Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Ambassador from Venus

I have been reading Lisa Jarnot's long-awaited biography, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus. I knew it was on the horizon because I have admired and followed Jarnot's work as a poet (and on her personal blog) for several years now. And while I can't say I am devoted to Duncan's work, one of my first memories of the excitement and possibility of poetry was in a classroom in 1985 or 86, in a workshop with Diane Wakoski.  She read Duncan's poem "My Mother Would be a Falconress" to the class. I still remember how thrilled I was at the poem itself, at Wakoski's evident admiration (and inspired performance) of the work, and how I wanted to write something that layered and potent with meaning.  And the sound of it!

So I have been reading about Robert Duncan, his childhood as the adopted son of parents who believed he was meant to be theirs, that the stars had ordained it. He was at the nexus of so many groupings and divisions in American poetry: friends, and then enemies, with Jack Spicer  (a poet whose work I came to know this past year through his amazing My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poems of Jack Spicer.) Great friends with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.  Great friend of Denise Levertov, another poet Wakoksi introduced to me in that first class I took with her, and then, I am reading, no longer friends with her, after they disagreed about the role of the poet as protester and political force.  In fact, Duncan feuded with a lot of people.  But he also made friends among all sorts of writers, academics, painters, and artists of all stripes, and had an enduring marriage to the painter and collage artist Jess.

So I start the new year thinking about connections. Buying Duncan's biography makes me check out author Lisa Jarnot's blog, where I see that she still teaches poetry workshops out of her apartment.  If I lived in NYC or Brooklyn I would sign up for one. It makes me think of Jack Spicer, and how I should read his work again, and Robin Blaser, friend to both Spicer and Duncan--I bought a book of his work but never read it. I also have a new book of Jess's artwork, Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoteria. I think of all of these writer and artists, and the ties of friendship, art, and love that bound them together and drove them apart.

I think of re-reading poet H.D.--Duncan was obsessed with her.  I was too, in grad school, and ended up writing a term paper about supernatural portents and signs in her work. Also in Jarnot's book I am reintroduced to Helen Adam.  A generation older than Duncan, this Scottish poet wrote dark ballads she sang to captivated audiences in the Bay area and in New York.  Diane Wakoski read our class one of them, a tale of a man who is tangled and strangled by a woman's living web of hair. Duncan always said that "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" owed its creation to the example of Helen Adam's work. Just a smidge of internet sluething led me to videos of Adam performing.  Now I have to buy a book of her work, too.  It comes with a DVD, as well it should. Oh, and Duncan was an early mentor of filmmaker Stan Brakhage.  I know next to nothing about his work, so now I have another assignment: learn.

A new year. Here's to new connections. Here's to reading one book that drives one to another, reading one writer and being lead to another.  Here's to crazed mystics and damaged pyches and the slow healing of art. To falcons and wolves and dangerous women. To Robert Duncan, sweeping into a lecture hall in a purple cape. He's cross-eyed.  His notes are rumpled.  He might make a pass at you at the faculty party, after. He's going to cover the blackboard with enthusiastic chalk marks; you will not be able to keep up in your notebook, there's always too much, too many connections. But at least you are there too. Find yourself somewhere in the lineage and equation.

Here's Helen Adam.  She tops my list right now of people I wish I could have known:

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