Irby's very own North Atlantic turbine

Kenneth Irby, Robert Duncah, Anne Waldman, April 1972 (photo by Elsa Dorfman).

It would seem that Kenneth Irby and his work have forever been firmly located — not to say nailed down — in what Robert Duncan called “Irbyland,” i.e. the great American plains or grasslands with Fort Scott and/or Lawrence, Kansas, as bio-hub. Thus, in his first letter to Irby, Robert Duncan sorts out them apples from them oranges by suggesting that “you [Ken Irby] assigned yourself the grasslands” while he, Robert Duncan, assigned himself the European in the form of the “medieval,” via Kantorowicz, an “acolyte of the George circle.”[1] Duncan goes on to suggest that “[a]s in your grasslands you are searching rightly for what a poem is to be in another ‘poem’ — the winds, the grass, the plains will tell you (makers of a horizon you’ve known, I’ve only seen idly in passing) what I can’t about beginning and end of ‘form.’”

It would also be easy enough to see in Irby’s work an extension/continuation — or better, an expansion and a deepening — of Olson’s concerns for the American space, which does indeed come large on this continent, and very large in Irbyland. One could thus read it even as the work on the West and the Great Plains Olson proposed at some point but didn’t do himself. A sympathetic critic such as Eric Mottram will make this link central and explicit: “The taste of Olson was pretty strong,” he writes, suggesting that Irby’s problem in the early poems was “to shift usages of Olson’s procedures … which in some places take over his own voice” while the “better poems” make good use of “the ellipses and discontinuities of Olson’s gap-jumping lyric for a much calmer end.”[2] And indeed, in a 1971 poem based on a dream, Irby imagines Olson on his home terrain: “So Olson did come through Fort Scott / hitchhiking to Denver in the early 50’s, // with some of his students from Black Mountain / not Dorn as I had thought.”[3] This enables him, at least in the poem, to meet Olson back then in the drugstore, where the elder poet sets young Irby a task:

… part of it was

to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out


all local dimension, but it was

a gleam deep in his eyes


telling me, tell

the Secret History of your town


get the Secret History

of yourself 


In this imagined task, Irby suggests, the thrill was “finding out about all those // lines of continuity across the country / that went through Fort Scott // on off the world.” That task would indeed be very close to what Olson set himself in the Maximus. But even here I sense a push beyond Olson’s New England project in the barefoot high schooler’s (holding the The Boys Book of Chemistry) projected interest in “an era // I wanted to know of my town as / much as alchemy to make // the same transmutings now / Fort Scott’s hidden flower, gold // was opening before that war.” But by the time “you” (the imagined Olson of the poem) showed up with his instructions, “I was on my way / to internationale // attentions.”

The view, it is my argument here today, of Irby’s work as a simple or even complex extension of Olson’s quest seems too limiting to me, diminishing the achievement by proposing too reductive a reading. And if in my title I used a phrase that recalls Edward Dorn,[4] it is not so much for the jaundiced eye with which Dorn gazed at that turbine (which he saw nearly exclusively as commerce moving clockwise) but as a more cultural turbine moving counterclockwise — thus making it a countercultural turbine? — and enriching the dustbowl soils of America. Or maybe this turbine is closer to Henry Adams’s “dynamo,” though then one would have to read a near-Hegelian “Aufhebung” in Irby’s version of the “Virgin and the Dynamo.” It may, in fact, appear strange that I, ex-Europeano who left the “old” continent to become a poet in America because that is where I saw the energies achieve a poetic art unequalled in Europe during the second part of the past century, that I would now want to link Irby back to what I left — or tried to leave — behind. If on this specific occasion I speak to the Europe that traverses and so splendidly marbles Irby’s American land- and mind-scape, it behooves me, however, to point out that any serious, i.e. at least partially complete, assessment of Irby’s oeuvre needs to investigate the poems’ mother lode of information concerning China and Latin America, two further constants in Irby’s vast spiderweb of cultural caches, two further decentered centers touched regularly by that turbine, or dynamo, or great rotating wheel whose hub and heart may lie below, but at the center, of the Great Plains — or, as Irby puts it: “the Great Wheel of the Plains / turns under Fort Scott.” But let’s see how Europe worms its way in and maybe breaks down and enriches the dry soils of the American West.

Permit me, anecdotally, to mention that the first time I laid eyes on Irby was, I remember, as he stepped into my Deal Road house in Tooting Broadway, South London in early 1973 — but that was one of Ken’s rare physical forays into Europe. He’d in fact come down from Denmark and was, if I’m not mistaken, on a trip that would get him to the southern countries of Europe. So, unlike Dorn who spent years in England, teaching, and kept returning to London (where I have an image of him standing in the same room in Deal Road somewhat later in the ’70s, as we argue — he, Ed, deeply, strangely uninterested in my proposal to publish Gunslinger in a French translation I had been working on — but that’s another story), Ken’s visits were shorter, but, it seems to me his involvement deeper and elsewhere. 

During this last decade and a half I have been thinking and writing primarily about the concepts of a nomadic poetry and poetics — calling this also at times “archipelago poetics” (in homage to Edouard Glissant’s parallel investigations) — speaking of rhizomatic and dendritic processes.[5] Interestingly enough, the terms “archipelago” and “dendritic” are also clearly there in Irby’s poetry and thinking. He could easily have found a space in the essay “Toward a Nomad Poetics” — and will do so with this belated essay. One of the areas I investigated thus was that of Maghrebian literature, particularly its francophone wing, where on close reading I distinguished what I called “ghostings” on either formal or semantic levels by the “other,” language, the spoken darijas, or vernacular versions of Arabic. I propose to use this notion of “ghostings” to speak of what in Irby’s poetry I perceive as non-American presences, inscriptions, upwellings, conjurations, or whatever guise these presences take.

Let me get back to this un-American turbine/dynamo. In Irby’s work there are of course immediately those literary sources that are not American: we know from his interview for Vort that the first literary influence, or what gave him poetry in a way, was reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the Leishman-Spender translation (found in Kansas City when he was in eighth or ninth grade).[6] We also know of his continuous interest in Russian poetry and writing, especially that of Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, as well as Blok but also of his ongoing reading in French literature. Thus his first book, The Roadrunner Poem, which is indeed a profoundly American poem if ever there was one, is introduced by a quote from Rimbaud’s Saison en Enfer, cited in French without accompanying English translation. In “Jed Smith and the Way,” another long meditation on the American road, and, as Mottram has it, “structured, like an old Buick drive along the routes a trapper, mountain man and guide took in the early 19th century into Oregon,” the narrative drive is stopped short towards the very middle of the poem with reflections on the formal nature of the poem itself — which bring in a European contemporary of Jedediah Smith’s, the German poet Hölderlin:

Hölderlin called the lyric

“the continuous metaphor for a feeling”

the epic, “the metaphor

of an intellectual point of view”

this is the discontinuous

dendritic narrative of a journey

metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return

pastoral in that

“sluicing” meaning the juice

runs down over the head

and puddles off the fingers


The list of such transcultural citations could go on ad infinitum. But let’s look at another aspect in which America is ghosted by the nonnative, namely the geography of the West, its landscapes. For example, in the poem “Jesus,” with its “secret paths” that “lead south,” Irby links his Fort Scott landscape via a nomadic Jesus moving from the North to the South “as if a tracer through the Ice Age intestinal / dirt track, reaching down the Plains again from Asia / towards an absolutely other / Earthly Paradise”:

                           pungent Southward

 in the silent age of America

 1952, not ripe for any

 second coming out, only to scout

 if all the Mesopotamian

 Siberian welfare trails were still

 reblazable under the shit


That would be American shit, needing to be turned into manure to fertilize a dust-bowled scape, perhaps. And having other and older cultural materials come in will help in this process, hopefully speeding it up, or at least making the creation of an inhabitable dwelling, a hearth, possible. Here the reach back is long, space-wise, to Mesopotamia and linking to Siberia, and time-wise from the Ice Age to what seems like a “communist” welfare present. At first sight this could still be read as Olsonian, i.e. as the jump back from present-day America to pre-Greek Near Eastern cultures and their roots in the Pleistocene. But this is complicated by a range of other references, such as the figure of the weird motorcycle (Hell’s Angels?), or Jesus as “an easter revolutionary … He must be a communist …” with the classical Christian fish (more ambiguously also readable as sexual — cunt or prick) as emblem, which become for Irby the “Tarot card of the Hitchhiker.” Tarot cards are European and medieval in origin, and even if another clin d’oeil to Olson is also intended, they move us firmly into a specific Irby area, namely hermetic lore and literature and to a European culture Olson has no truck with. It is worth mentioning here that Olson condemned anything European from Plato to the early twentieth century as highly suspect.

I believe that one of the essential aspects of this doubleness — or, so as not to get stuck in a dialectical binary system, this multiplicity of layers — has to do with Irby’s comprehension of landscapes as not only natural, not ever in fact only “natural” (and one should here insert a full essay on what “natural” may or may not mean — something I’d love to do on another occasion, taking my cues from Spinoza). This complexity is well set forth in a line by the geographer Edgar Anderson, quoted by Irby in the “In Place of a Preface” of Catalpa (why not call it a preface; why a place in place of? What is a place that stands in for another place, what is this supplement, the pemmican we chew instead of the actual bison filet mignon? The poetics statement of explanation instead of the poem itself? My Derridean proclivities could easily slip here into a long zigzag reflection, that in turn could get me lost in Irbyland like any number of those greenhorn conquistadores/explorers of old ... I’ll try to avoid this fate at least here, right now). So in the preface to Catalpa, Anderson (on page 250 of the Collected) says it clearly: “It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it.” So, yes, it may be obvious but bears restating: the landscape is also of the mind, or a palimpsest of geography and mind, where the one ghosts the other, so that the leaves of the trees, Catalpa or others, rhyme (Duncan-esquely) with the leaves of the books read and/or written there.

Irby himself is very clear about this, for example in the introduction to Relation, when he writes: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’” This is a direct response to a landscape that both “demands us” and “reveals us.” Here one should also place a discussion of the relation of Irby’s “pastoral” to the European and more specifically the British version thereof — but this has been done in a number of essays over time and there is no reason to repeat those analyses here now. 

I do however want to locate the movement through the, through any, landscape more specifically as I perceive a ghosting — perhaps unconscious — with a range of other literary events. What I call “the nomadic” is of course very present in Irby’s work, in, for example, a definition of American poetry as the “narrative of a journey” — a narrative that I think cannot easily be fitted into the Hölderlinian definitions quoted above, as they give precedent to the metaphor. Thus a strange doubleness, in which I would in fact read an opposition, in the juxtaposition of these two lines, when after the near-Deleuzian rhizomatic definition of the work as the “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey,” the next line brings it all back home (= Europe? a certain fixity?) by restating this definition as being a “metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return.” Three loaded words here: 1) “pasture” which in this context sounds closer to the pastoral as defined by the likes of Empson, as a metaphor for another state, rather than as Irby’s own descriptions of the pastoral as a daily concern with the precise landscape of wherever we are, both as physical and as spiritual landscape. Maybe my distrust of the word here comes from its association with 2) the word “anabasis” where (and this may be personal to my own Euro-basis) I cannot but hear the title of Saint-John Perse’s poem “Anabase” not surprisingly translated into English by one T. S. Eliot, a poem that despite its title and travel components is a static, colonial venture. (Of course, the word alone in Irby’s line could also dendritically or rhizomatically spiral out to the “anabasis” moth, a genus of snout moths from the Phycitinae subfamily, or, maybe closer to home, the plant “anabasis,” a genus of desert shrubs in the Amaranthacaceae family.) And finally, word 3) “return,” which has its own problems when it comes to nomadic spaces.

So I am partial to the nomadic definition of the poem as a “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey.” And rather than return the journey to a fixed European pastoral space, breathtaking only due to the narrowness of its hedged-in bets, I want to link it to another ghosting. Irby’s journeying and the inscription of that journey into his poems is, for example, quite different from say, Kerouac’s On the Road, that mad rush from one side of the continent to the other, coast to coast with stopovers only when too exhausted to keep driving. Irby’s progress is via a range of “fixes,” bearings taken that request stages, stopovers, which I would assimilate to the physical and spiritual stops or mawqifs — as they are known in the Sufi journey — in the nomad’s progress. The discontinuity, the dendritic nature of the journey is accepted and made use of, stages for reflection, for companionship, for writing, for eating, drinking, and sex. I do, however, disagree with Eric Mottram’s assessment that with “the self asserted through a world of revelatory signs,” Irby moves “steadily towards the transcendental, a mysticism of land and mobility, of that sense of Americans being necessarily shaped by the violence of the continent.” I would suggest that the journey is towards an ever deeper immanence, that the life teachings of the movement through America are the exact experiences that show how the physical and mental journeys are or become inseparable, are of the same stuff. Irby touches on this, for example, when he writes: “Lords of the Light and Air / are Immanences, not rulers.” And if in the journey itself, in the speed of movement, there can be a giddiness that would point towards an Other beyond the horizon, some transcendental topos, it is in the mawqif, the stopping, the rest and the necessary tasks of that dailyness that immanence roots itself again. There are four lines from an early Irby work — The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream, which was the first book of his I picked up — four lines that have stayed with me and that come back to mind or to hand very often:

The light lasts on out of history or memory

in the face and turn of head toward the sink

that endlessness of every day

that is precisely eternity.


Beyond this there is one counter linked to Europe I want to briefly explore here, namely the way music, often in the shape of the classical European tradition, enters. If Olson in a memorable line condemns the piped-in version of that as mu-sick, mu-sick, he does however not seem to have much truck with music — I remember one reference to a contemporary composer, Pierre Boulez, but that was to Boulez’s ideas, not his compositions. Even the presence of John Cage at BM doesn’t seem to have jolted Olson towards music much. Irby, on the other hand, though agreeing with Olson about mu-sick — take for example the opening line of the poem “Delius,” speaking of the “Crapmusic on the radio” — has a profound and ongoing relation to both classical European music as well as to the American tradition of jazz. A reading of the poem “Delius” shows the ways its materials and its thinking move between the continents, linking the English composer to Florida, thus setting that dynamo/turbine into motion again. Even as in the poem “there would be a Delius of this / Northern Pacific redwood coast,” proposing further marvelous geographical musical chairs, the poem enacts this multiple connectedness throughout. Take for example the following stanza:

Walt Whitman along the Loing

             into blackberry thickets along the Reyes coast

 organizing before 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass

             along the North Atlantic shore

                                                     turning in the conversation

 in the living room at Grez

             to the high hills, wordless


The Loing is a river in France, having its source in the Burgundy region and flowing into the Seine not too far from Paris. You may know it from a painting by the English painter Alfred Sisley who lived in the village of Moret-sur-Loing for many years. But of course Walt Whitman never walked along that river, or only in the imaginary sense in which Olson met Irby at the Fort Scott drugstore in ’53. Now, the French name of the river “Loing” — the final “g” is silent — is homophonic with the French word “loin,” meaning “far, far away.” A meaning I hear sounding the line as that far-away distance that plays itself out throughout this section of the poem, and that joins — shoving together, you could nearly say — different continental coasts (West Coast/East Coast) and actual continents (North America/Europe). Simultaneously — and on the opposite scale size-wise — the work of the poem breaks up a single location into two spaces by decomposing its complex hyphenated name. The “living-room at Grez” refers to the small village of Grez-sur-Loing where Delius stayed, a name here exploded into its two referents, river/village, while continental drift moves easily from the French river to the Pacific Reyes coast blackberry thickets only to reemerge two lines later on the North Atlantic coast. Given that this is Whitman, the East Coast reemergence may be located close to his birthplace, Long Island, the “Long” part of which needs only an “I” to become a “Loing” — an “I” the ego-strong Walt was surely not averse of inserting into any place or situation. And if the I of Island migrates to the Long, we are left with a “sland” or a slant land that will give us a slope or swerve, or as I prefer to call it, a clinamen, that will churn the North Atlantic turbine all the way to the French river.

The next stanza begins with a quote: “our job is to find ourselves / at all costs” (I nearly typed “coasts”) — and even in this poem, so focused from the title on a man, the musician Frederick Delius, in order to locate him or us (and could we locate the one without the other?) what has to be followed, to be trodden or thought through, are the “secret trails” of the journeying, as the poem makes clear a few pages later:

 this explains the secret trails

 from Fort Scott into the South

 the secret ways Vanamee followed

 into Mexico with the sheep

 the Great Circle back to California

 the Florida fixed between Jacksonville and St. Augustine

 by Delius and Conan Doyle, the deep trails

 Buchaning over Norway, foot tracks poaching

 Jefferies down nets and fosse

 coverts crossing and recrossing

 the natural mystery


And below and between the numerous namings, the many places, the dance of vowels and consonants, that other musical ghosting always there in the work — so that now you hear the ghost of Delius, now the ghost of Ellington, Europe and America coming together, or at least living side by side and fertilizing their respective imaginations, as somewhere else a favorite pop ditty seems to sound out of three or four innocent-enough looking words strung together. Such investigations of how European composers, among others, create networks at different levels — geographical but more complexly, psychotopological — throughout the oeuvre could be multiplied. Let me close with another extract from the same poem, where an already mentioned American composer is insistently foregrounded through the triple repetition of his name, the citation of the title of his autobiography and finally a combination of mainly European geoethnic terms that bring it all back home, to America, that is to say: 

Ellington, Ellington, Ellington

             on the windup phonograph?


 Reminiscing in Tempo the year after he died

             as if a memorial to that

 Floridian magic fountain music, Griegish

             Germanic Yorkshirian Gallicized slavery chants, as melted

 pot as America ever said it wanted.





1. Robert Duncan, letter to Ken Irby, Nomadics (blog).

2. Eric Mottram, “‘Restlessness and Patience’: The Poetry of Ken Irby,” Credences 7 (February 1971): 128–41.

3. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On, Collected Poems 1962–2006 (North Atlantic Books, 2009).

4. Edward Dorn, The North Atlantic Turbine (Fulcrum, 1967).

5. Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

6. Vort 3, David Bromige/Ken Irby issue, ed. Barry Alpert (Summer 1973).

The walk to the Paradise Garden

Kenneth Irby, January 1985 (photo by David Levi Strauss).

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.[1] 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,[2] 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

to know

and then build up again

to give,


to live

in (63–64)[3]

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

seized (635)


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).[4]

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.[5] In certain poems (as in the following, from Studies [2001]), 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 [275]). 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 [1974]), 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.[6]

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.



1. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 13.

2. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009),162.

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.

4. Consider, for example, the following passage from Merleau-Ponty, in which the opening exchange of Irby’s poem is posited as the root possibility of all acts of seeing:

[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)

And further:

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).

5. See Irby, The Intent On, 626–28.

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.

For Kenneth Irby / THE INTENT ON (January–May 2012)

Kenneth Irby and Robert Grenier, Berkeley, 1986.

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 ThatGive 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, defiesDescription’ …

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 ‘saythese/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 wasadvanced’ !  (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 andOperating’, 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 onlyfrom-there’ — he wasn’t really-from-there — he was from ‘Kansas’ … ! !
“Kansas, Kansas, no peace I find … I got Kansas, Kansason 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, YESI 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 … ! !
.          .          .
Re Orexis:
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) fathomedif 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 AreThey’  ? ?
.          .          .
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


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.”

Kenneth Irby visits Carl O. Sauer and James C. Malin

Kenneth Irby (left) on the road.

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]

"yet another order / of the closeness we had found"

Kenneth Irby, January 1985 (photo by David Levi Strauss).

lobe of opalescent glass (417)

may be

a rapid shadow from a slope of grass[1]

- for

<<Absents within the Line Conspire, and Sense
                                       Things Distant doth unite>>

- not least of all in title, The Intent On.[2]

     It’s 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),[3]

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
                inside myself.>>

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

you’ll fly

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),[4] 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.[5] Counterpose more broadly the idiocy of […] composure (38) to the unintended, primordial, ever-recurring presence of Disturbance (295):[6] 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;[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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

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

                                                                                              a new  

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

and survive

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[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]


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,[13] energies conspicuous, often, in an activity or preponderance of prepositions.[14] 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”[15]). 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”[16] (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):

                                            what space

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.[17] We argued place as:

(1) (fore)taste or remembrance of some sicker communion.[18]

(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.[19]

Impatience, anger - at mendacity, cheats, or just karmic - may upset the work;[20]  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

- 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,[21] to the tangent spaces,[22] 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) [23]

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)[24]

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 - [25]

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)


July 2012
Lawrence, Kansas



1. (frontispiece. The line is from Percy Shelley, “The Witch of Atlas”.)

2. (Book him. For conspiracy…)

3. Recalling plains / that are at sunset / all they are (85)

4. As has been said:

the Nation can only come into being

but the City we may


Between us

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.

it was
a gleam deep in his eyes

telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town

get the Secret History
of yourself

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…

6. Again from The Easter Dream: …the intelligent others who return to disturb, dwellers of the dream or those who alter everyone’s dreams a continent away by simply stepping onto the shore. (306)

7. With this last phrase, I am thinking in particular of the closing sections of To Max Douglas (211-219), & of John Brown (329).

8. A switching at its limit instantaneous, all edge, as in the majestically weird

Who gazes at the bottled horsehair in the sun
to be eel

9. Holes:

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

then Rimbaud’s

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.)

12. e.g., with terrain ever the dimension of mirage, mimic air, the margin of the sky (240), the at-history haze of winter light along the horizon (631) …

13. i.e., meaning, in the work, if spelled out (at all), is consistently given as available, not single; and the is-ness of a thing tends strongly to outpace all it might stand for.

14. Examples:

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.

16. The translation to composition by field is proverbial (and, broadly, literal) -

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

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.

18. Place portends some other order […] of closeness, el(e)usive - and, as such, is meta-place, allusive:

all references to this place
are to all places

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”.

20. What I mean by “inner traffic” (the volume lirate, awash, with these echoing channels, alternate tracks, rills, secret gardens, gro(o)ves of affinity or association):

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)

22. Cf. again the intent on, tangent to an inward (in word) pause (the I grown dark (427)).

23. intent / upon a current in the world (238)

24. Here / is the world / of all things. (16)

25. So, naturally, it is in the later work I most approach Ken’s frame of mind:

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

               true seal

 But this is land, and music’s land played out, and land intrinsicate, into what certain

               share (546)


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.