This review is 1,985 words
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The long view
Poets write poems. They write poems for their own reasons: to communicate, to record, to remember, to perform in language an event that occurs inside a human brain.
People who read poetry often carry poems with them, in their brain, perhaps some lines imperfectly caught in the ganglia that merges with a time or place in their life. Like the lives of saints or the legends of heroes, tales of poets are taught to us in a narrative that is means to connect a state of grace from somewhere inside a culture, a state we need to give meaning to our daily lives.
In Xanadu did Kublai Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree
Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed
So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow
My real trouble is / People keep mistaking me / for a human being
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine, / Mails ou sont les neiges d’antan?
Statement, observation, captured in a few chosen words of someone’s language, sometimes a new way to say what is already known, sometimes a memory of a language we never knew. But someone tried to teach us, someone impressed by a song that carried that language into a present.
The poems are collected into books which eventually are published, usually in small editions by small publishers. These books appear as a relationship between the poet, the publisher of the poet, and the audience who wants to receive the information.
James Koller writes poems and publishes them in small books. On two occasions some poems were selected into large books, Poems for the Blue Sky (Black Sparrow, 1976) and Like It Was (Blackberry, 1999). The former is a conventional selected poem from work produced during a period where San Francisco served as gathering place of writers who created one of several alternative poetries. The latter includes an autobiographical pastiche of memoir, poems, and selections from a novel. Both books are good selections of writing by a poet whose life and work is focused on a natural world of familiar things that challenge understanding.
When I received Snows Gone By: New & Uncollected Poems — 1964-2002 in the mail, I was happy to see a new collection, some of which I had heard in performance in recent years. Koller regularly travels and performs in Europe, a part of his work that began during his many collaborations with Franco Beltrametti over twenty years ago. Franco was a man of many hyphens: Italian-Swiss, poet-painter, writing in Italian, English and French. That collaboration opened Koller’s work to many places and sounds and brought him to swings through Europe. His time in Europe has brought his work to a new audience, along with translations of his poems into Italian, French, German, Dutch and Swedish.
But Snows Gone By is a more surprising book than any other collection of Koller’s writing. As the title states, it contains both new and uncollected poems spanning nearly four decades. In an introductory note, Koller tells us that the “older poems” were all left out of previous books. Left over poems? Rejects? Not some lost manuscript found in a shed tied up in old newspapers. Not Billy Budd found in a drawer when the family decides to sell old furniture. These are rejects, words left out of the dozens of small books. “Collected here, I realize, the poems together probably give a better idea of my total work than any of my other books have — they present a life & work that has been what it’s been, with little need for consistency.”
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, wrote a man from Concord Massachusetts. Do I contradict myself, asked a man from Brooklyn. Do I drop the self-correcting veil and present myself naked before thee in the things left out? Walk back through time and tell me what you see.
Bright moon on new snow.
She dreamed of deer. With the dawn
she found their hoof prints.
16 March 1999
WE WERE BORN TO FLOWER
And who will taste our honey
before we go to seed?
ON MY WAY UP THE COAST, VALNETINE’S DAY
First time, in the dark, I missed
the leg of my pants. You heard me,
pulled the covers over your head.
At dawn, I drank my coffee, watched
a sparrow shiver on the windowsill.
14 Feb 1975
must be another way
to the grave this
is a damned strange
road narrow before & back
so narrow I wonder how
I came to get this far
maybe I’ll stay right
here set up a camp
o build myself a fire
in the road right
in the middle save
all this forget the whole
damned thing why not
have a bite to eat
why not before you go
16 Feb 1964
These poems flow backwards in time, the direction of memory. If she dreamed of cell phones in the moonlight, what would she see on the ground in the morning? In Koller’s world, the things we see while awake or asleep are animate. Birds, signs of weather, the season of the trees, the engine of a truck, a shotgun, architecture viewed from the highway. The people we know, the men and women we love and live with are that way, a morning conversation, a voice heard through the phone (but not the phone itself), a face brought back when waking from a dream. The snow is on the ground and in the air, not on the television.
I remember the motion of the feathers on that sparrow’s wings from the moment I typed this poem for publication in a mimeograph newsletter. The poem, the image, the thing appear as overlays each time a particular bird returns to a particular architectural detail outside any window. And that road, if you have ever driven it, is very narrow and very dark. It must eventually lead to the real grave, not a metaphor for death.
François Villon, the surviving voice of Paris in the late Fifteenth century, was brought into English by Swinburne and other late Victorians more interested in opening than controlling the senses. Koller takes his title from Villon’s Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis, a poem on what we might call the medieval idea of transitory life and vanity. But 500 years later, as well as 5,000 years before, life remains transitory. The poem is written by a transitory consciousness interacting with a “real world”
The real world is one I’ve carried within me —
forty years gone by & the engines still turn
& the wheels they drive still turn & drive me
& carry me through these summer nights
The surprise is how consistently the poems bring us into the world of memory, evoking dead friends, sights seen on roads across a landscape that has a biological reality but no nation, in a society of people who need and want and love what they see, all quite naked beneath that dress and those jeans.
Selected poems have a place in our consumption of anyone’s writing. We have faith that someone picked the good ones and saved us some time. Anyone who has read the tangle of prose and poetry improvisations from which William Carlos Williams’ poetry masterpieces Spring and All were ripped, or gently lifted, and then a few brilliant sections further separated for appropriate placement in anthologies and teaching collections, would understand the difficulty of looking at the raw materials. How are we supposed to know what’s good?
James Koller has also recently published two small books. We can call them books because they are separate, with covers, and can be held in the hand. But these books are short — about twenty pages each — and without a spine, so we can call them chapbooks, which once meant works of popular literature sold for a few pennies, carried around by peddlers or “chapmen”. They are certainly hard to find in bookstores, lost on the shelves of the poetry section if they ever get there. Both these books provide satisfying examples of Koller’s art: narrative poetry so brief that the story seems to have gone by as quickly as it is remembered.
Looking For His Horses is a long poem, 10 pages. A man is looking for something. His horses are missing, we’ll have to assume. The man is riding one through the woods, looking at tracks in the snow.
I’ll just keep making a big circle, he thought,
study all the openings. Sooner or later
there will be a sign. He knew the story
would be there, on the ground.
In these woods are characters. A man alone is talking to himself, or talking to his characters: The Gray Wolf, his friend Smith. His characters talk about dreams and history: Garibaldi, Temujin, Ibn Khaldun, François Villon. The narrator is moving while he’s talking to himself or to his characters, trying to gather up what’s been lost.
The man on the horse asked, Who was it
carried the head of his dead friend with him,
guessing that the dead
might have still more to say?
The conversation suggests ideas, evokes the memory of lives who have moved in and then out of the action of history — what we remember. The man on the horse keeps looking, admiring the sky and “the view from hill to hill, the long view.”
Crows Talk To Him is the record of “a twenty day crossing”, a drive across America from east to west and the return to the east. It includes some of the fine “new” poems selected for Snows Gone By, but displays them in a context that moves at a different pace, across the landscape, through the changing weather, rather than back in time. The landscape of America appears rather like it does in the films of Jim Jarmusch, slow and deliberate, the most common things a bit strange. This comparison is not to suggest any form of contemporary influence, only to observe that the foreigner Jarmusch’s sense of the dull exotic is similar to the native Koller’s sense of the familiar alien. There are some characters and dialog:
The girl asked
why Indians slept in their clothes.
It’s an old cowboy trick.
Mama warned me about cowboys.
There are those moments when the world is something sliding by the windshield, wind and weather. Sometimes it is just a view out the window, perhaps jotted down on a notebook on the empty seat by the driver.
Half Donner Lake
is open, half iced
& covered with snow.
The Truckee runs
The birds of the title follow the rider much like the birds of the sea follow a sailor. What they say is recorded in the way they appear.
in the median.
Betwixt & between.
Hawk with all his feathers
top of a telephone pole.
Back to snow
on the ground
& big wet flakes.
There is moving. There is observing. There is memory. The birds keep crossing the rider’s path. As I read it I wonder, what is the relationship between the inside and the outside? Does the poet see the crows flying out of the rainbow because he is moving on the road? He reads the weather like a rhyme — if the clouds look like this, the rain will follow. Does the continent have a rhythm? Perhaps the world is talking to him.
If some peddler drops these books off in your town, pick them up and enjoy the conversation and the ride.
Paul Kahn is managing director of Kahn+Associates, an information architecture consulting studio based in Paris. He is the editor of NEW Magazine, international visual and verbal communication. Long ago he was co-editor of the mimeo-mag BEZOAR from Gloucester Massachusetts. His non-literary publications can be found on the Kahnplus.com website at
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