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Lessons: Selected Poems Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey) White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

Lessons: Selected Poems  Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey)  White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

In Black Mountain Days, the engaging autobiographical account of the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker described his fellow student Joel Oppenheimer as that “fierce-featured poet from the Bronx and refugee from Cornell, whose father owned a luggage shop in mid-Manhatten”. When Oppenheimer wrote a short biographical note for the concluding pages of Donald Allen’s 1960 ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, in which he was represented by five poems, he wrote:

“Born for the Depression, but too young to remember any suffering. Too young for WWII – in school and 4 F during Korean. Consequently, having missed the 3 major social calamities of my time, I am always feeling just a little guilty. Now living in NYC”.

There is a clarity in these phrases of self-accounting as well as a wry touch of humour. This is the man who, in a little anecdote told me some years ago by Jeremy Prynne, caused the Zukofsky family a certain amount of consternation. Prynne and Oppenheimer had paid a visit to the Zukofsky home and Joel, being of some considerable physical size, started to throw his arms about in energetic enthusiasm. According to Prynne, Louis Z. was terrified for the safety of the little ornaments with which the flat was decorated!
Dennis Maloney’s new selection of poems by Oppenheimer brings the extravagant and dedicated figure of Oppenheimer back into focus and David Landrey’s introduction directs us to some very good reasons why the poet who bridged the world of North Carolina and New York should be read again now. Landrey writes about simplicity in Oppenheimer’s work not as being opposite to complexity but as being more connected to what Emerson wrote in his 1836 book-length lecture Nature:

“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of idea is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires – the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise – and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults.”

At Black Mountain College Charles Olson taught the value of limpidity and Rumaker recalled soon after leaving there a letter he wrote to Olson in September 1956:

“Four years ago or so when I first read your work (mostly in Origin) I thought you were straining after an impossible chaos – that it was whimsical, meaningless, sensationally tricky. But what was necessary was a correction of my ear. I didn’t see the form, I didn’t hear the limpidity of your thought and feeling, your rhythm – what you were always after me for, limpidity, telling me that night over the dishrack to go to Williams, as I did, and found, as I find now the same in you, in all I’ve read of you.”

Oppenheimer’s short poem ‘The Gardener’ first appeared in Robert Creeley’s magazine Black Mountain Review 4, Winter 1954:

“on the left branch, a
blossom. on the
top branch, a blossom.
which child is this.
which flowering
of me. which
gold white bloom.
which the force of my life.”

Of course there is Williams in this but there is also a delicately thoughtful contemplation which is entirely Oppenheimer: an awareness of one’s self, a throwing open of one’s arms. Zukofsky might have had justification for his touch of anxiety! In ‘Chaos’ from the 1994 collection New Hampshire Journal there is a further contemplation of the relationship between the poet and his creations:

“CHAOS is where
we come from
FORM we reach
occasionally
then fall back
into chaos
to start again
renewed

INCOHATE
means beginning

comes from the root
TO HARNESS

getting into harness
is just the beginning

how we plow and
what we plant
determines the field

the field
determines
what feeds us
while we wait
to fall back
to grow again”

This is a fine poem which focuses on the link between the present and the future recognising the way in which we can learn from what we have created: this is poetry which has a sense of newness, a sense of the future and yet it contains a limpid grasp of where ideas come from, a humility. It recalls for me that early Olson poem ‘These Days’ which I am so fond of quoting:

“whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from”

In his ‘Poem for the New Year 31 December 1973’ Oppenheimer describes being strangled by Medusa in a nightmare from which he struggles to awake. As he puts it “i am saved / by the old poet, he helps me / break loose”. The old poet is Charles Olson who had died some three years before but whose teaching would continue to have a major effect on American poetry.

Ian Brinton, 12th May 2017

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

UnNatural Music: John Lennon & Yoko Ono in Cambridge 1969 by Anthony Barnett Allardyce Book

In the closing lines of this attractively produced little piece of history Anthony Barnett refers to Yoko Ono as Eiko and thereby brings back into focus another little fragment of history. Some eight years ago I received an email from Michael Rumaker, Black Mountaineer who had been taught by Olson in the 1950s, in which he commented upon my determination to locate and read his first novel, The Butterfly:

‘You mentioned you plan to read my Butterfly this weekend with an eye to comparing it to Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall. I’m glad I have the chance to warn you the comparison will not stand up. Butterfly was my first novel and as with all first novels is riddled with flaws, and in this case, excessive emotion and not as direct as I would have written it in a later time. That, despite its being highly autobiographical, and also perhaps its being of some historical interest, since the character of “Eiko” is actually Yoko Ono (no secret anymore since Albert Goldman wrote about that fact in his 1988 The Lives of John Lennon) and the character of “Alice” is actually Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac who was with him when On the Road hit it big).’

When Barnett’s recent publication was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement on May 20th J.C. opened his piece with a fine piece of tongue-in-cheekery:

‘There is something appealing about a music memoir that opens “I do not have to tell you how disgraceful John’s attitude was and Yoko’s is”. The author of UnNatural Music is the poet Anthony Barnett who produced the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in 1969…’

The tongue-in-cheekery is of course that Barnett does have to tell us and what he tells is clear and to the point. His historical reconstruction, a past that never simply gets swallowed up in a present, is immaculate and the whole book is presented in a style that over many years Anthony Barnett has made his own: a type of signature publishing dish. Buy a copy NOW!
The historical reconstruction undertaken here is not simply about that concert in 1969; we enter into a spectral world of the past as the book opens with the words ‘For a while from 1965 I worked at Better Books, New Compton Street, round the corner from their Charing Cross Road shop. That section of New Compton Street no longer exists. A redevelopment covers it.’ We are immediately drawn into a world that will include Nothing Doing in London One, ‘which included a music score by John Tchicai’; the letterpress literary and arts loose-leaf folio review also included work by Samuel Beckett and Anne-Marie Albiach. In January 1968 Nothing Doing in London Two appeared with work by George Oppen as well as Yoko Ono’s ‘On Paper’. As Mr Barnett tells me the title page was ‘set in Castellar font, and the names in Plaintin font’. Needless to add that both are now collectors’ items!
Rumaker’s novel opens in a hospital which conveys a haunting sense of the prophetic for Ken Kesey’s later masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

‘The low stucco buildings of the hospital with their harsh green windows and heavy wire screening stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see.’

Anthony Barnett’s magical reconstruction of long gone days comes off the page with similar focus.

Ian Brinton 29th May 2016

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

In February 1955 Charles Olson wrote to his former Black Mountain student Mike Rumaker:

‘This is not an answer to your two, and mss. You will excuse me, but I
am selling cattle, plows, property etc., and it will soon be in hand, and I can get back to you, and proper work. But this is to tell you officially that the turn has come, and that it is forward, again: that we will operate spring and summer quarters, and I wanted you to know, simply, that you, Tom [Field], Jerry [Van de Weile] and Ed [Dorn] are our solids—solid core, and all that—around which we are building, taking only students who are sharp and directed themselves, and expecting a strong summer group, if the spring thing shows no surprising additions yet.’

Rumaker also recalled Dorn ‘presenting the illusion of a foxy preacher from the Old West’ and one can sense a slight whiff of this in Robert Creeley’s ‘Preface’ to the 1978 Grey Fox Press Selected Dorn:

‘No poet has been more painfully, movingly, political; the range and explicit register of Edward Dorn’s ability to feel how it actually is to be human, in a given place and time, is phenomenal’.

One highly engaging aspect of this terrific new volume of Dorn’s previously unpublished work is precisely to do with that ‘given place and time.’ People and places weave a haunting path through the 600 pages of this book with the convincing quality of diary entries. ‘An Account of a Trip with Jeremy Prynne in January 1992 through the Clare Country’:

‘Nobody knows what it’s like
to be in love in the country
nobody knows what the labor’s like
nobody feels the distant thermal
tedium in the fields, where the birds
mock such indenture with No Regard.’

The tone of voice here reminds me of the early poem from Hands Up!, ‘On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck’, whilst further on in this passionately serious new poem one can detect the voice and interest of Prynne:

‘the farm gone beyond its wretched and wracked
draft of human labor conditioned by
the fake gestures of Spring and Summer—free heat
no credit to the sun, whose ownership was,
and still is assumed, paid for with evermore
toil and exertion with a ration calculated down to
and including the last straw.’

It’s that wonderful merging of the colloquial with the analytic in the last lines, the anger and directness of statement, which becomes a hallmark of the work of both poets.

Last year shuffaloff / Eternal Network Joint # 6 published extracts from Dorn’s 1971 The Day & Night Book and my copy has a little insert that says simply ‘a slice from the year 1971, beginning with birth of our daughter Maya, to early summer.’ In this new Dorn collection the entire eighty pages of that diary-poetry appear and it is more than a ‘slice’. As if to emphasise again the close-working connections between Dorn and Prynne the 203rd Day includes ‘On first reading The Glacial Question, Unsolved, again. The tones of the two poets are again operationally interactive:

‘There are a legion of poets
and like
with any legion the work
is fixed and secondary
a ride in the desert
spent days, one
at a time
the serial is in some ways
perfect for a legion

and of the poets prancing
in the academy stock
talking into the face of the clock
only Prynne has the wit to compose
The Pleistocene Rock!’

Prynne’s poem, from The White Stones deals with the glacial movement south in the Pleistocene Era and within it scientific discourse becomes lyric expression which disrupts those discourses. Of course Dorn would have appreciated the compassionately aware sense of both history and humour in the English poet: ‘We know this, we are what it leaves’.

Ian Brinton 3rd July 2015

Sally Flint’s The Hospital Punch (Maquette Press)

Sally Flint’s The Hospital Punch (Maquette Press)

Reading this little chapbook of poems, eleven in all, I kept thinking ‘Why am I moved by these glances into the life of a hospital?’ The answer when it came was something to do with the compassion and care threading its way through the tone of Sally Flint’s poems. It brought to mind the article I had read by Gavin Francis yesterday in the review section of The Guardian. The article revolved around that masterpiece from 1967 by John Berger, A Fortunate Man. Gavin Francis presented the reader with a brief account of Berger’s book, ‘a collaborative work that blends John Berger’s text with Jean Mohr’s photographs in a series of superb analytical, sociological and philosophical reflections on the doctor’s role, the roots of cultural and intellectual deprivation and the motivations that drive medical practice’. The article also quotes Berger as stressing that he is ‘a storyteller’:

‘Even when I was writing on art it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.’

Sally Flint’s pictures of the ordinary and echoing history of hospital workers, those whose lives are touched by the intimacy and importance of what they are committed to, strike a bell of familiarity: one almost gets to know the characters as one would within the margins of storytelling. In ‘The Hospital Punch’

‘Henry, the anaesthetist, who swayed
like he’d sniffed nitrous oxide all his life,
un-wrapped one of the biggest sterile bowls
used to collect swabs in theatre.
He carried it like a ceremonial platter
to the staff room, leered over his spectacles
and said, ‘What we need is alcohol.’’

Within the narrative a baby/child has died and Nancy, one of those who will be at this ceremony of recovery, is ‘swollen-eyed / as the grey-faced parents she’d consoled’. Within this world of professional commitment and loss boundaries are melted as Big Marlon, the porter, brings glasses ‘out of store’ and tips into the bowl a hip-flask of rum whilst whispering the half-bitten cliché ‘It’ll warm the cockles’. As the wake continues the question of bringing the dead back to life ‘wouldn’t sink’:

‘It was nobody’s fault, we chorused.
Life wasn’t ours to give or take,
except for the exceptions—
when we’d fought and won.’

This carefully-poised poem, poised between the banality of a moment and the stretching eternity of responses to death, the echoing in our minds of Donne’s meditation in which he says ‘No man is an Island’, concludes with a sharply-drawn picture which could come from Black Mountain Michael Rumaker’s story ‘Exit 3’:

‘Slowly, Henry began feeling
dents in the locker doors
when the junior doctor said he couldn’t stand
the heat. As the sun slipped
behind the hospital chimney
he swung at the window, made his fist bleed.’

This little press, Maquette, from the University of Exeter, is worth keeping an eye out for and they can be contacted at 7 Grove Terrace, Teignmouth, Devon TQ14 9HT. Later on today I am looking forward to reading the third volume that has appeared from the press, A Plume of Smoke by Jos Smith.

Ian Brinton 8th February 2015

Robert Duncan

Two new books about Robert Duncan which will be reviewed in Tears 57.

 

Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan, subtitled ‘The Ambassador from Venus’, appeared recently from University of California Press and it is likely to remain as the official life of this immensely important West Coast poet for many years to come. With so many quotations from previously unpublished notebooks this biography is a mine of wonderful things. From his early days teaching at Black Mountain College we can read this notebook entry:

 

‘In search of the makings of poetry we are going to turn back to the very seeds of language, back to that first beginning to distinguish words which is a beginning of newly distinguishing the world.’

 

This is the time of The Opening of the Field.

 

Michael Rumaker’s account of Robert Duncan in San Francisco was first published by Grey Fox Press in 1978 and it revolves around that year 1957 when many fellow Black Mountain students were migrating since the close of the College. It was the summer of the famous HOWL trial where Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, of City Lights, were prosecuted for selling Ginsberg’s book. Michael Rumaker’s account of those times in that city is a sheer delight of engagement: the reader is drawn into the world of excitement and fear, poetry and police. A new edition of this essential book is appearing from City Lights in January 2013 and it will contain previously unpublished letters between Rumaker and Duncan as well as an interview conducted by Ammiel Alcalay & Megan Paslawski.

 

 

 

Edward Dorn’s 1981 Charles Olson Memorial Lecture

On April 25th this year I mentioned the publication of Michael Rumaker’s Selected Letters as part of the extraordinarily professional and helpful series Lost and Found, The Cuny Poetics Document Initiative produced under the general editorship of Ammiel Alcalay. Having now seen the whole of Series 3 I have to say more!

Number 5 in the series contains the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures given by Edward Dorn. Dorn opens his lecture of March 19th 1981 by referring to Olson’s ‘legacy of intelligence’ which ‘has surely equipped those who knew him, or have learned from what he left, to weather in some spirit the abysmal storms which are routine in any future.’

What Dorn misses in Olson is, amongst so much else, ‘what all of us got from his actual presence: the ameliorating transport of his ability to relate not just the parts to the whole, but all the parts.’

 

The lecture also includes a letter from Jeremy Prynne to Dorn dated 22nd February 1981 which is well worth contemplating as he refers to English poets who ‘just fade smugly away; only a jetsam of token culture—poets, with hands outstretched toward disconnected levers, hanging around in Ireland or Earl’s Court.’

 

This wonderful Series 3 of the Lost & Found project includes two volumes of correspondence between Charles Olson and John Wieners and the whole batch of chapbooks can be purchased from The Centre for the Humanities, The Graduate Centre, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue, Room 5103, New York, NY 10016.

You can also subscribe or order books online at http://centerforthehumanities.org/lost-and-foundEdward

Black Mountain Days

Black Mountain Days

Black Mountain Days: A Memoir by Michael Rumaker

The new edition of this indispensable book has now just been published by Spuyten Duyvil in New York [ISBN 978-1-933132-66-2]

The front cover has a picture of Charles Olson with Connie Olson and students on the porch at Black Mountain in 1953.

Jonathan Williams suggested that this book allowed one to feel that he/she is there, living through Black Mountain’s endless difficulties in the most intimate way.

It is a terrific read and is, for me, by far the most illuminating documentation of what life was like at Black Mountain as the last few years were energised by Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn and Fielding Dawson. Dawson’s own account, The Black Mountain Book [Wesleyan College Press, reprinted 1991] is also a vital testimonial to what exciting times these were and those interested need also to look at Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain, An Exploration in Community [published in England by Wildwood House in 1974].

Michael Rumaker’s style is both vivid and intimate and he was a writer of so-called ‘Dirty Realism’ before the term had been invented! His powerful short story Exit 3 had opened with a question from the narrator as he is trapped in a relationship of violence and brotherhood: ‘Who the hell are you?’ It ended with a marine forcing a fight that is bound to destroy him and saying ‘I’ll show you who the hell I am.’ In 1966 Penguin issued a selection of Rumaker’s short stories under the title Exit 3 and other stories and the editor, Tony Goodwin, chose a cover for it depicting a manic figure whose fist is punching glass only to crack it not to break it. This was the first photograph cover that Penguin ever used!

 

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