'Nor … ever some place else': Wieners in Boston
To backtrack to the beginning of Robert Creeley’s preface to John Wieners’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston,” which about sums it up:
If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: “How is it far if you think it?” I don’t truly know. It doesn’t seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either feeling or thinking. They’re here, as we are — certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?
Wieners makes an absence horribly or heartbreakingly present:
“The walls are alive with pictures.
Faces haunt the dark.”
(from Wieners’s “A Series, 5.8,” Ace of Pentacles)
“Poetry is a trance
“The man I’m kissing
lives right here
despite all odds
on my lips”
“and the gossamer twilights on Boston Common, and Arlington Street
adrift in the mind”
(After Symond’s “Venice,” Nerves)
And from “5.9”:
“Dread night is gone,
you see suspended in a bar against the blackness
the mighty lord, who makes his way
Love in his eyes as a bride might say
To put away all fear.”
Is it Duncan’s open field Wieners refers to in “The Meadow Where All Things Grow According to Their Own Design”?
“Destiny lies behind our forces
and what lives in the soul
dies not. It inhabits our dreams
as perpetual as light.”
Am I stretching the point to suggest that though Wieners often writes in form and sometimes in rather formal language there is an organic aspect of his poetry, that his belief that all forms are organic pervades his poetry?
If as Creeley delineates, the poem is there because of the intensity of Wieners’s thought and feeling, so Gerrit Lansing’s elegant restraint gives us poetry that is always there, meditative, in a world un-fragmented, distilled, accepting: “guiltless I milked the cow, / slaughtered chicken, / swam with snakes” (“How We Sizzled in the Pasture,” Working in the Lower Red Field).
To both, the world is filled with myriad creatures not only from written traditions but from lived experience. Gerrit ends his poem “For John
Wieners, 1934–2002” (Poems Uncollected, Old and New):
“the sound of drums in early afternoon, the poems
echoing our marvelous faults, their fruits.”
The marvelous, the human, the humane, the ambiguous “their fruits,” everything is taken in, dealt with.
What else do the two share? Gentleness, constant devotion to craft. Massachusetts. Each underrated though those who know their writing feel immensely appreciative and are aware of its worth. I recall Creeley reading at Stone Soup in Boston eons ago & dedicating his reading to Wieners, who listened happily in the audience. Gerrit always precise, at times understated, loving but with clear boundaries. What little I knew of Wieners makes me feel he was endlessly openhearted, despairing, enthusiastic, wild. Gerrit knows his place, meaning he is in himself, self-contained, knowing his place is everywhere.
Have visited Gerrit several times & each time he has commented on my aura, which apparently fluctuates or at least varies. He has one of the fullest libraries I know of & seems to have read most everything in it, retaining most of that, I hear.
Having been subjected to quadruple bypass heart surgery recently, Gerrit (looking ruddy) still seems undaunted by death. Where has his meditation taken him — certainly to equanimity. Wieners was elsewhere, looking for love.
When I moved to Cambridge in 1971, I saw Wieners in Temple Bar Bookstore on Massachusetts Ave. Excited and nervous, I approached him, and he asked, “Do I know you from Georgia O’Keefe’s house?” No. “Are you a Medici?” Heading back to my apartment, where a poem of Wieners hung on my wall, I glowed.
Gerrit offers OJ or booze, seems willing to discuss Vedanta with my Vedantic friend, happy to hang out with Simon Pettit to talk about the paranormal (he’s an encyclopedia, according to Simon), calm in disagreeing with a relative of mine about haiku, and indulgent when asked over-general questions about the spiritual life.
His house is a treasure, up the hill and across the divided highway from the ocean, in down-home Gloucester. The rooms are large and packed and his intriguing housemate John can sometimes be seen moving books up to the top floor, even more books hiding there, waiting to spill over into the living room. He collects mushrooms, meditates, plays classical piano. One can imagine him living the aesthetic life in New York though he now finds comfort at the seaside: “Old and new dependencies, good harbor, deserted beach of seaweed brown” (“XVIII, The Soluble Forest”).
The younger poets in his area adore him and care for him and hang at his house. Amanda Cook, he tells me, waited five hours at the hospital with Gerrit’s nephew until his operation was over. He gives parties, still. Such friends as Ken Irby stay in his guesthouse out back in summer.
He combines traditions, high and low culture, sex and spirit, all is one:
Thomas Burnet, in The Sacred Theory of the Earth, posited that the earth had formed as a smooth, regular sphere with a thin surface, below which was a vast ocean. The Great Flood, he believed, had occurred when the surface of the earth broke open, for God had willed it so, and fell down into that ocean.
Here is the fourth section of Gerrit’s “In Erasmus Darwin’s Generous Light”:
Telluris sacra theoria [The Sacred Theory of the Earth]
If you consider the sacred theory of the earth,
water below and water above,
the egg cracked and split, the spirit spurting out
flood and ark of sacred origin, waterfall of starry jism
the milk of the stars from her paps
on uplifted ecstatic faces and lovers locked in happy freedom in their crucible …
in my garden, Erasmus Darwin said, blooms
bright surprise galore on bright surprise
and from their volant passion splurge cataracts of eyes.
In the tulgey wood the light consoles
and in the generous light of Erasmus Darwin’s ripe exuberance
(and he knew the caves below where sun at midnight shone)
the fields, his very strawberry fields, are Eleusinian.
Genesis and Alice in Wonderland in the mix. The sublimity and chaos of nature. Charles Darwin’s poet grandfather (whom Gerrit described in his reading at the Boston Athaeneum in June as a poet of sexuality and plant life) and God. Jism and the sacred natural world. Contradictions and acceptance. The Beatles and the Eleusinian fields, the dwelling of the blessed, in the stream of Okeanos, the Ocean. And the caves below where sun at midnight shone? Jesus, born in a cave, brings the world light at the solstice? Coleridge, who was influenced by Burnet? For Gerrit, as for his friend Robert Duncan, these are not simply allusions, they are lived places of the mind.
The Ace of Pentacles, in the Tarot, is apparently about making one’s dreams come to pass. The Empress is the womb where the idea gestates. And so goes Wieners’s “The Imperatrice.”
The Empress is an extreme card — one minute things are wonderful, the next, horrible. One’s labors may come to fruition, so it seems Wieners is carrying forward The Ace of Pentacles’ hope. Wieners’s The Imperatrice sits on the left page; on the right, a poem I have long remembered, for “My Mother,” “talking to strange men on the subway,”
“‘But I love her in the underground
and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
talking together between the wire grates of a cage.”
The Imperatrice, “who sits supreme above all human ecstasy,” “Lady of the blue / robe. Scent of sperm / a cloud of devotion to her nostrils,”
“Or with the objects of eternity
about her and
for our eyes worn out with love.”
These two tasters of life have in common their absorption in nontraditional as well as traditional spiritual ways of seeing and experiencing the world, their acceptance of seeming opposites, their love of life, as intense as any despair, finally. Hallucinations of truth. Intimations of … Expecting/hoping for a new time to come; in Gerrit’s belief system, that is a non-persona, universal world. As Gerrit knows the world as real and unreal, so too does Wieners, despite his attachment to it:
From Wieners’s “Dreams of the Day”:
There are other realities
besides those existing before
Secrets of the mind
where phantoms dwell
and people pass who never
on the face of the earth.
Dark veils cover their faces.
causes high tides
To roar upon the shore
That is the mind.
Where no one ever is
But those who never were.
Yet Wieners, filled with spirits, longing, agony, IS there; Gerrit all the while in equipoise; both seers and lovers. Both having dived into the occult: From Wieners’s “Le Chariot” (Ace of Pentacles):
“To ride in your heart instead of heaven.
This is the card that reads as seven.”
If Gerrit knows it in a more spiritual sense, Wieners is familiar with the emotional ride of what we can’t know intellectually yet which can dominate the senses and feelings. To continue with Creeley: “The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptional human beauty — as if there were ever any other. There is in it such commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us.”
There you have it from the mouth of Black Mountain that Wieners is not only a lyric poet and a sonneteer, a troubadour and the tenor in the opera, he is a poet of daily life, including the bizarre daily life under all our covers.
As is Gerrit — connected to the earth, the ocean, New York, he flies upward and outward and inside to realms just as intimate and interconnected as anything more mundane. As Gerrit says of Thoreau (“Henry Thoreau and Cosmic Concord”), [he] “made of his daily and local experiences a rich mythological fabric … He feels along his nerves the reflections of all things in all things …” How could I neglect to mention Wieners’s book Nerves in this context, though admittedly it is often horrific in its imagery — yet full of beauty still.
In 1965, Wieners wrote a subjective, insightful preface to Gerrit’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (a Motto Book, New York, 1966). In it, he gives us hints as to what they share by letting us know what he reacts to & feels: “The title is ‘wrong’: alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards towards heaven.” Self-deprecating, he makes me laugh when he claims: “For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit to write without it is even more difficult.”
While Gerrit’s work reveals an enormous vocabulary, sense of history and the paranormal throughout it, clearly Wieners — even in his talking of the alchemical — unravels his knowledge of the arcane throughout his own writing. “The discontinuity of image, the ‘confused’ mind you will think you will find there. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.” Wieners might as well be talking about himself. His critics be damned, he is coherent emotionally, in the way of Baudelaire and with sometimes equally strong conceits, metaphors that are in a visceral way images, they live so fully on the page.
“Rhythm is that elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards.” And this is Wieners’s line as well as Gerrit’s phrasing — elegance, even for Wieners amidst all the devastation. “No, the wild tulip shall outlast the prison wall / no matter what grows within” (“Private Estate,” Asylum Poems).
“Now I have to learn to carry them [Gerrit’s poems] with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.” Those who imagine Wieners’s poetry “limited” to the personal would do well to look again; he was all too well aware of the injustices and distortions of our “society” that Gerrit’s words would wipe away and transform, magically.
And sound, Wieners and sound, my God. Even in his sweet autograph to me in 1998 in my old Ace of Pentacles, he was concerned with lining up similar sounds:
“Just To A Fan
John Wieners Fondly
[@ John Wieners 1964 was printed here]
Offered to Ruth Epson
Sometimes Gerrit writes a gorgeous lyrical line: “The night is warm he walks the mountain road” (“Melanthus in the Mountains,” Working in the Lower Red Field). When mellifluous sounds are apt, he is the sorcerer who can create that spell.
Gerrit played tennis with John Ashbery weekly at Harvard. Once I saw Wieners, dressed as a woman, lying along the Charles River, cops questioning him. Tonight there will be a meteor shower, visible if the clouds dissipate. This, then, is what the two gentlemen have in common — a glimpse of the inexorable, the glorious and the beautiful, the terrible and the grand, the numinous. Or the knowledge of what Gerrit describes in his Thoreau essay, “the universe as a net of glittering jewels.” (A February Sheaf).
Words and thoughts that come to mind when hearing Wieners: acute, raw, dissipated, aching, howling, feverish, clamoring, nocturnal, blindfolded with his eyes open, his colors red, purple, and black, like a glimpse of a peacock in the dead of night. Did he have to strain to see? An open question. Erotic yet with a tone more of longing then of titillation. Felt the pull of fate and destiny.
Gerrit’s language gives a sense of repose, spice, effervescence, concord, brightness, effulgence, sometimes seems crystalline, is balanced and proportionate. The erotic in him is high-toned in that it is one with all of life, alchemical: “We flow together like molten gold and molten gold” (“Alba” Working in the Lower Red Field); “This sex is more than sex, under the will of the God of sex” (“A Poem of Love in Eleven Lines,” Inscriptions). He adds grace notes, sings hymns, plays the flute. Sometimes the sax: “Whose joint? Pass me one, please” puns on the title “The Joint is Jumping” (Working in the Lower Red Field).
Admittedly, Gerrit lives in a world of magic, contentment, intellectual history, spirituality, and even publishing that Wieners when distraught may not have had access to. Like Blake, he knows that “The word of Sin was always Restriction” (“La p(l)age poetique”) and lives an unrestricted life to the degree one can in “the Vulgar Advent,” as he calls it in “Statement: How Set Was Conceived.” He locates his essay: “Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the Equinox of Fall,” noting that “To discover our spacetime address we must fix our position in time as well as in space” (“The Burden of Set #1”).
(And as with Louis Zukofsky, for Gerrit numbers have connections to the macrocosmic world: “is the number 18 / the tablets are empty / everybody’s crossed over / and no one has ever gone over” (“XVIII”) plays with the Hebrew chai, good fortune.)
Yet in the same essay, quoting Stevens, he reminds us that “poetry increases the feeling for reality” and in “La p(l)age poetique” that “Making the soul is always particular” and in these ways is in unity again with Wieners.
Yet neither is didactic. Both have the feel of flickers of the absolute, of visions obscured and sometimes revealed. Both are link-boys, who could be dangerous. Many couldn’t hold a candle to them.
Jim Dunn Kevin Gallagher