Page 9


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Some Voices on the Left BY PAUL CHRISTENSEN A Book of Witness: Spells Gris-Gris By Jerome Rothenberg New Directions 188 pages, $15.95. Facing Invasion By Clayton Eshleman Unarmedj ournal. corn Pamphlet, free. Everwhat By Clayton Eshleman Zasterle 58 pages, $10. Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination 6, the Construction of the Underworld By Clayton Eshleman Wesleyan University Press 336 pages, $29.95. One More River to Cross: The Selected Poems of John Beecher Edited by Steven Ford Brown. Foreword by Studs Terkel. NewSouth Books 252 pages, $20. Jerome Rothenberg came onto the scene in New York 50 years ago with a movement he called Deep Image, which seemed like a way out of writing about the self in the age of confessional poetry. The result of Rothenberg’s efforts to escape the self were mixed; he was the most gifted anthologist of his generation and set out to prove there was once a single consciousness out of which the world did its thinking and praying, the remains of which could be found among the performance art, spells, fragments of myth he collected from every continent. His own poetry was too often an imitation of those oral cultures he admired, and not enough of a unique lyric voice of his own. Occasionally, as in the moving dirge over the death camps in Poland, where his family had roots, he rose to a kind of lyric splendor. But his ear was erratic, and his mind was on too many other things. In A Book of Witness, Rothenberg has found himself. The language is spare, the lines blunt and unadorned, but the words are tangy with truth, those of a man in his seventies lamenting the death of friends, and preparing for his own death. The poets Paul Blackburn and Armand Schwerner appear early in the book, and are the beginning of a roll call of departed friends. Other voices from the past intervene in his lyrics, including those of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Samuel Beckett, Robert Kelly, Rochelle Owens, Clark Coolidge, Pablo Neruda, and Robert Duncan, to name a few, but only in a line or two, an association, now part of his own thinking. The real attention is to his aging body, his memories, his willingness to die at any time. I walk the stupid last mile into heaven cursing the light that blinds me. I reach up & drive an owl from its perch. “Cursing the Light” The watch on his wrist is a reminder of fleeting days; his metaphors are about borrowed time, living beyond others, taking the path alone, or strolling down haunted streets filled with ghosts, angels, the sound of pianos buried in the earth. His way is to the grave, but the fact of death is a libera tion. It allows Rothenberg for the first time to embrace the self, the body and mind that witnessed seven decades of a bloody, tormented century. He says as much in an eloquent “Postface,” chiding all those poets, including himself, who had run from the pronoun “I,” and “debased, or more often despised… one of our great resources in poetry?’ To eliminate this center of lyric energy was “futile,” an admission he freely makes after decades of warring against all and any who dared to filter the world through a single intelligence. But, as he cautions a few lines down, that personal voice is “really the voices of the gods.” The witnessing of his times in 100 page-length poems, half written in 1999, the other half in the new millennium, does not take on big subjects like the wars, the peace movement, the political mayhem; these are assumptions in the background of his meditations on light, on his own fragility and ebbing strength, his relations to lovers and to his wife Diane. He is amused, grateful, occasionally erotic; he has a light touch on all these matters, as he draws on his own personality and humor, his own way of seeing things. Here’s a sample from “The Search for Truth”: The search for truth is all I have yet I discard it. With my fingers I can make bells ring. The role of sex is crucial until hunger drives it out. We are on a football field with grass the color of old hair. Someone with a stomach filled with worms watches us breathe. I never knew how charming 34 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/16/04