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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Charles Bernstein

Afterword to
The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser

(Revised and Expanded Edition)
Edited by Miriam Nichols, University of California Press, 2006

This piece is being published simultaneously in The Poetry Project Newsletter.

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
            — Dickinson

Robin Blaser’s poems are companions on a journey of life, a journey whose goal is not getting someplace else, but, rather, being where you are and who you are – where you is always in the plural.

Blaser cover

In the plural might be a good motto for Blaser’s courageous and anti-declamatory poetics, his profound continuation, deep into the darkening heart of contemporary North American poetry, of Emily Dickinson’s core value: “I’m nobody … Are you nobody too?” For Blaser, it is not only nobody but also no mind, or “no” mind, for this is a poetics of negation that dwells in pleats and upon folds. Pleating and folding being Blaser’s latter day, Deleuzian, manner of extending his lifelong project of seriality.

One poem must follow instanter on the next, a next always out of reach until in hand, in mouth, in ear.

Blaser celebrated his 80 birthday on May 14, 2005, just as this book was going into final production.

The present edition, an expanded version of the 1993 coach house press publication of the same name – Blaser’s first collected poems – features a number of poems from the last decade and also includes several significant works not included in the Coach House publication. Most significantly, Blaser has added a recent long poem for Dante to his Great Companion series. This astounding work provides a bridge between Blaser’s poems and critical writings, marking a direct point of contact to the University of California’s companion volume of Blaser’s collected essays.

Blaser’s work constitutes a fundamental part of the fabric of the North American poetry and poetics of “interrogation,” to use his term. Compared to his most immediate contemporaries, Blaser has pursued a different, distinctly refractory, willfully diffuse, course that has led him to be circumspect about publication. As a result, it was almost 40 years from his first poems to the time when The Holy Forest began to emerge as one of the key poetic works of the present. Indeed, Blaser’s lyric collage (what he calls “the art of combinations” in a poem of that title, alluding to Leibnitz) seems today to be remarkably fresh, even while his engagement with (I don’t say commitment to) turbulence and turbulent thought seems ever more pressingly exemplary. Blaser’s work seems to me more a part of the future of poetry than the past.

Blaser’s poems and essays insist on the necessity of thinking through analogy and resemblance – that is, thinking serially so as to move beyond the epistemological limits of positivism and self-expression. At the same time, Blaser has committed his work to everywhere affirming the value of human diversity, understood not only as sexual or ethnic difference, but also as the possibility of thinking outside received categories. There are some remarkably powerful and explicit political poems in the volume, notably “Even on Sunday.” But the most radical politics of this work goes beyond any one poem: it is inscribed in the work’s compositional practice. Even as Blaser questions the stable, lyric, expressive “I,” he never abandons the possibility of poetic agency, through his generative recognition of language as social, as the “outside.”

Blaser’s “Great Companions” have now gone into the world of an ever-present no-longer-of-this-life: Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, of his immediate company; Dante, Nerval, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze of his Imaginary. The poems of the Holy Forest are points on a map of a cosmos that does not exist in historical terms, that cannot exist, yet that must exist, if we are to make it to a Century 22 that is more than the name of a clothing store. The points form a constellation that we are not quite ready to apprehend but through which we are already formed. We grope and we stumble, but then, out of the blue or black or ultra suede, something unexpected happens: we are ensnared by the encounter.

Form finds us. Form founds us.

Blaser’s Holy Forest is a blaze of allusion without symbols, quotation without appointment. In the forest of language, every tree is a poem, every leaf a word. The poet sings the songs of night, jumping, from branch to branch, to a syncopated beat; never, ever, finding home. “To wit – to woo – to wound – ,” Blaser writes in “Oh!,” one of his late, short, I want to call them anti-lyrics.

Citation, citation everywhere: the utter prism of his care.

No other moment exists but this one.

This one.

This one.

The Holy Forest is wholly secular, for only the secular allows the promise of an end to what Blake knew as the Totalizing Oppression of Morality. (“We have paid far too much in terror,” Blaser writes in a note to his Dante poem, “for our totalities.”) Each line of The Holy Forest is a glimpse into the unknown, each poem a new way of entering the holiness of the everyday. The frames are restless: no conclusion nor solution, the only resolution the necessity to go on. “We enter a territory without totalities where poetic practice is our stake and necessity.”

“This World is not conclusion / A sequel stands beyond,” writes Dickinson.

Neither is the poem the end of the poem, nor is the idea of the poem its origin.

The poem is the possibility of possibility.

In his exquisite articulations of the flowers of associational thinking, Blaser has turned knowledge into nowledge, the “wild logos” of the cosmic companionship of the real.