Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Fleur-de-lys - a New Cocktail

The fleur-de-lys has been associated with France for centuries. It's been used in various ways on its flags since the 13th Century. Seeing it on a product or building or object summons up for me the slightly over-refined fastidiousness of the French fine art tradition, and the preoccupation with encrusted decoration which the association implies. France's long history of monarchical rule undoubtedly is responsible for it.

It originally was an adaptation of the lily flower, and is meant, visually, to represent six petals, or leaves, three of them alternatively straight, meeting at their tops, the other three on the opposite, bending down so that the middle one seems to make one with the stalk and only the two ones facing out from left and right can clearly be seen. Other monarchical entities in Europe have also used the symbol, as well--but it's still commonly regarded as French.

French Royal Standard.

Royalist French flag.

Pre-Revolutionary flag of France.

The current day flag of Quebec.

Sugar is a crystal, a carbohydrate which nearly all living things use to burn energy. Our bodies get sugar directly, or synthesize it from other food substances, inside the body. Our ability to taste sweetness as a quality probably was an adaptation designed to maximize our intake of energy producing substances in nature, such as fruit or honey. Of course, since the elaboration of food experiment and adaptation, our attraction to sweets has not only produced the intense pleasure associated with sweets, but has been used against us through the exploitation of sugar-laced products, and ultimately contributes to disease and degeneration when taken in excessive amounts, which far exceed what our sensitivity to it was designed to accomplish, along the evolutionary time-line of our descent.

But sugar taken in moderation is a great pleasure, especially when added to other food types such as chocolate, bitter fruits, and alcoholic beverages. I came up with this concoction the other evening, and it immediately seemed to me to capture this sense of French sweetness, hence its name.

Ingredients, by proportion --

4 parts No 10 Tanqueray Gin
1.5 parts Limoncello
1 part Peach Schnapps
tiny portion (about a half gram) zest of grapefruit

Shaken and served up. The zest may accumulate in the bottom of the cocktail glass, which is just fine. It can be savored at the end, in the same way a strip of orange or lemon garnish which has become impregnated with the liquid can be enjoyed. But no garnish is needed for this drink. Its sweetness has a purity and sophistication which probably results from the interaction of the herbs in the gin, the peach flavor, with the dry citrus in the grapefruit skin. Give it a try, and salute the French!

The Yamazaki 18 year Single Malt

The Japanese Suntory Company has a long history in the production and marketing of spirits in Japan, and abroad. If you don't know it, the Japanese have been big whisky drinkers for decades, though they were slow to enter the aged malt whisky market. All that has changed recently.

When we lived in Japan in 1985, it was common to see company picnics in city parks, laid out on big blankets or tablecloths, the gentlemen still in their work-suits, each with a quart of whisky at his side (or in his hand). I'm not sure this should have surprised me. The Japanese love their bar-scene, and in the "lively" urban districts you're likely to encounter groups of drunk friends, lurching about and carousing through the night.

In the last 20 years, better quality Japanese Single Malt Scotch distillations have begun to show up in the American and European markets. Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky is actually produced in Japan, though Japanese interests also have holdings in Scotland, which they use for their blended varieties.

The Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt is an impressive whisky. with a price to match. One crucial quality in any whisky vying for acceptance in the exclusive universe of preferred malts is balance, and this whisky certainly has that. This may be evident in the wide range of kinds of flavors that tasters may report, when waxing romantic about its general quality. Any single taste "note" predominating in a whisky can spell its doom.

Yamazaki is sold without date, standard 43% alcohol, color bronze/brass, nose spiced sherry and flower notes, flavor vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch and sun-cured raisins, mellow mouth feel, and a smooth, firm candied finish, substantial body, with peppery traces on the tongue. Probably best drunk before meals, or by itself. Would go nicely with sweet deserts or salty snacks.

Distilleries may attempt to market separate yearly barrellings, or they may strive to replicate a desired target product year over year (as Yamazaki does with its 18 year). Generally speaking, either strategy may work, though there may be higher highs for separate batches, as against consistency and marketability (and availability) for set annual production runs. It's fun to find "unique" bottlings, but they're not repeatable, which can be disappointing. Variety is the spice of life, but a sure thing is good too.

Most popular Single Malts are sold at about 13 years of aging (in oak or other wood), and the older the seasoning, the more expensive the result may be. Really long agings of 18 to 30 years can be a real rare treat, though age isn't a guarantee of quality by any means. Still, complexity is more likely to develop with age, and complexity is one of the hallmarks of great whiskies, assuming (again) a degree of balance. And, of course, individual tastes differ widely. The chemistry of the individual human mouth is unpredictable. Taste, after all, is the interaction between the chemical taste elements in the food, and the receptive surface of the mouth and tongue. I find that my taste capacity for whisky fades gradually over a tasting session, becoming somewhat duller and generalized as I proceed. Inebriation plays a part, as well as the "burnt" quality of my taste-buds, especially for whiskies with higher alcoholic content (characteristic of small, "unadjusted," "barrel" bottlings).

Professional Single Malt Tasters often do not even taste the liquor itself, but only sniff it for flavor and finish. Perhaps that explains why it takes so little of the stuff to have a distinct experience of it. A full shot, for most people, is quite enough, thank-you. But tolerance, as well, is an individual thing. At 6'4" and 2?? pounds, I probably have a larger tolerance for alcohol than many people. Nevertheless, I see no reason to sample more than about half a shot of high quality Single Malt at any one time.

I briefly belonged to a small Single Malt Tasting group for a while, but we were so spread out that it was difficult to get together, and it spontaneously dissolved. Single Malt enthusiasts can be very devoted. The Malt Maniacs Whisky Collective contains a wealth of information about separate bottlings and labels, with reviews of hundreds. Their very exclusive world-wide membership totals only 33 at present, but those are definitely maniacs! No doubt any one of them could drink me under the table with little difficulty.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Editing Larry Eigner's My God the Proverbial [1975]

I had first known about Larry Eigner's work after discovering a copy of his book another time in fragments [sic, all lower caps] [London: Fulcrum Press, 1967, 141pp.]. That was a substantial collection covering several years of work, but there was precious little information, either in the poems, or on the dustwrapper, to indicate much about the poet's context or life condition. There was a quotation by William Carlos Williams, and one by Duncan, and something about the author's being disabled. But it was the poems themselves, floating majestically in space, eccentric, inviting, and frequently weird and surreal in their effects, which immediately caught my attention. This book was my introduction to his work. He had, of course, published earlier collections: From The Sustaining Air [Palma de Mallorca, 1953, edited by Creeley], Look at the Park [Lynn, Massachusetts: Privately Printed, 1958], On My Eyes [Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon/Jonathan Williams, 1960]. But none of these books was generally available anywhere by the mid-1960's. Except for a handful of literary insiders, another time in fragments was really the first major collection of Eigner's work to be made available to the general retail market. I can't imagine what "most people" might have thought of it, but to me it was a totally liberating experience.

I had read avant garde verse before, of course. I was an English major, and had matriculated to UC Berkeley. But contemporary poetry in the academy usually "stopped" at William Carlos Williams or Robert Lowell, and ("horrors!") wouldn't have had the least interest in something so "out there" as Larry Eigner's poetry. This was "recreational" poetry, a private indulgence which I could no more have shared with any of my professors or fellow students than I could have gotten on a plane and flown to Boston to meet the poet himself, who lived in his parents' home in the seaside town of Swampscott, Massachusetts. But my growing sense of what it might mean to live a life devoted to the production of literature, a living breathing literature, in the present, was still too unformed for me to imagine that I might have any place in it, either as a writer, or a critic, or as something else like a publisher or editor. In the English departments in those days, anyone who imagined a life "outside" the academic rigmarole of doctoral degrees, staid monographs "in one's area of chosen specialization," and qualifying for "tenure" in some chummy little humanities department (probably off the beaten track), was probably regarded as an alien from another planet.

But by the time I'd left Berkeley, and spent three years at the University of Iowa, first in the Workshop, then in the regular English graduate division, ostensibly to resume work on the Ph.D., I'd become familiar with the alternative world of contemporary writing, and writers, and had begun to publish a little, and start my own magazine, called, simply, L, and to publish some books too. In editing the magazine, I determined to ask Larry Eigner for some contributions. Larry had by this time removed from Massachusetts to Berkeley, where he lived in a "group" household with Robert Grenier, the "professor-poet" whose writing courses I'd taken beginning in my junior year at UC. As I began to correspond with Larry, it became obvious that he had a lot of work available for publication, and I offered to expand my request into a small book (pamphlet) proposal. In due course, we worked out a selection of poems which became My God the Proverbial [Kensington: L Publications, 1975]. I visited Larry a few times at the house on McGee Street where he lived, and experienced my first attempts to communicate with him. Larry had cerebral palsy, and it affected not just his physical coordination, but his speech. It took some getting used to.

Larry was very literate, and his talk was a combination of vernacular slang and "high" literary language--you had to keep on your toes or he'd leave you behind! And he was a non-stop talker, even when you tried to draw a train of thought to a conclusion, he'd keep right on going, and when it came time to leave, he wouldn't stop. I simply had to rise from my chair and depart, whilst Larry was still carrying on. I worried about this but soon discovered that it didn't seem to bother him. When he had an audience, he just clung to you and wouldn't let you escape! He seemed starved for company, or maybe it was just that he couldn't get everything said that he needed to.

Not long after I published the series of books and magazine issues by the late 1970's, I more or less gave up trying to be a poet, or an editor. Working in the city was becoming more and more distracting, and I was actually making a living in the real world, something I don't think I'd ever have been able to do in the "academy" or by living by my wits as a "writer."

Still, I think I was very lucky to have had the experience of editing a book of Larry's, despite the difficulties it entailed. Larry's typescripts were "a mess," typically they had numerous typeovers and cross-outs, and he'd make corrections in his hand (crudely), or would type the end of a poem (or a correction) turning the page sideways, or putting the ending lines to the left of the ostensible end of the poem. Then there were his letters, or postcards, jammed with type, sometimes ending up typing the end by circling around the paper counterclockwise! But it all made perfect sense if you paid attention and said the sentences out loud as you read them. Larry was always qualifying things, and sometimes his subsidiary phrases would go on and on, and he'd almost lose the thread of an initial statement (but not quite). He thought tangentially, or on several levels at once, and tried to reproduce this process in his prose. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.

Our conversations were adventures. Once, we got off on a tangent trying to decide if William Carlos Williams was anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism was a big preoccupation of Larry's, and had been for many years. Another time we got off on Pound, along the same lines. Sometimes, if I didn't understand a sentence he'd spoken, I'd lose the thread, and we'd have to double back and get that clarified before we could get back on track again. I'm not sure he "heard" a word I said, so preoccupied was he with his own thread. Others have spoken of Larry's "selfishness" in this respect--that he sometimes would "hog" the conversation. But I thought it was because he'd been so deprived of intellectual intercourse the first half of his life, that he was trying to make up for lost time by getting more said in the second half. I think in some respect he did, though I wasn't around for any of that, having "dropped out" as I said, from the literary "scene" between 1980 and 2002.

In 2005, I obtained the unbound copies of My God / the Proverbial from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, and designed and had printed a new cover for its reissue. Larry had died in 1996, but I think he would have approved of the look and feel of the new edition, with its big block letters, understated grey paper stock, and hand-sewn binding.

Below is the title poem which contains the title, which you can read directly in the photo by clicking on the image so it displays larger. The quality of a literal "neighborhood" of images or events, is typical of Larry's work, which was "confined" by his immobility to what happened in his immediate environment. The literal world was his true subject, though his flights of imagination would take him to amazing places. Perhaps the real subject, for a poem like this, is his own mind, where all these impressions and feelings intersect and intertwine. There is something deeply "proverbial" about these elements, though Larry's phraseology clearly indicates an ironical, even humorous, point of view towards them. Oftentimes, the contrast between the deceptive "casualness" of his tone or word usage belies a profoundly metaphysical transformation of quotidian event. "the fire truck//this distance//scream" is a penetrating proximate metaphor for the sense of emergency implied by the truck's siren, and the probable peril or hazard it signals, the "distance" an acute measure of a degree of risk. This kind of relationship--poised, unresolved--but presented, without verdict, is very common in his work.

Happily, Larry had a number of shorter poems which I found completely exciting, and took as many of them as Larry could find among his stacks of unpublished material. I could tell that Larry had a filing system, a system of dating and numeration for all his poems, but this didn't signify anything to me at the time. I probably thought of it as having value to him as a filing system, rather than any significance in the overall structure of his total oeuvre.

These three short poems, for instance, each says something quite astonishing, but have no "context" other than their own scintillating
sense. They don't say "I saw this" or "while looking at a program on spelunking on the television last night," or "as I lay in my bed this afternoon" or anything like that. They simply record the barest essential of a single observation, without any dressing or introductory setting or explanation. This reduction was one of Larry's powerful techniques for abstracting something which gained power from its apparent lack of context; its isolation and weirdly passive mental stasis was often hypnotic in its quality.

There's something subtly suggested in these poems, but which nevertheless "sounds" quite determined or convincing, even when what is being implied is quite peculiar. "life underground/river//a stretch in the sun" could have many vague connections in the mind. Is he talking about lava, or aquifers, or merely the feeling of stretching on a warm day, after the confinement of a long winter. Or does the underground signify something much more psychological, such as the buried life of the mind, which flows, beneath overt consciousness, in its own courses? There's an analogous process of thought and sensibility which takes place in the subconscious, to which the poem's content refers, but which may have only a symbolic connection to any actual phenomena in the "external world." Consciousness itself, as a living thing, flowing in/through time and space. Larry's short poems always set me thinking along these lines.

What is sleep, and what happens when we close our eyes? Does closing the eyes mean the mind is closed? Or is it like turning out the lights? Why is the ceiling "suddenly" white? Is this like a kind of fainting feeling, as if the mind, for its own pleasure or necessity, just decides to "black-out" for a while? Can consciousness itself "get tired" or is it literally always awake, never really at rest? The eyes are like the curtains of consciousness, except that the theatre of event takes place on both sides of the proscenium. Each of us carries on a dual life--inner and outer selves--simultaneously, though most of us (I suspect) tune out most of what is happening "inside" or put it on automatic pilot. It may be that poets, like Larry Eigner, can be aware of both simultaneously, and carry on a dialogue between them, with the poem as medium. That's my take anyway. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Welch's Earthboy - the Tragic Native American Trope

James Welch [1940-2003] was an authentic Native American writer. Nothing phony about him, just the genuine article. He grew up on the reservation in Montana, didn't do much in school, until he got to the University of Montana, where he hooked up with Richard Hugo, and began writing poetry. Hugo was probably the perfect teacher for Welch. Hugo was, like Raymond Carver, a lover of fishing and the outdoors, and he must have seen immediately that Welch had a credible and valid point of view, and a window on an experience that no Native American had ever been able to describe. He had a story to tell, and an ability which developed rapidly under Hugo's tutelage.

I was lucky one day in Iowa City to find a copy of Welch's (then) new book, Riding the Earthboy 40 [New York: World Publishing Company, 1971]. This was Welch's first book, an auspicious debut for sure, but I came to it with few preconceptions. I'd only read one other book by or about Native American cultural experience: When the Legends Die, by Hal Borland [Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963], the harrowing story of an Indian boy who leaves the reservation to live among the whites. I'd acquired a sympathy for the Native American dilemma at a fairly young age, and didn't harbor any of the usual prejudices towards them which are so common (or used to be) among the American middle-class.

When I worked for the government, I got to know a full-blooded Blackfoot woman who had grown up near Flathead Lake in Montana, and learned from her some of the politics of reservation life, and the struggle to retain native folk traditions, language and indigenous culture--which was rapidly passing into oblivion. But that was later.

When I first read Welch's poems in Earthboy, they didn't sound like the usual academic "workshop" poems so common in those years (1960's and 1970's) in the periodicals and MFA programs of the day. His poems resonated with imagery and directness of feeling that made all that "strategizing" and fancy footwork seem like so much idle knitting and crocheting. One of my favorites was


I come alone. To surprise you
I leave no sign, my name
shucked at the familiar gate.

Your name is implied in exile.
I bring meat for your memory,
wine for the skinning of muskrats.

I leave this wood, not much,
but enough to streak your face
a winter red despair.

Why no songs, no ceremony?
Set your traps to catch my one
last track, the peculiar scent,

goodbyes creaking in the pines.

Reading this, I knew at once that the quality of the details, which derive from a vivid rural, perhaps even a semi-wilderness aspect, was authentic. It spoke to me at once with a harsh grace, a matter-of-factness verging on desperation, of the possibility of love where love is scarce, and affection doesn't come cheap. Was it really a love poem, an overture to difficult romance, or something else? The ambiguity of the relationship works in the poem's favor, since the kind of attitude implied by the speaker's tone is anything but gently affectionate. The speaker comes in peace, bearing gifts of meat, wine and firewood. Why? Is he currying favor? He leaves his "name" at the gate, and the occupant is in some sort of "exile"--but from what? Does he leave empty-handed; and if he does, can he still be "trapped" by his own desire? And so the "goodbyes" are just the lonely, but beautiful, sound of wind bending the pines, the "creaking" sound so familiar in the Rocky Mountain country. The beauty of that "winter red despair" like a flag of desperation forsaken or abandoned. There's a cold wind blowing through this poem. You have to put your hands in your pockets. The big grey clouds are moving fast and silent over the horizon. No one home. The poem is eerily evocative of the Montana countryside, a lonely place at times.

Later, I came to know Richard Hugo a little, and he recounted the episode of the fishing expedition in Montana which was the occasion for the three poems on the same theme, which ended up getting published in The New Yorker as "The Only Bar in Dixon [Montana]". Welch, and fellow poet J.D. Reed were the other two companions whose poems were included. Reed died in New Jersey in 2005. Hugo, who suffered from depression, obesity and severe alcoholism, passed away in 1982.

Thanksgiving at Snake Butte

In time we rode that trail
up the butte as far as time
would let us. The answer to our time
lay hidden in the long grasses
on the top. Antelope scattered

through the rocks before us, clattered
unseen down the easy slope to the west.
Our horses balked, stiff-legged,
their nostrils flared at something unseen
gliding smoothly through brush away.

On top, our horses broke, loped through
a small stand of stunted pine, then jolted
to a nervous walk. Before us lay
the smooth stones of our ancestors, the fish,
the lizard, snake and bent-kneed

bowman--etched by something crude,
by a wandering race, driven by their names
for time: its winds, its rain, its snow
and the cold moon tugging at the crude figures
in this, the season of their loss.

How different it is for a Native American to cross the land where his ancestors roamed, than for immigrants, for whom the land must always be "new," an unsettled expanse of "open country." But the signs are in the ground. Written in the rocks. A rumor in the wind. Experiencing country by horseback is less and less familiar. The poem is an elegy, but it has a toughness, leathery, gruff, potent. Some of that tone comes right out of Hugo, the "seal's bark" through the salt spray. The powers--fish, lizard, snake--are the same deities Michael McClure summons from the buried ancestral memory of the race. Here they seem more actual, not just poetic symbols.

There's an unresolved dilemma in Welch's work, the uncertain balance of our Native races poised between a lost past, and an uncertain future dissolving into the chaos of the mindless advance of capital. Memories don't make a life, and identity can't be cobbled from the detritus of waste. Whatever it is that Welch's work tells us, it won't be a simple gift from a beneficent, all-suffering power which died to make men free, or devout, or prostrate with gratitude. It might be a vengeful deity, bearing a warning. It might come up out of the ground, or down from the sky, or through the braided creeks of the high country. What it tells us we'd be advised to consider.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Alpine Bracer

Here's the Wiki lowdown on Chamonix, France--

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc or, more commonly, Chamonix (French pronunciation: [shah-moh-nee]) is a commune in the Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France. It was the site of the 1924 Winter Olympics, the first Winter Olympics. The commune's population of around 9,800 ranks 865th within the nation of France. Situated near the massive peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges, Chamonix shares the summit of Mont Blanc with its neighboring commune of Courmayeur in Italy, and owns the title of highest commune in France. The commune is well known and loved by skiers and by mountain enthusiasts of all types. Mont Blanc, at a height of 4,810 metres, is the third most visited natural site in the world. This lends the area a notably cosmopolitan atmosphere. With an area of 245 square kilometres, Chamonix is the fourth largest commune in mainland France.

I've never been to Switzerland, but people I've known who've been there say it's a wonderful place, a fantasy of clarity and freshness. If you ski--which I don't do--that's an enormous attraction. Nothing like it, they say, zooming down white slopes with the cold air rushing by you.

Here's an alpine cocktail, which may summon up some of that freshness and uncomplicated grace. Thinness of air, crystal clarity.

Ingredients (by proportion):

3 Parts Polish Vodka
2 Parts Aquivit
1 Part St. Germain edelweiss liqueur
1 Part Barenjager (honey liqueur)
1 part Sweet (Yellow) Lime

Shaken hard and served up (with ice fragments floating on top).

Hopefully, some day I'll make my way to Chamonix, to see what they've been talking about. I don't plan to do any skiing, but maybe I'll hike up a little ways to sample some of that delightful pure air, imagining D.H. Lawrence, gasping for breath in his tubercular lungs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I return again and again to the early poems of Robert Bly. The photo above was probably taken in the early Sixties, when his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, was published. It's a big, wide face, open, but with resistant, wary corners. Bly and I share Midwestern roots, and Scandinavian ancestry. My parents--all three of them--came from Wisconsin and Minnesota. They were farmers and railroad workers, graphic artists and classical singers. They had a blunt, purposeful attitude towards life, though they guarded their privacy, and believed in the value of seclusion and slow growth. I often think that, had WWII not happened, I'd have been born and raised in Wisconsin, and lived a very different life than the one I had in California. The war split my natural parents apart, and they never really got back together again. This is an imponderable thing. My Mother and Stepfather often talked about the Midwest, but they never went back, never, so the stories they told, and the kind of people they were, never were "confirmed" in my mind. This pattern of abandonment seemed a common trend in their generation. We were starting something new, like pioneers or exiles from an older existence. It was a clean break.

Nevertheless, Robert Bly's early poems, which are deeply set in the Midwest, its terrain and rural culture, speak to me in a way little else does. They're poems of loneliness, barrenness, simplicity, directness, loss, and often with Winter as a backdrop. You could say they evoke a kind of Scandinavian feeling, the coldness, the isolation, the close-knit folk network, the weave of the wool sweaters, the stubborn tread of heavy shoes on wooden planks.

Old Boards


I love to see boards lying on the ground in early spring:
The ground beneath them is wet--
Perhaps covered with chicken tracks--
And they are dry and eternal.


This is the wood one sees on the decks of ocean ships,
Wood that carries us far from land,
With a dryness of something used for simple tasks,
Like a horse's tail.


This wood is like a man who has a simple life,
Living through the spring and winter on the ship of his own desire.
He sits on dry wood surrounded by half-melted snow
As the rooster walks away springily over the dampened hay.

A man might feel so methodical and blunted in the gently rolling farmland of the Midwest that the simplest impressions and perceptions would feel like illumination. The Winters are long, and confining. Weather sets the pace, and one capitulates to it as to a higher power. Long days spent indoors, reading, dreaming, performing tasks. A resolution that grows out of necessity and enforced circumstance. Decisions arrived at deliberately, like blind intention that knows no alternative, and pushes dumbly forward, despite obstacles. I find myself craving this simplicity, sometimes, here on the West Coast where everything seems possible, but complications and excuses and distractions always seem to get in the way.

Approaching Winter


September. Clouds. The first day for wearing jackets.
The corn is wandering in dark corridors,
Near the well and the whisper of tombs.


I sit alone surrounded by dry corn,
Near the second growth of the pigweeds,
And hear the corn leaves scrape their feet on the wind.


Fallen ears are lying on the dusty earth.
The useful ears will lie dry in cribs, but the others, missed
By the picker, will lie here touching the ground the whole winter.


Snow will come, and cover the husks of the fallen ears
With flakes infinitely delicate, like jewels of a murdered Gothic prince
Which were lost centuries ago during a great battle.

This isn't a great poem, but the quality of its underlying silence, its calm enumeration of event and observation, is completely characteristic of the place that Bly had found after several years of misdirection, of trying to write poems that mattered, that meant something. He talks, later in his career, about the effort to attain states of quasi-religious grace, that would permit him to speak through the spiritual language of imagery. But in these early, "regional" poems collected in Silence, there's a lovely directness which I find repeatedly comforting, like being forsaken to a life of total obscurity and pointlessness. The things which good writing can summon aren't worth half of what a clear perception is, experienced directly, and memorably. But the record of them can be cherished, like a pair of comfortable old slippers, sitting by a fire at night.

Friday, February 18, 2011

2 on the Aisle - Jamal & Tyner

I've played the piano nearly all my life. From the age of 5, when I was forced, against my will, to take "lessons" from the friendly neighborhood piano teacher, I have never been far from a keyboard. Realizing, at about age 18, that I would never become even what is considered a "good" pianist, I nevertheless stuck with it, partly out of a desire to recreate the emotional experience of repeating certain music, and partly out of the pleasure of simply playing as a sensual activity. As a teenager, I picked up quickly on boogie-woogie, and later stride. Then the impressionists drew me into classical styles. I tinkered with jazz and classical music for several years, before finally teaching myself to write music while living in Japan for a year (in 1986). Since then, I've composed hundreds of short pieces or fragments of pieces for solo piano and solo guitar.

People will often say they like "all kinds of music" though this is usually just a hedge against admitting that they know and appreciate so little of musical history they can't admit they literally can't name any composers or pieces of music they do like. However, my musical tastes are as broad as anyone's. I've listened keenly to classical music, jazz, pop and various other kinds of regional and vernacular music all my life. I'm not sure it's made me a better person, but I've had a terrific time.

As far as the keyboard instruments go, though, by the end of the First World War, the vanguard of creativity had passed from classical composition to jazz and swing styles. The separation of these two streams meant that there was very little mediation between the traditional approach to performance (as an accurate rendition of a carefully set score), and the unpredictable, and improvisatory, nature of jazz performance. To be sure, many jazz musicians and performers reproduced "replica" versions of jazz compositions, almost as if they were fixed in the traditional sense, though the styles of invention and content were vastly different from classical ones.

For several decades, the marketplace for recorded performance was restricted by the "cuts" of individual records. Then, in the 1950's, longer track sets became possible, and jazz pianists were able to stretch their legs and develop musical ideas not limited by the three minute mile imposed by 78 rpm records. This freedom influenced jazz pianists to explore ideas and variations (the heart of jazz being improvisation), even when they were working off standards or familiar theme songs, that earlier generations wouldn't have had the opportunity to have recorded for popular consumption. As the jazz (dance) orchestra declined, smaller groups of musicians, organized around a star heavy instrumentalist, began to appear. They were easier gigs to accommodate, and the kind of music they made was different too.

Trying to compare the skills and talents of classical performers to those of jazz musicians is a difficult task. Clearly, the same kinds of abilities and ranges are used in both kinds of keyboard playing, though it's generally acknowledged that the two are not transportable, or interchangeable. A handful of performers are able to achieve results in both "mediums" though it's rare indeed for a jazz pianist to succeed with classical concert pieces, or for a classical performer to be expressive and inventive with jazz.

The new generation of ambitious solo (or combo) jazz pianists, beginning in the 1950's and '60's included a number of virtuoso jazz players, but not many of them were also good composers. One of the best was Ahmad Jamal, whose trio performances and original compositions--including Ahmad's Blues (here in a very early version), and Manhattan Reflections--became the talk of the town. A child prodigy, Jamal was playing professionally while still in his teens. His comprehensive command of the instrument, and his strong individual style, helped define "cool" in the 1950's, his ultra-smooth, supple runs and staccato, sharp minor chord clusters opening up new spheres in the jazz medium. His most popular compositions were often adaptations or "arrangements" of classic themes (Billy Boy, Poinciana, Surrey With the Fringe on Top). He'll do a little Count Basie twinkle, then suddenly he's attacking the keys with a fervency a la Tatum; or he'll sing a suave little Teddy Wilson ditty, then descend into glassy, transparent echoing stacked chords, flipping time signatures and changing moods in a flash.

But the piece I'm thinking about is more of a virtuoso meditation, which comes in his album The Awakening [1970], called, appropriately "I Love Music." The rhapsodic element is always present in this ultimate, emotional pastiche of cross-rhythmic, lyrical struggle, which hesitates and starts again several times, before trailing off in an unresolved fade. There's a lovely conversation between competing impulses which I find as compelling (and structured, though in a post-Modern way) as any romantic sonata movement.

Slightly younger, and with a more driving, uncompromising style, is McCoy Tyner, whose album Revelations [1988] contains several tracks that are nearly symphonic in their complexity and density. Yesterdays, You Taught My Heart to Sing, Autumn Leaves, and When I Fall in Love--each develops a lyrical line out of varying kinds of approach, intellectually diverting while never losing sweetness. The modulations are like wind on water. I love this album. For sheer virtuosic drive, check out this performance video recorded (I think) in Germany.

I could go on about dozens of other favorite players (and I will, in due course)--Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Denny Zeitlin, Chick Corea, Dick Hyman, Fats Waller, Michel Legrand--each brings something special to the table. Keyboard jazz is a phenomenon of the 20th Century, and perhaps the only art form that can fairly lay claim to being purely American in seed and flower. Here's Jarrett' When I Fall in Love to take us out....

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Snyder's Robin Poems

Almost everyone has read the work of Gary Snyder, and many people have written about him, his poetry, and his influence on the American environmental movement, and the counterculture stream of Eastern-inspired religious devotion and life-style.

As a boy, growing up in California in the 1950's, I was led to believe that the West--both the concept, and the actual landscape itself--was a precious resource, as well as a dream. My Stepfather, Harry Faville, who had escaped a middle-class life in the late 1930's, traveling extensively across the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast, taking odd jobs, fishing and working in the woods, dreamed of the "back country"--a place in his imagination to which we would one day retreat, living in the forested wilderness, far from the dirt and compromises of the city. I was encouraged to think that I might find work for the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service in my teens. This never materialized, though I did go to one "interview" in Modoc County, where the local ranger indicated that without a "Governor's" phone call, the chances of my being hired were mighty slim. When I learned that many of the "boys" who would be working at the mountain camp would be juvenile delinquents or paroled felons, my enthusiasm deflated. That Summer, like most, would be spent reading and toiling in construction and landscape work. This was supposed to "make a man" of me, though the lessons learned from nailing scaffolds, painting under eaves, and weeding flower beds never seemed to me to justify the time and discomfort they demanded. And the pay was always poor.

Nevertheless, when, in sophomore year in college, I discovered the work of Gary Snyder, I knew immediately what he was talking about, and I responded to his special mixture of sophisticated Zen attitudinizing, celebration of physical labor, and vague, mystical communalism. I believed at that point that the most honest, direct thing an intelligent young man might do was dress like a back woodsman, with a big pack and sleeping bag strapped to his shoulders, and with this, and a little survival knowledge, hike up into the mountains and write shrewd little poems about nature and the sad state of the world.

I don't mean to make light of these tendencies, though they now seem dewy-eyed and silly. For me, these were the natural outgrowth of feelings I'd been taught to have from childhood. But before I could try any of these back-to-nature options, I found myself married and quickly introduced to fatherhood. Responsibilities will dictate the shortest route to compromise--or at least that's the way it's been in my life. If I ever imagined that I might live in a cabin in Mendocino or Humboldt Counties, that daydream was quickly abandoned when the necessity for obtaining food and clothing and transport intervened. The manly thing was to shoulder the burden, not run away into the wilderness.

Still, some part of me never completely relinquished the romance of a semi-remote life-style, and a close access to the forest, the rivers and streams, and clean air of unsettled territory. Gary Snyder, it seemed perfectly obvious, had managed to live, in some measure, this escapist dream of a working-class laborer's scholar-poet's existence. If he could do it, why couldn't I? But I knew, of course, that the "wilderness" this pretentious fantasy was built upon, was neither hospitable, nor as "pure" and "clean" as one might imagine it to be. Still, I wondered whether a poetic aesthetic might not be built out of the noble callings of diligent study and dutiful labor.

It isn't difficult to see how the four connected poems below might appeal to young men in their late teens or twenties in the decades following WWII. Many of us who grew up during the 1950's and 1960's felt a calling, away from the straight-jacketed life-choices of our parents. We hadn't endured the Depression, or the War--though these were all around us in the talk and memories and stories of our parents' generation--but we believed we knew a better way than they had chosen (the "organization man" or the "invisible man" or "the lonely crowd" or "the pyramid climbers"). They had chosen security and prosperity and safety and selfishness and acquisitiveness and retreat. These were cop-outs; we didn't want cop-outs, we wanted challenges, and felt emboldened to meet them.

Gary Snyder's poetry has held out the promise of a spiritual emancipation from the engineered practicality of a middle-class career track for three generations of America's educated youth. It must have gotten to sound a little routine by now, though it didn't sound routine in 1968, when I first read Riprap [Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959], Myths & Texts [New York: Totem/Corinth 1960], and The Back Country [New York: New Directions, 1967]. I knew about that back country, had camped there, fished there, hiked there. And, like the speaker in those poems, I had experienced young love, had squandered opportunities, and felt (like him) "ancient, as if I had lived many lives."

This set of poems is untypical of Snyder, in that it deals with autobiographical material in a direct, uninhibited way. Typically, Snyder will deal in constructed personae designed to position himself ideologically within a politically correct environmentalism, or Zen Buddhist triad, with limited aesthetic options. He romanticizes the "working-man"--a sort of WPA ideal of men unionized into a common purpose, and often presumes a shared commitment (with his readers) to Eastern religious tenets and tradition(s). These are charming proverbial counter-culture themes in his poetry, as well as in his prose essays, though they run counter to the mainstream reading audience which his writing now enjoys. Inspired youth who might once have shared these providential attitudes have grown old--it's been at least a generation and a half, since those kinds of notions were fashionable. And nothing dates as fast as intellectual property. Which is not to suggest that Snyder's view of an ecologically friendly, Zen-inspired aesthetic was ever wrong in its details, just that the world has moved on. It may have seemed in the 1960's and 1970's that Snyder's poetry and life example was the avatar of a cultural shift, but, like the Beats, it was silently incorporated into the zeitgeist, and became as familiar, and then obsolete, as old copies of the I Ching and rusty old Food Conspiracy bins.

Yet these poems don't require any presumptive commitment to "the Way" or any backwoods knowledge to appreciate the emotional force of the rhetoric being employed. The poems describe a teen-aged relationship between the speaker and a young woman, separately rejected by both, in favor of life-choices and priorities which may now seem, in retrospect, at the point of writing, to have been dreamy and starry-eyed. The poet takes a rueful and resolute consolation that he will probably never know whether his choice to abandon the love affair, so early in life, was the correct one. The conflict between romantic youthful love, and the demands of an idealized life program (the karma or "plan"--the Buddhist notion of fate)--is clearly laid out--

I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

The resolution of that "have done" "what my/karma demands" is one of modern poetry's special moments, though the now somewhat dated quality of the use of the word "karma" instead of fate, or destiny, may sound slightly stale to our ears.

With the thawing out of tension which followed the defeat of Japan, Westerners were free to travel and live there, with relatively little resistance or prejudice among the native population. In China, of course, things were different, and the contrast between the adoption by Japan of the mercantile factory system of the West, while China spent the next four decades living out the Communist fantasy of a liberated agrarian proletariat, is nowhere more evident than in Snyder's later poetry, where acceptance and "worldly wisdom" predominate. The special relationship between Snyder's academic adoption of the "passive" religious dogma of Zen Buddhism, and the anti-Western view of capitalistic enterprise embodied in the old doctrinaire socialist line, once made his positions seem genuine. But Snyder didn't become a Zen master, like his great friend Philip Whalen; instead he matriculated into university teaching. Snyder, after all, unlike most of the Beats, was primarily an academic at heart, who enjoyed tempering and refining his sensibility through careful reading and focused attention. He wanted his work to be understood in terms of the great tradition of ancient Chinese poets, with whom his work was invariably identified.

I've always like Snyder's early poems best, because they seem the work of a young man with a mission, filled with belief and commitment and determination--things that I shared when I was a youth myself. Had opportunities presented themselves differently, I might very well have ended up majoring in Ecological Science, and working in Alaska. But I will never know if I am a fool, or have done what my karma demands.

Four Poems for Robin

Siwashing It Out Once in Suislaw Forest

I slept under rhododendron
All night blossoms fell
Shivering on a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck in my pack
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.

A Spring Night in Shokoku-ji

Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.

An Autumn Morning in Shokoku-ji

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

December at Yase

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.