Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Tau and Journey to the End

Review by Allan Graubard

Tau by Philip Lamantia and Journey to the End by John Hoffman, The Pocket Poet’s Series, No. 59, City Lights Publishers.

Phillip Lamantia is a singular presence. From his first works published in View magazine at the age of 16 (in 1944) to his final collection Bed of Sphinxes (published by City Lights in 1997), he remains, for this reviewer, the premier poet of his generation. Appearing on the scene, as his older friend, Kenneth Rexroth, noted, “fully formed,” his influence roots deep and spreads far. Not only do we meet him in the surrealist milieu of the latter war years in New York but there he is at the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, where “Beat” emerges as a resonant sensibility precise to its time. Intervening episodes of exile in Mexico, North Africa and Europe hone Lamantia’s passion for unearthing the hidden sources of poetic revelation; from the collective rituals of indigenous cultures to select groups of Europeans bent on hermetic ascesis, to vital remnants of revolutionary anarchism. Upon his final return to the U.S. in 1968, he picks up from where he began, inspiring another generation of creators, both surrealist and not.

Of all the figures he associates with, however, and whom we now celebrate as pivotal to our understanding of poetry, art, dance, music and film — should I mention Andre Breton, Maya Deren, Paul Bowles, Parker Tyler, Bob Kaufman, Jay DeFeo, and so many more – there is one we knew, until now at least, mainly by hearsay.

John Hoffman is a young poet who meets Philip Lamantia in 1947 after attending a reading of his in San Francisco. The two quickly form an intimate bond recognizing in each a shared necessity: to oppose by poetic subversion, the derangement of the senses and marginal living the oppressive menacing shadow of triumphant America then in the first flower of its new imperium; an imperium which has crested only now, six decades later. Indeed, as Lamantia relates, it is this friendship that touches him more deeply than any other in his life. And while this is purely speculative, I cannot but assume that Lamantia will see aspects of Hoffmann in other close friends in years to come.

Hoffman also becomes something of a figure on the scene then, seeking inspiration in successive journeys, as Lamantia notes, “through New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Rio, Montevideo.” His vagabondage ruled not only by wanderlust but also to avoid any sense of settling down to endure another war, however “Cold” it might seem. By 1952, this lyrical, graceful, adventurous being dies in Mexico perhaps by overdose and sunstroke. He is just 24 years old.

Not surprisingly, Hoffman had left with Lamantia a manuscript of poems, all we have of the man, Journey to the End. It is this manuscript that Lamantia reads at Six Gallery as much in homage to his friend as to distinguish the accomplishment so readily at hand. A dead poet speaks through another poet in a reading where Ginsberg debuts Howl, and Michael McClure, Phil Whalen and Gary Snyder take center stage, with Jack Kerouac egging them on in the background. It is a poignant performance that has now come full circle with the publication, in one volume, of Tau (by Philip Lamantia) and Journey to the End (by John Hoffman), via City Lights.

Not only can we read John Hoffman’s poems, which Lamantia organized, along with his two introductions, but we have a manuscript of Lamantia’s that he previously suppressed, save for four decisive works, which later appear in the fiery Ekstasis of 1959: “The Owl,” “Intersection,” “Terror Conduction, and “Man is in Pain” (one of the great drug withdrawal poems extant).

Philip Lamantia was not in the habit of suppressing manuscripts, formed by the poet in response to the internal and external pressures that consumed him until his death in 2005. His books consistently depict his desire, his need, to transmute the quotidian and the literary into an acculturated realm of magic potencies, where language and image return to us exceptional powers that reveal our capabilities anew. With Lamantia, negative analogy, erotism, the oneiric, umor, chance, elective affinity, and love, love above all, entice us to near visionary confabulations of our own; we who seek, like him, “the genius of present life.”

And yet questions remain in regard to the manuscript despite the charm it exerts. Did Tau satisfy its author? Perhaps not. Did Lamantia’s mystic conversion to his own heterodox form of Catholicism cause him to devalue the majority of the poems in Tau¸ enough to forgo their publication? Perhaps that is true. Were there other reasons at play here that Lamantia has kept from us, including a rapport with avant garde trends in literature he would later critique as a matter of principle? This also may be true. Whatever the answers may be, in fact, Tau is finally ours to explore. Its 17 poems capture the poet when we have least knowledge of him, and seem to bear witness to a crucial juncture, shot through with tense, self-interrogative formalities that close in on themselves as much as they open to jazz — given Lamantia’s public readings with musician David Amram and, I imagine, other boppers in San Francisco, when the jazz-poetry confluence was just finding its voice. That Lamantia will later recognize that the more significant relation of poetry to jazz lies in the rituals exclusive to each, and not in ensemble performance, is also something that his peers rarely acknowledged; and something for us to consider.

Phillip Lamantia and his friend, John Hoffman, speak to us in this book as if they were among us. The vivacity of their refusals, their revelations, their derangements, and the poems they left as witness then, will give us pause. And perhaps, for those open to it, this book will prompt us to consider, or re-consider, who and what has moved us most to risk what we can and cannot in our search for the marvelous, whenever and wherever we have found it; whenever and wherever it has found us.
Included in the volume are texts by Garret Caples, the book’s editor, who provides the kind of historical context and sensitive poetic commentary that readers will benefit from.

And so,

To your always perilous obliqued and
(“To see this evil from its core,” Lamantia)

here is Tau and Journey to the End…

Allan Graubard is a poet, playwright and critic. His most recent play, Woman Bomb/Sade, played in New York in 2008. In 2009 his book Fragments from Nomad Days & Other Poems & Tales will be published by Exstasis Editions.