Sunday, March 25, 2007

Robin Blaser: The Fire & The Holy Forest

whose salted heart

we've met
it turns out
in a labour of form,
a cultural largeness
talking to itself,
its memory damaged
so the past
is over the hill
out of shape,
tigerish disarray
of 'who made thee'
thus troubling
the lyric mind
with salt


At the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony in Toronto in 2006, San Francisco poet Robert Hass gave a speech as tribute to Vancouver poet Robin Blaser, reprinted in Brick 78 (winter 2006):
If there is a single figure in whom North American poetry—poetry from Canada and
the United States—flows together, it's been in the work, as a teacher as well as a poet and essayist, of Robin Blaser. So it's particularly fitting and wonderful to see the Griffin Trust honour him this evening. I came across his third book first—Cups. It was published in 1968, and in a moment I am going to read you one of the poems from that book, but I need to say a word about the body of his work after 1968. Most of it got published in the small presses of Vancouver, and then by Coach House Press in Toronto. These were books that American poets, North American poets below the border, found in the basement of City Lights Bookstore and in Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Strand Bookstore in New York—in those places where poetry, like notes passed around in the classroom by the students while the great teacher History rumbles away at the microphone, gets to happen. Robin published many of his books during his years in that system that seemed then a kind of magical underground hydrology: Image Nations (1974-75), Harp Trees (1977), Syntax (1983), and The Faerie Queene and The Park (1987) all came from Vancouver presses—Sun Stone House, Cobblestone Press, Talonbooks, and Fissure Books (although London's Ferry Press published the first Image Nations book); then he made the big leap to Toronto's Coach House Press with Pell Mell in 1988 and the earliest version of The Holy Forest, which was the first collected volume of his work and which is, like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, one record of an ongoing project in poetry that is yet to be completed.
It is rare that such an important and extended period for a poet can be collected into one volume (Alberta poet Robert Kroetsch also comes to mind), but it is the case for Robin Blaser. The University of California Press has not only recently published a revised and expanded edition of his life-long and ongoing "serial poem," The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (2006), but added as a companion volume, The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser (2006). Both edited by Miriam Nichols, who also edited Even on Sunday: Essays, Readings, and Archival Materials on the Poetry and Poetics of Robin Blaser (2002), the new editions of the poems follows the previous edition of The Holy Forest, published by Toronto's Coach House Press in 1993; originally edited by Michael Ondaatje and Stan Persky, and published with a forward by Robert Creeley, the new edition includes the same, and adds a new afterward by Charles Bernstein, and the essays includes a commentary by Nichols. Including the long poems "Cups" and "The Moth Poem" that both appeared in previous editions of The Long Poem Anthology, the new edition includes a number of poems added to what previously existed as The Holy Forest; sections including "Great Companion: Dante Alighiere" from 1997, and a small group poems that appeared as the chapbook Wanders (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2003). As Blaser wrote on the "serial poem" in the first half of his statement for Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979):
The Moth Poem is one section of a long unfinished work, The Holy Forest, and was
written in 1964. One line of it indicates that I had begun to think of the new country which came to be Canada. It is a serial poem, according to the agreement Jack Spicer and I reached to name the kind of narrative we were working on around 1960. Robert Duncan, planning to write on the poetry of both of us in 1962, called it neo-narrative. For both Jack and me, poetry had fallen into time, like beauty itself, and attendant divinity. (Blake's Los as the figuration of imaginative loss would come to mind in my later years to explain much to me of this argument with time.) The term serial was no adapted from serial music, but was intended to suggest the diremptions of belief, even in poetry, all around us. The broke, which is broken heart and broken mind, simultaneously cultural and personal, was never simply personal. Jack was to call the poet a 'time mechanic.' And it fits. Models for such serial construction were found in Rilke's Duino Elegies. Sonnets to Orpheus and Robert Duncan's Medieval Scenes. Such poems deconstruct meanings and compose a wildness of meaning in which the I of the poet is not the centre but a returning and disappearing note.

The serial poem, then, gives special emphasis to time ― poem following poem in sequence of the writing ― often with one dominant musical note or image, such as the moth, which is the gift or the dictated. During the composition of The Moth Poem, moths were attendant ― strangely, whenever, wherever, and noticed by others, about my head, on my shoulder, at my lamp. This is the issue of the opening poems. 'A Literalist' and 'The Literalist.' So, the poem begins with a moth caught in the strings of a piano ― literally ― it woke me with a marvelous, tentative music in the middle of the night. The beginnings and a command. Thus, the exact, the literal, the dictated are keys to the poem: for example, one of the Atlantis poems depends upon my having knocked over a glass of water, which accident inundated everything on my study desk. The central event of the poem is the creation of the moth in 'it it it it,' as it hit the dark window. This appearance of the moth is preceded by 'Paradise Quotations,' made entirely of lines from my reading that come to mind freely and wildly ― Nijinsky's diary, Coleridge, Hawthorne, and the intertwining couplets of Erasmus Darwin ― just before 'it' hit the window. The serial meaning ends in 'Salut,' a greeting to appearing and disappearing things, guided by the fragments of H.D.'s priest, a wand against mediocrity. The musical notes closing the original text of The Moth Poem are Pythagoras' notation of the musical intervals between the planets, the oldest tradition of the music of the spheres ― that is, according to Pliny, Hist. Nat., II. Oddly heard.
What makes Blaser's poems unique, in part, is how he weaves in not only his own references to literature and philosophy and religion, writing almost out of an endless supply of knowledge, reading, spiritual and intellectual pursuits, but, as Creeley writes in his preface,
Robin Blaser became a source for poetry's authority beyond any simplifying place or time. It is not at all that his work is transcendent or beyond the obvious limits of common life. Quite the contrary. In this still shifting edge of that West which is his first place of origin, he enters upon his own power without distraction or compromise, and comes to the substantiating community of his own need and recognition. In this respect only Robert Duncan finds a place of similar order, while their peers, such as Spicer and Olson, too often are battered by increasing isolation and overt rejection. So the last words said by Jack Spicer to his old friend echo with poignant emphasis: "My vocabulary did this to me. Your love with let you go on."
An important element to Blaser's poems has to be voice, hearing his clear and present voice even through the polyvocal threads he weaves in from every other corner of the civilized and uncivilized world; and as Creeley said, that love. Blaser's poems, even his darker ones, are filled with a kind of light, moving through an array of hope even as he moves us through the darkest elements. His voice comes through not despite the endless working threads, but because. Still, the only thing properly missing in this new edition, the poem "Christ Among the Olives" that, in the first edition, had red lettering to depict the voice of Christ, made lighter in this new edition. Can faded black be any replacement to the clear red?


the opposite of meaning is not
meaninglessness, what do these big
words means in the panic, well,
panic means heart before we had
formed this, it was Pan, my dear,
and tufts of plants before we had
planned or kissed it, before
we had dreamed the leaves and
historical consequences, before the
painted ocean and storms, before
the water everywhere, drunken and
sunned, stopped us, before the
rock of our spirit, before doorsteps
and fountains and fragments, before
cats and dogs and cities, the
endless footsteps, before sweetness
and mountains, before paradise
and walled gardens, before
streets and manufacture, cars
and desire, after stars and
constellations are probable, we
found it (from Pell Mell)

Originally born in Denver, Colorado in 1925, Robin Blaser eventually found the west coast, and became part of a trio of poets known as the kernel of the San Francisco Renaissance, meeting up with fellow young poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, before being invited north to teach at the newly-founded Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he became and remains an important focal point to a number of aspiring and established Canadian poets. It is in the voice, one can say. One has. As editor Miriam Nichols writes at the beginning of her "Preface" to The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser:
Best known for his participation with Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s, Blaser is unique among his companions of that period: not only is he belated, publishing his first, distinguishing statement of poetics only in 1967 in "The Fire," but his writing life extends much beyond the New American movement so famously anthologized in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry of 1960 and includes the distance of a cross-border perspective. In 1966 Blaser moved from Berkeley to Vancouver, British Columbia; he became a dual citizen of Canada and the United States in 1974. He has been a professor in the Departments of English and Fine Arts at Simon Fraser University for twenty years. He has sustained literary friendships across national and generational boundaries with the poets Charles Bernstein, George Bowering, Robert Creeley, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kevin Killian, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, Erin Mouré, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje, Sharon Thesen, Phyllis Webb, and many others. This collection of essays is a virtual conversation about poetics with such personal writer-friends as well as philosophers and artists, living and dead, whom Blaser has found companionable. It is also an intense reading of the postmodern that winds its way through fifty years of cultural history to arrive at an alternative view of the arts.
Or, as Blaser wrote himself (in his own voice), in the beginning of his own "Robin Blaser: Curriculum Vitae," collected in The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser:

What I would be if I were not a writer? Who I would be if I
were not a writer? —questions which—within the shadowy
places of my love of thought—bring to mind my father's
delight in whoopee-cushions. He liked particularly—taking
us all off guard—to place these on the chairs of dinner guests—
or on mine when I'd returned home for a visit. Consternation
and blushes. Discomfort with what one was or with what
one was going to say. The secrecy of person answered by true
or simulated laughter in gales. Some never came back to the
'vulgarity.' I was always a guest—of family, of religion, and
especially of language—nothing more, nothing less. That is the
reason whoopee-cushions come to mind now.

'The imagination of person'—to adapt Robert Creeley's
lovely wording of the same question—is noisy everyday. It's
a Penelopean mending job over the years. Weaving. Unravelling.
Weaving again. If possible into the heart of things. Perhaps, a
composer—to place with.

So what have I been in my fugue of sorts? Tossed. Thrown.
Allotted. One through twenty-one instances, just like that—
how do you like your green-eyed boy now, mr. death?

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