Between teaching for The Chicago School of Poetics, coordinating the Myopic Poetry Series, occasionally blogging for the Best American Poetry blog, and everything else inbetween we’ve been busy but Lina and I are happy to announce that our big rollout of the new milk site to Word Press is nearing completion. Word Press will allow us (as well as other guest bloggers) to update the site much more frequently! We’re looking forward to more news soon. In the meantime, in January Lina published a new book, A Neon Tryst and in May I published my second book of poetry, Vertigo Diary.
Ted Joans was born on July 4, 1928 on a riverboat in Cairo, Illinois. His father, a riverboat entertainer, put him off the boat in Memphis at age twelve and gave him a trumpet. He is a painter, a trumpeter, and a jazz poet. His jazz poems are collected in a book called “Black Pow-Wow.” He earned a degree in Fine Arts from Indiana University, and in 1951 joined “the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, USA.” He has since recited his poems in coffeehouses in New York, in the middle of the Sahara, and in bookstores such as Recollection Used Books in Seattle. He has lived in Harlem, New York, Bloomington, Indiana, Haarlem, the Netherlands, and Timbuktu.
for Ted Joans
I wanted to give you a weapon
of onyx and saffron
implement it in the dark nights
when all alone among bad poets
while sipping cumulonimbus
and puffing stratosphere
poetry is better than anything else
its death has been pronounced repeatedly
but they’ll never really nail it down
it is a cocaine rose
a rubble hurricane
balloon eyes above actual flags
flapping along infinity
with our tongues we put on the finishing touches.
Read a review of Our Thang in Rain Taxi
After breakfast, we sit on the porch in hot August sun, drinking coffee and talking about movies. The porch is wide, covering the front of the house, and as I sit on the railing, the sun beats down. Rudy, in the shade by the house, talks.
“Spinal Tap is a pretty good movie. So is Top Secret. I like some rock movies. In Top Secret there’s a great scene of girls acting like they’re excited at a concert. That scene alone was worth the price of admission. You say Tightrope is pretty good? I’m working on a movie right now with several scenes that each have three parts. Each part of the various scenes comes at a different time in the film. And each time the same scene comes up it’s changed slightly. Some music is like that, isn’t it? The same idea recurring in the same piece with variations. Bach’s keyboard fugues are like that. It starts out simply enough—you can see what he’s doing—then the left hand picks it up and it starts getting too complicated to follow all at once. Telemann was simpler. Bach was criticized in his day for being unnecessarily complicated.”
The mailman arrives, his car radio playing loud pop music, and Rudy continues talking.
“When Bach was very young, everyone loved Vivaldi and other Italians. They were simpler. That’s a spider fern,” he says, referring to a potted plant hanging at the front of the porch. Its copious stems seem about to envelope the observer.
“I made a film looking through it. I had Yvonne drive by, then all of a sudden this butterfly flew into the picture. Sometimes the best things happen like that, by chance.”
Below, on the porch, a border of bricks surrounds two flowerbeds on either side of the steps. There are pansies and Superb Lilies there, among others. It is a perfect day, crystal blue sky breaking to robin shell near the tree line, the air clear and fresh, but hot as August requires.
It is almost too perfect, as if we all know we must return to the city soon, yet are afraid to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. This is a simple time, that three old friends can share together, before the exciting rush of autumn draws us forcefully back to the teeming, beautiful center and we are lost in the annual swirl.
Rudy explains that the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, which Yvonne is reading, had an effect like that of On the Road, in that people tried to live it.
“Young people started killing themselves.”
On the record player is Bach’s “Suite for Cello Solo in C Minor.” Down below lurk Haydn piano sonatas and “Death and the Maiden.”
Yvonne is on the phone. Rudy and Yvonne discuss the day’s business, joke about the accountant. In the living room, Rudy sorts through the mail again. Yvonne announces she will call Sam Ladd, a mason, about whether the chimney should be lined. “Yeah. It should be,” affirms Rudy. Wide, rich-colored boards form the floor of this narrow farm house. A breeze blows the white curtains inward. There is a relaxed pace to life here. No one scrambles to work. But then Yvonne announces with a smile she’s “going out to paint,” that I should come out when I want.
A stone fireplace’s wooden mantel supports a painting on black slate, a romantic-looking card from Yvonne and Rudy’s son Tom in Venice, one of an abbey cloister, an unsigned etching of a lakefront, Rembrandt’s Lucretia, another etching, of a Japanese samurai-type man with a camera around his neck signed “TB,” a monster’s head, a hawk feather, another etching, and a vase of dried flowers.
A red wagon supports a large wooden box with trays of pastels. Yvonne grabs the black handle and maneuvers it. Then she peels saran wrap off a pallet of dark paints.
On the three sections of her moveable studio wall are three large panels of a new work, a painting of night scenes in Minneapolis. It is a commission for the First Bank of Minneapolis West. The panels are about 5 X 6 feet and each has a different view of the city from a high vantage point. When seen together the three panels do not make up one continuous view and yet they make a continuous whole. The rhythms of nightlights, reflections off water and windows, even the building forms, which do not fit from panel to panel, combine to make one “view.”
Rudy has come into the room and wants to film Yvonne painting a little. She agrees to paint a lower portion of the panel instead of the upper, so he can film her.
She is applying dark green paint to the panel on the right, as trees. She works calmly, standing erect on a red plastic milk crate, or on the ground, with quick deliberate strokes, steps back to look at them, then goes over to a smaller pastel version on an opposite wall to check something. Rudy films that wall, which has three finished pastels of the Minneapolis subject, along with two others. Yvonne adds some brown to the tree she has just painted.
Seven seconds’ purr of Rudy’s camera. Rudy back up. They are working a few feet from each other, facing in opposite directions, each intent. Rudy purrs, then removes his tripod. Yvonne walks over to check, then paints more leaves in curvy swirls different from the short, pointed leaves she painted a minute ago.
Rudy is mobile now. Yvonne is accommodating. “This reminds me of ‘Autumn Expansion,'” she says (a mural she did in Bangor, Maine). Yvonne’s fingernails are bright fluorescent colors of pink and purple, both on each nail. “Kathy Porter came over from Vinal Haven to do them,” she proudly explains.
Yvonne’s studio is a large barn with high windows and a sliding door to give light. A few active wasp nests on the rafters, rough hewn beams. Rudy’s studio is behind the wall Yvonne is painting on. There, one finds Rudy’s paintings of forest scenes close-up, nudes in country interiors listening to the radio or reading. A droll but somehow slightly ominous bunch of bananas keeps cropping up.
Yvonne puts on a tape of Roland Kirk. She says she usually likes to listen to music when she paints and prefers tapes to radio because there are no interruptions.
“You’ll find my method very different,” Rudy says, as we leave the barn and start walking down the smooth, firm dirt road.
He’s right. His first venture is a search for currants by the side of the road. We talk of the detrimental effects of currants on pines and he recalls currants in his garden in Switzerland. Yesterday he made some syrup from choke cherries.
“It was a lot of work and you didn’t get very much,” he says, “but you know those are the pleasures that make life enjoyable.”
“Yesterday I was picking blackberries and I felt I was doing what I was meant to do.
You know? Those moments of maybe half-an-hour—and you can’t make them come—where you’re doing something and you feel happy and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
We enter the woods on the other side of the road where a farmhouse used to be—”See the elm stump?”—and come to a patch of blackberries. As we fill the plastic container that Rudy’s brought, we chat.
“Picking berries is something you feel is right to do—it’s not like killing animals or something.”
“It’s not even like picking flowers.”
“Yeah, someone said flowers scream when you break them. Kropotkin said all the animals really help each other–it’s not like the jungle. The jungle is a pretty boring idea anyway.”
We leave the container in the grass and proceed down a road into the forest. The “road” is covered with pine needles and has a patch of bunch berries down its middle.
“I prefer a hazy light to paint in. There’s too much contrast today between light and dark. I can’t get that in paint.”
We reach Rudy’s cache, an easel, painting supplies and a 2 X 2 1/2 foot painting under a large, plastic sheet. A tiny toad scurries away, too fast or smart to be caught.
“I don’t trust myself to finish a painting all at once. I’ve never wanted to do it. I take two days at least. It all started in school–I got good marks in Greek, Latin, and Math. But I flunked in singing and drawing. So I never thought I could draw. I became a photographer. Most painters draw like crazy, but I made photographs first. But that’s why I like to paint—it’s not instant, it takes time.
After a while you hardly look at the subject anymore. When you first start painting, you look at the subject about 90 percent of the time. Finally, though, you look at the subject only 10 percent of the time and you just look at the painting.”
The mosquitoes are voracious, but Rudy calmly paints in a white fisherman’s cap, painting on an easel, rag in left hand. He’s adding highlights since the light isn’t right today. He talks while he paints.
“Sometimes you just leave it to chance.”
He tells an anecdote about DeKooning, saying he did a lot of it on “fate” though he means to say “faith.” “I guess it’s the same.” Or Alex Katz painting a painting in Skowhegan years ago of Rudy, his first wife Edith, and their son Jacob. The painting was leaning on a bush, half in sun, half in darkness. “How can you see what you’re doing?” Rudy asked. “I don’t want to see what I’m doing,” was the reply.
Rudy’s painting is of some trees, their trunks mostly, against a forest floor, with a green background far away in the upper quarter of the picture. Dead branches crisscross the scene, some tilted, some on the ground. In the hazy light, Rudy says, it looks sort of like a battlefield.
Rudy changes from adding dark patches of bark to the standing trees to filling in green bunchberry leaves at the bottom of the painting. It is strange to see the painting directly in front of, and encompassed by, its subject. It’s a bit like the Magritte of the painting of the window in front of the window.
Down at the lake, Rudy meditates. By the water, a beautiful black butterfly with white stripes flexes its wings as if moist, the first time, on a pebble an inch from the water.
Rudy will be teaching two days every two weeks this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’ll be nice to get out of New York. As you get older you get to realize what you really want. You don’t want to go to loud bars and strain anymore.”
Rudy’s also working on a new film, a sort-of collage involving scenes of nude women vacuuming, washing dishes, etc. but also shots of a country fair in Maine. “The model will do almost anything I ask at this point,” Rudy explains. “I pay her a lot, and that helps.”
At the house—the same pretty butterfly—It’s four past two. Time for some lunch. Yvonne turns off the “afternoon concert”—Strauss—and puts on a Billie Holiday tape:
“You ought to go now,
because I like you too much.”
And a certain world that has become a part of art.
August heat; night hail; mute freshness
Moon stormclouds, purple, Turneresque
Delight Rudy; done in, still dressed
Sleeps Yvonne, in bed sleeps Jacob
Time passes; white moon-soaked mist
Solitary outdoors, book indoors
Dear careless moonlight, dear dead words
I know them near, feebly I drowse
My mouth hardens at your approach
Of happiness not reached and reached
Sleeping hunched upstairs, Tom-baby
Year old, when he despairs, rages.
After lunch—sourdough bread from Freedom Baker, Freedom Me., fresh basil, cheese and Rudy’s blackberry fruit salad, Yvonne smiles and says, “I’m going to see if I can find the bloodmeal.” (for the tomatoes).
Rudy relaxes with a book.
“There ain’t a man that’s man enough
to make me cry.”
Later, Rudy goes to pick up his lawnmower, which was being repaired. Yvonne and I go for a swim. We swim across the pond and back.
The shadows are getting long already. Although warm in the sun, the air is cool, a reminder that this day that seems to last forever in its light, can’t. Shade creeps along the petunias in front of the porch, deep pink and red-and-white ones. My father came over here at night to chop a huge hornet’s nest, the size of a basketball, into a bucket of water. I remember Edwin on the dark lawn with a flashlight. Only the poplars seem in motion. The maples barely sway. Singing of crickets.
Yvonne has gotten quite a bit painted. And although the image looks very interesting at this immediate stage—everything drawn in in a flat grayish brown with some highlights, reds, greens, yellows—the painting is far from finished. She is gone (for the bloodmeals one guesses) and her brushes lie unused, paint still on them, on a large moveable platform made by Tom.
What is the point of the aerial view? You can look at it and say, Oh, that’s an aerial view, but there must be more than that. There must be a reason this artist has become obsessed with this view of the world.
To me, a view from a plane, especially at evening or night, is very romantic. The pretty way the lights glow and all those lives. It’s a distant view, removed, and yet it includes an intimacy of looking into people’s backyards.
Back, she paints. A park springs up near a river, setting the buildings it surrounds into 3-dimensional space. What of action? Mostly in cars. But then one is looking at the view. It’s not really aerial this time. It’s more from a high building, hotel room or office, say. So one is in the action, the viewer, seeing these nightscapes, becomes part of what is happening, from the very special perspective. But you’re not usually part of the picture. Here, the specific view involves you in the momentum of the painting.
It’s funny how the pieces of one’s life collect over the years. They don’t tell you anything, finally. Edwin used to live here. There’s a special feeling in that.
But his book on the shelf here is a work, next to other works.
The empty bell
The dead birds
In the house where everything sleeps
The world stands still
It seems someone has died
The trees look as though they are smiling
A drop of water hangs at the end of each leaf
A cloud crosses the night
Outside a door a man sings
The window opens without a sound
The door that won’t open
The faded hand
Beside a broken glass
The lamp smokes
The sparks start fires
The sky is blacker
From the roof
Without their shadows
A somber stain
The house where no one comes
THE SOUND OF THE BELL
All grows quiet
The wind passes singing about it
And the trees shiver
The animals are dead
There is no longer anyone
The stars have stopped shining
The world no longer turns
A head is bowed
Hair sweeps across the night
The last bell that remains standing
SURPRISE FROM ABOVE
At the end of the corridor doors open
A surprise waits for those who pass
Some friends can be found there
There is a lamp that one does not light
And your unique shining eye
We descend the stairs barefooted
There is a burglar or the last to arrive
That no one waits for any longer
The moon hides itself in a pail of water
An angel on the roof plays with a hoop
The house collapses
In the stream is a flowing song
Someone was still behind there speaking
Men passed two by two
Perhaps it was a prayer
That climbed the heart of everyone
Between walls in the clearing
A voice echoed on the water
The bird took a different route
And woke up in the morning
with a gloomy head
No one knew the number
Of those that passed
Between the wall and the garden
When the night falls and becomes hard
In the distance
You hear the whistle of a train
Because of the water the roof is slippery
Because of the rain everything thaws
The oil of alcohol and my weak light
Have burned down the house
A garden without birds
A garden without noise
You go to gather the black flowers
The leaves are never green
All the thorns are red
And your hands are covered with blood
In the central alley a parade passes
By the window of the dead
Where a candle burns
It brings out a slow song
It was her and the other
The neighbor also
Everyone sings their heads off
And on the stairway where one jokes
Someone falling utters a cry
A dog runs away
One only hears the rain cry
THE FINISHED RUIN
I have lost the secret given me
I no longer know anything
For a moment I believed that that could go
Nothing remains any longer
This is a man without feet who wishes to run
A woman with no head who would like to talk
A child with hardly any eyes only for crying
However I have seen you depart
You were already distant
A trumpet sounded
A mob shouted
And you, you did not turn around
We have a long road to follow, step by step
We will walk it together
I detest your smiling face
The hand that you extend to me
And your sucked in stomach so old
You are just like me
On my return I did not receive anything
No one gives me anything
All is spent
A useless piece of decoration
In the night
The hobo strikes the hard sun with his staff
In this place
In front of the door where a furious dog snarls and
The family favorite sleeps
The shutters close
The unknown of the road that everyone travels
A threatening cry in the night
All the thieves of dreams slink away
They are scattered among a few books
The roads have become safer
And our faces have taken on a pale tranquility
One no longer fears danger and one knows death
In the sun
We imitate people from hot climates
And forget not to trust nature
And the times shed this too-long peace
That looks like the end of the world
We are all part of the source of civilization
One will understand too late the danger of imitation
The strange combat no longer exists
The principle characters are lost
But the closed house is like ourselves
An intimacy that no one knows
Searches outside curiosity
And our hypocrisy
the fear of each other
The dog guards it
How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.
John Burroughs, the famed naturalist and essayist, once wrote “I have often amused myself by wondering what the effect would be if one could go on opening eye after eye, to the number say of a dozen or more. What would he see?”
An aesthete who shaped the thinking of the Golden Age, and a man whose influence was for a time eclipsed by the influence of the 20th century Modernists with their deconstructed prismatic glimpses at the broken world they saw before them, Burroughs’ words have come to have renewed importance in American culture—among Sierra Club types, hikers and other naturalists in recent decades—despite the fact that his legacy is under-appreciated.
But Burroughs’ aesthetics, and his personal history, might also properly be brought to bear, in a sense, when examining the artistry and personal history of Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, two figures whose attempts to piece together a world view from the shards left them by the modernists are as vital as they are under-appreciated outside of the tight circle of appreciative devotees who have followed their work.
The weekend of May 31 was a new chance for the public to re-examine that aesthetic effort, and to discover how full of light and color, like John Burroughs’ beautiful leaves, are the recent works of the 84-year old Ms. Beach, and the last of Claude Pelieu, who died in December 2002.
A generous sprinkling of the curious joined some key figures in the alternative scene to help celebrate the recent work of Mary Beach—and the final work of Claude Pelieu—at the newly opened Enderlin Gallery on May 31 in a show that runs through mid-June, 2003, in the small Catskill town of Roxbury, NY.
The underground network produced a list of celebrants that would be envy of any up and coming avant gardist— such luminous figures as Charles and Pam Plymell, Grant Hart, Janine Pomy Vega, Andy Clausen were on hand. Pierre Joris and Tom LaVazzi, both of whose literary artistry deserve wider attention, attended. Jeremiah Newton, the cogent raconteur and acquaintance of Herbert Huncke, Marty Matz and Candy Darling. Philip Scalia. Laki Vazakas. Shiv Mirabito, from down the road where he runs the Woodstock Festival.
Interestingly, few on hand at the opening, aside from such local dignitaries as Mayor Gene Beirnes (“I’m from Brooklyn, but I moved up here after World War II and I’ve lived here ever since,” he declared), seemed aware of the connection between Burroughs—a friend and spiritual colleague to the likes of Walt Whitman, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford—and Roxbury.
Roxbury, as it happens, is the boyhood home and eventual retreat of the great Mr. Burroughs, to which he returned in his last decade to enjoy the simple joy of mountain spring and sweet shy gaze of columbine among the shield-rock and honeysuckle bush, or the sweet vista of an ancient apple tree set against tall grass and a backdrop of rolling dark mountainside.
This is not incidental. It is not just against Burroughs’ touch and go relationship with popular celebrity, but against the massive roll of Burroughs’ vision, the naturalist’s conception of the proper place of the aesthetic soul in nature, that the work of Pelieu and Beach achieves a singular setting.
All this was played out under the influence of an ongoing bout of rain and mist courtesy of the “North Atlantic Oscillation,” that natural weather phenomenon recently identified by the government as being the cause of persistent cold, wet weather, which has been wreaking havoc on the Northeastern United States of late.
“Hey, I like nature,” said one visitor to the show, who trekked through tall wet grass to Burroughs’ Muskrat Lodge on a ridgetop overlooking the valley where Roxbury lies. “But I don’t like it so wet!”
Good voyagers through this world learn to take nature as it comes to them—with all its seachanges, adversities and sudden benevolences. Good voyagers like Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, inheritors of the modernist flame and yet influential actors in their own right in the world of art and culture.
The couple have been found, through over a half a century, at many of the critical junctures of art, and have been frequently central in efforts to sustain and move into the 21st century the underground body of art among which might be found such trace elements as surrealism, imagism, cubism and bohemian subculture—read here Braque, Schwitters, Duchamp, Warhol, Charles Henri Ford, Bob Kaufman.
The pair’s recent efforts, as shown at the Enderlin, to create collage works of aesthetic heft and power, are a continuation of that track record, though they yield diverging products.
In a sense, the pair’s individual products are unified in the Burroughs-like insistence that, by “adding on” vision, opening ourselves “eye by eye” to perception, we may attain a more forceful and distinct apprehension of the world.
“Some persons seem to have opened more eyes than others, they see with such force and distinctness,” wrote Burroughs in his essay Sharp Eyes. “Not outward eyes, but inward.”
In this modest new gallery in Roxbury’s Main Street Claude Pelieu and Mary Beach’s ability to do just that was revealed to a discerning cadre of friends and admirers.
Within spitting distance, that is, of the Pepacton River—headwaters of the Delaware River, where Burroughs learned to appreciate the intimacy of a mountain creek, the beauty of lilacs in the dooryard of a mountain lodge, and the pungent hum of honeybees across an open field, over and above what might be found before the majesty of the Hudson River or the great oceans of the world.
There is an austere charm to the store-front plainness of owner Mark Schweitzer’s Enderlin Gallery, and it has been skillfully handled by curator Anne Loretto (ably assisted by James Rasin) of the Pelieu-Beach show.
Of particular note is a display of some of magnificent books they have been involved in creating over the years, and the collaborations by Claude and Mary hung behind the vitrine displaying Claude’s books fascinate.
But the main show consists of small works of art. Marching eagerly along the lofty white wall to the left, mounted in plain black and white frames, were a series of impeccable collages by Pelieu, meticulously created as if minute oriental screens made up from razor-edge sliced segments of images drawn from fine art and commercial sources.
Making a virtue of necessity (Pelieu, before his death, had limited use of his hands due to circulation problems) seems to have used a paper cutter to create the fine bits and pieces sliced from images both fashionable and timeless. The arrangement of these pieces betrays a sense of nuance and discernment that transcends whatever physical limitations the artist was working under.
Here we catch a glimpse of a Renaissance figure; there a fleeting view of a piece by Leger or Lichtenstein or Braque. On occasion the images are stacked in a near-silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. From abstract bursts to goldfish-tail like constructs—read here triptych, playing card, Japanese fan dance—Pelieu maneuvers his elements with an adroitness and aesthetic judgment that astonishes.
These are cubist and futurist references, to be sure—but no staircase for a nude to descend. Rather they are escalators drawing the audience on an ineluctible and delicious voyage toward abstraction.
Beach’s work, on the facing wall of the main gallery, has a more playful tone. While there is less precision to the cuts, there is more concrete voice in her serene juxtaposition of images, more social import.
Here we find irony, passion and intensity of critique—from elevation to chastisement, and from elucidation to redefinition—as the artist unfailingly shines a spotlight on contemporary notions of sexuality, fashion, beauty and status, frequently pinpricked and pasted down for the world to see.
For all her wit and sense of comedy Beach—distant cousin to Sylvia Beach and a figure who was instrumental in fostering an appreciation for the likes of Bob Kaufman—demonstrates a keen and graceful eye, capable not only of deconstructing and critiquing the world of art and media, but through an enduring passion for exploration and invention, reinterpreting it with works of striking beauty and immediacy.
In their current show Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu demonstrate that they have earned the right to stand square in the spotlight which has to this point tantalizingly eluded them. By virtue not just of their origins but their passages, what they come to believe matters, matters.
“You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush,” wrote Burroughs, one of his most quoted epithets.
In this show, the Enderlin Gallery shares with us—through the works of Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu—superb utterances which can put the bird back in our hearts, and teach it to sing.
Written in 1996 by Gene Van Dyke
One hundred years ago this past December, the theatre world met Alfred Jarry’s “Père Ubu” for the first time. For the premier of Ubu Roi at Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, a crowd of intellectuals and invited friends had gathered at the Théâtre Nouveau in the Rue Blanche expecting something new and exciting. The theatre had been at the forefront of theatrical experimentation since its first production of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande in 1893. Little did anyone realize the extent to which Lugné’s motto “the word creates the décor” would be exploited. What followed was an artistic melee that the Parisian stage (and the world stage) never fully recovered from. Shortly after, Lugné-Poe all but abandoned his spirit of experimentation. Ubu Roi itself was not produced again until 1908, the year after Jarry’s death.
However important the premier of Ubu Roi was, the play’s beginnings might seem a little less than “literary”. The character of Ubu has its origin in a simple schoolboy satire. In October 1888, a 15-year-old Alfred Jarry enrolled at the Lycée de Rennes. While there, he was befriended by Henri Morin, a fellow classmate. Their favorite pastime was inventing stories about a professor named Félix Hébert.
“Hébert had the misfortune to teach physics at the lycée” (Lennon, 25). He was “an enormously fat, ridiculous and ineffectual figure” (Beaumont, 14). Even before Jarry entered the lycée, Hébert “was already the hero-villain of a vast and diffuse body of schoolboy legend, epic and farce” (Beaumont, 14). Morin and his brother Charles had written a play about Père Heb “about a year before Jarry had come to Rennes” (Lennon, 25). That play was The Poles (Les Polonais).
Other similar works by the Morins “were widely read and performed” (Schumacher, 20). Still, it was The Poles that Jarry seized upon and made his own. (The question of Jarry’s authorship would later be attacked in Charles Chasse’s Sous le masque d’Alfred Jarry: les sources d’Ubu-Roi.) The Poles contains the same basic plot as Ubu Roi. In it, “Père Heb, King of Poland” is goaded into taking over the world by his wife. It was “your basic schoolboy satire” hardly an original piece of writing” (Lennon, 26).
In Jarry’s hands, “the play became decidedly more bizarre” (Lennon, 26). He expanded the work and more clearly defined the nature of Heb’s character, adding such things as the concentric circles on his belly that represented “simultaneous states of emptiness and greed” (Lennon, 26). What was evolving was a character that embodied everything that Jarry was growing to hate—the world’s first truly unredeemable character. Jarry would continue to modify the play, eventually renaming the character Ubu. Still, the extent to which Jarry ultimately elaborated on the original “will doubtless never be known” (Beaumont, 17). Regardless, “the world premier of The Poles took place in December 1888, in the Morins’ attic, “using a set of marionettes that Jarry had gotten for Christmas” (Lennon, 26). During the period between the Morins’ attic and the Parisian stage, Ubu continued to fester within Jarry’s mind. Ubu began to appear in printed variations. The first of these was Guignol (1893), and the second was Caesar Antichrist (1894). The actual text of Ubu Roi was printed twice in 1896 before the December premier (Schumacher, 24).
But Jarry would not rest until the play had been realized on the stage.
Alfred Jarry was becoming an established figure in Parisian literary circles. His reputation let him to a meeting with Lugné-Poe. Jarry had been admiring his work with the symbolists for about five years (Schumacher, 24). When he was asked to become Lugné’s secretary in the summer of 1895, Jarry leapt at the chance. Lugné-Poe was going to beUbu’s ticket to the stage. At first, Jarry considered pushing Les Polyèdres (the original title for Ubu Cocu), but changed his mind after Ubu Roi had won favorable reviews in the press (Taylor, 12). On the 8th of January, Jarry wrote to Lugné-Poe, outlining the reasons that Ubu Roi should be produced (Schumacher, 24). In it, he mentioned how cheap a production would be and pointed out that the play was “full of commercial potential” (Lennon, 47).
Jarry’s only close female friend, Rachilde Vallette, was also a friend of Lugné-Poe’s and she asked him not only to stage the play, but to give Jarry “a free hand” in its production (Lennon, 47). The ever-skeptical Lugné was finally won over by the pricetag. He would later find himself with only 1,300 francs drawn in at the box-office—hardly enough to cover the expense (Beaumont, 95). The stage was set. Jarry consumed himself with preparations for the show. “The final production of Ubu Roi, was thus far more the work of Jarry himself than anyone else” (Beaumont, 97).
Jarry made himself a general annoyance to Lugné-Poe. He would note in his memoirs that Jarry was “as stubborn as a Breton mule” (Beaumont, 94). Jarry insisted on certain conventions of speech, action, and setting. The staccato manner of speaking, the misplaced accents, the puppet-like movement, the use of masks, the use of placards, the hodge-podge style of scenic painting—all of these were Jarry’s ideas (Beaumont, 97-99). In fact, a lot of the construction was done by Jarry himself. It seemed as if Jarry could not separate himself from Ubu. And the show went on, despite its author.
The story of Ubu Roi’s premier has been told again and again, but a lot of the facts have been convoluted by time, sloppy academics, and the fallacy of the human memory. We are left with two questions. What exactly did happen in December of 1896? When did it actually happen? The second of these questions may seem easily solved by opening any book on the subject. In fact, I did not even expect the matter to be worthy of discussing beyond quoting a date. What I found, however, was enough variation to merit a closer look.
All of the sources I looked at included two things. First, there are the accounts of a strange curtain speech by Jarry. Second, there are the accounts of the “riot” that occurred during the actual performance. It is a fact of history that both of these events did occur. What has been confused is the actual order in which these events took place. Before I reconstruct what happened, I must first establish an accurate chronology.
Most sources give December 10, 1896 as the date of Ubu Roi’s premier. This is in fact an accurate date, but as Kieth Beaumont points up in his very thorough work Alfred Jarry: “a distinction . . . needs to be made between the dress rehearsal of 9 December and the première of 10 December—a distinction frequently blurred in the memories of those participants who later recalled the scene (including Lugné-Poe), and perpetuated by many writers on the subject since”(100-101). More often than not, the entire series of occurrences is squeezed into one evening and dated the 10th. There were actually two “riots”. The smaller one happened at the Général on the 9th and was preceded by Jarry’s infamous curtain speech. The larger one happened the following evening, but was not preceded by a speech from Jarry. These were the only two performances.
Among the sources I have examined, Beaumont appears to be the only one who has accurately sorted through this mess. In Linda Klieger Stillman’s Alfred Jarry, she fuses both evenings and dates them the 10th (56-57). In Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Appollinaire, Claude Schumacher gets both dates correct, yet claims that the 10th was “calmer” (25). In a work that both excels and suffers from hero worship, Nigey Lennon again fuses the events, but goes one step further by giving the opening date as the 11th (48). This is easily refuted by the fact that the first printed responses are dated the 11th (Beaumont, 101-103). Also, many translations of Ubu Roi also contain these errors in there introduction. One 1953 edition, translated as King Turd by Beverly Kieth and G. Legman, reprints Jarry’s entire curtain speech under the date “10 December 1896” (11).
All of the preceding may seem to be a small matter to some. After all, we are only talking about the difference of a day and perhaps whether or not the audience heard Jarry speak or not. The problem is that historical misinformation breeds (as it obviously has in this case). (I remember being taught in undergraduate that everything had happened on the 10th.) Perhaps Alfred Jarry himself would be more easily satisfied, citing that in a pataphysical sense, all of the sources are accurate.
On the evening of the 9th, friends, intellectuals, and fellow supporters gathered to see what sort of monstrosity Jarry had created. Many of them had already read the play, so the myth of the first riot seems impossible (Beaumont, 100). What was a little unnerving though was Jarry’s curtain speech. Rachilde had tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted following the fashion of the day (Beaumont, 99). In front of the curtain a table was placed. Jarry appeared and walked over to it like an android. He was dressed in a “baggy black suit” and his hair was “plastered down like Bonaparte” (Lennon, 48). Beaumont describes him as looking like a “circus clown in a white shirt with a huge starched front and an enormous bow-tie” and his face white from fear. The speech was “delivered in the clipped tones of Ubu” (99). Jarry thanked many of the critics in the audience and followed with what I believe to be quintessential pataphysics:
“The Sedenborgian philosopher, Mésès, has excellently compared rudimentary creations with the most perfect, and embryonic beings with the most complete, in that the former lack all irregularities, protuberances, and qualities, which leaves them in more or less spherical form, like the ovum and M. Ubu, while the latter have added so many personal details that they remain equally spherical, following the axiom that the most polished object is that which presents the greatest number of sharp corners. That is why you are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else a simple puppet—a schoolboy’s caricature of one of his professors who personified for him all the ugliness in the world” (Jarry, 11).
He then made a number of apologies as to the final state of the production. He claimed there was not enough time for rehearsal, and that this had resulted in certain cuts to the script—including “several passages indispensable to the meaning and equilibrium of the play” (Jarry, 12). He also admitted that “he and his celebrated scene painters (which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Sérusier, and Bonnard) had been ‘up all night’ painting last minute props” and that the grand orchestra had to be reduced to a piano and a drum (Lennon, 48-49). He ended by saying, “as to the action that is about to begin, it takes place in Poland—that is to say, nowhere” (Jarry, 13). He bowed awkwardly and left.
In front of a restless audience, Ma and Pa Ubu took to the stage. Playing the title role was the “magnificent actor Fermin Gémier, on loan from the Comédie Francaise” (Lennon, 49). Most accounts claim a riot began as soon as Gémier spoke the first word of the play. This is not true of the général. The performance actually went along without any real interruption until Act III, Scene 5. The scene involved the newly crowned King Ubu visiting his former friend Bordure at the Thorn prison.
“Here in place of the door of the prison cell, an actor stood with one arm outstretched; Gérmier ‘inserted’ a key into his hand, made a clicking noise, and turned the arm as if opening a door” (Beaumont, 100). “At that moment, the audience, doubtless finding that the joke had gone on long enough, began to shout and storm” (Schumacher, 73). Everything halted, until a furious Gérmier hit upon the idea of dancing a jig. “The audience broke into laughter, and the performance was able to continue, although further periodic interruptions occurred until the end” (Beaumont, 100).
Lugné-Poe considered the performance a scandal, while Laurent Tailhad considered it “a milestone in the history of Symbolism” (Beaumont, 99). Beaumont recounts W.B. Yeats’ sad reflection:
“After Stéphane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.” (99).
The premiere, the following evening, was a different matter indeed. In attendance were “all the leading in the worlds of politics, journalism and letters”. Grémier once again spoke the opening ‘Merdre!’ (‘Shite!’). The audience immediately burst out with a roar. Grémier was “unable to get a word in edgewise for the next fifteen minutes” (Lennon, 49). It was the first time that someone had spoken such a word on the modern stage.
Gémier tried to silence the audience by blowing a tramway horn (Beaumont, 100). Many people left the theatre. A fight broke out in the orchestra pit, while Jarry’s supporters yelled, “You wouldn’t have understood Shakespeare or Wagner either!” (Lennon, 48). Others shouted, “Can’t you see that the author is taking us for a bunch of damned fools?” (Beaumont, 100). When Grémier had finally gotten slight control of the audience, he spoke the second word—another ‘Merdre!’. Needless to say, the audience started to howl once more. They shouted at the stage and at each other. When things quieted down again, the play proceeded as planned. Smaller outbursts continued throughout the performance. In the days that followed, the violent battle for and against Ubu Roi would move on into the Parisian press.
When one considers he climate of the Parisian stage during this period, the tumult becomes more understandable. Beaumont points out two things about the French Theatre. First it was a theatre of entertainment that catered to a bourgeois public. For most audience members, it was anything but a place for experimentation. It was “essentially Parisian”:
“In 1900, here were more theatres in Paris alone—some 50 in all—than in the whole rest of France.”
The dominant model at that time was Eugène Scribe’s well-made play. This left a tradition of technique over content. Certainly a few playwrights attempted their own revolutions—Dumas fils, Augier, Labiche and Feydeau, and one would be ignorant to ignore the work of Antoine’s Théâtre Libre. Still, the common taste still prevailed. Beaumont goes as far as to consider this period “the lowest ebb in its history” when “considered from an artistic point of view.”
Secondly, there was also a growing trend toward realism in the theatre, the paradoxes of which were only beginning to be questioned. Plays were supposed to make the audience ‘believe’ in ways that they had never been asked to before. Obviously, Jarry’s creation stood in direct opposition to all of the above. (86-88) Because of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry has become the adopted father of a number of departures from the theatrical right. The symbolists claimed him, as would the surrealists. The family tree has been drawn—time and time again—down to the futurist and Dada movements. Antonin Artaud—one of the single greatest influences on the second-wave avant-garde—was a disciple of Jarry’s (naming a theatre in his honor). Martin Esslin linked him to the absurdists. From Breton to Tzara to Beckett—the roads, more often than not, seem to lead back to the head of that madman from Laval.
The staging conventions that were broken with Ubu Roi have helped feed the imaginations of designers and directors alike. Any one element is worthy its own analysis—or even better, its own enjoyment. And if you stripped all of these things away you would be left with the one thing that I believe to be Jarry’s most revolutionary contribution—Ubu himself. In 1896, the stage met with its fist true anti-protagonist. He is everything that is foul in the world, in a pure sense—devoid of any redeeming characteristic or capacity. He is not diluted with Iago’s cunning or Macbeth’s guilt. And somehow he is not unlike us.
Alfred Jarry. Beaumont, Kieth. Bath, Great Britain: Leicester University Press, 1984.
Jarry, Alfred. King Turd. tr. by Beverly Kieth and George Legman. New York: Boar’s Head Books, 1953.
Alfred Jarry: the Man With the Axe. Lennon, Nigey. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984.
Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Schumacher. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Alfred Jarry. Stillman, Linda Klieger. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Introduction to The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry. Taylor, Simon Watson. Great Britain: Eyre Mthuen, 1968.
Shaman of the Surreal
by Thomas Rain Crowe
Philip Lamantia was born to Sicilian immigrants in San Francisco in 1927. His father was a produce broker in the old Embarcadero. He began writing poetry in elementary school and was later inspired by the paintings of Miro and Dali at the San Francisco Museum of Art. After being expelled for “intellectual delinquency” at age sixteen, he dropped out of high school and moved to New York City, where he lived for several years and where he was associated with Andre Breton and other exiled European artists such as Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. During these years he worked as an assistant editor of View magazine and his poems were published in View as well as in publications like Hemispheres, which was being published by another French ex-patriot Yvan Goll. In 1943, when Lamantia was only fifteen years old, Breton heralded him as being “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.” In 1946, at the age of nineteen, his first book of poems Erotic Poems was published by Bern Porter Books in Berkeley, California, followed by two collections (Narcotica and Ekstasis) published in 1959 by Auerhahn Press. A literary prodigy whose poems delved into the worlds of the subconscious and dreams, his love of Surrealism had a major influence on the Beats and other American poets. On March 7, 2005 he died of heart failure in his North Beach, San Francisco apartment at age seventy-seven.
After World War II, Lamantia traveled the world, living for periods of time in Mexico, Morocco and Europe. During the 1950s he lived, off and on, with native peoples in the United States and Mexico, while participating in the peyote-eating rituals of the Washo Indians in Nevada. During these early years, he delved into such subjects as astronomy, philosophy, history, jazz, painting, ornithology and Egyptology, becoming not only conversational, but eminently knowledgeable in these subjects and others. During these years he became part of the literary bohemian scene in San Francisco and was often associated with the Beats. He went on to publish books of poetry during the 1960s such as Destroyed Works and Touch of the Marvelous.
“In the 1950s, Philip was writing a stream-of-consciousness Surrealist poetry and had a huge influence on Allen Ginsberg. Before that, Ginsberg was writing rather conventional poetry. It was Philip who turned him on to Surrealist writing,” said poet and publisher of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a tribute to Lamantia in a March issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Another member of the Beat pantheon, Michael McClure, in the same article said of Lamantia: “He was highly original. He was thrilling to be around. Everybody would sit around and listen to him all night. The flow of his imagination was a beautiful thing.”
I was introduced to Philip Lamantia thirty years ago on the streets of North Beach, San Francisco by Shig Murao who was, then, manager of City Lights Bookstore and probably best known for his role in the Howl obscenity trial which took place in the late 1950s. Even then, in his forties, Lamantia was something of a legend—due partly to his personal associations with famous French Surrealists and his reclusive history, but mainly for his soaring yet searing Surrealist poetry which had come to the attention of some with the publication of his first book at the precocious age of nineteen. I remember soirees at Lamantia’s North Beach apartment during the 1970s in the company of a young Rimbaud-like Ken Wainio and a Ginsberg-like Neeli Cherkovski and long discussions that ranged everywhere from Hopi prophecy to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to social revolution. Lamantia was an encyclopedic source, in fact a font of things mythic, mystic, historical, and literary. His mind, even when it was quiet (which wasn’t often), was a powerful presence.
Some twenty years earlier (in the 1950s) Lamantia had been the Beat movement’s bona fide Surrealist voice. His work stood out and was featured in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry—the collection that put the Beats on the American literary map, and in truth, changed the course and the look of American poetry, if not international letters, forever. To those who knew him, Lamantia is known not merely by his associations with the Beat writers, but by his work, with accolades and high praise coming from such canonical voices as Kenneth Rexroth, Yvan Goll, Allen Ginsberg and most prominently Andre Breton. In April of 1999, Philip Lamantia and I were reunited in a conversation that, in many ways, began where it had left off twenty-five years before, with my asking simple questions and Philip responding like a flowing font of free-associative discourse.
Thomas Rain Crowe: Let’s go back to those conversations that I remember from the 1970s in your North Beach apartment and your talks about ancient traditions and cultures—the Hopi, pre-Christian Egypt, and the like. What sort of influence have these particular interests of yours had on your work—which in your case, began at a very early age?
Philip Lamantia: Good! We’ve gone right to the heart of it right off the bat. This is a good question. We can cover almost everything by talking about this one question alone.
It all centers on the idea and the reality of “the sacred.” Surrealism begins with the sacred. And for me “the sacred” begins/began with my early reading of books like The Temple of Man. This book goes way beyond the simple histories of ancient Egyptian culture and includes some of the most profound alchemical texts written in modern times. Later, I spent a year studying in Spain with a teacher who taught me Pythagorean geometry during the years when I had stopped writing, essentially, in order to study this school of the sacred art of mathematics—which was at that time still passed on from teacher to student by initiation only.
By reading other important and related thinkers such as de Rougemont—who, as the author of such books a Love in the Western World, in my mind is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, I was introduced to the relationship between the esoteric and the exoteric. I became familiar with places like the Great Temple at Luxor and the hermeneutic writing at the entrance to the temple, which as early as 1800 BC was a kind of writing that was considered as “sacred.” Exoteric. In these hermeneutic writings there was purportedly an existing door to the sacred.
As humans, we’re constantly looking outward for evidence of the sacred. I’m now convinced, however, that the universe is within us! There’s no need for us to go into outer space to find out about the secrets of the universes. In earliest childhood all knowledge is inborn, I believe, and it’s all retrievable!
And then there is Blake… The other source (or source for “the Other,” if you prefer), whom I read at age fourteen. And Poe! I figure it was Blake and Poe who led me directly into Surrealism.
TRC: Yes, I’d like to know where Surrealism fits into your interest and study of mysticism, ancient cultures and arcane wisdom. And in particular, your personal association with Andre Breton and other French Surrealists.
PL: As I said, Surrealism begins with the sacred. And the premise that each individual poet, or painter, seek the “golden fleece” on his own. This point is critical to understanding Surrealism as it appeared in Paris around 1910 on the coat-tails of end-of-century poets such as Saint Paul Roux, who was known as “Le Magnifique!” and then with Apollinaire’s writings on modernism. Apollinaire wrote about the “new spirit in poetry,” with emphasis on the word “spirit.”
The French Surrealist movement was created and sustained by the interaction between artists and writers in the cafes. And this went on for years, with, as I say, the business of the movement being carried out through constant day-to-day contact between artists.
Then, with Breton and his Manifesto, the advent of Dada, the Surrealist group’s connection to Hegel, and the embracing of alchemy and what were referred to as the “damned sciences,” the whole thing took on a much more social and political persona.
While, early on, there was a very real interest in “The Underworld” via Rimbaud and Dante, for instance, poets like Kathleen Raine later opted for a non-demonic route that, as she said, was not a risk to the pure surrealist process—a process of writing that focused on the stages of wakefulness and sleep that occur at the points of moving into and out of sleep. These bridges, these interstices, were considered key, if not critical, to the writing process and were catalyst to the advent of automatic writing which appeared around 1919. These so-called “bridges” had been defined earlier by Poe in his essay “Between Waking and Sleeping.” I now refer to this state of conscious-unconsciousness as “being in the zone.” This amounts to writing from and experiencing from a sort of waking trance state, a place from which many of the world’s great prophetic writings have come—writings of the old biblical prophets, The Song of Songs, and so forth.
TRC: And what was your connection with this group in France during the first half of the century?
PL: I was the only Surrealist poet of my generation, especially with direct connections with Breton and the French. Breton was my first interpreter. I first met him at the age of sixteen in New York through a series of arranged meetings. We would meet and talk about my work and the ideas and work of various writers and artists in France, or about Surrealism in general. I have to say that Breton, contrary to rumor and innuendo, was one of the most civilized people I’ve ever met. My experiences with him were always of this nature up until and including our last meeting—which was a chance meeting in 1944, again in New York, and which is documented in my poem “Poem For Andre Breton” which appeared in my book Bed of Sphinxes published by City Lights. At that chance meeting, Breton was with Tanguy, who of all the visual artists was most important to me, as early on I was influenced very much by painters and musicians.
TRC: In many people’s minds you are associated with the Beat movement in this country—through such connections as the Gallery Six reading, Don Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, and more recently with things like your inclusion on the CD set Howls, Raps, and Roars. How does this association sit with you, especially in light of your French Surrealist connections and affinities?
PL: With regard to the whole Beat thing, I see it as a matter of karma, really. Or, timing in this case. I was there and “on the scene” as it was referred to. But then, in the forties and early fifties, it was really about the music! As I was hanging out with musicians mostly. The terminology referring to “hipsters” was about those people hanging out with musicians, and wanting to be musicians. “Wannabees” I guess they’re called now.
The first poet I met was Allen Ginsberg, then through him, others like Kerouac, whom I met in 1950 when I was twenty. He was older—about five years older I think. But the Beats never thought of themselves as “hip” in the early days before On the Road made Kerouac famous and the whole scene was changed. In fact, Kerouac’s whole thing was about the “beatific” presence in the world. This is different from “beatitudes” as are found in the Bible. It’s more the exoteric. About the opening up to the divine.
In those early days, there were no established writers in the “Movement.” I guess the most revered and celebrated writer connected with the Beat scene was Kenneth Rexroth, who was hardly establishment at that time! With his left-leaning politics and all. I met him during these years, and thought of him always as someone with an interesting mind and who was an interesting figure. It was through Rexroth and his intense interest in ecology and nature that I, too, became consciously interested in these things—although I had already become interested in nature and ecology as a boy when I went with my uncle to the Santa Cruz mountains on hikes and trips. I fell in love with the great stands of redwoods and madrones, and with the Native American associations with these places, which was the basis for trips I would later make to Mexico, the Southwest and my work with the Washo and Cora Indians.
I was working for a good bit of that time with View magazine in New York. I guess all in all for between five to ten years. So, there was a more formal connection to things literary through my association with View, which was really just a job for me in those days and had no real influence, really, on my involvement with either the Beat or the Surrealist movements.
So, that was it, and as I say, it was pretty much karma—being there in New York and then San Francisco as part of “the scene.”
TRC: Your work has also been linked to the American Surrealist movement based in Chicago, which, as I understand it, has no ties with the French group. What was, or is, the nature of your involvement with the American group and its activities and publications?
PL: The American Surrealist group members were a younger generation from mine, most of them being born around 1948 and that generation. There was never anyone in America for me, literarily speaking, which is why I gravitated toward what was going on in France. But the American Surrealist movement was established around 1963 by Franklin Rosemont and his friends as a direct response to the Viet Nam War. In many ways it was a statement against the war. I’d gone into exile in Europe around this time in anticipation of the Viet Nam war. I didn’t return from Europe until around 1970, and wasn’t contacted by the American Surrealists until 1972. They were interested in publishing my work in their various publications. I contributed to their publications for many years. Now, I guess its been over a decade or so since I’ve had any direct input into anything they’ve published. Even so, I’m still in touch with some American Surrealist poets whom I have a great deal of respect for—poets like Will Alexander, for example.
TRC: Your selected poems Bed of Sphinxes covers your work from 1943 to 1993. I’m wondering if over the course of this half century and through at least four or five different “periods” or “phases” in your writing, you can cite for us a nexus, a still-point, where all these periods and work interconnect. Is there a common thread, a common direction? I think of the poem “Still Poem 9” (1959) that was published in the Donald Allen anthology, as something of a credo, hinting strongly at a metaphorical “grail search” of sorts that you may have followed over the course of your life and career and that would also be connected with your travels to the Hopi mesas, Central and South America, Africa, Egypt, Greece…
PL: Yes, in fact you’re not the first person to draw this kind of analogy to the poem “Still Poem 9”—and it’s a good one, I think as I like the association with the grail quest. That poem was written in 1959 and I’m still on the grail quest.
TRC: We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I’d like us to end by discussing “Ex Cathedra,” a poem which appears toward the end of Bed of Sphinxes. I have to say that I think that the last line in this poem is one of THE great last lines. “On that day black holes of thought radiate the wind’s lost word,/this death that is not death: that day is magic is love.” How does this poem and particularly this last line reflect upon what I understand are fairly recently renewed interests on your part in Catholicism and Christianity?
PL: Well, first of all, let me say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nancy Peters, without whom this book wouldn’t, couldn’t have been done. I doubt if I would have been able to put this book together without her assistance. She’s a brilliant book editor, and I can’t emphasize this enough.
“Ex Cathedra” was actually written around 1989, but it does, as you suggest, speak to a renewed interest in this, but in this case, negatively so. The line directly before the one you’ve cited reads: “The absolute pulverization of all the churches will be the grace of/love’s freedom!” Need I say more?
This all goes back to the beginning of our conversation and the business of “the damned sciences” and the problems the Surrealists faced early on. In fact, someone, and I won’t mention their name, said to me recently in regard to this poem: “In times past, they would have burned you for writing this poem!” So, yes, I’ve found my way back to the “exoteric church” as I spoke of it earlier. I continue searching for alternatives to opening up to the divine, as well as searching for the “grail”—which I have yet to find.
Bibliography: Books by Philip Lamantia
Erotic Poems (Bern Porter Books, Berkeley, 1946)
Narcotica (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1959)
Ekstasis (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1959)
Destroyed Works (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, 1962)
Touch of the Marvelous (Oyez, Berkeley, 1966)
Selected Poems 1943-1966 (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1967)
The Blood of the Air (Four Seasons Foundation, San Francisco, 1970)
Becoming Visible (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1981)
Meadowlark West (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1986)
Bed of Sphinxes: Selected Poems 1943-1993 (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997)
Thomas Rain Crowe is a poet, translator and publisher of New Native Press. During the 1970s he was Director of the 1st San Francisco International Poetry Festival (1976) and Editor of Beatitude magazine and press. His own work includes The Laugharne Poems which was written in Laugharne, Wales at the Dylan Thomas home during the summers of 1993 and 1995, and The Personified Street (with an Introduction by Jack Hirschman) from his years in San Francisco during the 1970s. He has written a preface for an anthology The Baby Beats & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance to be published in France by La Main Courante in the fall of 2005.
STILL POEM 9
There is this distance between me and what I see
everywhere immanence of the presence of God
no more ekstasis
a cool head
watch watch watch
He’s over there…It’s an Ocean…
sometimes I can’t think of it, I fail, fall
There IS this look of love
there IS the tower of David
there IS the throne of Wisdom
there IS the silent look of love
Constant flight in air of the Holy Ghost
I long for the luminous darkness of God
I long for the superessential light of this darkness
another darkness I long for the end of longing
I long for the
It is Nameless what I long for
a spoken word caught in its own meat saying nothing
This nothing ravishes beyond ravishing
There is this look of love Throne Silent look of love
To weave garter belts with chaos and snakes, the nun’s toenail
of crimson phallus, her breast of alligator, her tail, crow’s
buttocks. Steel pricks of the ciborium dovetail her white
pantaloons—snake oil on a eucharistic tongue.
In crystal movies: an owl’s path beneath slumbers of the woods
that died to bolster the miserable stations of the cross, instead
of Bugs Bunny laminating the hedgerows through the pews,
stench gathers power in censers of the debasing perfumes.
Time of frostbites laid over crumbs of bile-soaked christies,
famines roasted with divinity, allah jacks up his “prisons within
prisons,” the flayed kaaba-stone pitched to the solar gobbling
After the great Dusting, this Pope exhibits his toes in carnivals
sure to spring up in sideshows of enigma, hot flints of the
anti-christ, my brother, in lesions of the darkening space,
Revolution the Star in the West springs the play of foam
on the rocks below . . .
Field mice from the mouths of “the hell sermon,” I lop off the
head of the oldest nun with a fragment of the reforgeable
brassy metallic cross; this priest whipping Sister Matilda with
guts spilled from the monstrance his tongue laps up at her feet.
Oh, junkyards of eternity fester in leads of clock time, but
Humankind invents the bomb I hurl to The Box of Infanticides,
Black-hearted children flee gehenna, pissing through mountains
of priestly corpses, those burnt hams in the tree of winds.
Schools of fish move in the night, plagues of scripture blown to
Secret rooms fly open absolutely by stealth.
The star card bestows the charm of new rivers, this word
tomorrow, Andromeda, and with you, Amor.
With the skull splendors of the imperium romanum, the alchemical
pope skewers a host of puffers on the backsides of saints.
Cardinals butcher in the market day for clerics.
Inside the chalice of battered gums, the vengeance of witches,
salmons to spawn the invisible eruption in the Street of the
Talismanic, the marigold’s not a wing-feather less!
From the stone bubbles of Mother Angelica a herd of corpses
rides to the spider compass of my bones: the blood of swans
lace my handcuffs floating the altars, the inebriate sickle quick
to slice those melting emeralds inlaid with scripted shit the
great unknown rages to fruition on the flanks of Carthago.
The absolute pulverization of all the churches will be the grace of
On that day black holes of thought radiate the wind’s lost word,
this death that is not death: that day is magic is love.
from Bed of Sphinxes (New & Selected Poems, 1943-1993) City Lights Books, 1997