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Martha King

Reading Paul Blackburn

Presentation at Paul Blackburn panel, Poetry Project, New York, 1991(?) Other panelists included Armand Schwerner, Edith Jarolim, Robert Creeley, and David Abel. The reference is to Edie Jarolim’s edition of Paul’s Collected Poems.

When I told Basil I’d been asked to talk on Paul at this panel he asked me what I wanted to say — we were walking down the street in our Brooklyn neighborhood — my answer popped out: ‘that strange hollow voiced singer of the city.’ On the theory that first thought might just be best, I’ll start there.

So why was my first thought ‘hollow’. It means empty in the middle. Like the woodwinds. Their sound comes from that. It’s a very old thing to think of a poet as a reed. Missing at the core. And therefore what is taken in will be released reverberating, as song.

But Blackburn’s been savagely critiqued for this quality. By people who have freely crossed the lines between reading the text and psychoanalyzing the writer. I mean even to the unbelievably grotesque suggestion — by Clayton Eshleman in his essay ‘The Gull Wall’ — that Paul wouldn’t have died of cancer if he’d been able to overcome his negative feelings about women.

Lord save us from such trash. Not only because it’s unseemly, and redolent of hackneyed superstitions about disease, but also because it obscures something wonderful Blackburn’s poems give his readers. It also happens to be an aspect of the poet’s traditional function, of what happens between certain poets and their readers, though it also has to do with a quality that has a rather bad rep in Church of Popular Psychology. Call it being a voyeur. Hollow at the core. One who watches — from the sidelines. Eavesdropper. Peeping Tom. The Brass Eye.

In the 19th century this quality informed the work of great English romantics. Observing the wind moving over a field of grass, the great landscape poets. Observing the effect of the moon on one’s 18 month-old son. It’s interesting that what I’m, accurately, I think, calling voyeurism, could just as easily be praised as an aspect of devotion.

Thus, Blackburn sitting on the subway, or looking out of a luncheonette window. Blackburn documenting the exact particulars of discarded newspapers and empty wine bottles around the base of a statue. Or of a woman’s clothing and precisely what it reveals of her body underneath, and who else on the street is also noticing. It is, again in the 20th century city, the veritable, essential gift of the naturalist.

In his poems, Blackburn looks out. And he also looks OUT, too. What’s sophisticated in one person’s definition is paranoid in another’s. Blackburn is a naturalist of the city.

This poem is called ‘Getting On And Off’ : (Martha Kings reads from Edie Jarolim’s edition of Paul’s Collected Poems, page 277)

A few things I have to mention here. If Edie has already spoken, she may have touched on them. If she hasn’t: Well, I still don’t want to spend too much time on it but as I hope I’m helping to introduce Blackburn to people who haven’t read him or reintroduce him to people who haven’t read him in a long time, I can’t let it go by. We have here some highly charged politically incorrect WORDS: ‘bum’, for example, ‘girl’ (and he even says she’s 25 years old), ‘negress’, ‘spade’, and ‘chick’. You can tell how long ago this poem was written because of that 45 cent bottle of something alcoholic. It seems light years ago. And ‘girl’ for example, as F. Scott FitzGerald would use it. These are the risks taken by anyone — I include Dante, that’s why you need voluminous notes to get what was fast, fast, fast in 1320 — these are the risks of appropriating the vernacular as one’s medium. And what else will one use? That’s another complex topic.

It’s enough to say it IS what’s done here, by Paul Blackburn. The activity in this poem — the number of things offered to think about — the generosity and the clarity — remain available for a new reader.

Not to mention the SPACE the poem makes. I’ve read it to you, so you have, I hope, some sense of the space as the poet’s eye moves from present observation to remembered observation, and back, and the easy way that the observed details — blue and cotton and denim all in a row, for the skirt, the repeating ‘left eye bandaged & swollen’ move into and away from each other. Space! There is also — which you can’t hear — a distinct space on the white page. You could think of Blackburn as a page painter. Absolutely no accident that this particular poem, for example, is double-spaced and that the margins move over and back, both conforming to and shaping the rhythms.

Painting of Paul Blackburn by Basil King

Painting: Joan and Paul Blackburn, by Basil King
Copyright © Basil King 2000

Basil King: I painted Joan partially clothed. Having been exposed to sickness and death for the second time in her young life (her father had died earlier), nothing compliments her body. Her left hand remains delicate, her face shows hurt and anger, a bitchiness; Paul is dead.
   Paul is dead but the photograph of Paul and Joan isn’t. From it I translated what I knew of them. Joan said she knew that look on her face and she didn’t like it. And why should she? She is with Paul and he is dead--and she has become a body traversed. Will she change the painting? Will she paint ‘Paul and Joan"? Will she smile and wear clothes. Will the fence dissapear and in its place will there be buildings, romance, a rainbow? A Paul who is alive? A Paul who reads his poems aloud?

(Basil King — ‘14 Eyes — Desire’)

Let’s get back to those troublesome words. ‘Spade,’ ‘girl’ and the rest. You see, I don’t believe that it’s the words themselves that bother us. It’s not actually that simple. Blackburn persistently and chronically details his — yes, exactly — dehumanizing erotic fantasies. He mentally undresses women he sees on the street without a single TRACE of shame. (Of course, not one of us ever looks at a stranger’s crotch, or down a dress, or wonders, hmmm. None of us has ever gotten an overpowering hit from someone we simply pass by. It just isn’t done!)

I don’t know anyone who has written about shitting as Paul does, also chronically (maybe Mozart), with the easy assumption that both writer and reader can admit that shitting is interesting, that it’s something a person thinks about, takes some pleasure in doing, and recognizes as a ready index to one’s general state of being. Even though current poetic practice gives us all permission to talk freely, even though that attitude toward shitting has the imprimatur of the Buddhists. Blackburn shits and writes about it. And he simply addresses an aspect of sex that’s very troublesome to us: Fucking as release; sex, fantasy or not, as not connected, intrinsically, to a personal relationship. Meat. He worships Mary and he wants his meat.

He doesn’t just do this on the street, with strangers. Here’s an excerpt from a longer poem, worth considering:

Anything you want?
       she asks, heading out the door, leading
       downstairs, to get the bicycle out of the cellar .
       — No, nothing, thanks. The slacks are brown, she is
       carrying anything I want downstairs to take it for
       a ride on the bicycle .

This is from The Journals. Title of the poem is simply a date, ‘17. IV. 71’. The poet is dying of cancer. That’s earlier in the text. The ‘she’ is his wife, who clearly commands his affection, and concern. A person, whom he knows.

But it’s IT. Talk about a word! He does do just what you think he does. Admits, accepts without any apology or shame, that he does (and therefore implies that we do, or we might, or we can) separate sex from person in a most intimate and daily way. His poem leaves you thinking, among a number of other things, just as he is thinking, among a number other things, about that bicycle seat — about the massage IT is going to receive, without him.

I can read this passage without shame but not without jumping. I recognize this disassociation. Actually, I know it. And I’m not, at this point, interested in whether or not it is nice. This is a poem ‘about’ loss. The jumps and shifts of person intrinsic to the poignancy — the everyday lost and longing of this song — tell me that what is said here is anything but unconscious on Paul Blackburn’s part.

Listen again to the play of the other articles and the pronouns here — in addition to that notorious it. (Reads the poem again)

I think this illustrates Blackburn’s ability to record what happens, contradictions and all. We’re not supposed to think this way, etc. And it’s not just a question of a macho stance that was permitted, even celebrated, in an unenlightened era. ‘We’d know better now.’ I don’t think so.

The true voyeur, the naturalist, takes as his principle that what IS worthy of being observed and recorded. I think this is something to consider in the light of the current heightened sense of impending ecological disaster here on earth.

It’s no cliche to say life can be made unlivable. And it’s not even the forecast of visionaries the way it still was in 1971. Today, we can see it reported on the oligarchy’s news: pictures of Romania, Kuwait, the Ukraine, Prince William Sound — and the F Train stop at Second Avenue. So we talk a lot about nature. But it doesn’t get us anywhere politically, let alone artistically, if we look at these horrors while following very old models: That nature is good, that humans are the foul destroyer, that, by definition, city is evil, country is clean. These aren’t just Manichean heresies, these are models. They were and they are used to justify a class system.

Now in Blackburn you will find a naturalist for whom fall arrives when a leaf is floating on the dirty water of a city fountain — and the poem IS a pastorale, is a source of value. To define and establish and continually remake VALUE in a universally tampered, managed world of unfixed principles is the burden of what I still think of as Modernism: Use of available material. Recognition of self and non-self as participants in a process. Indeterminacy. The essential importance of distinctions.

To make it new is meaningless without the understanding that the new is always the RE-MADE new. To quote Basil King, ‘purity is the curse of the 20th century."

If our eyes and hearts are to be sharpened, enlivened, if indeed there IS energy to be passed from one to another to another, then we might well read Paul Blackburn, precisely for some of the things that make us uncomfortable. He looks at what he sees. These works aren’t an ingenious game set before you. They move out of necessity. You can trust the motive and the motif — the clarity, the space.

The strange hollow-voiced singer of the city. It’s a bit flowery, but it works.

Martha King

Martha King’s most recent book, Seventeen Walking Sticks (Stop Press, 1997) is a cycle of poems in response to drawings by Basil King. Her other books of poetry are Weather (New Rivers Press), Women and Children First (2+2 Press), Islamic Miniature (Lee/Lucas Press) and Monday Through Friday (Zelot Press).
    Mrs. King was the editor of the poetry zine Giants Play Well in the Drizzle which floated free to readers from 1983 to 1992, and the much shorter lived Northern Lights Poetry Chaplets Series (1993-95). She is a professional science writer and is currently director of publications for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the U.S. where she edited the prize-winning quarterly magazine, InsideMS.
    Mrs. King is married to the painter Basil King, whose painting of Joan and Paul Blackburn appears above, and whose art work has appeared in a number of her books, including Weather and Islamic Miniature.

You can view seventeen of Basil King’s paintings on the Avec magazine site, at

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