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Michael McClure: The Everlasting Universe of Things
essay by John Olson
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Percy Bysshe Shelley,
Mont Blanc, 1817
McClure’s poetry, which has been a remarkable force in world literature for over five decades now, has evinced one consistent property that marks it immediately as a creature born out of McClure’s hand and brain: it is alive. Each poem is a lump of jelly startled by its own energy. Each appears to have its own DNA. Each undergoes a metamorphosis of self-perpetuating change. Each is a theatre of mutation and flux. Emotion rides into the world on the back of desire. Wings form in a pod of silk. Words form on a palette of flesh. Senses bloom “in tendrils of spirit.” Dramas of soul tremble and incandesce “in the sky of the room.”
Transmutation has long been a driving force of poetry. Imagery jubilates in transition. Words thrive in interrelation. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid composed a long narrative poem called The Metamorphoses whose very theme was transmutation. He presents a world of exciting instability in which universal being comes to life in a war of winds and fills with images of its own kind. Change follows change. The elusive Daphne, whose floating hair falls in tendrils at her throat and forehead, runs from Apollo’s lust, “swifter than light air that turns to nothingness as we pursue it,” and turns into a laurel tree, her “white thighs embraced by climbing bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying in a cloud of leaves.” We hear in Ovid’s lines the “roaring echoes of the ceaseless river pour from cliffside and cave.” Jove turns the young maiden Io into a cow. The ever-shifting Proteus rides two great whales, “gliding through glassy waves.” The young Phaethon drives the chariot of the sun across the sky, pulled by a team of horses “fed with ambrosia and breathing fire, wing-spread and flying feet through cloud and wind, charging, wild, wherever their desire turned, tossing their chariot through wilderness of air.”
Ovid used the mythology of his time to enact his poetry of change. McClure draws from a cauldron of multiple ingredients, a mélange of biology and eastern philosophy, Whitehead and Blake and Shelley and Francis Crick. Schiller and Goethe and Kerouac and Zen Master Dogen. McClure’s blending of biological science with older mythologies and classic Greek and contemporary philosophy reveals a stronger link with Ovid’s predecessor Lucretius than with Ovid. Or perhaps Augustus Caesar’s wild granddaughter Julia, who may have been partly to blame for Ovid’s banishment to a coastal town in Romania on the Black Sea, and in whom I imagine a Jean Harlow of flippant disdain for stodgy Roman convention. It is not so much Ovid the man - Ovid the old Roman poet who was married three times and went shopping for onions and garlic in Rome’s hectic streets - in whom I find McClure. I do not sense much rapport there. Ovid is too distant in time for me to flesh him out, and the overall architecture of his poetry is as classic as a colonnade. It is in the theme of metamorphosis that is enacted so brilliantly and with so much imaginative force and psychological realism that I see parallels with McClure’s protean energy.
McClure’s poetry evolves and expands the meaning of being itself in its celebrations of the genius in nature. Transformation is experienced as immanence, transcendence, ecstasy, apricots, hailstones, lichen, and modalities of birth and death. “Mozart playing with the universe.” “Ants / celebrating rites / of blackness / in the sweetened air.” The landscapes are large and thick with the kind of oil Van Gogh gobbed on his canvas in swirls and whorls of dynamic exploration.
The same energies that drive biology drive poetry. In nature we find caterpillars becoming butterflies, tadpoles becoming frogs, and tiny seeds becoming giant sequoias. Thunder breaks on the face of a mountain and minutes later raindrops plop from the brim of an old man’s hat. Mass, velocity, torque and friction combine to produce waves of pulsing energy, “A LAUGH / OF / PASSION / with the nothingness of meat / expanding in all directions.”
Nietzsche refers to the “I” in lyric poetry as an expression of human consciousness that is as much a phenomenon of nature as a sunrise or rainbow. This is most definitely the case in McClure’s poetry where the identity involved with the writing has less to do with personality than with a harmonizing and dilation into cosmic realities. “It is the edge of the precipice that the Fool on the tarot card is strolling along,” McClure remarks in a short essay titled “Self-Experience of the Other.” “It is the edge of matter, of what the Greeks call φύσις [physis: nature, natural bent, or outward form] where material and spirit come into being in nothingness. We write ourselves, our bodies, on what we presume is a common darkness behind our eyes.”
It is the sense of otherness that Rimbaud had in mind when he wrote “I is other.” Rimbaud used the predicate for third person singular to emphasize just how other that sense of being happened to be. What we think of as personality is a crazy-quilt amalgam of incidents, accidents, random occurrences. It is superficial. Soul, or essence, is where the ghostly other scintillates from nothingness into being. It might be described as a form of systole and diastole, a rhythm of being and nothingness in which both are the same and both are different.
For example, in the poem “Portrait of the Moment,” from which I’ve been borrowing lines, we find the play and energy of transmutation everywhere. “Maya and molecules / and nothing are the same” McClure proclaims. The ultimate reality is change. Nothing is static. The universe is everywhere. Scales of big and small are collapsed. We find the huge in the small and the small in the huge. It is a world of quantum flux where nothing of real value is quantifiable, or frozen, or twinkles expensively and ridiculously in a diamond engagement ring. It is all a continuous melting and fusion. “All there in the iris / WHICH / IS / THE / WHORLING, / / WHORLING / CONDENSATION / / of / the / moment / into the purr and feather of hands / with the mouth slightly open / in a pose.”
“A creature is about itself,” McClure observes in his collection of essays Scratching the Beat Surface. “A living organism is perceived as a complex chunk, or lump, or bulk, or motile body of reproductive plasm. And of course it is that.” “A way of seeing an organism,” McClure continues,
…. other than as a lump or bulk of self-perpetuating protoplasm (and there’s nothing wrong with that) is the view that the organism is, in itself, a tissue or veil between itself and the environment. And, it is not only the tissue between itself and the environment - it is also simultaneously the environment itself. The organism is what Whitehead and Olson would think of as a point of novelty comprehending itself or experiencing itself both proprioceptively and at its tissue’s edges and at any of its conceivable surfaces.
There is, in fact, a central force in the organism and it IS the environment.
The organism is a swirl of environment in what the Taoists call the Uncarved Block of time and space (a universe in which time and space are not separated into intersecting facets by measured incidents).
The veil, the tissue (or the lump or bulk), is created by the storms from which it protects itself - and is itself the ongoing storm. Herakleitos saw it as a storm of fire, the raging of an active and energetic principle.
The organism is a constellation (like a constellation of stars or molecules) or resonances between itself and the outer environment. The organism is a physical pattern of reflections and counterreflections that we call a body and we see it clearly as a physiology. Ourselves. A rose bush. An amoeba. An apple.
One of the reasons I have always felt at home in a McClure poem is the warmth and sensuality that animate his lines. He is not at all like the more forbidding modernists Stevens and Pound and Marianne Moore. He is scholarly, but not like the regal Kenneth Rexroth, or stentorian Charles Olson.The only other poet that offers such warmth is Robert Duncan, in whom I find many similarities. Proust also comes to mind because he was able to theatricalize a very intimate experience of human consciousness while simultaneously preserving a sense of universality. I despise aristocrats and snobbery. I cannot, in fact, stand most of Proust’s characters. I pretty much hate them. But Proust allows me entry into this world at a very deep level, a phenomenological level, where I can see Henri Bergson’s philosophy of thought and movement come to life.
McClure’s world is one I am far more familiar with. It is fundamentally that of biology and creation itself. Raw, unmitigated being. It is a world in which, as Zukofsky put it, “contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events.” McClure’s eye for detail is positively exquisite. He is able to find such remarkable beauty in the everyday, in much the same way the eighteenth century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin was able to paint objects into existence so that they veritably glow with phenomenal, palpable charm. His mugs and partially eaten fruit and wine glasses are imbued with a voluptuous numen.
McClure is about to turn eighty. This is a venerable age. And yet he doesn’t seem old. He is wrinkled, his hair is blazing white and his body may creak like an old galleon after many a rough sea voyage, but there remains a spirit that is quick and mercurial. There is a very moving poem in a recent collection of his work called Mysteriosos in which he addresses the pathos of growing old. The poem is situated in one of those coin-operated photo booths like the one that plays such a pivotal role in the movie Amélie. They used to be a common sight at bus stations and fairgrounds and have all but disappeared, gone the way of the pinball machine and jukebox.
The poem appears in a section titled (appropriately) “Dear Being,” and is dedicated to his wife Amy. I will conclude by presenting the poem in its entirety:
NOW I UNDERSTAND, THE SEXUAL ADDICTION
of my young manhood
was a CRUCIFIXION –
glittering and lovely
an ostrich boa and smashed mirrors
seen on acid.
Now: I am an old man with a handsome face
and after the bloody movie full of guns and stabbings
and helicopters, I stop at the photo booth
and in the mirror is a dog with jowls, a silver fox,
an eagle in the whirlpool. Here’s the strip of four photos
a sincere man with white hair and eyebrows,
eyes almost inside-out, staring from a black Armani collar
Then the same man, still in front of scarlet drapes, with his eyes
looking up into science fiction in his forehead.
Now his head rests dazed against the side of the booth.
In the last photo I am fully alert: JUST AS I ALWAYS AM,
A SUICIDAL CHILD IN LOVE WITH EXPERIENCE
RISKING ALL TO BE ONLY WITH YOU
as the dragon world with its hundred eyes passes.
And I still long to be Shelley.
McClure, Michael. 3 Poems. New York, New York. Penguin Books. 1995.
McClure, Michael. Mysteriosos and Other Poems. New York, New York. New Directions Books, 2010.
McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco. North Point Press, 1982.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. New York, New York. Signet Classic, 2001.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky. Berkeley, California. University of California Press, 1981.
John Olson is a poet with several titles published by Black Widow Press, among them
Backscatter: New and Selected Poems. Clayton Eshleman said "he is writing the most
outlandish, strange, and inventive prose poetry ever in the history of the prose poem."