Politics and time

The continued relevance of Edward Dorn's 'Gunslinger'

Photo of Edward Dorn (right) courtesy of Joe Safdie.



Edward Dorn

Duke University Press 2018, 280 pages, $26.95 ISBN 978-1478000853

Marjorie Perloff, in her short foreword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger (Duke University Press, 2018), finds herself surprised that she had mentioned Donald Trump in her previous introduction to the second edition, in 1989, when she had had no real consciousness of him at the time. Maybe, she thinks, he was already “part of our collective unconscious and hence of my own.”[1] In much the same way, I think this poem has charted our collective unconscious, which might help to answer the elephant-in-the-room question: why is there a need for a fiftieth anniversary edition? 

Gunslinger had its genesis in late 1966, when Dorn was in England teaching at the University of Essex and wrote a poem called “An Idle Visitation”: it was the first appearance of the Gunslinger, “of impeccable personal smoothness / and slender leather encased hands” (3), who was probably based on Robert Vaughn’s character in The Magnificent Seven. Dorn laid aside that poem for almost a year before returning to it and writing Book I of Gunslinger in the autumn of 1967. The longer poem developed over the next seven or eight years, eventually encompassing four books, a philosophical interlude called “The Cycle” and a one-volume newspaper, Bean News (not included here), and was published by Wingbow Press in Berkeley in 1975 and then, as mentioned, again in 1989. Maybe there’ll be another edition in 2049, if books are still being printed then.

That is, maybe this isn’t a poem that “maintains relevance,” but is one of those works of art that fades in and out of consciousness as historical conditions determine. It’s too easy to say that it was originally written during the Nixon administration, reprinted for the first time in the Reagan era, and now reappears during Trump’s: that’s just coincidence. While it’s true that Dorn was playing the organ of the public mind in much of his work, especially the short and savage epigrams that made up his work of the late ’70s and ’80s — Hello La Jolla, Yellow Lola, and Abhorrences — in this poem he seems to agree with Charles Olson (in the “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” reprinted in this volume) that “History as events … is now mostly hogwash” (247). Gunslinger’s treatment of history, and its subsequent politics, is much more complicated than that. I say “the poem’s politics” rather than using words like genre or form because all of Dorn’s work makes an argument, sometimes through specific political references, but even then only as a means to argue about poetry itself. In this poem, the central argument revolves around time, its relativity, and the threats to its proper functioning. At first, Dorn seems to be declaring his independence from the concerns of Olson, his teacher at Black Mountain College: Olson had started Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville, with the thundering declaration “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now.” The Slinger sees it differently: 

Time is more fundamental than space.
It is, indeed, the most pervasive
of all the categories
in other words
there’s plenty of it. (5)

While it’s true that space in this poem isn’t any longer the “simple location”[2] of the Western United States treated in Dorn’s earlier work, it’s also true that Olson never recommended that it should be: in the “Bibliography,” he constantly denigrates “the local” and promotes space-time, the “human universe” the travelers of this poem are moving through. That’s made clear in the next lines after the ones quoted above:

And it stretches things themselves
until they blend into one,
so if you’ve seen one thing
you’ve seen them all. (5)

Although it begins in Mesilla, New Mexico, and the travelers progress across the Colorado Plateau through other recognizable towns (Truth or Consequences, Farmington, and Cortez), “There are no degrees of reality / in this handsome and singular mass” (146). Indeed, this journey, which started on the trail to Las Vegas and Howard Hughes, ends — anticlimactically for some — near the Four Corners region, an abstraction created by the boundaries of four states. “The central question of Dorn’s poem” wrote Thomas Foster in a 1997 essay, “is whether there is any ‘place’ outside the system of late capitalism where either poetic language or political resistance could be grounded.”[3] I think there are such places, but that they can only be evoked through a language of space-time, as in this poem.

# # #

I suppose there may be some readers of American poetry unfamiliar with Gunslinger, so for them, here’s the plot of this narrative-lyric-epic-mock epic poem: the narrator meets the Gunslinger in Mesilla, New Mexico and realizes he’s in need of some instruction, which is provided by not only the Slinger but also Miss Lil (a frontier madam), the Talking Horse (of course), the Singer/Poet (because all epics need a bard), and Kool Everything, a ’60s acid freak. In Book II, the narrator — heretofore known as “I” — dies, but is preserved by the administration of five gallons of uncut acid and then resurrected, in Book III, as the secretary to the Greek philosopher Parmenides. In between those books comes the famously difficult “The Cycle,” which is actually the cycle of Rupert’s wallet (Hughes morphs into Rupert and, later, Robart) and borrows some details from Hughes’s actual trip from Boston to Las Vegas in 1966. Following are more speculations about the nature of time and reality and a lot of rapid-fire puns, as the company is joined by other characters — Dr. Flamboyant, Tonto Pronto, Taco Desoxin, Portland Bill, and the Speaking Barrel — and near the end, Robart escapes to Chile (or Siberia) riding a cow and the company disperses with affectionate farewells.

Not your average Western, even one like Jodorosky’s El Topo. But what about that “relevance?” The first pictures of black holes were published just this year, but Rupert’s “Winged Car” seems eerily similar: 

There are no things there as such
Material is a not with the   K   detached
All is transhistorical, functions
Have no date … nothing occurs
Dates have no function anyway …
There is no light as we get it
Nor any dark as such and the atmos
Is the medium of variable tubes of spectra
Like nothing yet gleaned from the Sunne (98–99)

A little later in “The Cycle,” we meet Al the Atlante, one of Rupert’s henchmen, who

                  holds a tablet as a waiter
holds a tray
And upon the tablet rests an urn
Which in turn bears the inscription
            EMIT NO TIME …
Inside this urn are the ashes
The final remains of a colossal clock
Which stood in the hallway
At the beginning of Organized History (103–4)

These lines introduce us to Rupert’s main technique, his manipulation of time, in order to

[suspend] the messengers in the formula
of another instant
That they may never see, feel and conceive
And inhabit themselves for in No Way
May they occupie their instant …
They get sent for Burgers Everytime. (93)

“Oh Children! The hour has struck by the clock / Don’t mean shit to him” (106). There are other moments in Dorn’s poetry where things have no date, and they’re usually ominous, like the tombstone of “Goodpole Matthews, Pioneer” in the early poem “The Air of June Sings”: “that pioneer sticks in me like a wormed black cherry / in my throat, No Date, nothing but that zeal, that trekking / and Business, that presumption in a sacred place.”[4] That presumption is shared by Hughes, the original target of the Slinger and his company, who, as he morphs into Rupert and, later, Robart, becomes more of a caricature, with plans to invade our sacred, private places and freeze us there:

                                                The shrill scream
Of metal to metal across the switch-yard
The scream of the Accomplished Present
A conglomerate of Ends, The scream of Parallels
All tied down with spikes These are the spines
Of the cold citizens made to run wheels upon …
Thus rhythm has a duty to de-tour the Vast
Contra Naturam? Baby you ain’t heard nothing yet (97, 100)

These threats to time’s proper functioning — so that our attention is diverted by phantoms and “The shades are drawn against / The organ of the Imagination” (101) — constitute a major theme of the poem. It also seems like what’s going on today, with our collective attention locked onto our screens, many of which are monitoring our every impulse and action. Shoshanna Zuboff, in her magisterial new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, gives a new name to this instrumental power, calling it “a new global architecture of behavioral modification … based on total certainty” and accurately points out that the digital oligarchs are the robber barons of the twenty-first century, their business model premised on deliberate “psychic numbing” and our unconscious awareness of what they’ve been doing. “There’s vivid precedent for this kind of encounter with an unprecedented new species of power”[5] she writes. I agree: part of the precedent was this poem. Today Hughes/Rupert might be a rogue manager from Google or Facebook who’s figured out new ways to profit from what’s been uncovered about our habits through our phones and laptops. “And Rupert cackles and grabs for Breath / And hollers This! / Is what we keep the slums awake with.” (103)

This endless flow of digital entertainment can’t be fought with normal weapons: that would be mere materialism, “a stutter / of some deep somatic conflict” (74). Since the digital universe has assumed cosmic status, something new has to arrive on the set to combat it, and that’s what the Slinger and his company provide, primarily through their mutual conversation and repartee: resolutely anti-Cartesian, they move through a lively world where there’s no distinction between subject and object. Or as Charles Potts has it, “In order for a poem to be an epic, something heroic has to take place. In the case of Gunslinger, that heroicism is language itself.” This is a poem that finds normal, referential language fatally compromised and in need of an upgrade, one that would retain awareness of its ambiguities, its capacity for puns (even groaningly bad ones) and its ability to incorporate random quotes from Shakespeare and Keats. Anything goes, one feels while reading, except language that names or explains or takes itself too seriously: reality is always going to be more slippery than that. 

In that connection, it’s important to remember that the goal of the recitation of “The Cycle” is for the poet to “make / their azured systems warm Make your norm / their own      deliver them / from their Vicious Isolation” (89). While so isolated, it’s impossible to apprehend anything real:

That is, if you see a chair to sit in
You sit in the image of that chair
You fry an egg in the image of the skillet
Which looks at you like you’re Killin it
Goodbye anything which dares purport to Be (102)

But that’s exactly what the Slinger and his company do “purport.” Their goals and desires are most often seen in the introductions to the various books, as in this lovely section from the beginning of Book II:

This tapestry moves
as the morning lights up.
And they who are in it move
and love its moving
from sleep to Idea
born on the breathing
of a distant harmonium, To See
is their desire (45)

So the real battle is between sensate beings, who “wander estranged / through the lanes of the Tenders / of Objects” (45), and those ruled by calculation — those living in space-time or out of it — and that battle is waged, and won, throughout the poem. But it has to be fought again and again, or more precisely, we have to continually reorder our minds and senses and reorient ourselves so as not to sink into stasis, because Rupert has “only named the game / you know, He AIN’T DELT YET” (101).

Einstein wrote, “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” which is why there’s no “resolution” at the end of the poem. In space-time, there is no last battle at the OK Corral; indeed, every supposed confrontation, like the gun battle in the first book in which the Horse is threatened by a stranger or the attack by the owner of a horse who had been set free in the second, is revealed as a false stage set:

speed is not necessarily fast.
Bullets are not necessarily specific.
When the act is
so self contained
and so dazzling in itself
the target then
can disappear (30–31)

On the contrary, in Rupert’s car, there’s no process or forward time anymore: “there is indeed inside only / The No No No” (99). That Dorn labeled Rupert’s time distortions as “inside only” recalls his scorn — when I knew him in the late 1970s and in many interviews — about people’s self-involvement: “e-mail” he wrote in Languedoc Variorum,“is me mail.”[6] It’s instructive to remember that the prevailing mode of verse during the time this poem was written was called “confessional” poetry, which might describe some of his early work, but not this poem or anything after it:

I think now the ego is pretty obviously dead. One of the most obvious facts of present life is people talking about themselves or referring to themselves or being preoccupied with themselves. That’s about the most boring thing around. It’s a habit that really has seen its day. It’s not that it doesn’t persist, but it turns out that everybody’s everybody else. All our stories are so interchangeable.[7]

Thomas Gardner, in his American Poetry of the 1970s: A Preface, quotes John Ashbery saying that his poems were marked by “an individual consciousness confronting or being confronted by a world of external phenonema.”[8] I think that’s probably still the mode of mainstream poetry, which can fill a lot of bandwidth before ever approaching the wit of James Wright on his hammock. Dorn, on the other hand,

does not work within the largely egocentric, expressivist, or personist modes of his predecessors on the avant-garde scene … does not believe that one can so simply identify oneself with the landscape without encountering prior manipulations of the scene. The ‘self’ is not some autonomous generator of emotions, opinions, feelings, or yearnings; like the landscape, it is subject to material and social forces beyond.[9]

In one of his more direct proclamations, the Slinger prays for the horse (and us) to “feel”

and in your feeling move your bones
for the want we now have of your access
in this time so little beyond you …
needs your moving nerve
as it dries tacked
on the warp of its own flat sedimentary internalism (121)

This is why “I” becomes the secretary to Parmenides and why, as one of Dr. Flamboyant’s paradoxes has it, “Everything is prehensible / for from that which is not / we fall off” (137). In a poem filled with philosophical jokes, my favorite is spoken by the Horse, “What makes Process and Reality heavy / is the &!” (134). In this way, “Our company thus moves collectively / along the River Rio Grande” (46).

This collective movement is yet another reason why “I” had to be transformed: at the beginning of the poem, he’s like any other preconscious human, inattentive “and expect[ing] reason to Follow / as some future chain gang does / a well worn road” (16). The Slinger challenges him:

you want to know
what something means after you’ve
seen it, after you’ve been there
or were you out during
That time? (29)

That question might also be addressed to anyone analyzing what a poem means instead of just appreciating it.

# # #

And all of this is intensely political. For example, one recurring image in Dorn’s work is the metaphor of a scar, from the early “Dark Ceiling” — “Broad black scar the valley is”[10] — to “The Sundering UP Tracks” from The North Atlantic Turbine: “Every little bogus town / on the Union Pacific bears the scar / of an expert linear division.”[11] It also finds its way into the Prolegomenon of Book IIII

where the green mesas give way
to the Vulcan floor, not far
from Farmington and other interferences
with the perfect light
and the glittering trail
of the silent Via Lactea
there is a civil scar
so cosmetic, one can’t see it (146)

Dorn always knew, and wrote about, the divisions of American life, its poverty, its injustice: “I BELIEVE in the insensitivity of America,”[12] he said in a 1980 interview. In Slinger, he’s just dealing with those issues in another way, analogous to Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, standing outside the system of medieval political life he had always served. Near the end of the “Bibliography,” Olson posits the “law” that “the real power contemporary to one is kept hidden,” and recommends that we try to find out “how the money or ‘ownership’ really keeps its hidden hands on the machinery” (248). Similarly, Howard Hughes — in this poem and while he lived — is a nonpresence, not to be found: “this Howard is kinda / peculiar about bein Seen / like anywhere anytime” (10). He’s a shapeshifter, living “in the dangerous disguise of Nobody,” (92) thus joining the tenuous nature of other things and characters in this poem, like the dissertation of Dr. Flamboyant, “The Tensile Strength of Last Winters Icicles”: “it doesn’t exist. Like the star whose ray / announces the disappearance / of its master by the presence of itself” (82). But if, as Alan Golding argues, “Hughes and his cronies control also the terms for understanding history … then new terms, or new possibilities of understanding, must be created.”[13] When billions of dollars change hands in seconds through a few keystrokes, we have to “reverse the stream” of the turbine, not through material solutions but a shift in consciousness.

There’s a certain impatience with the overly rigid square world — an inheritance, perhaps, from the ’60s — against which “our mission is to encourage the purity of the Head” (63). But it’s not an exclusive club: “All may wake who live” (46). The goal isn’t scorn, as in many of Dorn’s later poems, but the inauguration of a different way of seeing: “and we concur To See / The Universe” (46). In this sense, the poem can be seen as idealistic, promoting a better look at things: a new world, one in which humans can consort with the semidivine.

Finally, though, it’s a poem, not a manifesto, and like the man said, it has to stay news. And Gunslinger does that by its humor and through its language: “We’re Here! laughed Everything / Sounds like an adverb / disguised as a place, commented the Slinger” (65).[14]

1. Marjorie Perloff, foreword to Gunslinger, 50th anniversary ed., by Edward Dorn (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), viii.

2. For more on this term coined by Alfred North Whitehead, see Ferdinand Santos and Santiago Sia.

3. Thomas Foster, “‘Kick[ing] the Perpendiculars Outa Right Anglos’: Edward Dorn’s Multiculturalism,” Contemporary Literature 38, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 79.

4. Edward Dorn, Collected Poems, ed. Jennifer Dunbar Dorn (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2012), 109.

5. Soshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019), 352.

6. Dorn, Collected, 825.

7. Edward Dorn, Interviews, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980), 49.

8. John Ashbery, quoted in Thomas Gardner, “American Poetry of the 1970s: A Preface,” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 4 (Autumn 1982): 407.

9. Donald Wesling, introduction to Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 6.

10. Dorn, Collected, 186.

11. Dorn, Collected, 283.

12. Edward Dorn, “Ed Dorn’s Views,” interview by Tom Clark, in Views (Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980), 15.

13. Alan Golding, “History, Mutation and the Mutation of History in Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger,” in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the “Jubilation of Poets”, ed. Leonard M. Trawick (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990), 46. My italics.

14. Besides Olson’s “Bibliography,” this edition also reprints Michael Davidson’s fine 1981 essay “To Eliminate the Draw: Edward Dorn’s Slinger” and a short foreword by Marjorie Perloff, along with her 1989 introduction to the second edition. I’m also indebted to Tom Clark’s biography of Dorn, A World of Difference, Alan Golding, “History, Mutation and the Mutation of History in Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger,” “‘Kick[ing] the Perpendiculars Outa Right Anglos’: Edward Dorn’s Multiculturalism” by Thomas Foster, “On Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger” by Charles Potts, and the fine collection of essays about Dorn edited by Donald Wesling called Internal Resistances.