On Extended Wings
HOOK & BLOODLINE.
By Chip Dameron.
BURNT WATER SUITE.
Wings Press was founded in Houston in 1975 by the poet Joanie Whitebird and the late Joseph F. Lomax, descendant of the famous family of folklorists and blues discographers. Although the press began as “an informal association of artists and cultural mythologists dedicated to the preservation of literature in the nation of Texas,” Wings published Townes Van Zandt, Vassar Miller, Judson Crews, and Naomi Shihab Nye, whose voices soared beyond the borders of that quaint notion of Texas as a nation. More significantly, the press’s survivalist instinct for preserving literary works – parallel to the Lomaxes’ preservation of music – strikes one now, a quarter-century later, as less naïve than visionary.
When Bryce Milligan assumed the Wings perch in 1995, the literary community knew him to be, like J. Whitebird, a serious poet, a publisher with a good eye for book design, and an experienced editor (including his tenure as publisher of Pax: A Journal for Peace Through Culture), committed to developing the levels of literary insight and craft achieved by the anthologies of Latina writing he edited for Penguin Putnam. Wings Press (now based in San Antonio) continues to defend artistic freedom, to represent genuine cultural diversity, and to battle against the insidious domination of the publishing cartels – simply by making handsome books with challenging content, rather than manufacturing product-units that mask a wordy void with flashy covers. Unlike Manhattan-based corporate mills, alternative publishers like Wings provide a vital antidote to the poisonous, bottomline mentality of International Bestsellerdom.com. In the tradition of the small press revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, Wings helps create a wider world for readers. What it lacks in promo-clout and gross quantities, Wings delivers in literary daring and aesthetic quality, remaining open to the new.
Witness new collections by three poets who (despite the fact that they all teach in universities) share in common the truth of not being academic in their poetry. All three exhibit sophisticated poetic intuition and a refined sense of craft, but none sounds like the verbal clones produced by the institutionalized university writing programs, or the coy egocentrism that slicks the magazine pages of a dying establishment.
Hook & Bloodline, Chip Dameron’s third book of poems, evokes the resonance of a changing world from the vantage of mid-life. His perspective evolves through a precise diction that uncovers deeper levels of experience, and the poems never fossilize into object lessons. Instead, they reveal a lively and thoughtful dialogue with the mortal realities of middle age – neither indulging in cheap nostalgia, nor courting this culture’s denial of death. Dameron often contrasts the past with the present, but without vain or sentimental nostalgia. Even when the creative process becomes a poem’s subtext, it feels natural rather than manipulative. Consider “The Journey”:
When his heart was hollow, the ringing phone could fill it with her redolent gifts, but someone else’s voice would empty out his ear and he would once again wonder where to find his second skin, the one that stretched around the landscape of his life, tattooed with the glyphs of another’s headlong living. And yet to find the voice he had to first absorb the morning birds and talk at work, he had to find a satisfaction with the tone of his own voice, feel in its timbre a fullness that he could live on. He had to turn his inner landscape out and outer in, and hike across them both, leaving the plain tracks of being.
This self-portrait is representative of Dameron’s introspective mode, but there are many more portraits of family and fellow inhabitants along the poet’s South Texas coast. Further south, we encounter Tahiti, in a lush sequence of paradisiacal poems, including “Gauguin in Eden: Koke at Mataiea.” The last lines are prompted by the painter smelling
the dark lushness of the jungles that are rooted in the humus of his mind, finding those totems that bring back a red and orange world that has no factual existence, but comes as quickly as shadows do, as shadows turn the night into the thing the day yearns for, intensely without form, without color, humid with emotion.
Two of the strongest texts – one a fantasy on Picasso and Hemingway, the other a portrait of Faulkner – are as “modernist” as one can be, yet they do not sound dated. “Rendezvous” cuts against the grain of legend with satire and wit. The poem pictures the Spanish painter and the U.S. writer in a French café, drinking wine and talking of women: “When live / bullets nip at their exaggerations, / Hemingway, puffed with grenades / and pistols, nods goodbye and strides / into action.” Then, “Picasso turns the sounds / into the thin lines of a drawing / of a dream.”
After “the noise subsides, / Hemingway binds his wounds with words / and reinvents his shadow.” Picasso “attunes his canvas to a scene” – which is the café of the poem’s setting – ending it as it began. In “Portrait of a Mississippi Novelist,” Dameron first depicts the image of the Nobel Laureate we know from the photographs, but the mask is not quite right, and he reveals the Faulkner who is
seen best through the stitcheryof the sentence, the placewhere the clarity of the wordreveals the muddling of heartand mind, impossibly complexand unmeasurable. No onecan know enough. All he can dois puff on his pipe, habitually,and follow his words throughtheir strange and resourcefulinclinations, driving themalong the muddy river bottomas if they were wild beasts,amazed into submission.
Hermine Pinson’s second collection, Mama Yetta and Other Poems, closes with the title piece, an exuberant prose poem in praise of her paternal grandmother. This earthy and wise African-American matriarch taught her the lessons of Yoruban lore and family stories of that bayou region straddling Louisiana and Texas.
“This is your granddaughter talkin,” writes Pinson, with naked honesty and self-deprecating wit, “the one who peed the bed and didn’t walk till twelve and a half months, the one who was left-handed and stuttered with strangers, the one who rolled her eyes until they crossed one day, the one who loves you still.” Other family figures appear in the book, especially her parents and Papa Johnny, her paternal grandfather.
Pinson’s lyric poems read like jazz riffs with an attitude, a set of sassy variations for her signature left hand (“Left-Handed Poem”):
Left hand turns inward then rises like an ominous hump from the limp neck of the wrist when I am making a point or begging to differ fingers and thumb poised to pick up some subtle thing beyond themselves came out of the womb that way left hand turned inward hard against the heart transparent knuckles but workers’ hands like Papa Johnny’s came out that way and almost broke my arm the doctor pushed me back in again so I could come out right
Here Pinson plays on the instrument of her becoming, mindful of the family orchestra that shaped her, and the doctor who had to rearrange her first solo so she would emerge “right.” Nonetheless, she continues the poem from the distaff side of the bandstand:
I used to play saxophone Now I press fingers to soundless keys the task: reach through the space on the page for some subtle thing half-turning motion of pincers in the ocean of heartways – at rest the left hand lies: a failed balletic exercise an invalid’s carelessness a pulse a time signature a womb’s knowledge of life’s ceaseless motion.
This is at once a personal creation myth, a musical take on the poetic process and, in the last lines, a leftist leaping over metaphors of identity.
Pinson can be challenging – she swings in original ways, inhabits the hip beat then slips behind it. What begins as a tribute to Nina Simone evolves into a moving portrait of her mother:
Mama would turn on Nina’s scratched record and sit down after she and daddy had been drinking and screaming exercising blues two prairie chickens on unholy dancing ground Later in the poem, their danse becomes macabre: Mama and Daddy reached for each other (with murderous hands two blind minds)
Pinson’s blues lyrics make startling turns – by rhythmic shifts in feeling and through edgy improvisations of thought. These musical signatures are never merely ornamental, but always essential to her re-composition of memory, and to the projection of poetic risk.
In the preface to Darrell Bourque’s third book of poems, poet Sheryl St. Germain suggests an elegant parallel between his Burnt Water Suite and Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. She points out that each voice is “both cosmopolitan and confidential, and speaks to us about what really matters, the single instrument’s voice explored so deeply and fully that one cannot imagine ever needing another one.” Listen for that voice as it begins a ninety-line poetic discourse on “Inhabiting Separate Bodies”:
We have always been told that wanting rises, but here is something like longing asking for another reading. This is not desire if by desire we find ourselves driven toward the edges where exacting begins to clarify itself, where urge itself begins to set out trotlines for its own translations, where necessity begins to see its own measurability.
Here Bourque’s meditation begins to reflect both a complex sense of the cultural psyche and a lucid primal awareness. Next follows a subtle comment upon his own poetics: “This travels without sense / of strictness. It travels slowly and mostly down / with all these other bodies through paths skewed / for collision.”
Matter ascends in this poem until it begins its slow descent through various stages, bringing pain to the poorly designed lower back, to the constricting chest, and to the limbs and extremities that “sing desire and parting and how”:
early on these two lie easily in the same bed and how it all is as happy an arrangement as marriages ever get until we find ourselves somehow all the way up here; here, moving like moons circling the planet of whatever your matter and my matter make, never able to move any closer to whatever has this pull on us and will not let us go, never able to read the something we know is written there if only we could bring the right light to it, before we begin to sense recession, the sweet descent we have come to recognize the way we recognize our hands, our feet, the face that falls into the field where we look for ourselves. We sail past, are comforted by this configuration memory tells us we once took for ourselves, called by our very name.
Desire-energy animates matter, flowing like blood through the body of this poetry. The “burnt water” of the title refers “to the opposition that engenders all creation and to the created thing itself,” Bourque points out in his notes. “It is at once both the phenomenal and the pervasive Urge that creates all being. It is then flower, sex, poem, person as well as the necessitating force or desire that resides in all matter.” Bourque first discovered the phrase in the poetry of Octavio Paz, who explicated it: “The opposition of water and fire is a metaphor for cosmic war…. It is an image of cosmos and man as a vast contradictory unity … the cosmos is movement, and the axis of blood of that movement is man.”
Burnt Water Suite has seven sections, each technically varied and daring, each thematically integrated into one cohesive text. The poems should be read in sequence in order for the suite to be understood as more than the sum of its parts. His passages are composed to reveal their wisdom slowly, and the rhythm of the long lines cannot be fully appreciated when fragmented into slender columns. However, “Holy Water” can be represented by excerpts:
Your mother is water. You are water. She runs Tigris and Euphrates through your veins.
Her Nile flows into the waters of your longest river.
Rivers she gives are not gifts. They never separate themselves enough from the two of you for that.
She will give you a drum river. It will beat over you sleeping in the high branches in a sling she made just for you.
One day you will fall suddenly. The fall will force you open. You will hit the skin of the drumhead yourself for the first time and it will change everything.
You will be music from that moment. Everything else you do will be accompaniment. You are a sacramental thrumming. You are making all of time a vigil.
Bourque’s poetry balances the tension of contrary opposites within his harmonium of solitude: being and matter evolve cosmos, and every soloist accompanies the silent music of the spheres; desire and parting are one pair married of yin and yang; mothers and children swim rivers of memory as water and fire flow into burnt water; spiritual life is sacred energy and sacrament. The complex ferment and contemplative vision of Burnt Water Suite remind this reader of expansive poems by Octavio Paz and Thomas Merton, also calling to mind a phrase from Albert Camus’ notebooks – “lucidity in passion” – which returns us to the intimacy and sophistication of Bach’s cello suites.
Wings Press published these three diverse and challenging books by Chip Dameron, Hermine Pinson, and Darrell Bourque in 1999. This alone would be good news for any press, but it also brought out several other worthy titles last year. As for this year, 2000, this dynamic imprint will continue extending its literary wings while preserving its historic roots. However, literary dialogue cannot evolve in a cultural vacuum; inevitably it withers to monologue. Only the response of serious readers can make this a meaningful conversation. Do you read me?
Robert Bonazzi founded Latitudes Press in 1966 in Houston, later editing it from New York, Mexico City, Austin, and (since 1982) Fort Worth. The press has published over eighty books, and will initiate a series of chapbooks by international authors in 2001. Bonazzi has three books of poetry in print and his fourth will be published this year.