval in origin, and even if another clin d’oeil to Olson is also intended, they move us firmly into a specific Irby area, namely hermetic lore and literature and to a European culture Olson has no truck with. It is worth mentioning here that Olson condemned anything European from Plato to the early twentieth century as highly suspect.
I believe that one of the essential aspects of this doubleness — or, so as not to get stuck in a dialectical binary system, this multiplicity of layers — has to do with Irby’s comprehension of landscapes as not only natural, not ever in fact only “natural” (and one should here insert a full essay on what “natural” may or may not mean — something I’d love to do on another occasion, taking my cues from Spinoza). This complexity is well set forth in a line by the geographer Edgar Anderson, quoted by Irby in the “In Place of a Preface” of Catalpa (why not call it a preface; why a place in place of? What is a place that stands in for another place, what is this supplement, the pemmican we chew instead of the actual bison filet mignon? The poetics statement of explanation instead of the poem itself? My Derridean proclivities could easily slip here into a long zigzag reflection, that in turn could get me lost in Irbyland like any number of those greenhorn conquistadores/explorers of old ... I’ll try to avoid this fate at least here, right now). So in the preface to Catalpa, Anderson (on page 250 of the Collected) says it clearly: “It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it.” So, yes, it may be obvious but bears restating: the landscape is also of the mind, or a palimpsest of geography and mind, where the one ghosts the other, so that the leaves of the trees, Catalpa or others, rhyme (Duncan-esquely) with the leaves of the books read and/or written there.
Irby himself is very clear about this, for example in the introduction to Relation, when he writes: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’” This is a direct response to a landscape that both “demands us” and “reveals us.” Here one should also place a discussion of the relation of Irby’s “pastoral” to the European and more specifically the British version thereof — but this has been done in a number of essays over time and there is no reason to repeat those analyses here now.
I do however want to locate the movement through the, through any, landscape more specifically as I perceive a ghosting — perhaps unconscious — with a range of other literary events. What I call “the nomadic” is of course very present in Irby’s work, in, for example, a definition of American poetry as the “narrative of a journey” — a narrative that I think cannot easily be fitted into the Hölderlinian definitions quoted above, as they give precedent to the metaphor. Thus a strange doubleness, in which I would in fact read an opposition, in the juxtaposition of these two lines, when after the near-Deleuzian rhizomatic definition of the work as the “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey,” the next line brings it all back home (= Europe? a certain fixity?) by restating this definition as being a “metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return.” Three loaded words here: 1) “pasture” which in this context sounds closer to the pastoral as defined by the likes of Empson, as a metaphor for another state, rather than as Irby’s own descriptions of the pastoral as a daily concern with the precise landscape of wherever we are, both as physical and as spiritual landscape. Maybe my distrust of the word here comes from its association with 2) the word “anabasis” where (and this may be personal to my own Euro-basis) I cannot but hear the title of Saint-John Perse’s poem “Anabase” not surprisingly translated into English by one T. S. Eliot, a poem that despite its title and travel components is a static, colonial venture. (Of course, the word alone in Irby’s line could also dendritically or rhizomatically spiral out to the “anabasis” moth, a genus of snout moths from the Phycitinae subfamily, or, maybe closer to home, the plant “anabasis,” a genus of desert shrubs in the Amaranthacaceae family.) And finally, word 3) “return,” which has its own problems when it comes to nomadic spaces.
So I am partial to the nomadic definition of the poem as a “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey.” And rather than return the journey to a fixed European pastoral space, breathtaking only due to the narrowness of its hedged-in bets, I want to link it to another ghosting. Irby’s journeying and the inscription of that journey into his poems is, for example, quite different from say, Kerouac’s On the Road, that mad rush from one side of the continent to the other, coast to coast with stopovers only when too exhausted to keep driving. Irby’s progress is via a range of “fixes,” bearings taken that request stages, stopovers, which I would assimilate to the physical and spiritual stops or mawqifs — as they are known in the Sufi journey — in the nomad’s progress. The discontinuity, the dendritic nature of the journey is accepted and made use of, stages for reflection, for companionship, for writing, for eating, drinking, and sex. I do, however, disagree with Eric Mottram’s assessment that with “the self asserted through a world of revelatory signs,” Irby moves “steadily towards the transcendental, a mysticism of land and mobility, of that sense of Americans being necessarily shaped by the violence of the continent.” I would suggest that the journey is towards an ever deeper immanence, that the life teachings of the movement through America are the exact experiences that show how the physical and mental journeys are or become inseparable, are of the same stuff. Irby touches on this, for example, when he writes: “Lords of the Light and Air / are Immanences, not rulers.” And if in the journey itself, in the speed of movement, there can be a giddiness that would point towards an Other beyond the horizon, some transcendental topos, it is in the mawqif, the stopping, the rest and the necessary tasks of that dailyness that immanence roots itself again. There are four lines from an early Irby work — The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream, which was the first book of his I picked up — four lines that have stayed with me and that come back to mind or to hand very often:
The light lasts on out of history or memory
in the face and turn of head toward the sink
that endlessness of every day
that is precisely eternity.
Beyond this there is one counter linked to Europe I want to briefly explore here, namely the way music, often in the shape of the classical European tradition, enters. If Olson in a memorable line condemns the piped-in version of that as mu-sick, mu-sick, he does however not seem to have much truck with music — I remember one reference to a contemporary composer, Pierre Boulez, but that was to Boulez’s ideas, not his compositions. Even the presence of John Cage at BM doesn’t seem to have jolted Olson towards music much. Irby, on the other hand, though agreeing with Olson about mu-sick — take for example the opening line of the poem “Delius,” speaking of the “Crapmusic on the radio” — has a profound and ongoing relation to both classical European music as well as to the American tradition of jazz. A reading of the poem “Delius” shows the ways its materials and its thinking move between the continents, linking the English composer to Florida, thus setting that dynamo/turbine into motion again. Even as in the poem “there would be a Delius of this / Northern Pacific redwood coast,” proposing further marvelous geographical musical chairs, the poem enacts this multiple connectedness throughout. Take for example the following stanza:
Walt Whitman along the Loing
into blackberry thickets along the Reyes coast
organizing before 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass
along the North Atlantic shore
turning in the conversation
in the living room at Grez
to the high hills, wordless
The Loing is a river in France, having its source in the Burgundy region and flowing into the Seine not too far from Paris. You may know it from a painting by the English painter Alfred Sisley who lived in the village of Moret-sur-Loing for many years. But of course Walt Whitman never walked along that river, or only in the imaginary sense in which Olson met Irby at the Fort Scott drugstore in ’53. Now, the French name of the river “Loing” — the final “g” is silent — is homophonic with the French word “loin,” meaning “far, far away.” A meaning I hear sounding the line as that far-away distance that plays itself out throughout this section of the poem, and that joins — shoving together, you could nearly say — different continental coasts (West Coast/East Coast) and actual continents (North America/Europe). Simultaneously — and on the opposite scale size-wise — the work of the poem breaks up a single location into two spaces by decomposing its complex hyphenated name. The “living-room at Grez” refers to the small village of Grez-sur-Loing where Delius stayed, a name here exploded into its two referents, river/village, while continental drift moves easily from the French river to the Pacific Reyes coast blackberry thickets only to reemerge two lines later on the North Atlantic coast. Given that this is Whitman, the East Coast reemergence may be located close to his birthplace, Long Island, the “Long” part of which needs only an “I” to become a “Loing” — an “I” the ego-strong Walt was surely not averse of inserting into any place or situation. And if the I of Island migrates to the Long, we are left with a “sland” or a slant land that will give us a slope or swerve, or as I prefer to call it, a clinamen, that will churn the North Atlantic turbine all the way to the French river.
The next stanza begins with a quote: “our job is to find ourselves / at all costs” (I nearly typed “coasts”) — and even in this poem, so focused from the title on a man, the musician Frederick Delius, in order to locate him or us (and could we locate the one without the other?) what has to be followed, to be trodden or thought through, are the “secret trails” of the journeying, as the poem makes clear a few pages later:
this explains the secret trails
from Fort Scott into the South
the secret ways Vanamee followed
into Mexico with the sheep
the Great Circle back to California
the Florida fixed between Jacksonville and St. Augustine
by Delius and Conan Doyle, the deep trails
Buchaning over Norway, foot tracks poaching
Jefferies down nets and fosse
coverts crossing and recrossing
the natural mystery
And below and between the numerous namings, the many places, the dance of vowels and consonants, that other musical ghosting always there in the work — so that now you hear the ghost of Delius, now the ghost of Ellington, Europe and America coming together, or at least living side by side and fertilizing their respective imaginations, as somewhere else a favorite pop ditty seems to sound out of three or four innocent-enough looking words strung together. Such investigations of how European composers, among others, create networks at different levels — geographical but more complexly, psychotopological — throughout the oeuvre could be multiplied. Let me close with another extract from the same poem, where an already mentioned American composer is insistently foregrounded through the triple repetition of his name, the citation of the title of his autobiography and finally a combination of mainly European geoethnic terms that bring it all back home, to America, that is to say:
Ellington, Ellington, Ellington
on the windup phonograph?
Reminiscing in Tempo the year after he died
as if a memorial to that
Floridian magic fountain music, Griegish
Germanic Yorkshirian Gallicized slavery chants, as melted
pot as America ever said it wanted.
1. Robert Duncan, letter to Ken Irby, Nomadics (blog).