Rancho Lazy-L

Lanthanum.  The design of this long, long poem is like the letter "L" laid on its back. For 3/4ths of the way it pokes along, slow & repetitive, sleepy... & then finally it stands up!  Like lazy Hobo, or Lazarus in his grave - a lazy Rus.  Like a Mississippi river-barge, or Mandelstam's "Egyptian bark of the dead."  

Or Lanthanum is like a still gray clam, rather dull on the outside... which finally produces a pearl. You have to be patient & willing to listen as it goes along - a very quiet turtle (or turtle-dove) song.

The numerical design of this poem is rather intricate and symbolic - something like a wheel.  But I will leave that for others to figure out....


poetry continuum

Next project may be some kind of essay, responding to the discussion around Marjorie Perloff's article on the Conceptual poets, and Matvei Yankelevich's response, & so on.  The effort to inject Russian avant-garde/Futurist/Formalist models and theories into the American milieu has a pretty long history.  The Language Poets expressed an affinity for same.  Perloff's critical formulae have an oddly recherche quality, and Yankelevich echoes that to some extent : they both set up the personal MFA-workshop lyric as the great stumbling-block to literary advance, the middle-brow bourgeois anti-intellectual mainstream conventionality which must be demolished and overcome.

I have an ongoing, longstanding problem with this maneuver... I remember arguing about it often on the Buffalo Poetics list back in the 90s.  My problem is that I identify with the contrasting poetics and worldview of the Russian Acmeists.  Of course there were crossovers and overlaps and collaborations between these two (or three or four) tendencies in 20th-cent Russian poetry - yet the basic contrast is there.  And I'm repeatedly impelled to try to articulate it, to re-draw that line.  For me it gets to the character of one's most basic sense of what the art of poetry is, is for.

Is art, is poetry, a radical detachment from experience - a permanent "making strange"?  Are the roots of art in the alienation effect - of consciousness detached from unthinking life?  This it seems to me is a fundamental article of faith among the modernist and postmodern avant-garde.  Even the efforts of Dada and similar movements to disintegrate the special status of the art object, to merge art with everyday life, seem to be rooted in an act of disjunction : of shock, of breakage.  The avant-garde seems tinged with violence at its core.  The Futurists' concept of "the word as such" really means the word uprooted from its origins in the whole continuum of a language (the history of words, of syntax, of rhetoric, of representation, of dialect... and of meaning).  Words were to be treated as things : not living things, but material - in other words, available (in an ethical sense) for artistic manipulation by force.

The Acmeists' shared sense of their vocation (I mean Gumilev, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, primarily) and of the nature of poetry is strikingly different.   The best word I can think of to describe this attitude is "continuum".   The "word as such" - for Gumilev, for example - is God.  Such an equation implies the whole panorama of Western cultural history.  The word - words - exist in a continuum : of speech, of sentences, of philology, of cultural history, of time, of theology... and of past poets and poetry.  You cannot tear off a piece of language by violence without harming the continuum.  As Mandelstam put it : "the Word is bread and suffering".

As I see it, this is a fundamentally "incarnational" concept of poetry.  We don't know words as detached self-sufficient entities : words are inflected and shaded by their presence in the poems of the past.  Words have a history in flesh and blood, and continue to appear there, in the matrix of human conflict and strife : not as instigators of more shock and violence, but as avenues for mediation and reconciliation (peacemaking, healing).

I think there's a mystical dimension to all this.  In the Acmeist sense of the "word as such", an aesthetic equilibrium arises which is really rooted in the unity of experience and representation, of intellect and sense, of word and flesh.  Union, oneness, harmony.  This is something I hope to explore more fully in another essay.


Why I am a Russian poet


                Brown Univ. Bookstore, Providence, RI.  July 18, 2012

Stuart and I are here today as part of the Bookstore’s Local Authors series.  And we are local authors – very local.  But we’re involved with something global, even universal.  Poetry is a world endeavor, and we are caught up in that, each in our own way.  For my part, I consider myself  a sort of  Russian from Minneapolis.  I’ve been inspired by a group of poets based in St. Petersburg around 1910, who called themselves Acmeists : Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam.  Mandelstam defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture”.  This is a concise summary of their sense of poetry as an enterprise in building civilization, and as poetry as a global, trans-historical continuum, a tradition stretching back into prehistory.  

Orpheus, legendary ur-poet of Greece, was priest of Apollo, god of music and medicine : a pairing which suggests that art and song are about healing.  For the Greeks, this meant a restoration of health and balance through reason, justice, clarity, wisdom.  Orpheus, Apollo’s representative, fell victim to the frenzy of the cult of Dionysius : the music of the word was sacrificed to the fury of desire amputated from understanding.  Poetry appears at the edge of this polarity, between mind and sense, intellect and feeling, consciousness and dream.  The Acmeists looked to their national poet, Pushkin, as embodying such an equipoise – at the cusp between alternating waves of neo-classicism and romanticism.  

Mandelstam wrote : “Classicism is revolution.”  This had a special implication in the context of revolutionary 1920s Russia.  The Acmeists were seeking a paradigm, within art, for the sanity and equilibrium – the “nostalgia for world culture” – which they recognized in the poetry of the ancient world.  The Roman poet Virgil was searching for such balance in his own day.  His Georgics, ostensibly an agricultural manual in verse, was really a meditation on a world which had fallen from a Golden Age of rural peace, into an Iron Age of violence and war.  The “audacity of the poet”, as Virgil put it, was to re-imagine that Golden Age, by way of an all-embracing pity : compassion for a world oppressed by the rule of brutality, force and chaos.  This is the fundamental Apollonian vocation : through imagination and song, to bring mankind, us, back to our senses – our intuition of profound justice and harmony.  This is the inner meaning of Mandelstam’s “nostalgia for world culture” : he thought of Classicism in this sense as the future.  

To my mind, these ideas bring us back to the local, as well : for here we are, in Providence : we are Providence poets.  Providence, to Roger Williams, the city’s founder, is a theological term, closely bound up with the RI state motto : Hope.  Providence signifies a cosmic plan : the Master Architect’s (or Musician’s) intention to restore all things to their original well-being.  Note how the meaning of this word resonates with Virgil’s, and the Acmeists’, sense of the poet’s vocation.

Today we are awash in aggressive discourses, a feverish babble of new technological means and motives.  Many today would advance the image of the poet as master communicator : rock star, rapper, stand-up comedian, celebrity, social spokesperson, political activist, promoter of recondite ideologies.  But I think the most basic stance of the poet is as listener.  Dante wrote, “Love speaks, and I follow after, noting down her words like a scribe.”  The poet listens to a mute song : the whisper of conscience, the music of understanding.  And this means that we are all poets here – Stuart and I and each of you, who are also listening.                                                                                                                                                                                                             



Lanthanum 12.23

       ...nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, 
       and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.  They grasped not only the whole race of men then
       living, but... reached forward... seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon...     
          – Abraham Lincoln (Aug. 17, 1858)
Your birthday tomorrow, Grandma   born
on the 4th of July, 1900   far off there   in
Sunset Land   I’m thinking of you   & of
Great-Grandma   J.   2-wheeler captain’s
daughter   Jessie O.   Ophelia   the river-girl
now   at the end of this   milk-train rainbow
way back in   summertime   prairiespace   O
Jessie, little tree   I hear that lonesome horn
wail   my old St. Anthony trystle-humlet
suspended 7th   plunged into black earth
a shiny hinter-horn   of milky lanthanum
(dawn-anthem)   &   Amaranthousa   sets
her Pocahontaseal   a Morning Star   some
menorah-constellatio   over 50 more   their
hard-earned stripes   a chord (accord)   for
ear attuned   to Jubileeday (freequilibrium)
only a promise of   soul liberty   (Everyhew-
manever)   under these stars   their birthright
mine   may be   new birth of freedom   (night
brings dawn)   the sun of justice   risen again
to bloom   as once   on earth   in stable   born
out of the Pharaoh’s precinct   into happiness
just over Jordan (almondejoie) by wilderness
to mercy   forgiveness   peace   a Restoration
of all things   beneath two tender-tending wings   lark
tempering my mumbling   well, contrapuntal   polar
sarabande   (labor & rest   yin & yang).  Soar,
7/4   to 4x7 : welded   annealed   (almond birchbark)

O Happy Henry


Lanthanum 12.22

We drove to the curl of Sakonnet Point   at the
SE corner of RI   snuck past the private property
& the “keep out” signs   onto its pebbly spiral jetty
& watched the sun set, somehow   into the Atlantic
late early summer evening   the sun only an eye
veiled in lambent mist   57 fine shades of violet
most luminous sky   ever screened by retina   &
I saw   one kind round   rose   iris   in clerestory
lanthanum air-cathedral   through the vault
of steel   in heart of the earth   or simply
the heart itself   where 144 lines meet (ply
pan o’ply) an elemental number (all complete
now, fin)   for Love is Lake Victoria   of Poem
& Universe   the shared factor (O Unionverse)
both yin & yang   a givenreceptive   openness
infinitenfoldunfurled banner of Joy (freedom)
Love is egalitarian & kind   it will not break
the weakest willow branch   of orphan   poor
man   widow   it will endure with them,   for
righteousness   & justice   & when the scales
fall from our eyes at last   we’ll behold Scales
held in your palm   of matrix-lines   life-lines
a Romany (RIMN) hrmny, Maggie   28 pines
all swimming into view   &   one eye-in-hand 
prevails.   & the shadow of your hand   on my
brow   in the starlight   of Cosmos-over-Chaos
(olive mountain)   your paddlwhrlng S-O-S (O
sip & see)   Ja-El   Jessie O’L   little song-tree


Lanthanum 12.21

I’ve lived for some years now   along Abba River
in Q’ville   a stream wide, deep, invisible   to which
Ocean is tributary   & stars are lights   each
in a niche of a bend   along its banks   a quiver-
full are clustered   at the center of the earth
matrix of bends & origami folds   a silvery thread
knotted tight   & gleaming there   the stream’s head
source &   watershed   (east   west   north   south)
This river’s where   inside turns out   & myrrh
turns mirror (by St. Louie MO)   where wanderer
goes OM at last   prodigal Absalom   to his poor
long-forsaken Solomon (Abba   Pop   Dad   Father)
& the tripod of their lost, lasting embrace   is
bond of universal steel   (titanium-lanthanum-
oxide alloy)   which is most tautwound   anthem-
flower   in the planetary plot   grave Providence
of all things   in those arms   their hands
united   fingers   interwoven &   unbreakable
palm-vault   beyond every Olympic pinnacle   of
bronze or gold   & racing now (triple-handstands)
toward that Finnish line   in summertime   halcyon
days   up north   (is it Karelia?  Sibelius swam-
pineland?)   where a vain little man   in his own
birch canoe (Longfellow?  Hiawatha?)   glides down
Minnehaha Creek   his boat festooned with 7 flags
of 50 stars (red, blue, purple)   a paper hat (or
tiny boat) crowning his brow   crowing   Excelsior!
paddling home   (homesick Frank   in his glad rags)