July 2003

Dale Smith


As Ever by Joanne Kyger

There's a popular notion of poetry that fetishizes "subject," expects lines to be evenly plopped down the left-hand margin of the page, demands "depth of feeling", epiphanic moments of appreciative self-awareness, possession of deep dark universal meanings or eternal glum emptiness, etc., ad nauseum, kar-plunk and kar-plooey.

No wonder poetry has suffered so much in this country. The popular projection of it is alien from the facts and realities of life in 21st-century America. You might think after the extraordinary drive by William Carlos Williams in the 1920s to push the written arts back into the flesh and blood values of the commonplace, thugs of boredom like Edward Hirsch and other New Yorker magazine poets would be ignored today as fuddy-duddy reductivists.

Happily, Penguin in recent years has been publishing post-war poets whose conceptions of the art reach back to Williams, Gertrude Stein, and others. While big publishers take few chances on young writers, it's heartening to see Ted Berrigan, Philip Whalen and other New Americans (post-war poets who appeared in Donald Allen's groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry) listed in the Penguin Poets series.

Joanne Kyger, the series' most recent author, has lived in the northern California town of Bolinas since the late 1960s. Prior to that, she lived and traveled in Japan and India with Gary Snyder, with whom she developed a life-long practice of Zen that continues to influence her work. Part of the San Francisco Renaissance of poets in the '50s, she frequented North Beach bars with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and others in an apprenticeship of extraordinary depth and energy.

Of prime importance to generations of young writers, her house continues to be a kind of hearth for visiting poets. In the '60s and '70s, Bolinas made a convenient and attractive place for artists to live or visit. An hour north of San Francisco and situated on a mesa between the Bolinas lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, it was an ideal hippie arcadia dominated by great dope, wonderful company, creative living, and scenic excursions. At one time Jim Carroll, Robert Creeley, Paris Review editor Tom Clark, Donald Allen, David Meltzer, and many other writers, musicians, and artists lived together in this flower-power paradise. Although in more recent years the price of Marin County real estate has transitioned many hippies into yuppies, it remains a gorgeous outpost for artists and writers who have made homes on land that once belonged to Miwok Indians and other Northern Coast tribes.

The poems selected in As Ever span more than 40 years, and often Bolinas is focused through Kyger's keen eye. The daybook quality of the poems creates a narrative from the fabric of everyday life. Early poems from her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, project the story from Homer of Odysseus' homecoming onto her own domestic and personal relations. She attempts her own weaving of myth into personal experience to register a condition in poetry that will return years later more naked and less forced. Tapestry, though, is an extraordinary presentation of a poet's early work. Simply, she seeks an alignment of heaven and earth, the presence of myth in the present. She registers myth as an organizing formal energy of everyday life. Her poems too are a complex occasion of forces, with humor and lightness of touch easing more serious relations and insights.

"Refresh my thought of Penelope again," she writes, "Just HOW / solitary was her wait? / I notice Someone got to her that / barrel chested he-goat prancing / around w/ his reed pipes / is no fantasy of small talk." (10)

Kyger always shows you what's happening where she is, proceeding in language from diverse environments. Physical landscapes, travel notes, and flora and fauna flourish in her provocative writing. Details of life in Japan, Mexico, and Bolinas emerge through these bright poems. The body of her work reads like an ongoing daybook, a form she has transformed and extended through the compression and careful selection of her words. Kyger shares affinities with Lady Murasaki's The Pillow Book, to root the formal inspiration for her writing in the deeper past. While there are also some 19th-century antecedents for notebook writing (there's Thoreau, of course, and Whitman's Specimen Days), the New American generation of the '50s and '60s developed new narrative techniques based on chance accumulations, thoughts, and captured experiences taken down casually in notebooks. Robert Creeley's A Day Book, Paul Blackburn's Journals and William Corbett's Columbia Square Journal were all written during this period of experimentation. Kyger, who often dates her poems, continues with this daybook method, confronting and disrupting her "self" through a process of careful observation, selection, and relation of daily phenomena. Her proposed marriage of heaven and earth in The Tapestry and the Web continues in later poems, but without the need for mythological or literary grounding. There is an anti-literary quality to her work. Even the page is antithetical to standard visual line breaks. She takes as subject what the day presents, in all its mundane, domestic, and often extraordinary presence. In "Morning Mess" she writes:

Just waiting to go out there and boogie it up In case anyone comes by Everybody practices magic whether they know it or not Oh I'm worn out just watching the cats lick their fur I'm worn out fading fast my hair is arranged the boon of illimitable life is obtained. (169)

Fundamentally, she is a religious poet. Besides a serious study and practice of Zen, her poems are disruptive of her own satisfaction or comfort with herself, thus opening her to a provisory existence. This character trait prevents her work from reaching the smug heights often displayed in the writing of the Official Verse Culture supported by mainstream journals, university departments, and granting foundations. But through poetry she can penetrate beyond personal complexities, moods, and ideas, tending immediate environments instead, and emotionally reckoning in an instant the rich fabric of life's threads.

These several selves that move one self around, thousands jiggling. It is so inappropriate to be unfound, whine around, hesitate, lock the window again, this body is dissipated. To accomplish, to learn, with thanks, to one's past history is brought up close. And for a while, with late spring's wild radish flower blooming past my window, the further shore is close, is here. I do not want to say he is dead yet because he has not yet come back, but my sadness for the missing comes recognized, is acceptable. Gone with the last look he questioned me with. Have you done this to me? Indeed are they my forces or the forces I am within. That no children come from me to love. And I am this space in time, this focus, of articulation, that hears the bee buzz round and round. (143)

The sudden shifts of tone in her poems show a dramatic and clear perceptive range. Intense self-scrutiny and humorous self-commentary are often intertwined. Cultural and religious references are woven into a physical landscape. Turkey buzzards are totem familiars that appear in her poems, as they do in the skies above her mesa, suddenly surprising, full of mystery and charm. Northern California predominately emerges as a great force; its vivid landscape and Pacific Ocean, and the mesa, grasses, and mountains all reveal a phenomenalogical pressure of candid detail and personal measure. The distinctions between self, body and landscape, and God and domestic gods of place blend into the vibrant fabric of every day.

The titles of other books also give clues to her art: Joanne, Places to Go, The Trip Out and Fall Back, The Wonderful Focus of You, Up My Coast, and Some Life are just a few. Portions of all these books are here, and contribute to the daybook-like narrative an extended tale of days lived, not remembered or projected upon. Kyger is a pioneer in American letters of a new narrative approach that is grounded in personal experience. Like other Beat comrades, she is politically and socially fierce, but underneath, forming the basis of her breath, is a religious push to be in the world naked or close to naked every day. To participate to the fullness of one's self, As Ever ...

As Ever by Joanne Kyger
Penguin USA
ISBN: 0142001120
320 Page