Coffee House Press ($35 each)
by Ed Torres
With the release of volumes two and three, Coffee House Press completes its monumental repackaging of the works of Paul Metcalf. Originally published to little fanfare by the best small presses you've never heard of, these writings—bizarre marriages of prose, poetry, history, and found texts—force the reader to confront a radical Americanist avant-garde aesthetic; at the same time these books place us in the midst of America's bloody past, taking a look at everything from the seafaring explorations of the seventeenth century to the atomic detonations of the late twentieth. With over 1500 pages of some of the most enjoyable, provocative, and unorthodox writing of the century, the publication of Metcalf's Collected Works restores a significant segment of both literature and history.
Volume Two covers the ten-year span of 1976 to 1986, arguably Metcalf's most fecund period. At the core of the book is Both, which conflates Poe and Booth—pronounce both names at the same time—through the use of a linchpin narrative called “Waterworld,”a riveting tale of cannibalism and gender confusion on the high seas. If this sounds a bit confusing, well, Metcalf doesn't connect the dots for his readers; instead, by offering a set of images and texts that just might reflect one another, he invites the reader to enter his meditation on American literature and history, those twin supporting beams whose integrity he's suspected since his groundbreaking novel Genoa (contained in Volume One). In U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Metcalf poses a synergistic link between fault lines in the earth and migraines in the brain, while musing on his role as a lecturer at an Alaskan history conference. I-57, “an ideosyncratic approach to a place,”yokes the author's shaky state
of mind during his fifty-seventh year to a physical journey along the corresponding interstate; it is perhaps the finest comment on, and certainly the most unusual example of, the road novel. (Despite what must have been considerations of space, Coffee House wisely presents I-57 and U.S. Dept. with their original photographs and drawings, whose presence is not incidental but clearly part of Metcalf's overall experiment in what constitutes a meaningful text.) Volume Two's longest entry, Waters of Potowmack, is also its most heady and historical, reimagining our nation's capital from the Mesozoic era to the Johnson administration. Yet Metcalf's powerful obsession with American history should not suggest his poem-proses are too intellectual or without humor; in an author's note to the short homage Willie's Throw, he explains: “I am a lifelong baseball fan, brought up with, and still pledging allegiance to, the Boston Red Sox. I therefore need no lessons in suffering.”
Metcalf continues his collage-like explorations of history throughout Volume Three, where once again he folds texts from old books, newspapers, and travelogues together to illustrate North America's violent and chaotic past. Golden Delicious assembles multiple narratives into one book, giving us a brief look at the Puritans in New England, the gold-diggers' grueling and gruesome trek West to California, and the history of apple-growing in the Pacific Northwest. Amarinta and the Coyotes juxtaposes the astounding story of Harriet Tubman's work to free the slaves of the South with accounts of Mexican illegal aliens who risk their lives for what equals slavery in the “free” U.S. As usual, Metcalf doesn't comment on the material he presents, leaving it up to the reader to piece together an interpretation of these often brutal and almost unbelievable events. Furthermore, his direct citations from earlier texts are informative not only for the what, when, and where but for the language used, which better than anything reveals the bigotry, hypocrisy, and occasional generosity of its original speakers. Metcalf's own voice is most apparent in “. . . and nobody objected“, a piece written for the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of America, which takes its title directly from Christopher Columbus's report on his first voyage. Here Metcalf asks, who exactly was Christopher Columbus—a preincarnation of Don Quixote? a fearful Spanish Jew? or simply an outrageous, wholesale liar?
Volume Three is more chaotic than its predecessor, as the later Metcalf ranges formally into essays and plays, yet these divergent paths offer further vantage points from which to assess Metcalf's contribution to American letters. The short essays from Where Do You Put the Horse? question our acceptance of the categories of poetry and fiction, probe our responses to literature and creativity, and revisit American icons from Melville to Buster Keaton; the longest of them performs “a gesture toward reconstitution” of Metcalf's friend and mentor Charles Olson. The plays have more in common with his historical texts in their use of the actual words spoken by figures from the past. The Players—his only stab at comedy (and this still a “documentary comedy-drama”)—for example, consists of a rowdy dialogue between Walt Whitman and John Burroughs (“bird watcher, bird lover, and all-around celebrant of Nature”), playing off of another dialogue between two baseball stars, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Don Luciano. As plays, these works are highly unconventional fare, but as in Metcalf's other works, necessary imaginative leaps are justly rewarded.
The final two pieces of this volume appear here in print for the first time. Huascarán, a historical/poetic telling of the earthquake in Peru, May 1970, proves to be one of Metcalf's most succinct and sympathetic histories to date, while The Wonderful White Whale of Kansas is a humorous and clever retelling of The Wizard of Oz, interspersed with surprisingly relevant sections of Moby Dick.
In the essay “Totem Paul: A Self-Review,” Metcalf muses on his many books: “They are printed on what paper the publisher chooses, to last as long as it may . . . the books to be reprinted as anyone may or may not wish, as time goes on. Let the future take care of itself.” Happily for us, it has done just that. Yet these Collected Works are not complete; Paul Metcalf, at the age of eighty-one, continues to piece together historical poetic narratives that still seem in many ways ahead of his time and outside of his tradition. That's their strength. There is work to be done if we're to catch up with him.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997