Robin Blaser: 'The Holy Forest' // 2008

dear beings I can feel your hands

Early on in my East Bay ramblings, I found my way into Serendipity Books, on University just up from San Pablo. Sometimes you’re in Ali Baba’s cave and you don’t even realize it. Used to be that every bookman in the area had an anecdote concerning Peter Howard, the legendarily perverse and curmudgeonly proprietor of that cavernous establishment. Peter is now gone, and Serendipity is no more, but the quality of the stock was such that for years afterwards people gossiped about where all the books ended up. Arranged on the floor amidst the general chaos were paper grocery sacks of unpriced books from the library of the late Gus Blaisdell, proprietor of Living Batch Bookstore in New Mexico, which had published the first complete version of Ronald Johnson’s Ark, which went out of print almost immediately and became fabulously expensive until it was reprinted years later by Flood. (Peter had also bought Johnson’s library before the poet returned to his native Kansas to die.) I spent a few hours that afternoon rooting around in those bags, which is where I discovered a copy of the Coach House edition of Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest with its lovely mysterious cover of leafy shadows. Brenda Iijima had advised me when I departed for California that I should anticipate “lemon trees, succulents, and the ghost of Jack Spicer,” and I knew Blaser’s name from reading Spicer — specifically, his afterword essay in the Black Sparrow Collected Poems, which I’d had to borrow back in Ithaca, New York, from the poet Joshua Corey in whose library I had spotted it, because it, too, was fabulously expensive, and remained so until Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi’s new edition, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, arrived years later. (Do I get to say that I still prefer the Black Sparrow, one of the few books I saved from my library after my divorce, for talismanic reasons? Forgive me, Kevin.)

I opened the book in a sortes, to see if there was anything in it for me, and landed on the fourth page of the poem “lake of souls (reading notes),” in which Blaser exercised a technique of marginal notation using an open parenthesis in the right hand margin. The authors named were Rene Girard and William Blake, and that dyad, along with the method of introducing citation into the body of the poem itself, were enough for me. I added it to my stack along with a copy of Norma Cole’s Moira, which Peter threw in free because it had water damage. Not all the stories about him were horrible.

This is the first essay in my series about Bay Area books from 2008 to 2018, and I’m already breaking my own rules by telling you about how I came to buy a used copy of a book that came out in 1993. But along with dead people and lost places, temporal hiccups will be a theme of this series. The second edition of The Holy Forest was published by the University of California in 2008, and for many years I had both editions on my shelf. Both volumes contained my favorite serial work of Blaser’s, the “Image-Nations” series he wrote over decades — but the later edition was indispensible if for no other reason than its inclusion of “Dante Alighere,” the third and final poem in Blaser’s Great Companion series, following Pindar and Robert Duncan. Blaser is unthinkable without his Berkeley Renaissance compatriots, honored in Duncan’s famous rewrite of Dante’s sixth sonnet (itself quoted in Blaser’s Dante poem):

Robin, it would be a great thing if you, me, and Jack Spicer

Were taken up in a sorcery with our mortal heads so turned

That life dimmed in the light of that fairy ship …

The scholar Kelly Holt was the first to put me on to the connection between the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, of King’s Two Bodies fame, and the Berkeley Renaissance writers, who he inspired with his devotion to Dante and his vision of a secretive homoerotic society of poets (he was himself, as a young man in Germany, part of the circle around Stefan George). She also said that of the three poets, Blaser was really the one for her. 

Kelly was there on one of the two occasions I got to hear Blaser read before he died. The performance was at San Francisco State, if I remember correctly, and I’d brought a copy of Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations, then newly translated, knowing this author was a favorite of Blaser’s (he’s cited in several of the poems in The Holy Forest). As with many older people, especially artists and intellectuals, it was hard to tell exactly what frailties of mind were disguised by Robin’s courtly style and graceful presentation. After reading his own work, the poet read the letter addressed to him by Jack Spicer and published in “Admonitions,” which asserts “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can,” and concludes: “This is the most important letter that you have ever received.”

After Blaser finished reading the letter, there was a long, charged, pause, after which he commenced to read it again from the beginning. There was no acknowledgment of the repetition, just the repetition itself.

After the reading, Rob Halpern opined that perhaps the force of emotion in reading the letter caused the needle to skip on the record (I’m paraphrasing). I was put in mind of a maxim attributed to Gertrude Stein: “I do not repeat. I insist.” Wasn’t Blaser saying, through repeating the letter in order to get it through our thick skulls, that this was, indeed, the most important letter that you have ever received?

A few weeks after the reading, I got a poster tube in the mail. Kevin Killian had taken a photo of me and Kelly talking with Robin and then had it printed out in a large format as a memento. Well, that was classic Kevin. It turned out Robin didn’t have a copy of Profanations yet. He seemed glad to receive it.