Poetry: New Verses from Long Agoby Joseph Donahue
After the death in 2005 of poet Philip Lamantia, a book-length work presumed lost turned up among his papers. Written in the 1950s, during an artistic and spiritual crisis, Tau offers us a fresh glimpse of this legendary West Coast poet, and with any luck should begin the much-needed reevaluation of his life and career. In these poems we see not so much the maniacal Lamantia of Beat legend, but a thoughtful, meticulous craftsman committed to rendering visionary states of mind.
In contrast both to the erotic rhapsodist of his early love poems and the demonic master of explosive imagery of his later works, Tau reveals a poet both anguished and elegant, a poet at home with doubt and dread, hermetic and devotional, for whom inner distances are the depths we as pilgrims and readers travel towards.
On this voice – these sounds –
A heart whose wail you dream
Into actuality swims halfway
To your always perilous obliqued and
Lamantia anticipated by decades the elegant involutions and torqued interiority made familiar to us by other poets influenced by Surrealism such as Paul Celan and John Ashbery. He did so not through some eerie prescience, but as the outcome of a stylistic and spiritual crisis about which not much has been known until recently. Garret Caples’s invaluable introduction touches on the pained circumstances which gave rise to the plaintive, prayerful disposition for the unknown that makes Tau Lamantia’s most moving collection. We see this otherwise most passionate advocate of the imagination as suppliant, crying out at the edge of the perceptible:
These words tied in a spool of snow
Now they trail at the serpent’s tail:
Cut under a wind. dark and silent
Spaces between all the letters of the world
Up in the burning brains
Of the sun’s new infancy (Going Forth By Day)
Readers familiar with Lamantia from the annals of Beat culture know him as the poet who participated in the premier poetry event of the post-war era, the Gallery Six reading, but did so by not reading his own work. Clearly, as Caples documents, this was no whim, but a complex act, that could almost be taken as perverse, as if the poet were refusing the ascendancy of the personal that Howl, about to receive its first public declamation, would signify. But as Caples shows, the real reason is less insurrectionary, and more human. Lamantia, in despair about his own writing, spoke through the ghost of his dead friend, the poet John Hoffman, by reading Hoffman’s poetry instead of his own. And that ghost has been out there ever since, floating around, waiting for us to find him.
The second book folded into this volume, a major addition to Beat literature, is the long lost work of John Hoffman, a virtually unknown figure who flits through certain lines of Howl and haunts the periphery of Beat writing. Lamantia preserved the memory, and it seems, the work. All of Hoffman’s known writings are included here under the title Journey to the End as an uncanny coda to Lamantia’s poems. Hoffman’s contribution is the perfect compliment, equally dedicated to the presence of what each poet would have understood as the Absolute. Hoffman’s poems display a restraint, an elegance, an ease with lyric thought, and an apocalyptic edge which seems like breaking news from somewhere in the world:
Woke to see a tattered bird
Alone upon a tattered sleeve
Singing of infinity
Fly where other birds have flown
Unsinged by burning burning burning
Tau and Journey to the End are indispensable works that have never been read. After more than fifty years, John Hoffman is back among the living. So too is Philip Lamantia, to set the record straight, and to let us know what we’re missing.