'Eye of Witness' (1): A letter & a poem for Robert Duncan, in retrospect

[Early in the game, while I was in the midst of thinking & writing about what I had then come to speak of as “deep image,” I was approached by Robert Duncan, and in 1959, on first visit to San Francisco, I had a chance to meet him & to begin an exchange & friendship that lasted until his death in 1988. That time is long past now, & deep image as a retrieval of aspects of surrealism in the post-World War II era has been absorbed in my thoughts with a range of other, equally meaningful interests, but working more recently with Heriberto Yépez on Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader for Black Widow Press, some part of our exchanges, like the following, comes back again & finds a sure place in my mind & heart. (J.R.)]

Image & Melos: A Letter, 1960, to Robert Duncan

September 27, 1960

... following with great interest your interchange with Kelly. On the basis of your first letter to reach here (only one I’ve seen, other 2 being described) I feel no real disagreement as to melos, etc., being other vehicles for manifestation of “floating world” (source) within the poem, tho if you define yourself as a poet of “word-magic” primarily, my own direction in these last years has probably been toward “image-magic”—yet it doesn’t seem to me that any of the “powers” are totally to be denied, nor can they where the poem is allowed to happen. Certainly I find image occurring at many points in your work, & can only hope for myself that sound & music do not automatically leave where image enters. In the act of uncovering the poem, in fact, my personal experience has been that the other elements we are said to be slighting are especially insistent; where they don’t assert themselves (emerging concurrently) the image feels unreal and slack—a lightweight, lifeless counterfeit.

But image still appears to me as the thing sought once I am into the poem. Or more precisely the under-world of hidden painful (joyful) forms. As in the Thomas gospel:

When you see your likeness, etc.

Here I have to enter without any of the old certainties: to go out and search for that world, never knowing for sure if what I find is real or dross, except in so far as I can accept the data emerging from the poems—mine and others. In this way the poem creates the reality that then exists for us: a unique (one hopes) and certain thing, that can yet be shared. It is, I think, because of the initial disbelief / skepticism (perhaps despair) that prompts the surrender to the under-world (to find & create forms & images therefrom) that I cannot—as you can, perhaps—really utilize other data—allusory, historical, etc.—in the composition of the poem; & in the presence of other poems I can surrender only where the impact of the search & the resultant world it has created overwhelms me with its presence. So for a while much of your writing in the [Opening of the] Field, etc., was closed to me, largely for the “intrusion” of the tradition you prize so highly—and I too, once I understood the way to the source, to the reality of the poems. But, for myself, as a way of making the poem, I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation; in other words, I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it. For this reason, I think, the image becomes for me the prima materia. If I were fixed enough in a tradition (able to write from it, not just in its light) so I might build with blocks of data largely—as I find you doing—then melos, logos, etc. might come first to hand—the image-symbols being there to start with. (This happens in translation.) But it has not yet become, for me, a question of arrangement (I don’t use the word disparagingly) but discovery at every point I meet the poem. Now, where this is really the case (& I find it historically in the poetry of the “deep image,” whether along among 20th Century disbelievers or earlier figures—isolated mystics, etc., figures cut off from the mainstream of dogma), I feel a new power released, nameless for now, a result of that “self-abandonment to that which is not known”. So that I don’t take the “rootlessness” you’ve spoken of in earlier letters as a liability—I don’t assume you mean lack of precedents, history being full of the uprooted—rather it seems to me, once met in its own terms, like the dark voyage Melville described in the great Lee Shore chapter of Moby Dick:

     But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, etc.

For, then, this seems to be the great adventure of spirit in our time, & (why not) particularly the burden of the American poet, where the destruction of the old certainties has gone further & strange cultures oppress consciousness with their conflicting demands. In your work I see this answered, partly, by a re-arrangement of older elements—probably not far distant from the new-creations of the deep image poets. In this way I find it stronger and fuller than the early poems of Creeley (before the Door, etc.) where melos, etc., seemed to me to be pursued in isolation from any real sense of deep image, almost as a decoration of the trivial. (Stein seems to me the better example of how far the under-world can be explored without utilization of deep image, & I’m glad for that reason that you mention her.)

The Counter-Dances of Darkness


All life is oriented to the light from which life comes. The bees in
their dances are oriented to the sun and, if it is dark, will dance in
relation to a candle flame.
Robert Duncan, The Day Book


But that the bee could be seeking death, oblivion, was also clear & would, in some sense, make that dance more fierce—more precious too? We noticed other movements as well, movements away from light, of the animals who burrowed in our hill, the night creatures stiffened by beams from my flashlight, the roots of all things curving back into earth’s belly, the penis into the womb of the woman. Could light teach us the whole dance without the counter-dance of darkness?

There is no light or darkness that, in itself, can orient us to where we become, but only a constant shift of planes between the two—light & darkness, life & death, speech & silence, sight & blindness. “The dark,” wrote Lorca, “wants to become light,” but the Gabon pygmies told us, “The light becomes darkness / the night & again the night / the day with hunger tomorrow.”

Both sides are made real—one not subordinated to the other, but as functions of a total movement born from, productive of, each other. That the child is born is no truer than that the man dies; & sometimes the distance between birth & death is no more than a moment, part of an hour at best. Yet the narrow dimensions of that child’s life is no stranger than that our whole universe, whose limits move away from us at speeds approximating to the speed of light, will return someday to the undifferentiated mass of its first beginning, to a heavy & dark brilliance the size of Mars’s orbit. Had Lawrence visioned this when he wrote: EVERYTHING IS MEANT TO DISAPPEAR. EVERY CURVE PLUNGES INTO THE VORTEX AND IS LOST, RE-EMERGES WITH A CERTAIN RELIEF AND TAKES TO THE OPEN, AND THERE IS LOST AGAIN. Between light & darkness we wait, we dance, like the Evening Star he sang of, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE MOON, AND SWAYED BY NEITHER OF THEM...THE EVENING STAR THAT IS SEEN AT THE DIVIDING OF THE DAY AND NIGHT, BUT THEN IS MORE WONDERFUL THAN EITHER.

We are not only the victims of the forces that will destroy us, we are their children. And it is given us, at times of passionate concentration, to celebrate the movements of our being-in-the-world. The light will kill the bee & the darkness guard the root, & it will finally not matter. But the celebration matters NOW—whether darkness is my source, or light my goal, or both—whether I walk between the darknesses & dream of light, or blinded by that light, seek darkness. We are all in movement.


The penis, this other miracle, enters the dark, the body enters
        the dark & will soon be wed to the darkness—
which of these will keep sight of the heavens, will seek light as
        its first, its only source?
& the root that presses deep in the earth – what does it seek?

The myriad roots that turn from the light – into earth, the
how does the loss of the heavens sit with them? or their place
        in the total design?
. . . . . . .
The dancers move forward—I am last in the circle, changing
my body, pretending to be with those who had died in the fire
my love a deceit, starting from the lowest level of what I would
        soon become—
fire, fire, the smoke asleep in their golden veins, as with fire &

Someone to speak to me, someone to answer me where I
your light is a mystery over these hills, twining me,
        whispering through me,
the first rain over my hands as it hurries to touch me—
        in that light
your shadow had yet to appear, it was a conciliation, but
        clearer than that, a beginning.

There is a movement in its rooms no longer—
a locket that was shaken by the wind
& a dead body that rests with the other dead bodies—
evening, my shadow touched by the headlights from a
        passing truck
while across the road other shadows cover other dead
I had forgotten where it began,
I can only remember the ache in your fingers
so cold, so in need of my breath to wake them.

As I dreamed my stature (mad dream!) as in the
        pasture at night
among the freaks, the many-headed cattle, loiterers—
that I could match their size—that bewildering
could be set apart where I walked to be mocked—
this monster, this debaser, broken & degenerate &
        eternally damned & alone—
only not to be whole—a part of that order, the goad
        for its senseless stars—
not to give life & watch it taken back again—

what wars in a single lifetime! what slow deaths
        worse than all wars!
what bliss as the body dissolves, turns sour,
        returns to its pitiless earth!
does a flower offend you?
does the sun make you cringe that opens every
        inch of you with careless fingers
for this I had made myself monstrous!
how many others must die to force one moment
        of doubt to your throat?

The silence will open—as a hand will open against
        your hand
though its fingers will not open—or will open only
        to my breath that moves them
or as the wind moves the curtains to show a field,
        the corner of this sky
the corner of your eye that sleeps inside me—
in the shadow of the eaves the trigger spoke,
        uncoiled the spring broke loose,
clouds big with thunder, golden shapes of birds
        leaped skyward
fell & crushed themselves against my hands—
still others will crush themselves against my
& when the dead return, there will be other
        ways of telling time
& many strange words then—
& there will be a language also—of our own.

The existence of the horrible in every particle
        of air—
among its roots, submerged in droplets—vision!
You were not immune to it—neither at evening
        with the rain still in your hair
nor in the garden at noon—not the first to be
        spared, to raise a cry
against its stars—what imbecile regrets for all
        your nights of silence!
No one had dreamed your pain then—how it
        would draw the fingers back
would drive its roots inside you—muscle &
        joint, the knot, the hard enclosure—death?
Around you the air was suddenly alive—
whole cities full of the “luckless dead” —
but your heart couldn’t contain it—like the
        universe it shrank, became your fist
abandoned in the rain, the odor clings to it—
& there are places in the dark where no light
where a hand moves slowly through the
        silence, on the wall
a pressure that was like the earth, took
        color from it—
your shadow in my blood—for we were
        someone’s dream of vengeance.

Not in a meadow—the dead who are dead
        & the dead who will be dead
& the bull driven to a slope below the
        house, a dark, terrible shadow
& your darker shadow, the moon—
for this we delayed, for the night, just
        started, to end
for time to lose all dimension—only the
        kiss at your throat, the warm touch
        of you
curve of my blood through yours—but
        the dead were with us from the start
it was a circle, a habit of repetition,
first sensed in the breaking of bread,
        the heifer’s dance into life
the mother cow swollen her bag hanging
        down to the earth
also a root through the earth—all
        swollen, all broken
you woke to it under the moon, but
        in darkness—
in darkness it had begun—in darkness,
        in darkness it will be ended.