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from James Koller's Otherwise - The Book Review for Serious Readers - where these reviews first appeared -
"The editors believe that literature, of all our natural resources, is among the most sustainable. In the tradition of socially relevant literary commentary championed by the lilkes of Carl Sandburg and Kenneth Rexroth we debut here a regular feature by Bob Arnold, author of the trilogy This Romance (On Stone, By Heart, This Romance) as well as Where Rivers Meet and other books of poetry. Coyote published his travel book of poems Go West in 1987 and American Train Letters in 1995. For many years he has worked as a stonemason, making a home in Vermont with his family."
Let's talk about books, good books. About two-feet high when stacked on my table all together - over the past year reading and what I've culled from other books read during the same time which got tucked away on the shelves and weren't as memorable. I want to stress that all the books being reviewed can be readily found. It is exactly how I did it - visiting various bookshops, new and used. Paying attention to a few leads from other book reviews has also helped. There still remains nothing quite like walking into a bookshop and finding a variety of great books, and better, perhaps something all the reviewers missed. I find my books in all sorts of bookshops - independent stores, used bookshops, the conglomerate bookshops, malls - whatever it takes. Americans love their malls. I happen to hate malls, but I've nosed around a few just looking for a particular book that by accident or fluke turns up in their inventory. Saving the independent bookstore will only happen when people realize they first must preserve their community and the miscellaneous details around them - gardens, forests, farms, local grocers, etc. The things we have suddenly taken for granted. The sniveling independent bookstore owner is only one in a long chain of has-beens, from the family farm and hardware store which once commanded every small town in America. Of course I would rather see the independent, gorgeously stocked with books, established in each town and city neighborhood. I grew up buying books this way. But the argument of conglomerate bookstore versus the tiny independents is stupid and epicurean. Americans now show they love luxurious cars, beehive-chambered malls loaded with junk, ridiculous bombastic films, and jobs that eventually kill them. It's here. Let them who want it, have it. The trend is to sweep the country. Books, in the meantime, still appear personal and made of wood fiber. It is comforting. In a mall - any bookshop - even the ruinous remainder bookstores, look clumsy and hold a certain solace beside jumbo CD and video departments clacking away. Books, by their very design, will save themselves. I've read mine in hammocks, on sawhorses, under trees, on stools, chairs and trains. If you think this can be done the same way on a CD-rom, then you're nuts. But it's your life. We make our towns, our schools, our meals and our families. Don't blame the Barnes & Noble which is only coming in on the long coat-tails of Chevron, AT&T, General Electric, Westinghouse, ad nauseum that fed you, clothed you and built your home with many lights. If you don't want it, fight it, and that includes every independent bookshop owner who watches these looming mall shadows draw closer. There are many vital independent bookshops around who have survived, forfeited and dug in. Let me list a few: Wootton's Books in Amherst, Massachusetts; Gulf of Maine in Brunswick, Maine; The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts; Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont; Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi; Chaucer's and The Book Den of Santa Barbara, California; and many of the old faithful like City Lights in San Francisco and Grolier's in Boston. I also don't want to forget The Phoenix bookshop overlooking the Pacific in Big Sur, California, nor the Singing Wind Bookshop out in the high desert of Benson, Arizona. Both bookstores have provided books that I could never find anywhere else. Like separate gardens, and unique, a visit to these bookstores has been. The last time I was hunting for a book in a mall, the young clerk was as lost as me, yet he was getting paid and had on an official apron, but on hands and knees we looked through sections "ecology," "mysticism," even the no-man's land of "new age," but we couldn't find the book that the computer screen told us was in the store as one copy. Isn't that a bad sign? And, wouldn't you rather be reading? On to the books.
As books, at least two I plan to note, are built like castles. A Gentle Madness is a celebration of books and the people who have gathered, preserved and revered books and manuscripts over many centuries. The subtitle to the book describes, "Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books" and this will include the author Nicholas A. Basbanes who spent eight years writing the book, and it works like a dream. There isn't a stuffy moment, as we move 2,200 years ago in Alexandria through to the book adventures of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Pepys into modern day disciples and practitioners, whether in modern first-edition pursuits or book thieves. The research by Basbanes is animated and undaunted. Midway into the book he points out his project "is to demonstrate how collectors through history have been responsible for the preservation of knowledge." By then, you are already in his grasp. The other castle book is Poems for the Millennium edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. The first rule of thumb is: anything edited by Rothenberg is worth owning. He is that wise as editor and anthologist. Unlike many anthologies of modern poetry this one isn't dry ice. Both Rothenberg and Joris are poets, established now in universities (U/Cal, San Diego and SUNY at Albany), and innovative as editors and translators at preserving and utilizing poetry, its altering arts and movements, in an international scope. This first volume (of a proposed two) outlines from Fin-de-siecle to Negritude; so just imagine. And don't try to figure, just dig in because the reading and experience is marvelous. What Nicholas Basbanes wishes to portray in his book on bibliophiles, Rothenberg/Joris clearly show they are our modern day Petrarch - likewise seeking out the indispensable writings of twentieth century poets. They call it a "sourcebook," and they don't lie. The price of the book will save you hundreds of dollars worthlessly spent on most writer's workshops in the country. Commentaries by the editors abound throughout the book and every page jumps. Read it with a friend.
If there is such a thing as a poet's toolbox, something like a carpenter's - where the essentials for the job are laid in and go to build houses - then the recent publications by Basho, Berrigan, Corman, Howe, Johnson, Mayer and Niedecker, I would be setting into my toolbox gladly. Some of these books have been kicking around for a long time; now coming to us as reprintings or rediscoveries. Ronald Johnson's Ark is a poem twenty years in the making, which the poet describes is "braving new schemes for language," much like his heady influences by Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Olson, but through this grandson of Kansas settlers comes something entirely new and singular and very beautiful to read off the page. Like his contemporary, Susan Howe, to read Johnson is like a visit to a planetarium, where everything above and around you unfastens and opens. Both poets are attractive stylists and there isn't a page in their books you can prepare for. It isn't at all queer to think that Johnson's Kansas upbringing - Oz-like thoroughly in the poet's imagination and sweeps - where his poem Ark is one whole day in the life, and Howe's Frame Structures, where she draws "a trajectory in imagination where logic and mathematics meet the materials of art," is as simple as it gets, despite the intellectualism. In fact, the knowledge-diversity of both poets is gorgeous and scented. Somehow I am always outdoors when I am reading these two. And despite the entertainments of "poetry-slams" and pastiche of poetry movements revolving around America the past twenty-five years when Johnson and Howe have been making their poems (voyages), it all seems so-so, compared.
Ted Berrigan (long gone, alas) and Bernadette Mayer are two such poets who came out of that generation that fostered such things as poetry-slams, poets-in-the-schools, etc., circulating since the 1960's from a network of poets around St. Mark's Church in New York City. The great thing about Berrigan and Mayer, and I know someone is going to want to correct me about they starting the poetry-slam and how some other poet was influential at St. Mark's, etc., but it is all so much the same; but with Berrigan and Mayer, it isn't. They have been kingpins in these various movements, and they have likewise kept on the move, from England, to Iowa, to the Berkshires (where Mayer has written some of her best work), to New Hampshire and other places, always seeing and living and making poems. Incredibly funny poems, at times. Penguin released Berrigan's Selected Poems a few years back, and it is already disappearing from bookstores, so don't let this happen. It is well edited by Aram Saroyan, an old friend, and with one of the best introductions a book has ever had by Alice Notley, the wife Berrigan left behind when he died in 1983. Bernadette Mayer continues the good work, as does Notley and Anne Waldman who all come out of this NYC 60's hotbed. Curiously, many of the male poets who dominated this period now write a toothless gummers ordeal, or, a so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E game derivative of Stein and earlier experimentalists, when not downright stealing from seminal jazz riffs. It isn't ground-breaking. Mayer breaks ground constantly by looking right at life, clear as a bell, and telling us her stories. Same thing Ring Lardner used to do. It seems she gravitates to her stories and poems making a text and persona entirely as one. She is fearless, rowdy and lovable in: Proper Name. Go find A Bernadette Mayer Reader, too. New Directions has finally gotten the sense to publish her work, and as with Berrigan, I would recommend to begin anywhere you want. That sure. That good.
Now, Lorine Niedecker. Unlike Johnson, Howe, Berrigan, Mayer, where other voices, styles, mishmash, come into play: quickly - (Johnson: Blakean, wizardry), (Howe: Dickinson, spiritualism), (Berrigan: Classics, rock 'n roll), (Mayer: Stein, storytelling) - with Lorine it is Lorine. One of the best poets, ever, on American soil. A poet who defies any categorization of classical or modern because it doesn't mean a thing. Niedecker is poetry, and if that isn't clear when reading The Granite Pail then the readjustment must come from yourself. Revised from its previous editing in 1985 ever so subtly by Cid Corman when published by North Point Press, this new Pail is typeface stronger and ready for a reappearance. The selection of poems over Niedecker's life are carefully made with life in mind - to hear and know the poet - and to spare us the profound and the usual forced acts that ruin many collections of poetry. If you wanted to buy one book of poetry for your son or daughter, anyone you love, I would choose The Granite Pail. In our toolbox of poetry, Lorine raises the house rafters and lays down the floor boards.
Is it a coincidence that part of Cid Corman's life work, what will follow him after he is gone, has been Niedecker, his own glorious short poem (though there are longer), and Basho. Not a bad line up. From his just published :No Shit let me share one of my favorites. It sums the book, maybe all books -
Always with Corman, trust how simply, it isn't.
Like The Granite Pail, Basho's Back Roads to Far Towns is a real book, no paper wasted, and particularly with Basho's, it is the attentive mind in a wandering lust. An account of a 1500 mile on-foot pilgrimage through the back lands of Japan. The time is 1689, but in Corman/Susumu's hands the translation is refreshingly immediate, hard to resist. You're on the trail. Ecco has reprinted this masterpiece much as the out-of-print Grossman edition: sturdy, bilingual, with newly added illustrations and a serviceable introduction by Robert Hass.
Basho and His Interpreters is an excellent study to go through after reading Basho. Don't let anything get in the way, except the haiku. The combined purpose of the book is to present Makoto Ueda's 255 "hokku" and then make available, in English, over three hundred years of Japanese critical commentary on the poems. It gets to be a massive log jam of opinions, where all along the best interpreters of Basho I ever met, were children. Nonetheless, this is a rare book in its comprehensive research for Western readers who have come to like their Basho - a poet that took his name from a banana plant and has proven impossible to imitate.
I've always had a soft spot for Fluxus - maybe it has something to do with the various poets, artists, musicians from around the world involved; its example slippery to any definition despite the flurry of performances and events - many that were made or brought off marginally and remarkably cheap. John Cage, LaMonte Young, Yoko Ono, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams and almost anyone else who got in the way, passed on by, or who wanted to, were involved. Lithuanian born George Maciunas was the wonder; he came up with the word "Fluxus" to be used as the name for the movement in 1961, and it was all to run the course of part-amusement (different from cynicism, which we have become used to in our current art) and a way to knock off its tracks the very preciousness of art. It worked. And for the early part of the 60's, it ran squiggly-wiggly all over, whether in street performances, music events, visual arts and attacks, books, intricately boxed publications - you name it - and it was so beautiful because Fluxus was finding art where it could find it. Through the 70's, 80's and 90's Fluxus lives, nothing perky like it was in the 60's heyday, and Maciunas is dead but he left a legacy to copy and make mistakes on. Books and catalogs have swelled over the years about Fluxus; either too chock-filled with documentation or the very precious that any Fluxus henchman would want to piss on. Thames and Hudson as publishers comes through again with one of the best efforts going in Fluxus by Thomas Kellein. Reasonably priced (Fluxus already), excitedly illustrated and documented, and with an afterword by Jon Hendricks who knows a personal thing or two.
John Cage's Rolywholyover, A Circus is co-published by The Museum of Contemporary Art and Rizzoli's. Once opened, I've kept my copy together with a rubber-band, because, you see, it is a metal box. Extraordinary. I saw my first copy while at The Art Institute of Chicago and tapped on it to make sure it was what I thought it was. A shiny box filled with Cage goodies. Fluxus all the way. The publishers explain that the box "contains an exceptionally wide range of materials, printed in different formats, often on translucent paper, which can be read in any order." If you understand Cage, which in a way is like understanding yourself, you know the materials include: texts Cage himself found useful, letters, reproductions of works, musical scores, recipes, photographs. As the maestro proclaimed and practiced, "The world is vast; give the impression that the materials are endless" Oh did he ever. For every Cage fanatic and those soon to be.
What is it with Mercury House books of San Francisco? I've yet to read a bad book from this outfit. Whether Bill Porter's travelogue meeting Chinese hermits, or David Meltzer's anthology on jazz history, now here comes around the bend Dale Pendell's Pharmako/Poeia or: everything you wanted to know and were definitely afraid to ask about plant powers, poisons and herbcraft. This is without a doubt one of the wisest and wittiest and mesmerizing field guides you will ever find on plants and their pharmacological roots, a line-up on practitioners and literary connections, and the all important common sense that runs through this book dealing with knowledge and secrets. You'll never take a walk alone in the woods again.
My two-foot pile of books is getting shorter as I write them up and so is my space. Let me make quick note to a few books that I read this year that were like no other. Ernest Pawel wrote a fine study on Kafka and now, even a better one on Heinrich Heine's last years in Paris. In this portrait, The Poet Dying , it is as if Pawel is capable of burrowing into the character of poet, himself.
One of the best books ever written on making films and the whole nuts and bolts of film culture has just been fulfilled by director Sidney Lumet in Making Movies. It's the lunch-bucket equivalent of what Stan Brakhage has done with his poetic and visionary studies from the other side of the tracks. Clear, honest to goodness tough talk on the subject.
Many Native American writers have come and gone, but few hold a spark and intensity quite like Leslie Marmon Silko. I recommend all her books, including her new book of essays, Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit. The book stops on a dime at 200 pages, but somehow satisfies the measure of volumes. No doubt it is Silko's background and place - as she explains to us in one essay, "Where I come from, the words most highly valued are those spoken from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed." The entire book reads this way.
Leslie Silko is of the Southwest, Laguna Pueblo, and for all practical purposes John Haines is Alaskan. We have come to know both writers from their place and by now person/landscape is inseparable. Fables and Distances is, in effect, Haines's collected essays from the bush, incorporating more than a few splendid literary essays, survival intrigue as hunter and woodsman, held apart from the rest by a luminous northern lights in his head where he often pinpoints down to certain attentions of the world. His essay, "What Are Poets For?" should be memorized.
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