B O O K R E V I E W
Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, Number Three
(Cambridge, MA: 2004), ed. by Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich
ISSN 1534-7877, 510 pp., $15. Orders: editor(at)fulcrumpoetry.com
I lack the qualifications to review Fulcrum 3 properly, but the more I think about its density and mass, the more I realize, oh give up trying to be Solomon, evaluating Fulcrum 3 is like — trying to hold a moonbeam with your hand. A big heavy 500 page behemoth of a moonbeam. In Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich edit this stylish literary journal, assisted by a gaggle of contributing editors so diverse that looking at the list on the masthead reduces me to a blank deadpan a la Buster Keaton. I just couldn’t help myself, the names were not registering as all belonging to the same species, it was like the caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland.
In general what I read of the poetry in Fulcrum 3 I enjoyed. There’s a whole section, edited by Gregory O’Brien, of 21 New Zealand poets that will appeal to all who have wanted to find out more about writing Down Under. I suppose since Jacket is based in Australia that it would be like me trying to find out what writing is like in, I don’t know, Fresno, but still I was shocked and appalled at myself, to see that of the 21 poets, I only recognized the names of maybe 14 or 15. What’s wrong with us in America that we are so little interested in people from South of the Equator? Is it just cultural snobbery or heavy, empirical inertia? Maybe a cobbling of both. And as I looked closer into the 14 or 15 I thought I knew, I realized to myself that maybe their plain Anglo names were fooling me into a false familiarity. When a poet is called James Brown, does any American say, no, I’ve never heard of James Brown? I don’t think so, my friends.
Of the non New Zealand poets, well, I’ll leave out the people I know personally, for you would not believe me if I told you how great Bill Berkson, Michael Farrell, Peter Gizzi are, for you know that I love them (or you could find it out on Google, then I’d really look a fraud). Joe Green’s poetry has a savage wit and a plaintive, enchanting innocence, like some of Joe Brainard’s drawings. He has one poem about Kim Novak and James Stewart in Bell, Book and Candle that perfectly expressed the Technicolor genius of Richard Quine, that film’s unsung genius director. And he has other poems about Rin Tin Tin, the hero Shepherd of early US serial film, and about “The Lonliest Ranger,” that makes me think he is lighting out, fast, for Henry Darger territory. Look out for them little girls! But much of the poetry is the same old sestinas and villanelles you see everywhere else under the reign of new formalism. Somehow or other Ange Mlinko squeaked through the Cambridge controls and her poems here are something true, savage, and accurate, an array of sensibilities that put paid to the notion of the lyric voice by opening it to multiple notes and graces. I might also mention the poetry of Mark Lamoureux, a name new to me, a exciting writer who knows how to keep his secrets. One feels that all concerned are putting their best foot forward because it’s, you know, Fulcrum 3 and it’s aiming for something different.
Lackluster, however, is the word for the cough “Fulcrum Feature” cough of “Poetry and the Psyche.” A band of Spinozas might be able to make something out of this perdurable topic, but our panelists in general aren’t up to the challenge. As for the artworks of Konstantin Simon, they are of the sort which makes you realize how great the art in Sulfur really was, no matter how blind you were to it before. I might like it in person, but photographs do not do this bronze or stone work justice.
There’s also a debate between Chris Stroffolino and Joan Houlihan that runs out of steam before it really begins, in a converse ratio to the energy the two of them bring to the table.
The section that excites me is the final one, Ben Mazer’s 108 page anthology of the Berkeley Renaissance poets. Mazer must have worked his ass off, knocking on doors, digging up sources, ringing up strangers, and the pay off, turning up some wicked documents. His research is of the kind you’d have thought disappeared with Jay (The Melville Log) Leyda. I thought I knew where all the Jack Spicer material had been published, but Mazer scooped me not once but twice. What he did first was to assemble a complete collection of Berkeley, Bay Area and student periodicals for the period in question (roughly from 1945–52) and he read right through each one. In the back of a 1948 issue of Occident, unlisted in the Table of Contents, Mazer found a substantial article Spicer wrote on the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. Then he trolled through the internet, through the ranks of the alumni of Fairfax High School (LA), to procure a copy of the school literary journal, the bizarrely named Colonial Voices 1941, which boasts 4 of Spicer’s earliest poems.
In this way he adds to our understanding of Spicer’s sources and influences, by placing his poetry within a broader context of postwar thought and fashion. Similarly he has printed unpublished or forgotten material by Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, and the underrated Mary Fabilli. Mazer widens the picture by reconfiguring the Berkeley Renaissance to include Charles Olson among the writers of that place and time. Olson, yes the Black Mountain guy, spent several months in Berkeley in the wake of Call Me Ishmael (1947), his pioneering study of Melville and what we now call the Pacific Rim. While consulting the vast Western Americana resources at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, he met up with Kenneth Rexroth, Tom Parkinson, Muriel Rukeyser, and Duncan (though not Blaser or Spicer). This was one of the most important meetings of Duncan’s life, and I have sometimes thought that RD afterwards used his early acquaintance of Olson to swank it over Blaser and Spicer, his superior knowledge of Olson’s poetics a piece of cultural capital so high, you couldn’t get over it, so low, you couldn’t get around it. Maybe I’m projecting. I’d feel the same way if, oh I don’t know, if Jeremy Prynne decided to come to San Francisco for six months and would only see August Kleinzahler and Amy Tan, wasting no time on Kevin.
Besides shoehorning Olson into the Berkeley scene, Mazer also argues that a nearly unknown poet, Landis Everson, is the real champ of the group. When people think of Landis Everson, they are usually conflating him with William Everson (born Sacramento, CA. 1912– died Santa Cruz, CA, 1994), no relation, who “became Brother Antoninus” whatever that means, and managed to land in the New American Poetry. William Everson had a Kevin-Federline-style marriage to Mary Fabilli and was thus in the Berkeley Renaissance whether anyone really wanted him there or not. Landis Everson is a different kettle of fish entirely. He was young, handsome, a WWII veteran, and strangely gifted, from Coronado, down by San Diego, with the famous spun-sugar hotel where Some Like It Hot was filmed. For Blaser, Spicer and Duncan, Landis was nearly the “Maximin” in their tightly wound circle, the idol, the golden boy they all wanted. He appears as the “bronze boy” in Duncan’s early masterpiece The Venice Poem. A spiteful Spicer punctured holes in his god in his poem, “Orpheus’ Song to Apollo,” written to Landis and delivered to him at a poetry reading.
. . . Perhaps,
If the moon were made of cold green cheese,
I could call you Diana.
If a knife could peel that rosy rind,
It would find you virgin as a star.
Too hot to move.
This is almost goodbye.
Your extra roses somewhere where they’ll keep.
I like your aspiration
But the sky’s too deep
Stung, Landis fled the reading in tears. After Berkeley there was Korea, grad work at Columbia, and a publication history that brought him close to the mainstream magazines that Spicer despised. The poetry stayed with Everson through the 1950s, and in 1960 he joined Blaser and Spicer for an intensive San Francisco study group, devoted to the serial poem and to dictation, during the course of which they “received” Homage to Creeley (Spicer), The Park and Cups (Blaser), and for Everson, two remarkable sequences which Mazer prints in full in his anthology, Postcard From Eden (printed as a small chapbook ) and “The Little Ghosts I Played With”.
But after Spicer’s death and the departure of Blaser for Vancouver, Everson wrote no more. Essentially he has been silent for forty years, a poet who never published a book and whose appearances in some pretty Grade A periodicals, from Poetry Chicago to Locus Solus, have been pretty much forgotten. And now to have him back in full relief is pretty exciting. And, due to Ben Mazer’s encouragement, Everson has started writing poetry again, thus breaking a silence longer than George Oppen’s.
If I have spent a lot of time writing about Everson here in this review, I mirror the attention Mazer brings to Everson in his introduction. He has refurbished the Berkeley Renaissance so that its chief significance becomes other, it was the “site” that allowed Landis Everson to flourish.
Such jiggling of the canon is not entirely unprecedented. 150 years ago people thought they understood the American Renaissance pretty well, even before Melville or Dickinson were known to have lived in it. We don’t know yet whether Mazer’s critical placement will “take,” but it is one of the interesting poetry events of 2004, and if nothing else, he is to be congratulated for the “awful daring” of his good education.
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