Dec 9, 2006: Robin Blaser Book Launch

Saturday, December 9, 2006, Burnaby, BC

So, last night at the Western Front, I walked in with Lou Rowan and soon started drinking red wine. George Bowering and Jean Baird showed up early and George told me he had not looked at my essay on him yet. (I had talked to Jean earlier in the day and she relayed the message on to George.) Michael from the Kootenai School of Writing was there, a bunch of other people as well, including Peter and Meredith Quartermain. I told Peter this was the EVENT of the MILLENNIUM (so far) and he told me he was going to steal the line, and I gave him my blessings, but when it did come out with him at the podium, he almost got it right. Oh well.)

There were appetizers like cheese (some of which George called underwear cheese which I took to be a reference to a strong degree of stinkiness and thought about making a laundry reference, but passed) and chips and before long, trays of shrimp, oysters and halibut, lots of fried halibut started to appear, some distributed by George as friendly waiter. George introduced me to Stan Persky with the phrase: listen to that accent! which I immediately understood as a Chicago accent, so I piled it on, remembering Stan was originally from Chicago. We had a chat about Chicago and some of his recent work which had some Chicago references, but did not talk much after that.

Lissa Wolsak arrived and I went over to say hello. It was good to see here there. I did not think she was going to make it. I introduced her to Lou when he came around. Lou and I had a little chat when we first came in. He split up with Ginger in October and is looking for some kind of meditation exercise to help him get through it. I, of course, suggested Kum Nye and he mentioned he saw that referenced in the Binghamton Blues piece. I should send him an email reminder along with a link to Stephanie’s book. Lissa is a doll. She’s amazingly bright, an excellent writer and a healer with a thriving practice using a field technique. She read one of my essays right about the time when I was just getting some confidence in what I was doing and said it was right on, which really emboldened me. Her timing was divine.

I could sense Lissa had some medicine for Lou, so I left them alone and told her to talk with him by saying to her Lou may be a potential client. I mingled and had more wine. (I had bought Lissa a glass.) When I returned, Lou left before too long and I could sense Lissa was eyeing her exit.

I think the Quartermains, folks like that, and Language Poetry in general, these folks may be too smart for their own good. There is a heart connection that seems to be missing and I think Robin is just coming into heart issues in a huge way as he contemplates death. I think you’ll see softer and more accessible poems from Robin in the next couple of years. He has SO much heart, there is no way that it cannot get into the poems. One he read written YESTERDAY was quite good and memorable. It was about seizing the moment: Never let the world go by… I would love to have a copy of that poem. One other thing about Peter: He lusted after my hat and inferred he was going to steal it.

The reading started and Peter was emcee and talked too much. He admitted it and George was heckling, which I thought was totally appropriate, given Peter’s inability to get out of the way. George read first and, using his left hand to gesticulate, read:

Who’s There?

the room talks to itself
coloured Persian
and wraps its thinking-
lights around
the man bent over
a drinking fountain
who is black
and white
who transliterates
into one crouching
over his book
of loose pages
and another clapping
his hands and pointing
his toe
playing musical chairs
and chances
among deep-seated minds
whose laugh counter-
points the razzle
of crows outside
cawing down the chimney
as if to enter between
firecat-andiron’s
serious, childish, jasper eyes
the room talking to itself

George finished and then from his seat mentioned that he forgot to introduce the next person, who was not a poet, nor a reader, as he prefaced his reading with, and his name was something like Michael Vardi. The poem he chose for the occasion was:

one word of wisdom

I’d just given a talk on what I thought were
the irreparables of our time – wow! – and was
standing outside on the grass smoking a cigarette

when a young man came up, self-induced plainness shining
all over him – he said, ‘I had trouble following you,’ and
he went on about someone telling him he was just to or-
dinary, and what, he seemed to ask, could he do about that –

I said ‘Tell me, have you ever in your whole life felt or-
dinary – even once?’

after a long pause, searching every sparkle of his honesty
he said very quietly, ‘no’ –

“Well” I said, ‘you’ve turned it inside out, exactly as you
must – since the ordinary is always and only a rumor about
somebody else’-

‘And,’ I added, ‘why not tell whomever-it-may-concern to put
the ordinary where the sun don’t shine – everybody’s got a place
like that’ –

And the young man introduced Daphne Marlatt. I’d never seen her before but have heard her name often. She was one of the TISH editors and was born in Australia, educated at UBC like George, but unlike him also at Indiana and lives now in Victoria. She read a poem from Pell Mell that I had just seen for the first time Wednesday night:

Silver-winged red devil, a toy from Mexico

the place is poisoned   history is effective,
not progressive    date: anytime, or
the Cheyanne massacre and freezing, 1879.
date the re-entry and then the return
from the wound of mankind    it is
not the womb of woman, nor is it
the Greek male-womb, the substitute
it is our violence – that inside of
ourselves, which gods inhabit,
though they are real outside the inside,
continuous grass, repeated sand in the
glass of sky-scrapers, golden, sunning,
melted forms, banks on rivers of
our violence    I have thought the intellect
sweet and the bare-forms of poets,
hairy-wrists, graceful, the stench and
the beauty, bright and terrible, crabs
in the hair of their chests or the clean
smooth flesh variable   I
sometimes thought they were priests or
the same thing, revolutionaries, I thought they
were baseball players, lovers
or beauties    they were at a loss
in the language, ever so much
at cross-purposes with the world
of that violence which is our nature,
endlessly before us, where
the inside turns into the outside, dying
and other   now, knowing the
source does not look like ourselves,
virgin and child in the icon
sit in a tub of blue weather,
two rivers pour into okeanos
where fish begin the dangerous
beginning, somewhat
familiar, the peculiar cause
of imagery somewhere    if you
pound the table the wings shiver,
silver, on springs at the shoulders of
the red body

Stan Persky was next, the old Chicago hand. He moved up to Van from San Francisco with Robin in 1966, and they were lovers at the time, but broke up in Vancouver. Stan read a poem which goes back to the time he and Robin were first together, in the early 60’s:

Sophia Nichols,

the wind hits and returns    it is easy to personify
a new place and language,    but the new body stings

these men with green eyelids, drawing their worth,
it was rumoured, from Egypt, knew

the work is a part of it    a power arrived at the
same thirst

he borrowed a head for a day

but which head    the phrases tremble in the other
mouth    it is true and false    the veil of her face,

an old porcelain, not for the hand to comfort    she
moved beyond the sop one gave for affection   ‘My

success has been to keep duty and love alive’   she said
her hand waved with the power of disease    Sophia

Nichols of the orchards, the deserts, the flooded
ponds and games wherein the moon sought our feet

died with a mouth full of tumour    it is true and
false    the moon flowers ( that it is Blake talking )

tonight it is the half blossom and the stars too
above this mud are from the other mouth   this city

untouched    the streets, Hotel Lyric have a foreignness,
a place outside a window    a sound of bees pulling

the lilac    above cement this wonder  ( the other mouth )
that crickets were men once who so loved the muses they

forgot to eat    now fed on thistles, the language must
sting    the flesh turn to a dew ( the other mouth ) the

loss,    some glistening blood on the leaves of the mirror
plant    Sophia Nichols of the story, the goldenrod,
of the snake that entered the cage and ate the captured
sparrows, the telegraph keys, pale yellow paper,   of

the Odyssey and the homing stories of the soul,    the sea
imaginary, light and foaming green on the rocks   dark

further out as the eyes of the cat
if she would be
free from words, she would free me    even in the night

there are birds summoned by words

Ellen Tallman was next. Her husband Warren, from Tumwater, Washington as George points out often, was the center of the group that helped create the environment in which TISH was spawned. He and Ellen were friends of Duncan, Spicer and that gang, and she mentioned first meeting Robin at a gathering of anarchists in 1946. She mentioned Robert’s word for something being full of light and that word would be GLAMOURS which I first saw in Michael McClure’s work. I asked Michael about that reference and he had forgotten, so it was wonderful to have that bit of information from Ellen. She read a poem about Cortes Island entitled: Mountain, which I cannot find in The Holy Forest, argh!

Ellen introduced Robin, who had to wipe away tears from his eyes. I love hearing his laugh, which I came to know interviewing him and hearing it over and over when I was transcribing the interview. He began with a poem that had been left out of the last version of The Holy Forest, entitled:

Quitting a Job

1

Nothing to it. I counted my money. There wasn’t much.

I took a cup of courage out of the Charles River.
Yellow iris perched like canaries on the shore.

Climb out of the rocks, I said. With thirty-three years,
you have a few left. Whatever the fortune-teller in Chicago
said, you won’t die strangled.

The tea leaves sparkle.

O, I expect the joy to last all summer. I’ll hang on to it
with a gull’s beak.

The hot Boston summer. The sweating thighs. The slow, building
irritation with the wilted people. Streets. Subways. Window-
ledges.

Dusty sparrows dart among the red-legged pigeons, winning bread.

Last week I quit my job. It is a geographical necessity, I said,
to find an image for this century. Crowded. Speechless. I need
time.

Whatever it is. Here, where it isn’t, the blue-winged flies are
almost beautiful.

I think of Lawrence’s angry poems.

What have they done to you, men of the masses,
creeping back and forth to work!

Ah, the people, the people!
surely they are flesh of my flesh!

2

The dancer completes a turn. Stands waiting to resume.
Rhythmic. Sexual. Begins again on Cambridge Street.

The arms lift away from the body, for balance.
The hands close, breathless, touching the air
as a cat paws at unimagined beasts.

Look at it!
The joy will outlast summer.
I quit my job.
I abolished money.

The moon shines through the straggly body of a
tree of heaven. (They grow out of gutters, drainpipes
among the falling bricks, between vacant
houses.)

The stars are like leaves this summer.
I’ve tasted their sweat.

I think of Tu Fu’s rabbit pounding bitter herbs.
The seeding grass. And yes, this blue (O, inward)
mountain.

It was pretty cool that he started with this, as I had marked it as one of the early poems which bears repeating, in fact, the first of them, since I began reading the new edition of The Holy Forest. The line: It is a geographical necessity, I said, to find an image for this century, I found rather compelling. And I had noted that this was one poem which was not included in any previous books. That fact is interesting because it seems as if that line suggests one of Blaser’s essential quests, and that being the effort to find an image which will inform the post-modern era, the era after the death of the old gods and before the birth of the new. I asked Robin about this and he said he was just not getting what he needed from Boston. The fact that it is the East Coast and still reacting to the shadow European culture (British culture mainly) was still casting over the former colonies. On the West Coast, the energies of Asia were being assimilated more readily than back east and I am sure this is what Robin was feeling, but that was never spoken last night. I asked him if he found that image, or did it turn out to be several images, such as boat, dancer, tree (forest, orchard) and he agreed that it was several images. I asked Miriam Nichols about it and she said the poem was likely found in a drawer somewhere, but did not address the intellectual nature of Robin’s quest for the essential image of the post-modern era.

The next poem was one dedicated to Robert Creeley, about whom Robin said he was always around him, like Duncan and Spicer. The poem is also from Charms, like the poem Stan Persky read, and is entitled:

A Gift

there are in this room, two tables
and in this one, three

they are full of invisible motion
shaped out of  their origin

oak, redwood, mahogany
out of the window    boy thieves

with flashlights in the fig trees
no bodies distinct from their souls

no city distinct from a language
from tracings of the new Wells Fargo

Building ( 42 stories )
through the fog,  welders’ lights glow

the grapevines twist around
the city    in your mouth

a concurrence   the poet’s kiss
given,   caught like a love adept

on my lips    the attraction
of it  scattered in public

where, now and then,   god
knows you    your love
doesn’t count    in this

No city distinct from language, he says, and this is one of his lifelong concerns, how we can maximize use of language to go beyond what we have got. He addressed this a few times in the interview we did in October and he understands that the poet must be the one who keeps the use of language sacred in a society mired in ads and doublespeak. The poet ought to try cornering reality from different angles (different languages) so he/she can get their mind around it (reality) more easily and certainly with more depth. We see the depth lacking in our society and Robin made a mention of the difficulty in communicating experience. Part of that may be that the range of experience of most people in North America is shrinking. If it is something that happened on TV, or was accessible from a personal computer, or video game, then a North American may have experienced it, but REAL experience is slipping away to all but the few who have opened their consciousness to it, such as the poets and other artists.

Next was a later poem (1996) which he said was a parabola, which is a term in physics for a certain kind of curve. The poem is entitled:

Pentimento 1

it’s a parabola!    that’s it, when you get to my age,
words and books are – oh! – up-so-down, of varied mind:
the lane beside my home beaten by cars turning into
electric garages, out of house/into house – garbage cans
and compost bins – a wilderness of clematis climbs
the telephone wires which birds mark and squirrels
trapeze above cats stalking – scavengers, who are shadows
of this culture’s wounds go by the bye, looking
for beer cans to cash in – metaphoric traffic of two
materialities of what we are in language, its fingering
grasp and streetwise mica wander in the slick
that language left when it flew through the air, unisexual
and transmundane – and cared less that desire composes
nature – uncovered facts of whose body-in-pieces –

heartland        of moonburn
subsists at midnight
a shallow time,
where horizontals and verticals
misshape, mistake, and go
after themselves –
adventurers
of FAR

Again Robin is onto the subject of language and the culture shaped by its use. The wounds of this culture no doubt being the treatment of the environment, which paves open space and turns critters of all kinds into scavengers. These scavengers, twisted, but yet still nature, in traffic with the creatures who live life trying to convince themselves they are happy with STUFF and the trappings of suburban life. Yes, Blaser lives in the city, but the neighborhood he describes and the consciousness he decries are most suburban. It’s car culture. McClure called the driving the car personality enshrined and this is what Robin’s reacting to in the poem.

David Farwell, his long-time partner, helped him keep his reading list in order and stick with it. He also passed around a camera and George was among the people taking shots with it.

The last poems are either new, or I did not take good enough notes, but are either titled or started with the lines:

The Tired Century (with an epigraph by Rene Char,)
Lady Bug, Lady Bug
B.B. Gun
8:25PM, November 6, 2006
15, November, 2006
14, August, 2005
8, December, 2006 – a poem which he read twice, which had an AMAZING sense of heart and started with Never let the world go by… and finally a poem which includes at least two of those aforementioned images which may or may not be ones for the era after the post-modern, dancers and boats:

Image-Nation 19 (the wand

I have told many things and want
to tell more in a small time   to count far off,
ontologically from a crystal, a plant,
an animal, or the order of the world’
simply
and ‘we drift together toward
the noise and the black depths
of the universe’   celebrate the
sudden hang-up of our visibility,
celebrate the sudden beauty that
is not ourselves   careless   unwrapped
(ducis)    the solar origin drifts
in the same boat
what did
dance in this dancer    was
the first difference among poppies and
white horses of advertisements,
the snow-storm and the grapes
from Africa   and the smile, exactly
and repetitions, but joyous, wintering
in Sais, writing memorable letters out
of the shattered various crystals, rocks, grottoes,
leaves, insects, animals large and
small    ‘plenitude and enchantment,
wings, eggshells, clouds and snows’

so to have forgotten, from the inimitable
solar mix, ‘unwilling to become a
higher key’   on Bach’s bedside table,
Leibniz’s De Arte Combinatoria,
at the last minute – numbers
and numbers, multitudes as
the wind is, fish, I had
forgotten miracles and money
in the mouth of, walked by, in
my lanterned garden where the
nightingale sometimes jugged to our
joyance, various, pitch and
glass of magic grammar
and presentiments – the fabled
universe, solvent and fortunes,
the assiduous sweetness among
other stones

there we have headed for frying pans,
hospitable, and alone, or the same,
voiceless in the common name,
scattered colours, earlier shapeless,
a candy-wrapper with a phone number
on it suffices to call the largeness, and
the smallness – what of that & on the
clothes-line, stiffened handicraft
of meaning, amenable comfort – and
Persian cats, where the rugs
flowered    take ‘real’ life
and store it in the cupboards,
the shoe-strings and decorations
of natural trees – whisper and
whistle of missing leaves – it’s
winter  –  or summer     or some
other time in the great ritual
of plenitude and enchainment

the infinite who belongs to this race
of many things, the gentle death,
ignorance, and innocence last
summer, the youth of it, the
violence with roses and ivy,
sensible words, laughing rose
petal or someone   the inner
muscle has worn out – amidst broad
leaves and harbours, linked to
the observer,    submerged
or proximous, exactly like that
which he loves, startling noise,
clarity and shadow, the heights
of ourselves equal to our shadows,
night and day, the miracle of
many things, the ‘proliferation
of geneses’

1. Where is the point of view? Anywhere
at the source of light. Application,
relation, measurements are made
possible by aligning landmarks. Attention. One
can line up the sun and the top
of the tomb, or the apex of the
pyramid and the tip of its shadow.
This means that the site may
not be fixed at one location.

2. Where is the object? It too must
be transportable. In fact, it is,
either by the shadow that it casts
or the model that it imitates.

3. Where is the source of light?
It varies, as the gnomen.
It transports the object in the
form of a shadow. It is the
object; this is what we will
call the miracle.                                                                                      )Serres

most beautiful    stars, balls
tinsel, bubbles, red water, the wand

I love the line which states: the heights of ourselves equal to our shadows. Of course this is literally true when one walks in sunshine, or moonlight, but the metaphorical shadow must be recognized and integrated if the querent seeks to fulfill potential.

There is no more distinguished Blaser scholar than Miriam Nichols, who edited the two books launched last night, The Holy Forest of course and Blaser’s collected essays The Fire. In her indispensable essay which serves as the introduction for Even on Sunday, an essential collection of essays, readings and archival materials on Robin Blaser which she also edited, she states Blaser’s poetry asks us to not:

abandon the work of exegesis because it is without end, but to let ourselves to be pulled into it – tricked as Spicer would say – and also tricked into the work of constructing a world.

Through that investigation we not only begin, she says: to create our own world, but to expand our field of attention.

So the Serres Blaser quotes extensively in Image-Nation 19 (the wand  is Michel Serres, the French philosopher who is, according to Wikipedia: “…interested in developing a science which does not rely on a metalanguage in which one account of science is privileged and accurate. To do this he relies on the concept of translation between accounts rather than settling on one as authoritative. For this reason Serres has relied on the figure of Hermes (in his earlier works) and angels (in more recent studies as messengers who translate back and forth between domains.”

Again the concept of language(s) and its/their role in shaping us. Again the cross of cultures. Again on the frontier shaped by a tremendous aversion to war, the carnage of which affected Serres from his early boyhood.

Yes, our field of attention has expanded. No one in the new century has offered a more complete lifework than what was launched last night at the Western Front in Vancouver. Mythic evenings such as this one are few and are getting more rare. It takes a consciousness like Blaser to create a field of energy that allows us to become huger than we were as we stepped across the venue’s threshold.

I watched Robin after the reading as he patiently signed copies of his books for well-wishers, waiting for a time when I could ask him the questions to which I referred above. George came up to him and kissed him on the lips, and left. Once he was gone Robin said: Prick-tease.

Paul Nelson
Burnaby, BC
6:03P – 12.9.06

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