One thing follows another, incessantly. This I would posit as the first principle of Kenneth Irby’s poetry, one of the qualities of attention he shares with Whitman. Accretion matters, but also — and this perhaps is a second principle — the line we cross to meet things matters. Or rather, gives to matter that hallucinatory quality dreams have when they surprise us by waking us up. But “line” is not quite the right word for characterizing the thresholds where attention quickens, for a line — that is, a line of poetry — is what crosses a border, by which I mean that the work of a line is not establishment but movement. Perception is active, an encounter with the world, and this encounter is itself a thing that poetry records: self-reflexivity swells the accretion.
The world, of course, has a temporal aspect as well as a spatial one, and perception necessarily shares in both, meeting the world where the two coincide. Again and again, perception brings us to a crossroad, a complex interplay of history and geography, memory and presence, given narrative and thematic expression in Irby’s earlier poems. The later poems instead develop a formal expression of this complexity, resulting in texts that are extraordinarily private, having less in common with storytelling than list-making, an act of attention at once expansive and compressed. The experience of such texts — a third principle — is a paradoxical combination of traversal and dwelling. Their rule is graduction, to adopt one of the spurious words from the OED, cited there as an error for graduation — an error that brings together two of the source word’s distinct senses: division into degrees and the process of concentrating by evaporation. graduction, then, is a portmanteau of gradation and reduction; a dream word for a dream-like experience.
All of which has something to do with the walk to the Paradise Garden. But before I explain what I mean by that, let me make three digressions through Irby’s work so as to illustrate the three principles I have listed: accretion, crossing, and experience. Through these principles, Irby inhabits the world in which he finds himself and adapts it to art — world and art apprehended together, in language. Two aspects of a single thing, a single act: creation.
The first of these principles, accretion, ties perception to growth. As a principle of writing, it means that poetry lives by taking in and setting forth, extending its reach perception by perception, word by word. There is an essential restlessness in this. Although Zukofsky is an important influence, Irby’s poems are a far cry from the “rested totality” of Objectivism. Their animation is a form of participation; they share in the real that they strive to represent — a Heraclitean real whose varied manifestations are neatly summed in the early title Movements/Sequences (1965). Even dreams are caught up in this flow. “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” writes Irby in The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream, 1968, a credo that helps explain the following visionary passage from the earlier “A Set Series for Roy Gridley,” in which the metaphor of growth is prominent:
The flower that is the Imagination, that we live by, blooms
from the flame the eyes burn down the very town we live in
in all our light
and then build up again
I hear in these lines a powerful apprehension of what perception yields, articulated by a sentence that resists grasp, owing to a number of slippages in the phrasing, a characteristic I associate with the late work, though Irby accounts for it as early as the preface to Movements/Sequences — the very book from which this poem comes. Speaking in that preface of the work of the imagination, conceived of as a process independent of will, Irby writes:
[W]hat means I have to participate at all is in the shifts and twisting of syntax … following my vines of twisting movement, blind but certain. … The wisteria. The roses I trimmed today. … Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain. … Following the textures and wrenching of how words follow each other, the flow. (29–30)
Caught up in that flow, the poet who trims roses is no longer gardener but gardened, the vine whose twisting movement he would follow. Moreover, in equating the twists of that vine with those of syntax — himself with the language to which he submits, blind but certain — Irby asserts that the imagination is a force that exceeds our powers of cultivation, and so is, in its way, a force of nature. Properly, then, the preface ends with a long quotation from “Projective Verse,” in which language is upheld precisely as a means of joining nature, of making contact with the real. The commonplace of our age, that language mediates, blocking our access to the matter of our lives, shaping our experience of it, has no authority in Irby’s work, though his contact with the real — sensual through and through — calls on language for help at every turn.
The intensity of this contact assumes its full significance in those later poems where the accretion of perception overwhelms the help of language, so that we sense but cannot parse the continuity of experience that Irby records; only music assures us of the wholeness of what’s perceived, moment by moment, in the flow of language. A choice example of this intensity is a queer text from 1983, in which the perception overwhelming language is, to begin with, the very attention to language that writing requires, a dizzying self-reflexivity whose one still moment is the perception of light at the end, a look up from the page, I fancy, that hands reverie over to the world it would hold:
to look into the pits of
and the blank of the word that does not come then
is its pits, to stare into that whole season of absence in its staring
seed of the seed that is not time
given in time into that
but what escapes from that black hole
is the recent angel of awareness
shriven staring, to write awareness
fresh mounted messenger from beyond the turning of the earth’s direction, back
dithyramb steward of the guardian of the bear, blazing in the forehead, plough
step to turn and return the pole
stiff is the penetrant of attention
mucoprotein gone down that drain, in the altered work, flood of each single fold
of the marriage host
from the clothing adornment, jewel wick in the nozzle of the lamp, stretched
toward this midden, back
emunctory life, paranomastically answering to the root of being
seek, seed, see’t, seen
in the gleam of the sunlight off the top of the yellow Capri parked beyond the
The second principle, crossing, asserts that perception is an activity, even when it occurs in repose. More pointedly, it asserts that perception is the crossing of a threshold, such that stories of crossing become scenes of perception. This way of speaking might seem peculiar, or at least unnecessarily metaphorical, were it not for the singular importance of crossings in Irby’s work. At least through Catalpa (1977), which ends in a flight from Chicago to Boston, crisscrossings of the continent provide narrative inspiration, opening pathways for the senses — including the historical sense (as in “Jed Smith and the Way”). I think my favorite of these literal crossings is the last of many that saturate the title poem of To Max Douglas (1971), the trek of “the Jurassic longing saurians,” who make their way across the Salinian terrain of California (218). The tread of those dinosaurs is explicitly a conduit for vision, not only because we are told that they crossed “with their tiny nearsighted // foliage-ridden eyes,” but also because we ourselves, as Irby tells us, “are the inheritors / of that gaze,” presumably because we are able to walk the same path (218). Pathways for the senses are so pervasive in Irby’s work, there is even a crossing, by accident or design, in the first line of the first poem — which is not chronologically the earliest — in Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On. This is the opening to The Roadrunner Poem (1964), a powerful act of perception whereby the object perceived becomes invested with the very being of the perceiver. The senses are that powerful for Irby: not only do they give him the world; they also, on occasion, project him into it:
The roadrunner that crossed my yard
and the roadrunner my neighbor kept as a pet
And the grain I am sunk into
staring into the wood, the bole in my hands, the window sill
Catch me as I go out along the ploughed fields
and stare there, back at me as I
at them went in come out (5)
The crossing of the roadrunner would hardly be noteworthy on its own; it becomes significant as the initiation of a chiasmus that Irby completes by crossing back (and here, to enlarge our appreciation of what this initiation yields, we might read the poem alongside Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous notes on the chiasm of perception, first published in France the same year that Irby’s poem was published in the United States).
Irby’s thematic treatments of crossing hardly hint at the number and variety of thresholds we encounter in his work. Here again I would cite the pertinence of the early title Movements/Sequences, since wherever a movement or sequence occurs there is implicitly a crossing. Movement is the more encompassing category since there can be no traversal of space that does not include a traversal of time, but even a motionless sequence involves a location in space: our existence is always both spatial and temporal; space and time mark every point with their X, hence at every point we find ourselves at a crossroad.
Irby attests to the potency of what these arrivals disclose in a short prose piece dated 1981, about a Japanese form of divination in which the questioner goes to a well-traveled road at evening, taking the first overheard words as his or her oracle. In certain poems (as in the following, from Studies ), it seems that the whole long length of the real is such a road, and all of the senses, not merely the ears, alert to its divination:
the sidewalks are all dried after the rain
except for the dark shadow around the dead squirrel
splayed out as though supplicating the concrete
fur of the spine ridge fur of the tail curled up along the spine ridge frayed up rat-
gray and gnat-thickened
yesterday late afternoon a few yards away it was sitting in the bare dirt head bent
down to the earth
bitten in the neck or by the quickest plague or simply the heart gone dropped in
carried in the night play by the same catch and turned around
so now to face me (570–71)
The third principle, experience, speaks to the character of the texts Irby produces in consequence of the first two principles, by which I mean in particular the character of the late work, poetry that seizes on the secrets of crossing and accretion — of perception as encounter and writing as its means or witness — in order to encompass and condense the real, or rather that portion of the real that Irby’s acts of attention and powers of language are able to disclose. “Not having made the world, I have created it anew each morning / in confusion Act Axe Axis,” he writes in “Notes” (from Catalpa, 275). The axis I take as a crossroad of time and space, memory and presence, a point at which perception occurs, recreating the world and placing us in it, as upon waking. The act I take as our material engagement with the world, the engagements of art certainly included (for these lines come from a poem about revolution, also about “the pages of Revolution” turned in bed while hearing Bach and thinking of Pound ). The ambiguous axe between axis and act is what confusion wields, a tool of destruction or construction, separating — that is, making distinctions between — the very things it fuses. This is the impossible task of graduction, a measuring out of the Heraclitean real that also, somehow, collapses its dimensions, a project best realized for me in the poems of Ridge to Ridge (2001) and Studies. Consider, for instance, the following short poem from the former volume, “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow].” It begins with a fine distinction that sets us deep into a darkness where the eyes falter, though the other senses — especially touch and hearing — compensate; or maybe it is the memory of those other senses that compensates. Memory, in any case, lights up the darkness, sending us well beyond the coordinates of the title, an overload of sensation perfectly captured in the last line:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
Which brings me at last — “the rapt aphasic ear” does — to the Paradise Garden; or rather, to the walk that leads to the Paradise Garden — an epoch in the life of the imagination to which I was first introduced by Irby’s “Delius” (a poem from the expanded edition of To Max Douglas ), a tribute to the British composer Frederick Delius. “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is Delius’s most famous composition, part of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, adapted from Gottfried Keller’s novella of the same name. In both novella and opera, the Paradise Garden is a tavern frequented by vagrants and the poor, but the treatments are markedly different. For Keller, the establishment has an ironic name; Cain’s descendants are the patrons. As they are for Delius, but without irony: his tavern stands at the edge of a paradise only available to those who have fallen, a possibility of happiness outside the bounds of society. That the fallen lovers shrink from this possibility is the true tragedy of Delius’s opera. Yet the lovers do find themselves tempted; their wordless walk is the opera’s crucial moment, though the absence of words and minimal action disguise its significance. Musically speaking, the “Walk” is an intermezzo — an operatic equivalent to Irby’s graduction: it characterizes the interval opened up between two discreet scenes, while compressing within that space the emotional impact of the opera as a whole.
Irby’s synopsis of the opera — or rather, his synopsis of the second half — actually downplays the walk, emphasizing instead a dream that the two lovers share, uncannily, a coincidence of experience that draws their dream into the shared world of waking reality:
Sali and Vreli before the fire
both dreamt the same dream: heard the choir
and saw the entwining cathedral light
marry them, grownup and child
couples crowned together
and so awoke, and left, already
on their way out of this world
passed through the fair of worldly
fair and wondrous things
and made the Walk
to the Paradise Gardens
that is all we ever hear from the opera
the Long Walk, nothing of the Caspar David Friedrich church
dream music, the Gardens full of whirling
dopefiend bohemians behind the Dark Fiddler
the lovers floating off in a coal barge
and fucking into oblivion
“this is the most heart-breaking music in the world” (231–32)
What Irby says here about the dream reiterates the credo I cited before, “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” a statement that appears, as noted before, in his book The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream. That this flower-bearing paradise, which dreams traverse, may have something to do with Delius’s Paradise Garden is suggested to me by a subsequent passage in the poem for Delius, an explicit reference to the credo and a beautiful summation of what the opera expresses: “Only a sensualist could so / trap the pain of parting / the endlessness of the moment of leaving / this world, this only world, for nothingness” (232). Irby has in mind here the opera’s final moment, in which the lovers drown while consummating their passion, but the “endlessness” he mentions captures perfectly for me the apprehension and expectation that linger in the walk, states of mind that swell to a melancholic grandeur in Delius’s music.
In citing this music, I do not offer it solely as an illustration of the three principles (though it handsomely illustrates the last two, crossing and experience). Its pertinence lies for me more fully in its revelation of the nature of art, of art as expression. For one important aspect of the walk is the fact that it arises in the context of an adaptation. Though Delius’s libretto transforms Keller’s novella in significant ways — the walk, for instance, is only implied in Keller’s narrative, is not described — the relationship of the opera to the novella is such that every expressive moment within it acquires, for those who know both, the hallucinatory power of a dream, a dream that haunts the waking world that shapes the dream in the first place. Such hauntings are all-pervasive in Irby’s work, which is unusually erudite without, however, requiring footnotes to be appreciated: his art is not a commentary on its sources but an adaptation of them, as dreams are an adaptation of everyday life. There are exceptions to this (and Irby’s commentary on Delius is indeed one of them), but by and large his writing is a kind of dream-work, one in which the borders between dream and waking — between art and life — are constantly crossed.
Taking “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” as a model for poetry leads me, then, to understand Irby’s art as inextricably tied to the work of adaptation. The adaptation involved in his art is not usually so literal as in the intermezzo that Delius composed for his own version of Keller’s story (which was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s story), but insofar as anything given expression must be felt, and so known, there is inevitably a process of taking possession involved. In this sense, even self-expression is a form of adaptation: a mode of cognition whereby artists adapt themselves to art. This, I think, is one of the things that Irby means by “Etude,” a type of poem that he gives its own section in Call Steps, and that fills a whole book in Studies (whose title is a translation of “etude”). Moreover, it is the fact of this study that tempts me to think of Irby’s characteristic themes and methods as matters of principle — tempts me, that is, to think of his poetry, especially in its later manifestations, as a phenomenology in performance.
And so I would like to end with a poem that exemplifies Irby’s phenomenology: a study drawing on all three principles; also an adaptation of experience, that is itself an experience, haunted — like the walk to the Paradise Garden — by what came before and what will follow:
the window shattered out into the storm lets in the storm
lets in the flood and its redfronded palm trees
lets in what waits at the end
lets out what waits for the end
in this room right now that takes all that has come before and waits
it’s time to go home
the father time the mother space
but all these people here already are
a room as vast as presidency and as invaded
the father space the mother time
that are not home but orders of perception
as home itself is an organ of perception
lets in the rain that music makes
lets out the tightly woven carpets of the rain
knows at the end whose redfronded palm trees are they? (568)
In this brief poem from Studies, to which I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph, Irby contemplates the aftereffects of a storm, presenting us with a room that has seemingly reached a point of stasis. As the poem unfolds — a manifestation of accretion — we see that this stasis is also a crossroad, one to which Irby is brought by way of contemplation, reminding us that a stasis in one realm (call it matter) and movement in another (call it mind) can occur simultaneously; that these are different orders of experience corresponding to the different orders of perception, the corporeal and imaginative. It follows from this that there are different ways of inhabiting a world, which is why Irby is able to write “it’s time to go home” while sitting in a room that may indeed be his home: not only place but the presences that abide there show us we have arrived; we go home in mind as well as in body, and we can feel ourselves displaced from home in either capacity. Irby’s room is a figure for creation: shattering out and letting in, it rests between “what waits for” and “waits at,” traversed by both as they invade or abandon, make welcome or take leave. Finding ourselves at home there, we are discovered (for home, writes Irby, “is an organ of perception”) in parental embrace by space and time. Bereft despite that embrace, we find ourselves in need of home, abiding with all that the storm delivers — its “redfronded palm trees,” a figure for the wreckage.
Figure or actuality, poem or world, wrecked or whole, mysterious or familiar: creation.
3. To better place Irby’s poems in their chronological unfolding, I have given the dates and titles of the original volumes, except in the case of work from the final section of The Intent On, “Uncollected.” There, only a date is given.
[H]e who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at. As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision … be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot. (134)
Elaborating, Merleau-Ponty writes:
We say therefore that our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees them and touches them; we say, because it is evident, that it unites these two properties within itself, and its double-belongingess to the order of the “object” and to the order of the “subject” reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders. (137)
The world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world ultimately: as flesh applied to a flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is surrounded by it. A participation in and kinship with the visible, the vision neither envelops it nor is enveloped by it definitively. … My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visible with it. (138)
Numerous corroborations of these speculative points could be found in Irby’s poetry, so much of which takes up the experience of what Merleau-Ponty calls “double-belongingess.” See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
6. In his novella, Keller amplifies the irony of his biblical allusion with four weather-worn archangels of stone, which hold up the roof of the tavern at its corners, surrounded by cherubs playing musical instruments. These instruments are a far cry from the flaming sword of Genesis, but Keller’s irony goes beyond a transposition of instruments, for his lovers do not fall for having tasted forbidden fruit; quite the contrary, their acceptance of the prohibition is what dooms them to their exile. The novella is thus an indictment of conventional morality, or in any case a dispassionate appraisal of morality’s effects. The original sin for Keller, the origin of the dispute between the families of his Romeo and Juliet, is the denial of an inheritance to a bastard son. That son, known in the story as the dark fiddler, is a human analogue for Keller’s musical angels and also an analogue for the snake of Genesis.
Delius, for his part, sidesteps social analysis, allowing the Paradise Garden to assume a significance independent of moral judgment. There are no stone angels in Delius’s libretto; his dark fiddler represents the opera itself, is more Prospero than angel or snake, though he has no power to effect a restoration. Displaced, not fallen, from grace, he is the master of a fallen paradise, and can only make suggestions, proposing to the lovers that they join him in the woods, apart from society, a prospect from which they flinch, choosing instead to consummate their love and die. Keller’s ironies are thus dissolved, like the pressures of society in a dream — not the church-wedding dream at the center of the opera, which is shaped by those pressures (a reversion to Keller’s perspective), but the dreamy song that drifts in from the river at the end, giving expression to what the lovers desire. Their intertwined voices describing that song make for one of the opera’s most exquisite moments:
Far-off sounds of music
waken trembling echoes,
moving, throbbing, swelling,
faintly dying in the sunset’s fading glow.
Where the echoes dare to wander
shall we two not dare to go?
The song from the river is something that Delius adds to Keller’s story, and what it adds reiterates the emotional content of the walk to the Paradise Garden: an apprehension of limits that might have been but will not be transcended, only transgressed.
Where to Begin ? Start anywhere, and lines of ‘connection’ reach out toward other possible ‘brethren’/testimonies/‘betrayers of the truth’ guised in largely-invented-for-the-pleasure-of-the-tale/seeming-pure-relational-relation-of-event-type ‘stories of mine’ … about ‘Past Times’ I truly can’t remember (in very good detail), but will insist on telling you about anyway …
What’s the Good of That ? Give it Up !
. . .
Kenneth Irby (who was ‘Best Man’ at our wedding in May 1963), my long-lifetime friend (!) — known as “Ken Irby” — remains a primary down-to-earth/‘everyday’ companion AND (beyond me) A ‘Communicator with Other Elements’, and as such, defies ‘Description’ …
I Dare You !
. . .
I shall begin.
When I returned (after a two-year/‘wandering’ leave of absence) to Harvard College and Cambridge (from which I had formerly felt ‘alienated’, being from Minneapolis (‘behind’)/a ‘hick’), Ken was There ! (Robert Creeley had told me to look up Ken and Elsa Dorfman and Gordon Cairnie and his Grolier Book Shop — that made all the difference, for me.)
Ken was almost five years older, and he was in his third year in graduate school in Far Eastern Studies and ‘knew the ropes’ — not only re Harvard but something of what was ‘Going On’ in the otherwise-staid apartment building immediately adjacent to 6 Plympton Street, where the daughter of Alfred North Whitehead lived … and Which (amongst the passers-by) She Was (Jessie) … ! Not that that, in itself, was/is ‘important’, but (at the time it was exciting !) — displayed a (an) enviable capacity to see/attend to ‘the World’, and remember clearly somehow ‘significant’ aspects of same, and to ‘say’ these/them …
I owe much of my ‘knowledge’ of my own early world to/from meeting Ken (I think in the Grolier (?) in October (?) 1962) and from knowing/learning something of his ‘procedure’ by visiting/walking around and talking with him. I thought Ken was ‘advanced’ ! (Later I saw him as the only person I’ve known who really was/IS Emerson’s “American Scholar”.)
. . .
He had (one side of) his own little House — 429 Franklin Street, probably a ‘Pre-Built’ (even then)/anyway ‘hammered together’ Bungalow (or was there an upstairs? with Strangers going up & down steps at all hours … ? I don’t remember that, or do I ?) with raw-built/‘junky’/ground floor flats either side of front door — but ‘clean’ (only because just-built, in ‘vacant’ lot must have been recently bulldozed (older house destroyed?)), was dirt …
Ken was King there ! ! (Every Man His (‘Every One Their’) Home-On-Earth, Wherever It Is/May Be … !)
Was Up and ‘Operating’, going on with his ‘business’ (of his life in the history/presence of phenomena) …
Knew Who the affable/Lowell-House-ensconced Society of Fellows fellow was … who was suspected of stealing books from the Grolier, but had never been caught … and pointed him out …
. . .
There was Always Music (listened to very intently, or ‘somewhere in the background’ more or less All The Time … as if dream-intelligence could be carried on/continue into waking life … !), and it permeates the work (often explicitly referenced: “Delius”, “Frog Ben Webster”, “Bach’s Art of the Fugue”) as a ‘structural base’ & as an ‘accompaniment’/‘friend’ to thinking, imagining & saying — in Cambridge in the fall of 1962, in that house on Franklin Street, there was a whole range of sound on Ken’s phonograph that ‘contributed substantially’ to my musical education (e.g., Savoy recordings of Charlie Parker/Miles Davis — Too Quick for Me ! — & phrasings/‘sliding notes’ sung by Billie Holiday) — it was just there, almost as a ‘Solid Object’, a Given — how wonderful to have (& know the value of having) Sound-in-Life (!) … and continuing certainly in Berkeley in that ‘shiplike house’ (‘beached’ not too far from the Bay at 1614 1/2A Russell Street), with its ‘poop deck’ pitched out into the proprietary/tutelary backyard walnut tree … and later when Ken was staying at John Friedman’s on Carrison Street … and then in the ’70s in Medford, MA (when Ken was living in his basement apartment & teaching at Tufts)(Let the Snow Fall & The Cold Wind Blow!) … and also for a week in Bolinas (when Ken stayed with me in the ’90s), why, it was, What Shall We Listen to Next … ?
Thereby to continue to participate in the Continuum of Sound going on (all the time) in the World/in the Brain that so ‘energizes our existence’/gives us Life … ‘Music’ absolutely amongst the ‘best things’ Humans Are/have ‘done’ … I agree !
. . .
And so it came to pass, in those days (behind closed doors, leaning up against the kitchen sink), that there was marijuana — a real ‘eye-opener’, to (Minneapolis) me — with its capacity to ‘broaden one’s horizon’/sharpen the senses to concentrate upon (formal apparitions) particulars of sight, sound and intellection … ‘taste’ … i.e., the whatness of the thatness (!), added to the thatness of the whatness (!) … i.e., the ‘for itself’ of the ‘in itself’ of the ordinary evidentiary reality of any old thing …
. . .
And Ken had Headaches, a lot, in the old days — severe ‘Migraine’ (?) headaches that Afflicted Him — and I thought that maybe the Ongoingness of the almost-always-sounding-music provided him a ‘better place’ he could travel into/‘occupy’, despite the other (pain) … (demons writhing/clutching their horns in Kurosawa’s Dreams) …
. . .
I never saw Ken ‘work’ (I think he said he studied in the library) — was he a T.A. too ? — Off he went (no matter what), in the morning, to ‘school’ … His ‘advantage’ (& ‘torment’?) was that he just fucking well memorized everything he turned his mind to … ! I felt that that was fundamentally ‘unfair’ …
He told me that, if you stand in a hot shower for 10 minutes in the morning, and let the water play upon the back of your neck — And if you’ve remembered to drink a large glass of water before youse went to bed — youse can ‘keep going’ … even if you first think you can’t, trying to wake up/stand … you Arrive in the lecture hall, in your seat, with notes ready.
. . .
I had a ‘state of the art’ (heavy/dense) Wollensak ‘portable’/reel-to-reel tape recorder my Aunt Augusta had given me, and Ken had a tape (I think he was given by Paul Blackburn?) of Zukofsky reading in NY (part of “A-9” & “A-11”) that was ‘brand new’ to me (& just riveting) … LZ said he would read “A-11” for “Robert” who had requested it (& I’ve wondered to this day who that “Robert” is … Creeley?) — and I had a tape Marthe Rexroth had given me of Creeley reading early poems and one wonderful story, called “The Grace”, which begins something like “From somewhere else he could hear it, but the crying at least had stopped …” and we listened to these (& others, too), as part of aforementioned ongoing/continuing ‘musical education’.
. . .
It’s No Wonder (to me) that he teaches / is ‘responsible for’ basically All of American Literature (in relation to its ‘historical settings’ & wide/various ‘foreign influences’/‘cultural context’) from the beginnings forward (+ an occasional foray into Shakespeare & the English Romantics & ?) for the University of Kansas English Department without any sort of ‘degree’ (undergraduate or graduate) in English or American Literature At All …
. . .
He wasn’t only ‘from-there’ — he wasn’t really-from-there — he was from ‘Kansas’ … ! !
“Kansas, Kansas, no peace I find … I got Kansas, Kansas … on my mind !”
. . .
I thought I was an ‘Athlete’ (what with all my experience of high school basketball, etc.), but I must say Ken would walk very fast (it was his ‘exercise’, in Cambridge, & in Berkeley later), we would walk very fast … whenever we set off to walk anywhere … over those rough/red-brick sidewalks (roots of the trees having jumbled/thrown bricks up) … toward whatever (‘object of desire’) mundane destination was our goal … a ‘Movie’ … ?
. . .
I’ve always thought he liked ‘deep’/‘thick’ things (like Tennyson’s syrupy “Lady of Shalott”), but then he pointed out also virtues of ‘simple’ (forgotten) lyrics by Whittier, Bryant, etc. (“To A Waterfowl”) …
. . .
He is/was ‘Self-Absorbed’/‘Self-Preoccupied’ And remarkably ‘Other-Centered’ (as I am myself) … Had (has) an impenetrable-furrowed Forehead (with large, wide-spaced/‘liquid’ Eyes) … which he turns, and directs toward ‘Things’ …
. . .
Testy, why sometimes, YES ! I Should Say So ! !
A former Debater (like Olson), he likes a ‘contest’ — he warms to the occasion, marshals his forces, and lays on (“Lay on, Macduff !”) — until no suitable rejoinder is possible (I remember fewer things — I mean stuff I could use as ‘example’/proving my point, as the evening wears on … frankly, I QUIT ! … not wanting to hurt him (or our friendship), or to be injured myself ! WE NEVER CAME TO BLOWS !
There was Silence … Silence is Best …
. . .
The ‘Silence of the Written Page’ … Ken was always writing, drawing, making marks … I think in pencil, early on (I remember pencil on yellow/lined legal pads, for letters), but later using what seemed a specially sought-after/‘not inexpensive’ (‘fountain’?) pen … which he used for his daily/journal practice of noting down what was ‘going on’/what was happening in his mind — I remember in Berkeley he had got on to a source for a particularly agreeable Stanford Laboratory Notebook, with graph-paper pages laid out widely horizontally, which accommodated far ranging imaginings and workings (like a landscape stretching to the horizon) …
There should be a ‘Big Book’ of KI’s ‘Holographic Work’ (notebook pages, letters, handwritten poems & drawings) … many of these are masterworks, as ‘Objects’ (cf. Larry Eigner’s typewritten letters & poems) !
Absolutely the Best ‘Correspondent’/epistolary individual personage I’ve known … someone who ‘Wrote Letters’, which were a considerable ‘help’ to me, during the course of my existence … and variously ‘Set an Example’ … for me …
Something ‘Abstract’ about all that extraordinary/extensive/intensive attention-to-detail given to the Written Page (no matter the ‘intimacies’ there revealed or withheld), about absorbing oneself in the task of writing-by-hand ‘about’ stuff going on … at the ‘distance’ the ‘formal operation of writing’ necessarily (?) entails … ? (When he bends over the notebook, it ‘looks like’ he’s preternaturally concentrated upon ‘his own doing’ … ?)
Writing Itself, by Hand (in this Age of Computers, O So Quickly!), seems a strange thing to do (‘from another age’ … ‘when men did that’) …
Writing is Strange / Writers are Strange … ! !
. . .
What he ‘did’ (for several years) with his Library Science degree from UC Berkeley was to get a job running a Xerox machine at the Richmond Field Station of the UC Libraries, which gave him income and time to go on with his studies (& sit & write & read in Enzio’s (coffee house on the North Side of campus, gone), where ‘tone’ of the establishment/rather severe stone tables (few spoke to each other) was ‘conducive to thought’ … whereupon he stood, gathered his materials, and caught the campus bus to work) …
. . .
He loved to Cook … aromas of different individual ingredients (garlic, esp.) cooking in the kitchen, in the late afternoon light … dinner preparing in the late afternoon sunshine in the ‘Flats’ in Berkeley, guests soon to arrive, with (maybe) Satie’s Gymnopédie on the phonograph … a glass of dark-red/‘Oxenblut’ wine (poured from a bottle ‘decanted’ from gallon jug of same from the Oak Barrel Winery on University Ave.) seeming (warmly lighted) fully dark-red and OK/‘adequate’/tasty, with glasses on wooden kitchen table for the arriving friends … in actual space/life, an image of something like An Ideal (‘Pastoral’) Existence-in-Real-Time (with sun setting down into the Golden Gate)(not unlike inviting imagination of ‘Life in California’ I formed from reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row & Tortilla Flat in high school in Minnesota) … Just as It’s Said to Exist, in his Books (Relation & Catalpa). Our guests have come !
. . .
I love the Tone of that poem where he just lists names of towns in West Texas near to where he was born (Bowie, was it?) — “Tulia, Mule Shoe … Goodnight” or whatever it says — the Names for The Towns Alone! — also that of the title, The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream is admirable …
. . .
We went on one (long out & back) trip on my Lambretta to see Charles Olson at 23 Fort Square in Gloucester shortly after I came back to school (in fall ’62, must have been, Ken had had some contact) — where I got to see what a ‘working poet’s place and spot’ were like (as a glimpse of/image of ‘activity on Earth’, toward my future I see now) — nothing much happened or was said (but of course I don’t remember/I was a kid/seldom spoke … maybe Ken does?), except the actual welcoming greeting by CO (who took us out walking past the basketball court to see Gloucester Harbor & the Sky before us … & 10 Lb. Island even then beginning to sail or steam away, as I learned years later reading the 3rd Maximus) — Lynn Fells Parkway part of the best route by smaller connecting roads there and back … very ‘complicated’/dark back roads in Massachusetts (!), after dark especially …
. . .
We’ll wait until the End of Time for a proper Concordance to The Intent On by Kenneth Irby (meanwhile checking online listings at least monthly, just in case it comes out!) … Without such, unfortunately (or fortunately? … I think fortunately), this reader is left to my own ‘devices’ … one of which is, when I go to the library, I go ‘ONLINE’ (certainly there is a ‘machine’ there somewhere), where I find that Alroy or the Prince of Captivity is a novel (or ‘was’, since who beside Ken Irby may actually have read it? … in context of contemporary persons reading “the Prince of the Captivity with a defective brain / chased down the street by his father …” in “Heredom” ?) — but maybe (?) I don’t need to read it (since I don’t have the lifetime to ‘follow up’ on this (or yet another source for “the Prince” Ken has just told me exists on the phone, which either he didn’t specify or I didn’t register & therefore can’t ‘find out about’ that easily & doubtless wouldn’t have pursued anyway because I’m so lazy!)) by Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria’s Prime Minister [anybody online have an opinion about this book?] — in my ignorance (close to ‘utter unknowing’) I’m left with my ‘emptied-out’/‘contemporary’ experience of the text itself! — I ‘see’ this ‘weirdo’ running naked down the street in ‘some imagined place’ (not unlike Irby’s housing compound (‘there’?) in Lawrence, Kansas), and it’s a BIG/STRANGE/‘unusual’/UNEXPLAINED ‘EVENT’—and even if I were so ‘bright’ as to devote (or have devoted) my lifetime to tracking down Kenneth Irby’s ‘sources’ (& how could even Ken himself do that?), I still wouldn’t have a Clue … as to how “the Prince of the Captivity” is to be understood (in relation to the other elements immediately preceding & following in that poem), without ‘reading’ (& otherwise directly experiencing) the Poem on its Page (for me, in (large) Station Hill OREXIS) — I have no idea why “the Prince” is running around naked (in ‘Fort Scott’?), but I register the phenomenon and am drawn into contemplation of it (in my ignorance) on the page, for itself …
. . .
There is a marvelous, magisterial ‘sound capacity’ (‘music’), that ranges out to accompany the proximity of ‘the thing itself’ (whatever that might be, or need to be) — a range of the imaginative capacity to seize on ‘local materials’ and release them into themselves/beyond themselves.
What could not a being of this order, possessed of the ‘Power of Poetry’ … say (or ‘do’) which was not (‘in itself’) accomplished-as-such … ?
The World needs A Writing of This Order … to ‘know itself’ !
[cf. Ashbery][KI much more ‘literal’, but undertakings wd be usefully juxtaposed re imagining circumstances into existence …]
. . .
As a person by now significantly far advanced in Free Masonry, Irby is ‘sworn to secrecy’ … but (it seems) so are certain most common occasions/events (those that ‘motivate’ us to take off our glasses, & take a ‘good look’ at them) which very seldom give us to understand ‘more’ ‘about them’ than what we begin to ascertain from that first fascinated gaze …
Looking up from his books (& brain), he sees him (“the Prince”) in the Real Street, and sets that forth …
The whole business of being alive on Earth is clear/obscure from start to finish … ! !
. . .
This is some of the strangest fuckin stuff I’ve ever come across — I don’t like ‘being in the dark’ (I may be dumb, but I’m not that stupid) — I don’t like not comprehending what is being said (though some elements are ‘clear as mud’, most often ‘the whole’ is fundamentally beyond my knowing … and I even suspect the author has ‘worked the material’ to make it purposefully so!) — the ‘tone’ is wonderfully ‘tuneful’/thoroughly engaging/humanly ‘right there’ throughout, so I know I’m being directly addressed (& I do ‘hear’) — but I (often) ‘can’t make out the words’, and then when I think I’ve made sense of some fantastic passage, immediately there’s ‘another mystery’ and I can’t fathom the ‘relation’ of that to what came before …
Ye Gods / Egad ! Could Life Itself be like this stuff here ? Am I doomed to endure engaging glimpses/sudden bright pain and openings out (& closings) of Grand Vistas on …
I do (& don’t) want to camp out (overnight, &/or ‘stay the day’) in this old County Park among the cottonwoods down by this muddy creek, if I’m not going to be given to understand more than a fraction of what’s going on/happening to me …
Imagine (just for a moment, ‘theoretically’) being born into a life this ‘rich and complex’/‘foreign and familiar’, and just having to live it through (without achieving ‘knowledge’) until whatever ‘utter darkness’ comes …
It can’t be ‘the case’ … ! ! I will Not ‘CAMP OUT’ ! (“The Camp if it is a camp …” etc., p. 423)
. . .
The impossible task is to ‘write the Thing Itself’, before it expires, or you die … totally absorbed into that ‘activity’ …
The Miracle is that many among the many shapes of numerals and letters ‘signify’ at all … ‘beyond themselves’, somehow … !
. . .
I like the intensity of the ‘presentation’/engagement with certain ‘event-states’—like being ‘the One’ to directly imagine/examine/‘project’ thawed-out cottonwoods or willows-along-streambed begin to ‘bud-out’ in early springtime — or being Carried Away by ‘the Tengu’ so exceptionally scarey (!), by the Hair … ! Flying ! !
Come back with bottoms of soles burnt, if ‘come back’ (damaged) …
This time (Chippewa Customs?) I think I’m ‘quite comfortable’, knowing what I think I know, about that (since I’ve read something ‘like that’ in a book of Algonquin (Odjibwa?) legends and belief … or in a story by Algernon Blackwood ?) …
How to interrogate (‘for itself’) a customary terrain, and inhabit it (the ‘North Woods’, or marshes/long winding course of the Danube through ‘the Birches’) — ‘for itself’, anew …
. . .
For years I’ve ‘marked’ and loved the “Point Reyes Poem” in Relation (+ its ‘sequels’ in “Point Reyes Poem, 2” &, for me, “3 Aug 1971, Waiting at the Mediterraneum for Bean and Lowell”, in Catalpa), which on one level chronicles a long day’s outing from Berkeley — big Sunday hike out to the Ocean & back from Pt. Reyes Seashore Headquarters, up over Mt. Wittenburg … then a drive (all the driving is ‘left out’ … but what Fortitude these ‘young people’ must have had (!), for YEA, in one day they covered a lot of ground … driving back very late to Berkeley, too!) all the way up to Occidental, where Lowell Levant and Ken ate many substantial courses at night in one of the three Italian Restaurants which existed there then … On another (‘deeper’?) level, “Point Reyes Poem” and its ‘sequels’ map the territory and much of the range of ‘feeling’ that — after twenty-three years’ residency in Bolinas — this ‘warm’(cool)/absolutely habitable/edge-of-the-earth place still has for me … foreordaining in poetry much of the Happiest/Situationally Open and Mysterious part of my existence here !
. . .
That sequence of four extraordinary (mushroom- or acid-fueled?) ‘developed-human’ Drawings in Catalpa (it doesn’t matter what the ‘fuel’ was — what matters amazingly is the sequence of Drawings themselves!), which could be interpreted to mean the literally experienced ‘breakdown of the person’ into bits, then the ability to learn to take residence in said bits, then (inside that) gradual reassemblage/‘creation of a New Man’ out of different/actual particles (left over from ‘the Explosion’ or newly born) — how wonderfully and carefully drawn (!), this evocation of A-Fellow-Who-Never-Before-Was, who might be a ‘self-styled’ (drawn) image of a ‘developed’ Ken Irby, drawn by Ken himself ! — parts of ‘Him’ are still rattling about/out there/‘free-floating-material’ in the Cosmos — while his Big (‘Goofy’) Ears keep flapping (celebrating something or other?) — and He Walks Toward Me … ! ! SEE … ?
. . .
What if the Heraclitus fragment, “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar” (which Olson makes the epigraph to his The Special View of History & translates, in relation to his own circumstance, in “Maximus, to himself” as “I stood estranged / from that which was most familiar”) might mean, not that we are not fairly well acquainted with Tom, Dick, Jane and Harry (or the vicissitudes of the kitchen faucet/rhythm of its drip, etc.) — each one has to know a great many things about many things (‘up close & personal’) in his/her immediate environment merely to stay alive — but that ‘the other side of the ordinary’ (e.g., the Moon), which we but dimly perceive (or allow to ‘signal itself’ from behind the scenes, as ‘twere) might hold the ‘key’ to our (proper) understanding of the whole thing, were we but able to attend to that which is also being said/also being presented to our understanding by certain (somehow ‘highlighted’) ‘common objects’ … which are ‘showing’/‘giving themselves’ to us (mere mortal knowing), to be (partially) fathomed … if one can (as though our very lives depended on it) …
That’s how anything/anyone ‘gets your attention’ — when ‘something about them’/something that they ‘do’, is both ordinary and extraordinary — What’s Happening ? / Who Are ‘They’ ? ?
. . .
This ability to interrogate and ‘develop’ the meaning of the (‘imaginary’?) ordinary (‘hours of the day’) in the writing is ‘matched’ by (what was, for me, a series of tutelary/‘learning’ occasions) Ken’s (‘Love of Life’?) capacity/interest to sniff, grab, lift-to-bring-to-the-eyes-without-glasses-to-see/exclaim about … to suddenly wish to ‘know’ (in real life) ‘more about’ whatever it was he was interested to turn his brow toward/was intent to find out more about …
This plus a seeming sluggishness (silence) on occasion (as of a large bison in a group of bison standing still, before all ran), betokening (to me) that ‘the little grey cells in the forehead vast’ were functioning …
On such occasions, I (stupidly) couldn’t think of anything I could do to ‘help’ — and it wasn’t my province to ‘help’, anyway. I Say ! !
. . .
One could sense, early on, that Ken would keep-on-doing whatever it was that he was-is-doing, until whatever it ‘was/is’ had been brought into its proper (fantastic!) condition/form of existence (the word ‘obstinate’ throws the ‘wrong light’ on it, I feel, & in any case is inadequate to express the energy & determination of his devotion to his task & the nobility of his purpose!) — only then would he (mop his brow)(maybe) and cease his Creative Quest … !
. . .
The following are a few among the ‘best realized’/‘most highly developed’ forms (for me, at least), in their ways … ‘potential anthology pieces’ (?) … though formal perfection is not what KI is after, finally (rather something like ‘overall integrity of the serial undertaking’, as evidenced particularly everywhere in the sound … what ‘qualifies’ KI’s work, makes it stand forth as that of a ‘Serious Artist’ in Pound’s sense (the way Oistrakh is immediately recognizably ‘Oistrakh’, whether it’s Shostakovich, Brahms Violin & Piano Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108 (e.g., as performed with Richter 28 December, 1968 in Moscow), or Bach) … or maybe it’s just that I feel a ‘particular affinity’ for the ‘serum’ of these:
“Near Equinox” (pp. 294-95)
“come back to Delius in Duke …” (p. 320)
“The students from Cracow leave …” (p. 335)
The ‘scattered’/‘fragmented’ drawing of a hand releasing a bird (p. 337)
“Homage to Tennyson — ‘The Lady of Shalott’” (pp. 344–45)
All of the section “RUNNING LIGHTS” (pp. 425–35)
“I met the Angel Sus on the Skin Bridge …” (p. 442)
“slowly the old stone building walls downtown dissolve …” (pp. 442–43)
“[given: three beavers in a tree]” (p. 445)
“a silence in the Central Tree …” (p. 489)
“our makers beside us …” (pp. 492–93)
“the Chamber of Reflection …” (p. 495)
All of the section “A SET.” (pp. 507–17)
“The quiet intricate interior forest …” (pp. 550–51)
“[study]” (p. 647)
“[Record]” (pp. 666–67)
This — only tonight’s brief sample …
. . .
The Affection for people and places known and visited — and the elegiac way in which such persons and circumstances are presented — even (& especially) when they are actually happening/‘Alive’/emerging into History — establishes a ‘governing tone’ which carries through all of The Intent On … becoming (in this reader’s mind) a Love-for-the-Extended-World (Zukofsky-Spinoza), and a discerning regard for its complex and various manifestations … that accomplishes (through the writing) the Abiding Value of these poems …
. . .
I have a recurring image of Ken taking off his glasses, vigorously rubbing his eyeballs with the bottoms of both palms (for the Scales shall Fall Away … ?), then looking up directly at me …
. . .
Certain lines (& sequences) are ‘Memorable’/‘stick in the brain’ … come of themselves (seemingly when ‘They’ want to) — e.g., “braineaters wait by the stone garage” — wherever they ‘Came From’ (movies, dream ?) — and ‘re-emerge’ (of Themselves), for me, sometimes-strangely, when the nature of the (unknown) ‘situation’ requires them (as adjacent means of ‘reading’/‘trying to figure out’ what’s ‘going on’) — one of the primary ‘Uses of Poetry’/measures of whether the verse is ‘any good’ (reliable), as truly wonderful as this is …
— Robert Grenier
May 18, 2012
HOMAGE TO THE NOTION OF THE REQUIRED / LENGTHY EXEGESIS OF ONE POEM
The poem I’ve chosen is on the page called “ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS” in The Intent On / Collected Poems, 1962-2006 by Kenneth Irby (edited by Kyle Waugh & Cyrus Console & published by North Atlantic Books in Berkeley in 2009).
What I want to say here is that, I’m planning to say that, it being the case that (here in my first or second paragraph), I think that Space (& Time), here, both do and do not permit me to provide you with my Entire Exegesis of All of the Whole Kenneth Irby Poem … Therefore and nevertheless and inscrutably, I think it becomes me to necessarily concentrate my explicative attentions exclusively upon the commenting upon of the (strangely ‘formulaic’ — KI does not usually compose such) Long List of (here it gets interesting) Persons Acknowledged (to whom he ‘owes debts’, not including the many others unnamed), whom he names by their first names only (in association with other first-named persons, where ‘coupling’ was actual & appropriate) in ‘seemingly random order’ (very New Age!), except the poem reads as a gradually expressing feeling/remembering of ‘All the people who gave him Life, in real life’ … so that their Names (a couple of which might be ‘misspelled’?) occur as a (heartfelt & ‘soul-remembered’) Ghastly Show of (Friends) Kings …
This ‘first-name list’ causes each one named Almost-Actually-to-Occur … ! How so ?
How strange (& ‘familiar’) to have been born into this World … and to have had ‘important relations’ with ‘other’ human beings (‘Humans’) … who have been ‘known-to-be-themselves’/called by each of us by such names … as our ‘familiars’ … by their first names …
Preposterous to call this a ‘Poem’ (‘twas never intended to be such … or was it?)(so much for “Intent” …!), but it does ‘illustrate’ something of the ‘central problem’ (difficulty)(intent) of the work … its Klar-Obskur (chiaroscuro) foregrounding of a Much longer series of names than was ever seen before in such ‘conventional position’ on an acknowledgement page — but a presentation of ‘first names’ only (& a withholding of ‘last names’) which makes the list at once intensely ‘personal’/‘familiar’ (recognizing that finally only Ken knows who these beings are) and seemingly ‘direct’ and ‘immediate’, while rendering it fundamentally opaque to the ‘general reader’ (who could not be expected to fully know who/what these names ‘signify’ even if all the last names were given too) … but presented like this, ‘alone’, the first names ‘empty out’ into the ‘Well of Time’ … and become metonymic for all the dear human beings who were ever dear to any mortal human being ever alive …
That an increasing number of these Persons named are ‘dead and gone’ (some were at the time of the writing of this “Acknowledgements”, but their names then too were woven-in-with the names of the living) and thus cannot know that they are being acknowledged as having been of primary importance to the author … or can they ? … if they are being summoned (by the ‘spell’/by the power of the explicit recitation of their familiar names, just so), Maybe They Can … whereupon it is ‘meet’ to address them (still) by their first names, as KI does here …
So the ‘quality of affection’ (which Pound names — Creeley, e.g., cites — as a primary measure of poetry) — “What thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross …” — ‘extends out’ from whoever these individuals are/have been … to (in effect) embrace all living beings (in a Buddhist sense — compassion for all sentient beings) … every being that is, or was, or could be imagined to be (or could never be) … all of these are ‘named’, are summoned into all time and space and Void … in this Dumb Show of Significant Ones … and thanked for having been a ‘part’ of (& having provided essential sustenance to) Kenneth Irby’s life and work (words) …
(What’s the difference between a ‘Collect’ and a ‘Collection’ … of text passages … ?)
Very ‘late Whitman’ …
“To all who know the tone — whereby life is here sustained.”
Editorial note: The following pieces were originally published in Isthmus 2 (1973): 54–60, and are reprinted here — transcribed from their original typescripts — for the first time. Carl O. Sauer and James C. Malin are arguably the two most significant nonliterary influences on Irby’s writing, each of their names appearing eleven times in his The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006. To call them “nonliterary influences,” however, is misleading. Not only are their respective subjects — geography, and local (i.e., Kansas) history — important to Irby’s work, but also the methodology and broader philosophical approach that each scholar brought to bear on his field, as well as the melding of that approach with a distinct prose stylistics. Thus, we can recognize in the form, method, and theme of Irby’s pieces, traces of his subjects. Irby’s journalistic detail and close attention to the scene’s totality (the Bugs Bunny cartoon, for example, that Irby notices playing on the other side of the partition in Sauer’s hospital room) echo Sauer’s insistently empirical and historicized approach to research (e.g. encouraging other geographers to “get their boots muddy”), as well as his lean and descriptive prose, while Malin’s conviction that “local history is the foundation of all history” is evidenced by Irby’s choice to promptly record and publish such candid accounts of seemingly unremarkable events.
Born in Missouri, Carl Ortwin Sauer (1889–1975) received his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1915, and was professor at UC Berkeley from 1923 to 1957. Primarily concerned with what James Parsons describes as the “agency of humankind in using, modifying, and shaping the earth’s surface through time,” Sauer’s work, which he termed “culture history,” takes a phenomenological perspective, emphasizing process over positivism, and first-hand observation over moralist and theoretical evaluations. His numerous books are particularly interested in the prehistory culture of the American Southwest and Mexico, agricultural origins and dispersals, the discovery and exploration of the New World, land use and planning, and the destructive exploitation of natural resources. His influence is widely felt among twentieth-century geographers, such as Alfred W. Crosby Jr. and William Cronon, as well as early environmentalists, such as Rachel Carson, and a slew of mid-twentieth-century American poets, such as Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley (who first recommended Sauer’s work to Irby), Gary Snyder, and Charles Olson (who appointed Sauer, “my ace,” to the Black Mountain College Advisory Board). Bob Callahan, who introduced Irby to Sauer, and served as the latter’s executor, was the founder of the Turtle Island Foundation, which published a number of Sauer’s late works and, in the late ’70s, employed Irby to compile the index for Sauer’s posthumously published Seventeenth-Century North America. For further information on the relationship between Sauer’s work and mid-century poetry, see James Parsons’s essay “‘Mr. Sauer’ and the Writers,” published in Geographical Review 86, no. 1 (Jan 1996): 22–41.
Born in North Dakota, historian James C. Malin (1893–1979), whom Sauer refers to as “one of those prairie historians,” received his PhD in 1921 from the University of Kansas, where he worked as a professor for the rest of his life. Iconoclastic, eccentric, and fiercely independent, Malin is probably best known for The Grasslands of North America, his two-volume study of the intersection of ecology and history. Although Malin maintained a “defensive sensitivity to the image cast by his state in the rest of nation,” and the majority of his scholarship mines the particulars of his locality — from John Brown, to winter wheat, to the little known Emporia-based poet Eugene Ware — his interests were, by no means, confined to that area, as is evidenced by a number of his offbeat titles, such as Confounded Rot About Napoleon and Doctors, Devils and the Woman. In his retrospective essay “James Malin — An Appreciation” (Kansas Historical Quarterly 38, no. 4 [Winter 1972]), Robert Johanssen summarizes Malin’s four “principles in history,” which Malin elaborated in numerous essays on historiography: “1) change and variation in time and space; 2) recognition of an element of organization in all things; 3) continuity as a general principle, but subject to a partial interruption in varying degrees according to an unpredictable element of uncertainty arising out of the behavior of the particular; 4) individualism.” Michael Brodhead, who introduced Irby to Malin, attended the University of Kansas as both an undergraduate and masters student, and received his PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. After briefly managing the Kansas Collection at KU’s Spencer Research Library, Brodhead became a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and, subsequent to his career in academia, worked as an archivist in Washington, DC. His name also appears numerous times in Irby’s correspondence with Ed Dorn, a selection of which is included elsewhere in this special feature. — Kyle Waugh
January 20, 1973: A visit with Carl Sauer
Yesterday afternoon to visit Sauer with Bob Callahan — Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, construction on new wing incessant and deafening as we walked up — room 450, Sauer in bed reading newspaper, looked up, Hullo Callahan, exchanged a few comments about his illness, gall bladder operation (almost as an aside, brushing such matters aside as of no importance except as impediments to the real work — later: “get back to the office again — after 2 weeks of not living”) — “going home tomorrow” — Bob introduced me, I told him I was from Fort Scott, he said he didn’t know much about that aspect of — not much work on that era of — had studied a lot the Indians of that area but not with that later — I told where how when Fort Scott founded — silence (did he hear me? he showed signs of difficulty hearing sometimes — stern gaze, bright eyes, intense alive presence despite 83 years, skin hanging in creases — slow speech, many pauses, gazing usually off, up, into his subject/determination) — I said I knew Malin with whom I guessed he’d had some exchanges — he asked, “you were a student at the University of Kansas?” I said yes, undergraduate, he said, “yes, Malin … one of those prairie historians” — long silence — Callahan picked it up, told him Northern Mists paperback contract was signed, should be out March or April, Sauer very pleased, eyes even brighter, asked if cover would be kept, Bob said yes, Sauer said (the artist) had done a good job, he was glad it would be kept, had actually submitted 3 different covers from which that one had been picked — Bob assured him a good photo reproduction of the cover would be done — questions of distribution: Sauer: students’ll buy pb, but they are distributed well — Bob said (and I seconded) Book People (answer to “who’s distributing?”) were good outfit, C.O.S. apparently hadn’t heard of — mention of Donald Lathrop’s work — at Univ of Illinois? yes — anthropology or geography — anthropology — dept — “the geographer, the alligator … whatever the third is, that animal constellation he’s been working on, from his trips to the Upper Amazon” (later, Bob: jaguar the third term — like “The Politician, the Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant” of Sherlock Holmes’[s] unwritten cases) has this work been published? — no, you’ll just have to write Lathrop — Callahan: so-called primitive man must have been quite a geographer to get around as he did — extending senses of that: Chinese feng-shui, geomancy — Sauer: “we have a Korean graduate student here, named Ywon, Y–w–o–n, who’s working on geomancy, you might get in touch with him …” talked of how missionaries almost never get into anything of what is going on in the country around them, that barrier in them being almost a sine qua non for there being there, the exceptions proving the rule, etc. — Callahan asked of the French explorer, whose letters … Pleistocene lake named after … Lahontan, Sauer says [Louis–Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, 1666–c.1713], and tells long and rather detailed story of Lahontan here in the U.S. — career officer, intimate of Count de Frontenac, royal lieutenant to the colony of Newfoundland, which post he deserted and fled back to Europe, was disgraced and could never return to France — sole among his cohorts who had any sympathy with, insight into the Indians — wrote account of his travels, partly faked, and set of dialogues, including one (also made up?) with Huron chief, depicting nobility of high civilization of North American Indians (Callahan says later was influence on Rousseau and notion of the “noble savage”) — one of the few, Sauer emphasized, who had real insight [I thought of Jaime de Angulo, both nationally and personality] — “so much emphasis on this wrong notion of ‘evolutionary progress’ has held so many back for so long — even Teilhard suffered from it — every day we’re getting better, etc. — now Leakey’s son has found hominid skulls much much older than those his parents found and yet in terms of evolution — brow ridge, jaw, etc. — more advanced — I remember Prof. Le Gros Clark years ago, even before we’d more accurately dated those remains, saying that if Swanscombe Man were to walk down a London street today in modern dress, no one would notice him — it isn’t that man’s intellectual capacity was less then than now, that mistaken notion, but that he had less to work with” — went on to say, the real problem’s understanding people the way people think who think differently than we do (to which I added, even understanding the way we think!) — commented on Jaime de Angulo as one of the few capable men of imagination who could get with other people — “one of the few — and they wouldn’t pay any attention to him” — and Paul Radin — Bob quoted Nancy de Angulo, that Jaime and Radin would sit up arguing all night, never agreeing about anything, loving each other deeply — I mentioned The Trickster was back out in a paperback, at which Sauer smiled and his eyes glinted — spoke for a while on the “far too great emphasis on the economic motivation for man’s acts” — Callahan quoting: “imposing our sense of economics on ‘primitive’ man, which is an economics of an entirely different order” — Sauer especially speaking about horticultural development, domestication of plants — his last pronouncement was on this, then a long pause — Bob said we had to be getting on — he said, well, come again, pleasure to talk to you, next visit’ll be at 13 — Rose! — I gave him my Max Douglas poem, apologized a little in advance for my use of his statements, told him who Max was — “he lived in St. Joseph?” — I said yes — “never knew there were any poets there” — he said he didn’t know much about the younger poetry, but he did figure it was serious stuff “and not just show-off” — the room was shared with one other man, not visible on other side of screen but seemed to be Chinese from evidence of his wife and kids there visiting, and his voice — tv going on that side all the time we were there, volume turned down as the family left, from where I stood I couldn’t help noticing what was on from time to time — old pre-WWII b&w cartoons, then Bugs Bunny, about to be run over by train driven by fiendish villain, then film “breaks” in the cartoon, pause, then B.B. steps out front to explain projector gave way, “That’s All Folks!” — other patient answering nurse over intercom, yes, bring me a darvon — his kids, two girls, ages c. 3 and 5, playing with yo-yos as they left — talking with the greatest geographical mind of the 20th century, accompanied by Bugs Bunny! — not much reading material in evidence: few newspapers, Bob said later the Berkeley Gazette on Sauer’s lap when we came in was open to article on recent archaeological finds in Greece, with map — headlines on school board upset, city government problems — couple of magazines on night table, but covered up — one bottle of what looked like milk of magnesia or kaopectate — not Phillips — Sauer’s glasses off most of our visit — his arms usually behind his head, occasionally straight up into air, one or two times grabbed exercise bar on chains overhead — face lean, gray stubbly moustache, hair white — looking much as in Land and Life photo, but of course much older, almost 40 years — bright, almost fierce eyes and demeanor — not unpleasant, but intense, no bullshit — often simply said nothing in reply to statements (as about Malin after “prairie historian”, and Bob said he’d clammed up on Malin whenever he had mentioned him on previous visits), lapsed into silence — couldn’t tell if it was drugs/sedation (some, perhaps), or tiredness (certainly), or simply already thinking about another subject, reading to break out in a new direction — we were there only about 30–40 minutes
[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]
September 1, 1972: A visit with James C. Malin, Lawrence, Kansas
Yesterday afternoon to Malin’s with Michael Broadhead — ’30s white stucco modern, flat-roofed, strictly rectangular house, windows at corners, Bauhaus/Malin (he designed it himself) — tile floors, plainly furnished, curtains for doors between rooms downstairs — evidences of Malin’s work everywhere downstairs but the kitchen, the dining room become another study, table piled high with manuscripts and card files — three reproductions of The Last Scout in the living room — old van Beinum recording of Das Lied von der Erde standing on the music stand of the upright piano, also a Westminster Telemann, and Claudia Muzio arias — many old 78 albums visible — spiral stairwell to upstairs open in step-patterned cut above piano (so their daughter when a child could watch and listen from the stairs during their evening musicales, his wife told Hwa-di) — Mrs. Malin brought cookies and coffee, then left us after leaving a box of cookies (animals) for Linus — J.C.M. very slow, using cane, dressed as usual in his jump suit/coveralls — but not sick, ill-seeming, just slow — couldn’t always remember names he wanted to, or find photos, journals in the great stack next to his chair — talk of John Brown, his own John Brown book, recent controversies over that — he knew Oates’ book but had not read it — defended himself against attack from Smith College rabbi that he was racist and anti-semitic — said he was the first to give a fair account of the one Jew who rode with Brown — Wiener — spoke of St. Louis as key to materials of Jewry of the Great Plains and West, the Jewish community there very tightly organized, consistently outfitted “their young countrymen of whatever country” as salesmen, first with pack, then if they did well, a cart, and eventually a store — said no one had really investigated such matters at all — Michael noted that some work of this sort was now coming out of Santa Barbara (a journal), but that it was almost entirely California in focus — much talk in early part of our visit seemed to center on Malin’s various battles with critics — but he in good spirits, humorous resignment to detractors/misunderstanders evident — when asked about one recent (well-meaning but unimpressive) article on his work, he sighed, “I just don’t know what to say about that article” and continued looking for a book he had mentioned, without looking up — spoke of Gould Colman’s interview with him, the transcript deposited in the regional history library — Michael asked if it was restricted in access, Malin said yes, to keep curiosity seekers out, not serious scholars — though denied there was any really juicy material there — said he had materials for several scandalous articles that would be unpublishable, but he didn’t think he would write them — didn’t say about what of course — (all this re the recent piece in the Kansas Historical Quarterly on Lindley and J.C.M. flap in the ’30s) — mentioned he had several articles’ worth of material written or to be, on Ware — I asked him how he had gotten on to Ware in the first place — he had projected three grasslands regional studies: the first, on Kansas City, had been written, the other two never were: a), on fuel — coal mines at Leavenworth and in SE Kansas, Fort Scott a focus there, and in digging into Fort Scott matters, he got onto Ware; b) was to have been building materials and native architectural design of the plains — I asked him if Ware’s poems were still in print — he said, technically, no, but that he had some copies of the last (15th) edition (Putnam, 1939) the Ware family had turned over to him — I offered to purchase one, he said, no, he wouldn’t sell me one, but he would give me one (pristine, with dust jacket, and pasted on flyleaf, white label saying “Compliments of James C. Malin”) — some talk of the Western Historical Assoc. meeting in October in New Haven, the session there to be devoted to his work — he characterized the members’ publications as either buffs’ (American West magazine) or academic (Western Hist Assoc Journal), and said he belonged to neither — our great communications problem today, he said, though the current period is the greatest for expansion of man’s knowledge of any in man’s history, the problem is keeping up with it — we spoke for a while of the 1968 Pleistocene Great Plains symposium in Lawrence — he said he had only seen the Peter Wells paper, not the rest — thought that Wells showed that the prehistory and vegetational history of the Great Plains were much much more complex than we had ever thought — but also felt he may have overstated his case, “as we often do when we’re on to a new and important thing” — of Sauer: has more ideas than any of the younger ones working, but “a very disagreeable man” — Michael asked: in his work, or personally — Malin: “personally — if he likes you, fine, but he takes strange dislikes to people, then he can be very disagreeable indeed” — a little talk about William Allen White, his preface to Rhymes of Ironquill — won’t tell you anything about Ware, Michael said — J.C.M. agreed, wondered why White had been so famous when he had so little to say — just before we got up to leave, I gave him a copy of To Max Douglas, saying: perhaps this will amuse you — then the new Tansy with Don Byrd’s piece on him in it — then Michael gave him the recent Io with his piece on Coues in it — Malin seemed genuinely surprised and touched literary people, poets, knew and were interested in his work — “I hadn’t known at all — there’s such a communications problem,” he smiled — as he showed us to the door, he said: “the one thing that despite all his history and civilization homo sapiens still cannot determine satisfactorily, is quality” — as we walked away with Mrs Malin was next door chatting on the front stoop with younger neighbor lady — I remembered then I had asked him about the musical history of the region: SW, Kansas City jazz, ragtime, especially in connection with earlier migration routes — and he had said he could never investigate such matters, because he hated jazz, rock, etc. — Michael said: with which period of jazz does your dislike begin? — he answered: all of it — our visit perhaps an hour all told, slightly more
[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]
lobe of opalescent glass (417)
a rapid shadow from a slope of grass
<<Absents within the Line Conspire, and Sense
Things Distant doth unite>> (482)
- not least of all in title, The Intent On.
Herein an inner traffic, the seepages of worlds (547),
as the hyacinth smell
and the peeling
of the first air (560)
find setting. This is a work manifestly given over to the magics, the wildness of transmission: unreal, to have it so handy, to have such time immediate. Lines touch
and touch with touch the are they are (632),
true in their quiver:
Plotinus wrote: <<Often I reawaken from my body to myself: I come to be outside other things,
and inside myself.>>
which when I first read it I thought said: <<I come from being outside other things to being
which is the existence that is a call
there is a conviction that if you jump up and down off and on the curb long enough with your feet
held tightly together
others have been convinced that perfect immobility for the exact number of days or months - and
the number varies -
will turn your eyelids to emerald
and with emerald the immobility will be limitless vibration everywhere (576)
Which (i.e., fixity turned on its head) may figure the work, so resoundingly is Ken’s a time art, so orthogonal (as in that focal term continent (219, 551)) is the play, the mo(ve)ment, to bounds, to bindings. Emerald may be of the [Emerald] City (146, 159, 88, 307), our estuary (550), the magic lands stretching all the way to Here. How that here at once is and is not of my self is a particular notice of the work; & so I write to tell of my share in Ken’s place, his time, and present - or more precisely, of his in mine.
how far a country is college, how far a continent and many countries (551)
I was chickenshit, freshman, with formal value DICHTEN=CONDENSARE (cf. Pound’s ABCs of Reading) - what I know now, as against Irby’s range, for Inhibition. Counterpose more broadly the idiocy of […] composure (38) to the unintended, primordial, ever-recurring presence of Disturbance (295): it is a (Duncan-ian) binary I was only through Ken to perceive. The challenge of Ken’s work and personality - especially to one young, and laboring at disavowals - is how much comes in: the gauche, the ghosts, the rage of faults; a fluent switching from hightoned to home(l)y (and back again (549)) is signature:
we hear those steps’ color, carry those plastic buckets full of laundry, fresh
to be stored in the curves of driving, fast, the night returns, the honey braked
[…] that vast RV of waking to find out (524)
the big big cars, in among the stars
where you see bonechina butterflies in and out among the golden balls (445)
How (such is his accuracy, his reach) he befriends high school, ardent, awkward, prime -
all the high school years again, unslept, reviewing the annual faces over and over
till they run green in the movies after the eyes are closed
and still as distant as they were in person (417)
Here is an imagination not at variance with, but of the world. Diversity, he seems to argue: that the diversity is pure.
It may follow: A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry (H.D. Thoreau, cited at 95). But this consonance I seek between actuality and the poem is not easy (Robert Duncan, cited at 565), is demanding. The scales of relation Duncan undertook are in large measure, though differently, Irby’s own; to work that way is to bear, crucially, an element - and sometime severities - of discord. For there are holes.
It is very often the implied merit of a lyric poet to have sustained the myth of unitary being. Ken’s avowed affinity for the pastoral reflects perhaps an alternative strategy: not to disown that whole, but to pose or think it, more paradoxically, in terms of place. Holes we may know as the ache or indirection of the actual; holes even are how it closes round us, are its springs. And yet the fact, in all this sublimity of nothing, of distance; place a rapture, a hom(ecom)ing, of distances; distance ever in the work a relic, a production, of love (412, 452–53, 461, 475).
knowing you are there beyond whatever distance
Out of the light off the woodwork I see your figure (273)
the distance of love is one of the cracks in the year (455)
Just so is place intercalary, ecstasy of a beyond, inkling or word of
and other order, kids crying and hollering in the back seat,
get out to pee by the ocean, sand flats awash, a plover on -
& other order, as if it all
were all a new and never come to
meeting of each other, finding ourselves
suddenly among such people
we could love, could face
all shit and waste against us
into yet another order
of the closeness we had found (125)
- a layering of other and together we hear again in a longing so immense / it shot the wholly sensual through / with holes of an altogether other light (239), holes out of which place looms, Atlantean, (American,) an allure, a staging of saving prospects. Place is the place of wholes we know in the delights of longing come home, in an unscrolling of new and other order[s] (of […] closeness), where to write or be here at all (164) is to touch off orders further. And to go on.
To be very clear: the inclusiveness, the search and breadth, of Ken’s lines is a value, but one never strained or naïve, and amounts as well to never dismissing the difficulties. For a long time I was unable to understand difficulties (holes) as ever other than political. Ken’s resources - a profound care for and insight into people and scene(s) - were plain; but it was less clear to me just how they serve. My notion of the difficulties has deepened over time, exactly along with my feeling and respect for the fullness (the place) of Ken’s response.
The better to place, articulate, and frame that response, I want to look a little into two kinds of holes, holes of which any contemporary art would be a reckoning. Both haunt, i.e., trouble and impel, Ken’s work:
1. (The state of) violence, misuse (134), all shit and waste against us (125), the corruption of the earth (94).
2. As ever, with evil - or earth - the question of reality.
There is war; and there is not fought a war we are not lost in (119). Ken began alarmed:
so I was a “communist” and hated my nation
and came to poetry as a loss of childishness I thought (277, Notes II)
(vs. Rome? Rime.) The reference is to the beginning of the Korean War. He would have been 13.
virginity! aware virginity! aware and hip and aching
bent listening, the shuffle footed, the shuffle bifurcated
war I knew came home along the corridors of high school
landscape I would have to take
to ever come home
all was at war, but I was not a warrior (277)
- lines exceptional, out of step, in a number of ways:
(1) The wholes of The Intent On (whether Heraclitean – “War is the father of all and king of all…” (Kirk 245) - or otherwise) are apprehended as a rule by an expansive movement from here (on) out, not from out, in. The all […] at war, above, is different.
(2) Relatedly, gestures of repudiation or exception are rare, and the suggestion of a reality or whole separate from Ken himself does not recur.
(3) The personification of war, likewise, is unusual. Ken’s works pursue relational energies of which emblems are very rarely instrumental, energies conspicuous, often, in an activity or preponderance of prepositions. The lines above, on the other hand, describe a discrete sequence of alienating recognitions and imperatives, a conflict of states.
All factor in a brittleness of tone we might term mythological, reflecting the need to secure or codify one’s calling as calling, in the face of renewing strife (Berkeley ~1970). The lines propose a life’s work - poetry, and the taking of landscape - from, as it were, the other side of a method or world that work would grow to characterize and embody.
In other words, Notes II records tensions the resolution of which is another story, one of a conversion of lived time to (authorizing) powers of space, to room and permission, both within the work and without. It’s that story the idiosyncratic landscape I would have to take anticipates, with telling verbal ambivalence: take can be active, even martially so, in “Take that hill”, or passive, in “take a punch” (or both, in “Take a number”). The former seems the inflection, here; the message is reluctance to contend, in a world affording no alternative, no out. But to contend for landscape has meant always, for Ken, to be taken by it: The poetry of this mild littoral clime is marked by many turnings, distracted and multiplied attentions - but centrally, in my own case, by the conviction that the landscape demands us, and reveals us (94).
What has landscape to do with - or against - war? “The objects which exist together in the landscape exist in interrelation” (Sauer 25): herein, I think, lies a main sense of Ken’s redoubt: landscape as precisely that interrelation the social order disavows.
Land is consonance.
The capacity of air, for music or for color, for light; the sky uncrowded, unclouding; the volatility of dust (there, the small stone picked up without thinking is everything, the unattended stray memories, everything, in the throw of the vision, in the catch of us in the vision (335)); the angling, the (analog) mesh (low hold against thresh (468)), of roots; the hanging quiet, the deeptime of the scene; the cool; the dogs of mileage; the seen and the unseen; leaves in the heat an ulterior black (the disk of the plains, / that fired and was the sun (81)); the hungry corners; the waiting; the little hairs on objects; the songs in things; the activity, and rest; the effected inclusion: in all of it, a kind of liminal doctrine:
what counts: any of it: anyone.
- first values attested again and again in the plains arts, whether in Dorn’s “The most important thing for me is the possibility for everyone to be able to live in the world,” (Waugh 61), or Guthrie’s “This land was made for you and me,” or Ken’s Three Geographical Variations (for Ed Dorn):
is open beyond is open across the whole world
Looks past whatever salvations of individuals
realizing salvation is only to pass
into the space all people live in (134)
- a vision and a measure, an honesty, we are given sometimes to know in the land. And know thereby there is a place for it.
So it is that if I have any feel for some kernel of good or shot at good in the becoming - now or at any time - of my country, I owe it largely to times walking, out, in the discovery of the land, with friends, with Ken.
In a poem framed by Sauer’s “The thing to be known is the natural landscape. It becomes known through the totality of its forms,” Dorn writes of “a life of grand design wherein all men fit” — anxious, though, that the tricks of the scene be “propaedeutic,” benign:
areal is hopefully Ariel
It is an anxiety appropriate to Dorn and Irby’s common awareness of how much displacement is the native (f)act, an awareness the study of histories both human and natural consistently impressed on both. False fronts and dislocation would be increasingly thematic for Dorn as his express subject - the west - became more and more radically indistinguishable from the effects of capital in or on it, more undead. But there are senses past even all predations of the age in which questions of land, or of good, (reckonings of terrain or of evil), culminate in the question of reality, of what is. We argued place as:
(1) (fore)taste or remembrance of some sicker communion.
(2) relation to otherwise, a relation troubling (hole-ing) what closures that term, “reality,” might pretend to or presume.
In each, the unsettling projections of a plenitude (pleroma, plurality) we mistrust and don’t know:
Come to renew me
make clear my doubts
are a use of myself
open the cold house
the warmth I carry
beyond intention (268)
Thus in the confusions of the virtual is there a clearing, a freeing of inherent warmth, a disbanding or disarming of those discriminations we’d meant to see by. The sight at any moment / is as complete as the heart is (261); sight and heart - insight and reception - concur, confer in the formations of poetry, in the errancies of vision we are given to entertain:
To have a guest, and for this place, for this food and drink, and for this sharing, in
the orchard distinguish between marble and its watering
the lordly usage, that does not question when it comes the illusion itself but
recognizes and accepts it as illusion
for solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision, it drops its tears to take us
on for, not for our ability
so staring into the world in the river is reflected the world
and if the King and all his retinue pass in the mirror held up in the barbershop to show
your newcut hair, you do not need to turn around to see, until (537)
- yet let that hang; the lesson of all Ken’s writing is that the suspense is liveable, is it.
Impatience, anger - at mendacity, cheats, or just karmic - may upset the work; repeatedly Ken chides himself for the discipline of care / not kept (581, 633). It is a care for what care - what cool - the land demands (123).
The pastoral […] seemed to me particularly of two concerns: a calmness, a quietude of the whole being, derived from attentions and awareness; and a feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among - an ecological calm - poetry that feeds us (pascere), not just that tends the sheep. (93)
Flipside, foil to that poetic object is frustration, an edginess I don’t intend (265). Which happens. See [final exam] (536) for a sweet recuperation, crud to recrudescence. Patience, he writes, Anti-wrath (275); lapses only underscore a consistency of disposition, the cumulative fact that against the prescriptive, against the hunger to be right or pre-eminent, Ken has stood for: an endurance in love.
So it is very much the person of Ken Irby we come together to celebrate: the decision to be himself. Pound detected in Bartok’s string quartets (as in his own Cantos) “the record of a struggle,” and there is something of that here. Most explicitly in the early pages, where the irresolution, even despair (63, 64, 65, 66) is sometimes searing -
flubbed in attempts, almost
no heart to go on, but
relish the earth (72)
- Ken’s work is formed utterly and everywhere conscientious of those most exacting and uncertain questions of how to be, how to get along. The blood - the reality - in them: signalized in these poems, the accomplishment, simply, of his (or any) being.
I have denied all of these poems, in one way or another, at one time or another - and have also recognized that they are as much me, the forces through me, as any other act or notion of myself I have. The poems are survivals, then, as Walter Prescott Webb said of the Great Plains, The land itself is a survival. (93)
And that he reaches, arcs to us by light of that consubstantiality, comes on like radio out of the ’61 New Mexico night.
Dual to the range of the early work is a honed, later mood, close in focus, often long in line, intent / upon […] contours (234), surfaces, circuit:
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 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)
So begins Ridge to Ridge (2001) - attentions fit for a differential geometer, to the tangent spaces, to the shapely passages of time. It is in deep rapport with The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream (1967):
We come downstairs into the currents of air and vegetation
that flow along the ground and circulate (176) 
Both are taken up with smell / and turn of air / and fall of light (48), a happiness of the senses. These (both) are poetries of home, of dwelling -
resonances given off, held in the old woodwork
that endlessness of everyday
that is precisely eternity (176)
- largely untroubled with the problem of reality noted above:
Looking quietly for the place
to go in by
and in the quiet, lasting miles to sea, hours
inland over the hills to the valley
realizing to be here is to
have entered the whole -
There is no illusory world, there is only the world (162)
- and recall <<To have a guest>> (above), of Ridge to Ridge: together: that there is a welcome that answers all.
I remember visiting Ken’s home for the first time, with Kyle Waugh, to view Ugetsu (VHS). I remember our early apprehension, mainly that we might bore him, something like that; there was/is a side to Ken like from another planet, fantastically impressive. In fact his home would be, very promptly, for both of us, one of the pleasantest places we knew to be, a sensational mixture of magnificent and down home, sufic-sufficient: in the is-ness of any of its space, its articles, some free reign, some infinity, something of
Let everything that happens in the world happen in this room as well (599)
How vividly it might be missed; I would write from Korea:
Pangs, one day, of heady recall: the steep mixed smells of your home, tablecloth worn to creases, the salad, the drink, the dark out your balcony, time drawing sweetly by - conversating… Ken, what an angel of friendship you are and have been - how much my way takes hints and shape from you - 
For this was the scene, for Kyle and me both, of the absolute lesson: of open talk, of stopping awhile, of company.
I remember, from Ugetsu, the crossing of the water. I remember that night we heard Ellington, and recall in particular Ken’s statement that if he could only take one body of music to the moon, he would take Debussy’s; I was impressed by something like its pragmatism. That night there was a moon. I recall - maybe from later - in the kitchen the olive oil spigot capped with a pencil eraser, cinched with a twisty-tie (recalling Olson’s paper clips, string: […] the blessing / that difficulties are (Maximus, Song 3)). Or next to it, on the newspaper, the nub of a pencil, for the crossword, and the short plink it will make if it rolls off onto the counter. All the artifacts, all that earth. All those nights, too soon in ending.
He would walk us out to the parking lot; he always has.
The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.
and from later, and then before:
To seek from enchantment, the demands of the actual life to reverify, the release of invention.
To leave good soup at the door for a birthday, and flowers. For there can never be too much delight, or the giving of it, tacit in compassion. (659-661)
the Nation can only come into being
but the City we may
Here & Now, as we read
these words (160)
Touching emerald also (along with Li Shang-Yin’s “the Walls of Emerald”, source for I have fetched phoenix papers (638)) are: the green crystal craze in my veins (66) - or grass, of course, Grasslands, plains.
In the migration routes to found the city, there is a gap - coming out of the dark North, a transverse plain (307)
So (all but) concludes The Easter Dream (304-7), arrival to in every way a clearing (305), pivotal to The Intent On, to Ken, to continent, and all our reflections here. It is an Opening in certain rhyme with Duncan’s Meadow. It touches as well the Nation as gap, as yet to be, as winter distances, blowout, as what stands between, in negative being, the city(s). And it is the passage from found to find.
And here it is a demand is made upon me: find the Secret History of your Self, wherein you live, which is more vast and great than any Shell or Strife you know.
- an Instruction absolute as any in the work (304-5).
Operative in a later, dreamt (Olsonic) extension is the telling, and the town.
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
of yourself (606)
Through all the work, Fort Scott - Ken Irby’s town - is key, in the cartographic sense (see, for example, A Set Series for Roy Gridley (61-68)). His Easter Dream is
of very deep connection with the old Home Town, a cathexis of awareness of mystery upon the first place.
It is part of the alley behind our house and down the block, South, almost to Sixth St, of the hedges and fences at night, playing in the summer, late […]
It was Fort Scott, and San Francisco, and Berkeley, and the whole of Northern California, wedded together. (304-5)
The recurrent fact of landscapes simultaneous or interior to each other - (cf. Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw / all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision (201) (or think of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS)) - is a main measure of our use of that term. To work here, landscape must accommodate the oneiric and the compound, all in keeping with the spirit of Sauer, for whom landscape was “an organic unit” and “not simply an actual scene” (Sauer 26). Common to Irby and Sauer is a phenomenology purged as far as possible of positivism(s), open as a (backalley) boy to all kinds of knowing. Basic to Ken’s epistemology are dreams; they are a part of the land he faces, and the writing is part of their action.
5. Not perhaps the formal value as such, but an inflection of it. How Ken’s poetics extend Pound’s (the ideogrammic concision of frog Ben Webster (429) comes now to mind): a large subject, and not mine here; but that Ken knew about Pound was, for me, I remember, primary. Ultimately it would only be for or by the lure of his teaching that I weathered college at all; Ken was to be my line to Cane, Ulysses, The Cantos, Spring and All, The Sound and the Fury, The Maximus Poems, Hart Crane, Ed Dorn, Mary Butts, H.D., Robert Duncan, Walt Whitman (& all they open to: Louis Zukofsky, Gerrit Lansing, Carl Sauer, Cabeza de Vaca, Irby himself…) - and that these works or bodies of work are as distinct in my mind as any other dozen is telling. Ken’s care, Ken’s nose, for process - for the individual energies of text, and student, and their arrival/mesh to each other - is unerring. More should be said of his teaching: that he is as unimpeachably good and conscientious a teacher as he is an anything else - poet, or dude, or home cook. If you were in his Am Lit class: remember his lesson on “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”? With field recordings of the mockingbird’s song (technical name: aria), and where I first heard “Casta Diva”, opera such as informed the work? But if you were, we might likely know each other: for so many, how he has made friends of us…
Who gazes at the bottled horsehair in the sun
to be eel (634)
1. the determining lacunae or incapacities of any system, be it arithmetic, space-time, period style, or a state.
2. the scene or sign of orders unrealized, undivulged.
3. the limits of composition.
4. we may picture as a twinkling - a thin rain or guesswork or fugue - or as some laminar extra, lining all.
5. are the beginning of distance, the end (apotheosis, last gasp/vowel) of rhyme.
6. The rapport of Being with itself is by way of holes.
7. It would all be hole were not that all holed, itself, to pieces, places…
as the way NE opens and the flame orange ball
rolls beyond the river, makes its hole
and stops, before the clearing (358)
10. A sociability driving and pervading his poems: for some one, some couple, or some birthday - how much are people their occasion. A care and intelligence about how people treat each other, in particular, is basic to both Ken and his work.
11. Exemplary of such development is the equation “To depict place in the American arts is to ask questions about allegiance, at times of danger as well as desire” (Ward, 213).* “Politics” is not the apparent point of these poems. Its ground, though, in the precise terms Ward names - i.e., the sustained and sustaining questions place frames of to what, and how, to be true; the very plains, and migrant’s, questions of what to hold to - is their most insistent dimension.
* (that proviso—“at times of danger as well as desire”—would be superlative for much of Irby’s lifetime, so institutional in/of the so-called “American century” have danger and desire been. So Sequence (107-111) incorporates first
American history is the only history
Local history is the only history
it is the
Let it come, let it come
the age of our desire
I have endured so long
I have forgotten everything (111)
Permit, then, a Rimbaldian emphasis: “To ask questions about allegiance” is not merely to deterritorialize; it is no less radically to reconceive and openly seek the ends, the stakes - the good - of living.)
this is the room the eyes start out from
birds fly through the look on out
as gnats and flies fly through the room here (140)
- or in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the short hall to the feet, and through again (523), quoted below.
15. - or “take a class.” Both in “take the cure” - and certainly there’s a leading sense of landscape as inoculant. Or take “take a picture”: registration idealized as so technically im-mediate (passive) it’s appropriation (active) (- or so I take it.) Take landscape sounds most of all, though, finally, like “take place” - i.e., simply, to happen.
As 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” - (Duncan, letter to Ken, p. 3)
- so may “poem” be read for “landscape” anywhere hereabouts.
17. For the true ones are known by their mark, and that I am not ever certain I can tell
O divine luminosities, o fiery tricksters, o other humans alive or gone on, when you come,
the taste that is real (545)
This paper had begun
Again and again we come into the world (and how much is Ken’s work the script of those returns); it is ever anew a problem of order: that it should, or should not, be so. Is it always - either way - virtual?
: that’s what I’d routinely felt, arriving to a world, breaking, in “the flux, between bells, of a campus hilltop: a commotion of bodies, and stone, and sky: a flourishing of prospective orders : it’s this matrix of virtuality I have firstly in mind.” That a productive dynamic of virtual and actual underwrites poems as well, Kyle would point out, with especial eye to Allen Grossman’s “Hart Crane and Poetry: A Consideration of Crane's Intense Poetics with Reference to ‘The Return’”. For our […] way is polysemous (261), and the issue of virtuality is in good part that of a vantage or language adequate to the sensible and conflicted plurality, the sheer number, we engage. My point, my experience, is simply that Ken, in his living, in the practice and feeling of his writing, continually heralds just such improbable adequation.
all references to this place
are to all places (151)
19. —i.e., there is no attempt to short-circuit that suspense; this is probably what I meant by an early notation “I think Ken’s was the first intelligence in which I detected no note of self-defeat.” Keats, and Olson after him, termed that same essential discretion “negative capability”.
Bound upon the wheel
as we are, the lama
said to Kim, be not
angry with the man, for he
has already repented, and you
have only a Red Mist
before your eyes. Let it
wash away in the River
that we all seek (148)
Kim’s Red Bull on a Green Field
but it does not remain to the eyes (422)
sweat rises […],
mist now at dark, drifts through the eucalyptus on the hills
east through Orinda, west along the bay,
what we have given back into nature
as taken - it is the anger yesterday (114)
anger is focus, regret such mist, each drop (537)
fog dreams, drop dreams, the fear of falling (482)
But the egg puts on the abyss, and the fear of falling is the fear of talking (548)
Talking with an old friend who does not talk much I talk too much. […]
I have no memory of anyone before I learned to talk. (279)
to talk to those now gone
is natural, to you especially
who hardly spoke at all while you were here
a golden silence toward the ocean
toward the coming sunset
to answer the heart? (196)
the red life out of the green life and back again (551)
21. Maybe an odd reference, if Olson - in “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself” – hadn’t made it first. Note moreover the basic device of differential geometry: an atlas, a set of local charts or maps smooth in their overlap (or dovetailing (13)); this the better to propose the intrinsic - as opposed to the derived, or induced. Further: in that math, a motivating question: how the light passes / from ridge to ridge (521; the line is H.D.’s, from “Evening”).
In “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself,” Olson argues a progress of poetics parallelling that of modern geometries. It doesn’t hurt to see poetry and math (“some art and science”) sometimes as co-operative: both bear out a power of writing (“Only formalization touches the real” (Lacan)); both net or divine truth(s) by a subjection of intuitive content to the hazards, to the trial, of form; in both an interaction - (immanent, e.g., in measure) - of local and global energies is structuring; Homer sang formulae; etc. (I am becoming a mathematician, but am no less Ken’s student, for that, and record the fact mainly to suggest what a diversity of promptings he is friend to.) Olson’s essay comes in here, though, for two core points: first, the movement therein proposed from (“quantity as”) “extensive” to “intensive” mirrors an essential impulse in Irby’s work. Second, Olson’s conclusion - particularly at “things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions” - is, for all of this, a grounding recognition. Note moreover the rhyme (“vibrations”) with Ken’s Plotinus wrote, quoted above; the figure, again, is of form.
I take care to be inclusive, to enforce the point made at the start, that matter offers perils wider than man if he doesn’t do what still today seems the hardest thing for him to do, outside of some art and science: to believe that things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions; but that they are so because the structures of the real are flexible, quanta do dissolve into vibrations, all does flow, and yet is there, to be made permanent, if the means are equal. (Olson 52)
Tondo stare straight down at the table where the company of a meal has been so shared the hospitality still hangs in the air its solid cube of warmth, exact as every detail on the tabletop
dirty the brocade tablecloth of the inheritance and worn through where kept at the table
edge too long, moved back only to fray another fissure
geology of hair, dirt, dandruff, litter, family and love, lees (534)
Tondo (a circular picture; a bas-relief overlooks the table in his main room) might be a disc, or an lp:
and what the landscape is of each old 78 played until worn out, and past
terrain made peneplain of ridge and groove ground down, too softly intricate beyond
facsimile to ever map or duplicate
but real imaginal as meetings with our certain dead or those unknown we scan for their
But this is land, and music’s land played out, and land intrinsicate, into what certain
Note the record groove, the line itself, as landscape (where hitherto “No line on a map can be drawn to represent …” (Malin, quoted at 13)); it is in fact an immanence of landscape these writings record. A vocabulary of expanse and aeon attaches to the fine, the accidental, the limit intensities of space; if landscape he had had to take / to ever come home, here that landscape is come home, is home, is the very grain of Being.
KW: Looking at this photo — a familiar view from Ken’s couch — gets me thinking of the small objects, totems, that fill his home. The left corner of the coffee table below, opposite the Martinique rum, is dedicated to such objects.
CC: Arrowheads from Kyle Eberle’s inheritance, Petoskey stone from you and Jackie, indistinct rock from Gloucester.
KW: Polished petrified wood. Agate egg from the Tallulah Gorge.
CC: Dried rhododendron receptacle. Cut-glass from turn of century, cameos of obscure relatives. Burr oak acorn.
KW: A few chestnuts, I think. Some gingko … berries? (Are they gingko berries?)
CC: Gingko nuts from Jeff Bergfalk? I’m trying to think what other rocks there are; maybe a, I can’t remember the name, museum gift shop stone with “clouded” or “night” in the name, black and grey. Antique marbles, there’s another. Do you think geology and geography are of a piece here?
KW: I think geology, the study, is always a component of geography, the writing. But the phenomenon of the rock’s shape, texture, flecked coloration, etc., is of greater significance to Ken than its classification. It seems to me the geographer in Ken has little interest in an unpopulated landscape: “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it.” Habitation and migration are modes of writing earth: the “areal landscape” (to borrow from Carl O. Sauer) is the ur-wiki, composed by occupation. (The rocks remind me of Novalis too, Ken roaming among the novices of Sais. “[T]he small stone picked up without thinking,” he writes in “Cahokia,” “means everything.”)
I also think of those chunks of pink quartzite (“Sioux Quartzite”) sprinkled throughout The Intent On that were pushed down from Minnesota to Kansas by a glacier 600,000 years ago. One of the larger boulders, standing on its end by the power plant near the bridge over the Kaw River (which follows the morainal line), bears a plaque memorializing the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company who founded Lawrence. The confluence of all those different kinds of movement at the continent’s vortical centrum is instructive of Ken’s sense of geography as a function of migration — tectonic, imperial, glacial, seasonal, vocational, nomadic, whatever.
CC: And then the totemic houseplants: Norfolk Island pine of many score years, “Christmas cactus” whose blooming is an annual event, I think there’s some kind of arum, a jack-in-the-pulpit?
KW: That sounds right. I can’t remember when, exactly, I took on the responsibility of taking care of Ken’s plants while he traveled east over the summer. I do remember being nervous about it, mainly because I was incapable of maintaining plants of my own at the time, but also because I’d read in Ken’s poems of the intersubjective exchanges between him and the plants I was to nurture — like the delicate Christmas cactus you mention. There were other complications too. It seemed, for example, that the number of pots in one back bedroom exceeded the number of plants, and the densely entangled vines make it difficult to determine in which pot the Joya, say, with its otherworldly inflorescence, begins. Sometimes I wondered if the pot I was watering had any plant in it at all, or if I weren’t perhaps watering the rug. The books, CDs, letters, records, etc. that a friend once said are “threatening to consume Ken’s apartment” represent one kind cultural growth, and the exotic, antediluvian flowering plants represent another — a sense of “culture” as a site or medium “for all manner of living growth.”
as often as I entered his house, I thought I was in the wilderness
Certainly the plants and the poems grow from a common soil:
midwinter days when the focus stays inside entirely, some yet again different than you’ve ever made it before dinner out of leftovers and bare, chance essentials — as the glue of the turning of the year begins to dry and crack, pages starting to loosen and fall out, the gin before dinner helps watch, without imitation, and the irritation increasingly an instant answer to its own pointlessness, by that quick anger and regret, to use, as by some new peccadillo — to slow, to enjoy, to thank for, the Christmas cactus blooming once again, the realizing it is closer to Jeffers’ birthday than Weinnacht, and from the morning, a book jacket fitting a depiction of the Globe Theater into the cursive script of the title without having to do with words or the letters or their shapes at all, which in any case were not to be remembered—the crucial words, it matters very much to look up, though no one dictionary for them can be found, the crucial words tenedos &/or tendeos &/or teneos are kept stretched very taut and resonant across the rest of the day, without ever yielding up exactly what they mean — I hold the tantra of the tendril’s tone — the hypotenuse of containment is the alternate sitar — thin, but tender — lean, but cherce — into the family of love, the lover’s home, the body of the lover, and the food, that protect the stretching forth to hold and keep, yet heavy with the rift of predictive judgement and its loss — what is meant beyond etymology, in the shifting and then lost d, the delta Δ where the seed and the eye appear and disappear in the history of the singular a-historical event, translated to the next dimension on, not quite totally out of the one before, the equilateral three in one in many more than three in one, the three hermits of the story who pray unceasingly, “You are three, we are three, have Mercy on us”
KW: Ken’s poems really capture the feel of his home; they’re structures of commensurate intrigue. And his home is one of the most inviting, comfortable, invigorating places I’ve ever been — a space set aside time, like Duncan’s “eternal pasture folded in all thought.” And you’re right, this sense of a nourishing substratum, of undergrowth inside and outside, interpenetrant—“[the] calm pasture of the mind” and “the carpet of grass” “carried in the back of the head” — is formally and thematically elaborated in a number of the poems:
What do you desire? And not just the carpet runner that comes into being under your feet out in the street and then into the yard as you approach the front door, nor the figurations in the carpet that are after all alive and rustle and run and jump around and bloom and fly, or the weaving itself that is still going on and talks to you as it throws the shuttle back and forth, and looks up at you and stops and explains the fabric up out of the ground, and the spindles of thread that whirl at the steps, set into song by the wool and the sheep that give the wool. And who is that at the door? The lore. Says, let you in.
In his preface for To Max Douglas, Ed Dorn wonders if this rhizomatic “rumination” (“the mind has aerial roots”) has something to do with what “it mean[s] to be from Kansas.” He links “the volition to movement” in that corridor with an image of the windswept “waving carpet of grass.” Ken delights in the prairie’s stormy weather, and the midcontinental grasslands are for him, as they were for Coronado, an oneiric transport as well. (Recently reading over a handful of letters from Ken to Dorn, I came across this: “I’ve found that what direction I sleep in makes a difference in my dreams — they’re sexier when I lie east-west — the N-S axis is very unrestful & headachey.”) Likewise, the polyvocal thicket that Jed Rasula describes in Ken’s work — the dense, matted “dendritic” journey of quotation (“lore” that “lets you in”) — also reveals how geographical processes inform Ken’s writing and living. If geography is the writing of the earth, then many of the poems in Relation and Catalpa are “geographical” in a very strict sense — like “Point Reyes Poem, 2,” for example, in which we read of poison oak as an intergenerational agent whose “infernal” messages, which “we share across 400 years” with the members of Sir Francis Drake’s New Albion expedition, are inscribed on “equal, heedless bodies.”
Anyway, all of these entanglements are constitutive of the synesthetic intensity of Ken’s living space. The odor of garlic and fennel mixing with the smell of aging paper mixing with Clifford Brown and Max Roach remixing Duke Jordan, etc. The interior of Ken’s home doesn’t really change, it accumulates layers, arboreal, like the Norfolk Pine that has grown exactly to the height of his living room ceiling. There’s a very palpable sense in his apartment of time passing — i.e., of measuring time (the calendar with a smattering of birthdays; the stack of books that offer an index of Ken’s recent attentions; the fact that he personalizes the fly-leaf of every book he owns, etc.) — and of time standing still (in the frayed shag carpet from the ’70s, say, or the dusty glass vases and paperweights of an earlier era, etc.). The Norfolk Pine is a measure, like the gifted rocks and the Thorpe Feidt paintings Ken returns with from Gloucester every summer, which signal the coming Fall semester — “the Bloody Grind,” as Ken calls it.
CC: The paintings — propped against piles of books in the dark — by no means neglected, quite to the contrary, but not displayed in the way an acquisitive nature would have them displayed.
KW: That’s true. You’re a man of few possessions, Cyrus, capable of carrying the bare minimum on your way. It seems to me that Ken lived a more peripatetic and, by necessity, ascetic life in his twenties and thirties. He makes that autobiographical statement, turning on Spinoza’s asceticism, in his poem “Notes”:
The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.
Ken, now a full professor, carries no PhD, and no degree at all in the discipline he teaches, and yet he also subscribes to the Lawrence and Fort Scott newspapers, and often has a copy of the New York Times too. If questions about movies come up over dinner, we might consult “the Hound” (VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever), or the Leonard Maltin Guide, or Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, or all three. What do you make of this more recent, almost encyclopedic accumulation? And what does it have to do with his poem’s lengthening line?
CC: In Ken’s case the hoard of books and periodicals is a paradoxical form of nonattachment, because of the way he allows the printed matter (like the plants) to take over. He himself asserts no ownership of the domestic space. His space is populated by the people behind the print:
Dale Hawkins is dead, that day, the 24th, in Topeka, where he’d been a fireman, battalion chief, retired — a year older than me, I hadn’t ever known or didn’t remember — failed a grade? it could be, though not very likely — or rheumatic fever? some faint memory click of that? — but we were in the same grade all along? — I’d just a day or so before been thinking about him in grade school, wanting the recipe in an old chemistry handbook I had from my brother, for rose water, to make some for his mother — intense request, pleading, remonstrating, “come on man, you promised, it’s for my mom” — AA member, Little League, Boy Scouts, the Fort Scott Tribune’s obituary of last Friday tells — one more to earth o’ergiven of childhood’s friends — as birth month ends — the dark time of the year — and what tales of the dark time here? — first Christmas cactus buds just starting to open — Dale and Dale — and Dale Barney and all the taunts growing up because of Dale Evans — the far West side of town, Dale Hawkins, less money, Ab Wood, Jim Hegge, Carmen Lewis, Oop Hood, to my nearer West side, big house, doctor father — or Dale Barney’s East side, and railroad father — and the closeness with Dale Hawkins not kept up as we went on into high school — and he into the Navy after graduation, married in San Diego, and then Topeka and the fire brigade, children, grandchildren — those who can tell you about yourself when you were young, or you about them — fewer and fewer, one by one — the closed-in self, the expanded self —
KW: I like the idea of the people behind the print very much, a question of who’s on the other end of the line. There was a period when Ken lived with his mother in Lawrence. I think of that line from his poem written on Chuck Stein’s 60th birthday: “they call for my mother who’s dead, because her name’s still in the phonebook, and only use her first name / and I haven’t had it changed for mine because I’m still alive.” These lines suggest the fixity of an address — whether of the domicile or the utterance — sets one that much closer to death.
It also seems to me that Ken intentionally lives on top of things — his flat-screen sits on top of the wooden cabinet of an antique television; stacks of cds frame his stereo; etc. One could view this habitation geologically, as a kind of stratification, or one could take George Carlin’s view, of the home as a mere storehouse for your shit, “while you go out and get more shit!” Both are encompassed by Ken’s sense of the “pastoral,” as the concern for “the precise landscape wherever we are. […] Given the amount of shit we live in, it is also manure for all manner of living growth.” It’s interesting that while Ken, as you aptly put it, “asserts no ownership ... of the domestic space” — in the most generous and inviting way — he also remains inseparable in my mind from the texture and wonder of its interior. I think of that “Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home ...” fabric he salvaged from a dumpster in Berkeley — or was it Lowell Levant who recovered that?
CC: I don’t remember, can’t visualize, the fabric.
KW: Here it is:
… and there’s Ken digging for Josquin or Aksel Schiøtz or Dexter Gordon’s “Homecoming” or who knows what. The red and blue design of that fabric produces the same minor visuals as the Vision® skateboard deck I had in middle school.
CC: And next to that chair the cameo chair, and the view out the balcony:
The quiet intricate interior forest of the Christmas cactus and its blossomings bends down
over the jade tree where the cameo chair seat looks out to the Northern world
what can be seen over the balcony boards, wood rush to meet, contemplation of the tops
of trees and roofs and the sky lines advancing and receding
If you lean forward far enough you can see almost in the back right corner one board with
a knobhole through it
the start of a needle down to thread and begin the sewing, the mending and the
and just barely visible over the edge straight ahead at the other end of the compound
the upper third of a balcony door and the room seen lit the night of the poet’s death and
known there was a sun in there through the dimension
through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare
stares into and through
and drew it, the red life, the thread drawn
The throw makes me think of Ronald Johnson’s
— a Topeka poet, one of the first of a very long list of writers and artists Ken introduced me to. “Also the author of The American Table,” you can be sure Ken noted, “an excellent cookbook.”
KW: I dig the Johnson. His categorizing that poem in particular as a “beam” is wonderfully suggestive of its spectral and structural qualities, of the poem as a self-sustaining ecosystem that you “can enter from any corner, like a field” (to quote another Topeka poet). Thinking of managing the hearth, of the peculiar chores each home calls for, and of working to live with the other objects of one’s environment, rather than trying to subjugate or overwhelm them — like what Creeley says, that we “will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it” — all of this echoes the themes of “Song 3,” as well, from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an obviously important text for Ken:
This morning of the small snow
I count the blessings, the leak in the faucet
which makes of the sink time, the drop
of the water on water as sweet
as the Seth Thomas
in the old kitchen
my father stood in his drawers to wind (always
he forgot the 30th day, as I don’t want to remember
a house these days
so much somebody else’s,
Or the plumbing,
that it doesn’t work, this I like, have even used paper clips
as well as string to hold the ball up. And flush it
with my hand
But that the car doesn’t, that no moving thing moves
without that song I’d void my ear of, the musickracket
of all ownership …
in my shoes, that’s all right, my fly
gaping, me out
at the elbows, the blessing
that difficulties are once more
“In the midst of plenty, walk
as close to
In the face of sweetness,
In the time of goodness,
go side, go
smashing, beat them, go as
(as near as you can
In the land of plenty, have
nothing to do with it
take the way of
your legs, go
Ken’s encounters with his own leaky faucet, for instance, or with the plastic bowl emptied weekly and repositioned on top of the tin of Washington State cheese in order to catch the drip in the back of the refrigerator, these inconveniences (so most people would think of them) are the poignant, “bless[ed],” rhythmic “difficulties” by which “the day is saved” for Ken; these are those “leftovers and bare, chance essentials” from the poem you cited above, to be dealt with, as with the daybooks to be cannibalized. In a way, it’s like whatever happens happens in Ken’s world, and he writes his way into and through it as love. The poison oak he “got at Reyes a week ago” is something that “we” — as “equal, heedless” humans — get to share! Here the mind encounters temporal/historical distance as proximal to its distance from the body and, as such, as constitutive of what Lyn Hejinian calls the “lyric sociality” in Ken’s work. There’s obviously a dose of fatalism in this “whatever happens, happens,” but my sense of it is much closer to the closing lines of Hejinian’s The Fatalist: “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened / — time regained.” The will to regain — “the reciprocity of hospitality” — is the rub for Ken: Ken’s care for the reclamation of minutiae that most people pass over is intense, gemlike — such as his account of saving a wolf spider in “[a Nocturne of the day — James Huneker],” a poem that demonstrates his empathy, as well as what he’s done with Olson’s instruction:
In the middle of the day the smell of peanut butter and mayonnaise and jelly brought
out a small spider from under the chopping block and the blender
a puff of breath, a puff, and it rolled into a ball, recovered, and hurried back where it
had come from
bringing and receiving luck and renewal
The wolf spider, hunter of the night, trapped in the kitchen sink and its porcelain slick
took quite a while to rescue, since it hid much of the day in the garbage disposal and
kept trying to get back there
at last brought out with a big plastic spoon and set down between the icebox and the
sink counter, and away
saving, and the day saved, and again
You might own a pair of such great lichen screens
one of the rocks, one of what grows on them
dyed with their pigments, translucent, illuminant, through
and at the centers, they turn
Focusing on the uncommon care it takes to rescue the spider, I almost overlook the fact that Ken releases it in his kitchen a few feet away! What’s remarkable here is not that he avoids killing the spider — of course he does — but that, in his placing it out of harm’s way, he’s equally intent on minimizing the disturbance this intervention will otherwise create. Our current culture of gratuitous collateral damage and fearful excess — “the superstructure of filth,” as Amiri Baraka has put it, “[that] Americans call their way of life” — could learn a lot from the everyday values in The Intent On. It’s responsibility of use that confers value in Ken’s world, not possession; not how many shares one has, but how one shares.
KW: Yesterday you asked what I considered to be Ken’s task and I didn’t have a very good answer. I guess I’d say the task is to communicate, a word which derives from the Latin for “share,” another important term in his work. The desire to get across is present in his poems’ patchwork of quotations, in his epistolary habits, in his anecdotal pedagogy, in the way he talks of friends as ore (that personal lore, from OE lār, “instruction), and in the connections he facilitates among them — “these people you know are like gold,” I hear him saying, “only where you find them.” All of these associations convene, “commune,” under the roof of the host — from L. hospes (meaning both “host” and “guest”) and L. hostis (meaning “army,” in the sense here of containing multitudes). Ken is a consummate host, and the lessons he’s shared have considerable half-lives, if that makes any sense. Having moved away, I find them returning with greater intensity.
CC: Writing — to which Ken’s dedication is total, writing as sustenance — as subordinate to a higher task of keeping company (thinking of Creeley’s etymology com + pānis plus eucharistic idea of “host” as bread), the daybooks a form of communion with the day, the weather, the place, the flora and fauna, and the reading is a form of company with the like-minded, like-in-spirit.
Apropos of food and hospitality: Ken’s delight with the name and concept of “gravlax.” His anecdote of the first time — was this in Berkeley — that he bought (almost accidentally, and at an incredible bargain) a case of “good” wine.
KW: I think of his delight in the exaggerated mispronunciation of “feesh” (for “fish) and other signature cooking remarks — like his preference for letting a soup or sauce “muse on itself.” Ken is a superb cook, though I’ve never seen him look at a recipe or measure out anything in the kitchen.
CC: Catfish baked in the oven under a thick sprinkling of anise, oregano, and thyme, arborio rice flavored with drippings from the feesh, half an avocado with olive oil and balsamic vinegar pooled in the pit concavity, often asparagus or roasted red pepper … Divine sweet potato baked to deliquescence in foil, split, buttered, with parsley.
and now remember here: interior with a Norfolk Island pine as Christmas tree, until
and through it a garden in the wall where two figures suspended are confronted by an
angel whose back is to us
or is it at the balcony door where the curtains moiré the last sunlight of the year, and still,
the chalk, the little chalk, the oil, the wax of the little chalk
is cray the crayfish cray?
but that’s a mistaking out of OE crevise, OF crevice, OHG krebiz: edible crustacean
made to crayfish, crayfeesh, and craw- and -dad
but gerbh- and scratch and crab and crawl and graffiti and diagram and draw
KW: Succulent pork chops with the same herb sprinkling glazed with soy sauce and honey, blackened scallops, olive oil over everything, fresh mango slices on vanilla ice cream swimming in cognac for dessert. Not a gin drinker myself, I can’t speak to what Patrick Doud calls “the shimmer of Ken’s special gin apertif,” but you enjoyed the drink, once upon a time.
CC: What I remember above all about the drink was the viscosity of the cold gin. It doesn’t seem that the drink had anything in it other than gin (straight from the freezer, and the condensation froze white on the Sapphire bottle), lemon zest, and assorted olives. Ken introduced me to the oil-cured “Moroccan” olive, for example, and to the large green “Sicilian” and bright green “Castelvetrano.” The aperitif almost always contained a very small olive that seemed mostly pit — maybe that was an Arbequina. I drank so fast at Ken’s, that only the speed of my drinking could subdue the shame of my manners. I don’t know if it was that I had something to prove, or that I was taking out some unnameable aggression.
Yet anyone, however unlettered, would be welcome at Ken’s table.
KW: True, I don’t think lettered and unlettered are categories Ken’s hospitality recognizes. I guess the important thing for Ken is that one pays attention to how one goes about doing whatever it is one does. “Process is soul,” as the man “sd.”
CC: That seems right. What Ken seems to admire in a person is the faculty of taking an interest. And his conversation is characterized by singularly intense interest, attentiveness. One visible way his truly astonishing learning serves him is that it allows him to take active interest in his interlocutor, whether he/she’s a trucker or flautist or hydrologist or itinerant schizophrenic. But there are whole tracts of Ken’s learning that are obscure to us. I don’t mean literature we haven’t read — I mean whole fields.
KW: Like the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, or Scotch Heredom.
Dr Dee stood at the edge of Governor Winthrop’s Chinese garden, gauging the descent, catching sight through the rhododendrons of the rain-swollen stream
Here, he said to his
host, I am in intimate contact with that Far Ancient East which has been heretofore only a
matter of venerable report to me—among these exotic shrubberies, the traceries of these
paths afford us insight of the flow—this, I take to be patterned exact fixation of those
features, what one master of such lore once termed to me, fungh-shwaye, or water-winde,
which pierces the earth, and attracts from the heavens the mute attendant spirits to in-
So he spoke, stopped at the pond’s edge, leaning out over the water ...
Ken is a spirit of the threshold. He has guided us over many of them, and, as you say, it takes a long time for some of the lessons to accomplish this. Is there a corresponding sense in which Ken’s poems and his persona alike are hermetic, closed, remote, inaccessible? His connection to the source of the poems seems more mysterious than that of other poets.
KW: I’m not sure, maybe. For example, in his preface to Movements/Sequences, Ken writes: “Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain.”
Interesting that we’ve come back to the heap of stones on Ken’s table that we started with — that is, “hermetic” = Hermes = herma (Gr. “heap of stones”).
CC: But a sense in which the poems might be intended never to commune with another sensibility. Surely undecidability is part of all bodies of work, but I see that as a different thing from the cryptic — I guess I’m asking if Ken’s poems also do some work of encryption that other poems, other oeuvres do not.
KW: I read, in the distance they aesthetically, syntactically and intellectually construct, a form of Eros, and, as such, a gift — an open-ended Whitmanian proposal entreating the reader to collaborate in bridging that gap. I find the poems instructive in this sense, but not didactic. Both Gerrit Lansing and Jed Rasula have made this last point before me, or one close to it.
CC: All items in the richness of his routines — in them, the work emits a special sense of company, even its recondite elements, even if they remain obscure, some are insistently so, they grow personal, demonstratively familiar.
CC: I would like to hear an account of how Ken mediated your deep and abiding interest in Dorn. Surely Ken introduced you to his work? Dorn would be a good example, in your case, of the effect of Ken’s teaching. You wrote a 600pp master’s thesis on Dorn. The process put you in touch with many other writers and scholars, I mean intimate touch, connected to Dorn.
Would the Dorn project — all of it — have started for you at Ken’s table?
KW: Probably, but it’s hard to determine where a 600pp master’s thesis entitled News from Now/Here started. Somewhere in Call Steps Ken writes: “study is the gate of justice.” Ken illumined a path that gave me, as he said of the project, “a way in.” I learned a great deal at Ken’s table, mostly because Ken is an extraordinarily patient teacher. The process of my thesis project (and what it’s led to) is, most of all, an example of how Ken brings his students to a cognizance of what is, in front of and around them; he shows us a way to deal with that, whatever that happens to be. The lesson is portable.
CC: I’m curious about how Dorn figures in Ken’s conversation. It’s hard for me to understand why Dorn or Dorn’s work (on which I am no expert, and forgive me for putting it in these terms) should mean so much to Ken (whereas the meaning of Duncan and Creeley — Duncan’s spiritualism and Creeley’s mindfulness — seem essential to Ken’s work and presence).
KW: That’s a tough question for me to answer. I think Dorn was the only poet addressing the Poundian all-times-are-contemporaneous complex of the North American continent in a way that Ken felt it should be addressed, or maybe simply in the way that Ken felt it. Neither Duncan nor Creeley really offer a way to incorporate the kind of historical information that Dorn’s early, lyrical and elegiac narrative poems about Meriwether Lewis, or John Ledyard, gracefully animate. The lean, barbed, intermittently tender lyricism of Dorn’s first few books, in addition to his “Elizabethan” ear, clearly spoke to Ken, and Ken’s earlier poems frequently borrow from, and/or respond to, Dorn. They both hail from the same time zone too—the nation’s slowly deserted and desiccated agricultural core, where you and I also come from.
CC: So it goes without saying that we really became Ken’s students in his apartment.
KW: That seems right. There was his basement office in Wescoe Hall, too — the decommissioned parking garage into which KU has cast their Humanities — with Coleman Hawkins or Debussy trickling into the hall. It was a kind of gateway, a portal to a richer life.
KW: One of the first times I visited Ken’s office he asked if I’d read Mary Butts. Then he proceeded to read “Friendship’s Garland” aloud. In retrospect, the intense generosity of that spontaneous gesture spoke louder than the text. At the time I remember thinking I should have something interesting to say about the story, but was preoccupied with a dread at my own banality. I guess I was intimidated by Ken’s erudition, but in the larger struggle that that led me to — the struggle to take my interest in literature and the arts seriously, which was the struggle to take myself seriously — Ken’s deeply sympathetic wisdom made all the difference. He didn’t care that I hadn’t read the Butts, the point was to share it, to offer his time as a form of trust and gracious encouragement to his students. A few years after the Butts story, more than a decade ago now, Ken casually reminded me one evening: “The greatest mystery you will ever be involved with is yourself.” That affirmation, which again emphasized the value in paying attention to what I was doing, rather than what hadn’t yet “done,” is among the most useful things I’ve learned from Ken — or anyone. Did you have similar anxieties? And how did Ken influence your artistic development?
CC: I didn’t want him — still don’t — to find out how little I had read. I remember when he asked me if I had read Sarah Orne Jewett, whose “The White Heron” is (thanks to Ken) among my favorite short stories. “White Heron” is where I encountered the name “Sylvy.”
KW: Your daughter’s name. Wow! And that Jewett story speaks specifically to the virtues that characterize Cyrus Console. It shows Ken’s perspicacity that he knew to recommend it to you. This was around the same time — 1998? — when you and I first met, in what we then spoke of as “Irby’s” class, though we’ve been referring to him as “Ken” in this discussion. Had you read any of his books before you took his classes?
CC: I knew him first as my teacher, though, being in the class you mention, I probably went to look at his work in the KU library at about the same time. For me, coming to know the work and coming to think of him as a friend are part of the same process, one that must have begun officially when we continued to interact after that semester’s end. And “Ken” is the name of the friend, and the name that feels natural to this discussion, though “Irby” is how we have traditionally referred to him in the third person, probably an artifact of our having been nineteen years old. The dilemma is evidence of how large his presence is, how often his name comes up, how many times we have had occasion to say “Irby showed me this Odilon Redon catalogue ...” “Irby played me this Dagar Brothers CD ...” “Irby has these Thorpe Feidt paintings ...” “Did you hear Irby’s Lord Buckley record ...” “Remember how Irby met Neal Cassady? ..”
And he played music just as he declaimed Mary Butts — whole cloth, no apologies — and it would have been a real faux pas to treat it as “background music.”
KW: True. That makes me think of Ken’s story about meeting Borges, (through his brother, James) in a bar, and how Borges scolded someone who interrupted their conversation: “Silence! We speak of poetry, all else is darkness!” To neglect the music Ken offers would be more than a “faux pas” really, it would be a diminishment of the spirit of sharing on which friendship is founded for Ken; it would be “crapmusic,” musickracket. By the way, I can’t help but hear that Borges quote in Ken’s Robert Duncan voice, which is the voice of nearly everyone he imitates. Borges, Charles Laughton, Billie Holiday — they all sound like Duncan. And Ken’s version of Duncan sounds vaguely like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.
CC: It should be recorded that for these and perhaps other purposes Ken has a “Duncan voice.” But he also has the “hepcat” voice.
KW: True. I hear his hepcat voice from Lord Buckley’s “Jonah in the Belly of a Whale”: [sucking in a long drag] “What d‘you say fish?”
CC: I was going to say “The Nazz”.
KW: Ken’s wealth of experience, to which he has seemingly unrestricted access through storytelling, and his knowledge of the world out there — the natural world, say, not merely the literary anyway — are astounding. He’s capable of mobilizing all of these different knowledges in his teaching. Then there’s the “news” straight from the mailbox that he shares with his classes, no matter the subject of the course — letters from his brother, or Duncan McNaughton, or the catalogue for a Jess show, whatever. “Interdisciplinary” barely scratches the surface of Ken’s approach to teaching.
CC: I am thinking about all the times I rode my bicycle home from his apartment west of campus — I would cross the neighborhood where the professors lived (The Dept. of English, inscrutably, did not promote Ken from “Lecturer” until late in his teaching there) and then fly down the hill into the student ghetto, as it was called — and the buzzing of my mind, whether I have felt so excited before or since about poetry and the intellectual life of which poetry seemed the sublimest fruit.
The first image I have of Ken, I think I’ve got it now, he is in front of the poetry workshop, he’s mentioned Kerouac (and doubtless Creeley and Duncan and Olson, whose names would have been ciphers to me at the time) and now he mentions that in the middle of his graduate study at Harvard (Eastern Studies), he “came into possession of a large quantity of a certain ... substance.” And thereafter dropped out. And at that moment I felt I had discovered a real teacher. And I didn’t know this at the time but I would take leaves of absence from every degree program in which I ever enrolled, thinking at the time I was through for good — and each of these leaves involved large quantities etc. So in that moment when Ken — he would have started the first class by saying “I am here in my capacity as a poet, though my formal training is in … and Eastern Studies” — and then within a few minutes, after cataloguing some of the people important to his becoming a poet, he’s telling this story of dropping out — and suddenly — here is the point of what I’m trying to say — I saw someone like me, who was like me in some deep and abiding way — and this person had found a way to live. I saw a window to this dream, and that meeting gave me confidence to, you know, dedicate my life to reading and writing.
KW: That’s beautifully stated. My academic career has similar gaps, during the BA and the MA, and before the PhD, which I’m still working toward. I now attend the Graduate Center, CUNY, where I work with (among others) Ammiel Alcalay, who also considers his having dropped out of college as a valuable and formative experience. It’s funny that the first thing we’re looking for in a teacher is how they’ve denied or abandoned formal education.
CC: Funny but very true somehow. Ken is our teacher because no one else we encountered shared our particular alienation — from formal education and from the American Dream —
they kept asking, but what do yall do? o God, I said, I’ve tried everything, and
never any luck
— and Ken’s table, because extramural, is a figure for that alienation.
KW: Alienation really brought us together.
I have one more question for you, Cy. You were, without question (as Ken himself has said), the most accomplished writer in our undergraduate classes, and the first real poet I met who was my own age. I very much admired your poem about the mob of emus you didn’t see on I-70, and your “Keyboard Partita” and “Destruction of Woods” that Lee Chapman published in First Intensity, a magazine Ken introduced us to. That’s also where I first read Ben Lerner. In any case, if Ken demonstrated that it were possible for you to pursue the life you’ve now realized as an artist, can you talk about how his teaching, or his writing, or his take on your adolescent form of alienation, contributed to the particular shape that life has taken? or how it shaped the specific concerns of the work that life has produced?
CC: I met you and Ken both about the time of transition from childhood/adolescence (which I regard effectively as having been lived by another person) into adulthood, the sentient part of my life, one dominating affect of which has been, for good or ill, “this isn’t quite right; I didn’t sign up for this.” I don’t know how articulate or detailed this sense was at the time of the poems you mention, but it was the sense of this not being what I signed up for, of realizing there never was a sign-up sheet anywhere — I mean, it was out of that inarticulate feeling that the poems you mention arose. And Ken’s teaching on this point is deep. You say “The hell is this?” and he says yes “but what do you do with it?”
if I can be the young man who went with that expedition long before I ever knew him
and was their navigator with as much certainty as his own life was not
if only for one long evening finding him lifting himself to be someone more
haven’t I kept that yearning since before I was born and his
Cyrus Console and Kyle Waugh
Kansas City–Brooklyn, July 2012
Cyrus Console and Kenneth Irby, Lawrence, KS, August 2012 (photo by C. Console).
Kenneth Irby and Kyle Waugh, Gloucester, MA, July 2012 (photo by J. Zammuto).
9. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 13 January 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs, Connecticut.
22. See Hejinian’s essay, “‘We might say poetry’,” in this same Jacket 2 special feature.