a review of Shamanic Warriors, Now Poets
Shamanic Warriors, Now Poets
Pages: 408 pages.
37 illustrations: 23 colour & 14 black & white.
Book size: 269 mm X 193 mm ( 10Y2 X 7Y2 in. )
ISBN: 0 9534280 1 X
Available from R & R Publishing
44 Knightsbridge Street, Glasgow, G 13 2YN, Scotland
Price: £30 / $60 /50 Surface Mail/ $75 Air Mail P & P Inc.
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This huge yellow hardbound book brings together an unknown and perhaps previously uncreated scene of writers and artists from five generations and five continents. Chronologically, the book begins with Arthur Rimbaud, through translations by editor J.N. Reilly. Rimbaud—the passionate youth, the visionary transgressor, the dropout—becomes the “angel” of counterculture artists (in his introduction called “Welcome,” Reilly states flatly: “There is no other kind of artist”). But the Rimbaud we find is not the tortured soul of “A Season in Hell”; he is euphoric:
Sweet like the Lord of the cedars and hyssops,
I piss toward the dusky skies, very high and very far,
With the assent of the great heliotropes.
And this sets the tone. The work included in this anthology is not the wailing of lonely and misunderstood outsiders but the celebratory chants of a people overjoyed to have stepped out forever into their own territory. In “Out of the Foxglove,” Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore speaks of “victory ululations,” and that seems to be more what the group is going for—a vibrating, incandescent mob streaking the empty city at night.
From Rimbaud the flame passes to Paul Bowles and Bryon Gysin to William Burroughs and Charles Henri Ford, to Julian Beck, Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of the Living Theater, to Hakim Bey, Mohamed Choukri and Rodrigo Rey Rosa, to a group of writers and artists which starts to swarm and diversify, stamped by the psychedelic paintings of Mati Klarwein and Paul Grillo’s collages.
There is no doubt that the editors believe in transmission in the sense of spiritual teaching, and that the book is in fact charting a lineage. Affirming this, the entire thing is somehow optimistically dedicated to “departed friends” including Klarwein, Ronnie Burk, Marty Matz, Vali Myers and Philip Whalen. There is an extended elegy to Gregory Corso beginning with a tribute by Patti Smith (“how fortunate for the world to be exposed to the rump of a true poet”) in which she writes of Allen Ginsberg “teaching [him] how to die.” And then Ira Cohen comes in quoting the last words Corso spoke to him (“My karma ran over my dogma”). Corso “mooning the world,” along with Gysin, who “ate the entire Imaginary museum, shat on a canvas and sold it for a rainbow,” along with everyone else, become incarnations of a tradition. Over and over we get reminded that this is not an exercise in the spinning of wheels, but a roll call and a challenge to stand up to illustrious and visionary predecessors—to take power from what they offered in the way of mischief and bliss.
Ira Cohen—not only a featured artist in the collection but Reilly’s editorial collaborator—once described himself as a “renaissance vaudeville comedian political activist and serial killer.” To anyone who has ever stepped into the Legacy (as Cohen’s apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan is known), the vastness and diversity of the work included in Shamanic Warriors will come as no surprise. The Cohen digs contain the pearls and detritus of a lifetime spent packratting through the global underground—from the Chelsea Hotel to the Beat Hotel to the Himalayas to the temples of Ethiopia. But it is not only the work of a traveler and lover of all artforms, the Legacy has a fatal quality, as if nothing was ever complete until a plastic figurine of Donald Duck lay next to a Cambodian crown on top of a copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Last time I was in the Cohen multiplex I was treated to a monologue that lasted several days and ranged from Lyndon Johnson to Iraq to biting an Indian baba’s foot to an explanation of why Henry James is a master narrator of karmic logic. This anthology must fall into the same realm of fatal accidents.
There is a reference to these delicate occurrences in the form of a note attached to Angus MacClise’s “Splash Manifest Documents.” It refers to “a unique rite of initiation which Angus knew to exist both in Brugh na Boyne, Ireland, and in Chile by a certain jaguar cult involving the illumination of a cave at a specific moment in the year when the sun’s rays hit a hidden crystal.”
A recurring metaphor is the hologram: “If you take a holographic plate, and you smash it, every fragment contains the entire image.” That means if I take a line from Corso’s “Way Out,” say the moment when Rhinoceros says “Snort snort snort,” I should be able to peer inside it and see Andy Clausen’s vision of “Los Angeles about to implode through the yak dung stoves.” In Terry Riley’s “Chinaman in Chinatown” I hear Paul Bowles beautiful plea: “Take me to the other end of the city/where they slice up the sharks in the sand.” These reverberations go on and on, united under any number of mottos, among them Hakim Bey’s greeting from the English Ranters—a libertine sect from the 17th century—“Rejoice! All is ours!”
In “Happy Birthday Mao Tse Tung,” Charles Henri Ford (“the first American surrealist”) speaks of “A Chinese poem whose intention is chemistry of mind.” The poem is not an aesthetic object—it’s a spell. That is: a set of words with practical intention and concrete effect. If you pronounce the proper sixteen syllables at the right time of day, holding a rusted screwdriver basted in the menstrual blood of a one-eyed zebra, the trap door opens and you get vacuumed straight to heaven. For a poet, there may be no greater ambition.
With all the incantations, though, the receiver is still tuned in to the cosmic joke. So along with Janine Pommy Vega’s “ancient self/and its singing heart,” Cohen gives us “the bolo punch of Kid Gavilah.” The mass of work comes together, perhaps, to let us know—as Howard Schwartz says in “The Celestial Orchestra”—“The world only existed so those secret harmonies could be heard.”