Review x 3: Revs of the Morrow (Ed Sanders); Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War (Ed Sanders); Sobbing Superpower (Tadeusz Rozewicz, tr. Joanna Trzeciak)

Libellum, Coffee House Press, W.W. Norton


Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Different poets for different needs. And one of the most overlooked needs is the need to clear the air, to help you relax, pay fresh attention. Relax isn’t the right word—I mean something more like stop whatever you’re doing, set aside consensus, period style and other painstakingly constructed models of the world, and just look and listen. Reset your frame of reference. Say “duh,” maybe.

A poet who’s served that need for me a few times is Ed Sanders. I’ve seen Sanders sing at the Church a few times (ashamed to say I can’t remember whether I ever saw him with the rest of the Fugs), and I’ve dipped into his prose accounts of sixties craziness, but it’s always been his poems that send me the clear signal that he takes the intelligence of his readers seriously. The poems aren’t that different from the songs and the prose—his persona, part public investigator part literary journalist part hippie Mark Twain, is pretty much the same—but in his clear post-Olson verse he mixes sweetness, righteousness and just enough smart-ass to make the mix a delicacy.

I thought of Sanders often while reading the selected poems of Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz, and wondered why there hadn’t been a new big selection of Sanders’s work since 1987’s Thirsting for Peace in A Raging Century. At that moment I happened to look over at some heaps of review copies, and noticed several things with Sanders’ name on them: a little book called Revs of the Morrow (with a great Red Grooms cover), and then two big books from Coffee House: a reprint of Thirsting, and a sequel, titled after a line from Simone Weil: Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War.

A little intimidated by the heft of the two selecteds, I started with Revs of the Morrow. If you’ve never read Sanders’s Tales of Beatnik Glory, or if you have only vague pleasant memories of classics such as “Sheep-fuck Poem,” “Poem from Jail,” or “Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side,” start with Revs, as in revolutionaries, a possibly mythical people who obsess Sanders’s cheerful imagination. Take “To the Revolutionaries Not Yet Born”:

I & all my comrades
will falter, fail, fall
with the task unfin’d

but I call out to all the Workers of the Rose
to you, o Revs of the Morrow
Take it onward!

Declare it! Name it! Work it!

That last phrase, delivered as it is here by someone not named Tyra Banks, disorients me enough to set aside the poignant start to enjoy the prospect of a future in which the commands to “Work in extra dimensions / Think 100 years ahead” are recognized as clearly saner than the current mantras of business: “Do more with less” and “Embrace creative destruction.”

It’s a dream, but like all dreams it transforms real residues of the day, and Sanders has hundreds of years of worthy days and exemplary characters on file. In eulogies for Jacob Boehme, Rachel Carson, Charles Olson and others, Sanders reiterates the consolations and miseries of dedication to the ideal. If there’s a shadow on the delight I feel reading these poems, it’s only that I have to remain wary that his true stories of genuinely amusing famous people might infect me with hero-worship, that tooth decay of the mind. Sometimes the poems shade into the thrills and despairs of absolute independence, but more typically they fall back to a healthier alternation between delight and caution.

when lonely, when in doubt,
when in anguish, when in metaphysical distress,
when feeling edgy or on the edge,
when feeling like a “Creeping Meatball”

then turn to poesy,
write it, study it, translate it from other languages

(from “Poesy in Lieu of Therapy”)

It will not be for everybody. Poetry never is. But the intense happiness I for one find in unreconstructed sixtiesisms such as “Creeping Meatball” is as consistently present in the larger Let’s Not Keep Fighting as it is in the perfect little book, Revs. I’m not aware of any poet since the passings of Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley who does as much as Sanders does to keep liberty and justice alive as subjects of freewheeling and sacred enthusiasm.

These are probably phrases that would make Tadeusz Rozewicz blush. I read Joanna Trzeciak’s versions of Rozewicz’s anti-dramatic monologues in Sobbing Superpower as distant cousins of Sanders’s poems:

an avalanche of angels
brought on by
inspired poets
painters priests
and American
film directors
is far more silly for heaven’s sake
than the one brought on by
the Romantic poets

The diction isn’t plain American, but the universal iconoclasm of thought and feeling have their counterparts in American poems, no matter what atrocities and glories our film directors may have committed. (Also, Poland? Speaking of silly, have you looked at Kieslowski’s movies lately?)

Rozewicz’s tone is more beleaguered than Sanders, but despite the terrible odds against it it never quite takes on that least pleasant of poetic additives, knowingness. Born in 1921 and publishing his first book, Anxiety, just after the war, right at the beginning of his work he establishes a bass counterpoint of sorrow to his declamatory lightness:

I buy pretzels and fuzzy
peaches that look like baby mice
I read Marx
I don’t understand Bergson
I go out dancing with a redhead
and we laugh
about the A-bomb
the red circle of lips
a long golden straw
my girl in a green blouse
drinks the moon from the sky
a waiter carries foamy beer around
lights glisten on the eyelashes of evening
the memory of you
covered my anxiety with a hand.

(from “To the Dead”)

The rest of his early poems are ok in precisely the same way—I like overhearing this reasonable imperfect person who makes no particular claims on me, is melancholy for clear reasons, yet lets me in on simple pleasures often, and occasionally shows me strange and beautiful things. And so we come to the dreaded question: is that enough? It’s difficult to answer a question with so many unknowns—enough for whom? for what?—it squats on the mind like a demon. I will try to answer it anyway.

In 1983, shortly after his émigré countryman Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize, Rozewicz published On the Surface and Inside a Poem, a collection of poems about poets and poetry, touching on international limit cases like Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett but also local figures such as Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, then coming back again and again to poems on pages.

All of a sudden I saw in a newspaper
something resembling a poem

letters words
that reminded me
of some other words
resembling those words

some metaphors
paper entrails
images collected
from the dumpster of history
from the dumpsters of poetry

I don’t know about you, but for me the thought of a 60-some year old poet confessing his disorientation in the face of poetry, that is worth noticing, even with the unpleasant echo of real brutality I hear in entrails and dumpsters. What I value in Rozewicz’s poetry from this midpoint on (and pause to consider, he hits his midpoint in his 60s!), the counterpoint of light and dark is not foreordained to either sorrow or victory. It’s like someone said about baseball, that’s why they play these games. From about 1984 on, the poems really could go anywhere.

In 1991’s “Pig Roast,” what begins as an apparent paean to vegetarianism (“aren’t our Polish pigs / as sensitive / as their Swiss sisters”) takes a strange turn to the topic of pig-to-human transplants, prompting Rozewicz to issue a very sound test of reciprocity:

I ask as a moralist

can we find even one
man who would give his heart brain
or kidney to an ailing pig

In itself, the moralism is not that interesting and besides, it raises a subject no poet should ever encourage—whether the poet is in fact a sterling character (default answer: the poet is human). What’s interesting is the reset, the reframing of the situation. That the poems sometimes go nowhere must be acknowledged. A later poem, “Escape of the Two Piglets,” revisits the theme to less effect.

But at their best, Rozewicz’s poems go everywhere. And sometimes the re-examination of a familiar subject provides something even more than a contrarian gotcha or a topsy-turvy exposition of human frailty. As luck has it, the first poem of Rozewicz’s I remember reading turns out to be the masterpiece of the collection, “The Professor’s Knife.” An eighteen-page account of conversations with an old friend, comparing notes on boiling an egg, visiting wives’ graves, noticing a rudimentary knife on a desk, remembering naïve moments with newspaper interviews and a girl on a train, “The Professor’s Knife” is a complete and satisfying work that answers almost all the questions it raises, Rozewicz taking a circuitous path there while speaking absolutely directly and clearly the whole way. Each section takes a little too long to get to the horizon to quote for more than effect here, but a bit dialogue will give some of the flavor:

I slice bread on a cutting board
spread butter on it
add a pinch of salt

“Tadeusz, you eat too much bread…”

I smile I like bread
“you know”—I say—
“a slice of fresh bread
a slice, a heel
or with bacon bits in lard
with a dash of ground pepper”

Mieczyslaw rolls his eyes

I take a bite of crust
I know! salt isn’t healthy
bread isn’t healthy
(white bread!)
and sugar! That’s death…

do you remember “sugar makes you strong”?!
that was probably a Wankowicz slogan

Wankowicz… Wankowicz
we were a “superpower” then
but sugar no longer makes you strong

Rozewicz was 80 when this poem appeared. It’s the kind of poem that deceives me into resetting my understanding of the work of everyone writing now—hoping that every poet who writes passably in his or her twenties and thirties will hold on long enough, keep paying attention, and when there are no more senseless ambitions to fulfill, or concepts of “enough” to submit to, just to put everything together in excitement, delight and okay regret.

I don’t know whether other readers will turn to Sanders’s and Rozewicz’s work for the same reasons I do, but I can dream.

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