Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



Alice Notley

Intersections with Edwin’s Lines



I know Edwin Denby’s poems well; his isn’t a large body of work and his poems lend themselves, by their form and by his character, to being remembered and meditated on. I was introduced to Edwin’s work, and Edwin, by Ted Berrigan, and at the beginning of our relationship observed Ted’s obsession with certain lines, phrases, mannerisms of Edwin’s before I myself became involved with the poetry. Recently, after not having looked at the work for awhile, I glanced through it again and started remembering and also seeing newly, as I was a little older since the last time.
       So what I’m going to do is look at some specific poems and lines, and say things about them, in a somewhat notational fashion, because it seems this will give me pleasure. I’m going to presume some familiarity with the poems on the part of my reader. I will sometimes tell what Ted said; but with the Later Sonnets I will probably only reflect my own attention, because they are special to me, I imitated them, and also listened for what they could tell me about staying alive despite the suffering and shame of being human. I will be working with The Complete Poems, ed. by Ron Padgett (Random House, 1986). From In Public, In Private:

‘The Shoulder’

The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig.
It terrifies and it bores the observer, the shoulder.
and later The shoulder, hung from his neck (half orchid, half tumor)

Those are the lines that have stayed with me. I was too young for this poem for years, and I think it terrified (though didn’t bore) me. It echoes a celebrated de Kooning painting, from the 30’s, of a man with such a shoulder. I suppose I was unable to think of a part of the human body as a thing by itself that might repel a moralist (Edwin), and fascinate an artist (de Kooning become Edwin.) I say repel because the shoulder, in this poem, seems so arbitrary, used (by its person but also by others — ‘It takes the... shape of...money, that connects with a government somewhere’), and then all its own to the eye.

‘The Silence at Night’

(The designs on the sidewalk Bill pointed out): Edwin with de Kooning, again in the 30s, looking. I don’t usually remember the lines so much as what happens — that slime and cracks and stains on the sidewalk are seen to take on new shapes and become fantastic pictures, and that later there are three lines in which the word ‘honey’ is used beautifully. Here are the first two lines:

The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight

And here are the ‘honey’ lines:

So honey, it’s lucky how we keep throwing away
Honey, it’s lucky how it’s no use anyway
Oh honey, it’s lucky no one knows the way

I — we, can I say? — have been working with the problem of garbage, refuse, human stain in cities for years. And mediating between acceptance of what is, even having an ‘eye’ for it, and at the same time loathing it. William Carlos Williams never quite loathes it. Edwin can. Frank O’Hara picked up (I think) an appropriate sense of disgust from Edwin, which is never quite absent from his poems that love New York.

‘First Warm Days’

(we had this on tape but I can’t find the tape now):

April, up on a twig a leaftuft stands
And heaven lifts a hundred miles mildly
Comes and fondles our faces, playing friends —
Such a one day often concludes coldly —

I have a precise aural memory of Edwin saying ‘mildly’ and ‘coldly’ in his even way, so that ‘coldly’ feels pretty cold, and the rhyme is an intense mental event, a piece of dead-on logic. There are also the lines

And human faces — hardly changed after
Millennia — the separate single face
Placid, it turns towards friendly laughing
Or makes an iridescence, being at peace.

This is the other side of ‘The Shoulder’ — but places the human in a larger, lonelier context, at the same time as admitting to the possibility of a lovelike intimacy, even among strangers. Because this is a poem about New Yorkers drawn outside together into warm weather, a yearly event I remember very well:

We all are pleased by an air like of loving
Going home quiet in the subway-shoving.

from ‘A Sonnet Sequence: Dishonor’, no. 17:

Thin air I breathe and birds use for flying
Over and through trees standing and breathing in air
Air insects drop through in insect dying
and at the end

When with it I give up the insanely hid

The airless secret I strangle not to share
With all the others as others share the air.

Ted was caught by the notion of ‘thin air’ and what it meant to breathe thin air. He assured me that certain people breathed thin air, and other people didn’t; that air itself was not thin but could be breathed thinly. He wrote a poem, which he later destroyed, that catalogued all of his friends at the time in terms of how each breathed and the quality of the air breathed: viz, ‘Anne gulps air,’ ‘Lewis breathes thin air richly.’ Edwin’s poems can lead you into this kind of thinking, since they are so spare and each word is so meant.
      The last lines, again, frightened me, and I wasn’t sure what the ‘airless secret’ was. I suppose it is the fact of oneself known only to oneself.
      But I used to think it might be something more melodramatic, Edwin’s own secret.

From Mediterranean Cities: ‘Trastevere: A Dedication’.

The first and last two lines of this poem were important ones for Ted. They are respectively

Dear head to one side, in summer dusk, Olga

and

As laughing Olga, feeding through the window cat-shadows
Then reading, then sinking into slumber, too does

These lines contain small effects that Ted tried to achieve over and over in the early 70s: the delay of Olga’s name until the end of the first line, and the delay of ‘too does’ till the end, in the closing lines, but w ith the inversion of the two words from normal speech order.
      In the first line Edwin is following a precise order of perception: one sees, then names, but cannot see her without affection, so though she, Olga, is seen first as unnamed she is still ‘dear.’
      Allen Ginsberg was also interested in the accurate ordering of perceptions, having gotten the obsession through Cézanne’s work. Edwin loved certain Cézannes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also loved Stein, who of course owed a debt to Cézanne. These influences can lead one to a notational kind of diction, and Edwin leaves out a lot of articles in his later sonnets, as Allen did in his poems. They were not influenced by each other.
      Mediterranean Cities was published as a beautiful book, a collaboration with the photos of Rudy Burckhardt. The influence of Rudy’s eye on Edwin’s must be mentioned, though one sometimes suspects they had the same eyes. When I see Rudy’s photos of people in the subway or walking on 14th Street, I know I am also seeing as Edwin saw. People are not glamorous, or stark, or interpreted: they are there, in motion or in a moment. I always believe Rudy’s camera about people, but I don’t know why. It allows them, maybe.
I went once or twice to the New York City Ballet with Edwin. We rode there on the subway, because, he said, he loved the subway, it was the last place where you were allowed to stare at people.

‘Ciampino: Envoi’

The last two lines of this poem were important to Ted for what they said:

For with regret I leave the lovely world men made
Despite their bad character, their art is mild

For Ted, these two lines said everything about Edwin and what he was like. The absoluteness of the declaration of humanity’s ‘bad character’ amazed Ted. It is hard to think of another poet who would say such a thing.
      The line brings to mind Edwin’s rather famous sentence ‘I am assuming that one knows what it is to be ashamed.’ But then there is also the characterization of human art as ‘mild,’ as if that were the best of qualities. So is it? One might think about that for a thousand years.
      Ted had several conversations with Edwin in which Edwin said something in passing that Ted had to think about hard. So they became part of his lore. In one conversation Edwin said that Melville was right, the night sky in New York was not black but purple. Then Ted studied it and saw that it was in fact purple. (I looked at it and discovered it was navy blue.)
      And once Edwin said of someone, ‘He just wants to be loved.’ Then Edwin paused and added, ‘Despicable, of course.’ Ted was horrified, because he was sure he himself just wanted to be loved. So he went home and worked on that one for awhile.
      I should add that for Ted (and many others) Edwin’s relationship with Rudy Burckhardt was a moral touchstone for what human relations should be and was often referred to: ‘Edwin and Rudy...’ Also Ted found it funny to say ‘Edwin and Rudy,’ as he did in his poem ‘Things to Do in Providence’: what could those names mean to anyone? Which reminds me of Edwin’s poem ‘A Postcard,’ a birthday poem for Rudy which is a list of names of people who supposedly wish Rudy a happy birthday:

And then Victor, and Bill, and Walter the mild,
And Frank, David, John, Aaron, Paul, Harry and
Virgil, the Photoleague, Oliver, Ebbie wild,
I and Gankie and the Shoe-man shake your hand.

Snoring in New York — An Elegy

This is a remarkable longer poem which I ignored for a long time. Then one year — it was in the late 70s — Edmund Leites taught a workshop at St. Marks on ‘Poetry and Philosophy,’ and he asked me to read the poem aloud to the class. I was asked to read it again, a few months later, at a reading; I think it really got into my system, since I had to keep ‘rehearsing’ it. It contains some very Steinian lines, such as in the following stanza:

Mythically slow or slow United States
Slow is not owned, slow mythically is like dearer
Two slowly come to hear, one indoors awaits
Mere fright at night, bright dismay by day, fear is
Nearer, merer and slower, fear is before
Always, dear always is, fear increases more

As far as I know, Edwin’s major influences were Dante and Stein. His favorite book of The Divine Comedy was the Paradiso, and like Doug Oliver he kept a copy of it in Italian in his jacket pocket. And he read Stein constantly and told others to do so too. (He had known Alice Toklas, but not, I think, Stein. There are anecdotes.) I’m pretty sure he told O’Hara to read Stein; he certainly told Ted to. A key text seems to have been the very difficult Stanzas in Meditation. Once Anne Waldman told me she had been discussing her recent work with Edwin, and ‘he told me to keep on reading Stein.’
      Anyway one hears the layering and punning — ‘Always, dear always is, fear increases more’; the sound of definitions — ‘Slow is not owned’; the ordinary rhyme — ‘Mere fright at night’; etc. All of which one associates with Stein.

Later Sonnets

In 1970 Ted stayed for a few days at Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette’s loft and found a full version of the Later Sonnets in a closet. Many had been published before, but he had never seen them altogether or seen them all. He made a copy and gave it to me. I proceeded to imitate them, in my way, in 1971, writing my first and only sonnet sequence, 165 Meeting House Lane. I was twenty-five years old.
      I learned a number of things about writing poetry from imitating these sonnets: that a form can make you say the unexpected thing that turns out to be true; that form or metrics and the order of perceptions can unite in a most pleasureable way; that I might be much more my poems than myself living, socially observed. I learned a great deal about how poetry is artifice and artifice is closer to the real than one’s sense of everyday life lived is. That was a lot to learn, and I wouldn’t have known how to say all of that then. What I would say then was, the form — this particular sonnet form — dredges things up from myself I would never have anticipated.
      Of course the form, this peculiarly Edwinesque sonnet form, was very different for Edwin: it suited his speech and his way of seeing (it had very little to do with the way I spoke.) And in its compression and drive for clarity it reflected a lifetime’s experience of form in dance, painting, poetry, and living.

‘Born in my loft, dancer untame’

What a beautiful line that is, and its successor line, and then the two subsequent lines, what are they and where do they take us? Here are those first four lines:

Born in my loft, dancer untame
A wilderness imagined, small
Cat, which we reached for real by plane
You stalked on the roof up the hall

The word ‘Cat’ is a deliberate flatness and descent of tone, if you believe a cat is less worthy than a human. ‘ ... small’ and then that flat funny word for a specific creature which this poem celebrates and elegizes quite passionately. ‘Cat, which we reached for real by plane’: that is the sort of line that taught me I certainly didn’t have to explain everything — ‘for real by plane’? What was that?
      The last three lines of the poem are magnificent

Cat-heart that knew me gone, I cried
It stopped beating drugged in a cage
Dear, mine will too, and let go rage

‘Dancer untame’ as contrasted with the dancers of Balanchine’s company whom Edwin certainly adored too. But I have always been struck by how completely this poem is about one cat and Edwin’s feeling for her. The middle of the poem tells the story of the cat’s life in seven lines that condense narrative into the shortest of phrases and the most event-filled octosyllabic lines:

You stalked on the roof up the hall
Heart nursing six kittens, that grew
With them, long-tailed splendid-eyed cat
A disease struck the womb, left you
Savage fighter, playful at night
Lamed, ireful you prowled then; vet cut
Out the womb, so rage might subside
Telephone rings, speaks, I hang up
Cat-heart that knew me gone, I cried

How much is compressed into the lines between ‘A disease’ and ‘subside’, and is that a sentence, does it matter, and the shift into present tense with ‘Telephone rings’ just for that line. Sometimes I didn’t want this poem to be about a cat, that fact made me uncomfortable.

‘Writing poems, an employee’

This is a poem I wore as an amulet:

Writing poems, an employee
I lived here at nineteen, who I?
Current boys nineteen, their beauty
Of skin, all I can recognize
On this passport, soft vague boy’s smile
Recalls few facts, does, his horror
Scale’s abyss, void becoming real
A heart’s force, he was going mad
Which I? — surviving forty years
Schizophrenia of a goof
I remember his savage tears
The kind reproof, the kind reproof
Vague-faced boy, he faced what was it?
A white old man, approved, I sit

This poem helped me to know that I would get through certain life passages (mental events, anguish — as in another sonnet beginning ‘Disorder, mental, strikes me...’); it also taught me its techniques, such as that of identifying a former self as almost a stranger, thus creating two characters out of oneself — the device that drives the poem.
      I think I remember a version of this poem in which the third-to-last line read ‘The kind reproof, kind reproof’.

‘Small paintings seen, I cross the Park’

This poem exemplifies a kind of progression of action — recalled later but written as if in the present, as in an O’Hara poem — that I tried to get into my own sonnet sequence. These are the first eight lines:

Small paintings seen, I cross the Park
Toward six, end of March, pellucid
Close boulder, black velvet so dark,
Glare, one or two lithe descend it
Grass March-green, in air the hard buds
Flushed barely the buildings’ vista
Up Fifth, downtown is where I head
Scraps of Park speech, blown scraps of paper

Ted worked on this sort of description as well but leaving out anything pretty or obviously natural (of nature) because he thought he had no talent for that. And so he arrived at his own technique that involved leaving out almost all of the description but including the ‘scraps of Park speech’ that are left out here. He would have been most influenced by the first and seventh lines above.

‘The grand republic’s poet is’

This is a visionary poem by a poet seemingly not given to visions. It puzzled me because I didn’t understand that Edwin could ‘see’ Whitman pointing at the moon or inhabiting his, Edwin’s, own room in underwear, and also write a poem like ‘Small paintings seen, I cross the Park’.

The grand republic’s poet is
Brooklyn Whitman, commuter Walt
Nobody else believes all of it
Not Harvard, that finds him at fault
I have, but first he broke my heart
He points to the moon but breaks it
I look for him, Twenty-first Street
Sleep against the push of a cat
Waking stumble to start coffee
At my back Walt in underwear
His head slants from unaltered day
Strokes my cat, the cheeks streaming tears
Sits on the bed, quietly cries
While I delay turning round, dies

I would wonder if Whitman dies because Edwin has found him at fault. This was an interesting thing to wonder about, even though I also knew that Whitman dies because his America only lasts an instant, in the imagination, and has been betrayed, as much by himself, his blindness, as by subsequent history. Harvard, which Edwin attended for two years, doesn’t seem worth thinking about here in delineation of cause and effect. It’s one’s own complicity that matters most, and Whitman is certainly more like Edwin than Harvard is.

‘Awakening, look into sweet’

I have finally come to believe the last few lines, though I don’t believe the fourth line, and don’t believe Edwin did, except in the context of the optimistic day, the specific day, of the specific poem:

Chance roommates, you cats and roaches
You have cultures purer than mine
Of yours I shelter the success
And at mine’s failure don’t repine

Anne Waldman, who was very close to Edwin and visited him often, told me that he refused to kill roaches and that she had seen them walking in and out of his sugar bowl. She was horrified. And she was the Buddhist not he. I think she persuaded him to get rid of the ones in the sugar, at least.

‘Inattentively fortunate’

This was another talismanic poem for me, for its even-keel joy in living in New York among artists, for its first four lines especially, their syntax and floatingness and how the whole poem floats grammatically launched by this beginning:

Inattentively fortunate
Have been pausing at lunchcounters
While what I most like, art that’s great
Has been being painted upstairs
But I remember a variant here too; I think the second line was once ‘Having been pausing at lunchcounters’.

‘Roar drowns the reproach, facing him’

I will close with this poem, a masterpiece, which integrates the gestures of a lovers’ quarrel observed, and the poet’s rush to a ballet ‘foreknowing’ its ‘games,’ into one sequence of motion. I will simply quote it in full, but want to say the line ‘Quarrels I believed riders win’ has stayed with me out of its context as an instance of the inexplicability of poetry’s use: I never quite have to think about what it means but I can’t forget it.

Roar drowns the reproach, facing him
Quite near, subway platform, she heeds
Head tossing slow like a pony’s
In the wrong, the pinto I rode
A boy of twelve, that lovely head
Quarrels I believed riders win
White-haired pass these lovers in luck
Hurry to ballet, its invention
Where there’s no quarrel, but there’s fate
A scream unhurried of music’s choice
And we recognize the games played
Like in heaven, foreknowing they cease
The move, the pitch arrive, turn to air
Here, as if love had said forever

I learned, from Edwin, that each phrase was an object and that word order was plastic; that each word used all of its space and so had to fill it; that each line floated as well as connected; and that where a sentence stopped and another began was ambiguous, like in speech. I learned that one could place personal suffering in a context that might be communal as of persons or communal as of objects and actions and words — either one worked as community. I thus learned a scale one was being along that began with oneself and the others in one’s apartment and proceeded out onto the street and into the imaginary space of painting and ballet on up into the sky above tall buildings, all inside one and one inside it.
      I learned not to fear the sound of personal peculiarities in poetry, personal ‘music,’ that that’s what the poems would finally be made of. I learned that any sequence of actions I had performed might be interesting if embodied in words that at the same time made their own sequence and assumed their own shapes: this is not the quotidian, it is not autobiography. It is motion and event purified of self and then laid next to self as a different kind of shape.
      I couldn’t stay with my version of Edwin’s style because I needed to use a lot of words, but I never forget about these poems for very long.

Alice Notley Aug, 2002

for Yvonne



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