Think You'll See Their Faces on the Cover of Time?
The Fate of an Original Voice:
Boyd & Arnold Enrich an American Grain
Works by Greg Boyd:
---The Double (Doppelangelganger): An Annotated Novel, Leaping Dog Press, Chantilly, VA; 2002, $14.95
---The Nambuli Papers, fiction and illustrations, Obscure Publications, Black River Falls, WI; 2001
---Modern Love and Other Tall Tales, stories, Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, CA; 2000, $11.95
---Catalog of Prints, art, Asylum Arts, Paradise, CA, 1998
---Sacred Hearts, novel, Hi Jinx Press, Davis, CA; 1996, $13.00
---Carnival Aptitude, Being an Exuberance in Short Prose & Photomontage, Asylum Arts, Paradise, CA; 1993, $9.95
---Water & Power, stories, Asylum Arts, Paradise, CA; 1991, $12.00
---Puppet Theatre, Prose Poems & Prints, Unicorn Press, Greensboro, NC; 1988, $10.00
---The Masked Ball, Prose Poems & Prints, Unicorn Press, Greensboro, NC; 1986, $10.00
---La Fanfarlo, a novella by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Greg Boyd, Creative Arts Books, Berkeley, CA; 1986, $6.95
---Circus Deluxe, poems, Jump River Press, Prentice, WI; $5.00
Works by Bob Arnold:
---On/Earth, poems, Granite Press, Cornwall, U.K.; 2002, $8.00
---Honeymoon, poems, Granite Press, Slovenia; 2000, $8.00
---Once in Vermont, poems, Gnomon Press, Frankfort, KY; 1999, $13.50
---Beautiful Swimmers, a tale, Origin Press, Kyoto-Vermont, 1998, $8.00
---American Train Letters, prose, Coyote Books, Brunswick, ME, 1995, $10.00
---This Romance, A Trilogy:
On Stone: A Builder's Notebook;
By Heart: Pages from a Lost Vermont;
This Romance: A Further Notebook on Rural Life, Building, Love & a Son, Origin Press, Kyoto-Vermont, 1992-88, $25.00
Readers familiar with the work of Greg Boyd and Bob Arnold might find it odd that writers from such different milieus would be compared in the same retrospective. Well, Boyd and Arnold have more in common than might meet the eye of first impression. And each's career reveals a maverick's strategies for surviving in a literary market driven increasingly formulaic and unresponsive, if not antagonistic, to innovative voices.
Undoubtedly, many are much besieged by the woes of the book industry, so I'll leave that alone. The failure of the independent press to compete with (or complete) the corporate environment has been documented by writers with better research skills---and sharper axes to grind---than mine. So let's be brief and realistic: now that the midlist has been forsaken, never mind the search for the next Harry Potter manuscript. When even pop-lite/pulp-lit can't break even, what strategies remain for the alternative press? Hand outs?
Looking toward those halcyon days before big money moved a gentleman's game around Union Square north to midtown's mass appeal/mass market houses only reveals how the business of books became a subtext to a get-rich-quicker theme. In fact, forget the book. Think subsidiary rights. Not translations in other languages, paperbacks or even Cliff notes, but toys, dolls, computer games. Throw in the cut-throat Hollywood tie-in where the art is in the deal, not the film. Can the genuflection of all culture to the dictatorship of the dollar sign be far behind? The only art left in American will be TV commercials! When our contribution to the history of civilization places Disneyland next to the pyramids of Egypt, China's Great Wall, the aqueducts of Rome or the pillars of Ashoka, where's a press like New Directions or Grove to bail out a blue feeling? They're little imprints now, folded within the conglomerate fist of multi-national imperatives and proportions.
Certainly money to the "small press" from the NEA, state arts councils and Reader's Digest/Lily Foundation grants has seen spleens vent and blood let from every side of the equation. To see one's favorite indie presses with reputations made over the long haul suddenly gone belly up after a little help from the government makes one wonder: did Reagan-Bush-Bush do this? Conspiracy theories abound! As for the happy smiles put on by writer-run organizations to hide the real facts about a lack of readership in post-literate, televisually programmed, anti-intellectual USA, they've been lampooned by everyone in the writing racket. With the exception perhaps of the tenured ranks in the college writing programs riding their gravy trains, churning out product, assuring their students of the future awaiting their works-in-progress.
So I'm going to lay out on all of that.
My hope is that the responses of these two writers-in-the-trenches tell a wiser tale. And at the heart of their talent lay our point of departure: neither Boyd nor Arnold fit into our categories for contemporary literary consumption, what New York Times Book Reviewer Bruce McCall dubs "the sawdust-packed blockbuster, bird-brain celeb bio, conquer-the-cosmos manual ad nauseam." Before we celebrate their groundbreaking originality, imagine first how deep the hole can be if your work falls between the cracks.
Let's start with Greg Boyd. Neither poet nor prose writer, neither painter nor print-maker, neither collagist nor cut-up artist, neither dadaist nor surrealist, neither publisher nor book designer, he's all of the above. In assessing his twenty-five year contribution to arts literary and visual, it's helpful to get out of Aristotle and into Nagarjuna, that first century Buddhist thinker who expanded standard either/or Greek logic with the additional categories of both and neither.
That isn't to say Boyd needs a Dalai Lama's dispensation! I mean it's our mistake to reduce him to one thing or the other. For example, he designs beautiful books. Any Asylum Arts title amply demonstrates that. But Boyd at his best is Boyd-combined, a literary and visual artist in the same project, which makes him neither one nor the other exactly. How to put it: his most interesting writing comes with images, or his visual art comes with words, depending on where you place foreground/background. With Boyd, it's up for grabs! For starters, his black 'n' white linoleum block prints are, like an Escher engraving, chock full of opportunities to extend, distort and overlap borders. Furthermore, like the Gestalt principle of the whole (book) being greater than the sum of its parts, he solves the problem his own talent creates. He moves us back and forth between illustration and text, whose interaction creates new zones of intuitive apprehension. And he does so with a bleak, black, maniacal humor that makes mincemeat out of contemporary life in general, modern love in particular.
If books were indexed by reader reaction---say the number of laughs per page, rather than fiction or non (and what reader raised on New Journalism believes in that distinction?)---Boyd would be a New York Times best seller. His books are hilarious but in a scary way. That is, they're about human foible and ultimacy: god, religion, sex, meaning, identity.
By cribbing the vocabulary of the circus (with its three rings of odd-looking specimens), the fun house (with all its smoke and mirrors), the carnival (with its roots in Lenten ritual and its eye on the Resurrection) and the dream (with its natural, non-rational image stream), Boyd "hyper-texts" the banality of our fragmented culture in hallucinatory reveries of ego death, reminiscent of Dylan's best work on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde. Or that line of Salman Rushdie's in Satanic Verses that won't go away: "Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull!"
Most of his reviewers, however, trained to locate a particular work of literature in terms of "ism" (theory and history), miss the point as well as the howl and scowl of his humor. Don't get me wrong; in these days of busy career-making, it's always a pleasure when one's book is actually read before it gets reviewed. But even the most fleeting glance of the kudos Boyd's work has garnered suggests that many reviewers are writing from inside the box about a verbal/visual artist who isn't just working outside the box; he's taken the box apart and rebuilt it as a flying machine.
I have two major objections to how he has been reviewed.
Trying to locate Boyd in a larger literary landscape by appealing to his use of symbolism, surrealism, existentialism or postmodernism is like reading his press kit instead of his book! Both deliver a surface impression at odds with the deeper content. Moreover, misleading and/or shape-shifting surfaces is Boyd's specialty. One way into the labyrinth of his vision would be to suggest that in both word and image he erases depth, forcing his characters to occupy the dimensions solely of height and width. The result is a flattening that makes for a crushing deadpan, catastrophic glee, then a birth contraction followed by a metamorphosis out of the ordinary and commonplace. In this sense Boyd is creating a literature of the threshold.
He is our Ovid at the Mardi Gras.
Well, call me guilty now of the same name-dropping I'm arguing against. But exploiting Boyd's technique of expanding either/or into both-and-neither, I will add to the list. I'm not saying his reviewers' references to Mallarme, Rimbaud, Magritte, Breton, Camus and Cocteau (throw in Kafka) are top-heavy or unfair; only contra-indicative. Their influence is more clearly revealed when juxtaposed with three down-to-earth, sly, multimedia, "outsider" Americans: James Thurber, who combined wit of word and sketch, Art Speigelman of the haunting Maus comic books and Rod Serling whose Twilight Zones resemble a Boyd tale. And like that indeterminate intro by its writer-host ("the signpost just ahead, next stop"), you're never quite sure if you should be amused or terrified. Perhaps the only certainty is that if there is pretension, Boyd will find it.
Call him an equal opportunity satirist.
So I am not disagreeing that there is French influence, only that there's more high wire thrill than high art pose, more parody than Paris parlor game, more roller coaster madness running amok than manifesto about the marvelous. Put plainly, the "air-conditioned nightmare" (Henry Miller) of our Catch-22 life---the nine-to-five schlep, the ubiquitous freeway and strip mall, the chatter at the nail salon, the sub-divided cinder block, the sit-com airhead romance, the vacation with the family and "death on the installment plan" (Celine)---are forced back against their cul-de-sacs. They drive Boyd to what Irving Matlin called in Review of Contemporary Fiction, "the limits of language, dream and perception; his work is reflective---mazes about mazes."
Following William Blake's observation ("Imagination denied / War governed the Nations"), there's plenty of imagination at play in Boyd's work as well. And that's my second objection: his reviewers aren't Big Picture enough to see it or enjoy it---or tell us about it. To exemplify, let's focus on one of his books, Water & Power, variously described as "hip and hilarious" (Susan Shapiro), "entertaining and enlightening" (Karl Heiss), "refreshingly unpredictable" (States of the Art).
Though all these things are true (and almost make me want to read the book), it takes a reviewer of the caliber of Stephen-Paul Martin to elucidate the larger event going on in the collection under the surface. In his essay, "Language in Disguise: Narrative as Metaphor," he compares Boyd to
Borges, a poet who did his best work in the mask of a fiction writer, making ironic narratives that functioned more as extended metaphors than as 'well-made' short stories. Far from boring us with the usual plot/character/ setting dynamic, Borges was always more concerned with the motion and energies that produced symbolic meaning, the process by which metaphors come into being, the architectural strategies involved in their construction.
Such an insightful reading not only points out how Boyd "deepens the fictive surface by using it as a lens to bring metaphorical ambiguities into sharper focus," or reveals the purpose of "Boyd's very dark sense of humor at its best." It suggests that "the power of Boyd's story is that the metaphor is the question, calling not for an answer, but for an awareness of the irreducible ambiguities that the metaphor brings into view."
In response to the same book Marie-José Fortis deftly notes Boyd's narrative style is "more mood, than mode, of surrealism." She's got it right; he's less the Luis Buñuel and Salvatore Dali of Andalusian Dogs, more the David Lynch of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. In her Central Park review, she remarks about the title piece of Water & Power:
Boyd proceeds here to what cinematographers call découpage. Two stories, apparently alien to each other, are literally cut into pieces---into fragments or slices that are shaped as short paragraphs, and that survive only in alteration of each other. And there is no way the two narratives can survive, except as juxtaposition, a collage in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle.
Her reading is as brilliant as Boyd's send-up to a water bill and the La Brea tar pits, but that's just one method out of seventeen! His every story assumes a different, unpredictable narrative approach! The result is a delight. To call it reader-centric is an understatement. New Delta Review critic Richard Collins wrote, "Sometimes the terminus you anticipate is far more strange or spectacular than the story's actual ending." Fortis is closest to the spirit of the book perhaps when she calls "Brown Paper Bag," which opens the collection, "a story inside a story inside a story the stuff Water & Power is made of." Although her essay ends uncertainly, not sure where Boyd belongs within a historical literature of ideas, she and Martin make a powerful case for a closer reading of Boyd.
I would go further.
What neither lit critic mentioned, nor any of the many shorter notes in newspapers across the States, is the non-Western tenor of the book. After making the case that he pledges no allegiance to France, I'm not now going to call Boyd a Taoist. But the title, Water & Power, happens to be a loose translation of the Chinese classic, the Tao te Ching, or the Watercourse Way & Its Power. Listen, Boyd is enough of a puzzle without putting him in Chinese boxes! Suffice to say, anything Taoist would flow out of a container anyway. But his pun on the title works for me because Taoism arose from a Confucianist system as bogged-down-in-bureaucracy as surely as any collection agency for a public utility company (which is what is satirized in the tale). And like the yin/yang sine curve in a circle, where light becomes dark and vice versa, Boyd's lino cuts bend, blend and flow black into white, white back into black.
Moreover, the whole collection sings of a totality behind the ever-changing surface of subject/object duality. In Chinese that instinctive sense of integrity is named Tao; in Sanskrit, it's called Advaita (literally non-dual), that is, behind the world of appearances (maya), seer and seen, god and self, lover and beloved, are inseparably one reality. In the liberation systems that evolved in China and India the idea is to get off the spinning wheel of temporal becoming and find the still center point of timeless being. Hence, the "progressive West," driven by a theocracy in which our covenant for salvation is revealed in and through time (human history), misperceives the East, as well as its own mystical traditions, as ass-backwards.
Perhaps it's too much of putting legs on a snake, but I couldn't help seeing in Water & Power a bit of the Mahayana Buddhist concept of upaya (literally, "skillful means," which when joined with prajna, or wisdom, yields a more compassionate cultural outlook). Buddhist art, especially in its Japanese schools, "argues" that we already "have" the Buddha nature; that the apparently either/or terms, samsara (the endless rounds of birth 'n' death) and nirvana (literally, "without flame") are one-and-the-same; that there's nowhere to go (for enlightenment) since we're already there, and no one to do the going; that, whether the lights are on or not, there is nobody home in here; that the "me" I think I am is merely a metaphoric construct, a social convention, a habit of thought; that there is at bottom literally no self or soul (anatta); that the mirror, as the saying goes, is empty; that the only thing left to do, as Zen teacher Dogen said, is to have a good laugh.
This seams/seems the grand, full-blown theme of The Double, which is his latest and greatest effort, but intimations of what Alan Watts called "our supreme identity" run throughout the Boyd oeuvre. To return to Water & Power, Nicholas Campbell described it as "providing glimpses into our ordinary lives by dismantling myths Americans create about themselves." In Buddhist psychology, it's the reification of a self that is indeed the very heart of our suffering, precluding our larger participation in---and identification with---all sentience, tricking us essentially into thinking of ourselves as separate or permanent.
Well, tricksters come in all sizes, but I believe Boyd is not merely mocking our appetite for monotony or our penchant for self-delusion. He's a spiritual-political writer seeking to rip open and reveal compartmentalized lives which aren't yet our own that we might see the eternal in the quotidian, the infinite in our own skin! And like India's tantric tradition, he packs more punch than most because he has no indoctrinating belief system to limit him.
An improbable interpretation? Surely no more than a Boyd tale itself! Let me go backwards in time to make my case.
A short overview of his books demonstrates how he came into his singular "double voice" where image and language illustrate each other. His first book, Circus Deluxe, published in 1982 by Jump River Press, comes designed by Boyd and includes, among its 49 pages, four of his original lino cuts. Already his transformational tropes are well in place. The text and image are not yet "in dialogue," but more than half of his poems are losing rigor, moving further away from the left-hand margin. They're reaching toward a more hybrid form, one that in later books won't be as easily contained as simply drawing a box around it as he does here. For lack of a more exact term, let's call the genre "a prose poem."
It will take him a few years to get to what Russell Edson called in Carnival Aptitude, "Neither poetry nor fiction, and at the same time both." His contribution to the prose poem (and surrealism) is to eliminate arbitrariness inherent in the form by keeping narrative urgency uppermost. And John Bradley in The Prose Poem: An International Journal rightly remarks about Carnival Aptitude, "No matter how bizarre the monkey wrench thrown into the works, Boyd the storyteller proceeds as if nothing out of the ordinary has taken place." Fortis notes that "what unifies the text is the dispassionate tone used in every story."
But I am getting ahead of events.
Four years after Circus Deluxe, Donald Ellis/Creative Arts published Boyd's translation of the Charles Baudelaire novella La Fanfarlo. An unsigned review in The New York Times Book Review's "Noted with Pleasure" referred to this autobiographical work as "a bitter and unflattering portrait of Baudelaire as a pretentious dandy and wastrel." Boyd's translation was termed "a masterful re-creation of the rich and oftentimes pedantic language of Baudelaire's original work" in Choice and "lucid and enjoyable" in Small Press Review. There's almost no trace of what the author of Fleurs du Mal would later write. Or Boyd, for that matter. He continued to do excellent translations, most notably a long excerpt from Petrus Borel's Champavert in Asylum, followed by Theophile Gautier's long poem "Nightmare" and a Balzac story, "Guillotine for Dogs" (collaborating with Kendall Lapin). But La Fanfarlo---with its gaudy cover, "square" design and stiff university press appearance---would be his last title that would look like any other book on the shelf.
Later that same year saw the publication of The Masked Ball by Al Brilliant's Unicorn Press of Greensboro, NC, where Boyd would soon be installed as artist-in-residence. The result is a hand-made collection of 22 of his prose poems, each one illustrated and in dialogue with an original print en face. The themes of Circus Deluxe re-appear, but now Boyd possesses the means of production appropriate to his double-voiced talents.
The entire edition of 500 books was hand-cranked from a Vandercook proofing press, bound in hand-sewn signatures. The beautiful white cloth covers with wrap-around dust jackets make the edition worthy of a rare book collector. It feels less like a book (the sequence is less important than the cumulative impact) and more like a box-of-art, like the original Be Here Now editions that Ram Das and the Lama Foundation put out before they went to a commercial house and sold ten million or so.
It was the first time the form and content (image and word) of his work had come together. Less than three years later, his companion edition of 18 poems and prints, Puppet Theatre, was published. Although it retains the same look as the earlier Unicorn title, it's more dynamic. For one thing, the linoleum block prints are larger, bolder, starker; they "use" white space better; they don't just match or meet the text now so much as co-create a big Boyd world where anything-bad-is-possible. Meanwhile, the prose poems have begun to inhabit a wider spectrum: fractured fairy tales, curious bits of myth, tongue-in-cheek figures of speech. In "The Shard," a dream sequence about fire and glass, the beginnings of his later parodies on the short story can be gleaned.
Nevertheless, for all their crossover appeal and successful presentation, these two art books spelled the beginning of trouble for Boyd. That is, Unicorn went the way of all flesh and press. In spite of a great reputation and an impressive backlist of over 300 items, including work by Merwin, Tate and Snyder, Unicorn didn't make it into the Nineties. And having been understaffed from the get-go, they bound books only on demand. Luckily, Boyd re-claimed the sewn and gathered sheets, but the only versions available to the public were cased-in at a commercial bindery.
Well, where the going gets tough, the tough get learnin' hard lessons about staying power. In Boyd's case, his response was to launch Asylum Arts, an exceptionally inventive publishing house and literary magazine, in his garage in Santa Maria. Asylum was just what the doctor ordered. Boyd's interests in combining image and word came together better than anywhere before in two of his most satisfying and best looking books.
Water & Power, already noted, came out in 1991; two years later saw the publication of Carnival Aptitude. Subtitled Being an Exuberance in Short Prose & Photomontage, the book in the hand is clever, masterful and thoroughly compelling to the eye. Divided into six sections, some of his earlier prose poems are scattered among newer short fiction that is among his most original. The lino cuts are gone, replaced by 29 cut-ups of photographs that are in turns haunting, elegant, ludicrous and unforgettable. They strike deeply into the subconscious, juxtaposing the pastoral and the atomic, the erotic and the sinister, the every day of now with a lingering melancholy of an inexact past. And sitting across from a prose poem, they set up psychic correspondences that multiply with every reading.
For example, the cover illustration shows two musicians leading a Mexican wedding party along a dusty road and through an opened museum door where visitors examine art along a huge wall. One of the paintings, a man blowing trumpet, appears to be teetering out of its frame.
The image reappears, with this tale, one of 63, across the page:
A musician coughs into the mouthpiece of his tuba each time the nurse next door squeezes her lover's testicles. The sound carries into the courtyard and echoes through the streets, where it mixes with a child's laughter and the bark of a dog to produce a note that causes a universal fluttering in the chests of the elderly, a deep vibration which, in turn, causes the broken promise of a ring buried long ago to rise through the earth and bud jewels that glitter in the sunlight, penetrating the drawn curtains behind which a woman has abandoned her passion. The sunlight forces her to close her eyes, which, standing alone in her room, causes her to remember her love, which causes tears to fall from millions of eyes, which washes clean so many soiled sheets that Man can momentarily rejoice in his own nature, which causes people to make love, which causes the nurse to squeeze, and the musician to cough into the mouthpiece of his tuba.
More than in the Unicorn titles, he marries art box to art book. The photomontages keep drawing me back, sometimes to re-read the prose, sometimes to daydream on the outrageous images. Beyond even being a one-of-a-kind book experience, which has unfortunately stymied reviewers, Carnival Aptitude has the distinct feel of existing in its own universe: arcane and naked as a Milky Way, nutty as can be, unknowable as our own natures, slap happy in the creamy extreme.
Outside of a catalog of his art put out in 1998, which includes 48 separate lino prints, signed and numbered, there are no more Asylum editions of his work. All that's left is its e-mail address: [email protected]. The cultural significance of the press, its well known Annual, its ability to run so long as a one-man operation, its predilection not to play the grants game, its eventual struggles with book distributors and even a glance at its individual authors are beyond the scope of this retrospective.
Let us return instead to Boyd's next venture.
In 1996, Hi Jinx Press, out of Davis, CA, published his Sacred Hearts. Called a novel, its 124 pages fely more like a novella, something read in one sitting. But this is a curious departure for Boyd. Whereas his prose poems and tales invite re-reading, the language of Sacred Hearts is not particularly poetic with resonance. In fact, its narrator is a waitress who rarely needs to use a word larger than a few letters. It's a flattened Kali-fornia-scape with angels leaping from the freeway, and yes, our heroine leaves job and trailer park in search of the divine mother with a climax as whimsical as any Boyd ending.
No question, he has been at his funniest in parodying the pieties of the muddled, mocking the delusions of the huddled masses. But in this undertaking, his protagonist's values, conflicts and choices are slightly obscured. It's as if Boyd needs a richer canvas, a clearer ground and characters of greater complexity to carry the weight of his scathing satire of religions dead from old age or still born by the New Age.
He certainly has dull and down-'n'-out down. Truckstop diners, the boring routines of its customers, the life of living on the tips they leave---that's all very real. The compensatory acts of defiance, of sex, of failing to make contact are heart-breaking in their abandonment of the sacred. Though I didn't entirely "believe" the book, I applaud his courage in writing essentially a road (Grail quest) novel in the voice of a woman.
Modern Love and Other Tall Tales, released in 2000 by Red Hen Press, finds Boyd back on track at what he does best. His eight parodies of short stories demonstrate his ability to sustain the cutting edge of his humor in longer pieces. Where brevity and narrative urgency combined in his earlier short fiction to produce a heightened fun house apocalypse, he's now more practiced at creating and developing a character-driven tale. These somewhat grim and deluded narrators follow, in the words of Frigate reviewer Lorraine Schein, "a simple surrealist logic gone awry." The result is a more emotionally rich, if less spectacular, look at the isolating loneliness, sorrow, grief and deceptions inherent in our contemporary pursuit of love.
For all of the poignancy, however, his wit has gotten even weirder, his bite bigger, the breath of his vision wider, the narrative edge smoother. He's not forcing his shots. The game, as they say in hoops, is coming to him. Christopher Tinney observed in Rain Taxi, that "it's quite possible to become so engrossed that you forget you're actually reading at all."
Boyd devastates. His send-up of Mark Twain's style in "The Further Adventures of Tom, Huck and Jim," for example, is an excellent example. But "The Conference," a spoof on college writing programs, is so utterly real that I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It's the one Boyd story that could go 200 hundred pages and still turn plot and character conflict into psychedelic somersaults. Never has the creative writing "industry" look so irredeemably narcissistic. As Robert Peters noted in House Organ, "Boyd is uncanny at individualizing this trio of inept writers conned by George Body, the sleazy director." It's the last story in the collection, and its comical use of the autobiographical will find even greater play in his next book.
If Modern Love owes its gravitas to Boyd's fuller use of character development in Sacred Hearts, then The Double owes its remarkable singularity to Boyd's return to his earlier work, both prose poem and lino cut/photomontage. Published this year by Leaping Dog Press, The Double is less a novel, more like a garland, an anthology of many serpents swallowing their own slippery tales/tails. It's the power of what's hidden that delivers the chill in this deceptively structured narrative that turns progressively in on itself until it assumes the insistent shape of a question mark the reader must solve.
In the first page an everyman wrestles his double above a hole they have both just dug for the other in the cemetery. But in Boyd's self-reflexive, house-of-mirrors prose we can't be sure who's doing the telling, who's doing the dying and who's doing the evil: nebischy Jeff or his doppel(angel)ganger. Jeff is the kind of monosyllabic American male Kenneth Kenniston prophesied in The Uncommitted. And that's just as well. All he can remember is waking up drained. His previous night's reading (written by the same George Body in Modern Love) is "The Tale of Two Hugos" (and yes, it is, in "real life" a previously published Boyd tale!), about a writer fearing his ideas are being stolen via telepathy.
With so little sleep Jeff cuts himself at work the next day and is told by the boss to leave early, only to find that his shopmates are harboring ill feelings about him. Over beers, he discovers that some other version of him has appeared at the shop to call the biker bad boy Iron John a pussy. While he takes a beating for provoking Iron John in the john, his double calls his girlfriend Gina to tell her he finds her roommate Tina more attractive. Gina retaliates by never speaking to him again. By the time Tina calls Jeff to deliver the most inane of erotic chatter, sex seems the worst of bad jokes.
Meanwhile the page is getting more and more "eaten away" by illustrated footnotes that tell the stories Jeff reads at night, stories which eventually "overwhelm" the narrative and "grow" appendices. After he's fired from his job, evicted from his apartment and booked at the precinct, he meets Iron John's long-suffering wife Frieda at a donut shop where she reads to him from her own book of fairy tales, The Goat-King, rich in double-takes on the Brothers Grimm and Jung, Hildebrand and Bly. Of course, among other tales, we read that the double is reading the opening sentences of The Double to Jeff, its protagonist!
You get the idea.
That his novel, simultaneously published in cloth, paperback and electronic editions, hangs on a literary shelf overpopulated by market-sampled, demographically driven, corporately printed, soon-to-be-remaindered products only underlines the innuendo The Double reveals and revels in. Like his own invented persona, George Body, or the actual body of his work that The Double quotes, the conditions he writes in are inextricable from the joke he is telling. It's a joke whose punch line is our own lives, a celebration that, like all great literature, needn't wait for him to be dead for the rest of us to get. Perhaps the most sensible of events---that is, his reading from his prose in the same gallery that is showing his art---will continue after his present book tour of The Double.
His latest project is The Nambuli Papers, a portion of which Obscure Publications made available last year with another portion to follow. It continues his interest in mining the tall French tale and includes pen-and-ink drawings (go to the web at http://odin.indstate.edu/level1.dir/cml/rbsc/obscure/obscure.html for details).
For an artist so gifted in painterly/writerly impulse, so comically/cosmically engaged in what Ferlinghetti called "Unfair Arguments with Existence," we can expect the publication of The Double Boyd's inimitable voice will be met with the richer critical recognition, and perhaps even the larger audience, it undoubtedly deserves.
Fortune and fame, contribution to culture, tradition and posterity---these intangible-unknowables can drive a lit critic crazy. Pressed to locate Greg Boyd's career along such lines, let's say he defies the odds with courageous aplomb and wickedly comic wit. I tend to agree with Jordan Jones, the publisher of Leaping Dog Press: "Boyd's work will be on most undergraduates' book shelves two decades from now."
In assessing Bob Arnold's 31 years of writing over 28 books, I'd say he goes even further: he transcends the whole notion of literary odds by simply living his work. As he acknowledges in "A Line of Talk," a 1987 interview with James Koller in Coyote's Journal, "Writing poems and the hand labor are one, they work off one another. The hand labor earns a pay check, but moreso it earns the poems I write."
Like Boyd, Bob Arnold's not running after agents or grants, university posts or the slim pickin's of the poet-in-your-pot-hole program. He defies the notion of competing with the mono-'merican-culture and the all-that's-fit-to-print restrictions of the federally funded in favor of celebrating his own flavor. For starters, he's got a job already, one that is clearly the source of his inspiration, one that perhaps puts "official" poets working the get-over to shame. If daring is the word that comes to mind about Boyd's "ambi-text-dexterity" in the face of today's publishing scene, then instructive best describes the career of Bob Arnold.
I've tried to show that Boyd's books, with their Borgesian dimension, invite closer reading and multiple interpretation. In Arnold's case, it all makes sense the first time.
Consider, for example, from Once in Vermont, "Duo":
The same bird every night
In the same tree singing
The same song that does
The same very songful
Thing inside of me
I re-read it not to decipher its complexity but to enjoy the pleasure of words well wrought. So the larger question his talent asks us is: what has happened to the love of poetry in this country? By the way, I am not trying to make light of his prose; I'm saying everything he writes is poetry, even when called by other names. He happens to wear many hats well---publisher, builder, bookmaker, distributor, carpenter, reviewer, stone mason, voracious reader, Green River griot, landscaper, wry music/film commentator, brash lit lover of all stripes---but he has only one voice.
And it's honest, intimate, authentic, unadorned; slightly off-beat, full of quiet charms, absorbing, large in scope; observant, unpretentious, informed, honed by hard work and living deliberately; quirky, quick to nip shuck-'n'-jive in the bud, deeply rooted in New England, rich in the mystery and awe of nature; idiosyncratic. My point is that such an original voice moves freely between genres, making use of the striking opportunities each tenders, rather than getting hooked by their restrictions.
This is best demonstrated in By Heart, which intersperses verse and prose vignette in (subtitled:) pages from a lost Vermont. But it's there in every outing. Read, say, Beautiful Swimmers or American Train Letters. Both could be called "travel books," but they are actually revelations and hard-won insights about living foremost, a blend of being in one place for years with the unexpected bends in the holiday road, connected by his distinctive intonation and economic delivery. Following Auden's characterization of what makes poetry: yeah, I cut myself shaving while hearing in my head his lines of prose as well as his lines of verse.
And though he may be under the radar for the casual reader of poetry, he's no newcomer. Cherry Valley, Blackberry, Pentagram (four titles), Juniper Books, White Pine, Coyote, Mad River and Origin (four titles) are some of the presses to have printed his work, which has meant more or less a book a year for over 20 years. But if this sounds like the publish-or-perish imperative that prevails upon professional poets---that is, folks who do not live off the sale of their poems but who make their living from the event (spectacle?) of their being poets---then I have misled the reader. To an extent rarely seen in the history of American letters, especially these days, his poetry is shaped not by career moves, market demands, apologia for a certain point-of-view and most emphatically, not by expectations that he produce the definitive Bob Arnold poem.
Anyone who has ever seen two salaried university poets squabbling at a reading and thought, "get a life," well: Arnold has one and his invitation to share it is clear and unforced. His lines are shaped by the weather he meets, the faces he knows, the smell of the wood he burns or the lumber with which he builds, the slope of the land he hikes, the rush of the river outside his home, the feel of stone in the walls he makes, the wife and son he loves, the lives of the people along the unpaved road he has quietly lived on for over a quarter of a century.
But his voice is not just forged by the local, though that would be plenty; it's also inseparable from a set of values as well as the community who reads him and the community he advocates for, stays in touch with and publishes. In a po' world where even friendships are a subset of po' biz, Arnold isn't just that rare exception, but an antidote to the hustle that is poisoning our poetry. Louis Simpson warned about it in "A Farewell to His Muse," "He's got it all worked out: / two years to a Guggenheim / followed by the reward / of genius, a Macarthur; / in ten, with the assistance / of friends, the Pulitzer. / Finally to sit in state / in the National Academy / and Institute of Conniving."
I have nothing against poets trying to bring new "levels of legitimacy" to the art and practice of verse. Though no fan of endless contests (what could be more antithetical to the idea of a distinctive voice?) or the nightclubification of poetry (the slam, for example, ugh; bring on music and dance instead!), I admire efforts to attract audiences that may have not previously been invited. But I'm hung up on Keats' negative capability and Whitman's democratic vista. No one ever said it better than Robert Duncan: "To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animals and the vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure---all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are."
While these star-schtupping go-getters in the me-me-me/I-yi-yi school of poetry play 'not your stepping stone' with each other's lives, deciding who to murder and who to make pope, handing out the laurels and the big bucks, I wonder if in so doing they haven't lost what the Old School calls "permission to speak." Are these lyre-liars in their cocktail dresses and silk suited pants-on-fire "fighting in the captain's tower / while Calypso singers laugh at them / and fishermen hold flowers," as Bob Dylan sang it? What values are they representing?
Stephen-Paul Martin argues in "Bashing the Mainstream" (see Central Park #24) and elsewhere that the notion of community has replaced the notion of audience for genres marginalized by the commercial demands of the pub game. However, he sees "the MFA model destroying any real possibility of a community, for it reduces the oppositional and subversive value of avant-garde literary networks to a career position. In other words, it's a way to get attention and ultimately an academic gig, affording 'avanties' a chance to attack the system and still get health benefits! Meanwhile they practice the same exclusionary politics as their mainstream counterparts."
If any of that worries you, take a look at the way Arnold makes connections with people through his press-distributorship-bookstore that he runs with his wife Susan, complete with his son Carson's tell-it-like-it-is music column, H(ear). Go to Longhouse (http://www.longhousepoetry.com/woodburners.html). With its 30 years of publishing books, broadsides, post cards, assorted limited edition booklets and a fine literary magazine, Longhouse alone is worthy of its own retrospective. It's not just a family affair but a tribal network connecting some of the most influential poets and traditions in American letters.
If we must have poets instructing college students, shouldn't we be teaching them how a young man living alone in the woods managed to get it all started from nothing but a wing and a prayer? Listen to this from "Singing," his contribution to the Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series:
I wrote a poem for folksinger Victor Jara, who was brutally tortured by Allende, after a day cutting wood and bathing in the river and put it in my notebook with other new poems, which were coming with the pace of each day and outdoor work. Making a place seemed to be the same as making a poem. In late 1973 I sent my poem to Walter Lowenfels for an anthology he was editing about Chile for Beacon Press. We began to correspond, and as always, touching base with one poet usually connected to another and soon I was corresponding with Olga Cabral, John Brandi, and John Clellon Holmes. Holmes was a warm and generous man by letter and in person. He would later share his poems without any hesitation or fanfare, and I would begin to publish his poems---along with poets who were making contact in the two magazines I started ... on an A.D. Dick mimeograph machine. Something I had done very young at summer camp with other scoundrels and all through high school with underground pressings.
Is it still sensible for a young poet to write to the writers who have moved him/her and ask to publish them with whatever tools (s)he has? I would hope so. But is the mimeo machine, with its cheap repro costs and its concomitant history as a #1 tool for the various undergrounds of its time, a symbol of an era that has closed? Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, the underground was full of the details a young man needed to know in order to resist the war in Southeast Asia successfully and officially. Thanks to the energetic Quakers and renegades from the more conservative religious orders, one met the draft board prepared, knowing ahead of time all the loopholes Selective Service had invented to force young men to serve in a conflict all too many found immoral.
Arnold himself came to Vermont to serve as a sextant in order to do his two years as a conscientious objector. In fact, it was in the church basement that he published his weekly broadsides. Poets sent back cash or postage and that, Arnold tells us, is how Longhouse was born. It's a great American success story and a proud addition to our samizdat tradition that goes all the way back to comrade Ben Franklin. Still, I wonder. With the country posed to attack Iraq for oil and glory, what ever became of grass-roots literature that makes us think? Where is the manliness to resist such a foolish ruling-class pawn game as this armed conflict?
"The people, yes," Sandburg affirmed, but the people seem awfully beaten down these days. Forget the lunch money; their pensions have been stolen by the same felons elected to run the country! Whitman, perhaps foreseeing his future as a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop, told us to look for him "under your boot soles," but I wonder how many poets, let alone readers, wear boots any more. Arnold does. And his entire approach to living, writing and publishing seems to be summed up in On Stone, a book well known among builders and oft-referenced in stone mason books, "Use what's in front of you."
So if the schools taught Arnold's ingenuity and poetry-of-witness, no doubt he'd "peep their hole card," as we say in the neighborhood, for here's how he reads the lay of the land:
My belief, to this day, was to maintain a poetry in the hands of poets----free of institutions and shady grants and subsidy double-talk. There should be absolutely no bureaucracy tripping up something so naturally independent as a poem, and poets should strive to observe the same liberty. With no exceptions nor entitlement.
oo revolutionary for poets who invent, and make a handsome living from, such institutions? How about this?
I write each day, but before I do, I work in the woodshed putting things in order, and it is a temporary exercise of allowing thoughts to come and go as they please. There is a muse, and no matter the poets and their poems, the muse is greater.
I'm saying Arnold's got both chops and the score. Vermont poet laureate Hayden Carruth wrote of his work, "Always a pleasure, an exhilaration, to find new poems about the real life from Bob Arnold's hand and mind. A clear view of what truly matters. A way of language that goes graciously into my ear."
A cursory eye to the titles listed in the front of the essay reveals that I've only included books he has written in the last ten years. This is for reasons of brevity. It's not to suggest the sixteen years of previous work is unworthy of commentary; on the contrary, it reveals that quite early on he found both his voice and the subject matter that would absorb him for a lifetime. The years since have simply enriched, expanded and matured his craft.
For example, Gerald Hausman wrote in Blooomsbury Review, way back in September of 1984, regarding Arnold's then latest, Self-Employed, "In the more than ten years I have been acquainted with the poetry of Bob Arnold, I have not seen his stance as a poet change. He describes beautifully the daily changes he sees around him, the turning world of season and heart. But the way he centers himself in words is constant---always clear, ever open."
He quotes the title poem:
Take two squared stones and
Drop them almost side by side
Lift the thinner slab of rock and
Bust your guts setting it on top
Now you got reason to sit down.
I'm not trying to canonize these lines, in spite of their homo faber wink that building and verse-making are grounded in and echo one another, only speculate about their place in our quik-crete, pre-fab, instant Home Depot everything. As for any attempts to canonize the poet, I defer to former NBA knucklehead Charles Barkley: people don't need artists and athletes for role models as much as they need parents. I think Arnold might agree. Nevertheless, the more I read of and about contemporary poetry, the more I wonder about its health, especially in regard to Arnold's ju-ju pouch.
In his soon-to-be-published essay, "The Professionalization of Poetry," David Alpaugh laments the lack of lively work coming out of the university writing programs. He notes dourly, "The profession has created what might be called a complete poetry career path," in which, unlike an earlier generation (Frost, Williams or Stevens), "it is much less likely that the poet will develop an original and authoritative poetic voice not only among contemporaries, but within the wider literary tradition."
Students in the programs aren't taking the kinds of chances one might expect of poets. Nor are they reading widely or with much of an eye on the ancients. It's not only a question of curriculum; they're busy trying to make it, just like business majors. But unlike those MBAs-in-training, there are very few paying gigs out there for poets. Alpaugh did the Math: he guestimates that 20,000 MFA degrees have been conferred in the last ten years and 25,000 will be in the next decade.
He writes, "When reading becomes focused on a sliver of literary history (chosen by current taste and fashion) it's tempting for fledgling poets to mimic the prevailing mode---absorbing its mannerisms, limitations and ephemeral or poetically correct subject matter." What's left of the poetry, he reminds us, is compromised by credential-itis, a never-ending need that begets an industry without an audience: judge the contests, edit the journals, endorse the colleagues, mentor the students, write the blurbs, work the angle, obtain-justify-sustain the promotion. When tenure's the question, does poetry suffer? How can it not, Alpaugh says, when its major players have bland and all-too-similar lives in the uni-verse-city?
Like any cultural activity, poetry can't do well without performance feedback. "Destruction of the outside market for poetry is one of the profession's key achievements," Alpaugh adds. He compares that with "men and women who simply write out of love for the art. We need to remind professionals that the ad hoc, personalized, dare I say amateur writing process they are striving to replace has produced practically all of the great poetry written in the world for the last 2500 years!"
Enter Arnold's lunch pail philosophy: "The state of poetry has become a State. Since government funding has perfumed the scene it has both assisted poets and smaller presses and made most junkies for the money---a fine example of colonialism."
In response to what interviewer Koller calls the coyote-buffalo-outsider tradition, Arnold says, "Writers who write in schools read best in school. But no schools are needed to curl up with the outsider's book, simply an awareness and a desire to bring as much of yourself to the book as the outsider reveals to you."
Although that could be said of any Arnold title, it seems especially true of his trilogy This Romance. The first book, the already mentioned On Stone, appears to have nothing at all to do with poetry. Subtitled a builder's notebook, these 40 chapters and 84 pages tell a number of interconnecting tales about how every day living translates into mysterious life-making: finding a home, learning a trade, loving a woman, delighting in the birth of a son and building for him a stone hut at the edge of the forest. There are plenty of intriguing details about lumber and tools, friends and family, seasons and traditions, but the real story begins with a photograph of the poet/mason on page 5, staring starkly at a pile of rocks outside his back door. Anyone who has worked in setting stone to wall or words to verse would make the connection. Yes, it's labor, the labor of ceaseless contractions, repetitions, reversals and learning-as-ya-go. Following the breath. Like river water smoothing away rock's rough edge, it's a labor natural to living, and like childbirth, a labor of love.
Regarding the latter, Arnold writes:
I remember the mid-wife's hands delivering Carson---shaping the passage of birth---few tools; it came down to the fact, like my stonework, her confidence was all in her hands. The beauty of the woman is that she delivered Carson with an expression on her face as if it were a first birth for all of us. I went to work at the stone hut with the same expression.
Arnold may be man enough to appreciate what Ashley Montague called "the natural superiority of women," but he knows what he's up against when he goes into town. In an anecdote that acts both as metaphor and thread to the next two books, Arnold describes an interview with a local banker:
Susan did most of the talking. But when he asked me how my stonemason business was equipped---something that would give him assurance the man of the family could pay those monthly mortgage dues---I nodded and said there was me and the wheelbarrow. Thirty seconds of dead air filled the room, and somehow we got the mortgage.
The primacy of hands, the joy in work, the pleasure of simple tools joined to the notion of utility will be etched in sharper contrast throughout the trilogy as Arnold narrates the changes taking place along his outback outpost. For the reader surprised to discover he gets his water from the river or cooks off a wood stove, he's not against our using technology; he's against technology using us! The first book ends with not only the stone hut finished but a garden wall as well, one built with his wife Susan and one that provides the final image: the both of them planting bulbs, baby in tow, before November's frost.
By Heart, the second in the trilogy, opens with a dedication to the people he has lived around for a couple of decades, "None are rich or famous but most have that rich animal instinct of survival, and going on without always having a place to go to." In long, one-paragraph narratives and short-lined poems, it delivers a Vermont no longer there: of unpaved roads and unshaven old codgers walking them; of maple sap boiling into syrup and the last bobcat prowling farms; of dogs gone wild and found running down deer; of rattlesnakes in the raspberry patch and flowers in the cemetery on Mohawk Hill; of how the original families who settled here have come and gone and the few who remain.
Published in 1991, it has the same unspoken metaphor about place working here as in the first book. Without trying too hard, a reader can see what Arnold is saying not just about New England but about the whole USA. "Like a fool I fell in love with my own country," he later admits in American Train Letters, and he captures in moving detail our national/local struggle to be genuine (of a place) or generic (to live on top of a place). The mood is elegiac, but as always, his eye is less on lament and more on celebrating what's worth living toward. In "Envoi" he writes:
By Heart has taken me over half my life to live and write, and I was nearly a boy myself when I began its life, and have only now recently understood how many of those I did write of were living from a time we loved that has disappeared.
This Romance, the last book in the trilogy, begins with Arnold sitting in the woodshed, reading a book and talking to his axe. Subtitled a further notebook on rural life, building, love & a son, the focus is more familial, the style more anecdotal, the mood more intimate. If On Stone were meant to be read in the study or the outdoor gazebo and By Heart in the living room or parlor, This Romance is best enjoyed in the kitchen by the cook stove. Arnold has opened a button or two on his flannel shirt, rolled up his sleeves and let it all hang out a bit. The sections are longer, more rambling. Most begin with a diary date, an equinox or birthday or a holiday like the Fourth of July. Some include a coincidental comment about a film or book, the most illuminating of which is his enjoyment of Wings of Desire, Wim Wender's tribute to an angel out of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. Arnold's poetry bears such a similar loving witness to a passing world.
Perhaps the most significant change from the first two books is that the narration is now enriched by seeing it all through the eyes, ears, hands and mouth of his young son. Pronouncing words and naming the world, catching a raccoon and dealing with geese, playing on the swings and going to the hospital, finding hunters lost in the woods and a rifle in the attic: these domestic events spark Arnold into reveries that connect past/future, ontogenic/phylogenic, human habitat/love of the land.
The book's charming simplicity, however, does not hide entirely the other tale being told. Yes, the same kinds of hardscrabble locals populate these yarns, but they're not just fighting rain, cancer, incredulous bankers and hard winters. And though they still live hand-to-mouth, farming and hunting, logging and sugaring, working for menial pay, they now face the inescapable fact that their old hills and dales look awfully attractive to an increasing number of the more well-to-do escaping nearby cities in snappy pick-ups and imitation Land Rovers, buying up the old farms, planting their new world order.
It's not that they're smarter, more civilized or even at fault. Though they aren't bringing a Puritan gospel or a European disease to the natives, there's a sense of foreboding to their arrival. They live on, not off or with, the land---and with no apparent relation to its resources. Joan Didion once wrote, "A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it his own imagine." By that definition, these newcomers don't live in a place but in an intricate fossil fuel equation that includes a monstrous Manifest Destiny. Like that original doctrine, said to derive from George Washington's Masonic vision at Valley Forge of the extermination of all indigenous tribes coast to coast as part of America's deal with God, this sense of privilege is not about thought. It's simply about more: more gas to travel on more pavement; more uniformity in road and ride bringing more conformity in more people shopping in more franchised stores, which bring more money to buy more petroleum-derived products. Take note: the plastic axe handle at the new Ace hardware coast-to-coast chain is a petro-chemical polymer!
Why else are those Texans in the White House all over OPEC?
The Old Ways, as indigenous tribes the world over will tell you, don't mean jack to a jackhammer. Even for those who may have never traveled the Amazon or read Peter Matthiessen, we already know what happens next; technocracy is in our blood. We chop the whole rainforest down, including the biggest trees, even the ones populated by species we don't even have names for yet, species whose interconnection with their environment might shed some insight into the subtlety of nature's give-and-take.
It's theological/teleological: Is G(enerate)-O(rganize)-D(estroy) the sum of it all (All-ah) or just some jealous patriarch judging who goes to h(e)aven, who goes to the bar-b-que of eternal damn nation? If His Law is superimposed from afar, who needs ancestral lore, that vital gift of heritage passed along the generations? And regarding our literature, do we yearn for parables that deepen our appreciation of the Ineffable or do we just want to justify our own aggression? Chris Hedges, in his new book, War Is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, warns us that when a wartime society embraces "a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we carry out murder."
On the home front, we haven't just lost our way or paved paradise to put up a parking lot. Forget anthrax and iodide pills. We're in Maine-to-Florida gridlock on I-95, all dressed up with nowhere to go, paying bigger fines to the meter maid with our new plastic credit cards while snipers have their day around the capitol. All the ads for autos have them passing through Arnold country in peak fall foliage, but none of those glamorous drivers seem to get the point. The same Bruce McCall, quoted earlier in another review, this time on SUVs---The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way, says, "It isn't so much that the average SUV is underengineered, inept, unsafe, polluting, fuel-guzzling and sociopathically aggressive as that it's knowingly, cynically, avoidably so. Call it planned mediocrity."
Such shoddiness in production and end-runs/Enrons around the public has become standard operating procedure for the un-greening of America. What chance do virgin forests or oil-rich tundra have against snowmobiles in our national parks? The speed with which (new) junk replaces (old) beauty is illustrated most heartrendingly in "Stonework." We see Arnold's hand-built stone walls getting plowed away by a bulldozer in order to raise high some new roof beams. Offered the foreman job on the carpentry crew, he turns it down in spite of needing the work. He writes:
But it wasn't the worst feeling having the walls gone. Let them go with the house, my old farmer friend, the years already quickly changing. Best it all goes. The renovator said how someone who enjoyed stonework had stopped by the work-site a few weeks earlier and remarked how the walls must have been over one hundred years old by the way they were laid up. "Don't see walls laid up like that anymore," the stranger had offered, like a salutation.
The book ends with Arnold in the outhouse, reflecting on the many different readings he has made of Thoreau over the years. "The right combinations make a beautiful song," he concludes, but I wonder why his words remain mostly unread in our time. Are we that afraid of what we don't know? Do we expect our poets to become caricatures of themselves---the kooky incarcerated Pound, the predictable later Frost, Marianne Moore with Muhammad Ali, the race-baiting monkeyshines of Baraka---before we give them a shot? Or is it just that our poets need to die or become celebrities before we'll read their invigorating work?
Jack Kerouac, certainly an admonishing figure on the subject of (dead) celebrity, once remarked that the world is an indio place. And indios everywhere will tell you that the stone beneath your feet is alive and holy, wholly all-of-a-piece with the rest of the singing cosmos. Arnold writes, with a nod to Chaung-Tzu: "IS IT // river / flowing / beneath / the stars // or stars / flowing / over the / river."
"Is It" is in Once in Vermont, his last major collection, published by Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY) in 1999. Like its predecessor Where Rivers Meet, these poems display talents only hinted at in the (mostly prose) trilogy: his ability to write long-ish poems in regional voices that are at once Yankee succinct and richly resonant with implication in our larger world. In narratives populated by the likes of locals named Tom Newall and Lee Strong, Everett, Manny, Clayton, Ruth and Mason Weathers, we see his eye for the exact detail at work. A self-confessed collector of WANTED posters from the local police station while a kid growing up in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, Arnold writes in his autobiography, "I wanted to be a private detective then, influenced by current television shows, and this yet unclear urge to write and follow and observe."
The other notable gift of these poems is their unabashed celebration of love. These tend to be shorter lined and are sprinkled throughout the collection, but even the longest detective-driven narrative of his neighbor's ups and downs is bound and bouyed by a kind of oceanic feeling of good will. It's a singular effect, having read the book in one sitting and re-read the book in another. Whether love of wife or son, work or weather, back road or lone hawk, it's a love that invites, rather than instructs or intrudes upon, the reader. Cid Corman, an old timer who should know, writes on the back cover: "Every word is love, loved, lovely. What else is poetry?"
Well, it's discovering the simple joys of solitude, being at home in the universe of one's own skin, a condition of openness with which to greet the world. Consider this:
THE REASON I LOVE TO BUILD STONE WALLS
The collection does ample justice to Arnold's idea that "reading books and listening are hand saws---they bring you closer to others and make you meet yourself."
In his review of Once in Vermont, which appears in Oyster Boy Review 13, M.A. Roberts writes:
Edwin Muir once remarked that modern poetry is not read by "the people," because it no longer tells a story. "The people" should reconsider. In fact, I'm going to ask my local hardware store to make this book a permanent fixture at the front counter. By the time I finished the book, I felt I had visited with Arnold, his family, and his community.
Arnold works under the Wordsworthian banner, using "the real language of men." His poems prove how effective a book can be when manner matches matter, form connects content.
That Wordsworthian banner, of books "making you meet yourself" or even a literature free of caste has had able adversaries, none perhaps with more influence than Pound or with more prominence than Eliot. American by birth, European in preference, they met up with an ex-pat generation already exploiting America's wealth and inferiority complex about art.
By inventing a poetry that was incomprehensible---army intelligence in charge of the arrested-for-treason Pound thought his Pisan Cantos a code of gibberish containing his plans for escape---old Ez had something more than Mussolini or monarchy or madness up his sleeve.
He created an industry of poetry mandarins.
In Pound's case, it's all the more ironic. Dismissed as a "village explainer" by Gertrude Stein, never able to match Eliot though acknowledged to be the better craftsman, considered a bigot and a bully by some (see the just released Dear Editor, A History of Poetry in Letters), incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's for criminal insanity, Pound's greatest "accomplishment" was in selling us obscurity and obfuscation as poetic superiority.
Dismiss him a wise fool or a sad failure, but his brand of Modernism has carried and (Hugh) Kennered the day. It has spawned generations of critics whose immense power, incomes and reputations are based on the continuing need to translate to the rest of us works of litera-chore as loaded in learning as the Cantos. Which, of course, has spawned generations of poets who win prizes for poems that are so high-brow they require the interpretation of these same scholarly critics! Sound like an inside deal? Sound like real American poetry to you? Is the situation beyond hope when one of our most distinct voices, one with little use for posing in favor of having so much to say about living, doesn't get heard?
Arnold's latest poetry books, On/Earth and Honeymoon, are two pocketbook editions published by Granite Press. Beautifully handmade, they look great, but neither has a poem longer than seven lines. Though they're both replete with enjoyable short takes on typical Arnold themes---winter light, birds, truth, baking, woodlots, spring rain, mowed fields, gardens---they rely on what Philip Whalen called "image/experience/flash." That's not to say that Arnold can't show us new approaches to the haiku-esque, only that his fuller talent to draw out the nuances in the human-animal-mineral-vegetable around him and make connections from his world to ours, needs that longer format, one that is missing in these limited edition booklets. Whether this is in response to the restrictions of Granite, I don't know.
In any case, chronologically speaking, the travel books were published in between Where Rivers Meet (1991) and Once in Vermont (1999). The aforementioned American Train Letters (1995) is his longest book at 240 pages and most free-wheeling. Handsomely co-published by Coyote Press and the Poetry/Rare Book Collection of SUNY/Buffalo, it shows a different side of Bob Arnold's storytelling moxie.
Yes, it's got miles of train track musings against a moving America, brief histories of monuments explored, insider Amtrak info, a Pinkerton's notes about porters and passengers, zig zag routes from New England to the Pacific, stops-'n'-starts, detours in rent-a-cars, train station meditations and the irrepressible joy of travel. Lyle Glazier wrote, "The heart of the book is to pit the rhythm of a modern polyglot society against the vastness and grandeur of a landscape that dwarfs the worst and the best that humans have made of it."
That's quite an apt description. But Arnold's window-seat approach also serves as an opportunity for him to reflect on many of his own literary and cultural sources. It's not so much an advertisement for a certain turn-of-mind as a conversation connecting historical personages with compelling, if little known, facts as Arnold travels through their places of birth---Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse James, Robinson Jeffers, Will Rogers, Malcolm X, Jack London, A.B. Guthrie, Sitting Bull, Joseph Cornell. Few of these iconoclasts would make most Americans' Top Forty of Anything, and that's the point: to enlarge our understanding of who we are. Agahenandra Bharati, the Viennese-born Hindu monk and anthropologist, remarked in The Ochre Robe that Americans want their culture pre-packaged into Greatest Hits collections. "There is no such thing as a greatest hits for a real talent," he wrote in reference to Duke Ellington, a composer whose music endures as inspiration and resource for generations to come as surely as the "outlaws" Arnold references in these elegant pages.
Beautiful Swimmers (1998) could also be regarded as a travel book (or an alternative cultural history of our country), but it's more centered on the particulars of his young child discovering how to swim than it is as 'open-focus' as American Train Letters. It's among the best looking books I have ever seen and it reads only 67 pages. Unlike its predecessor, the details jump back and forth between many motel swimming pools and home, that is, the swimming hole on the Green River where Bob and Susan have had no luck teaching Carson to stay afloat. In addition, Arnold shows yet another skill, an ability to write with empathy and clarity about the mysterious act of learning.
The story begins with a nod to Burt Lancaster, particularly in Frank Perry's film classic, The Swimmer, inspired by the John Cheever story of the same name, where he says so enigmatically, "I'm swimming home." Lancaster takes on a symbolic aspect throughout the book and becomes a leit-motif. But Arnold's power to connect really widens with the widening road and rail, whose scenes recall to him a different version of how the West was won/one. His commentary on cross-country visits to (in)famous Americans---outlaws like Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner, musicians like Elvis in Graceland (he hunts without success for the graves of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson), Native American leaders like Geronimo at Fort Sill, writers like William Faulkner at Oxford---is worth the price of the book alone. Arnold's tastes tend to the all-embracing, to say the least! Nevertheless, the hero of this tale is his son who returns to Vermont no longer afraid of the water, ready to swim alone, with friends or alongside his parents. Once again, Arnold's love and admiration for his family carry the day.
Though I doubt that our prominent promulgators of "family values" would see it this way, Arnold remains that rarest of breeds, like Nick Tosches or D.H. Lawrence, a writer worth reading on any subject. At work is such a singular and hawk-eyed individualism that any topic invariably becomes imbued with connective tissue joining the particular to the universal. Paul Tillich termed it the ground of our being. Arnold certainly sees what Blake called "infinity in a grain of sand." His writing effuses a spirit of discovery.
I should say that reading so much of his work over the last months, especially alongside responses instigated by Dan Gioia's essay, "Does Poetry Matter?," has led me to a couple of conclusions. The first one is supported by my readings of Greg Boyd's work as well: good writing that challenges mono-mainstream expectations, values and politics is alive and well. The fault, if that term can make any sense, lay not with these writers (who are also committed and zealous publishers in their own right), nor with readers, nor with our need to celebrate our diversity, but with the dilemma of book distribution for non-corporate-powered presses.
The second conclusion is more cautionary. We live in an Orwellian era when General Motors hires Christian rock bands to sell their SUVs! Marketing doesn't just trump art; it is art, exploiting anything artistic to sell a lie and a "lifestyle." As Max Barry warns in his just published novel, Jennifer Government, "It's simply impossible to be cynical enough about marketing." To put it another way: there's too much money in commercial entertainment for any voice-of-the-people, tell-it-like-it-is, rally-'round-our-commonality poetry. Yes, we still have a Bill of Rights, at least that's what I said the last time I was pulled over because of my profile. But it's profoundly obvious that many folks in power not only have no use for the First Amendment, they find it downright un-American. Forget that Admiral Poindexter (the felon of the I-Ran guns-for-drugs scam) is in charge of Big Brother. It's that, Allah hu akbar, the Constitution gets in the way! They've already re-written the history books in the state of Texas. Like Arnold says, "I consider anything political which knows its own rights."
And though I salute our First Lady's failed attempt to keep literature above the fray Dubya is causing, poetry's response looks less like One Voice/5000 Strong at Sam Hamill's web site and more like Our Chapbook of the 5 Most Famous Poets. I'm not saying that writers sell each other out, but I think the day will come when our children will be taught Martin and Malcolm were either white folks or "house" Negroes, for example. Or that uppity women really do need to be kept in place, that is barefoot and pregnant. Or that a mean-spirited, sexually repressed, life-denying, anti-Christ, smote-thee/get-thee-behind-me Christianity is the only path to godhead.
That's why we need to read writers like Boyd and Arnold: to keep our lamps trim and bright, as Paul Revere might say.
~ Kirpal Gordon
Kirpal Gordon's website ~ www.KirpalG.com
Contact Kirpal Gordon by email : [email protected]
"The Fate of an Original Voice: Boyd & Arnold Enrich an American Grain" was first published by August Highland in the January 2003 issue of the Muse Apprentice Guild (best viewed with Internet Explorer browser)
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