"Call me Bead" she says, "a thing so small it should be forgotten." The hitch-hiker she picks up in her stolen truck is named Barn, "looks German." She drives "like a flood bursting open sluice / gates, like my whole past wants me / drowned..."
Each of the poems is drawn from, of all things, the U. S. Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic/Topographic Center, consisting of flags used by boats to communicate possible danger to persons and "urgent and important messages."
Thus the poems have titles like "Towing is Impossible under Present Weather Conditions," "What Is the Name of the Vessel with Which You Collided," "There are Indications of Intense Depression Forming," and "Keep Clear of Me; I Am Maneuvering with Difficulty."
As corny as it sounds, it works, for the poems, track, in an off-handed way, the titles. It is all a narrative of a woman crazed by her life up to now, taking up with a "half-breed," in a village in northern Michigan. She feels "that fickle signal / named thrill, / and its partner, fear." The reader feels fear too: who is this guy? Is he going to take advantage of her present vulnerability, strangle her, shoot her, rape her? Why does she stay with him in a beat-up Airstream in the cold and the wet?
Uncoded Woman as improbable as it seems, generates a fine narrative flow in its thirty-nine poems. They get married, grow vegetables; there are days "warm as biscuits from the stove," even contentment in working in a local mini-Mart.
There is, too, almost getting drowned in a storm when the North Branch dam bursts; getting drunk at Art's Bar, walking home, finding a body floating in the lake:
I'm too drunk to swim out
and pull her in,
and too scared to touch her,
and let her touch me.
And then the final stone, the memory of her father,
open your blouse
and my grey buttons
flipping like coins through the air ---
his fist brittle as frozen spittle.
And the knowledge that someone left him drunk, in a boat, holes drilled in the bottom.
--- Lolita Lark
The Battle for
Nancy J. Peters
(City Lights)The interest here is not the introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, nor the "Milestone of Literary Censorship" by Nancy Peters. Nor is it the poem itself, which many of us have read over the years and by now it's an old friend. What is fascinating is the transcript of the trial.
The dialogue is hot, the contenting characters pop right off the page (including the judge, Clayton Horn, who was, obviously, having the time of his life), and the drama. Here we see American writing and publishing finally getting out of the bawdy house and into the world.The witnesses for "Howl" were eight reviewers and professors with impeccable credentials, plus Kenneth Rexroth, the Zeus of the San Francisco literary olla podrida.
The anti-Howlites consisted of David Kirk, a professor at SFSU who called the poem "negligible" (and who got roasted on cross-examination) and two heavies from the San Francisco DA's office. One of the latter, Ralph McIntosh, was wonderfully sour and prudish, trying to lure the august professors and critics into defending the offending passages.
Mr. McIntosh: Going down a little further, down to the seventeenth line from the top, "who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake." Now, is that word "snatches" in there, is that relevant to Mr. Ginsberg's literary endeavor?
A. Yes, I think it is.
Q. Of course, it goes along with the whole paragraph?
A. Yes, I think he is trying to convey an idea of fertility there, among other things, and this is his choice of language to convey the idea.
A little further on,
Q. "N. C., secret hero of these poems cocksman and Adonis of Denver --- joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots and diner backyards, moviehouses, rickety rows on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas station ---" what's that next word?
The Court: Pardon me?
Mr. McIntosh: How do you pronounce that?
Mr. Ehrlich: Solipsisms.
Mr. McIntosh: "...solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too." It's a little hard to read because there are no commas in the spots where you expect them to be.
The Court: I believe the word "solipsisms" is misspelled in the book.
Mr. Ehrlich: Yes, it is. There is an extra "i" in it.
The other, final kick in Howl on Trial are the photographs from fifty years ago. For instance, we get to see Ferlinghetti sans beret, and, for the first and probably the last time in his life wearing a suit with tie. And it ain't no Windsor knot, either.--- David Winslow, M.A.Go to a
(Wisconsin)Stephen Spender once said that the trouble with the "Cantos" of Ezra Pound was that he left nothing out: the morning newspaper, Lao T'se, Homer, breakfast in Italy, the sitting room floor, Swedenborg, getting pickles at the market. I guess Spender thought all that detail and gushing out were reprehensible, but we've noticed a growing affection for poets who manage to squeeze in their hot terrible wonderful haunted personal lives ... as long as they do it without oatmeal and cream and too many wet spots; most especially if they do it with restraint carefully balanced on the knife-edge of confidentiality.
Language is all rather silly, if you think about it --- these whining or rutting or groaning noises we make with our larynx. And then it gets translated into black lines and crosses and points on the page. And somehow we are supposed to not only make sense of it, but to be touched (or angered, or pleased, or disgusted) by it.
It's the same paradox of what we used to call pornography, back when pornography was pornography: squiggles on the page getting us (or someone too holy, or someone too old, or someone too powerful, or someone too young) hot ... or at least aware. We can only wonder at the strange dark channels in the minds of those who believe that they can presume to tell us what to do and what not to do.
§ § §
I bring in the kitchen-sink perspective of poetry writing because Ms. Childress, like Pound, does manage to get a mountain of passions and private parts (and touching parts) into her verse, but with considerable more heat than the doughty old Fascist. There is the Dominican Republic, and laughing, and visits to the doctor, and thoughts on Hitler, Huxley, and Hitchcock. There is "a man lifting his gun" and birds --- "Redbird, grackle, chickadee, bobwhite / finch." There are several portraits out of Indiana, flights into Houston, "the fading light of Lago de Atitlan," and the Yucca Valley "out past Joshua Tree where my father dropped acid till he was 28."
Father appears often, Viet-Nam vet, stalwart soldier: a picture of him "eyes like half-cracked eggs, blue yolks of bitter / intelligence;" it is the same father who appears with his hands around her neck, intoning "Whore."
Ms. Childress sternly avoids the rocks of cliché while she opens her heart. In "First Child, in the Womb," the doctors tell "us to terminate" but "we should not listen to their sad, stern voices." There is her own sad face,
Sometimes after I am done
crying, dried up as a breast of milk,
I will make myself cry again,
just to watch how it works.
There is too "On Learning the Percentage of Non-Professional Head and Neck Massages Which Do Not Lead to Sexual Intercourse:"
Today I learned the word "uxorious," which means
you love me to absurdity, but having your scalp rubbed I'm not
surprised. I mean it's about as sexy as mixing pancake batter.--- Dorothy WhittakerGo to a
from this volume