June 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Capricci: Poems of Duncan McNaughton

It's difficult to write about Duncan McNaughton's poetry. First off, there's the language barrier. McNaughton often weaves many languages into a poem. Not just the classics like Greek, found in Capricci's opening poem, "Atalanta," but Spanish, Italian, French and even Arabic. The writing also presumes some knowledge of divers mythic systems, from Greece to the Nordic Lands. But again, this is a reduction of the aim of the work. Clearly situated within the tradition of Modernism, and opposed to the total bullshit castration process encouraged by Postmodernism, McNaughton's work achieves a testament of personal observation embedded in a trans-historical tendance of the imagination. It's Olsonian, and behind it, like so much else, he owes a great deal to Pound. He's also unapologetically Romantic, in the tradition of Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Nerval and Robert Duncan.

His work can also be seen within a tradition of writing Pierre Joris identifies in his book of essays, A Nomad Poetics. Peculiarly American -- that is, "confused and lyrical," Céline noted -- a nomad poet like McNaughton works within the many branches of language. There are tangled passages of ivy and thorns, and sudden clearings of sunlight. A word's uncovered from centuries of shade to reveal a particular urgency. Forgive these stupid metaphors. It's what happens when you try to write earnestly about poems. If you want, like McNaughton, to show a hidden world, that other existence of the imagination, you have to allow for certain tangles and scrapes. It's simultaneous, that realm of imagination with this one, the fallen, sickly world of system and projection. Poetry's a battle of sorcerers, the same as politics. The poet's vision is singular, eternal, while the politician's is projected to multiply and divide according to the ephemeral needs of State. End of lesson. All of this is my slow build up and evasion of jumping into this marvelous tangle, to basically show you, dear reader, how delightful, on one hand, these little whims are, while also, underneath, there's a difficult entanglement with the distribution and deliverance of language and image.

I heard McNaughton give a reading ten years ago in Portland, Oregon, and began looking for as many books as I could find. Completing a doctorate at SUNY Buffalo with poet-scholar Jack Clarke, McNaughton evaded a usual academic career. Instead, he moved to the Bay Area where he taught many years at the New College of California, heading its quirky but illuminating Poetics Program. There he taught in the San Francisco Mission District with David Meltzer, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan and others. He edited the small press journal Fathar and since the mid '70s has published a number of books that include A Passage of St. Devil, Sumeriana, The Pilot, Kicking the Feather and Valparaíso, to name a few. One of the distinguishing elements to his Art is the world-range of his imagination. Not in the geo-political sense, but in a sense of the world as mystery and temporally active substance -- geographical climates of the soul. What I mean by temporally active is this: the past and present are simultaneous. And I guess the future is too. Whatever can be observed by the imagination is source of living phenomena. Certain trans-historical figures of his imagination appear throughout the work. The Medieval Sufi Ibn-Arabi and French nomad gunrunner, Arthur Rimbaud appear at times. Deceased friends too, like West Coast Beat poet Philip Whalen or Swiss visual artist and poet Franco Clemente arrive suddenly for a few words. This is perfectly natural when you think about what a ghostly realm we inhabit. The Dead transcend this mundane calendar chronology, returning more vivid and exact than the living. Besides, the Dead know what's up. They're not preoccupied balancing their checkbooks or tossing the garbage. McNaughton's strong and thoughtful character is evident in the work. Certainly, there's a heavy dose of Saturn in his personality. Gruff but careful with words in conversation, he addresses a present condition of writing with a determined physicality, so that it's not all a mental acceleration. This Chronos nomad slows the rhythms of thought down to something that can inhabit language. English is not particularly functional for relating complex concepts and ideas. It best expresses vivid, active details of the phenomenal world. These other, invisible complexities enter secondarily. The vividness of expression and the gravitational weight of each word set in proximity to the next grounds the abstract in the physical condition of things. You tune in to his work, listening to words and you look through images to find what else echoes back behind them. Chronos Art. Nomad Time. You'll never arrive at a destination. Better watch what comes along the way.

Nomad McNaughton starts us out in Greece. Arcadia, specifically, though perhaps it's Boeotia, as there are conflicting early reports. The myth of Atalanta's race with Melanion is woven through McNaughton's own contemporary vision of cultural dissolution and personal scrutiny.

we're all here now		from forever 
			in 5000 ways of saying so 
free to hide the moon in our cola 
		to wear the evening star at dawn 
			we too are inside out (18) 

This insideoutness is key to the poem and central to others in the book. Atalanta at heart does not wish to marry her suitors. She beats them all at races, and kills them as her reward. But Melanion cheats her, tossing golden apples during their race. This trips her up. She loves gold, the shiny objects so attractive to her she slips, loses momentum. Melanion wins her hand in marriage. Her sacred contract is broken. She's used to collecting the heads of her suitors, not losing her hand to their lust.

she dashes into the wind at dusk at Agate Beach moist fog 
it's a long race 
before it can end hay dos 
				manzanas más 

her javelin leaning against an old oak. (19) 

This meditation on a story from Hesiod gets woven into the poet's own personal and mythical concerns. He sets in motion an imaginative realm where myth and present meet, vitally functioning. It's a great example of McNaughton's Art at work. Easy in time, myth and geography, his poems are free to range in open spaces, surprising us by what he finds. The myth is a point of departure for the more personal and penetrating aspects of the poem.

The book's title, Capricci, suggests a kind of whimsicalness. And looking again this morning I see how loose and unrestrained these poems are. Many are written to the poet's friends. They're small, momentary things, but McNaughton brings to these passing moments all he's worked for in poetry. This isn't The Cantos. It ain't Maximus' embrace of Totality. These poems show a man comfortable with not knowing where he's going or even what's going on. There's a problem with knowing, anyway. McNaughton's career in poetry has struggled with knowledge, a particularly hermetic and word-fixed kind of transmission. Here, these concerns run freely in the moment of making poems. He's in the treetops, 'stead of stacking log on log.

This feint dry crinckly static
the signal breaking apart
am I still me?
Is there still an old footbridge
across the stream I
may or may not have made up?
Either way is okay. (41)

The hermetic quality of the work is so particular, so personal, that it startles and surprises me. It took some time to understand why he insists on using foreign languages in the work, as in this from "La Manuela:"

I am Louis Buñuel, spoke the rain,
esta mañana obscura
estoy la lluvia.
Me gusta este lugar,
un lugar lleno
de murciélagos. (43)

He doesn't budge for the reader here, or elsewhere. The foreign words are there--we look them up. He honors other tongues by sharing their energy with English speakers. It's a purist's move too, avoiding the diminishment of etymology by insisting we take the words he uses as they are. We get into his head, or find poems, as he knows them.

There's another meaning to this word, <i>Capricci</i>. It extends a sense of horror causing "the hair on one's head to stand on end," McNaughton notes. The tension of the word is seen in the poems because there is something horrible about the imagination too, and about every day. One moment focused on material facts, and another following "the biography of the Phoenicians" (139), say, the transmutation of every day into useful Art becomes an individual practice of recovery based in appetite.

the chemistry changes 
		the black chemical earth 
			becomes yellow earth 
	the old sky, ethereal grey 
					ethereal infinite grey 
	    vast ceiling 
						timeless grey (78) 

The alchemical motion echoes the movement of the soul against the corruption of the body. The transformation too redeems the mundane sludge of every day, bringing the wonder of surprise, mystery and new possibility.

	everybody looks okay	especially the dead 
although not as I remember them 
			they look better 		healthier 
   no one expresses surprise that I am there    they hardly notice 
I guess they grow older dead 		though they don't appear older 
				until finally it's enough and they 
			lose the appearance of body 
		what happens is beyond me (78) 

Another tension in his writing comes from biological facts pressing against imagination. Hence these dead come to talk, "the appearance of body" diminishing. The quite sensual details of the poems sharpen their existence as objects. They foreground appetite as a kind of anchor to this disembodied zone of dream and language. "Pussy in Cuba" is a sensual statement against American-style greed and naïve Marxist faith in system. It's not really a political poem, though it sides in appearances with Castro's Cuba.
the idea is to do away with the rich 
	and with everyone else who wants to be 
  un sistema de laissez-faire socialismo 

    enough tobacco enough coffee enough rum 

      for example an older woman 
         wakes from her delicious sleep 

             come to bed she says 
                     you're missing out (98) 

Difficult as it was to begin writing this essay, I find it just as hard to stop. What goes without saying is the indefatigable attitude in the poems -- that there is a man here behind the words, first and foremost. He shared a tremendous amount with me as a young writer. I can't honor his work enough. McNaughton should be read by many and ought to find a "defining audience" as Robert Creeley said about it in an interview. For now, those who read his work will find pleasure in this new book, and hopefully new readers will come to it finding a new expression of concerns in poetry that deeply matter.

Capricci by Ducan McNaughton
Blue Millennium
ISBN: 096314622X
155 pages