October 2007

Jason B. Jones


Way More West: New and Selected Poems by Edward Dorn

A hypothetical map of the United States, inferred from the contents of, say, the Norton Anthology of American Literature, would tilt heavily to the east -- New England, the south of Faulkner, Welty, and Hurston, and New York -- with occasional forays to Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. Writers who take as their focus the southwest can seem strangely alien in this context. I remember reading Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain as an undergraduate and being sort of baffled.

Had I encountered Ed Dorn's poetry then, god knows what I would have made of it. His "peculiar route is across / the lost trail pass past"; his poems animated in part by a rage that "iron locomotives and shovels were hand tools / And barbed wire motives for each man's / fenced off little promised land." Way More West: New and Selected Poems makes for an excellent introduction to the diversity of Dorn's poetry. And he needs, frankly, an introduction to the general reader, for he has been under-anthologized relative to some of his contemporaries, with predictable consequences for casual readers.

It has been difficult for reviewers to separate Dorn's life from his poems. Some romanticize his escape from smalltown Illinois ("Coming from where I come form / You were a success the minute you left town"), his subsequent association with Black Mountain, and his (slightly itinerant) life of odd jobs. On this view, his apparent misanthropy is a cherished trait. For others, his often fractious relationships with fellow artists, and his idiosyncratic politics cast a shadow over his later poems.

Dorn's poems vary too widely to be easily summed up here. Sometimes, he reads like a demented, comic prophet. His poem from November 13, 1984, "The Price Is Right: A Torture Wheel of Fortune," imagines a show which, I think, is now a segment on Hannity and Colmes:

That hopeful contestant's face
reflected the malicious light
in the eyes of the host who
immediately threw the switch.

Likewise, in "Self Criticism," also from 1984, he anticipates precisely the condition of living in Dick Cheney's America:

But above all, I am in agreement
with all my government does
because to think otherwise
would be to make myself an enemy of the state.

Elsewhere, he proposes making an Aztec sacrifice of Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Perhaps in keeping with his western focus, his politics are more libertarian than liberal, however. There's a notorious poem here against air bags, and rhetorical grenades, such as pronouncing "multiculturalism" "the cult par excellence of late imperialism."

Dorn's masterpiece is Gunslinger, an epic poem featuring, among other things, a stoned talking horse, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Heideggerian meditations, and a quality of desperate intellectual inventiveness more usually seen in 1970s-era Pynchon:

Are those rounds
in the .44
of your own making?
No bullets, I rarely use
ordinary ammunition.
What then?
Straight Information.
You sound like the impact of a wet syllojsm.

The result "registers what my enemies / can never quite recall." As Dale Smith suggests in his introduction to the volume, Dorn's key insight is that "knowledge cannot be dumped into the brain as if it were some kind of container. Intent and instantaneous perceptions of experience create the only meaning we need." Book I is reprinted in its entirety here, and it's enough to justify most of the extravagant claims made on its behalf. Its rare to find parodies that can compete with their originals -- but the Gunslinger poem is an original American epic.

The last poems in this collection, from Chemo Sábe, record simultaneously Dorn's continued venomous denunciation of the state and of the later capitalism, as well as his struggles with pancreatic cancer. Somehow, this manages to avoid being maudlin: His tumor "sends out little colonies, chipped genes / mark their crossing the river, they are / without variation, they keep time with terror." At the same time, they are "like your own private third world / she arrives and breeds like guinea pigs, / evermore progeny and evermore food / . . . / . . . and then / they all demand independence and this / is in Your territory." Imagining the body as a site of colonial conflict -- including the mind's attempt to turn the body to its own ends, and capital's attempt to expropriate both the labor and pleasures of the body -- is a consistent theme of the last thirty years' worth of poems.

A poet of Dorn's eclectic interests could probably stand a slightly more robust editorial apparatus than we are given here. While Dale Smith's introduction to Dorn is helpful, it's really an appreciation of the poet's work and life, not an explanation of the edition; also, some guidance to the reliability of these texts would be useful. In all, however, the scope and convenience of this collection make it unmissable for anyone who cares about American poetry in the twentieth century, or about the place of the West in the American imagination.

Way More West: New and Selected Poems by Edward Dorn
ISBN: 978-0-14-303869-6
321 pages