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Remarks on a Remarkable Poet
review by Allan Graubard
The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia
edited by Garrett Caples, Andrew Joron, and Nancy Joyce Peters,
with a Foreword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
University of California Press
It is very easy to say that the publication of this book is an event, and then trace through it this advance and that retreat, those themes and that encounter as if by such enrichment the poems took on qualities that they do not possess intrinsically: including the where, why and when of each of Lamantia’s 12 books, and those poems that went unpublished during his lifetime but now appear. Or to detail the turns in his history fed by voyages, triumphs and despairs that nourish us or do not.
More significant, I think, for each reader is an intimate response to whatever work they encounter, in whatever period Lamantia wrote in, from his first appearance as a teen of 15 in View and VVV,(1) the realm of Touch of the Marvelous, to his final efforts five to six decades later in the aptly titled but unfinished Symbolon.
And as a reader, like you, I take that route, encountering and re-encountering works that by their metamorphic power have few equals. I should add that, having read Lamantia when18 and 19, I discovered within this living presence a link to those from which I first, and previously, began to appreciate the wealth that poetry can bestow.(2) I also knew that Lamantia’s was a realm that configured, within language and the silence that informs it, a possibility which at its best has not deserted me: the poem as genius loci, a place for erotic-magnetic meetings, convulsive leaps, sublime infections, and a transparency equal to the lyric that bears it. There may be other values here I have not mentioned, and I am certain there are. But this is enough to seize upon, as Lamantia did, making of the poem, in advance of action, an incendiary force in constructing how we live and what we live for. The poetic as an ethical medium for the freedom it conjures and enchants us with…
That Lamantia’s full array of choices are not my own; that most of his visionary religious poems finally deaden rather than enliven me, and that he seems in his latter period to have fallen prey to a kind of logomania that does not, and I believe cannot, substitute for the authenticity of the poetic, that voice which while solitary fully realizes its power in proportion to how well it communicates, is, no doubt, what also makes him poignantly human. Who does not find in his opacities subtle revenge upon the demands that life makes of us? So, while I do not discount these works, I rarely return to them.
In counterpoint, there are several of his collections that reveal supreme values: the aforesaid Touch of the Marvelous, then Destroyed Works, and Blood of the Air. Numerous other poems in other collections reach similar heights: “Terror Conduction,” “Towers of the Rose Dawn,” “Capricorn is a Wounded Knee,” “Coat of Arms,” “The Romantic Movement,” Bed of Sphinxes,” “Becoming Visible,” “Oraibi,” “Bile Nature,” “To Begin Then, Not Now,” “Vibration,” “The Jewels of the Vatican Board the Atlantic Cipher,” “The Uncertain Sciences,” “Egypt,” and more and others, and more again.
Of those familiar with his work, you will note that the majority of these poems come from a certain period when his return to surrealism, and something of his origins as a poet, reformulated now for a mature man with greater context and experience, take shape. You will make of that what you will. Certainly, this is not evidence of a programmatic enclosure, excluding other works from other times written for other reasons and with other mechanisms. It is simply a list of poems that orchestrate and transmit vital epiphanies — transparently, lyrically and umorously.
Yes, it’s easy to say that this book is an event. It is. And if that’s what does the trick for you, and gets you to open it and find your way to immense sudden confabulations and distinctive luminous rapports that embrace us, person to person, species to species, conscious beings to vegetal and material entities flickering with light, with darkness, with music and with silence, then so be it.
Philip Lamantia left us in 2005 at the age of 77. His poems remain. And in the absence of some of his titles, which are rarities now, and in which I prefer to read him, is this collection: a touchstone and stage upon which you can chart, as you desire, and as your desire finds, in Lamantia’s words, “desire’s desire,” the arc of a life given to the sirens.
September, 2013, New York
1 Lamanitia’s poems debut in View in June 1943, the leading literary and art magazine in New York then, edited by Charles Henry Ford and Parker Tyler. That same year he appears in VVV, the organ of the exiled surrealist movement, edited by David Hare, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton.
2 The names are familiar and, for a few of us at least, decisive: Poe, Baudelaire, Lautremont, Rimbaud, Jarry, Picabia, Breton, Artaud…