Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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About Robin Blaser

1.

My first encounter with Robin Blaser’s poetry was in 1960. I was a nineteen-year-old sailor stationed at the American naval air base at Capodichino, Italy, just outside Naples. Harold and Dora Dull, a couple from the San Francisco poetry scene, whom I’d met the year before at Sunday afternoon poets’ meetings there, had arrived for a sojourn in Europe and were staying at a small fishing village, Amalfitano, along the Amalfi coast just south of the bay of Naples. On Friday afternoons, I left the military base and took the bus from Naples to spend the weekend with them. Later, in easy stages, they made their way north, to Rome, Florence, Paris, with me tagging along in their wake, and eventually they temporarily settled on the island of Ibiza, where Dora gave birth to twin girls.

Harold and Dora were six or seven years older than me, old enough for me to adopt them as putative modernist parents or elder siblings. They introduced me to music, paintings, museums, churches, books, thought–in short, civilization–in all the places I visited them. Amalfitano, on the Mediterranean Sea, consisted of narrow lanes and jumbled houses clinging to the vertiginous cliffs just back of the beaches, where fishermen mended their nets and sorted the catch.

The first weekend I arrived at the eyrie they’d rented above the sea, Harold handed me a copy of a recently-written poem that he’d brought from San Francisco. It was by Robin Blaser, a San Francisco poet then living in Boston and working as a librarian at Harvard, whom I knew of only from talk in San Francisco that placed him as one of a literary threesome that included Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. They had all been classmates at the University of California in Berkeley at the end of World War II. The poem Harold handed me was called Cups and was Blaser’s first “serial” poem, the form Jack Spicer had invented a couple of years earlier in his book After Lorca.

Almost immediately, Blaser introduces one of the poem’s great themes, the nature of art made in oppositional friendship:

There were two.
Their posture
taken out of the wall-
paper (a ghost story)
Jack talked. His
determined privacy against
My public face. The poem
by dictation…

The relationship of the “two” is encoded in a kind of shorthand, bearing traces and notations of private biographical references, such as the wallpaper at a communal house where they had lived as students, but there’s an immediate opposition in their “posture.” One’s “determined privacy” against the other’s “public face,” is resolved, however, in the agreement on “The poem / by dictation.” The idea is that the poem is transmitted from some unidentified outside source through the poet, and although it makes use of the poet’s own vocabulary, biographical details, etc. (what Spicer called “the furniture in the room”), the poet is not permitted to interfere with the “dictation.” Whether this theory of poetry is true, I quickly learned, matters less than the fact that Spicer and Blaser used it as their working procedure, as their “myth.”

The first poem of Cups, like most of the succeeding ones in the serial, ends in a semi-rhymed, musical language:

The clown of dignity sits in a tree.
The clown of games hangs there too.
Which is which or where they go–
the point is to make others see
that two men in a tree is clearly
the same thing as poetry.

The two men are Jack Spicer and Blaser himself, and the poem traces the narrative of their art, as they appear in their respective, characteristic guises, Blaser with his notion of dignity, Spicer with his love of games, both of them clowns, but more importantly, both of them in the tree, which is “clearly / the same thing as poetry.”

The other themes of Cups, the title of which refers to one of the suits in a pack of Tarot cards, include the shifting figure of Amor, under whose sign the poets work, as well as erotic desire itself, and the scenes of Blaser’s boyhood, the arid landscapes of rural Idaho in the 1930s, with its sere gullies and desolate railroad tracks, which provide the sources of Blaser’s amorous vocabulary.

The two poets both fall down, as poets are prone to do, “into the clover where love abounds,” tangled in their imaginings. There, they gather a poem made of four leaves:

1 for the lip of Amor’s crown.
1 for the tree they ran around.
1 for the bed where they lay down.
1 for the comical physical union
their arms like briars
wrapped around.

In Blaser’s poetry, characteristically, some sight from the mundane world is seen as a “marvel” or some object is looked into until it spills out: “This / time I saw the god / offer with out-stretched hand / the heart to be devoured. The / lake flowed into my hands. / Dante would say the lake / of the heart.” But throughout, the ballad-like passages, reminiscent of rhymes in a children’s book, are subverted by an unsentimental realism. The romance of desire becomes the “comical physical union” of actual sex. Our behaviour, as poets and lovers, is farcical: “Two men sit in a tree / and wink and spit.” Yet “… this is the tree / where Amor sits,” and it is gift-giving Amor who lays down the “rules” of the game.

One imagined two small windows
cut in his skin. His breasts
look out upon the tree.
The other thought the shape
of his tongue was poetry.

The word, he said
drawn like an arrow,
so fits
into the body of the bird it hits.

Both the landscape and memory of Blaser’s childhood emerge from the metric narrative. The “shadow of the sagebrush / turns the hill blue…”, the tree itself speaks, and Robin’s Uncle Mitch writes Westerns and whistles between fragmented sentences, invoking an older history of the American frontier, its aboriginal inhabitants, and the rider-scout-guide “who leads us out.” In the sexual darkness of youth there is the “effort to untie the strings / of the loins. The lips endure / the semen of strangers.” Although the poem assumes homoeroticism, it doesn’t insist on sexual preference. More important is the relation between Amor, the body, and poetry. “Where Amor sits,” the poem says, “the body renews itself, / twists / inhabits the rights of poetry.” Throughout it all:

Two men sit in a tree.
How ugly they are
in the bright eye
of this pageantry.
In service to love
is dignity, one cried,
1, 2, 3, the other replied,
you’re out
when the dew falls from imagination’s dark.

Amor turned geometer,
briefly, of course,
and cut their bodies into triangular parts.
When reassembled
they hung in that tree,
their genitals placed
where their heads should be.

If poetry is the “pageantry,” the poets are ugly, which is to say, merely human, as they spout their maxims about our undignified efforts to maintain our dignity in desire or recite the rule in baseball about three strikes and you are momentarily out of the game. For their trouble, the self-deceptions of desire leave them with their genitals placed “where their heads should be.” Images of incestuous desire, sexual mutilation, and jokes about bestiality and the like, all of which turn up in Cups, are the turnings back and forth of language and desire. It would be a mistake to read them as perversity for its own sake; rather, they reflect the literal perversity or turnings of desire. The children’s rhymes function as metamorphoses: so, “The dew fell from imagination’s dark / on to our hands where it stuck like bark,” and later,

What falls from the tree
renews itself in the guise
of poetry.
The guide
rides out of the dark
with a body shaped
from the sluffing bark.

I’d learned to “read” poetry only the year before, at the poets’ Sunday afternoon meetings in San Francisco presided over by my teacher, Jack Spicer. Through listening to and observing what excited the poets’ interest, I quickly got an idea of what poetry was about, and soon I was writing some poems of my own. Now, above the Mediterranean, with Harold and Dora sharing my pleasure, I immediately recognized Blaser’s shape-shifting poem about the intersections of myth and memory, of poetry and desire.

Cups may have initiated my interest in Dante, or perhaps I found the Italian master through Harold, who had considerable facility with language and was learning to read the fourteenth century poet’s Commedia in the original. In any case, I, too, soon encountered Dante’s lago del cor, “the lake of the heart” that appeared in Blaser’s Cups. But thinking of the fishermen at Amalfitano, I wrote,

It was not the lake of the heart
it was the load
taken from the sea
and the seen is not enough
to know the poetry. For that
you have to go
into the poet’s country
which is a darkling wood…

thus, echoing, as so many poets have, Dante’s mi retrovai in una selva oscura (“I found myself in a dark wood”) in the first canto of The Inferno.

When I returned to San Francisco in January 1962, I found Jack Spicer sitting on a barstool at Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street in North Beach, and brought him my poem, “Lake,” upon which he promptly placed his imprimatur. He shyly clapped me on the back and proclaimed it “the best poem anyone around here has written in two years,” a double-edged compliment in that it was also meant to chastise those poets who had been lazing about not writing the best poem in the last two years. Though I was pleased by my master’s approval, sitting in the half-deserted bar on a chilly January night, it looked like a long winter ahead.

Spicer mentioned that Robin Blaser was in town, back from Boston. As much to relieve Spicer’s boredom and to forestall his complaints that “no one was coming around to the bar,” I suggested that we call Blaser up and get him to join us in Gino’s.

“Oh no, Robin never comes out to the bar,” Spicer groused.

“He will if I call him,” the arrogance of youth replied.

Spicer bet me a quarter I couldn’t get Blaser down to the bar, and even supplied me with the nickel for the telephone call.

“Hi,” I said to Blaser, giving my name and announcing, “I’m twenty-one years old, I’ve just come back from the Navy, and I’m here in Gino’s with Jack Spicer. Jack says you don’t come out to the bar, but I told him he’s wrong. So why don’t you come down here and have a drink with us like a regular guy?” Utterly shameless. But what does youth have to trade on but youth? That, and the fact that, after all, “regular guys” got together for drinks, didn’t they?

In about half an hour Blaser appeared in the doorway of Gino’s. Jack paid off his bet, which he no doubt considered a bargain, given the entertainment value of having Blaser in the bar. For his part, Blaser acted as though, on the one hand, he’d been invited to a chic cocktail party which he was longing to attend, and on the other, that having a drink in Gino’s is what regular guys did all the time.

Blaser was a trim man, in his mid-thirties, with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and a careful brush-cut. He was one of those people who, while gawky as a youth, becomes strikingly handsome as an adult, and distinguished-looking as an elder. There was a slightly fey edge to him, but unlike full-fledged homosexual queens I’d met who enacted the wounded bitterness found in much of camp behaviour, Blaser’s manner derived from an older connection to the world of faerie, as he called it in a subsequent poem he’d written that played on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In any case, Spicer had the satisfaction of an entertaining evening in an otherwise desolate bar, I got to meet the author of Cups, and we had our drinks. Blaser walked me home.

I’m now going to explicitly intervene here for one paragraph. Blaser and I soon began a relationship, and we lived together for about five years, eventually moving from San Francisco to Vancouver in 1966, the year after Spicer’s death, where Blaser became a professor at Simon Fraser University. I intend to draw the proverbial curtain around our private life, treating it as simply that, private. I have no intimate and/or scandalous gossip to retail here. If there are any personal details to reveal, they’ll be relevant to my main subject, Blaser’s poetry. I can say of my part of the relationship that I was often thoughtless in the way people in their twenties can be, but didn’t cause, I don’t think, any lasting damage. More important, more than thirty years later, Blaser and I remain intimate friends, who happen to live less than a block from each other in Vancouver. In various book inscriptions, dedications, and notes from him, I’m always regarded as a companion du voyage, attended by “love, of course.”

What remains, from the clutter of the personal and the orders of the places where we lived, are the poems. While I would turn out to be something of a loner, Blaser was by temperament inclined toward the domestic. His ideal working condition as a poet included the rustle of the other person, or even the roar of the televised crowd as I sprawled in the next room watching a Sunday afternoon football game, while he “fumed,” as he described it, over a poem at the book-cluttered kitchen table. Both the companion and the house–a series of apartments and houses, on Baker St., Bernal Heights, and Allen St. in San Francisco, and on 1st Avenue, then Trafalgar St. in Vancouver–were central to his way of life. While my basic mode of habitation is the more or less anonymous hotel room, something close to Jack Spicer’s shabby rented rooms, Blaser introduced me to the magic of the household.

As visitors to all of Blaser’s domiciles immediately remark, sometimes jokingly referring to them as a “museum,” the house for him is an order of objects, art, furniture, carpets, books, each deliberately chosen and arranged, so that their inter-relations set up a sort of field of activity. The old notion of household gods is treated literally.

The house is connected to the outside by way of the garden, whose trees and flowers Blaser tends, and from which he brings into the house buds of willow, blue irises, branches of pepper tree and other blossoms that appear in his work. In one poem, Blaser refers to a blue bottle in the shape of a goddess, into whose open head he inserted a stalk of daphne one day. The unmistakeable sweet scent of the daphne plant had filled the house by the time we returned late that night, an event which Blaser reads in a poem as “giving power” over the house to the goddess. Again, whether or not such magic is “true” in a conventional sense, it should, like “the poem / by dictation,” be regarded as a working procedure.

Finally, beyond the garden, which is the domestic representation of nature or a larger entity Blaser calls “the holy forest,” there is the city. With its buildings looming out of the fog of San Francisco, or its downtown towers perched on a peninsula amid the “burning water” of Burrard Inlet of Vancouver, the “city” is connected to notions of community and the public realm, the “political” themes of Blaser’s poetry. The actual city is shadowed by the historical notion of the Greek polis, an urban space defined by the active engagement of its polites or citizens. In fact, all of these–house, garden and city, sometimes the whole of it a holy forest–have to be seen as both specifics and categories in Blaser’s ordering of the world.

But it was a strange event in the house that began Blaser’s Moth Poem. One day in 1962, in his Baker St. apartment, he heard an eerie sound emanating from the baby grand piano, as if the instrument itself was playing. When he lifted the lid of the piano, he discovered the source of the sound, a moth trapped in the piano strings. The moth was duly rescued and the poem began. Once the first moth appeared, so did others, over a year or more, inexplicably turning up in the most unexpected ways, to provide the images or metaphors upon which successive poems in the serial were predicated.

If the appearances of the moths were a kind of “magic,” as Spicer and Blaser used that term, nonetheless, Blaser insisted on identifying himself as a “literalist,” as the titles of the first two poems in the series put it. I.e., it really happened.

the moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings brush
the wired interior
of that machine

I said, ‘master’

One of the differences between poetry and prose is that the lines of poetry function as “doubles,” bearing the meaning contained in the line–the moth in the piano “will play on,” that is, will continue to play, whether one reads the moth as simply a literal creature or a representation of the poet–as well as the meanings extended by succeeding lines–the moth in the piano “will play on / frightened wings…” And “frightened wings brush / the wired interior / of that machine.” This fleeting reminder of why poems have lines is the most fundamental element of the art, yet it’s a point seldom made in schools, leaving students puzzled about how the poem tells multiple stories.

The story of The Moth Poem is of a man and his episodic encounters with the emphemeral meaning of the world, embodied in the figure of moths. At its core is the narrative of the “medium” in a world of language, moth-wings, house, holy forest, and the politics of the city. Blaser says in “The Medium,”

it is essentially reluctance the language
a darkness, a friendship, tying to the real
but it is unreal

the clarity desired, a wish for true sight,
all tangling

‘you’ tried me, the everyday which
caught me, turning the house

in the wind, a lovecraft the political
was not my business I could not look

without seeing the decay, the shit poured
on most things, by indifference, the personal

power which is simply that…

Poetry’s language, Blaser asserts, is essentially a “reluctance,” the art of it is neither easy nor simple. The language is a “darkness,” yet it is also a “friendship,” tying us to the “real” world, but as throughout this dialectic of assertion and denial, the real is also “unreal.” The desire for clarity and “true sight” is tangled, and we are “tried,” tested, by the forces, both literal and metaphoric, that shape our lives. Here, Blaser makes one of his first uses of a pronomial figure, the second person singular placed in single quote-marks, ‘you,’ which will reappear throughout his life’s work. While the word you (without quotes) is used in conventional ways to address another person or to reflexively refer to oneself, ‘you’ in single quotes becomes a god or spirit of otherness. Like other figures in Blaser’s poetry, ‘you’ is a shape-shifting entity, whose apparitions range from simply the other person in the sense of his or her separateness from ourselves, to an embodied figure in one of Blaser’s late works, an opera libretto called The Last Supper (2000), where the ‘you’ is a woman who is the ghost of the twentieth century addressing the audience:

I am the ghost of you,
of your century,
of your courage,
in the fragments
of our paradise
I can see myself in your eyes.

While Blaser is a poet who envisions a fragmented paradise, embodied in the marvels of literal objects and events, this possibility is consistently juxtaposed against the actual political world. Although he declares it not his business, he nonetheless confesses, “I could not look // without seeing the decay, the shit poured / on most things, by indifference, the personal // power which is simply that.” Or as the ghost says to the public of The Last Supper, “…each of us, / a bare thing, swims / against the brutality and terror / of our century.” Although Blaser’s poetry is remarkable for its beauty, even its “poetical” qualities, the magic of the real always appears within the context of a twentieth century of war, genocide, and exclusions. It is not at all inconsistent when the Christ in Blaser’s libretto declares, “The Holocaust shattered my heart,” offering the naked apology that the Roman Catholic Church, which claims to operate in Christ’s name, was unable to pronounce, even a half-century after the murder of European Jewry.

“The Medium” was written one weekend while we were staying at a friend’s summer cabin on the Russian River, north of San Francisco. That night, says the poem,

…I slept
in a fire on my book bag, one dried wing

of a white moth the story is of a man
who lost his way in the holy wood

“Lost,” the poem says, “because the way had never been taken without / at least two friends, one on each side,” an oblique reference to Spicer and Robert Duncan, their long friendship now strained by quarrels over poetry and flare-ups of personality. Friendship gone astray, so that Blaser is

…now left to acknowledge

he can’t breathe, the darkness bled
the white wing, one of the body

of the moth that moved him, of the other
wing, the language is bereft

Repeatedly, in a poem that argues that art and intelligence are as perilous as the lives of moths, these creatures reappear, tapping against a window with the sound of “it it it it,” and evoking immediate scenes as well as a childhood past replete with remembered grandmothers. As a moth “tacked with the wind’s changes, / careened, then, taking flight, hid / in the fig tree” of the garden, it is encircled by the larger cosmos, “the moon, the stars, the / planets and below, under the earth”; equally, the sound of the moth in the piano becomes “a tone / beyond that, the lyre,” until the mind of the poet-priest is “nearly destroyed by the presences, the fine / points which have no beginning.” The moments caught by The Moth Poem are precise miniatures, the poems of modest size, but the poetry is large.

At the end, in a sort of epilogue called “The Translator: A Tale,” Blaser is translating Catullus’ “Attis” one morning. He notices that

last night’s coffee spoon sticks to the drainboard
under it the clear print of a brown moth, made of sugar,
cream, coffee with chicory, and a Mexican spoon of blue
and white enamel

The ashtray is full and should be emptied before
work-
ing that translation, Attis ran to the
wooded pastures…

Instead, the ashtray is neglected while the poet translates from the Latin of Catullus’ gender-shifting poem, only to produce a final epiphany:

the mound of cigarette butts moves, the ashes
shift,
fall back on themselves like sand, startle
out of
the ashes, awakened by my burning cigarette, a
brown
moth noses its way, takes flight

Even as he was concluding The Moth Poem with a last magical appearance of a moth rising from the full ashtray, a virtual phoenix, Blaser had already embarked upon a new, but different kind of serial poem. Image-Nations, the first of which were written in the midst of the previous composition, is an intermittent, rather than consecutive poem, one that would continue, concurrent with other poems, over the next three-and-a-half decades. This kind of serial poem was not without its precursors in San Francisco. In Robert Duncan’s book, The Opening of the Field, which had appeared in 1960, a similar serial, “The Structure of Rime,” begins with eloquent bravado:

I ask the unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the language as I make it,

Speak! For I name myself your master,
who come to
serve.

Writing is first a search in
obedience.

For all the disputes of local friendship–the bitchiness, bitter gossip, the “feuds”–the San Francisco poets of the early 1960s were indisputably engaged in a community of poetry. If the poems within a given serial poem resonated against each other, it can be equally said that the poems and books, the work of various poets–Duncan, Blaser, Spicer, but others such as George Stanley, Harold Dull, Joanne Kyger and Ebbe Borregard as well–also resonated with and against each other in this West Coast city that was easily seen as a double-city. There was the visible one whose streets, hills, and business canyons we walked, and the invisible city that bound us both to contemporary poets across the country–Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and others–who were part of “The New American Poetry,” as well as across time, to poets in various lineages of a tradition that extended back from the preceding generation of modernists to the first bards.

In a 1968 essay, “The Fire,” Blaser expounded upon the San Francisco variant of this poetry. “I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative,” he says, what Spicer and he had agreed to call the serial poem, “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.” Blaser describes this “in Ovidean terms, as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected.” Ovid’s words, as Blaser cites them in his own translation, are

to tell of bodies
transformed
into new shapes
you gods, whose power
worked all transformations,
helped the poet’s breathing,
lead my continuous song
from the beginning to the present world

The reason for spelling all this out, about Blaser, Spicer and others, in considerable detail is that this discussion ought to be construed as an attempted rescue or defense of poetry. None of this account would make much sense unless I believed, as I do, that poetry is a mode of experience in the world that cannot be subsumed by the other modes of language, namely, story, discourse, and the mathematical languages of science. Because, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, poetry has been utterly “marginalized” in the culture in which I live, it becomes imperative to leave future readers, if there are any, with at least an echo of an indispensable experience which the present forces of the world would dispense with and erase. There is nothing outside ourselves to mandate the existence of a mode of experience, especially under conditions of the decreasing communicability of that experience, and in a world where the value of such experience has been debased. So, poetry can be lost, and if not yet lost, is imperilled.

Blaser’s Image-Nations, which obviously play on the notion of “imagination” while demarcating its visual and political elements as “image-nations,” begin with a sense of such peril, when he declares, “the participation is broken”:

that matter of language caught
in the fact so that we
meet in paradise in such
times, the I consumes itself

The relation of language and poet is conceived as a “participation,” a meeting in paradise, yet language is “caught / in the fact,” that is, its daily usage in the world. Even from this early point in Blaser’s poetry, the authorial “I” and related notions of the self are challenged as a given idea. The “I” is not merely a first-person voice providing autobiographical anecdotes, but an uncertain nexus in a process of construction and dissolution. In asking how the broken participation might be restored, Blaser turns to the story of the household cat giving birth to four kittens on the bed. “When they are there / she comes to his feet,” he writes,

picked up and held, she
fills his hand with blood
the red pool flows over
his silver ring, drips
to the floor

The bloody birth and the broken participation between language and poet converge in the poem’s resolution:

the language sticks to
his honey-breath she is
the path of a tale, a door
to the perishing moonshine,
holes of intelligence
supposed to be in the heart

The birth blood that drips to the floor becomes the language that sticks to the poet’s “honey-breath,” while the story of the marvel of birth transforms the household cat into “the path of a tale, a door” leading to the “holes of intelligence… in the heart.” Although subsequent “Image-Nations” will enter more complex and difficult structures of meaning, the first poems of this continuing series retain the guise of children’s tales, albeit for adults, given the density of thought, and a narrative that defies prosaic paraphrase.

With Image-Nations underway, and The Moth Poem completed, Blaser embarked on a project of translation, the creation of an English-language version of the nineteenth century mystical poet Gerard de Nerval’s Les Chimeres. At the centre of this poem, whose eponymous metaphor of apparitional appearances would have a natural affinity for Blaser, is a several part poem called “Christ Among the Olives.” The premise of the poem–both Nerval’s and Blaser’s version of it–is rooted in the debased spiritual condition of the times.

under the holy trees,
the Lord lifted his thin arms
to the sky, as poets do
after the silence
and the loss of his friends’
belief

he turned toward those
who waited below, lost
in animal sleep, dreaming
of themselves as kings,
wisemen, prophets, but deadened
he began to call, God
does not exist

In Nerval’s poem, Christ speaks in a spiritually dead world “whose shadow is the emptiness.” It is Christ himself who is bereft: “seeking the eye of God / I saw only a socket, / huge, black and bottomless” inhabited by night. In a world where “no one heard the grief of the sacrifice,” Christ calls upon Judas, the “only one / awake in Jerusalem.” As in Blaser’s later Last Supper, the betrayal of Christ is found in the indifference of those who claim to be faithful rather than in Judas’ “crime… in friendship.” Blaser’s subsequent fierce opposition to “Christianism” is not an argument about metaphysical reality, but an accusation that Christ’s “religion of love” has been misfigured into an absolutism of hatred.

Nerval’s Chimeres ends in a “Golden Poem” recalling the ancient maxim that “everything is alive.”

take the ghost stirring
in an animal each
flower, a piece of light
scattering love’s mystery
asleep in metal alive
the coherence takes power
over you

Blaser sought an assurance for his version of this strange, unsettling poem of Nerval’s. When I suggested that I bring Spicer to the house to hear it, even though the two of them were in the midst of some personal quarrel and not officially speaking to each other at the time, Blaser readily agreed. That day, when I joined Spicer in Aquatic Park where he frequently spent his afternoons, sitting on sheets of newspaper spread on the damp grass, listening to the baseball game on a transistor radio, drinking beer, and gazing out in the direction of a long pier beyond which was San Francisco Bay, I told him that Blaser had written a new poem and would like him to come up to the house and listen to it. Again, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. Spicer and I boarded the Polk St. bus and made our way up to Russian Hill where Blaser and I lived.

It was the year before Spicer’s death and he already complained of patches of “fading.” When he arrived at the apartment, he asked to take a nap, sleeping for a half-hour on a day-bed in an alcove of books, while our white cat, Tim, snoozed alongside him. When he awoke, he came into the kitchen, Blaser provided drinks, and then read his Nerval poem. Spicer sat silently, occasionally vigorously nodding at some particular line. When the reading ended, there was a moment of silence, and Spicer slowly said, “Wonder-full”–pun intended–then added, “I wish I had written that.”

There was an unhappy epilogue to Les Chimeres that came from an unexpected direction. Once it was published, as a chapbook, Robert Duncan took offence, complaining that the poem wasn’t really a “translation.” Duncan soon produced his own translation of Nerval, a stilted, wooden transliteration, along with a brief but flamboyant essay attacking Blaser’s Chimeres.

Since Blaser’s persona incorporated the notion of the poet as a wounded figure, Duncan’s attack naturally caused him untold, unnecessary grief. Duncan’s foray in the end came to little–that is, it had no effect on the reading of Blaser’s work–so it has to be seen as merely a malevolent aspect of Duncan’s otherwise larger personality, a spewing of resentment over the fraying friendship of the former triumverate of young poets, himself, Spicer and Blaser.

Duncan was at least presciently aware of all this. A couple of years earlier, at the height of his quarrel with Spicer (and Spicer could be as cruel as Duncan), not only were he and Spicer not speaking to each other but Spicer had taken to referring to Duncan in the past tense as if he were a dead poet. Duncan made an unexpected trip across town to North Beach to show Spicer a series of versions or transformations of sonnets by Dante that he’d just written. The third of the series, addressed to Blaser, declared:

Robin, it would be a great thing if you, me, and Jack Spicer
Were taken up in a sorcery with our mortal heads so turned
That life dimmed…

…Having no memory of ourselves but the poets
we were
In certain verses that had such a semblance or
charm
Our lusts and loves confused in one

Lord or Magician of Amor’s likeness.
And that we might have ever at our call
Those youths we have celebrated to play Eros
And erased to lament in the passing of things.

And to weave themes forever of Love.
And that each might be glad
To be so far abroad from what he was.

That night, Spicer took me outside Gino’s bar and extracted the pages of Duncan’s poems, now somewhat crumpled, from his back packet and handed them to me so that I could read those lines by the light of the neon sign outside the bar on Green Street. Almost predictably, Spicer’s approval only incensed Duncan. “I knew he was going to like those poems!” Duncan complained, still irked by Spicer’s rejection of other parts of his work.

For Blaser, too, there was ultimately “no memory of ourselves but the poets we were.” Nothing was forgotten, of course, not the slightest slight, but that wasn’t the point. In Blaser’s elegy for Duncan–a quarter-century later–written in 1988, just after latter’s death, what comes to mind is the origin of friendship in the poetry:

the first of your poems I read: Among my friends love is a great sorrow (brought to me
in typescript by Jack, 1946, that we three should meet)–no voice
like it turns, turns in the body of thought Among
my friends…

In this re-reading, the place of origins, a small West Coast college town, Berkeley–a place become mythic in the imaginations of all us who were touched by it, literally or by legend–also returns.

the absence was there before the meeting the radical of
presence and absence does not return with death’s chance-
encounter…

Berkeley shimmers and shakes
in my mind most lost the absence preceded the place
and the friendships…

In the biographies of the poets, most of which are, to my mind, written “upside-down,” the point is not that the “life” explains the poems but, rather, that the poems transcend the gossip. The gossip is fun, sure, but if that was all there was, the whole thing would be without purpose. As it is, we already have enough of a problem with life’s purposelessness, other than the purposes we propose for it, not to add to the incoherence delineated by modernity. Above the “oppositions,” and much worse, the pettinesses of the merely personal, the gifts of friendship also incur obligations, debts. A decade or so after Spicer’s death in 1965, Blaser edited The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, to which he appended his own extraordinary account of their relationship in poetics, an essay called “The Practice of Outside.” And in mourning Duncan’s death, he says:

There is no exstacy of Beauty in which I
will not remember Man’s

misery,
compounded by what we have done sighted in ruins, neither old
nor discontinuous
(I smile it is the thought of you a happiness
that could not be without your having been
there
quarrelling)

In those senses I would say, that with respect to his friends, Blaser paid the debts of friendship in full, honouring their memories, their continuing presences/absences. The philosopher Jacques Derrida makes a similar point in The Work of Mourning (2001), a collection of his elegies for now departed friends. He says that the “law of friendship is that one of you will die, one of you will go before the other.” In any intense friendship we are aware of the inevitable absence of one of the friends or the other, and thus mourning begins before death. It is an idea I’ve “translated” into lines as:

so the sorrow is shared
In the reader’s grief

the work of mourning keeps
the dead who never die

alive    within ourselves    the world
the poem     at a loss     for words

I have the idea of the figure of a First Reader, the person to whom the poem is initially given to confirm that it is a poem, who reads it before it is read by “the readers of the poem.” I’ve had the fortune to be a first reader, on occasion, for several writers, including Blaser, Spicer, George Stanley, Brian Fawcett, and others. At the end of the 1960s, when Blaser and I went our separate domestic ways–but not really separate, since our lives remained intertwined–I ceased to be his first reader and joined the ranks of the readers of his poems.

The attention of the readers of the poem, one of intermittencies and intensities, is different from that of a first reader or the author as reader of him- or herself. The reader dips into the pages of a large book, the eye from time to time caught by some particular poem or a run of them. Now, the reader is lost and found, lost in the poem, and then found in the room where one is reading, about to prepare a meal or run an errand, and the book is placed on the pile of other books, or put on a shelf.

The book in question is Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest (Coach House, 1993), a “collected” poems or collection of his books and serials, from Cups to recent works, which the Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje and I edited for the press. I’ll return to some of the contents of the book, but first there are subsidiary aspects of Blaser’s career that ought to be mentioned briefly in a reading of his poetry.

By the time of the publication of The Holy Forest, the Denver-born, Idaho-raised poet had lived and worked in his adopted country, Canada, for more than a quarter-century and, like millions of other immigrants who make up a large proportion of that nation’s inhabitants, had long since become a legal citizen of the “True North.” Blaser’s connections to the country and his community ran deeper than that. As a professor at Simon Fraser University for 20 years, he’d been legendary as a scholar and teacher, and for his guidance of a generation of younger scholars and writers who had been his graduate students. As a scholar and editor, he’d been responsible for editions of selected poems of the Canadian modernist Louis Dudek and Blaser’s younger Canadian contemporary, George Bowering, as well as producing the requisite array of prefaces, introductions, and volumes of conference papers. There was even a celebration and festschrift held in Vancouver in 1995, organized by friends, colleagues and students, to mark Blaser’s 70th birthday (see Charles Watts and Edward Byrne, editors, The Recovery of the Public World: Essays on Poetics in Honour of Robin Blaser, Talon, 1999).

As a figure of great poetic and intellectual power, over the years of his teaching career Blaser was a kind of magnet who drew, like metal filings, an unusual range of devotions and oppositions. I’ll skip most of that–and the gossip and psychological motivations attached to each possible anecdote–as being of little moment, or at least not to my purposes. More important, as many people (including me) are willing to testify, Blaser as teacher and mentor changed or enlarged lives for the better.

Here, I’ll speak personally for a moment. If I had to sum up in a phrase what Blaser gave me, I would say, echoing his vocabulary, it is the appreciation of the marvels or “astonishments” of the world–both wonderful and horrific–in ways I never would have imagined on my own. This is a process of enlargement that probably begins with the first Mother Goose rhyme I heard or read (“Hickory-dickery-dock / The mouse ran up the clock”), but the encounter with Blaser’s vision was especially transformative. At the intellectual centre of his world-view is the injunction “to keep duty and love alive,” as he puts it in a poem about one of the grandmothers who raised him. Amid the decay (and defecation) of the world, from which Blaser doesn’t at all avert his gaze, he also has an eye that picks out the wonders that gleam in the muck–an appreciation for places, lives, texts, human beauties, objects (among them, moonstones found between the railroad ties when he was a child in Idaho).

It was such appreciation that he transmitted to others–poets, lovers, readers, a generation of students–a sense of how to live more fully in one’s time. There were poems, readings, formal talks and, as much as anything, excited conversation. The particular character of Blaser’s conversation–I often go down the lane to his house for morning coffee–is that it’s carefree with respect to temporality, topic and taboo. As can be said about computers, the “file shifts” are instantaneous and unmarked: he and I call up some minuscule incident of shared memory from decades ago and then, without any overt signal, shift to a bit of the day’s news that has come in over the radio that murmurs in his kitchen. Ditto for sacred/profane: from “shining masters” to “dirty talk” about the figures in the “comical physical union / our arms like briars / wrapped around.” Equally, there is no discrimination culturally between the seemingly most esoteric work of “high” art and lines from a pop song on the charts (“Let’s face it, baby / We’re just animal(s) / So let’s do it like they do it / on the Discovery Channel,” sing the Bloodhound Gang). Nothing has a priori intrinsic worth or lack of value. The appreciations open a world whose definition is open-ended. Because of Blaser, I understand it differently, I am different than I might have been.

No doubt my account or portrait of Blaser makes him out to be more saintly, or at least priestly, than he in fact is. Still, there is something priest-like in his devotions, as well as in his bearing, and his sense of responsibility for that role when he says in The Moth Poem, “You, priest, must know why you strike,” in an era “when all the world is loved by the / daimon of mediocrity.”

But Blaser’s biographers need not fear a shortage of suitable “material”: the poet has drunk the equivalent of an ocean-liner full of martinis (I’ve made and poured a few of them), he’s wept over lost loves not worth weeping over, his passions have escalated into raving and ranting, his quarrels have been as petty as the next person’s, he’s indulged in countless extravagances, and in the self-portrait of his own poems he’s recurrently aware of “tearing, teasing in that silly personality,” of “this overweening pride in the peacock flesh,” of looking for

some cinch, some way to live
entangled and closed in heat
you were even to yourself
an ancient face preening
before mirrors of comfort

For all that, Blaser has also lived for more than a quarter-century, and counting, with his friend David Farwell, a social worker and therapist who works at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. While to some, Blaser’s a creature from outer space, or as he puts it, “the best thing ever said about me / critically was ‘alien exotica’,” others of us find him more comprehensible. But, as I say, biography is not my business here. Nor is hagiography.

In one of the Image-Nations from the late 1960s, which appear among the “books” and serials of The Holy Forest, Blaser begins,

as the image wears away
there is a wind in the heart

the translated men
disappear into what they have
translated

rocking the heart a childish man
entangles an absence a still-life
at the edge of his body
erasing the body of those opposites
who are companions
and also horizons in one another’s
eyes at the ends of the world

the words do not end but come back
from the adventure…

The structures (or he might say, the metric) of Blaser’s poems become more dense, more complex, but the “adventure” of language and the companions who are “horizons in one another’s / eyes” remain. Despite whatever “longing / for completion” there might be,

the task of a man and his words
is at the edge
where we are
translated restless men
the quarrel over the immortal language,
one may believe in a god-language
behind us, but god moves to the end
of our sentences
where words foment
a largeness
of visible
and invisible worlds

Certainly, that seems a clear enough credo for a life’s work. Among the poets of his generation, the quality and range of Blaser’s intellect is notable, and he, along with George Stanley, is probably the best-read, philosophically, of the group of poets with whom he’s associated. For those familiar with the thought of the 20th and now the 21st century, Blaser’s poetry engages philosophically mainly with a contemporary Continental array of thinkers–Deleuze, Derrida, Serres, de Certeau, Agamben, Nancy, Arendt and others–many of whom are present or at the margins, by way of “borrowings” and citations, in Blaser’s poems. I don’t think any apology is necessary for the genuine difficulty of thought involved. If life were simple, we would have remained snakes. But as it is, we are not merely reptilian, but slightly more evolved intelligences capable of contact with “shining masters.”

when I tell you what they
look like some of it is
nearly false their blue hair

but they are not ourselves they
are equivalents of action they
compose forms, which we hear

sound within a context
as if that action we are
images of used us
the body becomes an instrument

sometimes the harp pierces the body
and a man only hangs on the strings

The thinking here is paratactic–that is, in Charles Olson’s phrase, one perception leads immediately to another–and the meaning unfolds hermeneutically. The shining masters “are not ourselves,” rather they are “equivalents” of “action.” The concept of action is the philosophically-charged term in this conceptualization of how the process of poetic thought works. The action of the shining masters “compose forms, which we hear.” We, too, are images of an action, and it’s as if the action “used us,” used our bodies as instruments to hear the “sound within a context.” This is one of the more articulated reformulations of what Blaser began with in Cups, “The poem / by dictation.”

As other images in the same poem make obvious, this work is in part a response to the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s. The reason Blaser is so concerned to get clear on the “metaphysics,” as I’m calling it, is because “public life has fallen asleep,” and the danger of ignorance in the face of the meaning of the war is that we will engage in the “reduction of horror to sentiment“. Although Blaser’s approach to politics is variously direct and indirect, his poetry is perhaps surprisingly political or, more important, almost always politically intelligent.

In a comic poem of the late-1980s, “As If By Chance,” one of several that deal with the recurrent theme of the disappearance of the “public world,” Blaser says, “the Private Sector worries me / it can, the ubiquitous ‘they’ say, solve–that is–clear up–” and then follows a list of sectors and definitions, including the economy, the political, the cultural, and the sexual, all the way to technology, angels and religion, which the free market can allegedly subsume. From economics, “confused science and confused theology prancing around together,” to angels “who became isms and hierarchies in order to immaterialize the real things we’re thrown up against, as we become startled sub-jects–to which I ob-ject,” Blaser heaps considered scorn on the nostrums of the day.

In “Even On Sunday,” a poem written for the Gay Games held in Vancouver in 1990, Blaser says, “I don’t know anything about God but what the human record tells / me–in whatever languages I can muster–” and then moves directly to an attack on the homosexual-hating religious fundamentalists of the day and “that blasphemy which defines god’s / nature by our own hatred and prayers for vengeance and dominance– / that he (lower case and questionable pronoun) would destroy by a / hideous disease one lover of another or by war, a nation for what / uprightness and economic hide-and-seek–and he… / is on the side of the always-ignorance of politics / in which we trust.” “Blasphemies all, against multiplicity / which is all anyone knows about god,” Blaser declares.

Even in a poem mainly about the childhood sources “where vocabulary begins,” the long “Image-Nation (‘oh, pshaw,'” from the early 1990s, Blaser, as in his conversation, can suddenly shift the focus to our immediate condition:

here, plagues galore weave among us–aids, racism, homophobia,
displacement and poverty, christianism with its political plans,
the Vatican sending out ‘advisory letters’ to the Bishops that
it’s okay to discriminate against gays in jobs, housing, and
professions–wacky–and the murder of Dr. David Gunn,
‘justification,’ they say, ‘as a pro-life casuality’…

Although there are always other dimensions to Blaser’s poems that directly address our political life, the specific moment–a doctor who provided abortion services assassinated by a religious nut–serves to verify the accuracy of the thought in which it is embedded.

In “(‘oh, pshaw,'”–the phrase is an expletive of his great-grandmother Ina–Blaser returns to the first landscapes found in Cups, the sagebrush and aspen valleys in the rural Idaho of his childhood in the 1930s. The dominant figures of the poem are a set of grandparents, great-grandparents and a grandaunt, but especially grandmother Sophia Nichols, known as Dot for short because she worked as a telegrapher for the railways. The family lived in a series of whistlestops–Orchard, Idaho, even a place named Blaser, Idaho–dwelling in a yellow Union Pacific railcar parked by the tracks, which follow the course of the Portneuf River. In a series of childhood episodes and engagements, the poet he will be takes form:

once the rains were so heavy the water rose up the opposite embankment, nearly reaching the railbed, and stayed for days–‘a sea,’ Sophia Nichols said, never having seen one, and it was wide and stretched along the tracks as far as I could see–we needed supplies from the commissary across there–Carnation condensed milk, I remember–and we plotted a way to cross that sea–the tin tub and a shingle, just the right size boat and paddle for me, we thought–round and round it went, being round, and drifted from shore meandering–she tossed me a broom, which luckily floated near enough to reach it–‘see if you can touch bottom,’ she said–I could–‘so push,’ she said–and I made it there circuitously, pulled my tub up on the beach, got the supplies, and returned–‘circuitously Odyssean,’ she said, having spent hours those rainy days telling me stories of Odysseus, which were, she said, homeward journeys of the soul…

In an earlier poem, Blaser cites his friend, the poet Charles Olson telling him, “I’d trust you / anywhere with image, but / you’ve got no syntax.” This remark is recorded in a book of Blaser’s called, appropriately, Syntax. Now, in a prose-poem syntax of his own contrivance in “(‘Oh, pshaw,'”, Blaser makes his Odyssean way homeward to the yellow railcar source of his poetry. In the poem, the images and figures emerge that will be permanent guides in his work:

the rocking chair from their lost house in Salt Lake City, often talked about, had a painted leather back–the wandering Jew or nomad–whose marvellous, piercing eye followed everyone up and down the boxcar parlour–into corners, even under the library table, also from the lost house–eros of wandering–eros of being sought in every nook and cranny–that, so far as I’m concerned is where vocabulary begins–fierce eyed–dot–dash–space–and syntax is later and difficult

In the next poem of the “Image-Nation” series, “(Exody,” a poem about Hieronymous Bosch’s 16th century painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delight,” amid the painter’s phantasmagoric rendering of a “bird-headed moth… a spotted, kerchiefed cat… arrows, flowers, sticks, bird beaks stuck up asses… a broken egg shell with a tavern in it” and all the rest, the emblematic Wandering Jew reappears:

they threw the old rocking chair from the lost house out–but they cut the leather backrest out–with the portrait of the wandering Jew or nomad on it–whose eyes follow me or ‘you’–into corners–to the end of the boxcar parlour–even into the brilliance of reading under the library table–and sent it to me

So, at the end of this exegesis, we have Blaser’s “exody,” his neologism suggesting not the exit of exodus, but an entrance into, or embarkation upon the voyage.

In spring of 2000, the wandering Blaser appeared in Berlin, where the libretto of The Last Supper he’d written for composer Harrison Birtwistle’s opera received its premiere at the Staatsoperhaus, the 17th century theatre located on the Unter den Linden, east Berlin’s grand, stately boulevard. Along with other friends of his, I attended opening night in the old opera house and was present when the silver-haired, tuxedo-garbed poet, just before his 75th birthday, stood on the stage after the performance to receive the audience’s applause and to take his bow.

Afterwards, a group of us, including Blaser, wandered next door to the cobbled August Bebel Platz. In 1933, this was the site of the Nazi book burning. Now, there’s an installation there by the sculptor Mischa Ullman. It consists of an unobtrusive marker, noting the historical event that occurred there–accompanied by the poet Heinrich Heine’s prophetic remark that people who begin by burning books will end by burning people–and a rectangle of glass.

When you edge up to the glass window set into the rough surface of the square, and look down, you see it is the transparent ceiling of a white, lighted underground room. The room is empty except for, on all four walls, sets of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, also empty. At night, in the otherwise darkened square, the underground empty library room emits a shaft of light up into the night air, through which, that evening, a thin drizzle was falling. Blaser, as always when in the presence of the “marvellous,” as he calls it, was transfixed–curious, moved, joyous, his face reflecting the illumination of the underground library. For a moment, as I stood on the other side of the glass and its shaft of brightness, I glimpsed, as I often have, the figure of Robin Blaser through the shifting light.

Vancouver, Aug. 15, 2003

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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