Sunday, February 11, 2018
ORPHIC CANTOS by IVAN ARGÜELLES
JOHN M. BENNETT engages
ORPHIC CANTOS by Ivan Argüelles
(Luna Bisonte Prods, 2015)
[First published as Introduction to ORPHIC CANTOS]
THE CHAOCOSMIC POETRY OF IVAN ARGÜELLES
Ivan Argüelles begins his book, Orphic Cantos, with a question: “how does language work”, and the lines that follow make it very clear that this is, and has always been, one of the fundamental themes or concerns of his work and voice as a poet. For starters, the poem begins with no upper case, just a lower case “h”, as if the poem were the continuation of a discussion that had been on-going for years. Which in fact it has. It is a question with no single answer but which is at the very center of human consciousness.
When I asked Argüelles about this, part of his reply was:
....a major theme in Orphic cantos, indeed in much of if not all of my work from MADONNA SEPTET on is language and the destruction of syntax in order to get at the ultimate meaning of things, that is, to unravel from the many ruses of language and descriptive grammar to get at the core of what humanness is, perhaps an articulated silence. We do lots of things without language, principally making observations with our eyes, such as staring with awe at a summer night sky. We call this activity the ineffable. There are also unspeakable acts etc. Language is THE distinguishing characteristic that supposedly sets man off from other living entities. It is a labyrinth that creates the ego-self and ensnares that self into delusion and illusion and often madness. It is capable of logical constructions and arguments as well as Dada and nonsense.
In the poem, Argüelles refers to language as being inextricable from our consciousness of death, and that in a way it is death. I suggested to him that if language is consciousness, if it is the container of civilization, the form in which we are aware of time, if all that; then could we think of his writing as comprising a kind of “quantum poetics”. A quantum poetics would suggest that the concept of THE is illusory, and that, as William Burroughs repeatedly suggested, it is the root of all our problems and delusions. In Canto 9 of this work, Argüelles says “to articulate / the behind the vowels a messy scene”. His reply to these issues:
...I've always been fascinated with the definite article and its use. It seems that only languages in the western part of the large Eurasian ecumene (e.g. Arabic, Greek, English etc) employ a definite article, while those on the eastern side of some invisible language border do not have a definite article (e.g. Russian, Farsi, Hindi, Chinese, etc). What is "the"? what is "a"? How can some languages do without something that seems so essential: not just dog any dog but THE dog! Why don't we just point and say "Woof! woof!" The fact is billions of people get along quite well without having to "articulate" a specific canine. Ancient Greek is replete with the definite article, classical Latin does not have it. Greek seems the more supple for it, while Latin seems marmoreal without it. Just an observation. Yes, THE is an illusory concept. As for "quantum poetics", are we talking metalanguage, images beyond the pale, syntax unbound by the rules of relativity (which is no syntax at all)? Language is at the root of all our problems. How many times a day do we say to someone else "What do you mean?" We never fully understand what the other is really saying. Sometimes that drives us crazy. As for Orpheus, he created song and music, and some say also writing. Writing is precisely the effort to record in some sort of symbolic form and/or combinations of letters that are supposed to interpret in a meaningful way what we have heard and keep hearing.
Ivan Argüelles is not a poet who mines the general Anglo-American vein of poetry that is supposed to be of use in some way. That poetry is basically didactic, prescriptive, or therapeutic, and could not be further from what this poet has achieved. Argüelles writes from the same psychic urging as someone like José María Heredia writing about Niagara Falls or the temple at Cholula, for example: it is a romantic expansive summoning of an entire multiple and swarming world and history. In Argüelles' case this romantic and epic tendency has been filtered, originally, through a fascination with surrealism. His early writings, from the 1960's, in fact, contain some of the very best surrealist poetry ever written in English. That work is very much in the line of Breton and others, and in some ways is superior to it, in that Argüelles' work seems more felt, more urgent, more expansive. His later work, in fact, can be seen as an expansion of that surrealist phase: as if it, the later work, were an attempt to fill in the blanks, and to truly fulfill the vision his earlier work implies.
So where did this poet come from? His story is a unique one, and many details of it can be found in the sources listed at the end of this essay. Argüelles provided some further clarifications, however. When I asked him if he could talk a bit about how his particular upbringing might have given rise to his approach to poetry, which in so many essential ways is outside the mainstream of Anglo-American poetry, he replied:
I think the best way to answer that question is by this little anecdote. We had just moved from Los Angeles to Rochester, Minnesota. Mom was diagnosed with TB and her brother, my Uncle Wally, had our family move to that parochial small Minnesota town, home of the Mayo Clinic, in order to get my mother into a sanitarium (a word I mistook for "cemetery"). [In Spanish, the words “cemeterio” and “sanitario” sound somewhat similar – JMB note.] My father, my sister, my brother, and I moved into the cramped quarters of my maternal grandparents' rooming house. Dark days those. My brother and I had been in the first grade in LA, it was winter, the middle of the school year and after some tests, instead of finishing the 1st grade they put us into the 2nd half of the 2nd grade. Our first day of school there some boys approached us in the lavatory and quite bluntly said this to us: You're not Americans, you're Indians. Well that settled it: Others from the start. From that moment until the day I graduated from Rochester High School in 1956 I never rid myself of the sense of being other, different, a foreigner, someone who didn't meet the norm and didn't fit into the community.
This was a predominantly white, German and Norwegian Lutheran town. We were Mexicans! Dark foreigner, my father spoke with a very heavy Mexican accent and looked every bit the Latino, black wavy hair and mustache, rather romantic and handsome, but still a Mexican, a wetback. We were unique. Walk into the living room of our new home at 904 7th Av SW and what do you see on the living room walls: silver Aztec masks! On top of that I was an identical twin. Unless you're a twin, you don't know how odd it is, because you're, let's face it, peculiar. Kids all razzing us because we look alike. The teachers seated us at opposite ends of the class room in order to tell us apart. And we were odd, bright and dark at the same time. There were times when I wished my name were Argyle and not Argüelles, a name nobody could pronounce! Our father was not only an Outsider but an artist, a painter, to boot. And he gave us art lessons, wanted us to be painters. So we had this aesthetic upbringing, as it were, that also marked us. By the time we were in high school, though somewhat integrated into the community, there were parents who did not want their kids to hang out with the twins. And they had some cause to do so, as, in addition to being gifted and talented, we were also wild, and formed part of the "wilder" group of kids who smoked, drank and listened to rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues.
By the ninth grade I had decided I did not want to be a painter because then my brother and I would be in fierce competition. I told my father I was going to be a poet instead. This disappointed my father, and I felt slightly rejected. But I went on nevertheless to devour what poetry and literature I could find in the public library. Instinctively I was drawn to "experimental" stuff: e e cummings, Eliot and Pound, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, William Faulkner's As I lay Dying and especially James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. I clearly stayed away from more formal paradigms of literature. Clearly these authors and their works, exemplified by broken syntax, lack of ordinary punctuation, a stream of consciousness that broke the rules, etc., had a profound influence on me. They didn't write like O. Henry or Charles Dickens, or Alfred Tennyson. Nor would I!
The relief I felt, and at the same time an anxiety, upon graduating from high school was enormous. I was free to leave the wretched stifling small town atmosphere and fly, like Stephan Daedalus at the conclusion of Portrait of the Artist ...
Argüelles' twin brother is José Argüelles, the New Age artist/writer and activist. Although the two brothers worked in very different fields, it has seemed to me that there were some real similarities between their quests for a fuller or broader meaning or understanding of everything. Argüelles said, in response to my question about this:
You're absolutely right. Identical twins! At about the 4th grade we saw a map of Los Angeles, big sprawling thing, which just fascinated us. We then began collecting maps of large American Cities, as many as we could find. Our favorites were the Thomas Brothers Street atlases of the California Metro areas (LA and San Francisco). And of course there were the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul). We divided the world between us: I was Los Angeles, he was San Francisco; I was Minneapolis, he was Saint Paul; I was London, he was Paris, etc. We then started making our own maps on large brown sheets of x-ray (?) paper of imaginary cities. We began mapping the cosmos in our own way with our collective imagination. Believe me we were never more identical than in our creating these maps. We would listen to radio programs and project the adventures of these shows on maps spread out in front of us. To the end of our days, as far apart as we had become (apparently) the maps remained with us. He traveled and lived in various places far more than I did, and whenever he settled in a new place, he'd send me the map of that place (e.g. Auckland, NZ). This omnivorous collection of maps, I believe, led to an omnivorous sense of taking in the world, the galaxy and the universe in our burgeoning adolescent minds. In high school we consciously divided the creative worlds before us: he would be a painter, and I a poet. His painting turned into Mandalas and then into his New Age Mayan projections of the Universe, as he saw it. My poetry similarly has never been concerned with the trivial or the quotidian aspects of human life but has always taken on mythographic extra-historical dimensions. We mean or meant in our endeavors to be all inclusive, "to take it all in". The part doesn't have a meaning without the Whole.
I would say, however, that the quotidian aspects of life are present in his work, but that they are recontextualized within a much broader picture, as parts of the whole universe. He agreed with this, saying that the things of everyday life are “all part of the large endless mythology of my life”.
I then asked him when he started reading stuff in Spanish and what did he think of it? His answer:
My linguistic (dis)orientation is an odd one. I was bilingual from the time I started talking (living in Mexico City then) until a point when I must have willfully ceased speaking Spanish probably when we went to live in Minnesota (although I don't remember not speaking Spanish). My parents conversed in Spanish maybe 50 per cent of the time so I kept hearing it. The first day of Latin in the 9th grade was a revelation to me, because the budding historical linguist in me immediately saw the parent/child relationship of Latin and Spanish (e.g. mensa/mesa). This fact so amazed me that I at once rounded up all the Romance languages in that parent/child relationship and throughout high school I became a linguistic auto-didact, teaching myself what I could of French, Italian and Portuguese from grammars I found in the public library. My prize was Romanian, as I finally got my hands on a Romanian grammar in the summer of 1955 on a trip to Chicago. (Drove my mother nuts rattling off sentences in Romanian). So I obviously was reviving my Spanish, but this time by reading it (to compare it with the other romance languages). For a while I was in interested in Spanish texts only as documents of interest to a comparative or historical linguist, that is to say snatches of poetry and prose in Old Spanish. I did read Don Quixote in the original for the first time around 1968. When I seriously started writing poetry, in the early '70's in New York City I had recourse to Italian and troubadour poetry at first, but then I started reading real Spanish literature. I believe the novels of Miguel Angel Asturias were the first I read, Mulata de Tal and Leyendas de Guatemala made a special impact on me. Then I discovered the poetry of Lorca, Vallejo and Neruda, and after that I went back and forth between the Siglo de Oro (Góngora and La Celestina) and the 20th cent. (Cien años de Soledad or Octavio Paz). I always felt that reading Spanish kept me in touch with my roots. Period. In fact I feel that way about all the romance literatures (they're all one dialect spectrum) and Latin. No translations for me.
As Argüelles indicates above, the deep background of his work is a grounding in the classics – the classics of avant-garde modernism, especially surrealism, the classics of Romance literatures, and the classics of the ancient world. Yet he is sometimes described as a Chicano writer. I have also noticed, in speaking to him, that Mexican-American slang in his speech. When I asked him about this, he discussed his relationship with that world:
Chicano Spanish: Don't really know what that is, presumably Mexican Spanish spoken by Mexicans living and working in USA. My father qualifies as a someone of that group. Though not a migrant laborer like César Chavez, he nevertheless suffered great humiliation trying to find work in Rochester, starting as dishwasher in the hospital where I was born and working up to being a popular bartender in a so-so hotel downtown. I get most of my colloquialisms from his speech habits, including the wonderful violent cursing he was wont to vent (“me cago en la madre de dios!”). I became aware of the movement founded by Chavez and this sent an electric cue to my identity: ah, I guess I'm a Chicano!. Ironically my father refused to identify with the movement. I was very much influenced at the time and found myself writing lots of poems about my Mexican identity. Many of my earliest poems were published in "chicano" magazines, such as Revista Chicano-Riqueña, De Colores, Aztlan etc. I was quite flattered when Ishmael Reed's Before Columbus Foundation anthology chose a poem of mine, previously published in Revista Chicano-Riqueña, as representative of Chicano poetry. When I was a librarian at the University of California Berkeley I had strong ties with the Chicano Studies Library. Now all that is a thing of the past for me. The Chicano thing blurred into the Vallejoesque poetry, characteristic of my 2nd book, The Invention of Spain. The rest is Surrealism and beyond. Ándale pues!
One of the great strengths of Argüelles' writing is that his use of Spanish, as well as his English (most of his work is in English) is neither Chicanoesque nor Vallejoesque, nor Golden Age nor Elizabethan nor Graeco-Latin, but completely unique. It's Argüellesesque, and full of an exciting and ever-changing mix of profane slang, elegant diction, and everything in between.
The issue of being bilingual is one that will become more and more pertinent as our cultures diversify and writers and poets increasingly use more than one language to express themselves. I asked Argüelles how writing in Spanish differed from writing in English:
My Spanish must be as idiosyncratically Argüelles as my English is. That is, whether expressing myself in either language, it is from the dark root of the unconscious whence the words or expressions and images spring. Still the Spanish does seem different, but I am not sure how to say why it is so. In my Spanish I feel a much quicker easier flow of absurd juxtapositions than in my English. Somehow it feels more unfettered ... cannot explain why. It's as if I am sleep talking in Spanish. Whereas the English comes roaring out of all kinds of books of poetry philosophy history myth and my own personal experiences. Then the Spanish is all free form nonsense and pure automatic writing. Why the division I don't know. Does that make sense?
To me, (also a bilingual poet), this makes a lot of sense; my first language was English, and I mostly live in an English-speaking environment, so that when I write in Spanish there are fewer constraints due to there being less conditioning through the everyday usages I make of English. The kind of linguistic freedom this creates bleeds over into my use of English to some extent, and thus has an effect on everything I write. At the heart of Argüelles' diction one experiences this same kind of freedom, a joyful and at times ecstatic playfulness with language. It is a kind of language that can sustain itself, that never gets tired, and that tends toward what I think is one of this poet's major goals, a goal that arises out of the very linguistic environment he has created. That goal is to recreate or invoke the universe in its entirety. I think it is also true that there is something in the way words are formed in Spanish that makes word-play easier. There is more consistency in how words are constructed than there is in English and this makes it easier – and more obvious – to take them apart and recombine them, to make outrageous puns, and so on. There is also a strong cultural practice, especially in México, of word play, broadly documented, as for example in the many volumes of Picardía Mexicana by Armando Jiménez.
Obviously, this is not the aesthetic of most Anglo-American poetry today, or perhaps ever – (except perhaps in the 17th century with a poet like Milton). I asked Argüelles how he would describe the differences between his own world and that of some of the kinds of writing being produced in the US today (“creative writing”/academic, Language, Beat, Slam, etc.):
First of all I feel my work, when it is received, is perceived somehow as "outside" from the start, not worthy of serious attention. In the so-called poetry scene of the Bay Area to this day, although I have been widely published and received two major awards, plus a lifetime achievement award, my work has never received any real critical attention. I focus on the Bay Area because it has a rich poetry/literary tradition that includes Rexroth, Duncan, the Beats and Language poetry, and because I have lived here some 35+ plus years, the period of almost all my poetry output. I should add that currently the scene is dominated by the academic/workshop poetry best exemplified by Robert Haas. For me the feeling is a duplication of the feeling I had living in Rochester when I was not invited to the County Club dance for achieving high school seniors going on to college. That aside, I know my poetry is different, because it is more complex, more lyrical, more experimental and draws on more intellectual sources and traditions than does most poetry written today. It may be puzzling or infuriating at times, but it is also more interesting for the same reasons, and read aloud often packs a punch. Finally, on this note, my poetry from the beginning, was considered to be surrealistic, which it was, and there was a distinct hostility towards surrealism, which was another strike against my work.
Insofar as the differences between my work and other Anglo-American poetries, there are many, but also some similarities. The Beat influence has an undercurrent in my work, especially when I touch upon themes of topical interest, where the influence of Ginsberg may be noticed. I think the Beat influence was more noticeable in my earlier work, and has probably disappeared. The Language poets are a self-congratulatory and self- perpetuating group, who are also basically rooted in the academy. Similarities have been pointed out between Language and Surrealism, I guess in the use of language as the predominant factor. But Language poetry for me has never seemed like "poetry", it has no lyricism, unless by chance, and flatly lives in a contradiction with what poetry has traditionally been about. Like early surrealism, as championed by Breton, Language poetry has become very dogmatic and more about post-modernist theory than about poetry. On the other hand my poetry is quite the opposite of the predominant school today, the workshop/academic school. It seems that in order to be published by any major publisher or university presses, a poet first of all has to have a degree in writing. Time was when a poet lived outside the academy and its rules. This poetry focuses on the quotidian experience, and fills the page in neat lines of really ordinary language which might as well be prose. The ego functions as the main determinant in a banal narrative description of an event and the feelings aroused by it. That there is so much of it, and that it is so much alike that it is difficult to distinguish between authors, and that it is accepted by the NEA and public radio and television as poetry per se is appalling. By contrast my work is informed with rich imagery and lyric flights as well as the consciousness of poetic traditions both modern and ancient. It is also experimental in a tradition set by Pound and furthered by Olson, though having little to do with these poets. My poetry is distinctly not about the quotidian world, but includes the whole muddled elements of history and myth, and concerns that may well be galactic at times. It may be seen as a fusion of surrealism and mysticism, employing a multiplicity of voices and linguistic orientations that have little to do with accepted syntax and in fact often destroy it. My poetry definitely works at levels of consciousness ranging from acute perceptions of the real to the deliberately confused states of the unconscious and dreams.
One of the striking characteristics of Argüelles' work, present in the work of a very few others in English (such as Olchar E. Lindsann to name just one, and my own work), as well as in work from Latin America and Europe, is a presence of, and a dialogue with a universe of literature. Other authors, classic works, pulp writing, all kinds of things from the present, and the near and distant past. This dimension seems largely lacking from most US poetry - at least the poetry published by university presses, small presses, etc. It's as if there were a conscious avoidance of any reference to literature. As if history didn't exist, as if culture (in the anthropological sense) didn't exist. This, in my view, is part of what makes so much of such work shallow and of little real interest. I asked Argüelles about this:
I couldn't agree more with your observations about the absence of any notion or concept of literature and history in contemporary American poetry. Perhaps it's because when they teach poetry they focus on teaching how to write (sic!) poetry. They are not interested in teaching the history of poetry, only how to write down one's emotional tangents in this very prosaic version of "poetry". I have long bemoaned the lack of a sense of historicity, be it literary or political, in the turgid stuff that passes itself off as verse nowadays. I have always felt infused by the books and poets I have read, by the history that surrounds the writing of poetry in various eras, be it Homeric, Vergilian, Dante-esque, Siglo de Oro, Elizabethan etc. Poetry is not written in a vacuum, or at least until now it hasn't been. Vergil wrote conscious of the Augustan period and its apparent greatness, just as Dante wrote informed of the violent politics of his Florence, the bianchi and neri factions. But more than that, great poets have always written acknowledging a literary tradition to which they are heirs. Ezra Pound is perhaps exemplary in this matter. As for my poetry, it is obvious I feel heir to the ancient classical traditions, as well as to modern schools such as Surrealism. For me history is the myth from which I draw my poetical themes, and myth itself is as real as history. Images from all periods of time and space swarm in one vast poetical present tense for me. You might say it is the very stuff of my poetry.
I should add that it's no accident that my career choice for a profession was librarianship, and prior to my 20+ years as a catalog librarian at the Library of UC Berkeley I had the fortune of working for 10 years at the New York Public Library, a monument of a building housing a fantastic collection. My relationship to books has been very much like that of Don Quixote's: the world which they open up to me is quite often far more real than the world in which I wake daily.
As a result of all this, Argüelles' poetry demonstrates an enormous erudition, but it is an erudition that leads to and expresses a vivid sense of what life, and the universe it inhabits, is: his work occurs as a consciousness within a vast panorama of human history and cultures, of civilizations and languages. But, and this is important, it is never just in some misty zone of other worlds and times, but is a consciousness of those other worlds as being in the background of, or surrounding, a person very much in the here and now, who walks in the street, who engages with a family, who sees in the dolled-up girl in a record store the ghost of Beatrice, who hears the voice of Krishna in the raucous sounds of rock and roll.
The consciousness of these other worlds and cultures is, at least in Argüelles' work, in language. Language, in fact, is in the marrow of this book, as it is in so many of his. Orphic Cantos opens:
how does language work
by subterfuge and shadow
by echo play of the vast Unknown
or is it because we are on death row
playing with substitutes for the word mother
employing enormous syllables of sand at day's end
Note again that the poem, and the book, opens in lower case, as if the poem were the continuation of a canto or a discussion begun long ago, implying that there is no beginning to this song, which thus suggests that it has no end, either. That is, there is no answer to the question. Argüelles commented on this issue:
"How does language work?" is la pregunta misma ... for me furthermore it's a matter of breaking syntax down, which I started doing in a big way with MADONNA SEPTET ... Noam Chomsky once said that if you came to earth from Mars you would think all the languages were the same language! Syntactically they are ... it's kind of like saying that life is the same as death etc; it's fascinating to me how you can learn a totally different language and can get so good at it that when reading a text in that language "translating" from the "mother" tongue ceases altogether ... you're actually being in that other language ... I notice this most when I read texts in Hindi (my favorite really other language)
In other words, for Argüelles, the major way of striving to understand or perceive in some way, the everything that is, the universe of life and death and consciousness and motion and memory, is through language, or better said, languages. The more languages one knows, the greater one's knowledge of these vast issues of human life.
The first lines of Orphic Cantos quoted above also refer to one other major theme of this book, as well as so many of his others, which is the theme of a female presence or presences that seems to represent something like the entire universe and/or the context in which everything, including oneself, seems to exist. Canto 61, for example, consists of a kind of mantra on “her name”:
her name is cloud
her name is absence
her name is the thing you keep hidden
between books no one ever looks at
her name is Lala the free-for-all
her name is not what you think it is
I asked him to discuss what this über-female means to him:
I was wondering when you'd get to this question. Indeed the Ewig-Weibliche has been a dominant, and at times the dominant theme in my poetry. It stirred in me first upon reading Robert Graves' White Goddess, in which he demonstrates the real mythos in our ancient and now unconscious culture is based on a matriarchical system and not a patriarchy. Zeus and his Indo- European Olympian male deities are usurpers uncomfortably trying to replace the deep rooted female deities, etc. My first "epic poem", "That" Goddess, is essentially a neo-Vergilian working of this theme. Prior to that in my dense surrealist phase I was always aware of the adulatory semi-mystical role the surrealists accorded to the feminine. My poetry has always had a heavy erotic dose to it, and as time went on that eroticism became more and more embodied specifically in the feminine. For me the feminine, in Platonic terms, is simply the other half of the man. As an identical twin, it was easy to incorporate this sense of being a half of something or someone. I was always aware of the critical role Beatrice or Laura played in the poetry of Dante and Petrarch. In the late 90's I became obsessed with Madonna, the pop singer, or more specifically the image or images she radiated, changing swiftly in fashion and mood, and she fit neatly into my poetics, evolving into the dominant work MADONNA SEPTET in which she becomes the cosmos in all its (female) aspects: temple whore, street slut, idealized star, mystical goddess, etc. My poetry since then has always included a heavy dose of the eroticism I explored in that work. I should add that this eroticism was also infused with the Hindu Bhakti (devotional) poetry usually centered around the love of Radha and Krishna. Finally, the feminine is for me the ultimate in mystical exploration and expression, approaching the ineffable. In the constellation of medieval Hindi saint poets, the woman Mira Bai stands out. To her we owe the dictum: In the whole world there is only one man, Krishna. Everyone else is a woman.
As an afterthought this "psychoanalytical" footnote came to mind: when I was 6 my mother had to be placed in a Sanitarium for TB. For one thing I heard the word as "cemetery" and for another we were separated from her a good 2 years, being allowed a rare visit from which we had to look at her across this big room, pale distant wasting figure she was. Hence the (for me) feminine attributes of loss, longing and Echo.
That was a really bleak period ... we were basically uprooted, living happily in Culver City, California when the diagnosis came in about the TB (a real scourge in them days) ... my mother's brother, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, moved us up in the winter of 45/46 to Rochester MN ... for two years we lived with my maternal grandparents, stern German Lutheran no nonsense types ... My father, a virtual Mejicano got the worst of it ... broken English, had to get a job doing dishes in a hospital ... that's when on our first day at school there some kids approached my brother and me in the lavatory and told us "You're not Americans, you're Indians" ... and so forth ...
Argüelles' comment about Mira Bai above and there being only one man with everyone else a woman could be applied to his work in general, in that there is a center of some kind – usually represented by a female presence – around which not just everyone but everything else is swirling. I asked him if this seemed accurate, and if so could one say that his work represents an attempt to control, or understand, or to describe, the universe he experiences:
There seems to be something to that. I think I recall someone saying "Socrates was a woman" as well. Yes, there is for me this indefinable but feminine presence around which the cosmos, however plural it may be, swirls like mad, taking in its composition all the elements of history and myth, making a riddle of the whole. In the end both as substratum and superstratum is this "woman", or at least the female pronoun very much in evidence: she, her. My work definitely is not an effort to control anything. It is at best a chaos out of control, with a longing for the center. Nor is my work meant to be understood, explained away, made coherent by various rationalizations. My work however is an attempt to describe what I perceive as the universe, my (?) universe, the one that came into being when I was born, though it probably was there before, I just didn't know it. It might be better to say my work is an attempt to remember my universe and the feminine presence that animated it, knowing some day it will be utterly forgotten.
Memory, of course, is fundamental to poetry – and to human life as we know it – but I thought I would ask Argüelles how his personal memories function in his poetry. Is there such a thing as a purely "personal" memory? Or is memory to some extent a social construct that is constantly changing? Is there such a thing as a memory in his work that maybe isn't something literally from his own direct experience? He replied at length:
Memory. Memory works on several planes for me. The first is the purely personal, and of course my poetry to a large extent depends upon so-called "personal" memories. There are a few salient memories that have determined the course of my life and poetry. But rather than dwell on such memories in detail or in a "confessional" way, I mythologize these memories, integrate them into a larger fabric mixed up with history and mythology. I do not place these personal memories in the context of their own historical reality, but abstract them, poeticize them, remove them from their narrative or autobiographical environment. For example: I never tell the reader about the exact moment in time when I was with my twin brother and out of curiosity he stuck his finger into a moving lawn mower and all but lost it somewhere in the grass. I have mythologized that memory, placing that missing finger into a grass that constantly symbolizes some sort of arcadian loss ... Again the memories I have of a short lived first marriage to Claire Birnbaum frequently occur but again are mythologized. In COMEDY , DIVINE , THE those memories are a principle leit motif, but it would take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that. Again when I do take a personal memory and overtly make a poem out of it, that memory takes place on a mythological plane becoming confused with apparently unrelated historical phenomena. My collection Looking for Mary Lou is based on a mythological search for the original Mary Lou, a girl I went steady with in high school. Here Mary Lou is disseminated over a litter of surrealistic landscapes, more often despised than not. I probably invent memories as well, who doesn't? But are there such things as "personal" memories? I am not sure how to answer that, and in a sense all of life is a memory constantly shifting from instant to instant, until we get to the point when there is nothing left to remember. Death. A few minutes ago is already a memory, and sometimes yesterday seems like years ago, and then we start forgetting all about it, details blur, oblivion takes over, leaving only a few choice moments which themselves become altered perhaps by how we want to remember them. Finally Memory itself is a grand subject, the nymph and muse MNEMOSYNE.
I replied that this very instant is really a memory of it:
and who is to say that the future is not a memory already?
What can I say about the countless evocations of my identical twin dead now four years to the day? Here it is something more than memory, more like a genetic riddle, as often I cannot be precise that between him and me which of the two it was that did and said what?
Orphic Cantos focuses on all the major themes of Argüelles' work through the lens of language or song, the vehicle through which we are human and somehow more than human. The Mexica called poetry in xochitl in cuicatl (“the flower the song”) and it was the means of creating a contact between the transitoriness of life and consciousness and the eternal. This is what has motivated poets throughout history, even, perhaps, in a small way, those pallid domestic whimperers Argüelles refers to above (their poetry being “...a banal narrative description of an event and the feelings aroused by it.”)
In contrast, Argüelles' conception of poetry is that it is an Orphic song; ie, an emission that feels like it comes through him: “...who am I but a bearer of unknown letters/signal of noise in the arcane galactic silence” (Canto 7). Earlier in the same canto, he speaks (or sings) of language as the self:
itching to touch skin once more the song
mmm I could have been the alphabet
the roaming siege of letters scribbled in air
sandstone amorphous dwindling script
yellowish bracken misread ungiven vowels
the coiled reference to the unending snake
which is You my obsession and destruction
This passage and others suggest that there is a close association between language/song and woman/the other, as well as between language/song and the corporeal self.
In Canto 9, he speaks of language as the “braid” of human culture and consciousness, the thing that makes us human:
the uniform of the text
the braid that wraps around the long unwinding column
a thing that makes human sounds darkening
the boots of the text make no sense
each time it starts they get excited
to learn a new language to shape the lips
But all this is framed in the human awareness of death, of our own death:
removing the tongue to articulate
the behind the vowels a messy scene
murdered the word every time
the lingerie of the text flimsy
“Orpheus!” they call “Orpheus!”
the purple buskins of the text
inveterate byzantine symbols ornate and useless
tumultuously shining in the nowhere
narcolepsy of the fifth tone pure music
this is failure of Athenian statecraft
an entire history of phonetic decay
shrouded in a text of indecipherable hieroglyphs
man is a two-timing worm...
In this passage one can see how various themes are conflated into the context of language: consciousness, woman, history, song. One could say that language is the theme of Argüelles' work, around which all the others cluster and swarm: consciousness, love, woman, life and death, memory, motion in time, history and literature, culture (in the anthropological sense).
One can certainly see all these themes in his earliest work, and – as we have seen above – they seem to swirl around the central theme of language. For example, The Structure of Hell, 1986, opens with these lines:
the ocean in my ear has turned off its siren
a gypsum foam gathers rushing
to erase the dark alphabets of my knees
In the poem “Milk”, he says
a drop of ink has been buried in the milk
and the light of the first door filters through the mask
of one drinking the milk trying to taste the words
In the background of this one might sense the experience of his mother in the hospital. It is an experience contextualized as something written, which is emphasized by the aural associations between the words ink/milk/drink. In other words (so to speak), consciousness and even the world in general, occurs in language. “Was it a metaphor when I fell?” he says in the poem “Fear of Falling”.
There are a number of references to music in The Structure of Hell. Music/song is, of course a major theme, associated with language and poetry. But it is worth noting that Argüelles has had a long interest in music, especially early music, as is perhaps suggested by his reference to “Luneberg” (“I am going to Luneberg to study the signs”) in the poem “The Great Fish of Exile and My Father”. Lüneberg is one of the towns where Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked. The poem “Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee von Himmel Fallt” which is the title of Bach's Cantata BWV 18, has its themes and topics all framed in the context of music, “for the doctor whose cunning prescription is death itself/descending on the minor key bass chord backwards in the mirror”.
These early books, rich with swirling metaphors and images with a strong surrealist flavor (I have said that Argüelles' early work is probably the best surrealist poetry ever written in English), are still very much in the unique voice of Ivan Argüelles, and contain all the themes and contextualizations that run through his entire work.
At this point I want to step back and look at how Argüelles' work has evolved over the past few decades. My comments will necessarily be incomplete, because this is a poet who has not slowed down in his output, and is still turning out vast and evolving tomes of ground-breaking work.
The question of “influences” in a writer's work is a slippery one, and is often misunderstood to mean where an artist or poet “got” something. In a recently written but at this writing unpublished article about his own influences, Argüelles makes some very astute observations about some of what opened his eyes to the possibilities of poetry. This happened when he was in a 9th grade Latin class when he encountered Vergil's Aeneid. Argüelles speaks of finding in the opening lines of the Aeneid a “...marmoreal terseness and evocation of a totally mythical but real world...” which was”...the origin of poetry...: majestic, yet cryptic, difficult to truly translate, yet full of awe and distance, ultimately imbued with longing.” It would seem that Argüelles saw in Vergil the poetry he would create himself, for he also realized something very important: “...that Vergil's great poem was an imitation, and that almost all works of poetry and art are basically imitations...” In the same article, he talks about James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake as further confirmation of this understanding of what literature is, as well as the great Sanskrit classics of India, which have figured so prominently in his later work. As Argüelles' work evolved, these ideas or aspirations were first filtered through his fascination with early 20th-century French and Spanish surrealism, and of some of its manifestations in English, such as in the work of Philip Lamantia.
Although Argüelles refers to works of poetry as basically “imitations”, it is important to contextualize that comment for what it does not mean. It does not mean something like Borges' creation of Pierre Menard rewriting Don Quixote exactly as Cervantes wrote it. There is no way in which one could confuse Argüelles' Madonna Septet with the Mahabhrata or the Ramayana, just as one cannot confuse Joyce's Ulysses with Homer's. In fact, what Argüelles does, as all real poets do, is overlay his own unique experience of his own time and place, his own history and personality, on top of, or mixed in with, the forms, the psychic structures, the rhetoric and emotionality, of the earlier work. Earlier work which, in his view, is itself a mixture of a present and a past.
Argüelles' work has moved steadily through full-page “poems” of strong and authentic surrealist consciousness, toward the epic. These shorter early texts are in fact mini-epics, and the expansive texts to come are present in kernel form in them. This impulse, so strong in Argüelles' work, to create a full work, to somehow include and make present all that is and was and that is hurtling at a future, is one of the foundational tendencies or “purposes” of poetry, and is perhaps one of the activities that language itself makes possible (unlike visual art, which is much more static and atemporal). Because a language artifact can be extended through time, it is an ideal vehicle for an attempt to contain or encompass that time; thus the epic impulse in poetry, which Ivan Argüelles has fomented so extensively in his work. It is an impulse that has been suppressed in most Anglo- American poetry today, and that has made that poetry seem pallid and irrelevant to the human condition or possibility. It has, however, been present in contemporary poetry in all kinds of ways: think of Vicente Huidobro's Altazor, or the Cantos of Ezra Pound as only two examples. Not just poetry, either: there is the example of Joyce mentioned above, and works such as José Lezama Lima's Paradiso, Roberto Bolaño's 2666, or even the novels of William S. Burroughs, someone whose writing Argüelles read and worked with extensively, (he compiled An Annotated Bibliography of the Works of William S. Burroughs, 1968, for his Master's degree in Library Science from Vanderbilt University). It has always seemed to me that the references to popular culture in Argüelles' writing is similar to the same phenomenon in Burroughs', especially in Naked Lunch and in the “cut-up” trilogy: for both authors, current popular culture topics and memes are incorporated into larger mythic structures.
As I discuss the various stages of Argüelles' development, it is good to keep in mind that his work can be seen as one long poem, with no “beginning” and no “end”. It's a cycle or spiral, evolving, but coming back again and again to the same almost obsessive world-view. This is emphasized by the fact that there is little in the way of normal punctuation to impede the flow, and many works have no capitalization at the start of sentences, the sentences are continuations, not startings. There is, then, a kind of atemporality in this most temporal of artistic genres, literature. This implies that, in a sense, Argüelles writes to us from the future, and thus his work provides a perspective from which to see and evaluate everything else that is being written today.
Argüelles' earliest publications clearly show his attraction to classic surrealism, as discussed above. For example, from the title poem of The Invention of Spain, 1978:
the archbishop and the talking coffins
are loaded into airplanes made of sperm
while the ships of taxonomic regression
adjust their television antennas...
And from “ode to miguel hernández”:
I pound my fists into shoes
and walk parallel to myself
in a dream that consists entirely of stone
From “vencer juntos”:
at dusk they take the moon
turn it upside down letting all the sand
run out for the ants to eat
then nail it empty to the wind
If these poems are reminiscent of anybody, it would be César Vallejo, especially of his España, aparta de mí este cáliz (because of the title and recurrent topic) but Argüelles' poems are not like Vallejo's at all, except perhaps in their mixture of intelligence and passion. In this book, as in so many of the places in his work, “Spain” is basically an imaginary space, as it was in part for Vallejo, (and as it has so often been for artists and writers since the 17th century). For Argüelles it is also a literary space, populated with voices from Lorca, Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas, Ramón Llull, Josep Vicenç Foix, Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the Peruvian Vallejo himself. It is an imaginary space into which to project one's own passions and obsessions, which in Argüelles' case are couched in his unique driving style, as if he were trying to say everything in one vast expostulation, in one breath, without the pauses of punctuation. It is the voice of “this unnamed soul abandons his furious planet/to its own unmitigated design”.
That voice starts to grow larger and more expansive within a very few years, and by 1983, when he publishes The Tattooed Heart of the Drunken Sailor, we can see a channeling of his surrealist vision through a style reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg's HOWL (and through that of Whitman and Poe). From the poem “Mechanical Pianos”:
MARY LOU lives with disembodied monkeys
in a jungle of septic tanks and automobile parts
MARY LOU is dead she is more dead than Israel
the angel who fornicated with the city of Chicago
the teeth of the clouds the fingernails
and what is written beneath them in permanent mud !
Another example is the title poem from this collection, in which Argüelles' intense relentless voice is fully developed, to become a central characteristic of his work, and which will become the heart of the long “epic” book-length poems – or anti-poems – of his maturity. The title poem opens “and water is the only element”, proceeds on a journey through the “waters” of existence, and ends “and I wake in the endless ruin of water/pleading with the Poet to let me be !” Note the exclamation marks, set out after a space (as in the previous quotation). This is a characteristic device of Argüelles, which suggests that there is no end to the poem, or to any poem of his.
In 1984, he published Nailed to the Coffin of Life, which was subtitled “Automatic Poems”. The subtitle, a term from surrealist theory, can easily be misinterpreted to mean a kind of mechanical writing process that is thoughtless and impersonal. But in this case it is anything but. In part it refers to the extensive use of anaphore, which functions to crank up the intensity of his voice, to make it more emotional, not more mechanical. From “Hiroshima Poem”:
shadow of a hundred million killing macromolecular seconds
shadow the weight of a universe of blazing steel
shadow the congress of human biological terror
shadow the shadow of the fire of all the shadows
In Pieces of the Bone-Text Still There, 1987, the poems are getting longer than in preceding books though they still fit on a single page. The lines are also getting longer and, in Argüelles' intensely emotional surrealist diction, his later voice is becoming clear. From “Tenochtitlan Freeway Blues”:
they have stolen my hair and given it to the WOMAN of sand
my hands they have given to poisoner in the tower
they have stolen my arms and tied them to water
a single piece of bread is watching me turn blue
a demon with door-knobs for eyes is wearing my BODY
I am shivering in the hottest day in Los Angeles
It is every day in Los Angeles I am in all automobiles
These poems look forward to his prize-winning work, Looking for Mary Lou, 1989. In 1988 he published Baudelaire's Brain in which the surrealism has a dense, rich quality, similar in some ways to the poetry of Dan Raphael from this period, no fluff or looseness:
here in full view I shall put a sky with its mirror
behind the view a pair of keys made of flesh
with the patina of angels shall hang freely
but which of the two shall I choose to open heaven's wardrobe?
cloud substance of words at the threshold of thought
These lines, from the poem “Which shall I choose?”, illustrate the syntactical condensation, the elliptical diction characteristic of this book. The book explores specific topics in some of the poem – the Manitou (Algonquin great spirit), sport hunting, an eye exam – but these seem to be stops in a single long canto. The overall thrust of the book is the creation and voicing (creation and voicing being the same thing here), of the mythologizing of Argüelles' life, his life in the context of his reading: Baudelaire, Calderón, the Beats, etc. But although there are shadows and echoes of these and other literary voices, the voice and the themes are very much Ivan Argüelles', as they have been from the earliest things he published. In this book, the poem “What Is a Poet?” opens “up all those stairs and without a solution” and ends “she is there shining in the midst of shifting !” The poem is written, like most in this and other books, as a single sentence, or as a single expostulation, with no punctuation. Although it “ends” with a sort of punch- line, it doesn't really end at all, but continues in the next poem “Alone Drowned I Talk with the Submerged Corpse of Mary Lou”, a poem focussing on that central Argüelles topic, the female presence/idea/other.
This book, as noted above, can be read as a single long poem, divided into “cantos”, which has come to be the dominant form of Argüelles' output. In fact, his entire oeuvre can be read as a single long work, an observation he agreed with when I suggested it to him. After describing how he read James Joyce's entire work straight through as if it were a single long work, he observed:
...in a way I see my work as a continuum developing from the simpler pieces first published in 1978 until the works in progess online today as a whole ... we can refer to it as a dialect continuum perhaps ... but I have always felt this sense of developing, not turning back, pushing outward in my writing ... I consider the high points to have been some of the early chaps such as The Structure of Hell or Tattooed Heart of the Drunken Sailor; “That” Goddess; Madonna Septet; Comedy , Divine , The; FIAT LUX; and possibly Duo Poemata ...
In 1989 Argüelles' book Looking for Mary Lou: Illegal Syntax, which included some stunning photos by Craig Stockfleth, won the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award. The book represents a culmination of the poet's early “surrealist/beat” style, with individual poems of long lines mostly confined to one page; a few extending to two pages. Many of the poems ring changes on his Madonna/woman/other theme, as well as current events and topics such as the Vietnam war, the H-bomb, Hollywood, geo- politics, and so on. But these are always placed in the context of universal history. From the poem “Vietnam War Memorial”:
they will not bring the mechanism to bear upon the source of light
empty casks of body withering in the unkempt lawns of matter
things going out one by one mouths tongues lips eyelids shattered nerve looking for the heroes in their wayward ditch abstemious & solemn
the bleak absence from life broken promises from the surgeon general's notebook
I am indented in the clause of impossible reunion nostalgia for unbearable horror!
After publishing Looking for Mary Lou, Argüelles made a decision to change direction, to stop writing “short” poems and “get to work on what I had always wanted to do, write epics”[email to author]. So he began a series of long poems he called “Pantograph”. Some volumes of this monumental work have been published, three of them through his own Pantograph Press: “That” Goddess, Hapax Legomenon, and Enigma & Variations. The Tragedy of Momus and The Second Book were published elsewhere, but the “bulk resides handwritten in spiral bound notebooks”.
“That” Goddess, 1992, opens in the middle of a sentence, and is set as a retelling or redreaming of a swarm of mythologies and ancient literatures, told as if they were all one story. Yet it is presented with breaks in the text blocks and in the lineation as if these were nothing but fragments of a much much larger story, far too long and ancient to fully encompass or understand, especially within the limitations of a work of literature, or writing. The themes are the essential ones in Argüelles' work: woman as focus of consciousness and meaning, death, language and text, time, etc. From the opening “Urtext”:
...Virgil in a light blue cassock
holding in his right hand a burning copy of his Great Work
then dust the immense density of dust
which is a stand-in for Argüelles' own book, or the whole book of his entire work, held in his own hand.
Hapax Legomenon, 1993, opens, unusually for Argüelles, with a word beginning with upper case - “Shining and not shining”- a phrase exemplifying another constant in his work, the embrace of paradox, or the perception that “opposites” are the same thing, are not really oppositional, but are parts of a much larger whole thing. The book continues essentially as a single sentence until the end, with a question mark: “where is the light/that opens the palms?”
The themes in Hapax Legomenon are basically the same as in “That” Goddess, but the tone is very different. It is much more subdued and meditative, reflected in the scattered- down-the-page lineation, as if the speaker had to constantly pause to find (or remember) the next words. This more introspective, less expansive tone is spoken as if from on high, from a distance:
it is a strange thing
to keep the mind on
Enigma & Variations was published in 1995, the third volume to appear of Pantograph through the author's own press. Running through this book is the shadow of the 1991 American invasion of Iraq: there are numerous references to “president bush”, “the gulf”, “no blood for oil”, etc. But this is not a poem “about” that war. It is “about” the constant themes and topics of Ivan Argüelles experienced through a scrim of social consciousness of a specific war, or with the smoke of war drifting in and out of the window. The book is ultimately about itself, or about the need for itself to be written, which could be said about all great books. The war in this book is not just the Iraq war of 1991, but is all war, which is another example of how in Argüelles' work mythic or historical events are all such events, all happening, in a sense, at once:
it was in Dresden of a cruel
when agamemnon got it
where agamemnon got it
how does a war? who works the wealth?
who wears the wealth also works the war
who builds the tension prepares to weave the war
almalisa lisasoma almasoma alive?
lissome somatic but why the war telegram?
The Tragedy of Momus was published in 1993 in the anthology Terminal Velocities, edited by Andrew Joron. It is the fourth book of Pantograph, and is in the form of a play. A rather Elizabethan style play, it is a serio-comic work in which the character Momus is portrayed as both tragic and ridiculous, in spite of his representations to “'that' goddess” (yes, the book by Argüelles himself) and “despite his having written such semi-anonymous works as the Celestina”. Momus consorts with a huge cast of mythical, literary, historical and pop-culture characters from across cultures and history before meeting his end. Once again we see Argüelles' perspective of history as all occurring at once, this time couched in a dramatic and sometimes farcical context showing considerable skill at theatrical speech and stagecraft. The work would make for a lively and fascinating production if it were ever staged as live theater.
In 2012, Peter Ganick published The Second Book, which, according to Argüelles, “is really the 2nd book of [Pantograph] (Hapax I think is really the 8th or 9th)”. The Second Book consists of two poems, “The Gaoler's Dream” and “Aida”. The Pantograph books clearly stand on their own as major works, but they can also be seen as a preparation and build-up for the author's next great project, Madonna Septet. The themes are spelled out, various styles and dictions developed, and the reach and length of the poems is extended and stretched. As he says in “The Gaoler's Dream”:
each page separated from the order of its style
unnumbered to the third degree and released
into that leafy bower unconscious of all stimulus
Although most or nearly all of Argüelles' books cycle around a consistent set of themes (time, consciousness, “woman”, language, and the overlapping of these), each book has its own unique tone and style. An example of this is La Interrupción Conversacional, written in 2000 but as of this date unpublished (forthcoming in 2015 or 2016). Much of this book, or long poem, is in lines of approximately five stresses each, there are no periods or commas. Some question marks are the closest thing to stopped sentence endings or pauses, although there are sections indicated by double spacing between them, and the occasional uppercase header, such as “RED KIMONO”. The typescript's 158 pages are a seemingly single outpouring of speech: “...tick tick tick/head plodes neatly in parenthetical squads...” as if the whole poem were an opening into, an opening up, of what were in the head/consciousness/unconsciousness in a single instant, in a brief pause in the “conversation” indicated by the title: “never more I wrote it once/and not the same step twice...” The tone of this work is rather more meditative or “thoughtful” (“thinking” is a better way to put it) than much of his work, which is surprising if one considers that it purports to be what passes in the mind in a very short few seconds: “phrases shift subtly in a sleep”.
The massive two volume “poem”, Madonna Septet, was published in 2000 and is a major step in an extraordinary literary odyssey. It is certainly his most ambitious work to date, although “ambition” is a concept that perhaps cannot apply to a work written with such urgency and such a need to “get it out”. It is more like a vast exorcism or orgasm, an explosion contained in a shape of epic poetry. In an email exchange, he said “Madonna Septet is in a category of its own ... writing it was as obsessive a thing as the obsession that triggered the writing ... from the opening lines I was already at work deconstructing syntax skipping sentence/phrase endings and putting them elsewhere etc it was written in a fury and passion to get 'it all out'. In earlier work the syntax deconstruction and ellipses, the cut-up-like techniques, were present from time to time, but in this work they emerge full bloom as a major component of the work's style and flavor. Argüelles, familiar with the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs, has taken the deliberate actual cutting-up of text that Burroughs and Brion Gysin did, and incorporated it into his voice without the use of scissors. (This is something I have done in my own work, having also read Burroughs in my youth.) Cut-up has become a form of expression, not a deliberative literary technique.
Madonna Septet, then, perhaps Argüelles' “major work” (864 pages in two volumes), is far from the Anglo-American preference for “slim volumes of verse” as it is possible to be. It is a validation of the enormous real power of poetry to create a textual – and permanent – consciousness of human experience of the universe. The work is complete and thus paradoxical: epic and lyric, joyful and despairing, frenetic and meditative, thoughtful and delusional, expository and nonsensically babbling, discursive and “cut up”, prosaic and visionary, profane and divine:
the world's ever a
enigma & versions later
The book, mostly in English, with bits of Spanish, Latin, Hindi, is divided into eight large sections, each with several sub-sections or cantos using a great variety of forms and styles, making use of all the techniques and styles he developed through his prior work. All of these styles are aimed at the single goal of trying to Say It All, All at Once, with an urgency that at times breaks apart the limitations of language – this is what the deconstructions and the cut-ups communicate; it's what they mean. The urgency is also what drives the shifts in style and form among the sections; it's as if the poet were starting over, trying again and again to do or say something impossible: to say it all, to comprehend it all, in a single “thing”; i.e., the other, the female presence, which stands in for, or is how humans perceive the possibility of a universe. Jack Foley, in his introduction to the book, quotes from it:
other than naming the Other
what is there
Madonna Septet is clearly a major work, which probably belongs on the shelf with history's other great long poems – La Divina Commedia, Primero Sueño, Odissea, Las Soledades, Bahgavad Gita, Paradise Lost – though it is unlike any of these, as none of these are like each other. The richness, variability, and pure beauty of the language, never “poetic” but always poetry, makes the reading of this book an unable-to-put-it-down pleasure, if “pleasure” consists of the effort to embrace a constant revelation. It is completely unpretentious, yet proposes something enormous and unattainable, while at the same time affirming that the attempt is the unattainable itself. The goal is the reaching for the goal.
young thing strolling down aile
with big book called Suicide
knew her from somewhere there
was a before aching for a love
barefoot in the part incandescent to the
core naked from the up
and down below a union of Minds
if that is still possible Sex
This is a book which uses all the techniques and themes of Argüelles' previous work, pulls out all the stops, tightens them up to a new level of intensity and focus, and in the process opens the gates to a vaster and more teeming panorama of human history and striving, a panorama in which everything seems to be happening at once.
Jack Foley, in a 2006 review posted on Contemporary Poetry Review, discusses surrealism and “readability” in Madonna Septet: “The length of Madonna Septet alone would qualify it as problematic, but the book is also in some senses an attack on the reader, challenging his/her ability to read it at all. The intense hostility, the fury that was part of the early impetus of Surrealism is definitely present here. Fundamental questions arise. Is there a single person speaking or are there many? Why are sentences broken off? Worse: Argüelles' subject matter is anything but politically correct, and the poem is shot through with the authot's immense and often daunting learning. At one point the female figure is explicitly identified with 'Durga,' the name given to the fierce, murderous form of Devi or Mahadevi (Great Goddess). One of Argüelles' motifs is stated early on: the Goddess's mouth – the source of her singing – will 'swallow the god that created her.' The woman is 'Lady Death ringing her worm around the rosy hold...and ShivJi shudders.' The poet is supposedly 'in love with' the pop star – an 'amour fou' if ever there was one. But he is also in the realm of the 'devouring' vagina/mouth. These days, even the newspapers and television talk casually of 'oral sex.' In Madonna Septet oral sex has cosmic consequences – and they are proportionately disturbing: 'the way she took the god in her mouth/as if it were just a bottle of coca cola.' 'So who are the saints we rever [sic],' ['rever' in Spanish means 'to resee', or 'see again' - JMB note] asks Argüelles, 'I mean the women.' (There is a later reference to 'the women we rever abhor adore.')”
In Madonna Septet, Argüelles has arrived at a point where the techniques and voices and themes he uses are pressured to the point of breaking, pressured up to the edge of incomprehensibility by an urgent need to say it all before it gets away, before it's forgotten. In a blurb on the cover of Argüelles' post-Madonna book Tri Loka, 2001, Jack Foley says that the author's poetry “...continually deconstructs the very guideposts to which we cling – in vain...” to understand the world we think we live in. He says that Argüelles' work is finally “...an amazing language which simultaneously attracts and betrays us at every possible moment,” and that there is an “...infinite nothingness which saturates language, as words mean and fail to mean in an endlessly repeated dance.” Tri Loka, written after Madonna Septet, is a volume with three long poems, using many of the same stylistic devices and processes, but with a much calmer, more meditative tone.
In an interview published in vormals: perspeckive, 43, 2002, Argüelles gave his own take on this issue: “...I understand my chaos, that is I understand it is chaos that I am creating when I 'write'... I know that when undertaking my large 2 vol. poem MADONNA SEPTET, I was very very conscious of deliberately breaking up syntax. I wanted to destroy the conventional English syntax while at the same time rendering a text that respected the continuum of texts of repetitive discourse alluded to above. [ie, 'the 'traditional' works of poetry that preceded them, such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Canterbury Tales etc.'] As for rapture, the language I employ is in a constant state of rapture. It is not a simulation of madness, but the very process of orgasmic madness at work.”
In 2005, Argüelles published Inferno, the first of a three-part work the whole of which appeared in 2009: Comedy , Divine , The. As the title suggests, the work is modeled on the great work by Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, but Argüelles'work is in some ways more ambitious. Dante's work basically focuses on a single myth, deriving from a single culture, the Judeo-Xtian myth of the afterlife, although, as in Argüelles' work, that afterlife is a reflection of human life, society, and history on earth. What is different in Argüelles' Comedy is that it includes all cultures and times: Western, Eastern, New World, Ancient, Contemporary, personal, universal; all of it. All of human history and culture is a single swarming myth in this book, which means that underlying Argüelles' work is a question about what is real, and what the “real”is, and if it is possible to ever know what is “real”.
Inferno opens with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “J'ai écrit pendant vingt ans. Et un jour je me suis aperçu que c'etait toujours le même livre.” This, of course, is true to some extent for many writers and poets. In the case of Argüelles, one could say that all his books are not just re-writings of the others, rather that they are all parts of one single long book. But this applies to only certain aspects of the work: the topics or obsessions, the relentless driving voice, and the irrepressible need to say it all; to say it all at the same time. There are, however differences throughout the books and within them: these consist of forms, diction, clusters of lexical elements, mood and tone. Inferno, like the Comedy as a whole, for example, is written in stanzas of six lines each. Each line appears to be about the same length, but varies in syllabic or stress count. Each of the three books has 33 cantos consisting of 22 of the six-line stanzas. In Canto xxxii, Argüelles addresses this issue:
while not a formalist poem , it has the appearance of f
ormalism , or in other words it is an imitation , of
“inferno” , a circularity , going around itself into the
depths , or it is an appeal to the dead who have written
this poem before...
We have previously seen this idea expressed by Argüelles: the book is a kind of invocation, or “imitation” as he puts it here; a re-living/re-saying of Dante's Inferno, but focusing on Argüelles' persistent cluster of topics. In my introduction to Inferno, I discuss in more detail how the temporal perspective of this work, in which everything somehow occurs at once, is related to, and juxtaposed against, the work of which this is an “imitation”. The paradox is that time in Comedy , Divine , The is at the same “time” circular, linear, and instantaneous. Circular in its retelling of Dante; basically linear in that any literary text exists to be read or perceived in linear time, front to back, or hopping around in it; and instantaneous in its thematic swirling in which any and all topics can and do appear over and over in different contexts in every occurrence.
Perhaps somewhat more than in other works of Argüelles, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – Comedy , Divine , The – repeat words and parts of phrases throughout. On first consideration that might be considered as a kind of being “stuck” in a single “place”, but in fact, due to the different contexts in which each occurrence of a word appears, the repeated word is different each time. The river is the same river but always with different water. It also creates the sense that the poem is endlessly self-reflective, so that in effect it is “about” itself. It is a self that includes, or moves toward including, everything that is. This tautology suggests that the poem has no end and no beginning, a concept that certainly is in keeping with the poet's idea of poetry as “imitation”, a continual going- around of the same poems through history. This is what the lack of any upper case letters indicates, and the lack of periods or other end-stops, and the presence of many many commas, each with equal blank spaces around them (as in the book's title: Comedy , Divine , The).
Considering this book, or indeed Argüelles' work as a whole, as a kind of tautology suggests that it is complete and incomplete simultaneously, and that it has to be approached as existing outside of linear time as we usually conceive of it in our daily lives. Outside of the flow of time, and, at the same time, it is a constant, swirling flow, “forward” and “backward”. This, which requires of the reader a different mind-set, is a paradox, along with the paradox of topic/theme being always the same but always different, is one of the signature characteristics of Ivan Argüelles' work. It is what makes his work, again paradoxically, truly innovative, and truly revolutionary in the art of poetry. It is what makes his work fundamentally different from the mainstream of Anglo-American poetry, for which paradox is a kind of heresy, a big no-no. Mainstream poetries want to “solve” problems, make things “clear”; address social issues, be didactic and of “use” in various social, moral, or therapeutic ways. Ivan Argüelles want to create the universe, again.
In an unpublished review of Comedy , Divine , The I said the book is “Less 'poetry' than a kind of mandala or calendar of the universe”, an idea that also describes numerous Meso-American representations of the universe, such as the Aztecs' “Piedra de Sol”, now in the Museo de Antropología in México. I also said,
That the title is “backward” (with commas, in the manner of American military supply designations) suggests that the book’s motion is at least bi-directional forward and backward, “in a narrative of utter disconnections”, everything connected because it’s all disconnected (those commas with equal spaces around them), everything moving in all directions because it’s a “greyhound bus stopped in the middle of the corn field”. So the book’s consciousness – it is more of a mind, rather than a story told by a mind - “illusory meat/assigned to the disappearing text” holds all the fragments of what seems to be a multitude of lives or selves and this wealth of detail, ranging from the very concrete (“crunching of gravel”, “grass and aspirin”) to the ineffable (“lush when verbs have no use”, “the word for ‘fog’ becomes recondite and useless”).
Ars Poetica, 2013, is a book similar in length to Comedy , Divine , The, and focuses a bit more directly, as the title indicates, on the processes/meanings/functions and place of poetry. The book opens “how it matters doesn't end/it where syntax glides obfuscated” in which the idea of “purpose” (the quoted phrase suggests its “normal” structure of “how it ends doesn't matter”), as an idea alone is what is important, not so much what that purpose or mattering might be. In other words, poetry is a process, not an artifact with a fixed meaning. This implies that this work has no “end”, no “beginning” (certainly no neat moral lesson), much like life as we actually experience it:
...what is lingering along the
way, what is longing, what is
mystery, lunar, what eclipsed
brain can “see”?...
In a section or “canto” titled “(literature)”, he says
from the unknown to the enigmatic
each hand is a struggle to “know”
what is not ever white
the outside gleaming for a moment
in the mist...
The “outside” referred to here would be that whole quotidian world “SE corner of Haste and Telegraph” which is nevertheless framed in mythic terms:
goddess in a white t-shirt, echoes
nameless across silent, pay for nothing
at the end of the world, pink lipstick
It is a world at once timeless and eternal, and fleeting and already over:
...a hissing on the anvil distant
whenever that was a second or two
before everything else goes out quiet
remorse dank sections falling off
into the water somewhere below
presentiment of meat and conscience
however that comes about a brief
wasn't that long ago...
The language in this passage illustrates an important aspect of Argüelles' style. On the one hand it appears “cut up” (“...comes about a brief/wasn't that long ago...”) but at the same time it appears not cut up from two separate phrases, but a complete phrase in which the word “brief” modifies the nounal structure of the phrase that follows it. This is one of the characteristics that keep these long poems moving forward. That and the luminous imagery and language hold on to the reader, making it difficult to stop, as there is no “natural” stopping place in the diction:
wet jungle from a silver plane
to speak with a tom-tom
a battering ram language
it is blacker now this night
all us becoming dead this
wonderful going around and
wet the magic show
each window has taking us
into the vortex here shake
my hand a fly plane silver
round a dizzying her
thread leading us in and out
no more alive than dead
with rain if could speak
Although Argüelles, like many poets, myself included, much prefers printed books to ebooks, the intersection of great productivity with restricted resources (and low sales) of poetry, especially of innovative poetry, makes the temptation to release at least some materials in electronic form. Argüelles has published at least two books this way: Secret Poem, Chalk Editions, 2009, and What Are Probably My Memoirs, Chalk Editions, 2010. Secret Poem includes two long poems, the title poem and a shorter one, “[another secret poem]”. The first is a series of meditations on the self and the other, or on anything and the other, as being fundamentally identical:
each is the who of the other
..... an infrequent narration
denied and doubled at once
This is at the same time a way of meditating about poetry: “a poem darker than its self”:
or just a narration in thought
a time sundered over and over
by the fuse that lit it, a section
disappears into the dark another
regarded as intrinsic lingers
is the void a pattern...
The poem is written in cantos, with lines running together through various kinds of ellipses, a diction, very often of great beauty, which embodies these ideas of the identity of things:
a likeness to japan or some such
sentence, red is equal to the
most followed by an azure point
which is as always the horizon
indistinguishable from the heaven
that surrounds distance the ineffable
a reason for childhood for the many
similarities in grass or lying
there unable to remember the lesson
incapable of turning the next page
a history of darkened armies
running across like silent thunder
There are also references to various of the literary voices that echo throughout Argüelles' work; for example, one can hear the voices of Shakespeare, Whitman, and Ginsberg in the canto “for Philip Lamantia”:
who storm the egyptian pentacle
to no avail within a work
destroyed do rave stoned on the
delphic leaf in swoon denied
and Philip Sydney's in the canto “[in defence of poesy]”, with its echos of Elizabethan diction and vocabulary:
uninhibited the raging voice out
that fills the paragraph of still
cenotaph and sepulcher the dissent
-ing worm eats the spoken phrase
alive 'neath such discomfort...
What Are Probably My Memoirs, 2010, also consists of two long cantos, the first in extremely wide block of text, prose-like in their appearance on the page. The first canto is a long, somewhat agitated outburst: “Listen, dog-ear!” about the relentless “thunder” of the poet's need to write:
begin at the end of old supposed to be , waters running
through thought and thread, a section , hyphenated,
gives us the collusion between flesh and blank
so much trying to sleep, so little left to wake,
so I , nevertheless in old bookstores rummaging,
is that mine? chunks of rhyme and throw them
into the bay , listen carefully to kerouac reading
of ginsberg's “America” , what is it I am doing
reading writing taking walks and thinking , no,
“reflecting”, when I am not getting dizzy...
It is a kind of exasperation at how difficult, confusing, and perhaps futile it is to write, even as it is something that has to be done:
whatever, the ink drains to the left, while topright
utter sections delve into the half that cannot be
discovered, ignored the template where it says “right
thinking” goes away, we are, left alone, to the right a
portion of sky where Mummy Nut in her spangles blooms
starbright, what approbation there is flickers, a wrong
purpose, a passage into the tantric episode with, the
mere idea heads drift a realization that this is life's
exceptional moment the, horizon where Cipango stammers
its backname shifting syllables...
The second canto is calmer, more dreamlike at times, a canto in which the poet is in the poem, rather than writing about the poem and its need to come into being:
art of breath is light so utter?
sub ended in appropriately and green
waves code switching in denial\after
birth I came to (be) a likeness
to either side of the smoking portal
snaps hawsers and slips anchor
deep a gore the depths unfounded
will I set sail, a ? whitened a
wisp entails section by section
the vivid reminiscence of obvilion'
a discharge that vast anterior
yawning and while I look to other
side a watery mass with spume buried
planets hurks a maze with codes
locked forever as enigmas are
In the interest of full disclosure, I want to discuss here some of the books and chapbooks published by Luna Bisonte Prods, a press run by myself and C. Mehrl Bennett. A couple of them will be considered in the section of Argüelles' collaborations with other writers. Argüelles was also a regular contributor to The Lost and Found Times, a journal I edited and published from 1975 to 2005.
Orientalia, 2003, is unusual in that it is one of Argüelles' few, if only, ventures into prose (leaving aside articles, reviews, etc.). It is a kind of “analysis” of the dream of writing, of the “functions” of “ineffable poesy”, of the “Carniceria ilusion” of fiction:
The trick is to keep up the prose without letting the dynamite out. But in the end, ennui, a heartless disposition towards the frail whose hands intricately bound in the invisible can no longer be reached. No equation holds like the one without balance. By day's finish the uncountable losses ache in a small rumpled pull over. In either one a section tends towards red...The mind invents pornography. The few thoughts that get out get tangled in the ivy opposite the reflecting pool. Dive in and see. This will ultimately go nowhere.
The chapbook, 18 dense pages, addresses the central Argüelles concerns from a slightly more “prosaic” voice, a more analytic, less ecstatic diction:
Who will then these words give meaning? Why not give rope to the hanging of intention? Who fuse to particles of relativity the force of destiny. Then is this to be the fiction? A giving before the altar, fires a drive to understand.
It is important to note, however, that this more prose-like appearance is a kind of dodge; that is, it is really another of the many voices in which Argüelles speaks poetry, and speaks about poetry. The result here is to create the illusion of a kind of distancing, which is a multiplying of the point of view or “selves” that simultaneously come together and scatter in the lifelong canto that is his work.
Ulterior Vision(s), 2012 (written in 2001, which means that it follows closely on Madonna Septet), is a book without punctuation except for some ellipses, and question and quotation marks. The work, perhaps more than any other of his, appears to represent the chaotic totality of a single moment of total consciousness. It opens:
impressive instant over the
bliss edges re run in trial
of error symbology (other is
brahma is “real”) poetic scape
nuance in orange fleece with
white hotel awning tripled for
gunfire in reverse as century's
ultimatum BANG s shut on finger
s of repose garlands of blank
...a vision in
whatever mirror the eye focuses
to end the fix of inches into
cycle rewind and start over
this was supposed to happen “later”
It ends with what seems to be a kind of conclusion, somewhat unusual for Argüelles:
as is to be done
so will it ever follow
that nothing = nothing
Jake Berry, in his blurb for the book's cover, says:
The boundaries of time and form do not exist for this poet – they never have. While we have been occupied by the single idea, the tight focus, trapped in a moment, Agüelles has refused to play by the rules or even accept the need for the game. His poetry exposes that idea as the provisional, phony construct that it is. Where most find chaos he discovers and sings sublime music.
A Day in the Sun, 2012, was written in the wake of, and as a response to the death, in 2011, of Ivan Argüelles' identical twin, José Argüelles, the New Age writer, artist, and activist. (For an interesting account of their youthful life together, cf. Stephanie South's biography of José. 2012: Biography of a Time Traveler, The Journey of José Argüelles, 2012.) A Day in the Sun, consisting of separate poems, or cantos of a single long poem, naturally deals with and expresses a great sense of loss, of the transitoriness of existence, always couched in the themes and topics central to Ivan's work:
how the poet organizes for his
own garden for his own feckless
dive below the soil for his for-
saken by god illumination by
the root of his hair pulled by
the Muse through the glass
into the distinctions of light
and the periphery limitless
night swans ululating a mass
eleison! each is one of us a
“the” without syntax...
Jack Foley, in his blurb on the book's cover, neatly encapsulates the nature of this book:
José Argüelles redefined the western calendar and pointed the way to a universal harmony, a “convergence.” In Ivan's work, the universe is expanding and contracting at once, and speech, far from clarifying, constantly returns us to the fact of Enigma. The world is wild, exciting, in constant motion, but also horrifying, painful, an endless blow to our Narcissism. Both visions can nourish and sustain, but A Day in the Sun beautifully offers us the elegiac, shadow side.
Fiat Lux, 2014, was written in about three months in early 2014. It is a long poem divided into cantos which use a variety of forms and voices, and can be read as a kind of account or imagining of the creation of the world, as the title suggests. There is a melancholy in the tone throughout, which Sharon Doubiago, in her comments at the end of the book, ascribes to a “...moving, recognizable sorrow for a twin brother dead.” The idea of a poem or a mind containing/perceiving/invoking the totality of the universe is present here, as in so many of Argüelles' works, but here it is more likely to be couched in terms that suggest that such totality is imprisoning, closed, and not expansive and liberating. From the poem's opening:
the end which is also the beginning
the insectary of the mind
carried over the shoulder backwards
into the river of time
ransacking the jewels of heaven
no longer interested in the mere range of languages
Olchar E. Lindsann refers to this as well in his comments on the book:
These prophetic anxieties are a babel of stories, of voices, of worlds, they are the fragments of languages, scattered like shattered beer bottles or amphorae along the highway. They unfold with a tragic tread in long incantatory lines, heroic episodes wherein sentences are dashed upon the rocks of punctuation, slain, sacrificed to Poseidon; or else, bristling with a metis both grammatical and psychological, continue on, journeying through strange worlds, Byzantium, Las Vegas, the pages of a book.
The melancholy tone is clear in this fragment from canto III, “Leçons de Ténèbres”:
not the single nor the plural
but the uncountable near the nexus
of sunset and vine watching the slow
motion of empty cabs drive by in
funereal procession whose mighty death
whose massive stone with just a nick in it
is being conveyed to the lawn of eternal distance
It is also present in almost every topic the book touches on, for example this passage about language, or language as one aspect of the chaotic mess of consciousness, from canto XX, “The Miasma”:
has forever flown the ancient mess a forlorn
adjective subject to blank periods of excess
the thickened plot the cloud smitten ovarian
flight in what subjunctive mood stress howls
wildly like hair in arrears mirrored in pools
Yet the very fact that this work exists, that it tries to place the self and its consciousness in a vast universal context of all time, cultures, places, is an affirmation that there is a value to what we are or to what we try to know and apprehend.
Duo Poemata, 2015, contains two long poems. With their references to classical studies and archaeology, they are more explicitly and exclusively focused on ancient worlds and cultures than most of Argüelles' books, and do not include many direct references to the contemporary world. The first poem, Ilion, is subtitled A Transcription, and is in fact an example of his concept of all poetry being the same poetry or story retold. In this case it's Homer's Iliad (“Ilion” is an archaic term for Illium, or Troy). Altertumswissenschaft, the other poem, works some of the same Homeric territory, although the stories are framed in a somewhat broader context of history and archaeology of the ancient world.
Although this book has a more specific focus than many of Argüelles', it still uses all the range of stylistic and formal devices in the author's quiver, and is infused with his unique driving diction, trying to say it all, at once. In his cover blurb, Jack Foley says:
At the beginning of “Ilion – A Transcription” Ivan Argüelles writes, “just so one world goes away / and another comes into being.” Like the best fiction/fantasy, these poems operate at the intersection points of “worlds” - which is to say at the intersection points of mental actions which have about as much in common as Lautréamont's umbrella and sewing machine. But the “marvelous” of these poems ventures further than even Surrealism.
What it ventures into is a vision and invocation of the world and history is something complete and always present. The Homeric world, as well as all times and places, are still with us, and much of Argüelles' obsession has been to make them visible in such a way that they can be perceived as part of the present.
Ivan Argüelles has collaborated with a few other poets over the years, such as Jake Berry, Jack Foley, Peter Ganick, and myself. One of the first to be published was a chapbook, Purisima Sex Addict II, a long poem done with Jake Berry, 1997. There is no part I; calling the work part II was a deliberate subterfuge to confuse bibliographers, but it also suggests that the poem has no beginning, and perhaps no end, an idea very much in keeping with both poets' ideas about poetry.
The poem is a seamless collaboration and truly reads like the work of a third poet, who perhaps betrays having read both Argüelles and Berry. The poem is centered on erotic longings and fantasies:
she came at me with that little girl smile and said,
“Do you wanna lick the bowl?”
the floor hit me square in the face
back to the ENIGMA
back to that Euphrates waltz
the stars guttural song in the backbrain
but shouted loud in hindi
by that thin and naked dancing girl
strutting in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro
hand on hip
mojo cigarette in her mouth
her special dialect is dynamite
her kiss is the fuse of life
Saint James, 1998, by Argüelles and Jack Foley, is a thick chapbook of an approximately two-month email exchange between the two poets, consisting mostly of back and forth improvisational poems, (is not all poetry, especially in its origins, improvisational?), each responding to the previous one, like a “battle” between 19th-century Gaucho poets. It also includes a poem by Baudelaire translated by Foley with four pages of commentary on the poem and on how it might relate to Argüelles' work, and some discussions on matters of poetry and other poets. One of these discussions is about “imaginary girlfriends”, a topic relevant to Argüelles' work: “Have you ever had one? I have 'had' all of them.”
Dead Requiem: New Poetry from California, Ivan Argüelles, Jack Foley, 1998. This includes two separate long poems; “Requiem”, by Foley, and “Dead”, by Argüelles; plus “E-Mail”, a four-page collaboration by the two. Both poems share a somewhat conversational diction and ask a lot of questions. Argüelles: “who is that stiff?”, “what did the doctor say?”, “how many voices are there?”, “what came of it?”, “was there ever anything idyllic?”. Foley: “can you tell the difference between my family and a loony bin?”, “who are you, mother?”, “What is holy/about a book?”, “what emerges now?”. Both poems, and the collaboration, explore and question issues related to what “poetry” is in the world today, in the midst of our particular culture, contemporary history, and, especially in Argüelles' piece, in the context of the broad range of ancient worlds he so often refers to and relives in his work.
Neeli Cherkovsky says in his introduction that the two are “...drawn to measure themselves against the utter darkness and to ask all that they can from 'That Song'”. He's suggesting that the two are inhabiting, recreating, and repeating an ancient and still vibrant world of poetry; an ur-poetry that is fundamental to what we are as human beings. Although the book consists of separate texts by each poet, it is in fact a collaboration, with both poets addressing some of the same questions, each in their own way, but with some similarities of approach and style.
cosmic karmic raga, 2000: this poem, by “Vyasa and Bahina Bai”, is a 46-page collaboration by Argüelles and Peter Ganick. Ganick published it through his press, and added a series title, “Indian Literature Series, 1” to further enhance the deception of its authorship. According to an email from Argüelles, “Vyasa and Bahina Bai: Vyasa was a mythical figure who supposedly composed all the big ancient Sanskrit books like the Puranas, and Bahina Bai was a medieval female Marathi saint poet”. The poem, in six cantos, appears to have been written back and forth with each poet adding several new lines at each exchange. One voice, perhaps Ganick's, is more “philosophical”:
where to be a necessity of previous lifetime context-
ualizing the end of a millenium, having been here
more than which one's Self issues from the mouth
of Brahman inviolate in its memory of thisness...
The lines immediately following these, perhaps by Argüelles, are more “poetic”:
a garden of shapes we walk through in this lifetime,
shapes from real life, the life of illusory beings
being somewhere else, the elsewhere of those beings
launching dekarmacized territorialisms once or twice,
meditated upon in its fullness, the sporadic music
Both poets have had a lifelong interest in Indian mythological, religious, and literary cultures, and this work is a celebration of that fascination.
Chac Prostibulario, 2001, by Argüelles and me (John M. Bennett) is considered by many to be one of both poets' most ambitious collaborations – although, being one of the perpetrators, it is immodest for me to say so. But whatever the case, during the first half of 2001, Argüelles and myself began an email exchange of lines of poetry, not with any specific intention, but just out of an enthusiasm for what the other was writing. The result was a quick evolution into a full-length book in which the poets exchanged seven-line stanzas, each responding to the previous stanza. Poetas gauchescos, as it were. The first stanza was written by both, each adding lines:
gunner hits tragedy in low slam hoff//max snarks especiality yr
bee low the bore dere a rose yr mexibasca sauce r so smoo
che's oldie ham's o faster dribble sno defensive chews yr
card//board ou tt ake 'n japones yr divvied
sp end angel yr angle hair yr mockassassin boot: uh (charring
root a lamp sticky p ills yr nick le g lints be
neath ah table, shiny with yr breath
with the rest of the book consisting of alternating stanzas:
necesitas parabrotas como nubes de arena! me siento como nadador
de rimas perdidas un dialect in circular ruins, a textual e menda shun
jaqueca de ritmos átonos the tin a' greek stuff on the shore just rusting
with achilles n his cute li'l shadow play, dwarf n duende at super bowl,
puke to blue jeezus all morning long, helen and her banshees cancún alley
an' you braggart anent soggy pantaleros two pistols to the wind y niebla
de mierda en merida, chiapas chopsticks surfing like choppers in the Nam
blam thing yr cho ppers gritty en la alcachofa (surfy through, la rutina jerkular a leaking greek en macedonia antontado pis
tolado in the alley lodazal like cubes of rain! (“cRusting
chanchre bowl a writ more chapado and a quilo giggling luffs
against my wall my boiling enteritis dia lecto why I studied
entumecido esa mapa de la mierda chiapas albania en la mountain
mojada heavy thudding behind the trees falling crows shutup
My guess is that the first stanza above is Argüelles'; the second, mine, based on certain vocabulary choices. [Argüelles: rimas, duende, blue jeezus, helen – Bennett: alcachofa, lodazal, enteritis, mojada] But I confess I'm not entirely sure, especially considering that each poet uses words from the previous stanza by the other poet. It is worth noting that this work was created in the period when Argüelles was writing Ulterior Visions, and Bennett was writing rOlling COMBers, shortly after his la M al. Chac Prostibulario contains stylistic elements from all those books.
As can be seen from the stanzas above, Chac Prostibulario is characterized by multi- linguistic punning and word-play, and a joyful enthusiastic tone, all rules of standard poetics thrown to the wind. In his blurb on the back cover, Anselm Hollo said of the book, “...ist ein ootwageous cuncocktioun ov linguadge in unb estado ov tootal disschewelmento y abandonmento, un bytte loik der grayte John Lennon's immurtal 'A Spaniard in the Works,' et aussi un bytte loik le grand Saynt James Joyce's woiks, but a lot mo' apokaliptik!...”
Décima Mucho, 2001, also by Bennett and Argüelles, was written, I believe, later that same year. It's a chapbook of 19 pages. A décima is an old and still-used form in Spanish-language poetry, consisting of 10 short lines with varying rhyme-patterns and line lengths, often octosyllables, and often is a form in which the poet improvises, which is very much the case here. It is often used as a form for popular song lyrics, but is also used as a poetic form on its own. At the time, Bennett was writing a lot of these, mostly in English. He sent many of them to Argüelles, who responded with hacks or glosses or other reactions to them, with décimas of his own. These call and response décimas are “experimental” versions of the improvised back-and-forth décimas which have a long history. Bennett, for example, sent Argüelles this:
Saw forth an regal schlong
supper attitude attire, your
shave clump listed, frothy
eyes game a sump. looser
pants you “stayed”, sta n
ding in a hole. ah home
minder, less chump than
pissed! age a while then
“dance”. your fire clutter, l
ong pail and coursing law...
Argüelles then responded thus:
shaw s fourth from the left
il legally that 's marxian for
doubt, whistler s dea daunt's
tea cozy with plasma plum jam in
spewers from either cheek as gas
Oh lined his alley frothing
lincoln cubes til the log built
high around her brick house lilt
s a byte to the right fall ter
a long the bul warks ram pike
Ivan Argüelles is clearly one of the most unique and authentic poets working in English today, and I dare say one of the most authentic in any language. As we have seen, his uniquely identifiable voice runs throughout his work, but each of his individual books and poems has its own unique timbre, point of view, its own movement, tone, thematic centers. Each work is unique. The nature of his engagement over the past 40 years or so has been far more than a desire to write “poetry”; rather, poetry is the air he breathes to embody a complex psychic need, the air he needs to be in the life form and time he occupies. When you consider Ivan Argüelles' work, you are not looking at a literary career, but at something basic about human consciousness and unconsciousness; indeed, you are looking at something basic about the being of living things in general. His work is one of our greatest treasures.
BOOKS BY IVAN ARGÜELLES
Instamatic Reconditioning, Damascus Road Press, 1978
The Invention of Spain, Downtown Poets Co-Op, 1978
Captive of the Vision of Paradise, Hartmus Press, 1982
Tattooed Heart of the Drunken Sailor, Ghost Pony Press,1983
Manicomio, Silverfish Review, 1984
What Are They Doing to My Animal?, Ghost Dance Press, 1984
Nailed to the Coffin of Life, Ruddy Duck Press, 1986
The Structure of Hell, Grendhal Poetry Review, 1986
Pieces of the Bone Text Still There, NRG Press, 1987
Baudelaire’s Brain, Sub Rosa Press, 1988
Looking for Mary Lou: Illegal Syntax, Rock Steady Press, 1989
“That” Goddess, Pantograph Press, 1992
Hapax Legomenon, Pantograph Press, 1993
Tragedy of Momus (in the anthology Terminal Velocities), Ocean View Books, 1993 Enigma & Variations, Pantograph Press, 1995
Purisima Sex Addict II (with Jake Berry), Luna Bisonte Prods, 1997
Dead/Requiem (with Jack Foley), Pantograph Press, 1998
Saint James (with Jack Foley), Pantograph Press, 1998
Madonna, a Poem, Runaway Spoon Press, 1998
Daya Karo, Luna Bisonte Prods, 1999
City of Angels, Potes & Poets Press, 1999
Madonna Septet, Potes & Poets Press, 2000
Cosmic Karma Raga (with Peter Ganick), [by “Vyasa & Bahina Bai”], Potes & Poets Press, 2000
Greatest Hits, Pudding House Publications, 2000
Chac Prostibulario (with John M. Bennett), Pavement Saw Press, 2001
Décima Mucho (with John M. Bennett), Luna Bisonte Prods, 2001.
Tri Loka, Potes & Poets Press, 2001
Orientalia, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2003 Inferno, Beatitude Press, 2005
Secret Poem, Chalk Editions, 2009. [e-book]
Comedy, Divine, The, Blue Lion Books, 2009
What Are Probably My Memoirs, Chalk Editions, 2010 [e-book]
The Death of Stalin: Selected Early Poems, Beatitude Press, 2010
Ulterior Vision(s), Luna Bisonte Prods, 2011
A Day in the Sun, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2012
The Second Book, White Sky Books, 2012
Ars Poetica, Poetry Hotel Press, 2013
FIAT LUX, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2014
Duo Poemata, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2015
Stephanie South, 2012, Biography of a Time Traveler: The Journey of José Argüelles, New Page Books, 2009. The early chapters have a lot of information about Ivan's younger days.
Ivan Argüelles, Wikipedia, [nd].
Ivan Argüelles, in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 24, Gale, 1996, pp. 1-30. Also available in Contemporary Authors Online.
John M. Bennett has published over 400 books and chapbooks of poetry and other materials. He has published, exhibited and performed his word art worldwide in thousands of publications and venues. He was editor and publisher of LOST AND FOUND TIMES (1975-2005), and is Founding Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at The Ohio State University Libraries. Richard Kostelanetz has called him “the seminal American poet of my generation”. His work, publications, and papers are collected in several major institutions, including Washington University (St. Louis), SUNY Buffalo, The Ohio State University, The Museum of Modern Art, and other major libraries. His PhD (UCLA 1970) is in Latin American Literature. His latest books are Select Poems, Poetry Hotel Press/Luna Bisonte Prods, 2016; The World of Burning, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017; Poemas visuales, con movimientos con ruidos con combinaciones (with Osvaldo Cibils), Deep White Sound, 2017; and The Sweating Lake, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017.
Posted by EILEEN at 9:56 PM