Thursday, March 28, 2013


The book-length poem Lanthanum, which I worked on from late 2008 to July 2012, comes with an introduction and notes, which you can read online (along with the rest of it) here.  So, in this Dove St. School mini-lecture, I will improvise a few current half-thoughts about the thing.

O the providential luck of reading, when one book leads to another...  I was absorbed lately in John T. Irwin's masterful study/revivification, Hart Crane's Poetry - a book which did many things for me : (1) increased my wonder at Crane's rich complexity; (2) confirmed my sense of his affinity with my favorite poet, Osip Mandelstam (both combine a Dionysian lyric intensity with what Crane called his "dynamics of inferential mention" - a wall of sound, a thick palimpsest of puns/allusions; (3) opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Crane's worldview and my own, which I had missed or minimized.  O the providential, comic ironies of our naive misreadings!

Irwin discusses Spengler's Decline of the West as a background presence in Crane's Bridge.  This led me to read Spengler : something I doubt I would have done otherwise.  Spengler has a rather shady popular reputation for gloom, tendentiousness... the dark shade behind such conservative historians as Samuel (Clash of Civilizations) Huntington.

I'm too weary today (my declining years!) to expatiate at length on all this.  But I found Decline of the West hard to put down : very grand and original, very acute and elegant in its ultimate wrongness.  Spengler, stemming from Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, understands Time - irreversible, unstoppable - as the fundamental quiddity underlying everything.  Time, not Space.  Reality is essentially History.  Spengler, the historian, discovers nothing universal in human nature : rather history is a matter of the rise and fall of Cultures : giant spiritual organisms which have their ineluctable growth and decay.  And what they decay into are Civilizations : dried-up husks of former life-forms, intellectual, rationalized, urbanized, detached from anything really alive.  Civilizations are the archives of their former Cultures.

The organic cultures are utterly distinct : and their unique character - their formative shape - defines and explains all the particular aspects of their arts, social forms, and historical destiny.  Much of the book is a project of contrasting our own (dying) culture - the "West" - a "Faustian" phenomenon which was born around 1000 a.d. - with the totally different Classical culture of ancient Greece.  The third major Culture Spengler calls the "Magian" or Arabian - which was born and grew in the Middle East out of the "younger" tribes of that region - Jewish, Persian, Arab.  All three monotheistic religions - along with Mazdaism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, etc. etc. - Spengler interprets as manifestations of one powerful cultural form (the Magian) - completely different in turn from both Western and Classical cultures.  It's a heady brew of historical philosophizing, to say the least.

John Irwin, in Hart Crane's Poetry, discusses how, in Spengler's framework, the West and the Classical cultures are like twin rivals or binaries.  The "Faustian" West needed Classicism - or its manufactured image of the Classical - as a counter-weight : the voracious Faustian drive toward the Self, the Invisible and the Infinite sought to wed itself to a (Classic) image of the Visible, Beauty and Repose.  Crane was aware of these ideas : his profound, Nietzschean investment in the myth of Dionysus played out in many aspects of his work (think of his aspiration to be a kind of "Pindar for our Machine Age" - or his poem "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen").  In The Bridge, according to Irwin, Crane hoped to transpose Spengler's pessimistic vision of Western/Classical duality into a new amalgam : Western (American) / Native American.  The Bridge represented his conception of an entirely new (New World) culture-form : a new Atlantis.

So what, you might ask, has all this to do with my own long poem, Lanthanum?  Let me sketch out a few notions which came to me today, within this Cranian-Spenglerian schema.  Crane and The Bridge are part of the fabric of my long poems.  The orphic/Midwestern/Native American theme is very active there, both in Forth of July and in Lanthanum.  As I've noted elsewhere, at times I thought of Lanthanum as a kind of bridge between the worldviews of Crane and T.S. Eliot (shaped as it is around an iconic monument of American engineering - the Gateway Arch - located in Eliot's home town, St. Louis).  But reading Spengler sent me back again in thought to some of the early roots of my own artistic trajectory : I thought about my life-changing, soul-shaking "encounter" with Shakespeare and the Bible in terms of Spengler's notion of the Middle Eastern, Magian culture as a very distinct "Other" - an anomaly - as well as unacknowledged matrix - within the morphology of the West.

Lanthanum is, until the very end, strangely static, non-dramatic.  It's contemplative, repetitive - a kind of turning back to the womb or cave of speech.  This, in Spengler-sense, is very "Magian".  Spirit, Word, and Soul are distinct substances for the Magian : Light is a physical entity in the darkness of the cosmic Cave.  Spengler might say that the "theological" dimension in Lanthanum - my desire to reconfigure an Eliotic devotion to the medieval "mind of Europe" as "Maximus" of Byzantium, etc. - actually represents a Magian impulse.  Within the chaos of a late post-cultural Western civilization, this attraction toward a pleroma, a timeless, collective Now within the fulness of the embodied Light, the Word, represents a kind of cultural anomaly in America : yet its quite close to certain strains of Eastern Orthodox, Russian culture (one of the few peoples which according to Spengler, has a cultural future).  Thus, both like and unlike Crane, my "epic" is a kind of amalgam : Faustian/Native-American... and Magian.  (Crane, on the other hand, battling against conservative-pessimistic Eliot in his poetry, and dealing with the strictures of pious Protestant America bearing down on his tormented familial-psychological struggles - opposed any Christian-Magian impulse with his Nietszschean aestheticism.)

The dream-vision which bursts the contemplative pod at the end of Lanthanum is a kind of Siberian shamanic spirit-flight, from Providence to St. Louis to San Francisco to Mexico to Byzantium to Russia and back.  What was contemplative, discursive and repetitive suddenly becomes very dramatic.  The poem - finally - comes into its own, is born.  The joy I try to express throughout is, finally, very un-Spenglerian.  Where I disagree with Spengler is with the roots of his "authority" as cosmic historian.  His denial of universality - on behalf of a vision of ever-changing time-morphology - is at odds with my own.  There is another factor - an X-factor - which is more fundamental than the unique morphology of organic cultures : and that factor is, for me, the irreducible Personhood of the Divine.  Once one recognizes this fundamental ratio - this Logos which binds the human person with the ineffable Person(s) within whom we "live and move and have our being" - then every aspect of reality and experience is transfigured within us.  This is the wholeness which was symbolized long ago by baptism, a rebirth of the soul initiated through cleansing cosmic Water, the Dove-Spirit descending on the embodied "Son of Man."  This is Mandelstam's "axle of the earth", the ultimate hinge of human history.

Lanthanum pbk @ Lulu

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


In RI is a book-length documentary/history poem, a member of that extended family of American experiments stemming from epic models of Pound, Williams and Olson.  It's a story of meetings, conjunctions, intersects - Quakers and Puritans, Roger Williams and Narragansetts, the poet and his ancestors.  I try to let the odds-&-ends of present-day Providence soak in a pool of upwelling personal and historical memories.  For example, there's a passage in which the narrator is sitting in his kitchen one autumn day, and the power goes out.  "Narragansett Electric, working on the lines."  The names and traces of the past remain.  You can read it online here.

I don't remember what exactly triggered the poem, but it may have been a research visit to nearby Salem, Mass., around Halloween.  I happened to be at the Essex Historical Institute, and decided to look up some family history in the old colonial records.  I discovered then, to my fascination & dismay, that my Gould ancestors had been deeply implicated in the Salem witchcraft trials.  The Goulds were early settlers in next-door Topsfield.  Priscilla Gould, a sister of my gr-gr-etc.-grandfather, was a grandmother of the scandalous Salem girls who lit the very match to the 1692 conflagration.

Roger Williams is the ostensible hero.  The poem moves from his city-state, Providence, to London, where he fought to ratify the pioneering RI colonial charter, granting "liberty of conscience", separation of church and state, and then into a sort of Miltonic dream (John Milton was a friend of Williams).  But RW's' exploits take place under the benevolent aegis of his hosts and allies, the Narragansetts : and they are the true tragic figures - protagonists and chorus - of this tale.

The poem opens on an autumn day, with the narrator noticing his ex-wife, walking slowly to work, to teach her Italian class.  The scene sets the tone of guilt-wracked memory (personal, tribal) which suffuses this New England saga.  Mysteriously, the project came full circle when I received an email from an online poet-acquaintance in Italy, requesting something of mine to translate into Italian.  I sent her the In RI ms., and, wonderfully, she proceeded to translate the whole book.  So this poem, which begins with evocations of Dante and Italy, comes to you in a bilingual edition - thanks to the kindness and generosity of Anny Ballardini.  (Anny also wrote an interesting essay about In RI, which you will find here.)

In RI ebook @ Lulu

In RI pbk @ Lulu


July is the 3rd and final volume of a long poem which runs over 650 pp. (Forth of July - you'll find it online here).  So the whole poem culminates here - it's a "coming-forth of July", so to speak.  I began writing it on July 15, 1999 - the former "St. Henry's Day" - exactly 900 years after ritual "discovery of the Holy Sepulchre" by the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099.  I had vaguely aimed to end it on April 15, 2000 - the Ides of March (playing up the July/Juliet/Julius phonogram - ie., Julius Caesar's doomsday).  Instead July proper was finished on March 5, 2000 (anniversary of the deaths of both Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Stalin).  And there's a coda, included with this volume - a 4th mini-volume, titled Blackstone's Day-Book.  The entire poem - Forth of July - was finished on May 28, 2000 : the day William Blackstone was buried (in 1675).  5.28 is a kind of structuring number (each chapter has 5 poems of 28 stanzas each, for example).

All rather trivial and pointless.  But these curiosities are traces of motifs and themes which carry through from the first pages of Stubborn Grew to the end.  Poet searches for ghost of Juliet... & this "ghost dance" phantom is a sibling to Hart Crane's Persephone/Pocahontas figure in The Bridge - that is, a kind of muse or graceful visionary spirit, who magically transfigures a world of war (Julius Caesar) - Iron Age - to a pastoral realm - Golden Age ("Jubilee").

This is part of what's going on in July.  But the poem is also distinct from the 2 previous volumes.  The compulsion to "go into earth" to retrieve a ghost/vision involved, in Stubborn Grew, an implosion or collapse of the ordinary world (as I sketched out in previous post).  The mode of its sequel, Grassblade Light, is less narrative, more a kind of stately ceremony or dance - very internal, "psychic", personal.  July, on the other hand registers a drive to go back out into the actual, physical American world, the earth - to escape the solipsism, to find a new source of "objectivity".  There's a resulting increase in speed : the stanzas run/fly toward the goal, absorbing and chewing up a geographical/historical American interior as they charge toward the Mississippi, the Gulf.  The rhyme scheme is also "flipped" : previous books followed a basic ABBA quatrain pattern, but in July I endeavor to turn the rhyme roughly inside-out : road/door, garbage/ragbag, etc.

The first part of the poem follows a general trajectory from Rhode Island to Mississippi, downstream to Gulf, then back upstream to Minnesota - childhood, familial landscape for both poet & Juliet.  The 2nd part is a semi-chaotic fireworks explosion (4th of July) combined with the clangor of Russian church-bells (& with 4 tones based on the notes of a standard doorbell ring).   Then comes the final coda (Blackstone's Day-Book) - when the poem sort of swallows its own tail, returning to the womb, not of the poet's vision, but of an avatar of poetic vision itself (Blackstone, "jewel-eye").

July ebook @ Lulu

July pbk @ Lulu

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In the poetry cloud

If you want to find me and my poetry, it's not hard to do.  I've set up a freelance shop, but I'm not much of an entrepreneur.  You could buy direct pdf. downloads of my books from Distribly (you could even help me sell them there, and get paid for it).  You might also buy them in ebook or paperback form from Lulu.  You could get the books fast through Amazon.   But then again, what the heck, if you want to read them online for free, just go to the Brown University Library card catalog, and there they are.  Or you can read them and search them @ Google Books.

The life of poetry in the world is a mystery to me.  I try to grasp it but I don't succeed.  Here is this massive complicated oeuvre, produced over decades.  It's ignored by the literary circles and invisible to the general American public.  For a number of reasons, I am not embraced or welcomed by established poetry insiders.  I've alienated many sectors of the "community" over the years, with what some might term political and personal attitude problems.  Perhaps some feel I don't play well with others.  I've made all the usual mistakes, such as not trying hard enough to get published along the way, or speaking arrogantly when I should have shown humility.  Poetry is a great high thing.  I've probably been mystified and self-deluded and wrong in many of my steps in this field or vocation.  I do see myself as instinctively wary of disturbing my own creative process, through various kinds of trafficking in the literary world, various shades of literary politics.  I don't want to "sell myself" : it's not a celebrity project : I understand that the only criterion, the only real interest, is the actual poem.  The poem has to make its own way.

So I remain hopeful, for some reason... though I have little to show in the way of prestige or reputation for all my efforts.  I'm outside all those in-house circuits of attention & fame, for the moment.  For that, I think I should be glad.  Because these new means of communication and publishing - this cloud of online capabilities - make me think I have a chance to win out in the end.  Here are all these poems and books of poems, of which I'm still the happy parent.  I think they're valuable.  They're just sort of waiting in the wings of the cloud.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Grassblade Light

The Grassblade Light.  What can you see in grassblade light?  Spring, summer... something just emerging from the ground.

This book-length poem came by surprise, a sequel to Stubborn Grew.  The whole concept, in embryo, appeared out of nowhere. I thought Stubborn Grew was complete in itself, until I finished it.  (You'll find both online, here.)

GL is the center wheel, the pivot, on which turns the 3-vol. Forth of July.  Notice the word is forth, not fourth or 4th.  It's a pun, in that a basic plot element here is the "coming-forth of Julie" - my cousin Juliet Ravlin, who died long ago, in 1972, a suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge.  (There's an old photo of Julie and me, with my baby sister Cara, under the table of contents page, here.)

First-time readers of Stubborn and Grassblade might find the poems a little all-over-the-place.  A lot going on.  But there are connecting threads.  I noted, in previous post, an "orphic" aspect.  An episode which received only a quick mention at the very beginning of Stubborn - a double elegy for Juliet and for her father - expands in Grassblade to take center stage.

How to summarize what's happening here?  Forth of July is a vast orphic summons, planted in a specifically Native American version of that myth.  Grassblade is designed as a kind of processional array (in Alastair Fowler's sense) - a tableau of 7 large chapter-panels.  The central panel (actually a double-panel, so that there are numerically 8 divisions) is titled "Ghost Dance".  The Ghost Dance cult was a late 19th-cent. Native American messianic movement, focused on the return of a messiah, who would initiate the general resurrection of Native culture.  What I try in Grassblade is to synthesize this dimension with a parallel Christian sense.  I'm also fusing both with the orphic drama : Orpheus-poet is calling to the shade of Juliet, to bring her back from the dead.  This act in turn is paralleled and framed by a like summons to John Berryman and Hart Crane (Juliet's fellow-suicides).  There's an allegorical dimension at work : the poet's calling and evoking a return to life, through the word, echoes the Biblical plot of creation and redemption.

This is really just a partial abstract - there are other sides to Grassblade too.  The poem's design is formal, crystalline.  It's modeled on an octagonal medieval fortress in Italy, the Castel del Monte, built by Emperor Frederick II.  Why?  That's another long story, which opens up other dimensions of the poem.  There is a theme of church/state relations and "soul liberty" (Roger Williams' great subject).  Frederick II was the ancestor of another Holy Roman Emperor - Henry VII : the figure Dante hoped would save Italy, by restoring order to such political/spiritual relations.  The empty chair at the conclusion of the Paradiso is waiting for Henry (with connotations of Elijah).  I could go on about this "imperial" theme... but I think I'd better stop there.  Today is, after all, the Ides of March.  (In the 3rd vol. of Forth of July - titled simply July -  I ring some changes on earthly/spiritual powers in another way - punning on the rhyme of Juliet and Julius Caesar.)

Grassblade Light ebook @ Lulu

Grassblade Light pbk @ Lulu

Stubborn Grew, the poem

Stubborn Grew.  Something of an odd title for a poetry book.   "Stubborn grew..." the monster?  the mountain?  May be.  The sentence from which it's taken, which first appears early on in this book-length poem, is "Hesitant, grieving, stubborn grew, the rose." (Read it online, here.)

What is the rose?  The rose is the poem; the rose is Rhode Island (it's a "local poem"); the rose is love, grounded, "incorporate" (ala Geoffrey Hill).

Stubborn Grew grew stubbornly.  I talked about it (probably too much) years ago, in this interview with Kent Johnson.  The poem grew under the pressure of rival forces.  On the one hand, the lyric/song impulse, under the aegis of Osip Mandelstam's late Voronezh poems - planted, rooted in whispering "black earth".  On the other hand, the epic/narrative/history impulse, under the searchlight of epics past (Dante, Pound, Olson, et al.).

The poem grew and grew, unexpectedly.  I remember I was thinking about Mandelstam's sets of versions and sequences, lyrics which grouped themselves in little families of affinity.  And suddenly I thought perhaps I could develop a "Providence" poem - a local/personal/history poem - out of interlinked panels and shorter poems, grouped into "chapters".  And so it took off.

I also remember I was reading in the theory of tragedy (Aristotle's Poetics, mainly) - and I wanted to somehow embody - dramatize - the theory in the poem.   For me the allegorical nexus of this particular drama was a re-enactment, a recapitulation, of the Orpheus story, by way of Orphic parallels in Native American myths (the ambivalent figure of "Bluejay").  I was attempting to "ground" my speech, my poem, in something basic...

& the poem grew some more.... became a kind of mock-epic, with a special journey to the land of the dead (through an unused railroad tunnel) - an epic voyage across an area of about 20 blocks on the East Side of Providence.

Strangely, Stubborn Grew sort of imploded too, as it grew.  Collapsed, thematically and formally, into itself.  It's like a large, crumpled piece of origami, folded back & inward on itself.  It's a Joycean language game - but it's also a confessional poem : the implosion is moral and personal.  & as with Augustine, only some graceful supernatural intervention can save the narrator from himself - which begins to happen only in the last few pages of the poem.  "Stub born grew the rose"...

And it was only after finishing this poem that I started to sense a sequel growing in my mind... & the interior rescue-journey continued, finally filling two more volumes - an unexpectedly enormous flow-flower (the whole thing now called Forth of July).

Stubborn Grew ebook @ Lulu

Stubborn Grew pbk @ Lulu

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rest Note

A "rest note" in music is a silent note, a pause marked in the score when no note is played.

The phrase echoes the Biblical "day of rest", the Sabbath - the 7th day, when God rested from his labors, and people rest from their own.  A time of peace and silence, for some, sometimes.

 Rest Note.  The title appealed to me... felt right for this book, a trio of 3 poems (Rest Note, Autumn Door, Fontegaia), written about 7 years ago.  The last word in the book is "(silent)". (Read the book online, here.)

I devoted a little over a decade (the 90s) to writing many long, some really long-long, poems.  Most of them have been published (though the early ones are in the form of little handmade chapbooks, which are only to be found lurking in libraries at Brown and SUNY Buffalo).  Memorial Day, In RI, Spring Quartet, Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, July...

After 2000 I took a break from the "long forms" for a while.  Then about 7 years later I started up again, working on Rest Note.  At the time I thought it was the final bead on the chain, the last of my long poems.  I was wrong : Lanthanum too was comin' round the mountain.  But a sense of (supposed) finality seeps into this collection (as it inhabits the title).  It may be my most dreamy, detached, meditative book (and I'm a pretty oneiric guy to begin with).

I was reading a lot of Wallace Stevens at the time, as well as a history of Teddy Roosevelt's near-death journey through the Amazon jungle, and several books about the art and history of Siena, in Tuscany.  I was also reading Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov's classic Russian novel, whose protagonist is Russia's greatest (fictional) daydreamer.  All these things filter into the poems of Rest Note.  One of the iconic matrices here is the figure of the goddess Pax, included lounging (resting) adorably in Lorenzetti's great civic fresco, in the town hall of Siena, of Good and Bad Government (which I have seen).  I think many of the poems circle around my puzzlement over the relation between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice.  I try to find a meaningful social purpose in rest, sabbath, contemplation, art, poetry (perhaps in vain).

All while searching for other things, too.  The poems, I guess, are somewhat nostalgic or elegiac.  I am resting here, after my long-poem labors of the 90s; or, I've come to rest.  One of the figures who makes an appearance here is the contemplative philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, who wrote a playful treatise called "The Game of Spheres" - about a kind of spiritual ball game - a soul game - which involves tossing an a-symmetrical ball through a set of concentric rings, and trying to bring it to rest at the center.

My 90's poems were often built around rivers and river-flow.  With Rest Note I imagined these streams coming to rest : in a little fountain.  That is, the first of the 3 parts of the book (the title poem) involves itself with the biggest river of all, the Amazon, while the last of the 3 centers on Siena's Fontegaia - "Happy Fountain" - an ancient fontana in the Piazza del Campo.  So I was thinking of all the rivers of my poems finally coming to a head, coming to a rest, in this little stone spring, the Fontegaia.    The Piazza, of course, is the arena for the Palio, the great Sienese horse-race : also a motif in Rest Note.  The tumult of the race contrasts with the source of rest and calm at the center of the ring.

Rest Note ebook @Lulu

Rest Note pbk @ Lulu