July 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer




A bank of clouds waves out under the wing. I read a yellowed paperback of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. He shows a world in which the Nazis and Japan win the war. Toss the I Ching. There seems to be a synchronicity of events leading up to something here. Each page-turn gets us closer to another devastated future.

Grey freeway curves west, straightens out into Chicago neighborhood grids. There's mist, cold overcast sky. A little league ball park.
Train yard. Coal cars moving off.Plane lands. A falcon flies down another runway and over a green-brown field. There are low buildings and a baby blue water tower in the distance.

Take Van Galder coach to Rockford. Grey light and green in autumn fields.

To Madison and Back via New Glarus

Kent Johnson picked me up at the Clock Tower Inn, Rockford, IL. I've known Kent since back when we first knocked heads over at the Buffalo Poetics List in 1997. Later, I was deeply impressed with his contributions to the Araki Yasusada translations and their ultimate, controversial dissemination, published as Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. He asked Hoa Nguyen and I to read four years ago, December 1999, at Highland Community College where he currently teaches six (six!) classes a week and was named the 2004 Illinois Community College Trustees Association Outstanding Faculty Member. Now, some five years later, it's like stepping right back into synch with someone you've known a long time, re-entering a conversation that continues freely despite the geographic distance between us.

He's soft-spoken, kind and generous-not the snuff-dipping red neck I once imagined I'd meet. He wears an oxford shirt and khaki pants. Tall, about 7 feet, (not really, though he is quite tall), he carries himself with quiet confidence. There's nothing we can't talk about, so we discuss everything from politics to poetry and back. He said that eventually a kind of tension will give and people will resist what the globalists are doing to them-taking jobs, imposing political and social restraints to save us from Evil, imprisoning the depraved and criminalizing the merely perverse. Freeport is a burnt-out worker's town. Kent once described it to me as "worse than Baghdad." The place has a cold grey decayed thing going. Mixed race males in puffy coats and sports shirts scoot around in Air Jordans, making parking-lot connections. It's the standard urban poor trip-crack, Dorito bags and a whole lot o' time goin' 'round. One afternoon observing downtown you get the feeling real quick this American façade's gonna come crashing down in the not-so-far-off future. It already looks like Haiti, but instead of elaborate welcome-dances for the Loa, it's flabby American flesh possessed of native demon-gods. And the rituals aren't as fun. There's TV instead of ecstatic spiritual departure. But it's demon possession, no doubt about it. Walk around Freeport, Il, and you'll see what I mean.

Outside rain plashes the windshield in big drops. Dairy pastures spread out on the southern Wisconsin countryside as we drive north out of Illinois into a friendlier landscape of green pasture, quaint Swiss villages, beer and cheese. Cheers!

There's a new Yasusada book in the works over at the small press publisher Combo. It's elaborately called, Also, With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters In English. (Google "Yasusada" and see what comes up). Sometimes annoyed over the years with Kent's theorization of hyper-authorship and authenticity, after this trip I have a better understanding of his position. Perhaps he's one of the first writers in recent memory to articulate a liberating aesthetic/political view of poetry that gives creative freedom to the individual rather than a certain designated group. Imagism up through Languagism offers a set of defining characteristics about the writing of certain groupings of people. In the cases of Languagepoetry or the "school of quietude,*" to quote the prolific Ron Silliman, both are entwined within the conservative group structures of the academy. The university is fine. No beef with it. (Though the creative tyranny of MFA programs is another issue I'll save for a future, savage beating). In fact, Langpo et al are right to make use of it as they can. But Kent's theoretical arguments would free the individual from the confines of small aesthetic-political (i.e. economic) collectives. It's not that we write without our names, but that we are able to address the poem each time with complete abandon to it, not some cookie-cut form or method prescribed from beyond-whatever beyond is for you. Looking back at some of the interviews where he's articulated his claims for hyper-authorship, you see a comedic display that uses a certain formal and theoretical language executed on behalf of a freedom from creative tyranny. His hyper-authorship suggests we are many, flexible and provisory according to the occasion of writing itself. That this community college Spanish and poetry teacher from North Central Illinois can impact so tremendously North American letters shows with what depth and purpose Kent's projects have managed to penetrate into the deeper psychic forces of the "avant-garde," (i.e. the economy of forces directing cultural production). With recent publications on the Yasusada controversy in PMLA and the AWP Chronicle, among other things in the works (there was a conference last November on Yasusada in Japan!), Kent's notoriety may be in the process of reassessment. Hopefully, soon, it will be clear to what purpose he works. That any of us, despite DNA and "proper" education, will write as we wish.

I know. I know. I know. I'm Kent's bud, his compañero. Overly sympathetic. But despite initial enthusiasm for Yasusada and a personal liking for Kent Johnson, I've only recently begun to comprehend the fuller scope of the project. Let others decide for themselves.

We drove after coffee north to Madison. Picked up Carl Thayler and went back south to Freeport. A few years ago Carl had a heart bypass and liver transplant. Now he walks with an elegant cane. Showed me his .09 mm pistol. The same as Bond (James) carried in the movies. As we drove the rain turned to snowflake and back again. Wisconsin pastures spread out on rolling hills and there were many hay silos and cute, quaint homes along the way.

We stopped at New Glarus for a beer at Peumpel's Old Tavern. Several large wall paintings depicted scenes of Napoleon's invasion of Austria. They were made 1913 and the walls have not been painted since. The airy tavern was nearly empty. It's a warm, inviting place with dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. Carl had a cola. Kent and I drank beers. Carl told us a story of meeting Paul Blackburn who passed on the poet's authority to him with a kiss.

A Reading

On to Freeport. Checked into the Stephenson Hotel where Lincoln once slept. Then went to the reading upstairs at Cannova's, a terrific Italian café and bar. Soon as I entered a barmaid put a beer in my hands. The room was warm and full. Kent introduced us. I read poems and aphorisms. Introduced Carl with these words:


December 4, 2003
Freeport, Illinois

Several years ago now, Kent Johnson suggested I contact Carl Thayler, a poet I'd never heard of living in Madison, Wisconsin. When the first manuscripts of his work arrived I realized I was dealing with an attention of high order, and his determined concentration on the American West deepened my appreciation more. In time I came to know Carl through phone conversations, letters, the publication of his book, Naltsus Bichidin, and an exchange of country music. Many nights I listen to Lefty Frizzell singing from a tape Carl recorded for me.

"She walks these hills in a long black veil," crooned that great, Midwest songsmith, his lyric ushering the ghost of an adulterer through my Sony boombox.

I mention this because the broken-heartedness behind so much of the great roots and blues music registers through many of Carl's poems. Formally, there's an attention to the mechanics of the poem-vowel and syllable, music and rhythm-that channels his attention through live pulses of speech. Because of this, Carl's work has "the courage of clarity" the poet George Oppen admired, and he measures his words by the demands of the lyric, that "area in which one is absolutely / convinced that one's emotions / are an insight into reality / and death," as Oppen, again, notes. Through a close study of his own-and others'-experience, attendant to the labor and beauty of the commonplace, and its accompanying heroic tensions, Carl's poems address the contradictory embodiment of North American migration and values.

Carl sings of heroes and sons-of-bitches, and so places the significant myths of our western experience into a perspective that discloses a felt truth, drawing from history and geography the significant images of our all too sketchy past. Great and obscure men are subjects for this poetry. U.S. Army scout John Bourke, Lubbock, Texas rocker Buddy Holly, slapstick film genius Buster Keaton and Bar Cross laborer and western writer Gene Rhodes receive close verse studies in Naltsus Bichidin.

Carl brings to his work details of place and person that reveal in the plainsong of his speech the full measure and weight life presses out as person. If Carl is a poetic biographer of the West's forgotten and disreputable characters, then he complicates a mere personal attitude toward his subjects through the contradictory and compulsory intents of poetry. The felt loss, reticent fortitude and suffering Carl finds in his heroes stand against their depravity, fierce judgments and quick administrations of violence in a world unredeemed by the opinions and morals of the established middle classes. For this reason Carl's poems dismiss the supposed redemptive and quantitative values of a welfare state, opting for a qualitative humanitas.

Myths for them to live must carry meaning, and Carl's work shows that there is much in our past still living in the imagination, relentless, demanding that we engage it, and by so doing, address ourselves for what we are rather than what we would be. His opinions, like his poems, are fashionable to today's postmodern audiences as whiskey in Sunday school, but they correspond with many careful observations suggested in his poems. These aren't the words of a personality, but the careful statements of someone who treats the craft and life of poetry with complete regard and seriousness. I'm proud to know Carl and honored to share this podium with him tonight.


Carl read wonderfully. Texas Playboy Bob Wills and the late, great Johnny Cash figured prominently among his words. We read into microphones. The crowd was with us. When Carl finished there was outstanding applause. We were surprised, pleasantly. Carl nudged me to take a bow. The room glowed. We ate pizza. I talked with Brooks Johnson, Kent's 18-year-old son. A student, poet and lead singer of the band Oedipus and the Motherfuckers, we discussed music, poetry and the Harry Smith Folk anthology. When we left the parking lot was wet and snow was falling thick in the air.

Kent and his colleague Andy Dvorak came upstairs with Carl and I. We drank from a bottle of single malt. Carl claims he's a racist, though I wonder. Still, there was tension in the room toward 1 am. American Anger Sickness. Unfulfilled hopes. What North American ever gets enough? Especially the poets who are failures of material reality. A truth gene is prominent in Carl's personality. He won't praise without reason. He lacks a fundamental political, ass-kissing ability. He won't raise esteem in another for his own gain. Kicked out of Hollywood, (yes, he had a promising career as "the next James Dean"), burning every literary bridge, he is a great poet complicated by the tense strain of American "progress." On the way back to Madison he saw a cash loan shop. "I hate that shit," he said. "These stores in poor neighborhoodswho loan cash at usurious rates. They shouldn't be allowed." We were in a poor neighborhood. Urban squalor passed unrelieved in the bright winter cold.

He gave me a great compliment. We were talking about poetry, how different we are at various stages of life. "I could never do what you did last night at the reading," he said, "when I was your age."

After breakfast in Monroe, WI, (Corner Café: "Home Cooking") we took Carl back to his place. He played a video of Kasey Chambers belting out a song by Lucinda Williams. We embraced. White beard. Tattoo. Bright, fierce eyes. Cold Wisconsin wind. Wonder if I'll see him

Ft. Atkinson / Black Hawk Island


Drank a beer down
the street from
Lorine's house.
Rosy sunset
on black water.
Stood on the pier
with Kent behind
her cabin.


Opened the drawer
to her writing desk.
Touched her Cantos
copy. Pressed
the ghost of her
in these things.


To come through
counting images
we love


Warm bars
and men and women
jolly in their smoke
and suds.


Warmed up
in the drugstore
where she bought
her drugs


Black Hawk
Island black
at sunset. Fishing
stinks, the old
man with Parkinson's
in his hand said.


"Visit Blackhawk
Fort Atkinson,

Home of
American poet
Lorine Niedecker


"Remember my little
granite pail?"


Rock River.

Kent bought us
Buds at the
Spider Hole.


It's generous of Kent to take me through Ft. Atkinson. Lorine Niedecker's one the great American writers of the last century, but only the devoted new her name until more recently. Her stark, compressed verse reveals the rhythms of landscape in a voice, how attention treats image within the recurring movements of time. But this isn't the right place to gush over her work. Absorb the phenomena, the black water outside her cabin, and move on.

Went to a tavern down the street from her place. Confederate flag on a tree. Plastic Christmas ornaments were lit and inside tinsel wreathes and snowflakes hung from the ceiling. An old woman greeted us. Her poodle stood on hind legs. Ordered Bud. An old man spoke with us about the Island. Said fishing was poor but summer business good. Used to be snow mobilers coming through in winter. But the Rock doesn't freeze now. Weather's changed.


I told Kent I believed poets create the world. The goal is not toward some future where our poems survive, but in the present condition of things. To be actual in the world and to work by the order of experience are for me the basic acts of poetic attention.

We stopped every 10 miles or so for another beer-Kent drove with careful application of eye, refusing a glass of single malt when he bought mine. Our metaphysics deepened each time we stopped. (Why must booze accompany metaphysical conversations!). Kent's question: what are we? Despite all Science can do it can't address the basic field of our being. And that organism-language-moves through us. Where do these words I write come from now? Our conversation? What internal wilderness withholds the complex constellations of who I am in time? Poets, we make the world. We keep it vivid and without a poet it will not survive. Without imagination the bulk of its matter dissolves in disunity. We were drunk, let's face it. And I stammered on my Romantic faith in language to reveal the inner nature of things. I am an empiricist of invisible phenomena. That's what Carl Jung said. And through these pastures, the trees and people of the bars we met along the way. And through our words and faces. Through the brick and asphalt under black sky and the passage of headlights. To be stretched out toward an outer limit. Nothing else.


We slopped mustard on cheddar sandwiches at Baumgartner's Cheese Shop in Monroe. Drank down our cold beer, then ate beef sandwiches. Nirvana and Johnny Cash played on a jukebox.



Back to Freeport, IL

Yellow street lines
divide traffic.
Grey day sky
hits tree tops.
A steeple and
a water tower stand
out from a mush
of colorlessness.
A moment of ab-
solute stillness.
Red light. Green light.
Spring St. State St.
Lincoln stood here
(Stephenson Hotel)
when optimistic magic
built these lovely old
brown stones.
Faith in labor.
Belief in hands.
Hand us down, O Lord
of green dreams.
Nothing's in this
dump but dollar-
saver misery.
A mystery of
snow on green
grass. Stephenson
County Farm Bureau.
Newell Rubber Maid.
The gothic points
of steeple crosses
cut the air.
Limp flag.
Bare limbs.
A perfect stillness
like despair.


Took the coach back to O'Hare. Hour and a half of gloomy pastures and the sun almost completely gone. Couple in front of me off to the Bahamas.

*(Note: Since I'm not sure who my Bookslut readers are, School of Quietude is a term used by Ron Silliman for the Avant-challenged but better-funded wing of the incredibly lame, paranoid and power hungry field of American poetry. The "raw" and the "cooked" are terms perhaps better known. Basically, as I understand it, and practice it myself, there's the Pound-Williams-Stein tradition that since the 1950s has come to include the Beats, Black Mountain, SF Renaissance, Language Poetry and a great other number of fragmented and incredibly interesting responses to and continuations of the project of Modernism. The Stevens-Eliot tradition reflects another Modernist response. Philosophical, contemplative and devoted to more traditional prosody as it can contain American vernacular speech, it often, except in the hands of great practitioners, bores the shit out of me. But then so does that John Ashbery-inspired, postmodern "post-avant" (Silliman again) tedium. I'll take modernist outrage over pomo irony any day. For quick insight to this division and others, check Robert Creeley's 2002 edition of Best American Poetry against Yosef Komunyakaa's 2004 collection of the same series. From my pov, the imagination at least has a fighting chance in the Pound-Williams-Stein tradition.)

Doubled Flowering: From the Notebook of Araki Yasusada
Segue Foundation
168 pp.

Naltsus Bichidin
Skanky Possum
no isbn
86 pp.

Shake Hands
Pavement Saw
64 pp.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works
University of California Press
471 pp.