Phantom Anthems [Oakland: O Books, 1986] is a book of poetry.
Robert Grenier grew up in Minnesota.
He was my teacher at Berkeley in the late 1960's.
Bob asked "Why not apply to go to Iowa and get your MFA in Poetry Writing? It would be fun. You could live on a farm."
I always considered that Bob was responsible for my taking this "career" turn at the age of 22.
Years later, after bouncing around in the teaching profession, and working as a caretaker for Larry Eigner, Bob went to work for a law firm, Brobeck Phleger, in San Francisco, as a copyreader. It was a night job. Bob lived in Bolinas, and commuted. It was a grind.
He later said it made him "crazy"--this relentless commuting and mad word-mind processing during the mental eclipse of the night-shift.
He'd drive back across the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun was coming up over the horizon, and when he arrived home, he'd be "buzzing" and sleepy at the same time.
He'd sit down and punch out a poem or two before crashing. "It was a crazy time," he later told me, "in a sense the poems were just a regurgitation of all this fucked-up tension, this suppressed rage, this terrible regimen."
Phantom Anthems is a book of poetry, but very untypical of Bob's work. Beginning in the middle 1960's, his work became increasingly spare and intuitive, relying on the mystery of individual words and short phrases to reveal hidden connections between the psychology of linguistic comprehension and the preemptive rhythms of speech and enunciation. For a long time, he'd been working at this level, in which his work wasn't even regarded as poetry, as most people think of it. He'd stopped "writing poems" years ago, and had symbolically renounced that process forever, it seemed.
Phantom Anthems was like an improbable, unlikely explosion of pent-up music and frustrated physical confinement. Perhaps his deprecation of it, after the fact, was his way of excusing its apparent contradictory occurrence in the middle of an otherwise logical progression in the pace of his development as a writer of original, experimental writing.
Understood in the context of a"deluge of regurgitated confusion" the work takes on the added significance of a series of cathartic acts, in which the detritus of verbal exhaustion is reprocessed from a consciousness hovering precariously at the edge of control--at that point between waking and sleep when the unconscious is released from the bondage of focus and concentration, into a state of free association and autonomous play--even while the body is shutting down in anticipation of rest.
THROUGH THE MANACLE
heart's ease home from blinding labor
still walnut palm & ratty pine cones
heart's ease at home from blinding labor
pointless syntax concentration on illumined miniscules
still walnut palm & ratty pine conspire
for moon light them & more pine needles
that's growing all over the window
just if as it were 'outside'
moonset looks like just if rising
from the West of course no night or day at this stage
in its just as if it was rising
full & fair at the first
time tomorrow night in the East the man in the head
require no more light than this
to write in the moonlight but less shadow
sleeps in the mind in woods during the day
of great dark apparent 'titanic'
red & black 'powers" & starlight
red & brown shadows think man
see in sleep & dreaming these images
that haunt you by day in actual visions
of the Balinese shadow play that Puppet
capitalization of the Moon
this head visible Spirit with its Aura
emblazoned on the dawn clouds
that Friday night for others in our
culture backyard the roadside puppetlike
front yard the freeway where the moon sits
actually speaking in pictures
more yellow into dawn's light blue
& grey orange 'fiery' clouds that
substitute for proofreading 'to write about'
rather wrest seeing from eyesight than chain
the whole world up in sight
on the surface table cloth
what could possibly have heard popped
settling down into treesy vine
& with it spectatorship of the moon
lit up the clouds in settling just like sunrise
except I need a flashlight to write now
it helps likewise to move toward the bathroom
still can see
turn off the flashlight look
through the shrubbery the lune
breaking the manacles by chattering
This is the signature piece of the collection, specifically in that it describes the initial condition of its composition, explaining the terms of his extremity ("pointless syntax" -- the legalese through which his mind's rolled-up tape of linear data "spends" time as work) from which the imagination escapes through its own facility. The accretion of detail through syntax builds up to observable surfeit of patience, tipping over into jiggling syllables of light (frustration). Interiority expressed as the rehearsal of planetary retrograde (moon set versus moon rise), as earth's day is reversed in dream (digging to China). Rejecting "capitalization of the Moon" in favor of a revisioning of it freshness via absolute fatigue, meanwhile the "backyard culture" of neighborhood deities and speaking ghosts, homely state of rustic canvas to exorcise such glint-eyed technics.
Substitute what for proofreading in shorthand to write about? Which when complete is the moon's own frost, christening leaf edges and eye-crinkles. This is the table under the supermarket of choices, mind its own flashlight through the woods dark from the shadows of negative noon. "Your guess is as good as a Mayan's." Cut it out and say what you mean.
Hearing a bird singing at night's eccentric plumb. Stop telegra in her tracks. I woke driving but fell asleep in a car crash. The wind chill the pre-dawn air chillier as a tremulous sensation. So hear this risen flotsam capacious & contort--
PRAYER FOR BOOM
For Robert Creeley
breast snoring saxophone suddenly in place are so palpable
eventide evocative of manifest narrative reservoirs of mental means me that
in his place those heavy fleshed flanked and fleshy congested lungs
of his immaterial contours that heavy dogs hairy heave
upward through their noses by breathing in sleep I felt the Bronx
mutually through a nostril mine and jaw political subdivision suffused with teeth
& bone pink & grey green gains gums with animal animadvertent brown fluid
naturally that stands for/streams from corpus delicti us vs. all suffering gibberant
satisfactory though lyrical magical looks on earth & affirms why sleep at least
with the model monkey all mere effort of breathing aura in & out options
bastions corporations ideas geophysics iron poets teaching in extant universities
so forth is as dreaming sounds our ears both ever and anon falls dusk palms
dog here ah fellow Boom, listening, as human & man, to dawn's birds, your snores,
greenery, both my friends, our dual existence equally love fostered
thus subject to death unknown by heart attack in time
Like an expressionist ode to the revulsive physicality of being in the world, past the prime of an invocative regeneration, the poet bequeaths a mortal furry body burdened with phlegm-encrusted symptomatic invasions from outer or inner space, piling it on maybe even jamming it in if it fits or doesn't, cloistered in hearths o'erstrewn with steaming wool. Haunting silhouette, oracular visitations, brushy slopes. All these fructive burdensome lashings against the threat of chaos. Language heaped up in burgeoning surfeit. O'erwhelmed materiality--engorged on sensational mass. Eggnog out of season. Holly berry buttons. No poverty of means here.
I slept all day
she was a gloomy baby
a moody child
clouds pass across the forehead
& linger a while
will be clearly in the heavens for a discerning look
So in the crazy nightlong blunder of pushing resistant gaunt erect self ever onward, certain dry facts declare themselves without shame to exist in themselves as what they are. Mind mutters and kindles wet sparks into curling tendrils of heat. When the bread has risen Joseph Stalin will rise from his tomb. Black stacks emitting doom. E'er I pluck your jingle athwart the tawny grain of aged timber. The notion of labor as a metaphor for wasted human potential is like an angelic instigation. This is the good work. He couldn't control it, it just poured out in a rush, god help him, the reductionist's nightmare, a hemorrhagic eruption of stewed particulars, munchable and mild.