From the Canyon Outward by Neeli Cherkovski
(RL Crow Publications, Penn Valley, CA., 2009)
The Pleroma by Vincent Ferrini
(Tiger Moon Productions, Bangalore, India, 2008)
Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 1961-1985 (New & Revised edition) by Edward Sanders
(Coffee House Press, Minn., 2009)
Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War: New and Selected Poems 1986-2009 by Edward Sanders
(Coffee House Press, Minn., 2009)
Body Clock by Eleni Sikelianos
(Coffee House Press, Minn., 2008)
Leaves of Grass, 1860: the 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition by Walt Whitman, ed. by Jason Stacy
(University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2009)
NOTES ON WHITMAN & THE PROMISE OF THE AMERICAN BARDIC EAR
The singers of successive hours of centuries may have ostensible names, but the name of
each of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer, hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer,
head-singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-
singer, echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, passion-singer, mystic-singer, fable-
singer, item-singer, weeping-singer, or something else.
- Walt Whitman
… if people want to get religion into poetry, fine; but poetry itself is a religion. And it too is a tradition—even when poets make breaks into Schools and Movements.
- Vincent Ferrini
Walt Whitman adores you. Whoever you are, whatever your occupation; nationality; whether you walk to work, ride a bicycle, take public transit, or drive yourself in your automobile, Whitman travels alongside you with the adoration of a lover pouring out from him. He expresses his expansive love for you in his great Song, Leaves of Grass, and would be delighted for you to join him with your own Song. Acknowledging his role (as it is everybody’s) as self-progenitor, Whitman puts out the call for poets of the future, filling his poems with a vast passion for the company of others. His poetry is as personal as it gets yet simultaneously never solely concerned with just his own person but fully embracing and expressing the concerns of others as well. He wants you to be his lover in and of words: the pact of the page.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Whitman’s 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass, significant in that this is the first enlarged edition Whitman saw through the press bulking up the volume to over two thirds its size from the original 1855 edition—which also lacked titles upon individual poems (in this edition Whitman is still testing out possible titles, for instance what will later become “Starting from Paumanok” is here titled “Proto-Leaf”). With every edition Whitman saw through press over the years (and there were many until his death) Leaves of Grass and its author personae, Walt, experience an ever evolving state of presentation. As Jason Stacy, editor of this facsimile edition notes, although “The critic Roy Harvey Peirce believed the third edition to be the culmination of what Whitman began in 1855 and only tinkered with after 1860… Whitman undermines easy narratives like this: ‘Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold! / Already you see I have escaped from you.’” Stacy argues what’s probably the best interpretation over the merits of the various editions: every edition offers a different variation of Whitman’s schematic, every edition, therefore, counts.
The 1860 edition offers an interesting read given the historical relevancy of the times in which it went to print. Stacy’s introduction gives an easy-going yet rigorous encapsulation of all the relevant details, for both Whitman himself and the country, while also highlighting aspects of the design and layout (which Whitman oversaw himself through publication at the publishers in Boston) including Whitman’s numbering of his verses, so as to form an “American bible” in celebration of the “organic democracy” he believes nascent in the land and people of the United States. Stacy extrapolates upon the belief systems Whitman drew from, painting a broad background for present day readers:
Whitman incorporated popular scientism into his American bible and, in the clusters “Enfans d’Adam” and “Calamus,” drew upon the theories of phrenology—an early form of psychology based on indentations and bumps in the skull… to support his argument that nature had written union into existence itself via organic compacts…he situated the third Leaves of Grass in the heart of an American discourse…
Near the end of his Introduction, Stacy insists “Whitman’s new bible insisted that readers do their own part to bring it alive. That is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in 1860.” There is little point arguing against this claim and nothing demonstrates it better than the monumental pull and influence Whitman has had and continues to have upon poets to this day. Whitman’s omnipresence (especially in the Americas) is evident in the work of poet after poet. To demonstrate the relevancy of his ongoing influence, rather than focus on reviewing Whitman’s poems in isolation, this writing takes up recent publications by four additional later poets of varying generational/geographic and stylistic/formal concerns in order to explore and celebrate the great swath of poetic lineage that Whitman stands as progenitor of.
Vincent Ferrini, a mainstay of the artistic gut and hub of Gloucester, Massachusetts, passed away Christmas Eve, 2007. His final volume of poems The Pleroma was released shortly after his death. A fascinating book, which successfully reads less as a thoroughly well thought out construction than a hodgepodge assemblage of documents, The Pleroma (a “Gnostic term used by Jung,” which Ferrini understands as “the period of fullness before birth and after death”) offers up a tribute to the poet and man in the form of poems and letters sent to editor/publisher, Terry Reis Kennedy, and which in Kenneth Warren’s words serves as “the culminating point for the autobiography, bibliography, phenomenology, poetry, psychology and religion that informs Ferrini’s whole utopian narrative… the final telling of his desires, defenses, fusions, inflations and inspirations.”(“Preface”) In short, it is not to be missed. The immediacy and warmth of Ferrini’s writing leaps from off the page with glimmering delight, proving that the twinkle of the poet’s wrinkled visage as seen in the photograph on the book’s cover is the bedrock for the illuminated seer-like awareness his writing demonstrates for his place in the span of things.
This last publication of Ferrini’s is both a terrifically inspiring introduction to the poet for those unfamiliar and a well-spring for further meditation to readers who have long been under the spell of his ever-humorous, deeply searching cosmic vibe.
The Choir of the Forest
Long before Christ,
there was Krishna
& His cowgirls.
are we in?
What’s the problem?
The solitary leaves
have their own
Ferrini passionately lives in the moment(s) of his writing. His belief in what is said via his poetry is paramount and insurmountable as is his openness to all he encounters. Occasionally, his writing has a rather pell-mell appearance, arising as it does from an experience in which he is so completely a part that he is incapable of dispensing with arrangement of words and phrases as they arrived in the process of writing. For Ferrini, to an extent, Writing is Being. This makes it difficult to imagine anything but the possibility of acceptance or rejection. There’s nothing to debate: readers will take it or leave it. And Ferrini appears nonplussed with either inclination. His writing unabashedly unmasks expectations with the encouragement usually come of familial support and love, gazing ahead and pushing Whitman’s call for future poets, embracing with sudden intimacy the call for poems to serve and benefit all.
THIS hard period
the fisherman and their families
are deluged with
will pass away
and a time will come
when the nations of the world
will farm the oceans
to feed the people
of this Spectacular celestial LIGHT
be a useless word in the dictionary
and sooner than
Eleni Sikelianos’ book-length The California Poem clearly aligns with many of Whitman’s grand themes with its long breath lines of land and politics, the poet’s life and lore spilling over with immediacy into the writing. In her latest collection, Body Clock, she takes up the Whitmanesque theme of the body—the writing began during her pregnancy as a measure to mark the passing of time, the image of the body literally as a kind of clock, and the book is dedicated to her daughter. Her initial impulse when writing, as she explains to Selah Saterstrom, was, “Could I quit my capitalist tendencies, stop worrying about how I “spend” my time? Walter Benjamin’s (and many other authors’) idea that idleness is one of the writer’s indispensible engagements was in my mind.” (http://selahsaterstrom.blogspot.com/2008/05/eleni-sikelianos-is-author-of-monster.html) Sikelianos exults in the exuberant spirit of Whitman’s, “I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass!” (“Walt Whitman” aka “Song of Myself”) embracing the opportunity of being in the moment, exploring it in all its appeal.
With Sikelianos, the masculine prerogative which works so well for Whitman’s bombastic declarations is allowed to evolve further along as she writes her own experience doing and moving, forthrightly and nonchalantly occupying the space of writing.
A RADIANT COUNTESS OF WHAT’S IT
I love it
when women eat sweet ribbon, sweet
rabbit, sweet meat, when women
are the scene
of several utopias
when the body melts back into shadow
beginning with the feet
Women are as much carnivorous and prowling poetic predators as any men. Yet Sikelianos doesn’t bother to push the fact of her being a woman, she simply accepts it as the given identity round which the writing commences, her pregnancy being no different than any other state of affairs an individual passes through and comments on in a lifetime. And she does so while still keeping the writing personal, held close to, literally of, her and hers:
in the quiet sleep of animals
from the balcony of a belly
say your speeches
no cow licked you
(“DOUBLEBLIND (BODY CLOCK)”)
This celebratory and sensual acknowledgment of the body is central to poets writing in the Whitmanic lineage. As Whitman bluntly states, “If I worship any particular thing, it shall be some of the spread of my own body.” (“Walt Whitman” aka “Song of Myself”) Whitman’s robust and intimate enunciation of the masculine has been well recognized and critically regarded. Sikelianos follows up on his meanderings and returns with lines of images celebrating the feminine, expanding upon practices Whitman may have been first to develop and implement, but clearly never exhausts, “The body’s stain returns to the body, a / backward pleasure / like dusted wings that refold / a lucky wounded symmetry or / the lips of the cunt closing.” (“ACHILLES ON A BALL”)
Ferrini, too, if a tad overzealously, celebrates the body, as in these lines he attempts relate a lesson to a female reader of the strength and acceptance of her own beauty.
Feel the heat flowing
up and down.
Put both hands between your legs,
sliding over the cut.
See the pleasures in the mirror.
Part your overjoying lips,
fingering your vagina’s character,
dare to be amazed
at the hidden bounties
rising to a heavenly height.
Still looking deeply into the mirror
behold this Other You
you are repossessing…
(“At Psyche’s Art School”)
While Ferrini’s language may inadvertently be sexualizing the moment of her “repossessing” he is assuredly not attempting to possess the woman, her body, or its image for himself. The purity of Ferrini’s embrace throws out the problematical thorns which any would-be commentator might wish utilize as gloss for criticism. His belief in an eternal situation in which what matters is only what remains real in the moment, overrides such criticism: there simply is no room for it. His ideal is the same supreme equalization Whitman consistently sought to remind and embolden in his own readers.
Great are Yourself and Myself,
We are just as good and bad as the oldest and youngest…
Great is Youth—equally great is Old Age—great are the Day and Night…
(“Leaves of Grass”)
Early on in his writing, Ed Sanders, embraces the beauty of an organic wholeness, finding freedom to write poems that sing out, announcing and celebrating the freedom of sexual bliss without concern for what may shock or draw scorn, lines such as:
in to the oily crotch
come into the cool grey
bark the hair-grey color of Persephone
how difficult it is
to be fucked
in the volcano!
I have given myself to the elm
I have soaked the dryad’s shawl
What a wonderful world,
a palace of gentle sexual aggression.
Let me sing
of the need to fuck
when the prick sputs
the hot come
& the lamb looks back
with her eye
& glazes me
in the freak-beams,
or religious heights of unabashed sexual glee awash in anti-orthodox classicism:
Bent over Bent down
& I flipped it to the
buns, and knew the
god-rose in the snatch
felt the god-butt
knew her &
spurted thru the
of spangled jissom
in the Red Halls of
Demeter, the Goddess.
(“Holy Was Demeter Walking th’ Corn Furrow”)
The recent republication by Coffee House Press of a revised version of Sanders’ Thirsting For Peace In A Raging Century Selected Poems 1961-1985 (from which the above lines were taken) accompanied by his Let’s Not Keep Fighting The Trojan War New and Selected Poems 1986-2009 provides rich opportunity to read his work anew taking delight from his lively informed discursive ear. As Joanne Kyger writes in her introduction to the second volume, “this…Investigative Poet, in the bardic tradition, knows how to publicly present poems to bring about the rebirth of the voice, with songs… Poetic reality enters into a public presentation of verse.”
The Question of Self-Publishing
For 25 years William Blake
kept the copper plates for
the Songs of Innocence
to print a copy or two on a need
& then he hand-painted the colors
with Catherine’s help
Walt Whitman helped set & print
his own Leaves of Grass
in the Brooklyn vastness
a mimeographed edition of his songs in ‘39
& Ginsberg mimeo’d some “Howl”s
& how about Chekov’s Tales of Melpomene in 1885
which he paid for
or Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility
& so it goes
& goes so well
Sanders picks up and continues the overarching celebration of freedom found in Whitman’s poems; cajoling, declaring and demanding the reach of the poet go on: that poems lunge out towards readers, firing up and challenging expectations of what’s possible.
Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.
(Walt Whitman, “Salut au Monde”)
Whitman is the giver of first permission. Writing from out Whitman’s allowances, Neeli Cherkovski found his lifelong love of poetry amid poets in California cities, as a youth hanging with Charles Bukowski in Los Angeles and later with an infinite number of North Beach poets in his adopted San Francisco. Cherkovski’s latest collection, From the Canyon Outward comes near to being nothing short of a hands down wonderful demonstration of a poet at the grip of his powers. Here is nothing but the certainty of a quiet assuredness.
Meditation Nearing Sixty
sixty years in July, It’s a bit embarrassing
I was never meant to be old
like this, just like I wasn’t meant to serve in the military, or
to sit on a jury, or to
fend for myself as other men do, the sun is climbing
in my window, it is burning a hole in my solitude, it is asking me
onto the deck and into the garden, here in the garden
I can play with my dog or read from Lorca, or
simply stare at the bushes
and the trees, I have watered my plants through two desert wars
and taken the measure of the misery
we’ve caused, the pain and suffering
we, ourselves, come in with and go out with,
I find the shadow of the blackbird warring with the bluebird and
when I listen to Beethoven, or “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis
something like hope rises
out of the doom and I think
it is good to make music, it is good to write poems, it is fine
to make paintings and to sit alone
for the afternoon
sixty winters, sixty dreams, one day
of reckoning, one father, one mother, one sister, one lover, one
dog, a garden, a redwood deck, a work room, a bedroom,
a guest room, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a TV room
all the ordinary stuff of the middle class…
a new born child clutching
a dream of the one poem
that rises from our common desire
In this lyrical drift of lines Cherkovski weaves in much that concerns many of Whitman’s, and those of the other poets here under discussion, poems: utter equalization of ages and time, making the most of the moment, cataloging-lists as poetic tool, and the irrevocable damnation of the waste brought about by humanity’s bent for waging war. That, while even in the welcome gladness of a serene swooning afternoon calm, there is beneath any sense of peace the persistent glare of the resistant human endurance for inflicting pain unto others and amid such unfortunate circumstances acceptance—yet of a sort that does not fail resist—is still to be found.
The Feather of Justice
I believe in the Feather of Justice
called it the Maat Feather
It belongs to eternity
in the Feather of Justice
It measures our lives
in the World of Forms
It calls the evil
away from the good
It’s in our cells
It’s in the path of the sun
& sometimes the universe
cuts the Feather
to make a pen
for the bard
I believe in the Feather of Justice
La Plume Égyptian
I’m thirsting for peace in a raging century
Thirsting for peace in a raging century
(Ed Sanders, “Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century”)
In the face of violent human conflict, the only relief that comes at times is to wake to the fact of the possible endlessness of the situation. Sikelianos writes (rides) it out with grim, biting humor which refuses not to always keep pushing against the hanging gloom.
CONTENANT ET CONTENU
(This was on a bottle of shampoo.)
The water evaporates from the glass,
the child outgrows her shoes, the wood
erodes, the paint chips, the painting fades,
the leg breaks, the war
What is the body’s container?
From soldiers we learn about each other.
Nothing is contained.
unstoried soul a stoned dark doll a
soul doesn’t tell stories
it’s a baby playing in
the poles of the universe —did you mean puke?
War is how we know each other.
To live is to struggle. The further the poet confronts and questions what’s happening around her, the quicker looms the darkness behind any shimmering light-filled peacefulness. Poems are the rubble piled against the bitter war-wrought bantering death and destruction of the times in which the poet lives. And yet poems, as Whitman reminds, are not always to the benefit of all, no one and no art is purely good.
Nor will all my poems do good only—they will do just as much evil, perhaps more,
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit—
Everybody (even a poem) is only human, after all. Among the job of poems, and thus poets, is to serve remind how delicately thin the balance between light and dark is. Cherkovski, in lines such as,
I take my rage by the throat
and embrace it
on the couch
in the front room
under a yellow lamp,
next to a wall
feeling helpless, yet
not entirely without hope
for a resolution made
out of a dot symbolizing
one of everything,
no more, no less
tackles just such edges, pulling down pleasant masks worn to fool himself and others into easy comfort. The serenity of relaxing with one’s own person and time does not come easy, but it is “not entirely without hope” if greeted with challenge. In like spirit, Ferrini celebrates a vibratory splendor assured that there is a larger order to which all belong whether or not they’re aware and struggling towards engaging with it.
Paradise is the Process
we are all ways
For Ferrini, as for Cherkovski, the realization of abiding peace is at the center of poetic engagement. It’s no surprise that Whitman inspires such shared brotherly endeavor, no doubt Ferrini’s poems such as,
I am happy
Everything’s on time
find him much at home with the North Beach poetry crowd, among whom it’s difficult to imagine nary a negative nudge against Whitman that wouldn’t be drowned out by a thousand cheers, if not a forceful shove or two.
Poets, like everybody, have to stick together. The poetryworld racket doesn’t receive much care or real interest, for that matter, from the rest of the day-to-day world. “It’s a tough life” as the Kris Kristofferson tune puts it, and all poets are always reading the same mail: bills and rejections—on all fronts. In the closing lines of “for Ted Berrigan”
It is an
that there was
no free national
to which you could
America, where bad
teeth cost as much
as a Honda
the curse of Chatterton
& Edmund Spenser
Sanders picks up the rattle-bag in favor to a fellow poet long ill-served by society not because poets are special beings somehow above others who deserve special benefits, but because poets are just as human as anybody and everybody deserves the chance to live a decent life and be cared for by the powers that be. The fact that poets often get the shitty end of society’s stick only results in them being granted the opportunity to voice concerns of those who are less privileged. This is not just petty grousing, under “poverty / the curse of Chatterton / & Edmond Spenser” untold numbers suffer and it is the alleviation of such pain towards which the writing is directed.
Reading and writing poems effects cultural change in society via effecting change in individuals, person by person, reader by reader, the poet learns from leaning out, risking and asking of her own person, willingly surprised at what she may find and bring to the awareness of her readers. The act of voicing a shared concern does not allow for any suffering to languish in isolation. Sikelianos brings Whitman’s spirit to bear in present Song, strong and clear, encouraging by way of her work his emphasis on the power of words to startle and jerk readers into active awareness of and care for the world around them. That her first intended future reader in this instance is her own daughter only increases the intensity and power of the endeavor.
Head: let the skull bones slide apart
& the brain grow big
stepping on the rind of the earth
below which that trash heap Hell
It seemed impossible to tell
what country we lived in
some sad gray faces pass
a brown dwarf, a
in the blended light of a planet & its sun
the dust & the photons rise
Butter Princess, I saw
a huge cross of lights laid out in the land
& it was some city
between Sioux Falls & Detroit
(“NOTES TOWARD THE TOWNSHIP OF CAUSE TROUBLE (VENUS’S CABINET REVEALED)”)
In the end, nothing but the work yet to be done matters. And, as Allen Ginsberg (an ever faithful student of Whitman) reminds us, “what's the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.” (“Memory Gardens”) May Whitman’s influence continue through each future generation coming to read and write songs of their own, that the world’s measure of joy be continually altered, increased thereby to the benefit of all, thing to thing.
“The words of poems give you more than poems”
- Walt Whitman
To all the creatures of our precious cosmos!
Patrick James Dunagan has lived in San Francisco on and off for the last decade or so. His writings have appeared (or are expected) in: Big Bell, Blue Book, Box of Books: Vol II, Chain, Forklift, Fulcrum, Galatea Resurrects, Jacket, Octopus, ON2, Otoliths, Pax Americana, poem, home: An Anthology of Ars Poetica, Puppyflowers, Try!, and Vanitas. Recent chapbooks include From Chansonniers (Blue Press, 2008), Spirit Guest & Others (Lew Gallery Editions, 2009), Easy Eden w/ Micah Ballard (PUSH, 2009) and her friends down at the french cafe had no english words for me (PUSH, 2010).