Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edward Dahlberg to Jonathan Williams

Bust and Newel


Supper of the bitter Gallic salts of dying Europa, while dogs howl out
          hominid perturbings, adamant and circling, flea-
Bit and ghostly. Like lingerie hung off the clerestory uprights the night
          billows out fronting
A breeze doused with the scent of fennel seeds firing up in the grill’d
          sausage, a fork popping little tine-
Provoked geysers, the odor of radiant pep and its clammy disavowals
          ritually loft’d.
I so imperfectly recall the somewhat complex story about the Confederacy,
          the cost of the soul, chimney
Dampers and increasingly moist underclothes, I dare not attempt a re-
Telling, boozy and decrepit though the audience be.

Getting shut of the vacant phraseology, the doge roger anemia of the
          ordinary eruct, “that’s one way.”
The other is caboose in the cabbage patch, shim-whittling for a hobby
And nobody’s horse-thievery without skimming off a goat or a hen,
          too. What’s Pound’s dictum,
To refuse to rustle a word “apart from its neighbours”—one way of hog-
          tying the conventional whilst
Slowly ripping pages out of the Webster’s, immensity feeding itself
          against the inadequacy of
Mere licentious redoubt and its ratifying “kin.” Snatch-rhythm break-
          through operaticks, yes.
Alors, répétez: poniard, potboy, pout. Sisyphean, Skeltonic,
          skeptical, skew . . .

Some remedial snarling vacancy in the breadbox I balance between my shoulders in lieu of a head. The suck of late summer, its scissoring nightly insect choruses, its porch beers, its accelerant smudge. Barely a red mite scurrying up a half-collapsed stone wall, c’est moi. I read a little “at” that new Pynchon, mrrmff. Maybe I’ll try Steve Erickson’s Zeroville next “for to compare”—movie-addled hero in the same post-Charles Manson L.A. dope-testimonial “era.” Or maybe opt off “elsewhere,” Andrew Lytle, Ross Lockridge, Jr. Restlessness of the damn’d.

Of Note

Out of the Paul Carroll-edit’d Edward Dahlberg Reader (New Directions, 1967), a letter to the twenty-nine year old Jonathan Williams (dated September 23, 1958):
. . . I believe you are a brave and talented man; give, if you don’t think I am a pedagogue, enough time to season you own pulse with good, wise books. Try as best you can to link the past with today; otherwise you have all the raging buffoonery of Dada, which some call surrealism, existentialism or what the vulgarians now call the “beat generation.” Everybody is defeated from the moment he quits his mother’s womb. Soon as you are in the world, and granting that some centuries are worse than others, and we are at the bottom of the pit of Acheron, the struggle commences. What is important then is to find examples that will nourish other people and not kill them. Let Nature do that, and the task will be accomplished soon enough.
      Of course it is wonderful of you to encourage so many people who would not have a chance with venal publishers. But must you encourage everybody?
      I like you very much, and also Joel Oppenheimer, and if you will heed me, since I have no creed to offer you, but a long humiliating experience, a thousand Golgothas, I may be of some use to you as a person and a writer. I am not looking for disciples. Jesus did not even know what to do with the apostles, and they had such dull auditory nerves that they could not hear what came from his soul. It is easier to walk on water as Peter did than it is to listen to another man.
      It is better to save your money and to print what is best in the land than to do many miscellaneous chapbooks which are pleasant enough but with not enough meaning to nurture and guide the lost, and we are all lost. I am absolutely nowhere in America at the age of 58. I have been in exile in this land since I was a boy. But it is the only country I know, and homeless here I somehow or other touch the ground, a threshold, and a few people who are my kindred even if they don’t recognize it. . . . .
      I would, if my suggestions do not irk you, because you know how to print and bind a book with great taste, and I don’t know anything about either, bring out books that do not simper or are not eccentric. When one is a poet he does not have to try to look like one. The enemy recognizes him even in the gray, deathlike double-breasted suit. All a poet nowadays has to do is to open his mouth to sow dragon’s teeth, and so it is not essential that he dress like one, or that you clothe a book with upside-down photographs. Let us try to be as simple and plain as we can about what we feel. Were you a parcel of that beat generation you would not immolate your person and pocketbook in an impossibilist’s effort to bring to others books. I would not go on writing either; ask yourself, what do you write for? ask yourself all the questions that press down upon your identity so that you won’t do more stupid things than I did when I was your age. We are born fools and die wretches, and there is no necessity to be more clownish or miserable than we already are.
      It is good to publish those who cannot find some one to do it. You also have another task, even more significant, to print the works of those who will be of use to purblind souls. We are all Cimmerians, living in some subterranean bog in our souls, and when I glance through a volume, I don’t want to know whether this author cannot otherwise find someone like yourself to bring him out. What is most important is that, whatever age he is, he can be the viaticum for my own nature, and give me enough food so that my own spirit can soar for an afternoon or at least until dusk. In other words, despite the fact that it is very hard for young people, and also the older ones, to get somebody to place their sighs and constellations between boards, what is of imperial worth is what they can do for others. Otherwise, you are bringing out books by Narcissus. There is already too much self-love in the world. Don’t encourage a man to love himself more than he already does. Do what you can to impress upon him the necessity of caring for somebody else. Every page is either a vision or Circe’s sty. Somehow or other most of us can gather the acorns and the masts, and we in this respect are as agile as the sea pigs around the Pillars. What everybody requires, you and I, is a book to take us back to Isis and Osiris so that we can understand this smallest of periods we attach so much importance to, our lives. If a book is not the most acute moiety of a man’s valorous pursuit for ends, then it is the devil of Gadarene.
      I hope I have not been too lengthy. What I want to impress upon your own nature is that my situation is no different from yours. Maybe you think I am a successful writer. I can tell you that I loathe the word success. My dear, good friend, Josephine Herbst, is inveighing against fame when she asserts that Bartram searched for the source of streams, gathered seeds, walked through unknown fens, scrutinized the leaves of the alder and the scrub oak, not to be renowned, but because he had an overpowering love within himself which he wanted to give to others. Is a volume a seedling which may grow into an aspen, a plane tree or a birch within you? If nothing grows after you have read a book then you have had a baleful and dismembering experience. Do we have to go to books to be assassinated? How much loam, ordinary dirt, foliage, moss, and even the dead carcasses of birds that once were jubilant is in a book. Whole islands that are composed of the dead are today the loam and ground of the living. Does a book awaken you? Will it bring you closer to another lorn person? You and I know the tragedy of separation, which we won’t dissolve by palaver and beer at the Cedar Bar. It is a great purgative experience to be together provided that our purpose is mirthful or earnest or both and not just to be more sodden and inert.
Cent cons m’enterrent.

“Three-Breasted Woman”

“Nude on Partridge”

“Drowning Man”

Drawings by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) for Edward Dahlberg’s
The Sorrows of Priapus (New Directions,1957)