NO LOWER LIMIT
[if you will]
In many ways, “Unhurried Vision” has the will to feature precisely that. In fact, this book that begins with a vague sense of loss (“Something gone again ... alone until midnight”) will largely consist of a specific catalog of exactly who has gone and everything else that gets lost in the following year.
But a wider sense of absence and loss continually haunts these poems as well — grief at a broken bud vase that used to be Rothenberg’s father’s shot glass, grief at remembering how Philip uncontrollably wept at the news of Olson’s death, and even compassion for Lenin, whose statues were being converted into bells to sell to the tourist trade.
There’s also a profound melancholy over the absence of so many haunting voices gone to us now, most noticeably Lew Welch’s. And the constant threat that by the time you read this book another one of those still living voices will also be gone. That pervading sense of doom erupts most completely late one night in Boulder at a Beat conference when Rothenberg succinctly summarizes his relationships to his mentors (at that moment Ginsberg, McClure, and Whalen): “Dead, sleeping, blind.”
The end of Philip’s life was written from a Sophoclean script: With the assistance of his family, a king, blinded, in humiliation, returns to his ancestral home to find peace in his last and lowest days, and is rejected and harassed by politicians and the general decline of civility. The metaphor of the banished king is made most clear when Philip is being discharged from the hospital and his sangha refuses to accept him because of the complications.
This collection may be the closest thing we have of what it was like to be in Philip Whalen’s presence (beyond his own writings, of course); the subtleties of which were only revealed after a long and curious exposure, such as in this gentle exchange:
Is clinging to life greed?
“It’s clinging that’s the problem
Attachment is a better word than greed.”
Which brings us back to the complexities of Philip Whalen, because Philip was not only a poet but also a Sensei — a zen priest. And what Rothenberg took on in 1999, that year of propitious endings and promised new beginnings, was actually more than just a poet’s apprenticeship but also an apprenticeship in death with a living zen master.
But Philip was a poet first, and there is plenty about poetry here, such as Philip’s list of the perfect poetry curriculum:
- give a good reading list, show multiple styles
- teach writer to distance self from work
- knock down blocks you have to keep writing
Or this, from “Ocean Restaurant”:
what you can’t remember
you write down
There are also passages in Rothenberg’s poems of heartbreaking poignancy, such as this passage from “To-Day Is”:
Fever, irregular heartbeat
He’s not sure if I’m here
or if I’m a dream
He likes the feel of my hand
on his head
“I feel frail”
I sit beside him
This is the body of poetry
Or this, from “4th Floor”:
Does anyone understand
he would feel better if
he were not left alone?
Or this passage from “Conversation with an Inventory”:
and though we imagine these monstrous deep-sea
creatures to swim quickly and pulverize
with great sucking flesh
It’s more likely they float upside down and drift,
prey passively acquired
Living like this until one day
they wash upon a beach
a dead spectacle
But this book is mostly (for me) a celebration of community: of breaking bread with friends (who are about to become compost themselves), how the process of lineage actually works (and has worked for millennia), and the preciousness of everything (and everyone) that gets lost along the way.
As such, “Unhurried Vision” also includes the sudden and unexpected visits from old friends (just like real life!). These snapshots are often funny and true — Anne Waldman shouting out from the audience the one question Michael had forbidden anyone to ask during his lecture at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program; Diane di Prima’s withering, and precise, response to news that Philip has been turned out by his sangha; and Michael McClure’s confident and clear voicing of thoughts that have crossed every poet’s mind at one time or another:
“It has nothing to do with poetry, Fuck you!”
... “Fuck you! You should have told me
it was a big, huge piece of work, massive work!
You just call out of nowhere, want to know what I think!”
God, I love these poets.