Irby's very own North Atlantic turbine
It would seem that Kenneth Irby and his work have forever been firmly located — not to say nailed down — in what Robert Duncan called “Irbyland,” i.e. the great American plains or grasslands with Fort Scott and/or Lawrence, Kansas, as bio-hub. Thus, in his first letter to Irby, Robert Duncan sorts out them apples from them oranges by suggesting that “you [Ken Irby] assigned yourself the grasslands” while he, Robert Duncan, assigned himself the European in the form of the “medieval,” via Kantorowicz, an “acolyte of the George circle.” Duncan goes on to suggest that “[a]s in your grasslands you are searching rightly for what a poem is to be in another ‘poem’ — the winds, the grass, the plains will tell you (makers of a horizon you’ve known, I’ve only seen idly in passing) what I can’t about beginning and end of ‘form.’”
It would also be easy enough to see in Irby’s work an extension/continuation — or better, an expansion and a deepening — of Olson’s concerns for the American space, which does indeed come large on this continent, and very large in Irbyland. One could thus read it even as the work on the West and the Great Plains Olson proposed at some point but didn’t do himself. A sympathetic critic such as Eric Mottram will make this link central and explicit: “The taste of Olson was pretty strong,” he writes, suggesting that Irby’s problem in the early poems was “to shift usages of Olson’s procedures … which in some places take over his own voice” while the “better poems” make good use of “the ellipses and discontinuities of Olson’s gap-jumping lyric for a much calmer end.” And indeed, in a 1971 poem based on a dream, Irby imagines Olson on his home terrain: “So Olson did come through Fort Scott / hitchhiking to Denver in the early 50’s, // with some of his students from Black Mountain / not Dorn as I had thought.” This enables him, at least in the poem, to meet Olson back then in the drugstore, where the elder poet sets young Irby a task:
… part of it was
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
In this imagined task, Irby suggests, the thrill was “finding out about all those // lines of continuity across the country / that went through Fort Scott // on off the world.” That task would indeed be very close to what Olson set himself in the Maximus. But even here I sense a push beyond Olson’s New England project in the barefoot high schooler’s (holding the The Boys Book of Chemistry) projected interest in “an era // I wanted to know of my town as / much as alchemy to make // the same transmutings now / Fort Scott’s hidden flower, gold // was opening before that war.” But by the time “you” (the imagined Olson of the poem) showed up with his instructions, “I was on my way / to internationale // attentions.”
The view, it is my argument here today, of Irby’s work as a simple or even complex extension of Olson’s quest seems too limiting to me, diminishing the achievement by proposing too reductive a reading. And if in my title I used a phrase that recalls Edward Dorn, it is not so much for the jaundiced eye with which Dorn gazed at that turbine (which he saw nearly exclusively as commerce moving clockwise) but as a more cultural turbine moving counterclockwise — thus making it a countercultural turbine? — and enriching the dustbowl soils of America. Or maybe this turbine is closer to Henry Adams’s “dynamo,” though then one would have to read a near-Hegelian “Aufhebung” in Irby’s version of the “Virgin and the Dynamo.” It may, in fact, appear strange that I, ex-Europeano who left the “old” continent to become a poet in America because that is where I saw the energies achieve a poetic art unequalled in Europe during the second part of the past century, that I would now want to link Irby back to what I left — or tried to leave — behind. If on this specific occasion I speak to the Europe that traverses and so splendidly marbles Irby’s American land- and mind-scape, it behooves me, however, to point out that any serious, i.e. at least partially complete, assessment of Irby’s oeuvre needs to investigate the poems’ mother lode of information concerning China and Latin America, two further constants in Irby’s vast spiderweb of cultural caches, two further decentered centers touched regularly by that turbine, or dynamo, or great rotating wheel whose hub and heart may lie below, but at the center, of the Great Plains — or, as Irby puts it: “the Great Wheel of the Plains / turns under Fort Scott.” But let’s see how Europe worms its way in and maybe breaks down and enriches the dry soils of the American West.
Permit me, anecdotally, to mention that the first time I laid eyes on Irby was, I remember, as he stepped into my Deal Road house in Tooting Broadway, South London in early 1973 — but that was one of Ken’s rare physical forays into Europe. He’d in fact come down from Denmark and was, if I’m not mistaken, on a trip that would get him to the southern countries of Europe. So, unlike Dorn who spent years in England, teaching, and kept returning to London (where I have an image of him standing in the same room in Deal Road somewhat later in the ’70s, as we argue — he, Ed, deeply, strangely uninterested in my proposal to publish Gunslinger in a French translation I had been working on — but that’s another story), Ken’s visits were shorter, but, it seems to me his involvement deeper and elsewhere.
During this last decade and a half I have been thinking and writing primarily about the concepts of a nomadic poetry and poetics — calling this also at times “archipelago poetics” (in homage to Edouard Glissant’s parallel investigations) — speaking of rhizomatic and dendritic processes. Interestingly enough, the terms “archipelago” and “dendritic” are also clearly there in Irby’s poetry and thinking. He could easily have found a space in the essay “Toward a Nomad Poetics” — and will do so with this belated essay. One of the areas I investigated thus was that of Maghrebian literature, particularly its francophone wing, where on close reading I distinguished what I called “ghostings” on either formal or semantic levels by the “other,” language, the spoken darijas, or vernacular versions of Arabic. I propose to use this notion of “ghostings” to speak of what in Irby’s poetry I perceive as non-American presences, inscriptions, upwellings, conjurations, or whatever guise these presences take.
Let me get back to this un-American turbine/dynamo. In Irby’s work there are of course immediately those literary sources that are not American: we know from his interview for Vort that the first literary influence, or what gave him poetry in a way, was reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the Leishman-Spender translation (found in Kansas City when he was in eighth or ninth grade). We also know of his continuous interest in Russian poetry and writing, especially that of Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, as well as Blok but also of his ongoing reading in French literature. Thus his first book, The Roadrunner Poem, which is indeed a profoundly American poem if ever there was one, is introduced by a quote from Rimbaud’s Saison en Enfer, cited in French without accompanying English translation. In “Jed Smith and the Way,” another long meditation on the American road, and, as Mottram has it, “structured, like an old Buick drive along the routes a trapper, mountain man and guide took in the early 19th century into Oregon,” the narrative drive is stopped short towards the very middle of the poem with reflections on the formal nature of the poem itself — which bring in a European contemporary of Jedediah Smith’s, the German poet Hölderlin:
Hölderlin called the lyric
“the continuous metaphor for a feeling”
the epic, “the metaphor
of an intellectual point of view”
this is the discontinuous
dendritic narrative of a journey
metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return
pastoral in that
“sluicing” meaning the juice
runs down over the head
and puddles off the fingers
The list of such transcultural citations could go on ad infinitum. But let’s look at another aspect in which America is ghosted by the nonnative, namely the geography of the West, its landscapes. For example, in the poem “Jesus,” with its “secret paths” that “lead south,” Irby links his Fort Scott landscape via a nomadic Jesus moving from the North to the South “as if a tracer through the Ice Age intestinal / dirt track, reaching down the Plains again from Asia / towards an absolutely other / Earthly Paradise”:
in the silent age of America
1952, not ripe for any
second coming out, only to scout
if all the Mesopotamian
Siberian welfare trails were still
reblazable under the shit
That would be American shit, needing to be turned into manure to fertilize a dust-bowled scape, perhaps. And having other and older cultural materials come in will help in this process, hopefully speeding it up, or at least making the creation of an inhabitable dwelling, a hearth, possible. Here the reach back is long, space-wise, to Mesopotamia and linking to Siberia, and time-wise from the Ice Age to what seems like a “communist” welfare present. At first sight this could still be read as Olsonian, i.e. as the jump back from present-day America to pre-Greek Near Eastern cultures and their roots in the Pleistocene. But this is complicated by a range of other references, such as the figure of the weird motorcycle (Hell’s Angels?), or Jesus as “an easter revolutionary … He must be a communist …” with the classical Christian fish (more ambiguously also readable as sexual — cunt or prick) as emblem, which become for Irby the “Tarot card of the Hitchhiker.” Tarot cards are European and medieval in origin, and even if another clin d’oeil to Olson is also intended, they move us firmly into a specific Irby area, namely hermetic lore and literature and to a European culture Olson has no truck with. It is worth mentioning here that Olson condemned anything European from Plato to the early twentieth century as highly suspect.
I believe that one of the essential aspects of this doubleness — or, so as not to get stuck in a dialectical binary system, this multiplicity of layers — has to do with Irby’s comprehension of landscapes as not only natural, not ever in fact only “natural” (and one should here insert a full essay on what “natural” may or may not mean — something I’d love to do on another occasion, taking my cues from Spinoza). This complexity is well set forth in a line by the geographer Edgar Anderson, quoted by Irby in the “In Place of a Preface” of Catalpa (why not call it a preface; why a place in place of? What is a place that stands in for another place, what is this supplement, the pemmican we chew instead of the actual bison filet mignon? The poetics statement of explanation instead of the poem itself? My Derridean proclivities could easily slip here into a long zigzag reflection, that in turn could get me lost in Irbyland like any number of those greenhorn conquistadores/explorers of old ... I’ll try to avoid this fate at least here, right now). So in the preface to Catalpa, Anderson (on page 250 of the Collected) says it clearly: “It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it.” So, yes, it may be obvious but bears restating: the landscape is also of the mind, or a palimpsest of geography and mind, where the one ghosts the other, so that the leaves of the trees, Catalpa or others, rhyme (Duncan-esquely) with the leaves of the books read and/or written there.
Irby himself is very clear about this, for example in the introduction to Relation, when he writes: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’” This is a direct response to a landscape that both “demands us” and “reveals us.” Here one should also place a discussion of the relation of Irby’s “pastoral” to the European and more specifically the British version thereof — but this has been done in a number of essays over time and there is no reason to repeat those analyses here now.
I do however want to locate the movement through the, through any, landscape more specifically as I perceive a ghosting — perhaps unconscious — with a range of other literary events. What I call “the nomadic” is of course very present in Irby’s work, in, for example, a definition of American poetry as the “narrative of a journey” — a narrative that I think cannot easily be fitted into the Hölderlinian definitions quoted above, as they give precedent to the metaphor. Thus a strange doubleness, in which I would in fact read an opposition, in the juxtaposition of these two lines, when after the near-Deleuzian rhizomatic definition of the work as the “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey,” the next line brings it all back home (= Europe? a certain fixity?) by restating this definition as being a “metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return.” Three loaded words here: 1) “pasture” which in this context sounds closer to the pastoral as defined by the likes of Empson, as a metaphor for another state, rather than as Irby’s own descriptions of the pastoral as a daily concern with the precise landscape of wherever we are, both as physical and as spiritual landscape. Maybe my distrust of the word here comes from its association with 2) the word “anabasis” where (and this may be personal to my own Euro-basis) I cannot but hear the title of Saint-John Perse’s poem “Anabase” not surprisingly translated into English by one T. S. Eliot, a poem that despite its title and travel components is a static, colonial venture. (Of course, the word alone in Irby’s line could also dendritically or rhizomatically spiral out to the “anabasis” moth, a genus of snout moths from the Phycitinae subfamily, or, maybe closer to home, the plant “anabasis,” a genus of desert shrubs in the Amaranthacaceae family.) And finally, word 3) “return,” which has its own problems when it comes to nomadic spaces.
So I am partial to the nomadic definition of the poem as a “discontinuous, dendritic narrative of a journey.” And rather than return the journey to a fixed European pastoral space, breathtaking only due to the narrowness of its hedged-in bets, I want to link it to another ghosting. Irby’s journeying and the inscription of that journey into his poems is, for example, quite different from say, Kerouac’s On the Road, that mad rush from one side of the continent to the other, coast to coast with stopovers only when too exhausted to keep driving. Irby’s progress is via a range of “fixes,” bearings taken that request stages, stopovers, which I would assimilate to the physical and spiritual stops or mawqifs — as they are known in the Sufi journey — in the nomad’s progress. The discontinuity, the dendritic nature of the journey is accepted and made use of, stages for reflection, for companionship, for writing, for eating, drinking, and sex. I do, however, disagree with Eric Mottram’s assessment that with “the self asserted through a world of revelatory signs,” Irby moves “steadily towards the transcendental, a mysticism of land and mobility, of that sense of Americans being necessarily shaped by the violence of the continent.” I would suggest that the journey is towards an ever deeper immanence, that the life teachings of the movement through America are the exact experiences that show how the physical and mental journeys are or become inseparable, are of the same stuff. Irby touches on this, for example, when he writes: “Lords of the Light and Air / are Immanences, not rulers.” And if in the journey itself, in the speed of movement, there can be a giddiness that would point towards an Other beyond the horizon, some transcendental topos, it is in the mawqif, the stopping, the rest and the necessary tasks of that dailyness that immanence roots itself again. There are four lines from an early Irby work — The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream, which was the first book of his I picked up — four lines that have stayed with me and that come back to mind or to hand very often:
The light lasts on out of history or memory
in the face and turn of head toward the sink
that endlessness of every day
that is precisely eternity.
Beyond this there is one counter linked to Europe I want to briefly explore here, namely the way music, often in the shape of the classical European tradition, enters. If Olson in a memorable line condemns the piped-in version of that as mu-sick, mu-sick, he does however not seem to have much truck with music — I remember one reference to a contemporary composer, Pierre Boulez, but that was to Boulez’s ideas, not his compositions. Even the presence of John Cage at BM doesn’t seem to have jolted Olson towards music much. Irby, on the other hand, though agreeing with Olson about mu-sick — take for example the opening line of the poem “Delius,” speaking of the “Crapmusic on the radio” — has a profound and ongoing relation to both classical European music as well as to the American tradition of jazz. A reading of the poem “Delius” shows the ways its materials and its thinking move between the continents, linking the English composer to Florida, thus setting that dynamo/turbine into motion again. Even as in the poem “there would be a Delius of this / Northern Pacific redwood coast,” proposing further marvelous geographical musical chairs, the poem enacts this multiple connectedness throughout. Take for example the following stanza:
Walt Whitman along the Loing
into blackberry thickets along the Reyes coast
organizing before 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass
along the North Atlantic shore
turning in the conversation
in the living room at Grez
to the high hills, wordless
The Loing is a river in France, having its source in the Burgundy region and flowing into the Seine not too far from Paris. You may know it from a painting by the English painter Alfred Sisley who lived in the village of Moret-sur-Loing for many years. But of course Walt Whitman never walked along that river, or only in the imaginary sense in which Olson met Irby at the Fort Scott drugstore in ’53. Now, the French name of the river “Loing” — the final “g” is silent — is homophonic with the French word “loin,” meaning “far, far away.” A meaning I hear sounding the line as that far-away distance that plays itself out throughout this section of the poem, and that joins — shoving together, you could nearly say — different continental coasts (West Coast/East Coast) and actual continents (North America/Europe). Simultaneously — and on the opposite scale size-wise — the work of the poem breaks up a single location into two spaces by decomposing its complex hyphenated name. The “living-room at Grez” refers to the small village of Grez-sur-Loing where Delius stayed, a name here exploded into its two referents, river/village, while continental drift moves easily from the French river to the Pacific Reyes coast blackberry thickets only to reemerge two lines later on the North Atlantic coast. Given that this is Whitman, the East Coast reemergence may be located close to his birthplace, Long Island, the “Long” part of which needs only an “I” to become a “Loing” — an “I” the ego-strong Walt was surely not averse of inserting into any place or situation. And if the I of Island migrates to the Long, we are left with a “sland” or a slant land that will give us a slope or swerve, or as I prefer to call it, a clinamen, that will churn the North Atlantic turbine all the way to the French river.
The next stanza begins with a quote: “our job is to find ourselves / at all costs” (I nearly typed “coasts”) — and even in this poem, so focused from the title on a man, the musician Frederick Delius, in order to locate him or us (and could we locate the one without the other?) what has to be followed, to be trodden or thought through, are the “secret trails” of the journeying, as the poem makes clear a few pages later:
this explains the secret trails
from Fort Scott into the South
the secret ways Vanamee followed
into Mexico with the sheep
the Great Circle back to California
the Florida fixed between Jacksonville and St. Augustine
by Delius and Conan Doyle, the deep trails
Buchaning over Norway, foot tracks poaching
Jefferies down nets and fosse
coverts crossing and recrossing
the natural mystery
And below and between the numerous namings, the many places, the dance of vowels and consonants, that other musical ghosting always there in the work — so that now you hear the ghost of Delius, now the ghost of Ellington, Europe and America coming together, or at least living side by side and fertilizing their respective imaginations, as somewhere else a favorite pop ditty seems to sound out of three or four innocent-enough looking words strung together. Such investigations of how European composers, among others, create networks at different levels — geographical but more complexly, psychotopological — throughout the oeuvre could be multiplied. Let me close with another extract from the same poem, where an already mentioned American composer is insistently foregrounded through the triple repetition of his name, the citation of the title of his autobiography and finally a combination of mainly European geoethnic terms that bring it all back home, to America, that is to say:
Ellington, Ellington, Ellington
on the windup phonograph?
Reminiscing in Tempo the year after he died
as if a memorial to that
Floridian magic fountain music, Griegish
Germanic Yorkshirian Gallicized slavery chants, as melted
pot as America ever said it wanted.
1. Robert Duncan, letter to Ken Irby, Nomadics (blog).
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).
William J. Harris Kyle Waugh