Not Veracruz
By Joanne Kyger

Review by Jim Feast (with Nhi Chung)

 


New York: Libellum, 2007

To my mind that wing of American poetry that has espoused "living in the moment," a theme it claims to have picked up or deepened from immersion in Buddhist thought, has generally blindly distorted the Asian philosophy from which it draws. I bring up this topic because of the appearance of a new book, Not Veracruz, by Joanne Kyger, one of the few writers in this group to have a mature understanding of Buddhist thought, which, among other things, helps endue her poetry with a quality of lighthearted, yet overarching and searching seriousness. In saying all this, let me add the caution that I am not advocating the academic view that a poet has to subtly appreciate theories from which she or he borrows in order to produce good verse. Often the opposite is the case: great poems w/ great distortions. What I want to explore, though is the unusual case of Kyger: great poems w/ great understanding.

Let's look at what I consider the inaccurate, because partial, characterization of Kyger's writing in David Meltzer's introduction to her As Ever. (To be fair, I am using his words simply to represent a certain view of Buddhist philosophy and, in truth, do not fully indicate the strength or completeness of Meltzer's intelligent thought on the matter.) He notes, "Kyger's hometown communiqués . . . . [indicate] how a life is lived . . . at home in the absolute core of nothing and everything in the moment" (xviii). He states further, "Her work demands and awakens attention to the extraordinary ordinary, the so-called 'everyday"' (xvii). This is tied to Kyger being "an unorthodox American Buddhist. Heterodoxical yet profoundly traditional to the essence of the practice" (xviii).

Leaving aside the question of what is unorthodox — New York's Manhattan Chinatown has some 30 temples, each drawn from a different province or city in the Mainland or Taiwan and having a different doctrine — let's ask the question of why this lineage is needed at all to orient one to the "extraordinary ordinary," to repeat Meltzer's felicitous phrase.

After all, the need to "be here now" was developed as an aesthetic ideology by French and British Romanticism, in writers from Coleridge to Hugo. However, as Eagleton and others have pointed out, this ideology has made a strange historical progress. It started out in the early days of industrial capitalism as an artistic protest against the regimentation and standardization implicit in that historical form. But then, in a turnabout, with the rise of consumer capitalism, advertisers picked up the banner of "living in the now" and used it to . . . sell dishwashers (and other products).

Little wonder, then, that poets who still found key to their writing practice, the pristine apprehension of the moment would go further afield (as Kyger would go to Japan and India with Gary Snyder) to find a more suitable backing to their work.

(By the way, am I wrong to imagine a hidden dialogue among Kyger's literary critics on just this point? In the preface to As Ever, Michael Rothenberg says, "Joanne does not work to commodify the moment" as if he wanted to stress the distance between Kyger's and commercialism's use of the live-in-the-now motif (xv). Meanwhile, in the introduction to Strange Big Moon, Anne Waldman comments on how: Kyger's "story reminds us that in the 1960s there was still the bohemian possibility of a serious writer living on very little money. That was before 'experimental' poetry became an academic pursuit and was funded primarily by grants and university positions" (ix-x). I read Waldman as implicitly acknowledging that those who apply to or are supported by these institutions, which generally have a conservative, capitalist ethos, are unashamed in adopting the older aesthetic stance toward "living in the present," since it is so compatible with a pro-business point of view. Those, like Kyger, who are outside this world view -- Kyger repeats with approval from Whalen's letter to her husband, the phrase "that destructive, thoughtless, 9/10th dead machinery known as 20th Century American Civilization" — have a greater need to discover other belief structures (Strange, 59).)

But, to return to our discussion, what is the Buddhist idea of "living in the present," which I have claimed is quite distinct from similar ideas of European Romanticism? Below, I will discuss the Chinese ideogram for "moment" (pin hk in pinyin), but here let's talk about this theme as it appears in Chinese Buddhist verse (with apologies to Japanese, Indian and other cultures' view, about which my teacher, Nhi, and myself are not qualified to speak).

In Chinese verse, every now has supreme importance because of its special placement in a relationship to historical sequence (both this and otherworldly) and cosmic powers. It is its complexity not its singularity that gives the moment uniqueness.

At every instant, the four natural forces, expressed not only in weather and crop conditions, but even in such seemingly unrelated factors as the ideogram of the date, will either balance or misalign. Disharmony, though, is the norm. Chinese poetry with this theme is concerned with capturing, not any moment whatsoever, but the rare spaces of equanimity. (Perhaps because these are so rare, so many Chinese landscape painting, which often try to render such moments, are, even if they have place names, imaginary not plein-air depictions.)

As far as humans are involved in this scheme, two places in the social hierarchy, that of the farmer and the Emperor, have a great influence on harmony. Still, everyone's acts can touch on this balance, bettering or stabilizing it both by standing in alignment with reigning cosmic powers and, equally importantly, by keying one's life correctly to the debts of one's past lives.

Past lives. This brings us immediately to Kyger, who, unlike her contemporaries, has imported the "being present" doctrine into the construction of historical narratives. Already in her early 1960s journals she was putting together descriptions or individual time points that linked the present to historical and mythological references. For example, she notes for March 25, 1960, "remembering the morning I awoke/seeing Harvey across the room at Don Crow's and said — I want Zeus. Harvey always reminded me of that" (17). More significantly, some of her most remarkable poems channel Greek mythology, such as the luminous "THE ODYESSEY POEMS," or delve into her childhood, as in "PLACES TO GO" or "My father died this spring," in ways that engraft these pasts onto her own present.

But let's get to Not Veracruz, in which the personages crucial to the Chinese in considering the degree of a moment's harmony are also uppermost, that is, the Emperor and the peasant.

Kyger's very first piece, ""Happy New Year," is a textbook illustration of the Chinese truism that if the Emperor lives dissolutely, in other words, outside bounds, nature will go out of whack. The poet begins by explaining,

Into the storm tossed year padding
           and scudding across the brain
                     pan of the holidays
                               — there's the door mat
                          blown into the bushes (9)

The year has been unnaturally inclement, so much so that it seems to be, by flinging about the welcoming mat, interfering with all friendly human relations. Why has the season taken this tack? The answer is not far to seek.

John Yoo tells George Bush
           there are no laws
                     that limit
                               his power

The president has gracelessly lost the art of rule through attention to universal laws, which has rebounded into a falling apart of nature.

But what of the other chief personage responsible for aligning with nature, the peasant? Although this book only alludes to it in passing, anyone acquainted with Kyger's work will remember that she often depicts herself, an ardent vegetable gardener, in this role Her journal, Strange Big Moon is filled with notes such as "Yesterday transplanted corn and zinnias" (39), "Pick weeds from the moss everyday" (103), and "Gardening all day" (116). Moreover, since she spent years studying flower arranging in Japan, she scoured the forests near Kyoto for attractive sprigs, becoming something of a woodswoman. As she notes in one place, "found down near the river road sweet pea like flowers of light purple and dark lavender" (28).

It is also noteworthy that many of her most scrupulously observed poems, such as, drawing from the Just Space volume, "A few days later at the washtub," "Going out to water the garden" and "What Starts Out as a Halloween Buddhist Love Poem for John Daley," delicately describe gardening.

Remember, in Chinese Buddhist thought, it is the peasant who has the greatest perception of the colored nuances of the immediate, which, as suggested, involves integrating into the occurring moment, both recollection and prefiguration. The need for this confluent view is also enunciated by Kyger, who remarks in her journals,

How very difficult to cut past and future time away from what     is happening. Reminiscence and anticipation are so important —     define the moment ahead and behind. (69)

Given this connection to the root position of observation as a gardener, Kyger in Not Veracruz brings to life the clarified power of her apprehension of instants as visionary interludes. To add more close-at-home comparisons, we could say Frank O'Hara also might describe the disparate contents of a moment, but this would have been to achieve a collage-like effect. Ted Berrigan, on the other hand, might also have noted the variety of passages in everyday life, but more to celebrate than note any consistency in life's cornucopia. For Kyger, in distinction, there is an underlying coherence, for good or ill, in the manifold of experience. Given our reactionary times in the U.S., these recent poems show it always for ill, being records of slippage and distress.

Take as an example of this "What The Storms Did." The author and friends go to the site where fellow poet Bill McNeill's ashes were laid to rest. Getting there, she writes:

Well we find Bill's site
           split in the middle
                     by a gash three feet deep

In consequence:

Can't find any ashes or bones
           where Whalen or Dorsey
                     ceremonially chanted
                          for a Zen comrade's last feat (12)

Although she puts a positive, if brittle, gloss on the event, saying McNeill's ashes have gone out to sea, she well knows that in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, the place of one's burial is of extreme significance, not only for the ghost's rest but because a proper grave placement is necessary for the future of one's family. (In China, people will even dig up and move their ancestors' bones to improve their feng shui.) The moment of discovery of his grave's debasement is concurrently a moment touched by rulelessness at the top, in the imperial court, and so Kyger's poem becomes a commentary on how the poetic community has been shattered (by way of an effected nature) by the fascist-leaning political regime.

"The Studio," using more humor, presses on the nature/regime continuity. After recounting how both her mental equipment and her plumbing are shot, she ends with a direct statement of the multi-layered disharmony that pervades the present. "and the cliffs slip downward//just like democracy" (13).

Many of the poems in the book are not like these, not extended attempts to render how the levels of reality swell and move together, but are rather quick, four- or five-line works of aphoristic phrasing. To my view, these can be taken to be sketches that may someday be incorporated in fuller pieces, just as her long poem, JOANNE, in As Ever is made up of a carefully assembled grouping of such nuggets.

In the last poem in the book, "A Record," which, as are so many of the longer works here, is presented in an offhand way that underplays the dark pessimism of the facts considered, she gives a reason for the existence of so many nuggets alongside the more worked-out pieces. In the midst of a discussion of the jangled rhythm of the spheres, she let's drop:

Good morning
           fragments

of last night's travels
           in that invisible state called "dream"
                     sneak around with cardboard boxes
                             full of old poetry (44)
                                        

If "What The Storms Did" suggests the continuity and heritage of dissident poets is being destroyed, here she hints our disastrous political situation has triggered a collapse of her ability to even render (in verse) the lineaments of this disintegration because the sourcing of her inspiration in dream states is withering. This, at least, is how I interpret having to now "sneak" around with her writing

In other words, direly enough, as the disharmony increases, even a poet's ability to depict it is threatened, although only a poet like Kyger, who has transposed the full implication of the (Chinese) Buddhist sense of immediacy is able to note and place it:

for a moment
it's agonizing, sad, final (27)

But we can't end there. The Chinese ideogram for "moment" has two characters. The first, pin, means "a slice." It also appears, for instance, in chit pin, to cut in slices, or in yat pin yuhk, slice of meat. The second word, hak, refers to the time measure "a second." Thus, the moment ideogram means "the slice of a second." Just as the Chinese language is more conceptually dynamic than English so this ideogram, which suggests that a moment is being sliced out of time, is more fluid than the English definition. The collaboration from which the now appears is filled with interacting entities. From this perspective, even the event of publishing a book of poems throw shadows up to the highest reaches of power as well as down to the faintest dwindlings of the human heart.


References

Joanne Kyger, As Ever — Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2002).

Joanne Kyger, Just Space: Poems 1979-1989 (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow, 1991).

Joanne Kyger, Strange Big Moon The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000).

David Meltzer, "Introduction," Joanne Kyger, As Ever — Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2002).

Michael Rothenberg, "Foreword," Joanne Kyger, As Ever — Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2002).

Anne Waldman, "Foreword," Joanne Kyger, Strange Big Moon The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000).