Monday, August 26, 2013

The Men of Lamantia (Book Review) by Alison Ross

After graduate school, I tried in vain to like the poetry of Charles Bukowski. Freshly emerged (escaped?) from a stifling MFA program where the tired tenets of academic poetry were enforced, I was seeking out rebel-authors, those who flouted provincial approaches to a genre that naturally resists orthodox form. Poesie is shape-shifting, adapting itself to an author's individual "pen-persona." You cannot confine poetry to one approach any more than you can confine a cat to a corner of your house. The cat is going to follow its instincts of whimsy and exploration, just as poetry will follow the whims and exploratory instincts of the author.

Bukowski is known among his fanatical followers as a literary revolutionary of sorts; his poetry, which scorned convention with its straightforward language and profane content, became wildly popular for these "aberrant" attributes. His detractors, on the other hand, felt that his was a sort of anti-poetry - not simply anomalous in style, form and subject matter, but actually not even really poetry at all.

But it wasn't his style and form, or lack thereof, that repelled me. It was the misogyny. I was drawn enough to his blunt use of language - his refreshing refusal to "florid-ify" and his knack for unadorned candor. It was the fact that he dehumanized women into whores and bitches. How am I supposed to relate to such sick sexism? Am I supposed to elevate this man to idol-status when he so callously disregards the female gender - the women who birthed him, who nurtured him, who taught him, who loved him as sisters and aunts and friends and girlfriends, and as potential wives and daughters?

So I put him aside for about 20 years. Clockwise Cat, of course, has published many a Bukowski-inspried scribe, but we publish the Bukowski-esque poems that we appreciate for their imitation of his iconoclastic idiom rather than for any misogynistic content. We are fine with erotica, but adamantly refuse to publish sexist subject matter. Hopefully no poems have slipped through that feature such content; if so, shame on me for lazy reading.

Within the past few months, however, I have revisited Bukowski via an anthology, of sorts, called Penguin Modern Poets 13: Charles Bukowski, Philip Lamantia, and Harold Norse.

I had heard of the other two poets, of course, but not read much, if anything, by them.

However, I was struck by the inclusion of Bukowski with Norse and Lamantia, because from my understanding, Lamantia was considered more of a surrealist, and I wasn't sure what Norse was considered, but I was pretty sure he was not aligned with Bukowski's style. However, I found out soon enough he was a part of the Beat poet movement. And while apparently some people lump Bukowski in with the Beats, naturally he falls a bit outside that realm.

ANYWAY. This seemingly disparate trio had the main thing in common of being influential modern poets. Bukowski, clearly, has been the most famously impactful of the three, though that doesn't discount the considerable contributions of the other two. Indeed, Norse and Lamantia are likely deemed more "real" poets among the critics, but one cannot deny that Bukowski's influence has reached far and wide.

I am glad I perused this volume and discovered what my boyfriend and others appreciate in Bukowski, because while I certainly still admonish his misogyny, clearly that is but one (shameful) part of his oeuvre.

It's true I have not dog-eared as many Bukowski poems in this volume as I have with Norse and Lamantia, but there are some gorgeous lines in his poetry that startle the senses with their cryptic imagery and mischievous diction:

"I wait in the white rain for knives like your tongue

I see the spiral clowns fountain up with myths untrue,
I wrestle spasms in the dark on dark stairways"

"grief-tailed fish
Sunday-eye in walking shorts"

"I am a face behind a window
a toothache
an eater of parsley
a parallel man staring at ceilings of night"

"in the most decent sometimes sun
there is the softsmoke feeling from urns
and the canned sound of old battleplanes
and if you go inside and run your finger
along the window ledge you'll find
dirt, maybe even earth.
and if you look out the window
there will be the day, and as you
get older you'll keep looking
keep looking
sucking your tongue in a little
ah ah no no maybe"

In my view, these Bukowski lines (which are just a smattering of what the volume has to offer) serve to undo the accusations against his verse as being the antithesis of poetry. While obviously Bukowski's plainspoken vulgarity is what his detractors dislike the most, these critics ignore the fact that his blunt vernacular alternates with a tautly restrained lyricism, and that his pristinely authentic imagery has cerebral appeal.

The included poems in this volume have allowed me to see beyond my Bukowski ambivalence, and appreciate that his was a multi-faceted talent, not as readily dismissed as I would have wished. Had he been able to channel his obvious frustrations into a more constructive perspective on women, I am sure he could have reached even more readers, and banished any bias and bile against him. And, of course, this does not mean I am a convert to the Cult of Buk. My conscience will not permit me to legitimize an overt misogynist like that.

Lamantia and Norse are poets that were made for me to admire; it just took me a while to come around to reading them.

Norse employs jarring juxtapositions in his verse, which is buoyed by an outlandish humor. His poem, "It is," contains Seussian inventions such as a "zinnia-colored sea," a beach where the "sun hurls its yes" and sandcastles are "hoarse with poems." In this crazy cosmos, there is a man who is a "sound growing out of a wordy night" and who weeps for a god "that sits on his ass scaring little children."

Norse's poetry is apocalyptic at times, but the terroristic tone is levied by darkly whimsical dream-imagery as in "Now," where "she outleaps fields of chocolate sleep where watches grow" and "you burn thru my mind as the train burns through the skin of night."

Lamantia's verse is similarly jolting for its sensory elements, and especially notable for its gloriously playful hyperbole.

In "What is Not Strange," he writes:

"Now that I have swallowed the Pacific Ocean
and sabotaged the Roman Empire
and you have returned from all your past lives
to sip the snakes of my fingertips

Go Away and Be Born No More!


Lamantia, indeed, is the most savory poet in the anthology. I can now see why Bukowski was included....even though the poetry that he is most prominently known for veers a bit from the styles featured here, his poetic mode ultimately lies somewhere between the extreme stream-of-subconsciousness of Lamantia and the Zen-Beat vibe of Norse.

This is a invigoratingly valuable volume that can serve both as an introduction to these massively influential poets as well as an exploration guide to the intersections among their seemingly disparate styles.


Steven Fama said...

All right, Alison Ross, I came here looking for something on Lamantia (and did find that), and wanted to say I enjoyed reading your writing about reading poetry.

It's big, put perhaps if you want the full serving of "savory" Lamantia, check out the just-released The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California Press).

Clockwise Cat said...

Thanks so much for the tip. I love him and just purchased Meadowlark West. Trippy awesome stuff!