If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.
– Andrew Schelling
… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…
– Kenneth Rexroth
The important first West Coast poet was Robinson Jeffers, whose life revolved around the notion that Western culture ended at the California coast. Though he did not turn his energies toward the cultures of Asia, he set the stage for poets on the West Coast of North America do just that and give North Americans a viable direction for advances in culture away from the one-dimensional industry-generated culture that is marking the end of the American empire. As William Everson points out, California residents are “at the center, rather than on the periphery, of American experience” (Everson 5). That center is increasingly looking west, to the East, for meaning.
We can look though the lens of California and see the boundaries, the extremes, the beauty and the disasters this Western Civilization has either offered to, or foisted on, the world. In the disaster category, the state was way ahead of the rest of the country with the ballot measure Proposition 13, which limited property taxes at the expense of public education. The state had a public education system near the top of all U.S. states in the 1960s, but recently was assessed at number 48 (1). (This voter-approved amendment to that state’s constitution happened decades before a general de-funding of education in Western countries, exemplified by the proposed tuition increases and subsequent riots in California and several European countries in 2010 (2).) The beauty of California culture is seen in the general acceptance of alternative lifestyles (including Gay and Lesbian citizens, most notably in San Francisco), the fact that the state is not uniformly religious but spiritual (home to the two largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere and by some accounts also home to forty percent of all Buddhists in the U.S.), the software innovations of Silicon Valley and the legendary California environmental ethos (3); the air quality in Los Angeles notwithstanding. I could add poetry to that list, but that will become evident as this essay unfolds.
Jeffers was raised on Western culture, learning Greek and Latin at a very young age. He was as familiar in the Western canon as one could be and his conclusion was that Western civilization was dying there at or beyond the rocky shores of Carmel, California. He called it the most bewildered and self-contradictory, the least integrated, in some places the most ignoble that has ever existed. In the poem “The Coast Road”, he reinforced that by calling it “A rich and vulgar and bewildered civilization dying at its core” (Karman 100).
Ring of Fire
The West Coast of North America, for Jeffers and a number of innovative poets to follow him, represented the end of Western Culture, but it also, geologically, represents the end of the North American Tectonic Plate and the beginning of the Pacific Plate. The Pacific Ring of Fire has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. About 90% of the world’s earthquakes and 80% of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire (4). What ramifications does this fact have on people in this part of the world, especially when you consider we’re beings affected mostly by energy, by invisible fields of all kinds5. Like anything intense, it brings out the best and worst of people, to extremes. But, energetically, it connects the people of North America and Asia. It is the largest plate on the planet not featuring a single continent. It is not a stretch to understand how people from this part of the world are energetically connected to each other more so than the typical interconnection one might understand from a Buddhist point of view.
While the East Coast of North America has more in common with Europe, the West Coast’s proximity to Asian and indigenous cultures colors this part of the world. The philosopher Ervin Laszlo says:
the traditional Eastern conception differs from the view held by most people in the West. In the modern commonsense conception, reality is material. The things that truly exist are bits or particles of matter… Energy also enjoys reality (since it acts on matter), but space does not: space is merely the backdrop or the container against which, or in which, material things trace their careers… [S]pace is…empty and passive and not even real…in complete opposition to the view we get from contemporary physics…the unified vacuum – is in fact the primary reality of the universe…What we think of as matter is but the quantized, semi-stable bundling of the energies that spring from the vacuum (141).
An organismic paradigm is at play here where people increasingly understand the inherent interconnection of all things. The connection to Jeffers, according to Sam Hamill, is part of the foundation of North American West Coast poets. That foundation questions Western myths and archetypes such as the white knight or John Wayne coming at the last minute to the rescue. And unlike states on the East Coast, the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington were not British colonies. Hamill points out that the West Coast is newer land to non-native settlers and residents here, and those residents:
rub shoulders with Native Americans constantly. Whereas in New York City and Boston, not so much. So we’re open to that deeper sense of what we would call biodiversity, both among humans and non-human species. (6)
This transcends the anthropocentric model, and is more aligned with Native American cultures and the ancient wisdom traditions of Asia. Hamill also points out that the translations of ancient Chinese poetry from Witter Bynner, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth and others were hugely influential on North American poetry. Hamill once suggested that Ezra Pound’s Cathay was the most influential book of the 20th Century (7). Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese was quite influential as well and Rexroth may be considered the next important West Coast poem after Jeffers. He considered “Tu Fu the greatest non-epic, non dramatic poet who has survived in any language”(90).
As evidenced by his extensive and influential translations he was, unlike Jeffers, quite influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry and culture employed a seven syllable line in much of his work. Tu Fu may have been the source for this. In his 1946 poem “Letter to William Carlos Williams” he suggests people of the future will see Williams, and his love for the local river the Passaic, in this way:
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it, and part of him.
That, children, is what is called
A sacramental relationship.
And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
That last always.” (293)
Here Rexroth suggests, as Whitehead might, that the Passaic River is an event that became a part of Williams and, through him, a part of us. In this short excerpt of one of Rexroth’s best known poems, the cosmology that inspires much of the poetry that makes the West Coast of North America unique is communicated here, succinctly and quite clearly. That poetry which is concerned with sacrament and is voice-based, or as Olson said uses the “ear as measurer”, illustrates the debt owed to Buddhism and other Asian wisdom traditions.
The cosmology among the poetry innovators of this region, while not always fully articulated by those writers as well as Rexroth in this example, can be described as an organismic or process model. The basic blocks of the universe can be seen as occasions of experience, linked to all past occasions and influencing future occasions. This model has its source in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, but can be traced through Whitehead back further to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and may have been best articulated by the Hua-yen Buddhist School, known through the Flower Garland Sutra, or the interdependent origination of the universe. The fields of the past don’t disappear, but continue to resonate in ways not fully understood. In his famous speech, the Chief for whom the city of Seattle was named was said to have put it this way:
And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone8.
Zen Buddhism and other Eastern Religions, Practitioners
Hua-yen Buddhism is especially appropriate to understand the underpinnings of the culture of this region, as experienced by its leading poets. In Francis Cook’s The Jewel Net of Indra, it is described as the one vehicle with common teaching and the one vehicle with distinct teaching. That distinct teaching would be that the universe is “an infinitely repeated identity and interdependence of all phenomena” (Cook 35). This cosmology is best illustrated by the concept of the serial poem, as espoused by Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, which will be examined below. Zen is also a major influence on North American West Coast poets, including Gary Snyder.
No single poet looms larger from the U.S. side of the Pacific Rim as an exemplar of the poetics of this region than Snyder. He has enabled West Coast residents (and beyond) to know their place in the world, in the words of Timothy Gray, by being “willing to trace the contours of a larger domain, make contact with a wide array of its citizens, and return home with this new knowledge in tow” (x).
Introduced to Chinese poetry via Ezra Pound’s translations and a student of classical Chinese in graduate school, Snyder was also influenced by another Chinese poetry translator, Kenneth Rexroth. As a young man at Reed College with poets Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, Snyder felt modernism did not fit as a model for writing out of his own experience, but Chinese and Japanese did. A book of his translations of the T’ang era mountain Chan poet Han-shan, a long period of study of Zen in Japan and a book based on his wilderness experiences (Riprap), his book Turtle Island, led to Snyder being one of the most recognized poets in North America, perfecting a poetry with visual clarity, simple language, consummate integrity and bioregional ethos (9). That ethos was established in Snyder as a hiker, lookout and trail crew worker in Yosemite, the North Cascades and other mountain areas of the Western United States. Gray writes,
In Riprap Snyder employs the rhythms of Chinese poetics to make sense of American landscapes, whereas in “Cold Mountain Poems” he draws upon his knowledge of American landscapes to make sense of Chinese poetry…In 1955 when Snyder wrote his Yosemite trail poetry and embarked on his study of Han-shan… he came to understand that the category of “foreign” is more familiar than it first appears… We might say Snyder’s twin projects “broke through decayed barriers of a familiar language to place words and images from Cold War America under the spell of Pacific Rim consciousness (101).
Snyder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975 for Turtle Island, a nod to an aboriginal name for North America, and did his Masters thesis on Haida mythology. The confluence of Asian and Native American cultures found its first major voice in Snyder and the influence on North American culture has yet to be fully comprehended, but is substantial.
Another plain-speaking West Coast poet who comes directly out of the Rexroth tradition is Sam Hamill, who made a “Bodhisattva vow to follow the practice of Zen and The Way of Poetry” early in his literary career (10). A conscientious objector as a U.S. Marine, Hamill has translated ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, studied Japanese and lived in Japan for a time, founded a successful press (Copper Canyon) and ran it for three decades and has published a dozen collections of poetry. He wrote most of that work in a home he built on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, just outside of Port Townsend, which he named Kage-an, or “Shadow Hermitage”. His Bodhisattva vow, echoed by other North American poets such as Anne Waldman, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima and Andrew Schelling, is expressed in a clear poetry in which speaking truth to power is one of the most important responsibilities of the poet.
In his recent poem “Habitations”, in part a tribute to artist Ian Boyden, Hamill shows his resonance with the Buddhist concept of the inherent interconnections of all things, as well as his affinity with the indigenous concept of animism:
of time, vast seas of memory:
contains the seeds
He dragged from the river
an ancient cedar log,
and used it to bind
a book. From shark-tooth, cuttlefish
and fossilized ear-bone of whale,
pigments for ink;
from stone, the soul
of stone, earth from earth,
from thistle and feather,
a made thing,
and yet it is an organism,
it has a life.
I say, the trees listen,
and even soil has mind (2).
Hamill’s intense dedication to justice and non-violence has been best exemplified by his 2003 editorship of the largest single-theme poetry anthology ever compiled, “Poets Against War”. Over 30,000 poems were submitted by over 26,000 poets, all against the U.S. war against Iraq.
A more recent voice in poetics emerges from Vancouver late in the 20th century, blending a unique and hermetic poetry of interconnectedness with quantum physics and a sense of field theory. In Lissa Wolsak’s statement of poetics entitled “An Heuristic Prolusion”, she mentions (or names) concepts such as:
Transhumance, a personal~social act of symmetry, reciprocity and redistribution… Co-mercy, the act of harmlessness…
Trans-anthropological, a more skillful term to express the re-emerging sense of the human species role as part of the eco-system rather than dictator of it.. (Wolsak 143)11.
Qualia, temporary states flagging our “immediate” reality and are that which gives things its qualities… the essential substance of consciousness… (146).
It’s also clear to Wolsak that the methods of composition favored by innovative North American West Coast poets, such as the Organic method, as developed by Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, the Projective method, so called by Charles Olson and utilized by Michael McClure and Robin Blaser, among others, are attempts to get to the unconscious. Wolsak calls it the “center of our mental life, or at least nearer the divine” and suggests that “an imaginative response is one in which the distinction between the emotional and intellectual has disappeared” and refers to it as “the phosphorus of the mystery” (145). Her nod to specifically Eastern influences comes in “An Heuristic Prolusion” in which she quotes the Buddha, “There is no production, only interdependence” (151).
There is one last note on matters of spirituality as they are engaged by poets of this side of the Pacific Rim. Though McClure has published books of poems based on his meditation practice (12) and has cited Hua-yen Buddhism as a source for his own poetics/cosmology, in an early essay of his on Reason, he gives us a few hints as to what to look for in our own search, in our own practice:
What comes straight in through the senses and combines with imagination without distortion in the concrete reality on which reason is based (Meat 115).
Reason is a physical process felt kinesthetically by the body (117).
It should be noted that this essay was inspired by an early ‘60s experience McClure had with Subud and specifically the exercise upon which this worldwide spiritual organization is based, the latihan kedjiwaan, which translates from the Indonesian as spiritual training. McClure’s report of this experience in the book Meat Science Essays resonates deeply with his poetics and cosmology (intertwined, at least if not synonymous) and demonstrates how the best poetry from this region is embodied in a state deeper than belief or theory (13). It is experiential and grounded in a kind of reason that may, at first, be difficult for casual readers to comprehend. The latihan itself is described often by Subud members and the movement’s founder as a kind of receiving, which strikes me as quite similar to the spontaneous method of composition described above. Surely this method, again from the East, presents large new realms of possibilities for poetry and other expressions of culture.
George Bowering, Fred Wah, Stan Persky, Phyllis Webb, George Stanley and the writers constellated around the TISH movement in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early 1960s found a resonance with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and other poets constellated around San Francisco in the 1950s. In his book of short statements on poetics, Bowering said,
I do not compose poetry to show you what I have seen, but rather because I have seen…[T]his poet’s job is not to tell you what it is like, but to make a poem…[N]ot trying to use your poems to prove a point, or address an argument. Not to try to control what they’re (the poems) are doing…but rather to be a kind of audience listening to where the poem is going to go…the practice of outside…Try to forget your own voice…and listen hard for what the language is saying… [Y]ou yourself are the audience, hearing a voice you’ve trained your ear to receive” (6, emphasis added)
the abandoning of an attempt to describe the world in favour of transforming it by way of shaping imagination. The writers beginning the new can take content, the flimsiest of things, and transmuting it through the imagination, making metaphor, allow the language to tell its own story. This will not be a description of life, but ultimately as real as life (138).
Born in Los Angeles in 1925, Jack Spicer was part of the Berkeley, then San Francisco, Renaissance. His lectures in Vancouver have become legendary and with Duncan and Olson fostered a truly original, Organic and Pacific Rim-focused poetics in that city and beyond. He likened a poet to a radio station picking up a signal from Mars. Here are a few choice nuggets of his poetics:
…Prose invents – poetry discloses…
…A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer…
…Muses do exist, but now I know that they are not afraid to dirty their hands with explication – that they are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn’t get into the poem…
…The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us – not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem…
…Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can…
…It simply isn’t the matter of being able to get a fast take. It’s something else, but a fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up with some source of power, some source of energy…(274).
Spicer’s notion of dictation, that a poet is akin to a radio station tuned into a signal from Mars, speaks directly to the organic poet’s ability to turn (non-linear and non-logical) impulses from the myriad fields he or she allows into the poems. His poem “Sporting Life” alludes to his famous statement:
The trouble with comparing a poet to a radio is that radios
don’t develop scar tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replaceable or not replaceable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in the bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
They will sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions (373).
The best of the poets of this region’s North American sector employ a quality which comes directly out of the Pound/H.D./William Carlos Williams imagistic school, or as Pound once called it phanopoeia, the casting of visual images onto the mind’s eye, but it’s considerably more complicated than simple imagery. In the introduction to Michael McClure’s Three Poems, Robert Hunter called the work “a theoretic bias grounded in specific objectivising technique,” and claimed that McClure’s conceptual forte is “grounded in an informed Zen mode of perception, focused as ease within the moment” (x). Hunter called McClure’s mode “primordial ecstasy in the life of the biological organism, the visions of its biologic mind and its essential animal spirit. That this requires a sensation of at-oneness with the subject matter is not surprising” (xi). Hunter calls it spiritual precision, but Alfred North Whitehead called it prehension and there are parallels going back in all mystic traditions. Negative prehension is intelligence, that is, choosing not to engage with something from your environment. Prehending something requires that object becoming an extension of yourself. There is a quality of gratitude, appreciation and often awe which accompanies this state. That McClure has it as the foundation of his praxis is part of what gives his work its power.
So, the elements here are not strictly Pacific Rim based, but that is one of the key modes of innovative writers from this side of the Pacific. In addition to precision of imagery, other elements include clear sharp language, luminous details, spontaneous composition and reverent attention to the moment and its possibilities. A writer better known for his song lyrics than his poetry is Bob Dylan, who, in an interview, clarified that last facet:
You can make something lasting. I mean, in order to live forever you have to stop time. In order to stop time you have to exist in the moment, so strong as to stop time and prove your point. So that you have stopped time. And if you succeed in doing that, everyone who comes into contact with what you’ve done – whatever it might be, whether you’ve written a poem, carved a statue or painted a painting – will catch some of that. What’s funny is that they won’t realize it, but that’s what they’ll recognize (15).
This phenomenological perspective would be relevant to a large amount of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry. And the Hua-yen Buddhists understood the importance of immersion into phenomenology. In his book on that school, Francis Cook said:
The effort of self-transcendence, by which egotism, pride and delusion are destroyed, is accompanied by a parallel immersion even more deeply than before into the concrete world of things. Rather than banish things as unworthy, such a vision reinstates the common and ordinary (as well as the “horrible” and “disgusting”) to a position of ultimate value. The Hua-yen vision entails both a loss and a gain. The loss is the loss of the intruding self, which will not let things be what they are. The gain is the new ability to see that everything is wonderful and good…(Cook 88)
Serial Poem not epic
While collage is one method used by some of the innovative poets of the Western sector of this region (North America) to get, in Lissa Wolsak’s words “nearer to the divine,” there is a method which has been the mode of choice for the master innovators who have called the West Coast of North America home. Stan Persky, a poet who was directly involved with the vibrant literary scene in San Francisco in the early ‘60s and then the equally vibrant Vancouver community from the mid-‘60s to the present day, suggests that the serial poem was a form “Jack Spicer had invented… in his book After Lorca” (4). Among the West Coast poets to have engaged this form to different degrees include Spicer, Duncan, McClure, Bowering, Phyllis Webb, Nathaniel Mackey and Robin Blaser. In the author’s note to his collected poems, or his serial poem The Holy Forest, Blaser writes,
These poems follow a principle of randonée – the random and given of the hunt, the game, the tour. Poems called Image-Nations come and go throughout, as I come upon them…The whole thing: just trying to be at home. That’s the plot (xxv).
In his foreword, the poet Charles Bernstein recognizes Blaser “enters upon his own power without distraction or compromise” and it happens in the “still shifting edge of that West.” Bernstein also quotes the last words Jack Spicer said to Blaser before Spicer died, “My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on,” and points out that our words are literally our world, that their permission, what they lead us to is all we have” (xix). This is why Albert Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge” and is why the power of the best poets of this region comes from a source Blaser called The Practice of Outside, getting again to the fields larger than one’s self, whether you call them the Collective Unconscious, the Noosphere, the Buddhafield, the Akashic Field or any number of other terms. Blaser, perhaps more than any other 20th century poet from this region, understood the dual responsibility of the poet to connect with that larger consciousness while trying to be “at home.” Blaser goes on,
It seems to me that the whole marvelous thing of open form is a traditional and an American problem…the whole thing came in a geography where the traditional forms would no longer hold our purposes. I was very moved when, some years ago, I was reading a scholarly book by Jo Miles in which she is making an argument for the sublime poem…and she begins to talk about the narrative of the spirit. I think the key word here is narrative – the story of persons, events, activities, images, which tell the tale of the spirit.
I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative – what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem – that is a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves. The poems tend to act as a sequence of energies which run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a Carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected:
to tell of bodies
into new shapes
you gods, whose power
worked all transformations,
help the poet’s breathing,
lead my continuous song
from the beginning to the present world (xx)
Bernstein, in his foreword, points out that one is not simply led to a conclusion, but to “be taken by just such a magical carmen perpetuum to all the image-nations of this remarkable, revivifying world. And that, in the words of Charles Olson “we do what we know before we know what we do” (xxi). In first part of his serial poem, Blaser illustrates (as he experiences) the kind of consciousness that makes this kind of poetry possible, this organic gesture, this serial form:
Image-Nation I (the fold)
the participation is broken
fished from a sky of fire
the fiery lake pouring itself
to reach here
that matter of language caught
in the fact so that we
meet in paradise in such
times, the I consumes itself (89)
And in “Image-Nation 3 (substance,” as driven by the limit of his words, he shows us the force which enables writing at this caliber,
if that language goes
whose power drank from the body, gave
the body, gave amor a skin,
an act, the worshipped height higher
than what is left
another amor inescapable pouring, holding
that shape here together (91)
In “Image-Nation 8 (morphe,” he gives us more clues as to this process and the experience of it:
a gift I know nothing of form
that is my own doing all out
of one’s self our words were
the form we entered, turning intelligible
and strange at the point of
the words were the attributes
of what we were out there
watching the sun swim (164)
Nathaniel Mackey’s “Mu” and “Song of the Andoumboulou”
Nathaniel Mackey, though having recently moved to the East Coast, is a Pacific Rim poet who has used the serial form and an inheritance of Black Mountain and San Francisco Renaissance poetics (especially Duncan) to launch a “methodical exploration of the shamanistic, visionary and vatic as potential, rather than programmatically reaffirming, registers of poetics discourse.” His work has been described as an “intensification of incompletion” featuring a “political urge to uncover the sources of hegemony that undermine efforts at otherwise investigative and potentially liberational discourses” (Mossin 542). While fully engaging the post-modern traditions of dissonance and fragmentation, there is a vibrant spirituality in Mackey’s work, which ironically looks to African, Egyptian and Caribbean indigenous and mythic traditions rather than the Indigenous North American and ancient Asian sources most other poets of this region use as part of their poetic and cosmological foundations.
In his twin-constructed serial poem, consisting of “Mu” (referring at once to the title of a record by avant-garde jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and the mythical lost continent of Lemuria), and a funeral dirge for a kind of incomplete progenitor spirits of the Dogon tradition, “Song of the Andoumboulou,” Mackey investigates the effort to create identity from fragmented narratives of cultural and societal reality. The conclusion, so far, in Mossin’s words, is that there is no recovery possible, but only “the haunted reminders of a potential never-was” (553).
Mackey’s take on serial form seems in sync with the Hua-yen notion of reality quoted above, that it the universe is “an infinitely repeated identity and interdependence of all phenomena” (Cook 35). Mackey says serial form is:
Provisional, ongoing, the serial poem moves forward and backward both, repeatedly “back / at / some beginning,” repeatedly circling or cycling back, doing so with such adamance as to call forward and back into question and suggest an eccentric step to the side (xi)
And at his best, he’s creating a magical cognitive dissonance with his poetry (and prose) that embodies the heart of Keats’ negative capability and, at the same time, swings with a bebop and free jazz-inspired musicality.
On Antiphon Island they lowered
the bar and we bent back. It
wasn’t limbo we were in albeit
we limbo’d. Everywhere we
limbo’d, legs bent, shoulder
blades grazing the dirt,
sweat salting the silence
we broke… Limbo’d so low we
fell and lay up looking at
the clouds, backs embraced by
ground and the ground a fallen
we were ambushed by …(64)
Mackey goes on in the poem to fill in a few more details, “Where we/were was the hold of a ship we were/caught/ in.” And later how he saw, “A trickle of water lit by the sun/ I saw with an injured eye…” (65). Now is this a slave ship narrative from Africa to North America, something buried in his genetics or cultural experience, or something deeper? Mu? This poem is “Mu’s” twenty-eighth part and we can wonder many things. Did such a continent exist? If so, was the keeping of slaves and other such acts a part of their downfall? The continent of Mu, by the way, was said to be between North America and Australia, making it the one continent most deeply connected to the Pacific plate mentioned above. And the melopoeia! Check the b sounds in this fragment and then the s’s, as well as the line “andoumboulous birth-shirts.”
And the reaction by the narrator of this poem and his fellow captives to their state? Even after apparent beatings (“a trickle of blood hung/ overhead I heard in spurts”, “injured eye”) we get:
music ran our legs and we danced…
bent, asses all but on the floor, love’s
Could we be in Mu? The poem ends, “no/ way where we were/ was there (65).
Mackey’s serial poem leads us back to mythical lost continents and back into the roots of the current geo-political conflicts in “Splay Anthem,” his latest book of poems from which Antiphon Island is taken. His “Sigh of the Moor,” Mu’s thirty-third part, reminds us what Muslims are all too conscious of, that there have been centuries of conflict between Christians and Muslims. How we valorize that time, that effort! An all-boys high school near where I grew up had a nickname of The Crusaders. If there is an ongoing serial poem with greater depth and skill, I have not yet seen it.
West Inspiring East
While the East has had a powerful impact on the West in terms of poetry, spirituality and consciousness, in a 1994 interview conducted with the author, Allen Ginsberg pointed out that, besides Poe, Walt Whitman was the first major American poet to have influence in the rest of the world.
He was the one who introduced a whole new language of Open Form, vernacular talk, exuberance and self-empowerment, very democratically, into the literatures of all the countries in the world… In China in 1919 there were a couple of poets… who translated Whitman for the first time, and it had a tremendously energizing effect on poetry all over the world, even for the Surrealists and the Futurists in Russia 1907, 1910.
And the Beat movement has certainly left its mark on Japan, in the work of poets like Nanao Sakaki, Hiromi Ito (called a “sister of the beats” by Anne Waldman), and Kazuko Shiraishi, among others and in publications such as Keida Yusuke’s Blue Beat Jacket.
If the West Coast cities of Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver are any example, the future must be sustainable, cognizant of the inextricable link between all living things and therefore cooperative. Seattle alone, with successful locally-based co-ops such as R.E.I. and Puget Consumers Co-op, has for many years understood the benefits of such a world-view. The poetry of these cities has been leading the way for other residents of Turtle Island to go beyond the poetic, financial and cultural forms and the failed ethos of competition and domination for at least fifty years. We expect the connection to deepen as the challenges facing our species continue to confound technological and national realms. Our only alternative is in the words of Nanao Sakaki, paraphrasing Du Fu:
The mountains and rivers are destroyed,
but the State survives (Snyder, 187).
1:53P – 12.30.10
10:42P – 1.8.11
Blaser, Robin. The Holy Forest. Berkeley: University of California, 2006.
Bowering, George. Craft Slices. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985.
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