Monday, April 11, 2011

Jeffrey Yang’s Birds, Beasts, and Seas


Anthology—old story—out of the Greek, flower gathering, fr. anthos flower + logia collecting, fr. legein to gather, see LEGEND. (Anthophagous refers to one who feeds off flowers.) I do recall a period, early, of feeding off anthologies: Paul Carroll’s 1968 The Young American Poets (Diane Wakoski aiming a gun, hirsute Berrigan’s zipping “Tambourine Life”—“FUCK COMMUNISM”), Padgett and Shapiro’s 1970 An Anthology of New York Poets (likely skip’d Clark Coolidge’s “prune acrylic whose / dives / marls pays loops watts / lock mix deem / white apart / sass” for Ed Sanders’s “Elm Fuck Poem”—“in to the oily crotch / place dick / [. . .] / . . . suck the pulse of the / Hamadryad”—not, then, noticing how each be, one to the other), Anne Waldman’s 1969 The World Anthology (repeatedly drug off the library shelves—where I work’d—never own’d, is it there I first encounter’d the unimpeachable possibilities of syntax in Berrigan’s “My god is immense, and lonely / but uncowed. I trust my sanity, and I am proud. If / I sometimes grow weary, and seem still, nevertheless // my heart still loves, will break”? without ever seeing the O’Hara in it? and read with crazy belly-laugh glee Joel Sloman’s body measurements?), Donald Hall’s 1962 Contemporary American Poetry (wherein, undoubtedly, I initially read both “drive, he sd, for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going” and “. . . if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom” and refuse—under tutelage to O’Hara’s “I cannot bring myself to prefer / Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker, I cannot!”—to reject either), thus obliging—probably without reading—Hall’s “We do not want to merely substitute one orthodoxy for another . . . The trouble with orthodoxy is that it prescribes the thinkable limits of variation” in the introduction). The Allen anthology arrived late. (New Poets of England and America not at all.) To say: the years of my “emergence” coincided with a brief pre-Language writing détente in la poesía norteamericana. Another preface hardly scan’d (youth wants its poem untrammel’d by contextual verbiage, no?), Padgett and Shapiro’s:
It would be facile as well as misleading to see these poets as forming a “School,” to pass them off as a literary movement. Fortunately, most poets of any interest these days are so enlightened that they automatically reject in their lives and work, the unhealthy idea of being part of a literary movement. Like water off a ducks’ back, such abstractions roll back into nothingness.
With, too, its slightly ga-ga romp through the surrounding flowers, sheer unceremonious heel-kicking, refusing the earnest at all cost:
Are New York poets new realists, or dissociated from any sympathy for the wretched of the earth? Are they drifting into a penumbra? Or do their sleek attractive surfaces glide by in the light? Have they freshened up the diatribe? Have any of their collaborations produced beautiful corpses? Are New York poets a diploma elite that buries its children? Are they merely tasting the ripest apple on the table, in the air? Is it a dérèglement de tous les sens? Or has it become, peculiarly Americanized, only a “leaving-out business,” a taking-away process? Have they generated a whole vocabulary of forms, a new sestina, new collages, cut-ups? Is it “deep gossip”? Why have the old copula been expunged?
All that ruminant jawing arriving along with a look into a new anthology, the Jeffrey Yang-edit’d Birds, Beasts, and Seas (New Directions, 2011). Subtitled: “Nature Poems from New Directions,” a dandy fitting pocketbook-sized number (its heft and look recall the Hall anthology cover’d with something like tiny semaphore flags, signals of distress, with a severe print’d “plate” center’d against it—here the background’s made of lozenges with bird, or bear, or lone canoeist, a book for carrying . . .) New Directions is seventy-five years old: reason enough to draw up a celebratory bouquet out of the archives. (Yang writes: “Birds, Beasts, and Seas draws from the whole of ND’s long-tailed library.”) A cynic’d say “repackaging”—I see a culling of particulars along lines of cleavage, point’d similars arranged in new constellatory patterns. What an anthology comes to be for. So that one, pawing rather randomly around, reads the fifth century B.C. Greek of Herakleitos, translated by Guy Davenport:
The Logos is eternal
but men have not heard it
and men have heard it and not understood.

Through the Logos all things are understood
yet men do not understand
as you shall see when you put acts and words to the test
I am going to propose:

One must talk about everything according to its nature,
how it comes to be and how it grows.
Men have talked about the world without paying attention
to the world or to their own minds,
as if they were asleep or absent-minded.
And a number of pages along, William Bronk’s “Aspects of the World Like Coral Reefs”:
In the spring woods, how good it is to see
again the trees, old company,
how they have withstood the winter, their girth.

By gradual actions, how the gross earth
gathers around us and grows real, is there,
as though it were really there, and is good.

Certain stars, of stupendous size, are said
to be such and such distances away,—
oh, farther than the eyes alone would ever see.

Thus magnified, the whole evidence
of our senses is belied. For it is not
possible for miles to add miles to miles

forever, not even if expressed as the speed of light.
The fault lies partly in the idea of miles.
It is absurd to describe the world in sensible terms.

How good that even so, aspects of the world
that are real, or seem to be real, should rise like reefs
whose rough agglomerate smashes the sea.
And each is dislodged by the other, out of the humdrum place one’s put it, and a rhyme is made. Look how suddenly lines out of Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach”—
All is lithogenesis—or lochia,
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,
Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,
Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,
I study you glout and gloss, but have
No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again
From optik to haptik and like a blind man run
My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,
Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles,
Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,
An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns,
Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world,
Deictic, fiducial stones. Chiliad by chiliad
What bricole piled you here, stupendous cairn?
What artist poses the Earth écorché thus,
Pillar of creation engouled in me?
What eburnation augments you with men’s bones,
Every energumen an Endymion yet?
All the other stones are in this haecceity it seems,
But where is the Christophanic rock that moved?
What Cabirian song from this catasta comes?
—make echo with lines out of Eliot Weinberger’s “Dreams from the Holohurians”:
Atlantis! In the dark the holothurians eat and excrete and move on and eat, inching forward, thinking, sending out their mental flares in the hope that someone, something, anything will drop by and relieve the tedium of their biological fate, down there, at the bottom of the sea, with the calcified sponges, magnesium nodules, the crushed spines of sea urchins, the ghosts of coelenterates, unexploded torpedoes, skeletons of bathypterids and halosaurs, the hieroglyphic tracks of sea pens and ophiuroids, fecal coils, the waving arms of a burrowed brittle-star, manganese-encrusted dolphin teeth, the remains of a jettisoned crate of manilla-envelope clasps, zeolite crystals, pillows of basalt, calcareous shells of pteropods, the sinister egg-casings of skates, the broken anti-matter locks from a crashed spaceship, the short-crested ripples of sand, and the scour moats forming in the globigerina ooze.
The lowly sea cucumber surround’d by its own glorious haecceity. Yang stretches out magnificently what some’d call the limits of the “nature poem.” Out of Yang’s preface:
A century after Emerson, the poet Paul Valéry observes, “Whenever we run across something we do not know how to make but that appears to be made, we say that nature produced it.” Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani extends Valéry’s thought in our times when he writes, “Nature, therefore, is not restricted to ostensibly natural objects such as the seashell; it also includes things that are made by man but whose structure—how they are made—is not immediately discernible. Such things are called natural language because their making is not apparent.” Nature here is provisional, and inseparable from our own thinking and perceptions—it circumscribes the limits of our own making as what nature makes is a part of what humans make.
The works in Birds, Beasts, and Seas range widely (one measure of New Directions’ refusal of the parochial, or the narrow): verses out of the c. 1000 B.C. Book of Odes (translated by Ezra Pound) begin the book, lines by the Albanian Luljeta Lleshanaku (b. 1968) end it: “Here the elemental world of cold metals begins— / here identity, weight, gravitational forces end, / where I can no longer be I.” In between: lines out of Euripides by H. D., Medea by Robinson Jeffers, Lucretius by Basil Bunting, Ovid by Christopher Marlowe, Gerard de Nerval by Robert Duncan, Blaise Cendrars by John Dos Passos, Saint-John Perse by Eliot, Pessoa by Thomas Merton, Silvina Ocampo by William Carlos Williams, René Char by Samuel Beckett, plus a slew of others, the Goliard Poet to Anne Carson, Christopher Smart to Forrest Gander. For any who’d complain that the “natural world” ’s become the last unabash’d resort of the “dewy piety” squad, or that “we” need “get beyond” its call—that used up “thing” over there: I like Yang’s two epigraphs:

                                                                                      “Will I ever reach the aim that I’ve so long pursued and searched for?

                                                                                    “I am still working from nature and feel I am making a little progress.”

                                                                                                        —Paul Cézanne, September 1906, a few weeks before his death

. . . duce ac magistra natura


No clouds mar the indistinct
whitishness of the sky. Hay-
color’d hummocks of saw grass
pinch off the new-mill’d
planks thrown down haphazard out
to where the boat is
being winch’d up. Leak’d motor
oil making iridescent the black
water. In the distant cattails
a wren burbles incommodiously, hid.
Belongings of the incessant world,
its immeasurable hurdy-gurdy, its itch.
No human property, its anthracite-
black liquid pours out of
a seam between two mountains.
It owns any wee physical
man unexpect’d who’d dare eschew
it, or tamper with its
green demesne, its unlit fuses.
One slices an uncanny red
orange, import’d out of Halicarnassus
or new Bodrum, shrugs off
the presumptuous banality of marketing
a thing made by sun-
light and soil, ineffable combo,
plethora of what circularity achieves.

Birds, Beasts, and Seas
(Cover by Rodrigo Corral Design)