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Prisoner of the Stars: The Poet’s Journey
review by Tom Hibbard
Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story
trailed halfway across empty skies, lit
color surging elemental and swelling.
- Meng Hao-jan
Of all the great variety of impressions that the poetry in Michael Rothenberg’s new collection, Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story, left me with, I think the one that stands out most is that of displacement. I was thinking of that word in a larger context—metaphysical, environmental. There are many writers today that are carrying the discussion of the relationship between humanity and the global environment to new heights of insight. In his book The Great Work, for example, Thomas Berry writes
Perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. Humanity has seldom participated in such a vision since shamanic times, but in such a renewal lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire planet on which we live.
Berry’s notion of alienation or displacement would be derived from industrialized and “extractive” economies which he wants to replace with more “harmonious” life styles based on less materialism and a greater perception of reality. As “strangers” and “prisoners” we attempt to discern the qualities and configurations that would constitute a more fulfilling existence, a more meaningful conception of “homeland,” where we feel at rest, complete. This is a large subject that many writers approach in many ways. A writer such as Jacques Derrida would introduce terms such as the trace, the distance (which Derrida links with woman), conflagration, disdain, happiness, quiet place. Other writers focus on diversity and difference. I think the ideas of marriage, divorce and confinement are central also.
Rothenberg’s poetry has always begun with Walt Whitman.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
Or perhaps I should say it has begun with an advanced amalgam of Whitman transformed by the temporality and expressionism of the Beat generation, of which Rothenberg has some first-hand knowledge. Gone are blank verse, rhyming lines, sonnet-length poems with four or five word lines. Like Whitman, like Ginsberg’s Howl, Rothenberg writes from deep inside in bold sentences, gushing paragraphs that often reduce down to a secularized or temporalized objective correlative of a general philosophical idea. Often the depth of what he is writing is disguised by a very plain or even vulgar word or image. The collection’s title is an example of what I am describing. The title seems, at first, innocent, trivial. Then we remember that “indefinite detention” references those held illegally and barbarically in American prisons without charge or trial date. But the poetry is subjective. The poetry is about Rothenberg’s life. In what way could Whitmanesque “democratic vistas” be construed as “detention,” as confinement? On its own, the word “indefinite” tends to connote non-restrictive. A sophisticated theme is being put in place. Rothenberg seems to have brought together words of opposing meaning. A new idea of freedom being confinement seems to emerge. Sometimes the effect of Rothenberg’s poetry borders on Surrealism, but invariably it has the sense of a reinforced contemporaneous weightiness.
In Indefinite Detention, the author’s passion and intelligence remain, but he seems discouraged about the appropriateness of that passion. The first poem in Rothenberg’s collection, the first section—a somewhat prosy wide-ranging piece of writing, the middle of which is basically a visual poem similar to the writing in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake—is titled “Maybe I Want To Go To Canada.” Its first strophe reads
Bye, Bye USA. Hello Finland! Or maybe I want to go to Canada…I’m fresh out of
patriotism. Tired of disappointment and hurt, I need a bigger world view. O, Samsara!
Let it go, let it go! Ziggy, my dog, sleeps in the sun. Everything will work out here at
home. But no, there are 17 countries more Democratic than this one. I want to go there!
The second poem in the collection, beginning the second section, is the title poem. It begins “Poet Dog // Poet dog / sad dog / Fluffy / Ziggy / pink dog // Dream poet / sad poet / Dog… [indentation] Ziggy and I alone in the woods / Terri gone to Florida with her dog Puma / to visit her mother” So we have the trace (the woods), the distance, associated with woman, woven together producing a feeling of alienation and absence. The poetry that follows—one-hundred-and-thirty pages of it—is a substantive panorama, bordering indeed on conflagration, but which often takes place on the ocean shore or among the California redwoods. These places of distance, in their perfection and exhilaration, especially highlighted against snapshots of U.S. society today, are what Derrida calls “simulacra”—suggestions, symbols. The restful solitude of these places is evidence of disdain, injustice elsewhere. They portend different places, different circumstances that would bring about the same exhilaration but that relate to the future. This is the meaning of the trace—“a past but a past that never has been present.” The trace is a mysterious ineffability, a logos of the open community that urges us forward. Rothenberg uses the word in his poetry.
* * *
The collection is made up of six sections: the introductory section; a second section of newer writing that includes the title poem; “Head Shed” previously issued as a collection on its own; “The Book”; “Track”; and the last section, beginning with the poem “Gray Days.” The collection could be viewed as a unified long poem, one sustained stream of the author’s consciousness. But I prefer viewing it from a formal standpoint as a voluminous, non-iconic outpouring with natural topography of dales, outcroppings, fissures, hills, cities.
In his happiness, in his quiet place, Rothenberg is unhappy, lost. He talks about this, about wishing he were in other places. He talks about his rather being in New Orleans. He becomes conscious of being Jewish. He strikes at friends, at obstacles and delays. To a great degree, the material of his poetry is that of a journal or day book. In the way that it imbues the everyday with the contemplative and philosophical, it is similar to American Post-Modernism, books such as Robert Lowell’s Day By Day, Wilbur’s Things of This World, Berryman’s Love And Fame. American Post-Modernism is novelistic, descriptive, rather than abstract. It employs the marginal and the discarded, the muted middle-class endeavor as the subject matter of its poetry. Beat writing and Rothenberg do the same, perhaps more radically, more graphically, as in Ginsberg’s Kaddish—or as in Rothenberg
Oh, this aching world.
I must get over it quick!
That mist in the oaks
as thick as fire
It’s a pleasure to be an angel!
Anselm sends the Collected Poems of Marianne Moore
I think he knows me better than I thought
Or we just happen to be on the same wave length
A blind fury escapes my mouth.
Dry mouth. Singing gums and lips.
A scream passes through my torso into the tree limbs until it finds the browning leaves,
red and orange-gold leaves. My probing fingers,
I try to stop the bile. It’s a mind working on its own, a virus from a genetic mutation, an instruction from another afterworld inflames the tendons in my shoulders.
My fingers whisper kindness because I was taught to be good.
Like the Post-Modernists, Rothenberg brings in the menial and unpicturesque.
Yesterday the toilet turned jackhammer
(some kind of air pocket in the pipes)
How much will that cost?
Dog needs his teeth cleaned
Trunk release won’t release
This has also to do with Kerouac’s notion about the inadvisability of editing. The material of writing is the difficulty of life, not a preconceived palatable misrepresentation. Kerouac was concerned with the fact that human instinct covers rather than reveals what needs saying, an instinct that leads ultimately to the abyss. Rothenberg is good at recalling obstacles encountered in the daily journey.
“The door’s wide open!” Terri says
“I did that on purpose” I say
“I know but you’re letting in all the bugs.”
In passages and sections that hearken back to the Modernists themselves, Rothenberg makes out of the despised and discarded an exalted and encapsulated holistic vision. In truth, there is proportionately much less use of world events or everyday descriptiveness in Indefinite Detention than in previous Rothenberg collections. The ethical commentary, the philosophical underpinning of all that is written is much more thoroughly and prominently present in the writing.
Wake up and smell the roses. The plastic pinwheels that smell like hoses in a suburban summer.
Sprinklers play church music.
A sad commentary on physics.
The flight of stones, agate, and molecular bits and pieces threatening to blow up this world. Unless we map it quick.
Mars and the living dead.
Cigars from pre-revolution Cuba smoking from his head. He spits in the street and looks uphill as the trolley rolls back down and crushes his alligator shoes. Another species lost.
Map those meteorites and comets quick or we’re done for, any day eventually, and inevitably. Make laser guns and pinpoint razor bombs to annihilate small buildings headed our way.
Better do it now. Map it!
The end of “Head Shed”—as is the end of Eliot’s Wasteland—is essentially a visual poem, consisting of isolated English words, Latin, French, German phrases—symbolizing our world’s broadly historical and multi-cultural foundation—a paragraph of automatic writing from various names from other times and cultures, with the last lines of
“Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.”
* * *
Rothenberg’s expressions of discontent are real enough, but they also are an aesthetic feature of his mosaic of the times. They represent the plaintive cry. As Hannah Arendt writes about Bertold Brecht (and this should be true to some degree of every good writer), “He never let himself be seduced by purely psychological considerations and always saw the comedy of a sentimentality which would like to measure the maelstrom of events with the yardstick of individual aspirations.” In general, anger, wars amount to being seduced by self-interest and purely psychological considerations. Despite certain undeniable quizzical longings and provocations, Rothenberg the writer stands at a distance from Rothenberg the generic human character in the poem. In Indefinite Detention Rothenberg places his material in a larger context. The absolute becomes temporary and baseless; common consideration becomes enduring salvation. Dog becomes God. The book’s inscription from Lawrence Ferlinghetti—“The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality and the things he sees are bigger than himself…”—informs us from the start that the collection is made out of actions and emotions from a world-wide perspective, the big picture. “I’m not cynical. I’m an idealist. An anti-utopian idealist.” In the end, Rothenberg is offering Indefinite Detention as a faithful redefinition and reassertion of literary tradition.
As long as the master lives
there remains objective evidence
of a beautiful tradition
[italics the author’s]
Some of the most memorable poetry in the collection is in the lines explicitly about Rothenberg and his dog, Ziggy, romping on the Pacific beach. At one point Ziggy barks at a raven on a rock.
The dog still barks, but can’t say exactly what he believes
Is that a dragon or civilization burning on the beach?
Coming in or going out
I can’t tell which way the poetry is running
A wave followed by another wave followed by another
A sleeper wave
Tide of the underworld rushing overall, blowing silver
Over shipwrecked shores and tortured skies
Rothenberg is, like the rest of us, in the prison of an indefinite world in which he cannot escape the duty of making decisions for himself. I think that this sort of limitation on our powers, this lack of absolute confirmation, especially puts a strain on our interactions with other people. What do we have to say to them? What do we tell them about our paltry selves? The thing we know is that certainty, especially certainty in uncertain times, in the times that impose on us a demand for answers and ask for subjugation, is a dangerous goal. In his poetry Rothenberg discovers reaffirmation.
We will wait
for your silent reply
Look for a word
and world of peace
The reason moments on a misty frothy beach are happy ones is because they give us optimism rather than certainty—optimism about uncertainty, about the unknown. Rather than being divided from reality, we become connected with it. As Sartre writes,
When all instruments are smashed and useless, when all plans have come to naught and every conscious effort is senseless, then suddenly the world appears in a new childlike and frightening freshness, hovering freely and without marked paths.
* * *
Where are these absences and unmarked paths leading? Writing in the 1930s in an essay titled “Literature in a Political Decade,” Philip Rahv and William Phillips stated that in previous decades writers had been “isolated from society” and “[driven] to extremes of individualism.” Have we today in fact closed the door of difficulty? Have we inadvertently allowed ourselves to be seduced by cynicism and self-interest? At one point in Rothenberg’s book the line appears (in quotation marks) “This is eternity.” One thing that makes liberating sentient moments on a beach or in a woods into simulacra, one thing they tend to leave out is—other people. The passion and fervor of Whitman were meaningful not as a simple-minded categorical dismissal of sadness (rain) but as a participatory acknowledgment of and reconciliation with all emotions along with sadness during one of the most dire times in our nation’s history. Whitman is associated with the open road, possibly even with the seashore. But he is also associated with the incredibly stark suffering of Civil War hospitals. Whitman places himself at the core of humankind, telling us that we don’t reach eternity apart from our fellow human beings. Perhaps the happy place that Pacific shores reference in Indefinite Detention is an entirely different type of place, such as the offices of political campaigns. Perhaps we should view the opening section of Indefinite Detention as more than a plaintive cry but as a call for political action. Perhaps Rothenberg’s disaffection and distance will soon realign themselves as a direct political writing.
Tom Hibbard is a poet and critic from California. His book of poetry The Sacred River of Consciousness is available online at Moon Willow Press. Hibbard is working on a new collection of poetry and further articles on visual writing.