He’s said it before, I am the abstract alchemist of flesh made real and while that may have seen by some as mere puffery, it turns out to be either prophecy or intention, or both. One of the least known Beat Poets shows at 77 he’s not done with these experiments in consciousness others call poems.
Mysteriosos and Other Poems is the latest book from Michael McClure and the notion of poetic praxis as alchemical laboratory is accurate for what he’s done since the mid-1950s. As these poems are the fruits of fifty-five years of practice and as McClure’s projective method is an “experiment in consciousness” each time he sets pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard to compose poetry, a close look at the work rewards the reader handsomely. It is a window to the possible, so open is his approach to composition.
It only takes three sentences of the book for McClure to get to the heart of the greatest issue of our time, our unending war against nature he calls it (ix). On several occasions McClure said he considered the Beat Generation “the literary wing of the environmental movement.” Anyone who has read Gary Snyder’s poetry or essays, or McClure’s more environmentally-focused poems, like For the Death of 100 Whales (read at the legendary Six Gallery reading), or his line, I am a Mammal Patriot, begins to get a sense of whose side McClure is on. And as we begin as a society to realize this declaration of McClure’s of the unending war on nature is not a metaphor, the collateral damage will already have been quite severe. Yet, my wildlife biologist friend says “Mother Earth bats last.” Nature is already responding and will hit mechanistic society where it hurts the most, in the pocketbook. One early tally of the economic costs of the recent Icelandic volcano eruption stands at £1.8 Million due to lost airplane revenues alone. This is only one of the latest fronts of nature’s defense. Haitian, Chilean and Chinese earthquakes, May Vermont snow, relentless summer forest fires, New England floods and other weather system disruptions are only the first sorties.
And it only takes McClure a second paragraph of the introduction before he’s back to the theme of alchemy, again. Problem (love of destruction through war) and solution (alchemical transcendence) in six sentences and the poetry has yet to begin! Remember, McClure is no reductionist. Whereas alchemy as seen through the dominant western world view is only a crude precursor to modern chemistry, for McClure, as with other genuine alchemists, it’s about individual transformation. Never mind for the moment that peace in the war against nature requires millions of these individual transformations. McClure’s been after his for a while and opens a window for yours. This is the crux of his method and it is an antidote to mechanism.
Albertus Magnus (1193 – 1280) listed the qualities that the genuine alchemist must possess:
First: He should be discreet and silent, revealing to no one the result of his operations.
Second: He should reside in an isolated house in an isolated position
Third: He should choose his days and hours for labor with discretion.
Fourth: He should have patience, diligence and perseverance.
Fifth: He should perform according to fixed rules.
Sixth: He should only uses vessels of glass and glazed earthenware.
Seventh: He should be sufficiently rich to bear the expenses of his art.
Eighth: He should avoid having anything to do with princes and noblemen (14).
Regarding the first of these qualities, discretion, McClure has been open about his process but has only given us hints of his struggles along the way, “Now I understand the sexual addiction/ of my young manhood/ was a crucifixion-/ glittering and lovely/ as/ an ostrich boa and smashed mirrors // seen on acid” (8). What ports and what storms, we never exactly get to find out.
These lines from his 1995 poem Dolphin Skull are critical, because McClure has gone back to them time and time again. He does in this volume at the very beginning of Dear Being the most luminous jewel in this shimmering book of poems. From that notion of sexual addiction, he retains his humor, going on to describe a photo booth picture of himself “looking up into the science fiction in his forehead” (69). That stanza, the first of thirty-seven, at once announces his dedication to the catalyst for his late life transformation (his partner Amy Evans McClure) and the personal mythology that led him to her. And so we do not get confused regarding this, he puts it in a facet of his unique typography, capital letters. (No, he was doing this long before the World Wide Web was created and email was popular.) He tells us he is “fully alert: JUST AS I ALWAYS AM, / A SUICIDAL CHILD IN LOVE WITH EXPERIENCE / RISKING ALL ONLY TO BE WITH YOU (69). Sure, the love for his late life partner is evident. And, as the person who recommended, even urged that he develop a Zen meditation practice, she deserves respect at very least. But the depth of feeling transferred from McClure to the reader via this long tribute to Amy Evans McClure gives you a sense of just how important she has been in helping him channel that natural mammal energy he’d been blessed with and which, at age 77, he must apportion wisely.
Regarding the eighth of the alchemist’s qualities, McClure is in no danger. Poets have long been persecuted for their propensity for speaking truth to power. And the closest we have to noblemen in USAmerica is politicians, which should explain a good deal of the problems emanating from North America. But McClure makes sure the point comes across as clearly as possible, while still remaining poetry, as in the poem Madame Secretary in which he wonders, again in caps “ – WHAT MIRACLES OF FIREARMS AND MACHETES/ ALLOW CHILDREN TO MORPH/ INTO VEIN-BURSTING, BULGE-CHESTED HEROES / PUTTING BARE FEET/ ON LAND MINES (26)?
This is not a case of piling on to the Bush Administration’s horrors, as McClure lets us know further in the poem that it was Clinton’s Secretary of State that he refers to as “The Secretary of Deceit” whose face leaves him awed “as it leans out,/ falling from the glass-fronted box,/ and crashes with a squeak/ on the floor/ spreading a scarlet pool. // grahhr. This is his answer. An anger so intense it can only end in a word from his own Beast Language, which came to him in an epiphanic experience in the early 60’s, and which he has resurrected in the 90s specifically for occasions like this. In fact, the Grahhrs are a whole section of the book. War Poems he calls them, but they are pleas for peace in a world that has regressed since the language was discovered inside himself as he tried to articulate the feelings he felt about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam half a century ago. We can count out the USAmerican princes and noblemen from rallying to McClure’s cause anytime soon.
The alchemist’s fifth quality calls for fixed rules. McClure’s method is the most exacting of all possible poetry forms. He has written, to write spontaneously does not mean to write carelessly or without thought and deep experience. In fact, there must be a vision and a poetics that are alive and conscious… I do not know of a more adventurous gesture than to write spontaneously (xv).
Sometimes there are moments a mind more focused on product than process would reconsider after the act, such as when he rhymes reason with lesion in the long poem Double Moire for Francis Crick. One could pick out one or two more such reaches, but they are more than forgivable when contrasted by the depth of the success of this adventurous gesture. McClure might liken them to the extra drips of paint Jackson Pollock might have left on a canvas once he knew the painting was complete. Alas, perfection has evaded him, but he came close.
Like any brilliant art, Mysteriosos rewards repeated readings, even to the author himself who gets more meaning unveiled the deeper he prehends each poem long after the initial act of composition. After each occasion of experience the poem is in McClure’s hands to quote Alfred North Whitehead. The 20th century philosopher known for his “Theory of Organism” is a huge source for McClure and for Charles Olson, whose poetics McClure furthers like no one else. But that McClure continues to mine 1995’s Dolphin Skull for inspiration illustrates the poem’s continued slow blossoming of meaning.
It also illustrates the remarkable nature of the serial poem, which got its start on the West Coast of North America with such poets as Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and continues with later West Coast poets like Canadians George Bowering and Fred Wah and Nathaniel Mackey, in his brilliant twin-sided series Mu and Song of the Andomboulou. Remarkable because for the poet composing in this organic manner, to develop the intuition to recognize when a poem is availing itself and to create the space for the poem to come into being, is a huge accomplishment, especially to create something of this caliber. To trust that the poem has an intelligence of its own and to develop a praxis that allows one to track it, that is a remarkable achievement as well. But to also understand when a specific flavor of that poem is being revealed, this gives you a sense of the depth of McClure’s gesture in continuing this yet untitled serial poem that started with Dolphin Skull. His work rewards the seeker; the one who senses that there is more to life than the reductionist jive we’ve been handed for a long time now and which every advertisement reinforces in the mind of the gullible. It’s a message spread by mammals with an anthropocentric ethos so pernicious they will settle for nothing less than the complete annihilation of the planet. But the alchemist in McClure gives us hope that we can take his advice and seek a middle way,
Put out the fires in the eye
there is another style besides hatred and heat.
Let the soul go, build a pliant strong heart (111).
Martin, Sean. Alchemy and Alchemists. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2003.
McClure, Michael. Antechamber and Other Poems. New York: New Directions, 1978.
McClure, Michael. Mysteriosos and Other Poems. New York: New Directions, 2010.
McClure, Michael. Three Poems. New York: Penguin, 1995.
 From the poem “For Jim Morrison”, performed in the DVD The Third Mind, 1999.
 From a May 30, 2003 interview published on the UC Berkeley website, http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/05/30_beats.shtml
 Stated several times in Antechaber and Other Poems
 Certainly there are parallels in other art forms, such as in Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series.