Edward Dorn’s “Prolegomenon”
We began with a mostly hypothetical problematic. Florence Herman Williams, wife of the famous poet, writes a reply to one of his most famous poems, “This Is Just to Say”:
I have eaten
that were in
What becomes of her reply? What happens to the poem if the reply—let’s suppose it’s a similar note, granting or denying the forgiveness the poet goes on to ask for, or better yet, a treatise on democratic poetic forms & domestic intimacies. What happens when the reply emerges, bringing the poem back into contact with an immediate context of its dialogic reality—the causal family conversation that the poem tears itself away from even as it reproduces one side of it?
These questions, even when regarded hypothetically, lead us to a problematic that the philosopher Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.” Poetry and politics share this activity general activity, Rancière argues, because both arrange and rearrange the subjects, scenes, values & textures that compose our commonsense. Artists, like politicians, show us what is to be regarded as ordinary, as extraordinary, as worthy of attention, and, by omission, as unnoticeable. In the choice and treatment of subjects the writer of poems, like the writer of speeches, decides who gets to count as a subject & what gets to count as the world.
Thus, for example, in Williams’ poem, the profoundly democratic induction of ordinary domestic life into poetry—the refrigerator note as viable poetic form & content—occurs through a kind of surgical cutting that excises Flora from the world. The poem no longer addresses her—it is, as Williams famously wrote of all his poems, “addressed to the imagination.” The ‘note to wife’ becomes ‘poem as note’ by eliminating, among other things, the wife. The note is a poem because the woman is not. The poem removes itself from the world, precisely in order to bring that worldliness into the aesthetic realm; it makes the note its object by replacing the ‘original’ subject of its address—Flora—with an (imagined) reader—the subject to whom the poem is addressed. Flora is consigned to a place beyond even objectivity—a space of non-being. In this way, Williams founds a modern democratic poetics through a process of oblivion (much the way democratic American society is founded on profoundly antidemocratic systems of genocide & slavery).
In our workshop on Thursday, 25 June, we pursued these questions by reading two poetic passages written by two poets who were unquestionably, if somewhat indirectly, ‘disciples’ of Williams. Both passages about forty years ago, in that very exciting time in American poetry & politics known as ‘the sixties’—a time when repressed subjects of American democracy returned to haunt its aesthetic and political norms.
The first passage was the “Prolegomenon” to Book IIII of Ed Dorn’s hippy/cowboy epic, Gunslinger. Published as a limited edition pamphlet by Zephyrus Image in 1975, this marvelous passage also appears in the 1989 Duke University Press publication of the complete poem. It begins with its first letter partially obscured by the printed image of a woman in tank top & bell bottoms on a bar stool, holding aloft a drink & smoking – something – in a long holder. (Is it possible that she is at a “T-Rex Friday”?) The poem follows her raised glass with its own salute to the moon:
Goddesse, excellently bright
thou that mak’st a day of night.
You tell us
men are numberless
and that Great and Mother
were once synonymous.
Immediately evident is the faux Chaucerian English that provides the “female” side of this poem’s stylistic structure. One strand of Dorn’s logopoetics (“the dance of intellect among the words”—Pound) involves the presentation of this pseudo-traditional lit speak, which we might take to mean ‘culture’ in its most ‘pure’ & corrupted form:
We are drawn beneath your fieryness
which comes down to us
on the wing of Eleusian image [. . .]
Here is the romantic moonlight, the soft terrain of poetry, which is malleable as the cultural myths that give it life. But in stark contrast to this, another kind of knowledge production emerges:
We survey the Colorado plateau.
[. . . ]
This is all water carved
the body thrust into the hydrasphere
and where the green mesas give way
to the Vulcan floor, [. . .]
This scientific regime of meaning, “affirmed” by “cold instruments,” contrasts with the “fieryness,” such that the play between these elements reveals itself to be an organizing principle of the poem. It’s a contrast between literary language—styled as feminine and aligned with imagination and passion—and technological language—styled as masculine and aligned with the technical objectivity of the surveyor’s eye. “[W]e give our inwardness / in some degree to all things / but to fire we give everything,” says the first voice, bringing intimacy into direct contact with the natural world; “it is truly a small heat / our cold instruments do affirm it,” says the second, interposing the skepticism of rational civilization.
At stake in game between contesting elements is our view of the environment—of what Dorn called “the West,” meaning both a physical landscape and the imagination which enfolds it within history and destiny: the world-view that particulars of the landscape—depending upon whether they are selected to stand in for the whole or not—come to represent. Williams referred to the dialectic of material reality & imaginative representation as “the weather”: that which is everywhere & nowhere, inescapable & yet avoidable, cyclical yet unpredictable, remarkable only when it changes, yet always changing. For the modern poet, the weather is always also a whether: what gets recorded & how & why? What stands in for ‘the world’? To become the weather is to be expelled form the world of subjects in order to become that about which subjects talk—the world as backdrop, as beautiful landscape; whether or not any particular person belongs to one or the other of these categories is a political choice exercised by the poet.
In the next several stanzas, Dorn’s poem lingers on the impossibility of one or other world-view. Looking across the Colorado basin, he observes that
from Farmington and other interferences
with the perfect night
and the glittering trail
of the silent Vía Láctea
there is a civil scar
so cosmetic, one can’t see it.
The “interferences” with the “perfect night” are the lights of small cities, like Farmington, New Mexico, which compete with the “glittering trail” of the milky way. Both technological and natural forms of luminescence interfere with the moon’s light—and yet all three sources are not enough to illuminate the “civil scar” that remains known and yet unknown—‘visible’ only in its absence. It is this “cosmetic” “superimposition” that Dorn pursues in the next stanza, in which he describes this absent presence as
like the ultimate property
of the ego, an invisible claim
to a scratchy indultum
from which smoke pours forth.
“[I]ndultum” enters medieval English from the Latin, meaning indulgence—a dispensation granted by the Pope, permitting deviation from church law; here this allowance is like a secret wish—it comes to us only indirectly, through a “claim” is itself “invisible” and lost in the scratches (the Papal ink?) and smoke (hellfire?) of its own making. What is this missing element if not “property” itself—the impossible “claim” to the land that allows (Western) civilization to pour its interfering putrescence—a darker night of ink & smoke—among the plateaus?
Here the poem turns away from its own carefully balanced ambivalence, rejecting the surveyor’s eye and its egoistic claim to property rights in favor of the goddesse’s less proprietary gaze; the last stanza returns us definitely to the “olde tyme” language with which it began:
But now over the endless sagey brushthe moon makes her silvery bid
and in the cool dry air of the niht
the winde wankles across the cattle grid.
Having previously delineated the oppositional linguistic and perceptual modes, Dorn’s poem commits a political act by adopting the moon’s mode. Yet he does without denying the persistence of the other world-view. If the “winde wankles” it does so across the “cattle grid.” The term refers both to a particular physical structure, a depression in a roadway covered with bars designed to keep cattle from passing along roads that cut across pastures, and the economic and cultural world-views that give rise to such a device—the surveyor’s grid that transforms land into property. The poem’s sense of closure is very much dependent upon the rhyme of this last word with “bid”—a poetic presence which calls to mind another scene—that of the auction where cattle are bought and sold. Consequently, even the moon becomes associated with the economic principles that her light seems intended to oppose. A further ambiguity and intermingling remains even as the poem throws down with the “goddesse.”