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Reviving a Place in Poetry for Lenore Kandel
review by Judith Roche
Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel
North Atlantic Press
Poet Lenore Kandel was a literary bridge between the sensibilities of the Beats and those of the ’60s counterculture. Other observers may say “Hippie Era” but I specifically don’t because “hippie” is a media made-up epithet. If you were there – at least where I was “there” – you didn’t call yourself a “hippie.” Maybe a freak, maybe hip, certainly counterculture, but “hippie” was a media-made shorthand to denigrate the movement. Since then, in the media, it has become even more denigrating, denoting a superficial and stoned set of values bent mostly on “chilling.”
“Chilling” was not what we, as I knew us, or Lenore Kandel, as I read her, were interested in. I never met her, but I’ve had a well-worn copy of The Love Book on my shelves since about 1967, when someone gave it to me and I read the words of a woman on holy fire with being alive. Not “cool,” a complex word that has, as I read it, a certain hipness in it with a kind of bemused detachment. Rather, Kandel’s ecstatic poems come from a very engaged consciousness, alive and responding to life, art, her body and her spirit. I’m very pleased to have her Collected in my hands now, thanks to Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough of North Atlantic Press. It includes published work from 1959 to unpublished work, some, much later and I’m assuming towards the end of her life in 2009, though the unpublished poems are not dated in this edition. The published memoirs generally state that, though she had become “reclusive” she continued to write until the end of her life.
Kandel was born in New York City in 1932 and died in San Francisco in 2009, where she lived most of her adult life. According to the bios, she became interested in Buddhism and world religion at age twelve. Her first published works were presented in 1959 by Three Penny Press in Hollywood and are included in this Collected. In the early ‘60s she became friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch (one of her lovers), Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman and others of that exclusive mostly-boy’s club called the Beats. Kerouac wrote her into his novel Big Sur as “Ramona Schwartz,” calling her “a big Rumanian monster beauty.” She is identified as a Beat poet, though not one as often anthologized with the rest of them. In 1970 she was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that left her permanently, though not completely, disabled, and she slowly dropped out of the scene. Though, say people who knew her, she kept writing, if not publishing.
This collection offers a preface by poet Diane di Prima, the woman writer who is most identified with the Beats. di Prima writes of staying in Kandel’s house in 1969, while she was on San Francisco on a reading tour. di Prima gives us a vivid picture of life at that time, in that place: “Some days I would sit beside her and watch and learn. The women of her tribe came by to bead and to mourn, to cook or sew while they talked of lost loves, of children and abortions. The men dropped in with barely hatched dreams for a new society, with manuscripts and music, weapons and possibilities.” Later, “All the power of that time is in these poems.” And that time included the Diggers, the anarchist guerilla street theater group of the emerging counterculture of the Sixties, who gave free food to people in need, with whom Kandel was intimately associated, and the drugs dropped, casually or not, as di Prima makes clear in her essay. These poems are a picture of the place and the times.
Poems from The Love Book, first published 1966, shimmer with ecstatic sexual energy. Kandel mixes spirituality with sexuality to make Tantric prayer out of love- making, …”we were the temple and the god entire…” “To Fuck with Love,” a long poem in several parts, reaches for the divine but also stays firmly rooted in the very physical body in a striving to make the two one. This is the chapbook police seized from City Light bookstore and put on trial, a trial, which would drag on for years. Kandel claimed the book was “holy erotica,” the prosecution claimed it porn with no redeeming social value.
In the meantime, sales went up. Finally the claim was overturned, sales continued and Kandel had the last laugh by thanking the police for the free publicity by donating 1% of profits to Police Retirement Fund. But it was Word Alchemy, her full-length collection of 1967, where she came into her fullest, most nuanced, voice. In her introduction she says, “Poetry is never compromise. It is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience. If you compromise your vision you become a blind prophet.”
Word Alchemy opens with several on-edge circus poems spangled with loud-looking words in all caps. Okay, that was a style at the time, and seems dated now, but the images stay strong. From “Invocation and Clown Dance Of The Bareback Riders:”
eye of newt and heel of brandy
champagne wine and hashish candy
shock of love and touch of madness
demon’s tear of final sadness
pulse of vision, blood and stone
kiss of witches, mandrake moan
fear of heaven, bead of dreams
Everything is what it seems
Oh! the clowns! but they’re beautiful
the ringmaster is clothed entirely in black owl feathers…
From “Freak Show And Finale”
Show me your tattooed spine and star-encrusted tongue!
Admit your feral snarl, your bloody jaws
concede your nature and reveal your dreams!
each beast contains its god, all gods are dreams
all dreams are true
Underpinning the circus trope in these beginning poems is the repeated idea of the holy beast in all of us, that the beast is bloody, holy, and we are it. “no man intransigent/but shields the animal within/were-wolf never died/but sits beside you…”
There are more “divine lust” poems in this collection but Kandel’s sights have widened to include more of the human experience in these poems. Exuberant as these poems are, they visit the depths as well as the heights. In “First They Slaughtered the Angels” we read of the torture of the angels, “opening their silk throats with icy knives,”…” tying their thin white legs with wire cords” and “they have wiped their asses on angel feathers…” This poem has been read as a lament for friends dying of heroin and other drugs at the time, but, given the times, I imagine she is including those innocents dying in Viet Nam, on the streets of poverty and want, all of the innocents who suffer. She does include a poem quite specifically for those brothers and sisters suffering from drug addiction later in the volume: “Junk/Angel,”
I have seen the junkie angel winging his devious path over cities
his greenblack pinions parting the air with the sound of fog
I have seen him plummet to earth, folding
his feathered bad wings against his narrow flesh
pausing to share the orisons of some ecstatic acolyte…”
And more explicitly in “Blues for Sister Sally,”
moon-faced baby with cocaine arms
And in “Small Prayer for Falling Angels.” “Too many of my friends are junkies,” which turns into a prayer to Kali Ma, Indian goddess who wears a necklace of skulls, to “remember the giving of life as well as the giving of death…”
Lenore Kandel lived when she did and where she did, and recorded her experience with honesty and beauty. She was definitely a product of her times, but more, Lenore Kandel has been a voice for love, for light and in her words, the “ecstatic access of enlightenment. My favorite word is YES.” She was not a self-promoter and due to her later reclusiveness, her legacy is somewhat shadowy. Perhaps this fine collection will rightfully revive her place in the world of poetry.
Judith Roche is a poet and the author of three collections of poetry. Wisdom of the Body won a 2007 American Book Award.