Reviews

'Between appearance and character'

On Vallejo's 'Selected Writings'

Photo of César Vallejo (right) by Juan Domingo Córdoba, 1929.

Selected Writings

Selected Writings

César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan

Wesleyan University Press 2015, 679 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0819574848

Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) has long been recognized as a defining early twentieth-century experimentalist, but the full expanse of his writing — which extends well beyond poetry alone — has never been fully revealed to Anglophone readers until now. The diverse range of material in Selected Writings will surprise any reader familiar with Vallejo only in English translation. Editor Joseph Mulligan presents hearty selections from each of Vallejo’s collections of poetry along with excerpts from Vallejo’s fiction, plays, critical essays, and journalism. This is all in addition to an excerpt from Vallejo’s published undergraduate thesis Romanticism in Castilian Poetry (1915), as well as selections from his correspondence and private notebooks, all presented in chronological order.     

It is readily apparent that Mulligan’s contention is accurate: “Few times in the history of Western Literature has the representation of such a multifaceted figure been so one-dimensional.”[1] Clayton Eshleman’s near lifelong commitment to translating Vallejo’s poetry resulted in The Complete Poetry, and it was Eshleman who suggested the Selected Writings project to Mulligan (xv). Yet poetry was clearly only one of many avenues through which Vallejo’s critically engaged thinking successfully took shape. Mulligan’s selections are drawn primarily from the dozen-volume Obras Completas published by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Putting aside the dearth of his non-poetry-related work’s availability to an Anglophone audience, the sheer mass of Vallejo’s output is rather astounding; it is simply an amazing amount of writing, considering Vallejo passed away at forty-six.

Vallejo’s lifelong political and social commitment to the poor and working class is ever apparent: “Everything comes down to this: what’s the biggest and most acute problem of our time? Indisputably, it’s the social problem, the worker. Why don’t intellectuals resolve it?” (477). Yet he refuses the suggestion that his creative work might be complicit with any expressed doctrine: “As a human being, I can sympathize and work for the revolution, but as an artist it’s not in my hands or anyone else’s to control the political outcomes that may be implicit in my poems” (181–82).

The relationship between Marxist thought and Vallejo’s creative and critical work is ever-evolving. At times his stated positions even appear contradictory. He does not hold back scorn for poets whose work he judges overtly on the side of political appearance rather than grounded in artistic merit: “Mayakovsky was a mere intellectual, a simple wordsmith, a hollow rhetorician” (209). And although, as noted above, he argues “political outcomes” should in no way be imposed upon creative work, he has no patience for those who ignore the matter of the worker’s struggle: “He who today walks by the tragedy of the worker unaffected is not a poet. Paul Valéry, Maeterlinck, they are not” (474). As Vallejo evolves as both artist and thinker, the dilemma of the artist’s position in relation to that of the worker repeatedly manifests as a central concern.

Vallejo’s interior struggle to balance the competing and antithetical impulses he feels towards art and revolution lead him closer to merging them together. He argues a revolutionary writer’s work is meant to “shatter the secular barrier between intelligence and the people, between spirit and matter.” (497) But to do so in such a manner clearly understanding that it is “not for the spirit to go to matter, as any writer of the ruling class would say, but for matter to draw near the spirit of intelligence, horizontally not vertically, man to man.” (497) Vallejo is adamant that true revolutionary writing must witness the arbitrariness of any strict divisions between class and social structures.

The revolutionary writer erroneously thinks that there’s a need for proletarian art, considering that the worker is a pure worker, which is untrue, because the worker also has something of a bourgeois in him. The worker breathes bourgeois air and is more imbued with bourgeois spirit than we would suspect. This is very important in order to conceive of proletarian art or art of the masses. (481)

As an artist Vallejo is wary of overly compulsive impulses within Marxist thought which tend toward uncritical acceptance among leaders and followers alike. He describes how for “hardline Marxists, fanatical Marxists, grammatical artists, who pursue the realization of Marxism to the letter” the result is that “life ends up being at the service of doctrine, instead of the latter at the service of the former” (367). Vallejo draws historical parallels, pointing out that the problems inherent in Marxist ideology are nothing new: “These are the doctors of the school, the scribes of Marxism, the ones who oversee and, with the jealousy of amanuenses, guard the form and letter of the new spirit, just like all the scribes of all the gospels throughout the course of history” (367).

Vallejo’s assessments are complex. His engagement comes as both a critical and creative thinker. The limits of perceiving “that Marx is the only philosopher of the past, present, and future” are immediately transparent to him since “according to these fanatics, Marx will be the last revolutionary of all time, and after him no man in the future will be able to create anything ever again. The revolutionary spirit ends with him” (367). This line of thought allows too little space for the unique merging that is the creative and revolutionary drive behind all Vallejo’s writings.

Vallejo’s artistic beliefs often arrive summed up with simple integrity, as in his declaration that true creators are characterized “by devoting themselves without anointing themselves and without besmirching anyone else” (166). Or this, on what it means to stay true to indigenous roots: “Autochthony does not consist in saying that one is autochthonous but precisely in being so, even when not saying so” (166). Vallejo’s frustration over the inability of European readers to grasp his strong native ties boils over at times: “Lorca is Andalusian. Why don’t I have the right to be Peruvian? Why are they going to tell me that they don’t understand me in Spain?” (480). Resisting the compulsion to adopt a more continental outlook, he is ever defending the vitality and richness of experience granted him by his American nativist perspective.

Vallejo’s radicalism is born of his belief in a “human and universal aesthetic” which, as he describes it, deliberately mixes the modernist mindset with the collective roots from which one identifies a homeland. This aesthetic insists upon “straying from the path and obtaining that higher air of the very spiritual disciplines of the race and tradition. This is what Stravinsky has done, based on the Russian steppe, and the Frenchman, Erik Satie, based on the Druid stones” (144). Vallejo is grounded by his hold upon the roots of nativist expression, bringing traditional features to bear upon his distinctly Modernist experiment. His intention to mix tradition with experimentation is reflected in Mulligan’s relating the backstory of how “The book was titled Bronze Skulls and, at the last minute, Vallejo slipped a correction sheet into the galley to change the title to Trilce, a word that he'd invented” (xxiv). The poems represent the beginning of Vallejo’s implementation of the often strange and unusual vocabulary found throughout his work.

Mulligan describes how the radical experimentation found in Vallejo’s second book of poems, Trilce, holds a uniquely central place within the Latin American experimental tradition, remarking that indeed “So great has this book’s impact been on twentieth-century Hispanic poetry that when we consider any other modern literary work of radical innovation, we’re forced to ask if it came before or after Vallejo’s great poetic adventure.” Ranking it “the indisputable catalyst of the Latin American experimental tradition” in spite of the fact that “Vicente Huidobro had already published El espejo de agua as early as 1916,” Mulligan bolsters his argument by citing Julio Ortega’s assertion, made in the introduction to a more recent edition of Trilce (Cátedra, 1991), that it is “the most radical book in the Castilian language.”

Although he relies heavily upon Eshleman’s extensive translation work for most of the poetry in this collection, Mulligan also presents his own rare translations into English in the selections from Trilce. He gives some reasoning for doing so in a footnote to the final stanza of section XVIII, particularly its last line. That stanza reads:

And only will I keep my hold,
with my right hand, that makes do for both,
upraised, in search of a tertiary arm
that must pupilate, between my where and when,
this stunted adulthood of man. (52)

Mulligan explains that “The line mayoria inválida de hombre encapsulates a major idea to which Vallejo returns time and again through Trilce and other works as well: the idea of reaching one's potential” (574). He notes that “Most English translations render this line as “invalid majority of man”; however, mayoriá is not only “majority” but the state of being a mayor (adult), that is, adulthood” (574–75). Eshleman’s translation of the same stanza does not offer the assertive immediacy which Mulligan seeks in his own: “And only I hang on, / with my right, serving for both hands, / raised, in search of a tertiary arm / to pupilize, between my where and my wen, / this invalid coming of age.”[2] Such cases as this wholeheartedly prove the quality and astuteness of Mulligan’s editorial acumen with this project, attesting to its assured long-lasting value.    

Given the generally hectic nature of Vallejo’s travels, two things missing from this otherwise stellar volume are a general chronology and a biographical index of key characters with whom Vallejo either corresponds directly or mentions in his writing. The volume is ordered in such chronological fashion that it invites the urge to follow along simultaneous biographical and historical threads, which at times proves a bit tricky. Supplementary materials would improve reader access to relevant factual data concerning what’s occurring at any given point both for Vallejo personally and within a larger context. These are, however, somewhat minor enhancements and certainly not relevant to every reader’s experience.

Vallejo’s writing, in the end, simply mesmerizes. He writes from a state of constant self-recognition and revelation: “When I read, it seems like I see myself in a mirror” (477). Propelling his work forward, exploring ramifications by sense as much as argument: “Upon a certain mysterious balance between what is visible and invisible in a portrait, between circumstance and permanence, or, what amounts to the same thing, between appearance and character is what the greatness of a creation depends” (212). Again and again, Vallejo’s focus hovers over his awareness within the immediate activity of writing, drawing attention to the vital importance of the ongoing present, as he puts it in one of the short, assertive near-manifesto declarative prose pieces found in “Against Professional Secrets”: “At the moment a tennis player masterfully tosses the ball, he’s possessed by animal innocence” (213). With Selected Writings Vallejo’s diverse, variable work is at long last given adequate representation in the Anglosphere, providing access to an abundant number of fresh insights into the scope of his oeuvre.


1. César Vallejo, Selected Writings, ed. Joseph Mulligan (Wesleyan, 2015), xvii.

2. César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. Clayton Eshleman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 201.

Defiant lightness

A review of Miles Champion's 'How to Laugh'

Photo of Miles Champion (left) courtesy of The Poetry Project, copyright Star Black.

How to Laugh

How to Laugh

Miles Champion

Adventures in Poetry 2014, 72 pages, $14.00, ISBN 978-0976161271

A wonderful moment occurs toward the close of How I Became a Painter, Miles Champion’s recently published book of conversations with the painter Trevor Winkfield, in which Winkfield switches roles on his erstwhile interviewer to ask candidly, “Why do you like my paintings?” For anyone reviewing Champion’s third poetry collection, How to Laugh, this excerpt from his response is hard to resist implementing as preface:

When I visited your studio I realized that we both work in similar ways: starting with one element and then casting around for another that might be interestingly added to it, not really knowing where things are going but trusting in — and enjoying — the process. And then, of course, once the painting is done, you have the sense to simply leave it midway between yourself and the viewer; there’s no conceptual armature or peripheral baggage to get in the way of or limit my enjoyment of it.[1]

What’s especially resonant in this lucid reply is Champion’s concern to “leave” the work “midway between yourself and the viewer.” The work — this decidedly classical ideal insists — is always facing the viewer, always accompanies the reader, just as Adrian Stokes envisioned ballet as a “turning out”: “Nothing is withdrawn, drawn inwards or hidden: everything is, artificially if you like, put outwards.”[2] The poems of How to Laugh are nothing if not “turned out”:

I walk by bouncing
up its pages
where clouds are
faint from farsight’s
tandem red brick
in spoke room
each clock face
to its interval[3]

“Turning out” demands not only that the architecture of a poem should eschew any enigmatic recesses in which feigned depth or posturing might lurk (so the theory goes), or a conceptual scaffolding that might disguise a lack of material integrity — but also, for Champion, that some convivial buoyancy should counter all that architectural weight. And so the title of this volume, with its mock pragmatism and disarming directness, comes into play: laughter as compositional tactic and stoic strategy. There are even out-loud laughs to be had:

In Sweden once this guy jiggled shrimps in yoghurt, contracted leprosy, and became a nun. His father had a silly name for welding struts to a can. (9)

he dictates correspondence in a housecoat
and special shoes with one-inch “verandas” (52)

The pact between lightness and architecture is sustained by a repertoire of keywords — “air,” “smoke,” “space,” “holes,” “fruit,” “dust” — that permeates this poetry, serving to delineate its physics and unifying How to Laugh as a collection possessed of both vitality (erotic, humorous, mobile) and a remove that’s best defined by what it shuns: the solemn, the morose, the overly cerebral, the pious, the didactic. Very occasionally, flashes of resolve emerge from this quietly defiant lightness, in lines such as “stop acting wet” (40) or “in that way a good result denies / The helping hand” (29).                    

It’s useful to pause and recall the predominant poetry culture in which some of these poems (and Champion’s two previous collections) were written — the ostensible leftfield of British poetry in the 1990s and early 2000s, where the repurposing of wounded libido as political disgust was (as it remains) a widely endorsed method for building poems. Such a mode, whereby the poem’s propulsion is essentially a given from the start — “replacing flexible attention with inflexible intention,”[4] as Aaron Shurin puts it — surely left little breathing space for a poetry envisioned, however lightheartedly, as “a profitable exercise / resting on nothing” (3); a poetry whose distinctive address is not a hectoring voice (continuous or otherwise) so much as a generalized consciousness operating in clear concert with the reader, its free-floating surfaces turned toward her or him, collaboratively and generously.

Little wonder, then, that righteous disgust might be defied in favor of a mode that insists on fun, care, and life-giving confusion. If in Champion’s “profitable exercise,” with its dandyish overtones and echo of Francis Bacon’s “optimism for nothing,” we detect the aesthete’s fantasy of play as purity, there is, nonetheless, an implicit ethos. As any reader will quickly sense, these are poems made with such close attention as to suggest the ethical dimensions of a meticulous construction, of a solicitous and vigilant “turning out.”

At times, this “turning out” can feel almost eerie in its absence of authorial or voice-propelled drive. “In the Air” is the supreme instance of this quality:

The exact species picks up background
Using the floor to step out
     a bright read surface
Numbers grip, value’s murk
a clear pencil blackens bafflement
     “bursts lead to bursts”
Preference is an asterisk
      A star dreaming of light
      and torn through touch  (13)

Words bubble up on the surface of the page as if with self-determined autonomy, uncompelled by the predictable shapes of more vocal energies. Instead, this poem possesses the impersonal, seemingly “factual” detachment of an architectural inscription (which may have much to do with its abundance of declarative sentences):

     Angular lassitude
with the “whirr” of a person
nailed to its closed tip a sentiment
     yielding states
human jets strip out of the bandshell
pink rubber dovetailed with night haze
     unbutton, press release
the ripe cycles got collected
     names in their celibacy
     questioning space (14)

“In the Air” is so superbly crafted as to raise the almost anachronistic specter of perfected form — whose concomitant risk is, not coincidentally, airlessness. If one or two of the poems in How to Laugh occasionally skirt close to compositional overdetermination (“Fruit Shadows,” “Walls”), then airlessness, cumulatively, can be compelling: it can freight lightness with relentlessness, with an alien intractability that in fact exactly leaves the work “midway between yourself and the viewer.”

One reviewer (Scott Thurston) of a previous collection (Three Bell Zero) has objected to a “unit-unit-unit” effect in Champion’s poems, a reservation that is worth addressing. Firstly, against any monotony such a characterization might imply, we should note a marvelous knack for enjambment and line breaks: see, for example, the delicious placements of the words “desk” and “plant” in these two excerpts — from “Wet Flatware”:

Eye     like a silent film cleaning
                           out the reference
desk, a focus is expecting dust (21)

And from “Colour in Huysmans”:

In method’s bed? Bilious, lurid
                                                            in the tap water
Plant. The question of a mask
                                                equally guarded (17)

Secondly, Champion’s brick-by-brick approach never makes for one kind of edifice, but instead for an approach in which every poem presents a test of a previously untried structure — from the swift gesturalism of “Curve” to the spacious yet chatty “Sweating Cubism Out,” to the steady unfolding of a poem like “Colour in Huysmans” or poems that seem almost emptied of motion, such as “Bartenders in Leaf”:

They found the summers lightly boxed
and extracted the goods

A cinnamon species in cold guard
misled by the scent

So they fix themselves a soda
order the rocks with ice

That the eyes did hook
or did the eyes tick (31)

Words — and lines — are handled as bricks or “units” here, but just as instrumental is the carefully calibrated erotic friction that binds them, with such unanswerably evident feeling as to make most poetry of the present seem effortful or formulaic by comparison. This is the generosity of How to Laugh: the poems really are for the reader, “turned out” while never vanishing into meaning or message.


1. Trevor Winkfield and Miles Champion, How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2014), 103.

2. Adrian Stokes, Tonight the Ballet (London: Faber & Faber, 1934), 23.

3. Miles Champion, How to Laugh (Saint Paul, MN: Adventures in Poetry, 2014), 39.

4. Aaron Shurin, “The People’s P***k: A Dialectical Tale,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf (California: Stanford University Press, 2006), 78.

Something like flowers

A review of Angel Dominguez's 'Black Lavender Milk'

Photo by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague.

Black Lavender Milk

Black Lavender Milk

Angel Dominguez

Timeless, Infinite Light 2015, 160 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1937421038

I am taking a flight home to Miami today. I’ve already read a PDF of Angel Dominguez’s Black Lavender Milk while at school in Philadelphia, but now I’ve got the physical thing in my hand, printed in blue letters, and I have a chance to read it the way it was written: on a plane home. I promise myself I won’t start the book until I am on the plane, but it’s hard to wait for the staff to go down the line of boarding classes (First Class, Military, Executive, Platinum, Emerald, Sapphire, Gold, Ruby, Priority, Group 1, 2, 3, and I am in 4, as usual) without doing anything but standing and waiting so I allow myself just the first section:

Do you want to remember your dreams? Pour a glass of water, at night. Drink half the glass before bed and remember to drink the other half upon waking … Go to bed before you read this book. Carry it with you and don’t read it … Meet me in the orchard or airport. [1]

I realize that if my goal is to read the book as the book instructs me to I’ve already failed. Not only have I broken my promise to myself not to start the book until I am on the plane, but I haven’t done what the first page tells me to do and treat it like a ritual object, to feel the weight of it, carry it around like a soft rock, or to treat it like a dream I am having. The book invites you to partake in its own materiality, to read it (or not) in the right places, to feel “the weight disbursed between the book and the body holding the book” (13), to perform or imagine performing the rituals inside of it, to taste “black lavender milk.” I’m tempted to dip the book in a bucket of water and see if it grows, either slowly like a plant or overnight like a Grow Monster toy.

Black Lavender Milk is, most basically, an account of a flight home, where the book is being written. Dominguez is a sensitive narrator, writing the sleep of the passengers crammed into his sides, imagining different permutations of events for the plane (“A mask descends from the airplane at the limit of blue: sky fractures into a vacuum despondence” [82] or “I step from behind my seat and reveal that there is no one here” [152]). The flight is dreamed and sleepwalked, much like the rituals of embodiment and grief that are scattered across it. The flight, illustrated by the stunning blue-filtered full-page photos of clouds that mark section divisions, never happened. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it is always happening. Every fragment of time on the flight is treated as simultaneous, layered, just as the writing process and reading experience are treated as simultaneous. As the epigraph from Clarice Lispector says, “It is happening now, it doesn’t matter when this now was or is or shall be” (5). In fifty years, if I were to pick up the book, Dominguez’s flight would only just have begun and will only just have ended.

For Dominguez, the dream of everything occurring in a mobile now comes from the dzonot (or cenote, in Spanish/English). These structures, whose name literally means hole with water or cavern with water, are interconnected portals in the limestone base of the Yucatán peninsula, leading eventually to the ocean. The dzonots are considered sacred amongst the Maya peoples as portals to Xibalba, the Yucatec Mayan underworld, and were important sources of water and sacrificial areas. Dominguez tells the story of his first encounter with a dzonot:

We saw a small hand-painted sign that read: DZONOT … We followed the sign to a clearing in the surrounding jungle. There were no bodies present. I bolted from the car, running towards what looked like a vast hole in the earth; my family yelled for me to stop what I was doing. But I was an American, hot-blooded and ignorant; I ran until I had to jump … The water was clearer than any memory could possibly reproduce. (17)

Dominguez wants that experience to be completed, to really jump into the dzonot and swim to the floor, feel his body dragged by currents to another dzonot hundreds of miles away or straight into the Gulf. But instead, he builds the dzonot inside a plane, the mouth in the earth replaced by a window. Dominguez recalls “how anyone who drinks the water of a dzonot would be bound to return to the peninsula” (18). He and I are on flights home, with his words and writing as vessels for carrying water that begs us Americans both to return somewhere. But we both lack return, or we lack where return ends and rests. His flight never happened, his memories are unclear or not fully gripped just yet, and if I am returning to anything it is to a city full of exiles, whose minds always dream of an origin country.

Dominguez asks, “What is the function of writing?” and answers “to return (home)” (153). But his gambit is that the process stops at the verb. Writing is the practice of “returning home,” not the home itself. This is, I think, what he calls sleepwalking, the projecting of the body into a family history, radically reclaiming homelands, waters, and memories by placing them inside his body. As Ronaldo Wilson writes in the book’s blurb, Dominguez achieves “self evolutions fused through carefully attuned modes of seeing, dreaming, and feeling.” The continent he is returning to is one he must “occupy … within [his] body” (115).

As I’m reading Black Lavender Milk on the flight, I think of a performance Angel Dominguez gave in Oakland at a reading I organized where he wrapped the entire audience in a single strand of either purple or red or green yarn, I can’t remember which. Everybody pinched some part of the yarn that was closest to them. He said that he wanted to build a dzonot between us all. I didn’t feel really connected to the people across the room, but I did feel something very memorable between me and two people just down the yarn’s length from me. On the left was a straight guy I was friends with and on the right a woman I didn’t know. As Dominguez read from “Vestibule A: Appendix I,” I pulled slightly on either side of the string to feel the tension coming from the other people’s pinch. There was something erotic for me in that moment or, better said, Dominguez’s makeshift dzonot eroticized the act of sharing the same space with the people around me, made me feel incorrigibly separate and connected to them. I am having the same feeling in the flight with the young guy sleeping next to me, also Latino like me and Dominguez. He’s in the window seat, so any time I try to look out to see the clouds I have this body of his in my way, drowsy and bearded. Using my armrest I occasionally feel his body graze against mine, these little shocks of privacy. I think this is what Dominguez calls an “aisle memory,” the effects of the mobile now reaching back into memory. I graze his arm, I pull the yarn, water goes from one mouth of the earth to another.

Dominguez’s body is not the only one present. There is also the work around the body of Xix, Dominguez’s grandfather. Black Lavender Milk is a burial work. It is a book that takes the home unreturned to, the history of a family, the sweet traces of a life, and buries them inside the continent within Dominguez’s body. For this, Dominguez has tools: water, rose petals, blood, salt, avocados, lemons, orange, sulphur, charcoal from burnt palm trees, cold coffee, day-old wine. It would be easy to say that this book is how Dominguez remembers his grandfather, but it is more than that, too. It’s an acknowledgement that bodies carry weight, that events persist, that memory is an active and failing exercise, and that everything is passed down and passed through. “Was (it) a flock of bodies positioned at right angles or timelines configured into a distant geometry?” (93). To lose a parent or grandparent is to lose a place to return to; I know this personally. For burial, Dominguez imagines returning (home) as interconnected as dzonot water, where memory, a body, the water, flowers floating in a bathtub, and stars seen from inside a plane all hold the same alchemy.

What I hope no reader misses is that this is a book not just about grief, memory, and home, but about Latino grief, Latino memory, and home as a child of immigrants. As Latinos, and especially as Latino Americans, our grief systems work differently, we die differently, our memories are translations, our bodies project into two or more languages. In Dominguez’s unique and gorgeously told story, I saw the traces of my own heritage and grief, even if we have nothing really in common. I imagine any Latino-American reader would feel the same way. But just as he invites you seductively and sleepily into the book’s process and materials, he invites you to take it and put it into your own body. Black Lavender Milk asks you to lie with it under your pillow, to carry it with you and not read it, to “stay as long as you’d like — keep waking up with me, practicing dreaming, somnambulist — learning how to walk again, for the first time, in a frenzy” (156). Just as I finish his book, the pilot of my flight says over the intercom: “I’m sorry for how we’ve been shaking here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find the smooth air soon.” I take one image of sky from the book and put it in front of my neighbor’s head. Behind his face of blue clouds are yellow clouds, behind two sheets of Plexiglas.


1. Angel Dominguez, Black Lavender Milk (Oakland, CA: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), 9.

In his element

A review of 'The Astonishment Tapes'

Photo of Robin Blaser (left) courtesy of the Electronic Poetry Center.

The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends

The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends

Robin Blaser, ed. Miriam Nichols

University of Alabama Press 2015, 344 pages, $49.95, ISBN 978-0817358099

Robin Blaser is in his element in these monologues in interview format — personable, pedagogic, and himself a “high-energy construct,” to not-quite-cite Charles Olson. By virtue of this book, the reader experiences Blaser as a unique force field of magnetic knowledge and charismatic charm. He is at home among the poets, themselves practitioners and friends, meeting in 1974 at someone’s house in Vancouver. The agenda is mixed: the taped sessions from which these talks are transcribed were apparently proposed by Warren Tallman to constitute or contribute to Blaser’s autobiographical memoir, and probably to dig into the complex nexus of a famous triad: Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Blaser. Their comradeship, quarrels, spites, and splits (among those involving other intimates) are one tale of the formation and impact of the “Berkeley” or “San Francisco Renaissance” in the New [North] American Poetry, a poetics and practice — with its accompanying lore — that energized these Canadian poets in distinctive ways.

As performer, talker, essayist, and poet, Blaser will not stay domesticated in literary history. The 1974 Vancouver tapes are therefore rangy, suggestive, allusive, and metamorphic. So the other part of the agenda for these meetings is both more buried and irruptive. Blaser is direct: “An autobiography is as much the intellectual loves as the personal loves.”[1] As if he were running a high-level seminar in the humanities and poesis, Blaser immerses his audience in poetics and poetry from Dante to Shelley, Mallarmé to seriality, touching on such poets as Olson, Pound, and Levertov, but also encompassing Western poetic and philosophic traditions. Blaser wants, needs, and desires to talk broadly, taking the defining interests of Duncan, Spicer, and himself as exemplary of the problematic of Western civilization after “religion” loses its binding force: what can the human be ontologically and epistemologically in the post-humanist period? And what, therefore, are the tasks of poetry? Indeed, Blaser’s Dantean framework became quite clear to me in reading this book — not sure why this book particularly, but there it is. In fact, Blaser is one of the striking users of Dante among contemporary poets, but unlike John Kinsella’s or James Merrill’s, his Dante is somehow distributed into and saturated within “Image-Nation,” the serial poem pulsing at irregular intervals through his collected poems, The Holy Forest.

At his best in these tapes, Blaser is like the angelic imp of poetry itself, offering dynamic and inspired discussions of “wild logos” (e.g., 190, 197), of poetry as “noetic” (knowledge-bearing; 81, 192), and offering intense broad-brush interventions in the history of ideas. The slight abrasion between holding Blaser strictly to the fuss and minutiae of personal autobiography (which leads to some clarification at times — the “straight story,” as Tallman says, straight-faced) and Blaser’s far grander aspirations to articulate his life as one poetic allegory of soul-making are part of the intensity and charm of this book. Blaser’s task is to embody the sense of — yes — astonishment, blessing, and ethical order without dependency on religious revelation.

The book gives a little window into the workings of a poetry group, and the findings are incomplete but recognizable. There are moments of intense seriousness and there are moments of jocular undercutting. Tallman’s antic moments sometimes grate. But withal, this is a necessary book for the poetics of interrogative openness in language. Blaser’s career and the stories generated are wonderful artifacts all their own: life on a railroad siding somewhere in Idaho, a gay boychild from a strivingly literate family on the frontier, a mixed-up mythos including Catholicism and a touch of the Book of Mormon, are just some strands braiding up a major poet of critical sensibility, urbane sophistication, and invincible intelligence. The mutual self-fashioning among Spicer and Duncan and Blaser constitutes another key story, all under the influence or thrall of Ernst Kantorowicz, a professor of medieval intellectual and political history who came from Germany to the US in the forced Jewish diaspora of the Nazi-fascist era. Striking to me is Blaser’s infinitely patient loyalty to both Duncan and Spicer: no matter what provocation, he will speak no evil of either. “Jack,” particularly, has a talismanic function for Blaser — something between a guardian saint and an exemplary warning, a bleeding statue one puts in a niche in one’s house.

Insofar as a review is a guide to reading, it’s worth noting that in these discussions, a word that takes some transposition for 2016 ears is Blaser’s use of the term “manhood” — a non-gendered synonym for the highest human sensibility (the “man” in “human” is a useful mnemonic). It is really “personhood,” never meant as a gender-exclusive term. His interlocutors are never only men from this group — women are full participants — and Blaser himself has a genderqueer soul.

Miriam Nichols’s editing of these transcribed tapes is a marvel of discretion and intelligence, informed by her important work on Blaser — her edition of The Holy Forest and of The Fire, his essays; her book Radical Affections, “On the Poetics of Outside.” (The full transcription of these tapes is held in the Contemporary Literary Collection at Simon Fraser University.) Nichols offers about as full a description and set of apparatuses as one could desire: exact bibliographic account of the materials as available (disintegrating, poor-quality audiotapes); the reasons for her specific selections from these tapes, along with a useful summary of transcript materials not included in this book; excellent thumbnail sketches of the participants and of the allusions Blaser makes to friends and thinkers, poets, political figures (e.g., who is Hugh of St. Victor? and so forth); and extremely deft annotations in her endnotes. Among the other decisions enhancing the book’s scholarly usefulness are the categories for “Blaser” in the index: poetics, poetry and philosophy, poetry and politics, poetry and religion, relations to other writers, romantic relationships, works by, and then a set of “Blaser and places,” including Berkeley, Boise, Boston right through the alphabet.

There are so few scholarly glitches that I feel churlish obeying the convention for reviewing these kinds of texts and noting the very few that I found. In the list of names there is no entry on Dante, although of course he appears repeatedly in the index; the same is true of James Joyce. It is, however, much more valuable to have annotations for now obscure friends and acquaintances once on the scene than to have sketches of these extremely well-known people — but nonetheless it seems that only a few such major figures are missing and could have been present. As for literary history, a citation by Thomas Nashe (1567–1601) is attributed to poet and novelist Mary Butts (279–80, note 3). “Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair” are lines any poet would long to have written, but they actually come from Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague.” Finally, in the very important “I, John, saw” discussion between Blaser and Duncan, the crucial, exact citation that Nichols needed here is from H.D.’s Trilogy, in “Tribute to the Angels” (first published 1945), in sections 3 and 43.[2] The line signals a crucial motif in H.D.’s critique of the closing of the book (that is, the Bible). This closure is one John declared along with his witnessing, and in her text, this line foregrounds H.D.’s resistance to John’s claim and her insistence on the sense of continuing revelation that animates her poetic work. Of course, Duncan knew well this specific work of H.D., and both he and Blaser held to the sense of continuing revelation.

Part of Blaser’s charisma is his joy: a sense of having been endowed with “absolute blessing” (203) and of offering back “love” (218). Another endowment is his wicked and frank wit. We are lucky to have the traces of Blaser’s astonishment and poetic intelligence preserved in this text, with thanks to the patient editing and scholarly understanding of Miriam Nichols.


1. Robin Blaser, The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends, ed. Miriam Nichols (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 130.

2. See Nichols’s surmises and discussion on 190 and 287, note 24.

Necessary companionship

A review of Laynie Browne's 'Scorpyn Odes'

Scorpyn Odes

Scorpyn Odes

Laynie Browne

Kore Press 2015, 56 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1888553703

A sense of community is everywhere apparent in the poetry world — the desire to share and promote what is offered widely, and to make of poetry a means to transform minds, hearts, and social practice. Fortunately or unfortunately, it can be difficult in all this to find a space quiet enough for a contemplative spirit, an exploratory sense, in the poem, of working through what’s real in how to respond to a world in and through language. For me the value of this is much more than personal, more than the pleasure it affords. I find in it the basis of thought and action, their solid foundation and ultimate sustainability. So while I try to read as variously as possible, it’s always this contemplative work that makes me feel most alive, most at home, and most as if I am getting what’s needed.

This brings me to the work of Laynie Browne, one of our finest poets working in the mode I am calling contemplative poetry (contemplation: “to mark out a space for observation”). By which I mean not necessarily a poetry that is contemplative in the religious sense (though yes, inescapably there is also that in Laynie’s work) but rather in the compositional sense, that is, writing itself, language itself, composition itself, as a form of contemplation, marking a place for observation. Of her own work Laynie has written, “Silence and the invisible are often my imperatives. I aspire to transcribe the illegible, and to hear all that may be compressed within silence or utterance. Which silences, deliberately placed, make a text more audible?”[1]

Scorpyn Odes is a roughly forty-page text which consists of two series in alternation. One, titled “Scorpyn Odes,” is comprised of short poems, all of which are about scorpions from every possible angle. Their history and natural history. Remedies in case of stings, possible medicinal uses of the venom, mythological and astrological reference, etc. A former resident (but not a native) of Tuscon, Arizona, a place in which one’s home is not infrequently habitat for actual scorpions, Laynie (who during the time she lived there had young children) had ample occasion to encounter with some trepidation these strange and storied creatures. Naturally she decided to get to know them not only in the flesh, so to speak, but also by tracing their existence in language, that is to say in the human mind, in books, myths, references of all kinds. A process of working out a relationship, of creating some familiarity, no doubt, against fear, with these rather creepy and intimidating animals, which, we learn, are more than 400 million years old, and therefore carry an enviable genetic pedigree: they’ve been around a lot longer, and possibly more peacefully and successfully, than we have, in their intense silences, lurking secrecy, and straight-ahead sincerity. The opening poem of the book is a quiet lovely ode I’ll quote in full, because it serves as a kind of entry point to all that follows.

I prayed the dictionary
I asked pardon of dream
I feared scorpions in their silence
And walked each morning
into the rising mountain

I vowed not to become
the nullifying silence
But to nullify the other
paralysis being born

To speak with the elevated
precision of silence

From the marrow of consciousness
The living aspect of which appears solid
but isn’t complete
until we have left
the word, the mountain
and the scorpionic premises[2]

This lovely statement, if it is a statement, could be about everything we fear, including death and chaos. To face it, confront it, in prayer (which requires language, the dictionary) and pardon, opening up to the dream (not denying the dream with rationality and technology) and naming the fear, then walking toward it, vowing to speak, but speak in a way that includes silence, the beyond-language, to overcome the paralysis of fear that leaves us frozen. Good advice for these terror-filled times!

Fear paralyzes and creates a silence, a block, unlike the silence, beyond the word, which is creative and precise, contemplative, vibrating in the very marrow of consciousness, which can’t happen until there’s a willingness to leave everything behind, having overcome the fear of departure (see below) and nullification. Which ends up being what this book is about.

The remainder of the book builds on this initial resolve to plunge in, rather than retreat from, the weird and the fearful, to explore — through the soothing and deep encounter with language itself (and the self, construed necessarily through language, if you go deep enough into it to notice) — what it is we are walking toward as the “squares upon calendars / looked back at me” (9).

The second series is titled “Departure.” It consists of prose poems, generally a half page or so in length, on the titled theme. Departure, as word, as concept, as feeling, as thought, as intimate experience, is also a wider and deeper question. What is departure? From what to what do we transfer? And isn’t any departure a death, and does departure ever cease, aren’t we forever departing each moment, off balance continually in the process? All this is suggested and drawn forth in these wonderful prose poems, that include, intermittently, the disaster of contemporary life, in all its exhausting detail — from which we would most passionately wish to depart, if we could.

Possibly no school shootings, possibly funding for National Science Foundation funneled from the war is over. Possibly sleep and not underwritten. More flow into you and less treacherous waters becoming migrant — not at all workers — but the word client was changed to person. The word weapon was changed to mediation. You’d say meadow was a stretch. Go ahead say meadow. Say minimum wage. Say possibly nothing is forgotten. The street across the street and the globe across from that with dental care, insurance. Go ahead, say you'll wait in the meadow for all of that, streaming … (10)

The form of the writing in both series is improvisational, exploratory, paratactic, rich in information and detail, juxtaposed with inner reflection, a groping toward a kind of redemption through engagement with the intense experience of writing itself, which the reader feels, as if composing the poem herself, in the reading of it, following it along, as lights within consciousness go off and on (lights, not necessarily useful ideas of or thoughts about the world, just lights). So that the reading itself is, as least for a reader like me, an exercise in opening to a cheerful possibility in living, as if accompanied by a contemplative voice that’s both inside and outside one’s own head.

I mentioned above that Laynie is an engaged spiritual practitioner — in her case mainly of Jewish meditation. That is, silence is for her more than a concept of language-limit; rather, it is an experience, a lived exploration. She writes,

Elemental to my work is this attempt at intimacy requiring corporeal wrestling as well as ethereal and intellectual engagements. The intimate does not necessarily imply the personal, but it does imply attempts at a collective sense of personhood. I aspire to exit the confines of single voice, single perspective, and single consciousness, breaking with the illusory notion of the individual, and fixed concepts of perception.[3]

The themes mentioned here are all in evidence in Scorpyn Odes: intertextuality, the sense of address, confrontation with the unknown, and moving beyond a single voice or perspective into a collective sense of voice. For me all this adds up to an open poetry which neither pressures nor informs me in any particular direction. Rather it gives me the sort of profound companionship I need to keep me going in an impossible world. This is what contemplative poetry is supposed to do, and why it is so important.


1. Laynie Browne, in The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and The Avant-Garde, ed. Lily Hoang and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (New York: Nightboat Boats, 2015).

2. Laynie Browne, Scorpyn Odes (Kore Press: Tucson, 2015), 7.

3. Laynie Browne, Imagining The Jewish God, ed. Leonard V. Kaplan (Maryland: Lexington Books, Graven Images Series; forthcoming).