This piece is about 18 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Dale Smith and Jacket magazine 2007.
Jacket 11 contains a multi-voiced feature on Joanne Kyger edited by Linda Russo.
About Now, Joanne Kyger’s Collected Poems, is available from Small Press Distribution.
The force of the past frequently gets morphed to our uses of it. How difficult it is to see what took place as event, or what continues in words to inhabit the force of actual conditions. Fortunately, the very nature of Joanne Kyger’s work, tracking time as it does through many shifting perspectives, demands intimate attention and requires that it be observed according to its own terms. While her poetry touches on several mid-century movements of writing that include the Spicer Circle, the San Francisco Renaissance, The Beats, and Black Mountain traditions, her work remains exemplary for an approach to narrative practiced with enthusiasm by New Americans during the 1960s and ‘70s. Her poetry attends place and memory through the transformative yet immaterial entity of the self, revealing a body of feeling that is grounded to the experience of every day as a referential space to process private perceptions, transforming individual insight into communal reflection and speculation. The intimate notations of her poems resist easy critical assimilation and reductions to mere “meaning.” Instead, Kyger demands a sharpening of the reader’s attention to words and how they compose a world.
Kyger, a “sophisticated woman with a wide range of friends,” stands out in the 1971 City Lights publication of On The Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing, edited by Joel Weishaus. (A blurb by Daniel Moore for the book shows the idealistic and hopeful spirit focused on Bolinas at this time: “so these poets have taken to the Bolinas Mesa, high ground, while the world goes awash around them, practising a little ‘Black Mountainery,’ a little ‘New York Schoolery,’ and a little Tom Foolery. All a part of America’s vital poetic machinery, high on the Mesa.”) One of her poems is dedicated to Ebbe Borregaard, another New American who appears with Kyger in this anthology. Tom Clark in turn dedicates one of his poems to her, showing not only the closeness of the community in Bolinas, but acknowledging the primary force Kyger’s presence is to them as writers. One of Robert Creeley’s contributions to the anthology, “‘Bolinas and Me,’” refers to her briefly when he writes, “I remember Joanne. I / want to. She’s / lovely, one says. / So she is.” Her appearance in these different poems shows her centrality to the scene in Bolinas, hinting at the diversity of perspectives of poetic practice she help sustain in that community.
Donald Allen published his Four Seasons Foundation from Bolinas at this time too, solidly identifying the little Marin County village with the New American poetry he initiated into print in 1960. The confluence of poets inspired by the richly overlapped traditions of mid-century American modernism made Bolinas a unique backwater where geographic isolation provided creative energy, social experimentation, discussion, communal dialogue and play. No doubt it generated the usual infighting and bickering that comes along with any intensively creative and reflective poetry scene too. The poetic community there would eventually collapse as one-by-one many of the poets moved away, abandoned the writing of poems, or retreated into hermetic isolation. But for a time, Bolinas provided a space where artists could listen and learn from each other, and Kyger has made a home there for more than forty years. It is impossible for me to think of her or her poems without Bolinas also there to provide the geographic grounding for her writing.
In Bolinas around 1971 or so, Ted Berrigan inspired Kyger, Tom Clark, Robert Creeley, and others to begin looking at the “present occasion as sufficient material for the poem.” The “present occasion,” however, was never far from Kyger’s thinking about the poem, but it would help shift her style to account more clearly for it. Since her poems are written directly from her notebooks, her many books, which include The Tapestry and the Web, All This Every Day, The Wonderful Focus of You, Just Space, Again, and others, present narratives that tell the story of a woman whose mind moves quickly — relating the particulars of place and her relationship to it.
Others besides Kyger turned to personal narratives as a strategy to relate the “present occasion.” While traditionally the personal, unpublished daybook offered a space for private reflection, poets in the 1950s and ‘60s, following initial uses of the form by Thoreau, Whitman, Williams, and others, began to look at the narrative potential of the daybook as a way to organize phenomena within the temporal movements of the calendar. Jack Kerouac was famous for keeping notebooks regularly and incorporating entries into his novels. Creeley would make prose and verse poems most notably in A Day Book and Pieces. On the East Coast James Schuyler’s marvelous attentions were recorded in journals, and the visual clarity and adoration of the quotidian dominated many of his most memorable poems. William Corbett’s Columbia Square Journal records in brief verse notes one year between Columbus Day 1974 and ‘75. Paul Blackburn’s Journals and John Ashbery’s The Vermont Notebook also reflect the influence of daybook narratives on poets related to the New Americans. In California, Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger took the form farthest, incorporating it into a lifelong pursuit of poetry that demanded impersonal recordings of the provisory relations experienced in their private lives.
But what is the move from diary to art? How can the mundane experience of the individual be shown to matter to others? In many ways, the publicity through poetry of private experience seems indulgent. But the problems of perception and perspective demand a certain self-investment of attention in order to overcome resistances to knowledge. In other words, diaries, even in their most personal forms — formally scribed with no publication intent — do not focus on the individual, but on the individual’s transforming perspective of the world. The personal narrative is a tool for creating knowledge of the many worlds a self inhabits. At its most basic point, our perspectives change in relation to the world around us. We imagine ourselves in the world, doing things, talking with people, and deriving some meaning from this. A poet who takes it upon themselves to investigate these qualities of daily life, with her ear to the ground, listening closely for what penetrates the limitations of our mind and senses, accomplishes something very different from the “imaginative” novelist who “constructs” a world with finite characters set within complex plots where things “happen” and get “resolved.” By contrast to this admittedly simplified sense of popular narrative (sci-fi, detective novels — all of them are great, but try to accomplish very different things), what Kyger, Whalen, Berrigan, and others accomplished was the push into a narrative that was ongoing and that responded to their lives in an open gesture of world-discovery by way of the self at hand. Berrigan’s Sonnets draw on his literary education to “construct something monumental,” while Whalen’s writing interweaves textual sources that form a montage-like cluster of ongoing study. Kyger, however, usually does not bring together other sources in these ways, coming instead to the page to find in her writing what is ready to emerge. She shares this compositional approach to the writing of poetry in common with Jack Spicer.
Although Spicer’s “serial” poetry offers a slightly different approach to the poem, it is useful to consider it beside that of Kyger because they share, in a sense, a common understanding of poetic otherness. For Spicer, other voices arrange the experience of the individual in the poem. “Self,” indeed, is suspect. “Martians,” “spooks,” and “the dead” are metaphors Spicer uses to talk about the perspective shifts in his work. This shifting of perspective becomes crucial, in fact, in making art out of private experience. Whether serial methods, metaphors of “spooks” from outer space, or, in Kyger’s practice, the approach through religious configuration to phenomenal experience, self-relating private exercises in perception, memory, and awareness are worked into more broadly useful communal forms. The goal of such writing is to relate the world as the self processes it — impersonally. This contradiction in the revelation of private experience as fundamentally impersonal is actually an operative condition in New American narratives. The poet must immerse herself into the condition of personal experience, but the composition of that experience heightens the philosophical problems of awareness, memory, phenomenal perceptions, and self-relation.
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In person, Kyger offers wide-ranging and inspired conversation. Through years of practice of poetry and Zen, as well as attending the manners and courtesies of village life in Bolinas, she has managed to compress in pragmatic fashion questions or statements that clear the air in an instant. “I don’t care what someone ‘knows’ or ‘feels,’” she said to me once in conversation about poetry, “I want to know what’s happening.” I repeat this because it impressed me deeply, and because it reveals much that is true of the new narrative forms that came out of the 1960s and ‘70s in and around Bolinas. Particularly, the statement draws attention to Kyger’s own careful, perceptive nature, and her uses of poetry. She exemplifies a faith in the life-long process of self-relation, trusting in the poem and its instantaneous recognition in the projective field articulated by Charles Olson. Unlike Olson, however, she focuses on events and happenings, moving herself out of the way as a kind of recording instrument. Philip Whalen, from whom she learned much too, created a similar ethos of detachment in his work. His finished poems, however, are more like seamless, well-crafted collages from notebooks. They are full of humor and detached observations of diverse physical and creative environments inter-textually stitched to delight and tease readers with exemplary wisdom and bardic aplomb. Kyger’s work by contrast is personally intimate, faithful to specific moments in time and attendant to the many spirits or moods of landscape. The real difference, perhaps, is the frame of attention, and the spirits guiding it. Whalen’s genius for quotation and for extending the context of the poem contrasts starkly with Kyger’s bright and socially centered attention to the immediate context of composition, as it is known through her words rather than through the quotes of others.
Her attention to place makes her an intimate observer of every day life in her beloved Bolinas. Her engagement with organic life processes is mirrored by the visual construction of her poems on the page, where lines often are set out into the space of the page rather than stacked along the left-hand margin. In this sense visually she is close to Pound and Williams, using the page as a kind of painting or glyph for the ease and pleasure of the eye. “I saw the page as some kind of tapestry and voice glyph,” she said in a 1997 interview, echoing concerns for the poem that have been with her from her first book, The Tapestry and the Web. “When you move your line to the right, the lesser the impact of the line, the voice. The whole movement and rhythm on the page give us instruction as to voice and phrasing and import of what’s going on.” These concerns for her own creative environments reveal an openness to phenomena, an openness that withholds judgment in order to experience the moment through several perspectives. She is adamant too in stressing that anything can become part of a person’s poetic practice. “Your dreams are important,” she said, “your humorous life is important, your cooking life is important, your friendships, the dialogues you assume, the news that comes from within, the news that comes from out there. There’s such a wide variety of ‘things’ that go on. It’s important not to get stuck on any one of these as being the ‘I’ that writes. Being able to report, as it were, from all these areas of life and see that they’re equally ‘valid’ and ‘important.’ Nothing is more or less important than anything else. An egalitarian sense of what it’s like to be a human. What being alive is like.”
This “egalitarian” attention to the possible differs from traditional narrative approaches based on arbitrary structures of time projected onto the world to create an illusion of continuity. Her observations take seriously the content of every day, making poems from spiral-bound notebooks in which she notes daily happenings, events and impressions. “In this daily writing,” she said, “you don’t have to think of it as ‘poetry,’ you don’t have to think at all about what ‘kind’ of writing you’re doing. You’re writing some kind of un-self-conscious open utterance, being as clear as you can, or as muddled as you want. You’re not writing for anybody. It’s spontaneous.” Through this process, the otherness we encounter through language — an otherness in us and without — can enter the poem. Words and especially those words arranged in the open field of the poem, for Kyger, bring out perceptions that disrupt, challenge and surprise her own thoughts. Language allows a unique freedom from personal constraint and purpose. A shift of intent to experience and away from the inner chambers of self give words another life and through them novelty often enters. The difference between appearances and the real are apprehended in words, for they too intrude to inform the moment recorded by the writer, providing a way of seeing what, in reality, may never otherwise provide perceptive tissue. “Words have their own independent existence,” she said. “They say what they want to. Like Spicer saying you are just the medium, the funnel for the words to go through. They have their own lineage, returning through you. The magic syllables, seed syllables.”
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The recent publication of Kyger’s collected poems, About Now, brings together 50 years of an active and inquisitive mind turned on, at various times, to the geographically distinct locations of San Francisco, Bolinas, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, as well as to the lives of Homer’s Penelope, the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky, and “The Dharma Committee,” a cadre of North Beach poet-artists of the late 1950s in whom Kyger locates the Dexedrine- and booze-driven education of a group of writers trying to distinguish themselves from the more popular Beats. The daybook focus of much of her writing creates narratives from the fabric of every day life. Indeed, the distinction between art and life comes up as you begin to look closely at her work. Individual poems do not stand out in this collection so much as vast sweeps of attention to the problematic notion of self as it shifts perspective in order to apprehend the complex challenge of language. “Art” or “poetry” results from Kyger’s self-scrutiny, naked optimism, violent renunciations, and practical necessities of local attention. This new volume, read straight through as a record of individual attention to the self in time and language, encounters the broadly and elegantly sketched locations of one life in the last portion of the twentieth century. From start to finish, this hearth-oriented frame of reference focuses the accumulative experience of the daily through the force of actual conditions. Kyger re-orients phenomena selectively, to make meaning of it. Seen as a kind of feminist poetics too, her attention to the domestic re-presents arguments for the feminine elements of the private self as it contacts biological and social constraints. Remarkably, the poems here form an oeuvre of essentially hearth-related relations, and within the humble range of that space, Kyger activates the tremendous forces that accompany life attuned to the specific relations of a field poetics, in Olson’s sense. But her field is the hearth, and not the vast modalities of western geography encountered by other New Americans (mostly male). While her urbane wit and connections to people and places also stress a sort of whirling social connectedness, her poetic strength comes from being in the company of the daily.
About Now’s opening poem from 1957 — one that predates her first book, The Tapestry and the Web by nearly a decade — introduces the key formal and rhetorical elements of Kyger’s writing that will be elaborated less obliquely in the years to come. In this poem, the young writer projects herself into a Sienese fresco by Lorenzetti (1337), and identifies with the key figure — a princess or noblewoman of some kind. This identification is significant, because the words relating it convey a relaxed simplicity of form below which moves some deeper process of self-registration.
Picked me from a Siennese fresco
I was riding a white horse
and wearing a red-scarlet gown
Placed on my head was a small black crown
and my yellow hair was falling down
I had several attendants
My face was serene
A young beggarman attired in blue
held my reins for an instant
the street was cobbled
nearby was a green vine
I live here now
This youthful work already contains certain formal and thematic elements that will remain operative in many of Kyger’s poems for years to come, including perspective shifts, simplicity of diction, subtle humor, and phenomenal inquiry. Indeed, her first poem is a “reading” of a painting into which she has been self-projected. The humor of the first stanza is underscored with the heavy end-rhymes of the last three lines, with stresses coming down on the monosyllabic “gown,” “crown,” and “down.” This deliberately provides a slight stumbling hesitation and awkwardness, particularly as her “hair was falling down,” suggests a kind of girlish or haphazard indifference to personal appearance. The mysterious but brief intrusion of the “beggarman” provides another perspective, mediating attention between daughter and mother, so that as a reader we are arrested enough by the detail for a moment to pause and see the scene through his eyes too. The final line, “I live here now,” offers the ambiguous question of where “here” is for the speaker of the poem, in the painting or outside it? Or, more profoundly, does it register both conditions of inside and outside together, establishing the fluid movements between psychic and physical spaces? The poem opens a liminal world, and in that gap we find a tension that comes with having been “picked” by the mother, another ambiguous word for readers to chew on. Is it “picked,” as in snatched up, or as in having been chosen? Again, I can’t help but read both as possible alternatives, for the young noble woman of the brief tale is chosen and attended to, and yet she is snatched away from the flux of her historical life, framed for eternity in a painting, her feminine youth frozen in time. A third alternative also comes to mind, that of being “picked at,” the way a mother can nag a child into some kind of behavioral submission.
Pound’s Cathay poems inform this early work, and as a student of Hugh Kenner’s at U. C. Santa Barbara, it is probably no surprise to find that pivotal influence in Kyger’s early engagement with modernism. Such modernist collapse of atemporal myth into the time-bound life of the individual author provided a formal possibility to observe narrative time both personally and from an impersonal perspective. Kyger takes up this approach to poetry in her first major poetic sequence by dealing with a mythic couple, Homer and Penelope, in order to look at the domestic tensions of the hearth.
“The Tapestry and the Web,” first published in 1965 but written during the decade prior, projects the story from Homer of Odysseus’ homecoming onto her own domestic and personal relations. Kyger weaves myth into personal experience by registering a condition in poetry that will return years later more naked and less forced by modernist gesture. “Tapestry,” though, reveals the attentive drives of a poet’s early work, and it remains a powerful examination of feminine perspective within the narrative frame of masculine desire, spiritual compulsion, and communal acts. Kyger registers myth as an organizing formal energy of every day life in poems that show a complex occasion of forces, with humor and lightness of touch easing more serious relations and insights. By looking at the violently restored domestic ending of the Odyssey, Kyger introduces perhaps the major significant theme for her future poetics. She speaks directly to the long-suffering wife of Odysseus. “Refresh my thought of Penelope again,” writes Kyger, “Just HOW / solitary was her wait? / I notice Someone got to her that / barrel chested he-goat prancing / around w/ his reed pipes / is no fantasy of small talk.”
The tension between Penelope and Pan, her son in an account Kyger takes from Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, develops throughout “Tapestry,” creating an image of dynamic intrusion onto the domestic hearth. Pan, however, as the horny, masculine figure of unfocused energy, offers, nonetheless, seductive potential. He is ugly, but he possesses range, a gift of multiple perspective and morphological shifting. He is the offspring, moreover, of Penelope’s relations in Odysseus’s absence with all of the suitors who vie for her hand in marriage. Although they die when Odysseus comes home, Pan, as the son of Penelope, grows up as the excess of their lust and hers. When Odysseus returns, life goes back to normal as traditional domestic relations are restored. But this “impudent monster,” Pan, is released from the domestic realm to run freely “in the sunlight leching / at some round breasted sheep / girl.” Kyger does not elaborate in great detail upon the significance of Pan, though from a distant perspective it is tempting to see him as the mytho-poetic figurative stand-in for Gary Snyder, her husband during the time in which she wrote much of Tapestry. Pan enters the tale and leaves mysteriously, however, as the narrative turns toward more immediately personal matters:
It is lonely
I must draw water from the well 75 buckets for the bath
I mix a drink — gin, fizz water, lemon juice, a spoonful
of strawberry jam
and place it in a champagne glass — it is hard work
to make the bath
The surface simplicity and mystery of these lines invites readers to linger over the sensual details of the “gin, fizz water, lemon juice,” and “strawberry jam.” We witness a brief respite for the guiding subjectivity of the poem as she draws water for her bath, mixing rural labor with modern “fizz” to keep the reader alert to a quickly morphing poetic environment that shifts attention from the mythic tale of Homer to her personal situation as a sojourner in Japan in the early 1960s. And while Pan and Penelope are not present in this portion of the tale, their presence from the previous sections haunts our reading of this bath. Kyger’s poem continues:
And my winter clothes are dusty and should be put away
In storage. Have I lost all value I wonder
the world is slippery to hold on to
When you begin to deny it.
Outside outside are the crickets and frogs in the rice fields
Large black butterflies like birds.
The turn here comes with the denial of the world. And yet, it is not that the world is denied in some pseudo-religious way, but the thought of its denial is entertained. The outside “crickets and frogs” return to attention. Pan, the figure of all, and the child of (illicit) domestic relations, haunts the subjectivity here too as a sign of nature’s force. Pan is the mythic embellishment of a key psychological or philosophical conundrum, of an interiority that encounters the external forces of the real. How is the problem of phenomena resolved with the self? How is it we are separated from things themselves even as we can apprehend the bountiful interplay of impressions? The self is the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal tension, and Kyger relies on the images of Penelope and Pan to provide a way for her to reflect on the condition of separation and self-determination. And yet, with a lightness of touch, she merely puts these forces in motion, leaving the impact of each image to build, challenging the reader to move perspectives, finding new ways to see.
The serial nature of this poem, written very much in the style of Spicer’s work, relies on echoes, reverberation of image, spiritual and mythic guides, and other “props” or “furniture” for, in Spicer’s words, the “spooks” complete their work through the poet. I do not mean to suggest that Kyger’s work grows directly out of Spicer’s. Her attention to the domestic could not be more different from his complete indifference to such relations of household. Moreover, her line has more in common with Robert Duncan than with Spicer. But behind the inventive process of composition — and Kyger, as well as Spicer, relates this process-oriented inventive phase of writing — precise modalities exist that are not easily expressed in the usual day-to-day experience of a self in language. Kyger here works to “get at” the complex array of energies that compose a person, and the duration of this attention and the commitment to it motivates the fragmented narrative. Spicer lived only long enough to investigate an early stage of this kind of impersonal attention distributed broadly through biological time. Kyger’s practice — her attention to the daily — has given her adequate space to observe the inner and outer movement of a self measured against the world — that hazy construct in which we abide.
While the first decade collected in About Now shows Kyger working within the serial format to use elements of myth, travel, renaissance painting, and introspective accounts to reveal the complex moods of self, Part II (1968-1974) turns more directly to aspects of religious experience to document the movement of days. Kyger’s religious practice of Zen, however, is not without a certain humorous awareness of “self-awareness.” Two invocational poems to the Vedic deity Ganesha hint at this awareness-of-awareness when she writes:
He is in the mountains and in the streams, the fields.
Call upon the Lord Ganesha and he
as saviour of grace and belief in the seen.
his grace is of love and charm, as I have seen him
with his dainty eyelashes curled
as healer holding
Observant and earnestly stated, the poem still relates little cues of self-awareness, small signs of impish registration of the “Rodent Mounted” Lord. That he is holding candy, of course, deflates some of the heaviness one might associate with a divine elephant. The final portion of the poem, too, tries to deflate some of the divine aspects of the god in order to retrieve some other understanding.
Soooo full of wisdom
One nods out, gently faints upon the revelation
of the first thought or so
on the printed bedspread I look out to sea
the wind whipping the waves.
The over-emphasis of his seriousness and gentleness is playfully mocking, and the image of the poet sitting upon her “bedspread” looking “out to sea” brings us within the domestic realm where, Kyger suggests, gods too come to dwell. Moreover, the subtle humor here as in much of Kyger’s work comes from the implicit understanding of religion as a kind of great cosmic joke. To invoke a god’s presence, to bring that energy into the mundane reality where, presumably, one needs it, is to make the gods into figures of comedy. It is not our fault they appear comedic, as an elephant say, Ganesha’s representative form, but the very movement down from above into our world makes them seem somehow less than fully other. This turning of the religious experience into matters of practical daily life gives Kyger a way to become aware of awareness, for Ganesha “grants / Quietude to be seen / throughout by the eye of the intelligent self.”
Kyger’s religious sense, however, should not be read strictly within some kind of Buddhist framework. She just as easily beseeches turkey buzzards, a totem animal, in her spiritual quest. “Hey big bird,” she writes, “you of the squashed consciousness / Here in soft May Bolinas breeze on the porch / I want to fly overhead too, with the Crows / Suddenly free. The narrative figures of Miwok tales, Jesus Christ, and “All Holy Fathers, All Holy Mothers” are invoked at times throughout her work. This use of apostrophe to bring spirits and deities to place stems from an ancient rhetorical practice, but for Kyger, concerned with the awareness-of-awareness, it helps shift perspective to specific forces perceived in the self. I cannot help but think that all figures of otherness for her help integrate some knowledge within her interior experience. And for us as readers this shows how an experience of the world can be processed, that life is art too, when it is so attended as process and not some ultimate product. This keeps Kyger’s religious devotion from coming off as pseudo-religious New Age convergence — stirring a kind of god soup, where all can drink, their multicultural karma intact. The rhetorical force of this invocation lies in its very ambiguity, where the gods and totem creatures begin to be recognized as ways toward the inside, or ways to register the outside inwardly. “My lord,” she writes:
where, am I in time
Me is memory
through the courtyard door
take me out, take me out
Here the crux of her poetics comes into view, momentarily, within the narrative flux of the daily. The ambiguous address invites the obvious question: who is lord? Is it some other, some invisible force, or is it “I, Joanne?” The latter choice, of course, provides the most provocative possibility, for the ontological tension penetrates the poem, thrusting forward questions that haunt the writing throughout her career. If as some brain scientists currently suggest the past “fills in” the present, Kyger’s inquiry provokes key questions of self-location. Indeed, the final line touches on the crucial religious yearning for release or transcendent experience. Or is it really transcendent? What happens when you take “me” out or when self is conceived as a force of memory we use to fill in the gaps that compose our present? Could it be that we have no self at all, but only its illusion? This possibility informs Kyger’s writing and motivates its restless energy. Her concern for the spiritual images that reveal self-awareness contributes greatly to her writing, but this must be considered along side her deep materialist commitment.
While religious attention drives Kyger’s thematic instincts, the outer surfaces of these poems are light, moving with delight to capture an audience, holding the reader for a moment within reach of her observant mind. One poem from 1993, written for Colorado poet Jack Collom, responds to his love of birds by relating her own impressions of “shafted flickers, and those noisy scrub / jays,” along with “the flock / of robins in the pine looking at the bright / berries of the cotoneaster soon to make them drunk / kinglets, wrentits ... all here now / in this rain, in the gather dome.” Notes from a conversation with Allen Ginsberg ask a technical question: “How Does one attain that popular narrative / tone so conducive to rendering the ancients / immediate and palpable” Another poem mentions how she received news that collage artist and painter “Joe Brainard died three hours ago,” juxtaposing this next to a “pair of mourning doves eating seeds / at the table. The poignant gesture of placing this news next to the doves “works” because in that gap between the “news” and the present condition where such words of a friend’s passage reverberate through the field of attention, memory filling in the unspeakable present, nothing’s mysterious intrusion grows palpable in the movement of forms at hand. The passage of time erupts as “Suddenly, I looked up, and everyone had white hair / People go in and out of your life, and your life / is a room filled with flowers and a kitchen cooking supper / and you have wrested the inscrutable from the obvious / or the other way around.” These late poems have tremendous range and flexibility, for they present a surface of utter ease and simplicity under which the immensity of the passage of self in time can suddenly erupt with ferocious surprise. That vast cosmic violence that always asserts its force must, of course, be reckoned with one way or another. Kyger, remarkably, lives with it, bringing it forward to remind us that danger is present below the surface, but at least we can laugh a little, or observe the mutating forms that also reveal what goes on below. In a poem for Robin Blaser she writes:
simple country practices thunder
lightning, hail and rain eight Douglas Iris
ribbon layers of attention
So constant creation of ‘self’ is a tricky
mess He is pruning the loquat, the olive
which looks real enough in the damp late morning air
Here the shift of perspective between “simple country” phenomena “looks real enough,” meaning, of course, that it is all too unreal, too, what’s the word, transgressive? The dynamic nature of the self within the phenomenal relations of her home in Bolinas “is a tricky mess.” And yet, the poem suggests, this self “mess” is more real than “pruning the loquat,” the mundane drag of things. Self, however, is located implicitly in these things too, and this brings tremendous tension and a charged air to Kyger’s poems. They are personal, inviting, familiar, humorous, and, above everything, generous to the reader. But with this generosity and lightness-of-touch the non-human, slippery gap of self intrudes. She cannot help herself. It is the point of her poetics. Like a Moebius strip, the poems reveal life and its negative — self arrives only as an interwoven property of phenomena.
Travel as well as significant moments like the news of death destabilizes habituated attention. This is one reason why Kyger values travel and finds so much through it to retrieve in her poems. One of the final sequences in About Now, “God Never Dies: Poems from Oaxaca,” brings together the sensual details of place and the attendant mind of the traveler to observe how the strangeness of dislocation inspires insight too. She writes:
Here in Oaxaca it’s the Night of the Radishes
Now I wave from the green
balcony above the gardenia
in my shoes without socks the sun
is frankly generous
today when everyone needs
room at the inn Time to put
the Buddha back in place
He doesn’t mind being ‘catholic’
Part of the long preliminaries of the day’s
for carving through the red skin
The little details of “shoes without socks” and the Buddha who “doesn’t mind being ‘catholic’ / in Mexico” help mediate the cultural topos of Oaxaca’s “Night of the Radishes.” Kyger’s readers are destabilized with a mixture of perplexity and commonplace. “Night of the Radishes,” for instance, arrives mysteriously in the poem, unless we know that it is festival celebrated in Oaxaca as Christmas Eve. A sense of disequilibrium intrudes into the poem much as in the space of travel the sojourner frequently loses possession of concrete identity and self-composure. The foreign erupts with its exotic references and interferences of image and language that distracts the traveler from their usual habits and ways of seeing. The “shoes without socks” temporarily reassure her, and the Buddha statuette — a familiar object — can become “catholic,” transforming so that the traveler too can adapt to the new situation. Travel provides another way into the awareness-of-awareness that motivates so many of the poems in About Now. The situation of North American tourists observing the rituals of “locals” often provides comic results of the type of the “ugly American.” But Kyger plays off of this stereotype to transform it, and yet, to use it as well in order to relate in words what she sees:
Frankly overcast with tourists watching
the locals ‘do’ their religion
The pigeons don’t care
what day it is huddling next
to the checkerboard cupola
of Santo Domingo the fancy baroque
cathedral whose founder
Saint Dominic invented
the rosary after having a vision
of the Virgin who told him
‘This is the middle of the 12th century
and you’d better get me some beads together, dude!’
The matter-of-factness of the poem can be deceptive. On the surface, tourists watch “the locals ‘do’ their religion,” the ugly American impatience of travel erupting here even as the key word, “do,” receives the single quote marks to set it off with self-conscious weight. But as the poem continues, new perspectives form, building on the name of the cathedral, looking into its history and the visionary act that inspired rosaries. And the Virgin enters her words to tell the holy man to “get me some beads together,” totally deflating the sanctity of the act by humanizing it, bringing it down a level. The Virgin’s voice becomes wholly secular, and yet she is other. The movement from locals who “do” their religion to the Virgin, instantiated in the words of a poem, somehow resonate to create both a tension and a sense of speculative wonder at play. Formally too, the poem, with its intricate in-line rhymes and assonance (“pigeon” / “religion,” “cupola” / “Santo Domingo”) along with the fricative /f/ and /v/ preponderance that trickles through the final portion of the poem (“fancy” / “founder” / “invented” / “after” / “vision” / “virgin”), resists the reader’s first glance. Its subtle play on stereotype, its very embrace of it, in a sense, creates an ethos of inspired curiosity, showing awareness of the complex motives behind this situation as a tourist in Mexico. The poem’s generosity comes not from the historical “knowledge” about the “fancy baroque / cathedral,” but from the direct ethical confrontation with otherness. By acknowledging the situation of “tourists watching / the locals ‘do’ their religion,” Kyger opens the space between “us and them” so that a genuine relationship of place can be formed, between who she is and who they are.
Once many years ago as a student I remember reading Kyger’s poems from Just Space, the Black Sparrow selection of her writing from the 1980s. I recall those deceptive surfaces that invited the reader to enjoy its domestic investigations. I was struck by the buzzards, quail, and other fauna and flora of Bolinas, and also by the perspectives and extraordinary registrations such subtle shifts through space could acquire. I remember how a young friend, glancing through the book, returned it dismissively, stating that she could not see it, denying the “depth” below those phenomenally-devoted poems. I found this peculiar, but then, we were living in San Francisco, 1990s, when the opposite was demanded of poems which were supposed to be made of complex surfaces all about important social “issues.” In About Now, however, we see how Kyger brings forward a marvelous range of poetic attention to urge readers to apprehend the world through the dynamic perspectives of the self. I read this work as an ongoing narrative of days, place, mood, uncertainty, failure, and, of course, success, ultimately, in the phenomenal ferocity that forces self out, an animistic mystery. Kyger, of course, is not its guide, but she is ours through her ongoing pursuit of the world around her.
 I am grateful to Alice Notley for her generous reading of early drafts of this essay. I could not have written this without her insight and clarification. Words quoted here and elsewhere are from personal correspondence.
 On The Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing, ed. Joel Weishaus (San Francisco: City Lights, 1971).
 Weishaus, On The Mesa, 29.
 Michael Davidson, “The Presence of the Present: Morality and the Problem of Value in Robert Creeley’s Recent Prose,” Boundary 2 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1978), 550.
 Robert Creeley, A Day Book (New York: Scribner, 1972).
 Robert Creeley, Pieces (New York: Scribner, 1969).
 William Corbett, Columbia Square Journal (New York: Angel Hair, 1976).
 Paul Blackburn, Journals (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1975).
 John Ashbery and Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1975).
 Notley, Author’s Correspondence.
 See Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1998).
 Joanne Kyger, “Energy on the Page: Joanne Kyger in conversation with Dale Smith,” Jacket Magazine 11 (April 2000): available http://jacketmagazine.com/11/kyger-iv-dale-smith.html accessed 2 August 2007.
 Joanne Kyger, About Now: Collected Poems (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2007).
 Kyger, About, 33.
 Kyger, About, 66.
 Kyger, About, 67.
 Kyger, About, 67.
 See Kyger’s account of their relationship in Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1064 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000).
 Kyger, About, 71.
 See Spicer, Lectures.
 Kyger, About Now, 175.
 Kyger, About, 177.
 Kyger, About, 177.
 Kyger, About, 340.
 Kyger, About, 358.
 Kyger, About, 352.
 See John G. Taylor, The Race for Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 37.
 Kyger, About, 584.
 Kyger, About, 589.
 Kyger, About, 592.
 Kyger, About, 599.
 Kyger, About, 603.
 Kyger, About, 747.
 A recent note from my correspondence with Kyger states: “Night of the Radishes is celebrated as Christmas Eve in Oaxaca. Everyone grows these gigantic turnip sized radishes, covered with red skin like the little ones, and gather in the main zocalo to carve them into the most intricate shapes—making manger scenes, big figures of Guadalupe, secular scenes with lots of action figures. Big dioramas of churches and figures, bull fights. They are then judged by a panel and win lots of money. It’s a big deal and you have to see it to believe it. The red and white pieces held together by little pieces of toothpicks. ‘Heaven’ only knows where this practice came from. But lots of ‘room at the inn’ to see the carving through the red skin.”
 Kyger, About, 749.
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