Tag Archives: spring 2000


What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press ($16)

by Mark Terrill

It's astonishing just how many people, when they hear the name Bukowski, are ready to dismiss him, in less than a breath, as some sort of sexist, macho, skid-row bard, caught up in his teufelskreis of booze, broads, and back-rent, whose poetics consisted of nothing more than a "gritty roominghouse lyricism." In these days of postmodern, deconstructed, politically correct aesthetics, it's easy to forget the immense contribution that Bukowski made to American poetry. Picking up where W.C. Williams and the Beats left off, Bukowski reasserted the power of the demotic and its relevance to American experience. Of course this has not been without its negative flip-side, the result being a deluge of confessional, "slice-of-life,"petit moi poetry, from which contemporary American poetry has yet to recover. But what sets Bukowski apart from all of his imitators is his ability to turn his bleak, existential vision into something truly universal, which is also the secret of his worldwide popularity. You don't have to be intimately familiar with dingy bars, nasty whores, run-down hotels, and the harsh Los Angeles sun to know where Bukowski is coming from. His understanding of the human dilemma, his compassion for animals, and his impatience with conformity and the "dead-before-death gang" transcended the claustrophobic milieu of down-and-out, blue-collar Los Angeles, and the true crux of Bukowski's art was his remarkable talent to turn his quotidian despair into something that even Japanese bank executives or Spanish art students can relate to, approximating a sort of tongue-in-cheek Kafka of American poetry.

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire is the second in Black Sparrow's series of posthumous volumes of Bukowski's poetry, and is full of some of his most incendiary poetry to date. This is not just some old mothballed Bukowski that John Martin has dusted off and wheeled out to help pay the rent now that Black Sparrow's star poet is gone; at 412 pages, this is a veritable tome of vintage Bukowski culled from the early 1970s up to the 1990s, from one of America's most influential, oft-imitated, yet essentially inimitable poets ever.

Aside from the usual bar, racetrack, flophouse, and hangover poems, all blazing brilliantly with Bukowski's trademark fusion of angst and irony, there are also many poems of sheer, exacting, even frightening, beauty, executed with all the boldness and audacity of a German expressionist painter, such as the haunting "full moon," here in its entirety:

red flower of love
cut at the stem
passion has its own
and hatred too.
the curtain blows open
and the sky is black
out there tonight.
across the way
a man and a woman
standing up against a darkened
the red moon
a mouse runs along
the windowsill
changing colors.
I am alone in torn levis
and a white sweat shirt.
she's with her man now
in the shadow of that wall
and as he enters her
I draw upon my

Of course one can't help speculating as to the true strategy behind such posthumous collections. Did the author feel the poems weren't strong enough to be included in other collections? Were they purposely held back by the publisher in anticipation of the author's eventual death and the ensuing dry spell? Or were they simply too personal, too gut-level and potentially libelous to risk publishing during the author's lifetime? In the case of Bukowski, it was obviously partly the latter. He takes merciless jabs, pokes, and swings at many peers and contemporaries, as in the hilarious "4 Christs," where Bukowski attends a poetry reading in Santa Cruz with "Ginsbing," "Beerlinghetti," "G. Cider," and "Jack Bitcheline". In other poems, many other writers, such as Henry Miller and Diane Wakoski, are also caught in the beam of Bukowski's critical searchlight.

For anyone who wishes to re-examine the work of this immensely popular, highly contested poet, this collection is an excellent place to begin, covering as it does a span of over twenty years. For fans wishing to fill out their collection of already published Bukowski, this is a must, a cornucopia of outtakes and bonus tracks that will further establish Bukowski's already enduring place in American literature.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Meteorology by Alpay Ulku

Alpay Ulku
BOA Editions ($12.50)

by Camille-Yvette Welsch

Born in Turkey, raised in Canada, educated in both America and England, Alpay Ulku roams the borders of a dozen worlds, all without a home. In this first book, Ulku strives to find causal relationships within his world to provide metaphysical security and comfort. These poems explore a deeply lonely place, a "nowhere" in modern culture where Ulku negotiates without the fixed traditions of any one ethnicity. In "Ars Poetica" he writes "Then this happens, so that happens. And you're older again. / The sky, a cast-iron door, shuts without your consent: / some sickly stars. Déjà vu / is what happens when you know you could stop." In the twentieth volume of the A. Poulin, Jr. New Poets of American Series, Ulku's search for agency compels; he cannot "stop," giving the poems both a sense of wonder and a sense of fear, the suspicion that perhaps, the world works without reason.

Ulku's rootlessness provides a gnosis for much of the alienation implicit in his poems. Without a specific home, Ulku explores several different scapes—North America, Turkey, city, desert, but his lack of affiliation propels his work. He writes in his poem, "After Completion," "Time / was, a hundred thousand people could perish in battle over / a hilltop. They died in terror, dreaming of home." Ulku writes in terror, dreaming of a home in faith and history, somewhere between Islam and America, a Western education and Turkish lineage. This volume begins with "July" chronicling a series of actions:

Days that turn like a miller's wheel, nights the air in our lungs. His ashes
are everywhere, in the chambers where gasoline is trapped, compressed,
and then ignited—

These events intertwine based on syntactical proximity alone. The images reveal no higher plan; rather, together, they convince us of Ulku's underlying message: God has left the building. A crisis of faith, equally religious and secular, drives the poet to seek a reason why and how people exist and co-exist, a question without resolution. While the poems display the poet's uncertainty about faith and the meaning of life, they illustrate his understanding about what it means to be living on the earth, to observe his world, and he is not afraid to make comment. For him, it becomes a question of how to articulate beliefs and fears. He writes in "Off-Planet News": "You're a coin sent spinning on its edge. / Dying is a word we use for the thrill of it." The juxtaposition of image and declarative statement characterizes a number of these poems, and Ulku does not fear declaration. He writes in his "Ars Poetica," "Use dignity, and another word for what it takes to survive." After reading this collection, I might guess that the other word is faith.

Thematically, these poems wrestle with spiritual introspection and conflict, but the level of language rarely rises to the point of being startling, beautiful or memorable. The recitation of pedestrian images rarely achieves much. Sometimes we see a tableau, but more often we read a list of actions. In "July," "A car horn blasts. A window goes down. Someone / yells something / about sleep. Shut-up someone replies." Still, at times, Ulku writes longingly about the world that grounds him and seems to give him so much pain, and it is in these moments that the poetry begins to dance, even in its despair as in "Futility":

Believe me.
I would change the meaning of poor.
I wish I were a shard of stained glass
a boy exploring the ruins
picks up and turns over, saying glass.
I wish the bones of a small white bird
would rise up out of the prairie,
rise up and fly off in any direction.

In this poem, Ulku articulates all that the book wants: the desire, the longing, to feel wonder, to be wonderful, to have the power to name things and make them beautiful. Ulku speaks quietly what he would wish for himself in this lost world:

We have lived a hundred thousand lives;
I am tired of it all.
Carry me off on your rolling shoulders.
Show me a new way to live with myself.

Ultimately, though the language lags in places, Ulku still offers some insight into the quest for faith and religion at the end of the twentieth century. Occasionally prosaic, sometimes engaging, Ulku's images are bound by desire, a longing for causality, a universal raison d'etre. Meteorology navigates the eye of a personal storm of loneliness and displacement, a storm that might threaten and enlighten the shores of every modern reader.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


A Measure of Conduct by Barry Wallenstein

Barry Wallenstein
Ridgeway Press ($12.50)

by Stephanie Rauschenbusch

Sly, wry, ironic, pitch-perfect for off-rhymes, these new poems in Barry Wallenstein's fifth book play with and tease out happy and unhappy endings. In the poem "A Measure of Conduct," a log-borne earwig is, after much thought, not consigned to a fireplace fire, though "in an absent state, I confused / action with inaction, smallness with / next to nothing."

Georgia O'Keeffe's giant painted versions of tiny things tell it no better:

The green spadix is back-dropped
against the lightly striped spathe,
a flower canopy for Jack
the erect her of the piece, on his pulpit,
a kind of throne.

(Jack-in-the-Pulpit: Song and Flower)

This miniature man seems to be the same fellow we meet in "Small" who asks the doctor to make him small "and a little calmer than before." He uses his small size to creep into his love's pocket book and sit on her lipstick "in a desirous trance."

Then we have the ending of the "famed aviator" whose parachute falls and whom we see as though the wrong end of a pair of binoculars:

A dull opening up of everything human
onto water—
so hard he failed his form
on impact
and the churning, schussing heavy
waters—never soft except in cups—
partitioned him further…"

(A Famed Aviator Meets His Death)


The tone of these poems is light, amused, witty, observant, ready to change and turn at a moment's notice, possessed of a dancer's grace. A fine example of this dexterity is "Apostrophe to Dr. Trope, Anesthesiologist." In this fictive letter to the doctor of poetic images—"tropes"—we have an operation, real or virtual, and then a dream:

Dr. Trope, I've dreamed of you
standing here at my bedside—in white,
a gauze mask dangling from white thread.
I ask you about the laws of poetry, probabilities,
the range of tropes.
Do you know how many there are of you?
I'm a devil to ask:
are there little Tropes at home?
Mamma and Poppa Trope still alive?

"I'm a devil to ask" signals the poet's playful teasing and could be the epigraph to the Tony poems—a portrait finely and imaginatively assembled from the many personae of a "street artist," con man, pothead, resident of the Hotel Splendide. A man living in "the backlands of blank" ("Happy Birthday Tony") where "Some oblivions are brightly lit / and dappled with spasmodic action . . ." ("Tony's Brain"), Tony goes invisible ("Anonymous Tony"), dyes his hair red ("Tony the Pothead"), reassures his dead mother that jail time is like floating on an iceberg ("Tony to His Mother") recites his numbers-running past ("Tony Hears the Music") and hides in a tunnel ("Tony the Trader"):

He swishes, spins, stops, sits down
cross-legged on a carpet, 4 by 6
and signed in the weave;
he stacks his goods with soft precision,
fooling himself with false division
for practice, he practices
a cloud break in a thunder clap
shakes him to the derelict day; erect,
he jots a note and a name
a column of names.

Two of the Tony poems cut deep. One ("Tony's Blade") starts: "Blade imagines it has memories . . ." This speaking knife ominously feels it needs sharpening. It is, and isn't the butcher's knife in "Tony's Dad" the butcher who carries Tony "across a river of blood." The memories here are exact and terrifying, when we begin to see Tony as the poet's mask, or doppelganger:

The fat in the slaughterhouse,
in the stone room
adjacent to the killing rooms,
would clog in the drain
and the steers' blood puddled
high enough for a young Tony
to need either hip boots
or a lift onto father's difficult shoulders.

At times this Tony sequence seems novelistic in its complexity and subtlety. Wallenstein, a professor at City College, New York, "performs" these poems with a jazz combo, the music putting extra pressure on the words. These poems have the earned seriousness and humor of Yeats' Crazy Jane poems. They and the rest of the poems in A Measure of Conduct are built around the knowledge of "love in its practical conjurings" ("Salvation").

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


The American Pragmatist Fell in Love by Tom Devaney

Tom Devaney
Banshee Press ($10)

by Joanna Furhman

Tom Devaney's first book of poems, The American Pragmatist Fell in Love, serves as an antidote to the rarified aestheticism common in many avant-garde and academic poems. The details he includes have the "ring of authenticity" without the self-consciousness that term implies. These are playful, philosophical, subtle poems. His energetic lyrics demonstrate a care and craft surprising in what might, at first glance, appear to be unmitigated boisterousness.

These are, without a doubt, fun poems. Who wouldn't be charmed by a poem that starts, "You know that movie with Don Knotts and the fish?" Still, it's a mistake to equate their playfulness for flippancy. In "Bee Beard Sonnet," one of series of "sonnets" (in the Bernadette Mayer sense of that word) that make up the central section of the book, a woman sings silently to herself as bees swarm, in what Devaney refers to as a "beard" around her.

Despite a Politics that must be aware of the threatened bee population—
Old Swarm, asexual attraction:
The grace control not to scratch her head, or break out in song.
Nevertheless, she is singing a silent version of what turns out to be:
"The Sunny Side of the Street."

This moment can be seen as a demonstration of Devaney's poetics. The bees, like all situations from which poetry arises, are both a source of danger and of beauty. The sonnet suggests that the happy tone of many of the poems in the book is analogous to the song the woman sings in order to protect herself from fear.

Devaney's smart and goofy poems may also protect a reader from fear. I am going to try to remember his lines the next time I am approached by a predatory swarm.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Abracadabra by Kimberly Lyons

Kimberly Lyons
Granary Books ($12)

by Mark Wallace

This enigmatic book of poems, quiet yet intense, draws on an intriguing range of influences to explore the relation between ourselves and others, people and things. The work has an understated precision of detail, as well as meditative subtlety, that consciously echoes the traditions of Asian poetry and mixes them with a set of more recognizably contemporary avant-garde techniques. Despite the historical underpinning, the subject matter is entirely contemporary; the poems focus on small daily struggles, intimate encounters, and startling juxtapositions of common objects, all of them framed by an informed social awareness.

Abracadabra concerns the inevitable interrelation between people--we are not separate from each other but irretrievably bound, in ways alternately comfortable and frightening. Yet it concerns as well the interrelation between people and objects; any notion of ourselves as subjective immediately must reckon with the way our consciousness is also created by the things we live among. Persons become intertwined with each other and with things, sometimes in indecipherable ways. These relations are constantly shifting—connections become traps, and traps become connections, and no situation stays stable more than temporarily. Yet Lyons manages to explore these philosophical implications through a language that never appears overtly theoretical. Rather than commenting from a safe intellectual distance, the narrator of Abracadabra talks intimately about a life she lives in thoroughly, for better and worse.

Lyons frames her poems with an understanding of social dynamics: "is it better to improve and / improve at a defined game / or to fuck up /in continuous instances / in a situation only possibly / a game." Yet political protest stays in the background here; the poems focus more on "Details & Incidents" ("It's cords of appliances that thwart / casual obfuscation of objects") that suggest political implications rather than overtly arguing them. The narrator of these poems lives in a world of complex daily navigation of people and things, one which often takes all her energy. "I want to be / enveloped by you I tell /him. Empathize. / A condition rather than /motion," she writes in "Biscotti," yet it's clear she knows that motion is an unavoidable condition, that she doesn't expect a resolution to the longing she expresses.

Many of these poems are moodily dark; "I suck on my violet duck / I hit my spoon with the floor. Call out to the / shadow of a saint / who has fallen under his horse" are the lines that end "The Concise History of Painting." Objects and people can overwhelm us easily; the danger of connections is that we can lose ourselves in them. This potential is highlighted by the long prose poem "Duration," one of the centerpieces of the collection. Taking place in different locales in America and Europe, "Duration" presents an extended exploration of the way people lose each other and themselves: "She feels herself to be provisional, easily rubbed away by their bodies knocking into hers. She cannot remember what she looks like, even if she has a face. She is duct of words she repeats to herself to become a body. The body sits in a chair." While "Duration" ultimately suggests the necessity of refusing despair, the mood of the poem is one of shadows upon shadows: "In the night there are no pictures, no memory."

Certain later poems in the collection do state Lyons' theoretical perspective more directly: "In detaching buds from the stems, stacks of situations and enigmas. Montage of chaotic, indeterminate surfaces / as the rain diffuses," she writes in "One Hundred Views from Edo." And the book's final section, "Object Relations," makes clear the way she thinks of people themselves as physical, as objects in a world of objects, whatever our various subjectivities. All these objects are interrelated, as she writes in March 6: "and everything seems to be part of it / in the Japanese sense as Patricia says." Yet even such direct statements are not answers so much as they are further situations to encounter, explore and struggle with. Abracadabra doesn't try to tell others how to live but concerns how the narrator herself is going to do it.

There is mystery in Abracadabra, a permanent sense of shadow and fog. Much of the book's power lies in its ability to explore this mystery without dispelling it. Never loud or insistent, these are the kind of poems whose resonance one could easily miss; a reader who doesn't pay close attention might dismiss them as amorphous and mushy. Yet they greatly reward the reader who stays with them, who recognizes that amorphous mush is often the condition out of which we must build lives and identities and connections, tentative but necessary. The great strength of this book is in its honest engagement with the narrator's involvement in this building process, and its refusal to make assertions about the world that, however comforting, would nonetheless be false.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


The Dreamhouse by Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh
University of Chicago Press ($12)

by Jeffrey Shotts

The Dreamhouse of the title of Tom Sleigh's fourth and latest collection of poems is a house divided. Between earth and spirit, pleasure and suffering, the dream and its reality, Sleigh's poems are restless assertions of ambivalence, spoken with voices almost assured as witnesses to an other, ethereal world on the shadow side of this one. Whether of sickness, grief, history, or myth, these ethereal worlds that Sleigh glances into brim with both unsettling imagination and the complex rendering of emotions previously unuttered.

But The Dreamhouse is most distinctly divided in its stylistic shifts, sometimes bravely divergent. If it is true, as Helen Vendler has suggested, that the breaking of style constitutes "an act of violence on the self," Sleigh has inflicted himself with an almost self-annihilating torment. Most of the poems in The Dreamhouse are approached through the first person, but through use of multiple personae and frequent stylistic shifts, Sleigh decisively obscures personal identity and artistic propensity. The collection remarkably weaves between subtly crafted formal lines and discursively drawn fragmented turns in the poems' structures and between evocations of Classical myth and images of urban facelessness among the poems' subjects.

The collection opens by invoking Horace in "Prayer," a poem pleading for the gratifications of this world:

Oh god of flesh, god of pleasure,

keep us in the dark
one moment more—

While this first poem suggests earthly pleasure is desired and achieved through keeping knowledge at arm's length, much of the rest of The Dreamhouse seems more concerned with glimpsing into ethereal worlds and uncovering spiritual dimensions beyond the flesh. Appearing just after "Prayer," the title poem describes the first postmortem moments as a surreal dissolve into light:

Even as he takes up residence, the dreamhouse
A void all glass and air: one table, one chair,
And sweeping wall to wall to wall sunlight everywhere.

The spare, sanitized, ethereal world of glass, air, and sunlight will, it seems, sweep away altogether the table and chair—the only objects of the minimalized tangible world.

Through the collection, the inevitable dissolving of earthly comforts continually disappoints the plea of the first poem, but although The Dreamhouse bereaves the loss of flesh, pleasure, and those that have passed on, it is not without a sense of wonder that we confront intersections with the unearthly. In the remarkable "Augusto Jandolo: On Excavating an Etruscan Tomb," the poem speaks with the archaeologist's voice to describe his discovery of a perfectly preserved body of an ancient warrior. But the wonder at this discovery is short-lived and suddenly replaced with the wonder at witnessing something like the warrior's soul at last set free. The ancient body succumbs to its sudden exposure to air and then "dissolved— / dissolved, as we looked on, / Into dust?":

But in the aura
Round our torches, a golden powder
Rose up in the glow and seemed to hover.

The Dreamhouse can seem at times uneven as Sleigh constantly writes in different voices and experiments with divergent forms, but it is finally an innovative and ambitious collection that extends the notable artistry of Sleigh's last two collections, The Chain and Waking. For his prodigious formal and imaginative talents, Sleigh's poetry is indispensable, and The Dreamhouse builds on his signature restless exploration:

Something in the mind can't rest, can it,
the mind is like that, my mind, yours, scavenging

after objects it gnaws, spits out, infantile
explorer day and night?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


nothing doing by Cid CormanCid Corman
New Directions ($13.95)

by Darrin Daniel

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.

Cid Corman's latest book, comprised of poems from the 80s and 90s, is long overdue. For over fifty years Corman, as poet, translator, and editor of Origin press, has delivered his literary mastery to poetry. His work is a direct link to the modernism of Pound and Williams, the Objectivists, and Black Mountain poetics; his influence can be seen in some of the Language poets. As editor and publisher, he has featured some of our very finest writers: Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, Niedecker, Creeley, Whalen, Levertov, and a long line thereafter. Indeed, Corman has earned his keep as editor and literary ambassador, but sadly his own poetry has failed to reach a wider audience. Perhaps that may change, as this latest book is just one of a number of books due out in this new millennium.

Nothing Doing is a sparse and direct book, its small poems varying in length and structure. The book is divided in five sections. The first section contains three poems entitled 'psalms'; these short and beautiful poems, which set the book off as an offering to the reader, are transliterations from the biblical Psalms, each of which considers and transcends the original. The final section of the book is interwoven with haiku; they help us to digest and break down all that has come before. Corman's voice is a fine and eloquent distillation of those poetic movements mentioned earlier, and they set the tone for an individual's own process with language. Though, as Hayden Carruth has written of Corman's poetry, he is fiercely his own man: "The look of delicacy is deceptive. More often it's leanness, poems growing from their own center—no influences, no formal props." This, I think, gets at the heart of what Corman has developed over the years. Corman ranges widely in Nothing Doing—he can be sharp and clear, then switch gears in another poem, providing abstract, rhythmic structures.

By working with a small space, Corman creates his own stage of words and expressions—a tone which is demanding, yet luminously simple. This is a lean, efficient, and lucid voice in action on the page. His is a poetry of pun-like conundrum, as Robert Kelly suggests in his back cover note. Sometimes it almost passes the reader by, and this is why Corman's work often requires deeper reading: it asks that the reader slow down and absorb his minimal structures. Corman's work has always been about joy as well as the immeasurable pain of life to the point of language through language. His poems give something back which is tangible. From the third section of the book, a meditation on words and their relationship to the world, Corman writes:

I want the words
so simple and
true you think they

have come out of
your own mouth and
are breathing you.

This is Corman at his best, pondering and evoking a presence through the language which clearly establishes its groundwork. Corman is able to create an array of emotions and instances through such simplistic designs. It is thought, but thought tied to experience through a language 'breathing' itself out into the world.

Through a sublime orchestration of juxtaposition and circumstance, Corman produces a poetry full of layered meaning while providing a minimal framework. Although Nothing Doing may not rank with other Corman classics such as Sun Rock Man and Livingdying, it is an important book, showing Corman here and now, working the language with delightful economy and poignancy. Nothing Doing is a precise poetry, a window shot of the world in minute pieces of wonder:

Chewing rock

tasting dust
getting down

to gristle

bone. Feeling
what it is

to eat air.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


In the Surgical Theatre by Dana LevinDana Levin
American Poetry Review ($14)

by Melanie Figg

Dana Levin's first poetry collection and winner of the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, In the Surgical Theatre, is a true stunner, alive and pulsing in the reader's hand. The first section, Body moves from a darkly light telling of embalming Lenin's body to the more ghostly "The Nurse" to the brutal "The Baby on the Table" where Levin's own horrific childhood traumas enter the stage. But Levin's narratives enter on the sly, and often through an unnerving, revolving second person. Nothing here is tired or predictable. The angels are parasitic, the body is not a metaphor—it is gangrenous, bloody, a machine fragile to both bacteria and burrowing wings. Like that creepiest of X-Files soundtracked by Nat King Cole, Levin's poems are sonic crooners relaying the hard facts and ugly deformities of our lives. But Levin always steps through to the wonder of the other side. In "Eyeless Baby" she is confident she knows what is beyond those sightless eyes.

I am so sure they're a door,
if I pried into the fused lids I would find
ice, stars, space with its cold fires spreading out
beyond the body

Levin knows the possibility of another vision and the depths of our own blindness.

The structure of Levin's poems recall the best of Larry Levis—poems that turn on themselves, an earlier narration, the dutiful reader or the second self, poems that billow and swarm, and often play tag team with each other. After readers learn the infant Levin was "slit through the belly / without anesthetic / to remove a gangrenous ileum," we come upon the astounding sectioned poem "Personal History," where that baby is oddly watching American boys in Vietnam "with their intestines / sprung out in loops." Levin confesses:

For so long I thought
surgical white
was the color of the soul, I've been floating
for years

in the albanic air round the hospital nursery,
above the orange smoke billowing
from the napalmed river,
huts collapsed
into palm fronds and fire, and the people
staggering away
to lie burned and bleeding in the soft-haired ferns

round the incubator glass—

As the baby's world collapses with the television set, Levin moves on to suggest that those dying boys become angels hovering over "the ghost of me kept burning in the glass." The angel boys find an odd sort of peace in the hospital as "nurses swoop and hover, cold birds in the tropical air." Lost innocence fosters a maturity—or perhaps just detachment—that is all around us later, at the end of "Bathhouse, 1980" amidst desperate anonymous sex and the coming "scourge." Those same "angels gather in the corners of the building. / They do not judge.

Levin's poems build an enormous momentum within themselves, spurred by wind, rage, denial, or fear, and fall off quick and breathless. It's what Louise Glück refers to in the introduction: Levin's "syntax of insistence." Further, Levin persistently challenges the reader to be present, no matter how difficult the subject matter, or lulling the language, as in "The Baby on the Table:"

. . . when will they lower

the kiss, the fist, the sharpened
scalpel, the angels
are waiting, calm, impassive, the emanations
of science
in each white face—
Can you help me sew up
what they're about to open? Can you feel
the chill of the table
on your own small back?

Levin often uses the poem as a place to question the reader's involvement and expectations or issues of metaphor and narrative: "Have you ever been hurt, have you ever been cut, is it only / physical knives? / Is this how I write about / the baby on the table?" She pushes on, this time in the detached voice of the violent father. "His Defense" is a brutal telling of another personal history, full of its own victimization and misguided faith. The rage on the page is gathering its fingers to a fist when he turns to ask: "Did you hope I was a myth, that I wasn't a monster, / that it was all, merely, psychological?" This chilling question indicts the reader as well as the poet, pushing against the ease in which we collapse fact and metaphor, poem and world.

Any single poem in this collection testifies to Levin's imaginative scope and narrative finesse, but to read these poems in sequence—in consequence to each other—is to walk into a new vision of the world. The poems accumulate images and possibilities, sometimes lifting and repeating entire lines in later poems to anticipate fuller meaning. The book is strung seamless, or rather the seam between poems is stitched ragged enough to recall the phantom limb. And, as Levin knows, it is the presence of what is absent that moves us toward reconciliation.

This insight is especially keen in the third section, "World", where earlier poems are recalled not repeated, continued not completed. By now the ghosts are real, not the hovering angels of section one, as if the reckoning of the second section has unnerved those quiet onlookers and turned them into cranky poltergeists. The end of "Banishing the Angels" nails their coffin shut as the narrator stands:

in the real light of the unmystical sun, thinking

the girl who is not an angel is something to believe—

the phone booth in the sunlight, something to believe—

Moving out of the intense interiority of "the exhausting round of wounding and healing," Levin steps into the difficult world of witness: a woman is attacked ("her angels, they won't be returning"); "children are sleeping in a litter of beer cans, and cigarette butts, dreamless—"; only the movie screen lets the narrator "give up the burden awhile. / To be an eye. / Perceiver. / God of the kingdom."

To that "unburdened" place of perceiver, Levin returns again and again. But what she perceives about the human addiction to pattern and self-sabotage is the vision of no disengaged bystander. In "Hive" her imaginative powers are at their peak:

Can you crawl out of asking

the origin of sorrow, now, through the grass,
in the animal moment,
will you nuzzle the roots in search
of the combs,
the resin like jewels in the burnished
Climb up, part
your shattered chest like a veil, and lick
at the honey
welling over your bones—
It has nothing to do with your happiness,
or grief.

Levin has the skilled ear, magnificent tongue and fierce mind of the truly prophetic. I can't remember when I've been this excited about a poet, much less drunk on a first collection. Make room for Levin, and keep an eye out for her next book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Pure Poetry Binnie KirshenbaumPURE POETRY
Binnie Kirshenbaum
Simon and Schuster ($22)

James Conrad
St. Martin's Press ($25.95)

by Peter Ritter

It was no mere oversight that your high-school guidance counselor did not mention "minor poet" as a potential vocation. Here is a career path, after all, that leads even the bright and the disciplined into a wasteland of anonymity. And it hardly needs to be said that announcing one's intention to pursue the lyric muse is equivalent in the eyes of most sensible adults to taking a monastic vow of poverty. There must be something fascinating, then, about those who give their lives over to something that the average citizen of the republic can't be bothered with. How else to explain the frequency with which indigent poets strut and fret through the fiction of their prosy brethren? Even the most wretchedly destitute novelist, it seems, needs someone to pity.

Such schaddenfreude pervades Pure Poetry, Binnie Kirshenbaum's thoroughly acrid rumination on middle-aged distaff despair. Lila Moscowitz, the subject of Kirshenbaum's inquiry, is a formalist poet whose appearance in the august pages of "People" has briefly made her a succes d'estime in New York City's overpriced bohemian ghetto. "I am a famous poet," she announces early on, "which is but a degree of fame. It's not famous like I get stopped on the street for my autograph, but I am as famous as any poet in America can get without being dead and having an intermediate school named after you."

Middling celebrity and college teaching job notwithstanding, Moscowitz is constantly and irreconcilably miserable. The cause would seem to be her failed marriage to a German immigrant, whom she blames for both historical anti-Semitism and every manner of personal indignity, and a failing romance with another man, who is nice enough but far too normal for Moscowitz's aberrant erotic predilections. More likely, she is simply profoundly meshuggena. Late in the novel, Moscowitz outlines her pathology for the benefit of her transgender therapist: "The tantrums, the inconsolable weeping, the rage which could only be characterized as infantile, the insatiable need to be loved, the inability to love for fear I would lose it."

Certainly, lives of unquiet desperation often prove guiltily captivating. Yet the protagonist of Pure Poetry, whose afflictions include angst, weltschmerz, and possibly many other things with guttural German names, is such a morose sod throughout that it remains unclear whether Kirshenbaum intends us to empathize with or grimace at Moscowitz's self-obsession. Ditto for Kishenbaum's novel, which, while suitably sarcastic, takes its protagonist's whining altogether too seriously. By book's end, we're left feeling very much like Moscowitz's therapist, unsure whether to embrace the snide neurotic before us or prescribe some psychotropic balm and tell her to shut the hell up.

Upbeat only by comparison, James Conrad's debut novel, Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago, shares the presumption with Pure Poetry than one can be a pathologically unstable schlemiel and still secure a fairly lucrative post in academia. Among Conrad's extensive cast of inconsequential versifiers: Joanna Mueller, a poet-in-residence at a small-town Illinois college who changes lovers like most people change underwear; Sink Lewis, a gifted student who changes underwear like most people change lovers; Vivian Reape, Mueller's rotund and scheming mentor; a mousy militant Marxist librarian named Rose; and a gaggle of gay hipsters who hang around poetry slams and coffee shops to talk about writing verse and couplets. If caffeine and lots of sex were the only ingredients necessary to produce a poet, this motley crew would be formidable indeed.

Alas, as one of Conrad's characters points out, there is less than voracious demand for the sonnets and sestinas of love-sick twentysomethings: "American poetry is truly proof that the more poets a society creates, the less poetry anyone bothers to read."

Even in a culture indifferent to poetry, however, poets have their uses. As illustration, Conrad invents a delightfully ridiculous premise: the U.S. government has decided to gather all the nuclear waste produced over the last half century and bury it beneath a mountain in Nevada. In order to warn inhabitants ten-thousand-years hence away from the radioactive crypt, federal bureaucrats have decided to commission a poet to write the verse equivalent of "Danger. Keep Away." Of course, the legitimacy afforded the project will also presumably silence concerned reporters and environmentalists. The chosen poet, in turn, will ensure that his or her work goes unappreciated in someone else's lifetime as well.

As Conrad's cast of ink-stained wretches jockey for a spot at the government teat, "Minor Poets" turns into a sly satire of state-subsidized art. Poetry may not be a dying art because of talentless young poets, Conrad suggests, but because of talentless canonized poets who care more about grants and tenure than rhyme and reason. Fittingly, by the end of Conrad's smart and satisfying story, not a word of verse has been committed to paper, and Joanne Mueller, best of Chicago's bad poets, has turned to ungainly confessional short stories. She may have sold out, but at least she now has a chance of getting paid for writing lousily. And, really, what more can minor poet hope for?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


photo by Gerard MalangaCatalyst Among Poets
Interview by Asako Kitaori

Whenever Charles Henri Ford is mentioned, his name evokes the image of one whose creative genius comes in and out of focus: when, where, how and in what context. The name is easily remembered, yet what he's exactly known for has eluded even the most erudite observer. As Jean Cocteau once said of him: "He is a poet in everything he creates."

Charles Henri Ford blazed his way onto the literary scene in the early 1930s with the publication of his poetry in some of the most prestigious periodicals of the day, including Hound and HornTransition, New Directions AnnualThe New Yorker, and Poetry (Chicago). He is considered by many to be America's first Surrealist poet. His selected poems, Out of the Labyrinth, published by City Lights Books, covers a remarkable six decades.

As a teenager, Ford launched an experimental literary magazine Blues, published in Mississippi, and followed nearly a decade later (1940) with View, a glossy magazine devoted to a cultural avant-garde that sprang up in New York as a conduit for the Surrealist group spearheaded by Andre Breton.

View was the pioneer magazine for the arts in its time, simply because of Mr. Ford's all-encompassing editorial flair and vision as publisher/art director. It would not be surprising to see works by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dali and Magritte face to face in one issue with the writing of Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams or Paul Bowles—that is what View was all about: being extraordinary in the subtlest of ways, but with no pulled punches. You simply didn't know what hit you. The 1940s may one day be considered the 20th century's—and especially America's—richest artistic decade.

Then as now, Charles Henri Ford always seemed to be one step ahead in the arts for tapping new talent, arranging gallery shows for Pavel Tchelitchew, and introducing the young poet Gerard Malanga to Andy Warhol in the early 1960s—a meeting that would have indelible influence on the works created at the Warhol Factory for the remainder of that decade. Mr. Ford is regarded as a catalyst—that of a magician who needs no wand.

With an amazing prodigious output in poetry, photography, film and the art of collage, it is ironic, then, that he has never sought out publicity. Let the work speak for itself has been his unspoken credo from the start. And yet his personality continually shines through, shedding light on all aspects of his work, then and now. All the more reason that the impression is one of a virtual recluse, when, in reality, he remains remarkable accessible and active. He's out there, but he also knows when to escape. In this respect, he can be considered an unselfconscious romantic.

It was felicitous, then, to have Gerard Malanga along for guidance and support. In bouncing off Gerard, Mr. Ford's candidness made for easy and immediate rapport.

A light drizzle filled the air as we approached the Dakota on Central Park West. Gerard led the way, quickly turning into the arch-enclosed driveway and up a few steps to the reception desk. Once we were buzzed into a long hallway, the world just a moment ago slipped away. Time receded with the elevator's ascent. Charles Henri Ford and Indra Tamang, his friend of many years, reside in a top-floor aerie with a view—a high-ceilinged studio of approximately 800-square feet, with a small nook-and-cranny bedroom off to one side.

The space is sparsely but comfortably furnished, labeled boxes and files are neatly arranged in piles on the floor, as if waiting to be shipped to some far-off archive. When asked about the conspicuous lack of bookcases, Mr. Ford replies, "Books should be read but not seen," followed by a smile, as if to underscore his sense of humor about those things we take seriously, or take for granted. He is reserved and casual and full of life. His blue eyes sparkle.

The studio is decorated with a couple of portraits of Charles—the "young poet"—by Pavel Tchelitchew along with a scattering of his own artwork, black and white vintage prints of magic milieus in Italy in the 40s. And by its isolation Charles's precision silkscreen op art portrait of Andy Warhol is the focal point in the room.

By now the rain has let up, but the spell continues. Sound engulfed by the silence. A mist fills the air outside. The window facing west is covered with sunlight which projects onto the opposite wall a rectangle of washed light. Indra offers us tea and pastries. Gerard opens up the box containing the fresh apple pie. I can see that Mr. Ford is aglow. It's high tea at the Dakota again.

ASAKO KITAORI: Were you a dreamer at an early age?

CHARLES HENRI FORD: The memory that I have is that you dream even in the womb. That's when you kick your mother. My curiosity was greater than my dreams. In other words, the curiosity led to discovery and dreams are more revelation that discovery.

AK: Why would that be?

CHF: When you're curious you discover. When you dream you're a spectator. Like a movie, it doesn't mean that it's that personal. It's something that is not you but you as an audience. With curiosity you become involved, and when you wake up from a dream you're no longer involved.

AK: And do you think in hindsight the way you're interpreting this, are these the seeds that were planted that caused you to become a poet later on?

CHF: What sparks poetry, I think, is poetry, just as a musician is inspired by the sound of music, he wants to do the same thing. It's difficult to be a poet without having read poetry. It's a double entendre.

AK: So why did you pick up poetry rather than music?

CHF: I wasn't exposed to classical music, and that's what composers are noted for, their receptiveness. I was exposed to blues and jazz, that's why I named my magazine Blues. Now, in the haiku that I'm writing, sometimes the words from the old blues songs come back and get put in.

AK: Does it all fit together?

CHF: Yes. I can pick one out later and show you what I mean.

AK: You have remarked that when you were a teenager you had a vision to become "famous." Was there a set plan at that time?

CHF: No, but I was sort of given an injection by the reading of Marie Bashkirtseff.

AK: Who is she?

CHF: She was a Russian writer who said that she was going to become famous in one year, and she did. When I read that I said to myself, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it!'

AK: How old were you at the time when you read her work?

CHF: In my teens, and that's the theme of my book coming out, I Will Be What I Am. That's where the title is derived.

AK: That was the name of her book in Russian?

CHF: No. That's the name of my manuscript.

AK: But it's the same idea.

CHF: It's the same idea. The potential is in you. You already are and you will be what you are, is another way of saying it.

AK: But "famous" is quite an ambiguous idea, so when you say "I will be famous," what was your goal?

CHF: Famous for what? Well, it was poetry. Shortly after, I had a poem accepted by The New Yorker; I was still a teenager. At that time, I had been reading Yeats. From that poem in The New Yorker I can recite one verse:

And when you go, for you will go

I'll buy a scarf to hide

My shoulders white and lips as white

As suicide.

I sent The New Yorker more poems later on but I never got accepted again so I said, well, The New Yorker is not for me. I went on to other magazines. Finally, I broke Poetry (Chicago)—very difficult. The editor at the time was Harriet Monroe. She was hard to bust.

AK: Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, so far removed from the art centers of the world, how did you become aware of French Surrealism for it to become a major factor in your writing, or did that come later?

CHF: Somehow I got hold of the Paris magazine, transition, which was publishing the Surrealist, it was transition's editor Eugene Jolas, who was writing his form of Surrealist poetry. I can't remember being turned on by any Surrealist in transition—it was Jolas who gave me the guideline, I suppose. And I sent him poems and they were accepted.

AK: I discovered in my research your first letter Gertrude Stein, dated March 27, 1929, inviting her to contribute to the "Expatriate Number" of your magazine, Blues. What did you feel when you first wrote to her and did she send you something?

CHF: I wondered if she would send me something—she did. It was a very short poem dedicated to Georges Hugnet. I don't know whether I meant what I said, but I was so happy to get something from Gertrude Stein, I wrote her saying, "Thank you for your manuscript—it's one of the best things you've ever written." It was about six lines!

AK: What was your feeling when you got that letter from her with the manuscript?

CHF: Once you're in orbit you feel you're the magnet and if you don't attract something there's no thrill to acknowledge. When it works, it works. That's the way View was too, because I go all these famous artists to do covers, created expressly for ViewView couldn't exist like that today, except maybe it can. Somebody wants to revive View. I plan to invite collaborations as I did for the early View. I'm going to ask Red Grooms and Larry Rivers to do special covers—maybe they will—who knows?

AK: How did your friendship with Gertrude Stein develop in the ensuing years?

CHF: Well, if you want to hear about Gertrude, she was famous for taking up and accepting people under her wing, so to speak, and then dropping them because she was made of jealousy. She dropped Tchelitchew when became friends with Edith Sitwell. She dropped me when I became friends with Tchelitchew. I'll tell you how that happened. My first visit to her in the country was when I came back from Morocco on my way to Paris. Then she invited me back again.

AK: When was this?

CHF: It was in the early thirties when my novel The Young and Evil was about to be issued by Obelisk Press. That's the reason why I was returning to Paris. So when I left Tangiers it was Gertrude Stein-Paris. Later I returned to Bilignin for a second visit—that's what she called her house—and Alice [Alice B. Toklas] said to me, "You're looking so healthy, because you were thin when you came from Morocco." I said, "Yes, Tchelitchew's sister is a very good cook." Then Gertrude said, "You've been visiting Tchelitchew?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Well, if I had known that I wouldn't have invited you." But I stayed on ten days and had a very good time!

GERARD MALANGA: She was a control freak.

CHF: Yeah. But one night during that last stay, she was picking out notes on the piano, like words—they didn't mean anything, but she was sitting there in the candlelight. I said, "Oh, Miss Stein, you look so handsome in that light," and she turned to me and said, "Yes, we're both very handsome."

AK: Weren't you in awe of Gertrude Stein?

CHF: No, because I wrote to Parker Tyler, "Have I told you about Gertrude's breasts? They're so big that when she bends over you think they're going to pull her down."

GM: She became incensed by the fact that you sparked a friendship with Tchelitchew…

CHF: . . . and so, I was dropped by her.

GM: Tchelitchew was already dropped by her at the time…

CHF: . . . because she was jealous of Edith Sitwell. Edith met Pavlik at Gertrude's salon and just flipped for him and she arranged his London show.

GM: So there was a real competitive nature about Gertrude Stein.

CHF: Everybody seemed always jealous. Gertrude was jealous of Edith and Edith was jealous of me. Edith and Edward James burned The Young and Evil in the fireplace. But later on we became reconciled and she wrote an introduction to my book of poems, Sleep In A Nest of Flames. I took Cocteau to meet her. They both happened to be in New York at the same time and had never met. Osbert, her brother, was present and they served us whiskey. Edith was saying "…and to think, one had whiskey only for a toothache." But she reached a point where she had it every day. That kept up through her last days. She always had a whiskey.

GM: What was Cocteau's reaction of response from having met Edith Sitwell?

CHF: Cocteau's reaction was making sure everybody know he was Jean Cocteau. He was a firework of speech. Do you know what Diaghilev said to him when they met? "Astonish me." [Etonne moi] I don't know if that happened.

AK: What effect, if any did Gertrude Stein have on your writing?

CHF: She definitely did, I think it shows in The Young and Evil. All these influences—if they don't merge and make a different reality which is you they're hard to trace. The giants in literature, like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein—they all have to have some influence. In her autobiography, she mentions that I'm one of the two younger writers with an "individual sense of words"—what she meant I don't know.

GM: Obviously, the work made an impression on her for her to have said that.

CHF: I remember recommending to her how I admired a young new writer whose first book had just out, called As I Lay Dying. You know who wrote that—William Faulkner. He sent me a short story before Blues closed. It was called "Death in Naples," an echo of "Death in Venice," and later it was published in his collected stories and I'm sorry I missed that one—Blues closed before I could publish it.

AK: Are you aware of any views that Gertrude Stein might have had on the Surrealist circle?

CHF: She welcomed them. I remember meeting Andre Masson, Rene Crevel, two of the major Surrealists. At one time she had Rene Crevel and me for tea and she said to Rene about me, "he has something that you don't have—a sense of history." Nobody knew what she was talking about. [Everybody bursts out laughing] She knew, I'm sure.

GM: It's sort of a put-down on Rene Crevel…

CHF: Her entire writing was autobiographical. If she wasn't autobiographical she identified anyway. She identified with Alice by becoming Alice—The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I started another book which I left in Katmandu—and absolute take-off on Gertrude Stein, titled The Autobiography of Indra B. Tamang. I was writing it as though Indra were writing it . . . he was telling his story about Charles in Katmandu and this, that and the other. I don't know if it's something that could ever be finished, but I'll pick it up and see, it's a tour de force.

AK: Do you remember you first impression when you encountered Tchelitchew's paintings in Paris for the first time?

CHF: I wrote back to Parker Tyler in New York about Tchelitchew how I was completely taken. I used a work that other people have used since, but I think it was a mistake, the word "morbid" came in. A lot of people have found some morbidity in his work and Alice Delamar who knew him intimately and who was a great patron and gave us houses to live in, she told me one day, "Well, Pavlakis a mental case." Can you believe it? She gave us one house and Balanchine gave us a Ford. He paid $250 for it—a secondhand Ford. But the next car was a Mercury which we bought. It was a black convertible with red leather seats and a pushbutton top and that's when you could pick up a deluxe can like custom-made. I'd drive through the country, all those filling station attendants would say, "where did that come from?"—nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. That's what prices were. And the same goes for apartments. You know how much we paid for a wonderful penthouse, ninety-foot terrace, high ceilings, eat-in kitchen. A hundred an thirty-five dollars a month—for ten years.

AK: Why did you choose Cocteau as a role model?

CHF: Simply enough…I don't know if I was a multimedia artist then, but I must have felt the idea of being one. Jean's the one I think of most when I think of someone who has done work in so many mediums. He did poetry, novels, painting, plays, cinema—so I coincide in some of those media—poetry, novel, cinema. He used to say—that's when you could use the word poet without blushing—"I am a poet in everything I do. I'm a poet in the novel. I'm a poet in the theater. I'm a poet in the cinema." You name all his works and he considered himself a poet in whatever he did. That sort of sunk in, when I read that. I felt that if he could do it I could do it.

AK: You were thinking of all you work as a poet's work. So your base is that of being a poet first.

CHF: Yes. That defines the activity which one can practice, just as Gerard also is not limited to one medium. What have you done? [Turning to Gerard]

GM: Photography, film, poetry…

AK: . . . dancer . . .

(Gerard laughs)

CHF: Is that as far as it goes?

GM: . . . and editing magazines.

CHF: Oh, yes, editing. Although I don't think Cocteau ever was an editor.

AK: Could you describe the character of Andre Breton?

CHF: Your mean my impression of what he was?

AK: Yeah.

CHF: When I became more and more immersed in Surrealism, naturally he was the model. He also experimented in other forms. He did these little assemblage. Many people found him charismatic. He was always shameless about his anti-homosexuality, but that didn't keep him from saying about me, "This American poet, Charles Henri is le poete prototypique.

GM: …prototypical poet.

CHF: Yeah. That's what he said about me. I gave him the only interview that he ever had in America in View. Going along with him was an open collaboration. It's hard to translate things that he would say. I invited him to the View office one day and I said, "Andre, I would like to publish a book of your poems…" So he looked at me and said, "vous etes malin." Now that's hard to translate. "Malin" means something like I was undercutting him. "You got me by the balls," so to speak. He knew it would be a feather in my cap, but he also knew that he couldn't resist because nobody else had asked him. You see, I didn't twist the rope, I had asked Duchamp to do a cover. It was the Statue of Liberty with Breton's face superimposed. Duchamp turned him into a drag queen. (Everybody laughs) But, anyway, Duchamp had already turned himself into a drag queen, Rrose Selavy, and there he is [pointing to one of his poem-posters tacked up on the closet door]. That's his face, he's in drag—I put him in there as La Papesse Jeanne, the female Pope. Most people never heard of a female pope.

AK: Can you describe the tension of conflict between Breton and Cocteau?

CHF: Chiefly, because of Cocteau's accomplishment as a figure, an artist multi-productive and his homosexuality. I guess I'm one of the few that Breton accepted.

GM: But Breton made himself out to be an island surrounded by a sea of homosexuality. How could he escape the fact that there were so many artists and poets in Paris who were homosexual?

CHF: One in the Surrealist group was Rene Crevel. There was also a veiled bitch, Louis Aragon. It came out after his death. Nobody thought of him as a homosexual in his lifetime. He was living with a woman. He was dropped by Breton because he joined the Communist Party. Anyway, Aragon was very good-looking and always dressed in white. He was just doing a masquerade. Breton didn't live in vain.

GM: But Breton kept this tension going, as Asako says, because he was so authoritarian, wouldn't you say?

CHF: He would try to be dictatorial and ex-communicate. He ex-communicated Matta, you know.

GM: Well, he was always on ceremony.

AK: How about Cocteau himself relating to Breton?

CHF: I'm sure he never expressed himself the way that Breton used to do, because Cocteau was generosity itself and he didn't feel that he had to make enemies because he had so many friends. He didn't have to envy anybody. People envied him.

GM: He was a very good-natured, generous person.

CHF: . . . except, he was not generous in the case of Tchelitchew, because at one time Tchelitchew and Berard had the same gallery, but one of them had to go for some reason or other, and Cocteau was called in and he said, "Keep Berard," and Tchelitchew lost his gallery, so that was a great blow and one reason why Tchelitchew might not have forgiven him but he did somehow, because they were very friendly when we saw Cocteau in Rome years later, as though nothing had happened. I bought from the Rome exhibition a beautiful pastel of a clown—for Ruth and Zachary [Ruth and Zachary Scott, Charles's sister and brother-in-law]. They always gave me money that I would spend for works of art because the works were for them, and it was a hundred-and-sixty-dollars. There was another work of art that they lost out on. I wrote them from Paris that I had found an American painter for them to collect. Ruth rejected Andy because she said, "I don't want Marilyn Monrow on my wall." That painting was two hundred and fifty dollars. Anyway, I found in a big Paris show a painting, and I said look at that. I should write Ruth and Zachary about it. Eight hundred dollars. Two black and white flags, one on top of the other. Jasper Johns. I don't know why they didn't send me the money. His name didn't mean anything to anybody. He was just one of the gang—not where he is today.

GM: That painting would be worth three hundred, four hundred thousand dollars now.

CHF: . . . no, a million! Well, you heard about Andy's horrible Campbell Soup can selling…how much?

GM: Three point two million I think.

CHF: More than three. It was estimated at two million, and sold for three million. Can you believe it? I'm think they're hideous.

(Gerard laughs)

GM: Well, this was one soup can with a torn label.

CHF: It was not just one alone but it was several on the same canvas.

GM: No no no, it was just one.

CHF: Just one?

GM: One big painting. The way it was rendered he made it so the label was torn off the can itself part way.

CHF: Collage?

GM: No, he drew it that way by hand.

CHF: Well, Andy made his mark and took it with him.

(Everybody laughs)

AK: What was your position regarding the tension between Breton and Cocteau?

CHF: I chose Breton because I wanted all the Surrealists for View, and I couldn't publish Cocteau without antagonizing Breton.

GM: So you made a political decision.

CHF: Yeah, but, then, before View stopped I decided to publish Cocteau anyway. Not publish him directly, but I had a brilliant essay on him by Charles Glenn Wallace. Had another View come out, it would have been in. And who did me a cover. I was the first one in America to recognize him—Jean Dubuffet.

GM: But that issue never came out?

CHF: I think the cover must be at Yale. I sent them the entire View archive.

GM: Really. Yale has all the View material?

CHF: I gave it to them like an idiot! It would be worth lots of money now.

GM: …all those covers.

CHF: Oh, no. The covers I kept. It was only the typescripts. Like an idiot I threw in the Jean Dubuffet. When do you kick yourself when you lose money you didn't have to.

GM: When do you kick yourself for losing money you didn't have to?

CHF: For what reason do you ever kick yourself because you lost money you didn't have to lose.

GM: That's true.

AK: The reason Breton hesitated to bring Tchelitchew into his group was because of Tchelitchew's homosexuality. Is that the only reason?

CHF: No, not exactly. He didn't consider Tchelitchew's work surrealist. One day I took Breton to see Tchelitchew's big painting, "Phenomena." He didn't find it surrealist and it isn't.

GM: But there are major elements of surrealism in Tchelitchew's work.

CHF: Here's the distinction that somebody made, that the surrealists painted the dream and neo-romantics painted the dreamer. That has some truth.

AK: What made you come back to New York from Paris?

CHF: I had the definite feeling that everything was beginning to happen in New York and that Paris was phasing out. But to get Tchelitchew to come with me I had to go alone first and I crossed the Atlantic on a freighter. It cost eighty dollars and it took ten days. But I ate at the captain's table and had a cabin of my own.

GM: But Tchelitchew had a lot of paintings to bring over to America with him?

CHF: Yes, because he was going to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art. His friend, Monroe Wheeler, very powerful there, was the curator. They bought "Hide and Seek." Some millionaire patroness bought the painting and donated it to the museum. She just shucked in the large amount of four thousand dollars. Now you can buy a Tchelitchew drawing for that amount.

AK: What made you a surrealist poet?

CHF: What made a surrealist poet was because the Surrealists existed before me. They electrified my output.

AK: You said you came back to New York because nothing was happing in Paris…

CHF: Everything was happing there, but then it faded out. There was Le Boeuf-sur-la-toit, named after Cocteau's play, people would congregate there. It was a nightclub. Everything was exciting at that time because you could live on practically nothing and you could meet everyone. They would gather at different cafes. The queers at Le Select, the Surrealists at Les deux Magots. It was a life that nobody knew in New York. It was exciting to be there if you were an artist. The Montparnasse zone was even a protected zone. The police were instructed "hands off. This is not for you." I gave the last party in Montparnasse. Mayo, who did costumes for Marcel Carne's film, Les enfants du Paradis—Mayo and I took over a deserted building and invited everybody we knew to a bottle party. Everything was lit up by candlelight. Julian Levy arrived with Lee Miller whom I had just seen in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. Kiki was there. So much noise was made that the neighbors called the police. So the police barged in, with the intention of putting the quietus on this rowdy scene. But when they were told that Kiki was there they joined the party. Kiki happened to be the mistress of the chief of police! Anyway, it really was sort of the last party in Montparnasse.

AK: When you started View magazine, did you already have in mind to focus on French Surrealism as a broad editorial base?

CHF: I didn't already have in mind to start View in that direction, but that became its raison d'être.

AK: Are you aware of Breton's feeling regarding a differing approach with what View and his magazine VVV were advancing as an agenda for Surrealism in America?

CHF: Yes, I was aware of Breton's feelings. One thing about him. He never kept his feelings a secret—not that everybody shared them because most people didn't. He was his own man.

AK: What were Breton's feelings?

CHF: He felt that he wanted to be the director. That's why he wanted to recruit me as the editor of VVV and for me to give up View, so he could be looking over my shoulder and have some control. He was a displaced person in America. He never learned English. He was like one of those holy men who go underground and stay there till they come out. His underground was America.

AK: So you refused.

CHF: I said, "Thank you very much but I think I'll continue with View.

GM: You remember what his reaction was to that decision?

CHF: He was beginning to accept so many things that he didn't want to accept, that he accepted it. In New York, he was at a disadvantage. He didn't speak English, as you know. Well, you know how much pleasure one gets out of being in control. So when I invited him to the office I said, "Andre, I would like to publish a book of your poems." Naturally it was an irresistible invitation. It came out with this wonderful cover by Duchamp. Duchamp made Breton into a drag queen—he stuck his face onto the Statue of Liberty.

AK: How was Breton looking at that?

CHF: He approved of everything that Duchamp did, because Duchamp was really the predecessor. Duchamp got there first and Breton followed.

GM: How many issues did Breton publish of his magazine?

CHF: Just a few. I don't think it lasted but six months, not even a year. View lasted eight years.

GM: So his magazine was very short-lived, but he was here for four or five years.

CHF: But, anyway, that's the story of Surrealism in America. Surrealism outlived its time as a spearheader because when Breton went back to Paris after the end of WWII, Existentialism had taken over.

AK: I'm pretty curious about the position of Duchamp because he was collaborating with you and he was helping Breton with VVV too.

CHF: That's right. VVV. That was one of Duchamp's puns--he was full of puns. Pun was his middle name…

GM: What was your relationship with Duchamp like? Do you have any reminiscences?

CHF: Duchamp was a very open person and when I came along with the idea of a Duchamp number, at that time no monograph had ever been published on Duchamp. So View published the first monograph ever on Duchamp who had been functioning and admired for many years. Apres mois le deluge. Since then, book after book on Duchamp has come out and there still coming out. He's one of the most recognized French artists who ever lived…lived in our time, in any case.

AK: Being an American poet living in New York in the 1940s, did you encounter any resistance from academic circles as to the kind of poetry you stood for?

CHF: Neither resistance nor acclaim. Academic circles didn't encircle Surrealism.

AK: They just didn't care.

CHF: The groves of academe had no surrealist sheep grazing. (Gerard laughs) John Crowe Ransom who was the editor of The Kenyon Review and who was a sort of symbol of academe always rejected my poems, and he always had some excuse but I've forgotten what excuses he had. He rejected the poem that gave the title to my book, The Overturned Lake.

GM: So you would send poems to him from time to time . . .

CHF: . . . not from time to time. When I got his message I stopped. Maybe I just sent one or two. But I think I even got a letter his rejection of The Overturned Lake. It didn't hold water.

(Gerard bursts out laughing)

GM: You had a very close affinity with Rimbaud's writings.

CHF: Rimbaud fired my productions just as he did to surrealism, but for some reason which I forget and don't care to remember, Breton later on rejected him as a precursor.

AK: Why was that?

CHF: Breton was know for irrational rejections, so the irrational was his field. One rejection he made was simply puritanical because he shelved Matta when Matta committed adultery with Arshile Gorky's wife.

GM: So Breton was very conservative in many areas of social life.

CHF: Puritan, puritan, puritan. His stupid anti-homosexuality…

AK: So what made him the head of Surrealist group?

CHF: The French, somebody pointed out recently, they all like to form groups. Breton wanted to do that. He was like honey for the bees.

GM: The interesting thing was that Breton was able to keep a hold on his position. He was able to protect his position. The thing that I find unusual is that because of his extreme puritanical outlook on the various levels of society, that he wasn't overthrown himself and the movement wasn't taken over by someone else.

CHF: A dictatorial mentality. Well, different people tried that I think, but they didn't get organized after—they just became ex-surrealists.

AK: What is the difference between good and bad surrealism?

CHF: Anything may be good or bad, whether it's surrealism or anything else. There are bad abstractionists. There's good and bad in every category.

AK: Breton was saying--because of this I don't like this and it doesn't belong to surrealism.

CHF: Breton rejected what he didn't consider surrealism. I took him to see Tchelitchew's "Phenomena," thinking that he might see some surrealist background, but he didn't. He had his own idea of what surrealism is. I guess he was never surprised.

AK: Who is you favorite surrealist?

CHF: Dali.

AK: Oh, yeah.

GM: Dali was another one who was thrown out of the group.

CHF: "Avida dollars." It's an anagram of Salvador Dali by Breton. So anybody who got out from under the wing of the old hen was an independent chicken.

(Everyone laughs)

GM: My theory about Breton is that if any one member of the group received a lot of publicity for one reason or other, Breton was very jealous of that.

CHF: He felt he was in the shadow of this superstar. He's certainly not a hero of mine. You never want to be like him, in any case. He was not an icon to be emulated.

GM: It's really sad too, because Dali had such a great sense of humor, he was a very warm, generous person in his own way and I just feel that Breton treated Dali very shabbily.

CHF: Well, in a dictatorial way. So many facets to Dali. I'm always writing haiku about Dali. Different thoughts come to me about Dali, and one thought came to me, that Dali used to be very pretty, very good-looking. Garcia-Lorca fell in love with him. When pretty-boy Dali outgrew his pretty-boy looks he became "clown Dali." I'm no longer a pretty boy, I'll be a clown. The waxed mustache. The poses. The outrageous statements. You know his outrageous statement about the minotaur? "The minotaur is the clitoris of the mother!" (Everyone laughs) I think he got it mixed up with the unicorn.

AK: Was he always like that?

CHF: He was so inclined to be shocking that he just said anything that came into his head. He never thought of that before he said it. When I introduced him to W. H. Auden, he said, "Do you speak English?" (Everyone laughs) Dali was loveable because he was surrealist all the way.

AK: What was Gala like?

CHF: Gala was very seductive. Of course, she knew what she was doing when she left Eluard for Salvador.

GM: That probably added to the rift between Breton and Dali.

CHF: Also, Breton and Eluard—there was a rift too.

GM: There was?

CHF: Oh, yes. When Eluard became totally Sovietic, that's when Breton gave him his walking papers.

GM: I was aware of that with Louis Aragon, but I forgot about that aspect between Breton and Eluard.

AK: What was your interest in editing magazines besides being a poet?

CHF: I don't know why but editing was in my impulsive behavior even when I was in grammar school. I used to edit a little typewritten paper and tack it on the wall for the other students and I called it The Brass Monkey.

AK: So that's your nature.

CHF: It's part of my literary nature. Words get through to some people more influentially than they get to others. It works for some people like water on the duck's back.

AK: I know that View magazine is to be revived. Will it continue the focus and editorial program you had envisioned for it back in the 1940's?

CHF: It will, according to the mentality of the new editor. I don't know what Karen Lehrman is going to produce? If I'm recruited as advisory editor I'll advise as time goes by. I couldn't conceive a year's production of View.

GM: Do you have any idea when the first issue is coming out?

CHF: Karen Lehrman wrote me a little note saying she's been out still raising money, so I think View will come out eventually. It's taking a lot of ground-play.

AK: If the new magazine is started, have you got any idea what the content will be like?

CHF: I'm still attuned to what I consider surrealism. For the new View, I have at least two artists that I would like to see on covers. One is Red Grooms and one is Larry Rivers. Others will come as they're encountered. I'll have to get around more to the galleries to see what's being presented that might spark a cover or a page or whatever. The more one gets into it the more one will exercise one's preferences.

AK: With regard to your relationship with both Tchelitchew and Warhol, did you note any similarities inherent in your appreciation of their art?

CHF: No, definitely not. Apropos, I'm always coming up with some thought about Andy which I like to put in haiku:

Andy's portraits?

All painted with silkscreen paint

On silk-screened photographs

You get the dig? He never painted a portrait. It was always a painted photograph. People are confused about that.

GM: What Asako's asking really, there must have been some kind of similarity inherent in your appreciation for their art.

CHF: I cannot think of any affinity.

GM: I don't mean that there was an affinity between the two of them, but your appreciation for Tchelitchew . . .

AK: What was your appreciation for Tchelitchew?

CHF: I remember writing back a letter from Paris to Parker Tyler saying "I have discovered a genius," and I didn't even know how to spell his name, and I used the word "morbid," apropos the effect his paintings had on me, but it wasn't anymore than Dostoyevsky. It was just Russian. My greatest appreciation for Andy was the very first Marilyn Monroe painting, because I considered the technical accidents a witty perversity. But it was actually only an accident. It had nothing to do with Andy's intention. But they're the ones that turned me on the most. The first ones . . .

GM: . . . the paintings with all the mistakes.

CHF: I thought they were intentional—that's why I liked it.

GM: It wasn't intentional, because technically it was a mistake. We just let it go.

CHF: But I didn't know that.

GM: …and Andy accepted those mistakes.

CHF: Well, at the time he probably thought it was presentable just as I liked it for its presentability and I thought that was a witty comment in the painting. It's like Duchamp putting the mustache on the Mona Lisa. But when Andy got more correct I found it more boring. Big regret that I couldn't persuade the Scotts to invest two hundred and fifty dollars. Sister Ruth said, "I don't want Marilyn Monroe on my wall."

GM: That painting would be worth half a million easy today.

CHF: All those outrageous millions on a Campbell soup can. Who wants to look at it?

AK: It is now a well-known historical fact that you introduced Gerard to Warhol. Can you recall where your catalytic instinct may have been an influence in other areas as well?

CHF: Part of my nature as a catalyst I suppose is part of my editorial propensity. One goes through phases. The story of phases can be divided into two parts. Some are phased out and some go on to other fields.

GM: What was your notion at the time when you were hosting high teas at the Dakota?

CHF: Well, it was like an editorial job.

GM: Entertaining, of course.

CHF: If a magazine is not entertaining, what is it? The highest art is entertaining.

AK: You have expressed yourself through different branches of art in the course of your life as artist—poetry, which you are still predominately known for, and also photography, films and collages. Which is the one expression you've been most satisfied with and why?

CHF: The one I was doing at the time. The array, from one to the other. Now it's not poetry definitely, except for the haiku.

AK: So you are always satisfied with what you are using?

CHF: I'm using myself. I'm the dummy of myself. I'm the ventriloquist.

AK: Why did you abandon writing poetry as an expression of the self?

CHF: I did not abandon poetry. As Jean Cocteau put it, "I am a poet in everything I do"

AK: How did you pick up the haiku form as an expression?

CHF: Basho and Issu. I'm magnetized by haiku to this day. Every time I see a book of haiku advertised I get it. Haiku is my favorite form of poetry.

AK: . . . because for me haiku and surrealist poetry are quite different.

CHF: But a haiku can be surrealist.

AK: It's strictly form.

CHF: The thing about the haiku is it's very flexible as to content and the form is fascinating because of its brevity and it can be a very concentrated content. It's the most flexible form of poetry, much more so than the sonnet. I think the first thing that attracted me to the haiku, but it's not what attracts me now particularly, but it ends up being surrealist because of the superimposition—two unrelated things that make a whole which seems to be a collage.

AK: Looking back at your life's work, how would you sum up all that you have accomplished?

CHF: Don't look back—living well is the best revenge.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000