Kirpal Gordon will perform at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 13, 2011 as the Northeast Poetry Center’s Distinguished Visiting Poet at 7 West Street, Warwick. Award-winning saxophonist Claire Daly and her band will appear as well.
SPEAK-SPAKE-SPOKE is now available. See www.kirpalg.com.
Prose poetry, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Gertrude Stein, through Bly and Russell Edson, has tended toward the surreal and Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (Leaping Dog Press) nods to that tradition (hearing, for instance “screams within glass jars” in “Hetaera Collects the Fragments of the Splintered Glass”). And Gordon is an unusually literate poet, with an authentically catholic education. Among the influences he explicitly acknowledges are Kabir, Rilke, Pound, and Kerouac, and he pays hommage as well to Duke Ellington and those noble Billies, Strayhorn and Holiday.
But the more significant aspects of the work are, what has become so difficult to be in this belated age, innovative. Even to readers of the littlest of magazines, this voice, this manner, this vision, is fresh. Poetry is surely the most densely significant form of language, and by this standard, Eros in Sanskrit, though printed as prose, is hyperpoetic. Fortunately, Gordon is immediately engaging, often charming (who could resist his address to the reader as “lover”?). In fact, his specialty has long been sitting on the ridgepole between dualities, yoking moist and dry, self and other, physical and spiritual, high and low culture.
To shift metaphors, he’s the old-time department store floorwalker, with a spiffy suit of language and a rhetorical figure in the buttonhole, and the man, like a manic Groucho, manages somehow to cover every floor at once: in “Puberty/Colonialism/Spring” he constructs a symbolic frame that conflates adolescent Oedipalism, anti-imperialism, and the old reverdie riff, adding data to each and casting the most suggestive nets of association among the three. Throughout the text mother metamorphoses to lover and then to destroyer as sparks of hard-won vision fly.
As I tend to do as well in Pound’s Cantos (or the oeuvre of W. S. Burroughs, for that matter), I find myself mining Gordon’s book for lyric fragments, often of such surpassing beauty that I lose interest in themes or overarching structure. Gordon, in fact, acknowledges classic imagism by troping on Pound in “How Paint Peels: Petals on a Wet White Wall,” but he justifies the play with his own coups in both melody and visual imagery. One can only think of Williams and Zukofsky when encountering such solidity: “on the oak deck he left behind him: pant of bloodhound, patter of cat paw.” (“Curved World”) Similarly, he stands up to the comparison with Under Milkwood suggested by this passage about a NYC childhood: “It seemed every clump of corner store had a watering hole with beefy barkeepers streaming with brogues, cursing like troopers in apron and tie among crumbling corduroy, quarter beer & pipesmoke blue-gray serving toothless stumble bums rum-soaked, shuffling shoeless in greatcoats.” He also is capable of tossing off a line that Cole Porter might have appreciated: “a young woman wears the look someone else already looked worn out in.” (“September in Venice Beach”) And the next moment the reader can only think of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Sound manifests the world our maws mutter, shudder & spout at.” (“Eros & Sanskrit) One can only sigh in appreciation at the lyric lines concluding “She Walks on Water Street”: “Should she push past dusty daylights indigo end to your match meeting her cigarette, would her exhale dissolve your reflection, pulling you out of yourself – isn’t that what Venus rising over bridge lights already foretells?”
Gordon is serious, every spell he sings is meant as a cunning means with the end, as for the householder in the Lotus Sutra, of luring us as well as his own tender ass from the burning house of phenomenal reality.
He not only feels the heat, though; he sees the glorious light as well. Like a California gold-panner, he spots the eternal gleam in mundane phenomena, allowing him to invoke myth naturally and powerfully so that his classical references fit seamlessly with immediate experience in the same way that a good symbol will function as “realism.” And, though there are startling theophanies of Dionysos and Christ, it is most often the feminine embodied in Isis or Venus or Kora, that serves as his “other,” at once the goddess, the beloved, the world, the other half of self. “Coitus has turned the curved world inside out.” (“Curved World”). Plato, the troubadours, and the Bauls of Bengal who sing love-songs to Krishna have known something of the same dialectic.
But his route varies, obliging the reader to maintain a high alert as the author, for one instance, retools the Eden story to recount the sixties (in “Regarding Paradise”). In “Incident at Naoussa” Gordon no sooner manages to convey the charm of a most pleasant Greek town, when he turns the experience upside-down, to a via negativa, deriving its profundity not from observed detail, but from unsounded depths of ignorance and absence.
Gordon’s eros is not merely erotic and divine: his compassion for others animates the page and creates a politics born of the simplest of home-truths -- we are all in this together. “There are no signs of Indians,” another of Gordon’s sententiae, neatly erases itself as he (like Cooper, Melville, Twain, and all the other hip Americans) evokes the non-white “other” (who may be native American, African-American, or an incarnation of Mailer’s White Negro) in pursuit of an accurate survey and thus triangulate toward reality. The indigenous locals tell him America is “infecting [the Amazon River] first, then bleeding it dry,” and why? The guide “hugged the air around him & winked your country, she is mighty that way.” In a couple of gestures, the cat is out of the bag: the marginalized prophet, the blundering imperial giant, the dependent union of each with its enemy/remedy.
Like the pilgrim who, when asked by a merchant of Vanity Fair, “What will you buy,” responds, “I buy the truth,” Gordon knows that we are generally being suckered. For him the first layer of illusion, the acquisitive, is marked by “the division of labor, spread of wealth & demand of gender role.” (“Epilogue”) With venal temptation quelled, the lures of sensation may be, not defeated, but enlisted to speed this very contemporary pilgrim’s progress. He boldly spins out eloquent jive in “Letter in Lady Day Spring Tones”: “We told you slingin’ rhymes & tellin’ jokes/talkin’ about time served while sellin’ folks toasts could get you violated & now you’re waitin’ in Brooklyn County Detention waitin’ to get de-loused or pronounced brain dead en route to the Big House: scuffled (don’t say it snuffed out)/shuffled off to Buffalo/man . . .a deadbeat scheme of cosmic slop instead of a sweet sumpin sumpin nice & neat.”
Gordon’s themes reflect a vision informed by a Vedantist version of the perennial philosophy incarnated through precise takes on everyday America. He’s out to smash dualities from the get-go, and even his own insights get the head-knock treatment that just might lead to enlightenment. The overture poem “Eros and Sanskrit” hedges its bets like the wisest: “yes, no, both & neither.” “The bird is in the field as the field is in the bird.” The poetic project is to “sing & get sung” with a yoni/mouth and a lingam/tongue. Articulation of the world assumes such polarities; pronunciation of the language requires them. Gordon is well aware that they vanish in ecstasy: “Beyond a lunch pail Aristotle’s single pole/double throw switch there’s a human throttle which, when you embrace me please, we equal infinity.” (“Tree Mend Us”)
But there’s no need for clumsy paraphrase and halting reduction, because Gordon’s poetry is there: impassioned, erudite, melodically beautiful and complex and the man, like Bunyan’s Christian, sees the most astonishing sights and encounters the most potent frights and delights of this human flesh as he moves on, stepping ever closer to enlightenment. His own verse provides the redemptive denial to his prophet’s cry: Are all the wild seeds gone? (“August in California’s Central Valley”) No one is more precise or more graceful in limning the “knots & blooms” of the heart. For a susceptible reader this volume offers a plenitude: “As for me I always hoped beauty might be enough” (“Beauty and Belief”). And Gordon is enough of a Platonist (or did he simply imbibe the brighter conceits of Augustinianism?) that those enamored of truth and love will find the categories dovetail here. Without a doubt it is Aphrodite’s doves at work. The reader can join the procession: “Let the trumpets sing: the naked god lives.” (“Life Size Remains”)
Like much of the most moving Greek and Chinese poetry (two traditions to which Gordon is attentive) his theme is the catch-22 of desire: the bound loveliness and evanescence of worldly things, including most prominently oneself. We can only rejoice and lament. Poetry excels at delineating contradictions, ambiguities, and ambivalences, and Gordon’s hand in Eros in Sanskrit is unerring as he constructs those little machines of words that recreate his moments of sublimity and then allow the reader access as well. There is always slippage in these transactions, as there is always transience in the apple of the world, but Gordon looks straight on in the face of loss, and makes of it a lovely melody.
N.B. A cd entitled SPEAK-SPAKE-SPOKE, not yet issued, accompanies the book. Listen to it before you read. Gordon, in concert with the gifted and swinging saxophonist Claire Daly and other musicians, has created what strikes my ears as the very best jazz/poetry collaboration of our generation. The music goes beyond accompaniment; the words beyond lyrics: they sing and dance together, and your mind will find itself following right along.