Gerrit Lansing: Under the gazebo / evening
I. Under the gazebo
We gathered at the white gazebo at the center of an ocean-side park. The turf was near-bare, blown by wind currents; it rolled south to the water and a baseball field. Midsummer sun, strong into the evening, reflected from the ocean, sparkling. Children were playing around the cement drums, where barbeque coals are dumped. And off to the southeast, out of the wind-blasted earth, a cliff of granite stood, the height accessible by narrow wooded paths. As if painted by Theresa Bernstein, it was a scene of New England enjoyed openly and demotically; nearby, the metal ring securing a flag clanked against its flagpole.
To triangulate our whereabouts for a literary readership, the cabin where Charles Olson had spent his childhood summers stood on land directly to our northwest; the Eliot family cottage, lodged in young Thomas’s imagination, was perched southeast across the harbor; and the home of Romantic poet Hiram Rich, once diagonal to a ropewalk, sat squat on Stacy Boulevard, across the Blynman Bridge. These are largely unknown coordinates, however. Fishermen’s Field, with its one arm, a grassed-over fort where cannons rust, thrust into the harbor, and its belly, Cressys Beach, fronting the ocean, was, that evening, pleasurable surroundings. Cool air ripe with salt broke the heat.
It was James, coeditor of the magazine with Zach, who emceed, talking with his back to the water. Lisa and I, leaning against the white-painted metal rail on the opposite side of the gazebo, near the entry steps, faced the sun-dappled but quiet ocean. Kenneth Irby, Joseph Torra, Donald Wellman, and Jim Dunn were there, and others, sitting on the gazebo’s concrete floor, leaning on the rail, or resting in foldout camping chairs. I was reminded of a folk festival I had been to in Lowell: sport sandals, shorts, t-shirts, restless children, snacks in zippered cooler bags.
Gerrit Lansing sat in the folding chair designated for readers. Light of sunset fell on his clean-cut face, and he wore red wraparound sunglasses. In round elocutionary tones he recited from Diane Di Prima’s Seminary Poems. There is a patient, guiding Will in Lansing’s voice when he performs; a Will that draws strength from deeper harmony, rather than discordant show or mastery: the Will to be in tune, rather than the orator’s Will to turn a crowd. His song is chant, or, to be more accurate, incantation.
The flag-ring continued to clank out of beat against its metal pole. Lansing then read, with hunted clarity, his poem “Till Dawn’s Early Light”:
dancing in the dark
united states american
old song crack’d and dissolute reverberating far
hound sound melancholy hound sound melancholy hound sound
melancholy your sweet bitch
This song rings true because it is hard-earned, and long-forged; it takes a poet who in his youth had embraced American Exceptionalism, Olsonian or Lawrencian, as had Lansing, to put words to soured American hopes, and dashed American enthusiasms. He had written, in his literary magazine SET, that “American life” had “swarming possibilities,” that the way “Americans, now, receive time differentiates us from others,” and that “energy,” freed from dead “kulchur,” was, at last, liberated “to recognize itself.” Lansing had been, in this way, a New American. Europe, suicided by two world wars, was rebuilding in shock. New Americans, like Charles Olson, were keen to cast off inherited forms, literary, philosophical, and religious; postwar American “possibilities” would receive a “poetic exploration.” Lansing, having outlived many contemporaries, measures the American Century: chances lost, dreams foiled, ground given up, the “old song crack’d and dissolute.”
The prim, municipal gazebo, where I remember my brother lining up for prom photos in a gray tuxedo and sky blue bow tie, swiftly absorbed Lansing’s plumbed words; like a cloud burst onto a dry, puckered land, his lines were soaked up by concrete, tangled in metal rail. But as his voice rose and fell, neglected geometries were brought to light, without the aid of document. Fishermen’s Field was again a parade ground. Tricentennial crowds thronged the granite cliff where, cast in bronze, anchors heralded an historic plaque. 1923 was now, and reenactors, dressed as seventeenth-century Puritans, were beset by children and gawkers. Brass bands were stalled on the uphill approach to the gazebo, and by camera-eye I saw consecrated the future site of Craske’s anonymous, heroic statue.
dancing in the dark
united states american
Lisa and I published a poem by Gerrit Lansing last year, in our now-concluded literary journal Process. “Strolling Pebble Beach in February,” it is called; it fronted an issue that included Robert Kelly and Clayton Eshleman. The poem is a sensuous nature-encounter, luminous with sky, rock, vine. Refined and controlled, it seems, to my limited knowledge of the subject, to be Crowlean: vectors of concentration brought to a single locus-point at a key, physically-charged moment.
To reproduce the poem’s second half:
This is looking at a lot of paintings in the sky
but seeing one master scrawl.
Underlies, it does, spread of choices
Wamba’s fan-shaped destiny,
to find, to find,
I tread on the side of caution, with Lansing’s references. Wamba, I looked up, was the last strong Visigothic king of Spain. Legends say, in several variants, that Wamba, a king’s son living as a cowherd, far from court, was recalled by chieftains eager for the heir to rule; in refutation of their appeal, he thrust his walking stick into the ground and was surprised to see, sprouting supernaturally from the stick-head, a lush fan of green leaves signifying, the story seemed to say, God’s Will that he take the throne.
How the fable of Wamba, or whatever historical record survives of Wamba’s rule, might enrich the poem, and whether, if indeed, the Wamba of Lansing’s reference is identical to the Wamba of my little research, is beyond me to answer. My sense is that Lansing’s poems are music-note clusters, taken from longer chants composed privately; what we, as readers, access on his page is the “master scrawl,” selected out. Hunting old books for Wamba, like an academic bred on minutiae, is to stray from the mark.
The music matters to get the ritual right, to hymn with accuracy. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but here and there I hear, faintly, under the songs of Lansing, a Stefan George time signature: like George, Lansing will mate like-sounding sounds, not fearing rhyme; ballad and harvest song are his to use. Lansing erects the Georgian exclamation point where others would place a chaste period. I do not mean to overstate the matter, since Lansing has drawn lines, already, to Rilke, Nerval, and Mallarmé, but somehow George is there too, as my ear receives it, in what Kenneth Irby called Lansing’s “work song over the compost heap,” his “chant of genital intensity.” Spring, fragrant, verdant, and fierce; a single, lingering hour with the nameless companion; intimations of sorcery. Wenn sich der gott in dir regt / Wenn dein geliebter dir raunt …
Sex on earth is rhymed angelic motion.
“Stanzas of Hyparxis”
When all the malls go up in flame,
and jails the mighty built,
then we the newly free proclaim
the Law: Do What Thou Wilt!
“Quatrain for Contemporary
‘Amazing Grace’ Stanza Collection”
Now I approach matter that is foreign to me. There is, from my outsider-vantage, not having been and not desiring to be initiated, a vital constellation in Lansing’s poems, of figure- or god-scheme. There is tantrism, or an Americanized version of tantra. Yoga too, also Americanized, though not commercialized. I should say, before going further, that I see Lansing’s writing, in part, as a bridge between Between-the-Wars occultism, in particular Aleister Crowley, and, on the other side of the span, the “New Age” “counterculture” of the mid- and latter twentieth century.
Nineteenth-century Romance splintered English Protestantism: allure of symbol, ritual, mystery, and human agency drew some to Catholicism, others to the occult. Those drawn to the occult chose Will over Charity, Destiny over Judgment. The Trinitarian Ages of Joachim Fiore, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were reimagined as Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Isis for matriarchy and mother-goddesses; Osiris for patriarchy and father-gods; Horus, presumably our Age, of “self-realization,” and the Child.
“Self-realization,” the Child-Will, “Do What Thou Wilt.” Repressed Protestants seeking sex-magick. Not my nature is it, to share this philosophy. Neither do I find it intriguing or titillating. But this: a historically-conditioned social release of the upper-middle class. For a time, Society-fashionable. Clearly of artistic benefit to those few, with canny habit of self-control, who used it without being used up. Lansing’s song is radiant: here supple like summer leaf, there mineral rock-hard; from auld material Lansing, like Yeats before him, has made magic from “Magick.” Others, of the “New Age,” did not fare so well.
Lansing’s poems breathe out-of-doors, far from the séance parlor, far from the dropout commune-house: his words fill with Spring mist. His Eros dispenses with Theosophic costume. Back down the path are those timid, antiquated souls needing “Egyptian ritual” or “Eleusinian Mystery” to be confident in sex. Lost are the overdosers, the addicts. Melancholy, in retrospect: many were left behind, but are mourned for. But there is fraternal love. Not the gnostic’s contempt only. A generous strain: from where?
Walt Whitman, I wager. Unashamed, amative, world-walking and world-embracing Whitman. He is surely a presence in Lansing’s writing. The comradeship of men, without spell or astral-projection: in construction boots, like Lansing in winter, dungarees and a plaid coat. Lansing has brought open-faced, demotic Whitman and esoteric, mesmerizing Crowley together, but not hierarchically. In no wise are they ranked: not Whitman for the demos, Crowley for the initiates; but by some alchemy they unite, by some alchemy beyond my ken. They are, however, there.
Dark has fallen, but the heat hasn’t lifted. The air carries salt. I turn the ignition and pull away from the grass shoulder, below Gerrit’s hedgerow. Nearby is the castle, and the crypt, of Jack Hammond. Gray-granite Medieval, unlike his parents’ Tudor mansion. Mining-money, and technological marvels. The casino-royale of Magnolia razed, the Oceanside: the millionaire, the royal, the pretender gone to other pleasure-domes. Wonders of the age, to dirt.
At Gerrit’s, the party lingers, and his hospitality nourishes. From open windows warm light. Conversation pours forth sparkling, like light on the water it does. Tonight there are stars. Not every night has stars.
In Northern Earth
The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,
cats of many colors run among the sumach
that roots in human stomachs long gone back
to long enduring earth, and what is length
of days or seasons in astronomy of death?
Endurance is calamity if earth speaks true
and the measurement of time is not posterity.
How the line must lengthen if the sun endures
and the poem report advanced celebrity!
Dissolve, coagulate, the chemists say:
but the first darkness blinds the human eyes
that climb the ladder of the visionary spinal chord to issue in the thousand-petalled sun.