Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961–1995)
Edited by Paul Vangelisti
Marsilio Publishers, $32.95 (cloth),
by Robert Creeley
Reading this wide-ranging selection of Amiri Baraka's poetry over the almost forty years of its writing, one finds not only the much emphasized antagonism he has long felt toward the white majority but also the shifts of strategy and relationship in his own life that are his constant preoccupation. Wanting to understand what either Baraka or his poems have worked to accomplish, one must recognize how insistently he has tried to find a common ground of person, which will be neither the poet's usual lyric "voice," isolate and individual, nor simply the rhetoric of a generalized "public" persona. Clearly Baraka is always there, wry, often contemptuous, with characteristic quick wit and displacing humor, but what he values is the collective, the "we" which comes again and again into his poems.
The human world is of necessity political, endlessly repositioning its co-opted authority, frustrating the obvious plea for justice with privilege and abstract response, partitioning, dividing, isolating. If we use literature as a basic cultural qualification, and if reading and writing obviously are privileged, then these poems had to find a way to get in back of such arbitrary advantages to a means that all might have as a common term. It is perhaps too simple to argue that Amiri Baraka's uses of jazz and its great innovators (John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and many others) for his own locating measure prosodically, and as the company he most values as model, give him that securing place. Yet always he anchors himself in music, or better, in the physical sounding of whatever is said. How translate his title here aptly? By means of, way of, "blues," the having got there by, "blues," the I see the-"Blues." The light. (Duke Ellington!)
Some years ago I found by chance in the Buffalo Public Library a taped recording of Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) reading to a gathering of black writers here in Buffalo in the early sixties. It was just at the time when he was about to publish Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Gwendolyn Brooks is introducing him to the company. She emphasizes that they may find him difficult, not just because he writes "modern poetry" but because he is not easy on the black community itself, and speaks of its accommodation of white middle class power with contempt and anger. He refuses its tacit agreement although he is still very much preoccupied with what his own feelings locate and define as are so many of the poets of this time.
I write poetry only to enlist the poetic consistently as apt description of my life. I write poetry only in order to feel, and that, finally, sensually, all the terms of my life. I write poetry to investigate myself, and my meaning and meanings.
But also to invest the world with a clearer understanding of itself, but only by virtue of my having brought some clearer understanding of my self into it. I wrote in a poem once, "Feeling predicts intelligence." ("Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics")
One poem often anthologized, "An Agony. As Now," can serve as an example of Baraka's great power as a poet and also of the way in which his experience of himself becomes a means to recognize and respond to the world surrounding. Despite its articulate outrage, it is a simple one for the white reader to understand in that the emotional ground it makes evident is a common one, even if the social terms are not. It's a classic poem of existential isolation, almost Kafka-like-except there is no victim. Instead the compressed life of an increasingly volatile intelligence, put in a literal body which the surrounding "body" of the society defines as hateful, realizes vividly, bitterly, the trapped situation of its life.
I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
It is not possible to accept such a destructive state. Baraka's resistance (as Charles Olson might call it) becomes an adamant condition of both Baraka's world and his writing. Despite his particular relation to white peers such as John Wieners, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure (there are dedications specific to all three) and Jack Kerouac ("In Memory of Radio"), his friendship with Ed Dorn for whose magazine Wild Dog he provides a "New York letter," his co-editing of Floating Bear with Diane di Prima, all the company he finds and offers support to in his own magazine Yugen, his publication of Charles Olson's Projective Verse and Proprioception, his recognition and use of Robert Duncan ("Duncan Spoke of a Process") or Frank O'Hara, his readings with Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat company, nonetheless he finds himself confined by their world, and misappropriated. It may well be that the violent, seemingly generic attack on Jews he makes in "Black Art" is a consequence of his need to become black in his own mind. The poem which follows in this present collection ("Poem for HalfWhite College Students") must be instance of a harshly earned rite of passage which his background-middle-class, well-educated-could not simply provide, and so a demotically inspired anger finds a like speech.
Whatever the point or explanation, Baraka refused to be a victim, and so such moving early poems as the "Crow Jane" sequence (seeming to echo the white world's proposal of Billie Holiday) give way to a far more aggressive attack on the societal evils he presumed were the case. Such a determination is clear throughout Baraka's work, whether in the poems of Transbluesency or in all his other collections, or else in equally significant books of fiction, essays, and drama. One of the public markers, surely, of black outrage in the sixties was Baraka's off-Broadway hit Dutchman, which earned him an Obie Award. There is also his crucial study of black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a work of great range and clarity, wherein he notes, for example, that Louis Armstrong becomes a culture hero in the black community, whereas Bix Beiderbecke-in some obvious ways Armstrong's peer as a musician-is attacked and rejected, in contrast, by his own white neighbors. Even more persistent is Baraka's emphasis upon the destructive character of white habits and institutions for the black community, and he attacks his company for its attempt to find a compromise, to accept, even partly, roles that the enclosing white world has designed for them. So there has been an expectable cost to pay for his never having been a convenient minority artist or representative.
No doubt there is still resentment against the way Baraka gave up his rank and authority among the leading Beat poets as well as those akin, like Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, and all that now familiar company of the contesting, alternative "New American Poetry" of the fifties. There was a place for him among them which could finally have been accommodated by even the status quo, whereas his emphatic turn to the black community specifically, and his overt suspicion of, if not hostility to, all things "white," are to this day irritating indeed to all who wanted him to be as he seemingly first was. Reading the earlier poems, one's taken particularly through the ways in which his world was having to gain hard facts, shifting from the brilliantly introspective stance of his initial poems to the increasingly contemptuous anger at a body politic so bloated, so inherently lodged in its static complacence, that its own despairing people, black or white, mattered little.
Perhaps it would be far easier were our writers not to engage their worlds directly, particularly so if those worlds are also, in any part, our own. Teaching Freshman English in Buffalo toward the end of the sixties, there had been a number of books I'd assigned, hoping to make evident all the various and often opposed "places" we each one willy-nilly are. Finally, after we had read the painful accounting which Dutchman insists upon, a young woman, who came from an upstate New York small town close by, blurted out, "Why don't they go back where they came from and just leave us alone?" Then added, "Oh my god, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say that."
It's fine if one's a person of the defining majority, which can manage without having to recognize its own presumption. Or so it might seem. Curious, too, that such loneliness comes of such fact, that our "silent majority" is David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd of the fifties, that no matter how many we are, there seems never the "other" we can recognize as not ourselves again but the companion, camerado in Whitman's own great cry, the endless, securing presence which is not a paranoid reflection but finally another simply and completely there. This will never prove an easy recognition.
What to do about the disparate, determining worlds we attempt to find lives in, the meager spaces, all size and no air, nowhere at all to sit down? How be nice, patient, polite, quiet, when it all never gets there in time and never will? How believe in what hates you, wants you gone?
The rot, the lie, the opposite
will always, if there is ever
that, exist. As life means death
and hot cold. Darkness light's
closest companion. Its twisted,
& rises as a spiral. It is No &
Yes, and not It for long.
Motion, the beat, tender mind
you humans even made music.
But, our memory anywhere
as humans and beyond, parallel
to everything, is rise is new is
Changed, a glowing peaceful
("'There was Something I Wanted to Tell You.' (33) Why?")
It is finally too simple in all respects to say only that LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, or this black poet, or just this poet is a great one. "Great poets" in the usual reference are a dime a dozen, i.e., "you pay your money and you take your choice." But it is always deeply useful, even instructive, to recognize that a poet among us has found means to speak for that common body of others with whom he or she shares a life. Obviously we are not always pleased. We are so rarely a "we" even to begin with. Often racist, never fair, always partial with a vengeance to his people, Baraka really is a great poet in that he tells us how it is with him and those others, and he always has and will. Even more, he's been able to make it sing with a wild, percussive insistence, and an abiding, utterly artful grace. I don't think it gets any better.
Paul Vangelisti, capable poet and translator in his own right, has done a great service in the editing of this book, and he provides a succinctly defining history of Baraka's life in his introduction, making clear the pattern the writing itself effects. Too, the select bibliography Vangelisti includes at the end notes thirty-one books of poetry, fiction, essays, drama, and autobiography by Baraka published between 1961 and 1995 (the year of this book's publication). It is a stunning record. What it adds up to is a gift for all concerned.
The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30
by Alfred Corn
We've seen over the past quarter of a century the emergence of something like a "Boston School" in American poetry, the legacy of resident poets Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Fitzgerald, who taught poetry courses here and also influenced others outside their classes. Apart from Peter Davison, none of the middle generation survives (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck having died). Of those a decade or so younger, Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart are the best known, but others include talents as wide-ranging as Jonathan Aaron, Gail Mazur, Liam Rector, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Lloyd Schwartz. And there have been ambassadors abroad from the Boston School like Carl Phillips, Robert Polito, Adrienne Rich, Mary Jo Salter, Alan Williamson, and Anne Winters, who presently live elsewhere but maintain a strong connection to the place where they first became known. Over the past decade, Boston's poets have had, at varying distances, the extraordinary example of resident-visitors Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and Geoffrey Hill before them, as well as the critical acumen of Helen Vendler to draw on. There is even a bright crop of newcomers-Erin Belieu, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Joe Osterhaus-whose early achievement suggests that energies originally transmitted are anything but exhausted.
The methods and concerns of this lively tribe of poets naturally pull them in different directions, but it's clear that Robert Pinsky stands at their center, even more of a touchstone than the equally important but more eccentric Bidart. Because Boston's traditions are what they are, the qualities (personal and aesthetic) needful in such a figure would have to include clear sight, social conscience, a flair for the vernacular, and a complete grasp of poetry as a making in language and form. There are some figures whose excellence is so taken for granted they may actually go unread, and the publication of Robert Pinsky's collected poems will have been wasted on us if we don't follow through by reconsidering his work as if for the first time. The reviewer's manual tells me, though, that before talking about Pinsky's poetry at large, I have to list what is found in the book. It collects early out-of-print books Sadness and Happiness (1975), An Explanation of America (1980), History of My Heart (1984), The Want Bone (1990), twenty-one new poems, and a group of translations, including the final canto from Pinsky's acclaimed translation of The Inferno (1994). It was the latter book that called him to public attention in a way that prizes and critical studies had somehow failed to do earlier; but some of us knew a long time ago that Pinsky had already earned, as a poet, the superlatives applied to his translation.
Concurrently with the publication of his first two books, Robert Pinsky proposed, in some widely discussed critical essays, a poetry of "discourse," one that allowed for the reasonable and sequential airing of topics of general concern, while still maintaining earmarks of poetry, like lineation, meter, carefully calibrated tone, emotion, and an abundant use of imagery. He wrote a number of excellent poems in this mode, including "Sadness and Happiness," "Essay on Psychiatrists," and the book-length An Explanation of America. To use "essay" or "explanation" for a poem title in those years took guts. In retrospect, you can see that the aesthetic of discursiveness was constructed in reaction to the surrealism or "Deep Image" poetry of the Sixties, which had demonized rationality in favor of the enigmatic, the numinous, the hermetic. Remember that Pinsky did graduate work with Yvor Winters, the most thoroughgoing apologist of reason in poetry since Pope. A lot of us coming up in those days, even those who didn't see the world through Wintersian steel-framed spectacles, had begun to groan at the runes and stones and bones and grow-your-own Mystery appearing in magazines of the day. But vehement repudiation of a tendency always cohabits with a deep-down temptation to embrace it, and, truth to tell, a number of Pinsky's early poems are sufficiently mysterious to confound the Discursive aesthetic-for example, "Ceremony for Any Beginning," "Waiting," and "Discretions of Alcibiades." Even the presumably discursive "Poem About People" concludes with the lines
. . . and we
All dream it, the dark wind crossing
The wide spaces between us.
As matters have developed, it is the irrationalist side of Pinsky that has come to have more say in his poetry than the rationalist. The transition was effected in the volume History of My Heart, which contains the poem "The Figured Wheel" now used as the general title for the collected work.
The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons,
Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten
Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds
The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in
unmarked graves and oceans.
This strange trope revolves through the poem, accreting material and immaterial phenomena from the present and past, so that its ultimate significance remains indeterminate and implicative rather than rational or explanatory. It draws on the Vedic conception of the "wheel" of existence as an endlessly repeated cycle of pain, trammeled with all sorts of obstacles to salvation (achieved by escape from the wheel, from reincarnation). But Pinsky's "figured wheel" is also a trope for figurative writing, for poetry, gobbling up subjects, locales, mythologies, images, and human lives in its unrelenting forward progress. This is one of the most appalling tropes for poetry ever devised, yet it only takes acting as a poetry editor for a national magazine (as Pinsky did for several years), or serving as book review editor for one, to see the relevance: There is a formidable amount of "product" out there, leaving no subject or stone or bone unturned. Mallarmé warned us that the world was made "to end up in a book"; recent cultural history would revise that to "thousands and thousands of books."
Going out a bit on the limb, I'll propose that what we see in Pinsky's poetry after History of My Heart is the conflict between the desire to add his own figures to the great forward-rolling tank of contemporary poetry and an equally strong impulse to withdraw from that process. You can't write compellingly without desire, and yet no one sees more clearly than Pinsky how desire implicates us in the cycle of pain and reincarnation, the latter understood as compulsive reinforcement in the material and temporal realm. Disadvantages of doing that are cruelly (and yet even so with a faint overtone of comedy) outlined in the title of Pinsky's next volume, The Want Bone, where the stripped bones forming the mouth of a shark discovered on a beach become the occasion for a meditation on insatiability, which locks humanity into the earthly cycle of pain and disappointment.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,
The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.
"Deep Image" poetry's bones have come a long way to get here, baited by desire, devoured by material circumstance.
There are two modes that nevertheless seem to elude the worst drawbacks of poetry for Pinsky, the narrative and the calmly meditative. He is at his most relaxed in autobiographical poems piecing together incidents from his childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey, which eventually comes to serve as his Yoknapatawpha County, supplied with a range of incident and human personality varied enough to suggest the human comedy on a grander scale. Central in this gallery of portraits is the poet's mother, a passionate, acerbic, and disappointed character, whose abilities and longings outstripped available opportunities. Had she been born a few decades later she would doubtless have been a medical researcher or Congresswoman or novelist. Still, she did end up the mother of a first-rate poet, who has done his part to memorialize her in pungent poems ("History of My Heart" and "Poem with Refrains") in which filial regard takes the form of a determination to portray his subject without a sentimentality she would have disdained.
"Poem with Refrains" is among the group of previously uncollected poems in the volume, which also includes some of Pinsky's most refined work in the meditative mode. It interweaves a series of beautiful lines from Fulke Greville (and some from Campion, Peele, and Swinburne as well) in a tender but clear-sighted account of his mother's erratic behavior. The poem stands at a midpoint between Pinsky's narrative and meditative modes, successful in both directions. The concluding scene shows her coming late to a graveside memorial service held one year after her mother's death. It's the heart of winter, and, for this trial run of her own funeral, she arrives in a black car:
My mother got out and walked toward us, across
The field of gravestones capped with snow, her coat
Black as the car, and they waited to start the prayers
Until she arrived. I think she enjoyed the drama.
I can't remember if she prayed or not,
But that may be the way I'll remember her best:
Dark figure, awaited, attended, aware, apart.
Pinsky lets Greville speak the last words (the poet's equivalent to prayer), a passage ending with the line, "The earth stands still, yet change of changes breedeth."
Others of the new lyrics collected in the book are set in wintertime, which has always been this poet's sacred season. The quintessential Pinsky moment unfolds during one of the cold months, at dusk, in an urban setting. Perhaps the dark wind crossing the spaces between us blows most freely then-as in the concluding lines of "The City Dark," which appears first in the volume:
The bitter city work and the shimmering maternal burden
Of music uncoil outward on the avenues through smoky bars,
By televisions, beyond sleepers while the oblivion of generation
Radiates backward and then forward homeward to the one voice
Or face like an underground pool, through its delicate lightshaft
Moonlit, a cistern of light, echoing in a chamber cellared under
The dark of the city pavement, the faintly glittering slabs.
The stoniness of those "glittering slabs" seems less ponderous and funereal when lines as agile and plangent as Pinsky's are inscribed on them; and one reassuring byproduct of "the shimmering maternal burden / Of music" is the conveyance of resonant illumination below slab level into an echo-chamber that becomes, itself, "a cistern of light." n
University of Iowa Press, $10.95
by Susan Wheeler
Late in the first and longest section of three in Furious Cooking comes a poem called "Praxis," in which the speaker quotes "my friend La Curandera": "'You are using / the wrong tools or you are using the tools in the wrong way or the tools / you have been using are for the birds, my friend.'"
In The Sea Among the Cupboards and Fear of Subways, Maureen Seaton demonstrated that she could use the right tool and she could use it the right way. She could construct a tone like a dead-on kid's in a room full of adult loonies; she could twine poems (often sonnets, often rhymed) from circling strands of disparate and visual vignettes that wound to a knot at the poems' close; or she could open with a bald, tough phrase, reveal its context, accrue a few more (unrelated) zingers, and end the poem with a quick zoom outward to a larger world. Information and narratives in her poems seemed drawn from her life, and yet she could keep-by way of her circling strands-the question of "self" hovering at a distance.
What the straightforward tools hazarded, though, was sometimes a rather 2-D result. Her knack for conflating a public and a private event occasionally yielded brittle results, as in the sonnet "Letter to an Ex-Mother-in-Law:
You died two days before the attack
on Libya. I was grieving over you,
and now this
. . . Libya seemed a harm-
less shape on the globe. I slept newly armed
with vows and silver trays. You were my friend.
Bombs were slowly turned in our direction.
The impact of some of the poems was weakened by false closure. Last lines in her first volume included "body curled in question," "help me," "like the pulsing neck of an angry womb," and "I lied about the blood." By the second volume, in some ways more pointed than the first, last lines included "the rage of generations turned outward," "as if nothing you do could hurt her," "I whispered: Hallelujah," and "for truce between my death and my life." Where she resisted her summary urge, and allowed the strands to tighten without fusing, the poems became marvels; frequently they were apt and admirable and, lamentably, too neat.
Now, with Furious Cooking, the language of Seaton's poems uses its considerable authority to thicken and spice the soup. One poem, "Swan Lake," buries two seven-line stanzas in one of three sections; otherwise, Seaton leaves behind her deft sonnets (the wrong tools?) and relies, instead, on couplets, tercets, and poems constructed from prose and from single long stanzas. The book is divided into three sections-Blood, Water, and Lavabo Manus Meas-and her proem opens with:
The power of the world is round:
bomb, uterus, cul-de-sac.
("The Red Hills")
The mix this augurs includes "the power of the world" (God and spirit, religion), "the world is round" (science), "bomb" (violence, politics, self & other), "uterus" (woman, sex, mother, parenting), and "cul-de-sac" (the strands circling and the book's epigraph, from Zen Master Dogen, on the stasis of time).
In the longest and first section, "Blood," Seaton doesn't so much go after religion as she drags it, bagged, to her. As a latecomer to established faith, I can envy those with a Catholic upbringing or years at temple school: so many ready-made tropes, loaded words, images! Of course, to the one burdened by this past it looks more like:
How the Catholic never gets washed out of you,
the temple crushed completely.
And what remains can be hell. Beginning with the section's first poem, "After Sinéad O'Connor Appears on Saturday Night Live, the Pope," and especially in four "Malleus Maleficarum" poems, Seaton confounds her own talons by exhibiting, in poem after poem, the pull of faith through its language-Latin or other-in spite of the violence enacted upon women: angel/whore typing, witch hunts, murder, and rape.
The mix is heady and, almost without exception, evades summary. In the brew are blood, water, and prayer; ambition, pop culture, and patriarchal lineage; miracle, death, birds, and art; pagan texts and gang tags. Painting, sculpture, and music have studded her poems; in Furious Cooking, she takes the part of Netherlandish artist Pieter Aertsen, painter of a 16th century "Flight to Egypt" scene all but buried in a larger, vivid depiction of a butcher shop. She asks us to:
Imagine the butcher shop transcendent as a plea, his mind
like any bard's in a warp of fascistic intolerance.
Imagine you're a Dutchman confined to virgins and churches
and gray congregations climbing soft hills to feast
on broken bodies, the stored clarets of sanctuary cupboards
washing down sticky flesh and arbitrary dogma.
Your wife has died of heresy, no saint, believe me, only
touched by a long finger extended from the See
of Rome all the way to Amsterdam. How odd. How sick.
Her only faults beauty and song and still you watched her
burn like a flank of deer for the triune God
she murmured in your ear at night. Imagine the plight
of holy men, Pieter in the butcher's stall with all those
puddles on the floor like spilled wine, the stench deepening
in the day's heat, all those dead eyes slanting toward peace.
("An Unofficial Interpretation of Pieter Aertsen's A Butcher Stall With The Holy Family Giving Alms On The Flight To Egypt, c. 1550")
In the scene Seaton conjures, we sense her own impatience with the limited expectations for late-20th century lyric, and her adamance in foregrounding the bloody cuts of meat, the hard stare, "your slimy farting flesh," the lump of a prose stanza noting a "clot of schoolchildren waiting for the Broadway bus."
The second section, Water, issues from the gaps in scientific explanation as much as the first does on those of religion. It opens with "Theories of the Unexplained," (after Stephen Jay Gould), adumbrating dead-end hypotheses, and concludes with two poems imploding relativity. In between, the poem "Tagging" scats through its couplets from TV's The Wheel of Fortune to gats (plastic guns) to physics. Marine biology takes a dark turn in "Secrets of Water," with its sexual come-on of the dolphin to the "I" of the poem.
But it is to her credit that the poems are not dominated by their subjects. Unlike contemporary poems that spin on the shock of unembellished admission and sexuality, Seaton's language is a match for her fierce gaze. Her lyric voice is embellished, keenly embellished, and it understands when wit and a lighter touch is mandated by the occasion -
cinema, supermarket, therapy, Workout World,
all those sundries city folk fit around them
like crib bars so they won't fall off the earth.
and when to give license to a rhetorical ferocity:
You could feel the blade,
you could take the air in your hand and squeeze Kahlua
into your iced cappuccino. Subcultures swarmed. Some
blended in like cream, some debated drug cost near the teeter-totter.
We were swimming underwater, slick and seasoned as rats.
We were gaining on the waitresses from Jersey where
the Palisades grew all the way down to the center of the earth.
("The Man Who Killed Himself to Avoid August")
Furious Cooking's third section, Lavabo Manus Meas, is "launched in blood and shit," jarred out of the gaps between and among persons. Here, the language not only describes but simulates grace in the poem's tirade against euphemism:
the base, the shattered, the raw obscene
to enter your bones and save them.
("Called 'Crass' by a Suitor during a Radically Conservative Moment in History, Helen Counsels Her Body")
The book concludes on a swagger with the ars poetica of the title poem: "good, let the landlord worry I'll burn this bitch down."
At a time when big rhetoric is often disparaged, Seaton is an idealist. She keeps this in check, I sense, through talent and will. By deploying her careful forms and frequently leaving her strands untied, she distances the extra-poetic passion of the poem, cements it to the words on the page. The delicacy with which she achieves this makes up, to my mind, for some of the book's weaker passages and for the decontextualizing of a few thorny scientific, anthropologic, and folkloric issues. Seaton transcends, and her ambition is a joy to witness.
Now when I dream I'm flying
lonesome above other humans, striking
ballet poses and lifting off the floor
just enough so that they can't touch me,
I'm told I'm ambitious.
You go girl!
Originally published in the December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review