2 BOOKS by ANSELM HOLLOJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews:
Braided River: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 by Anselm Hollo
Guests of Space by Anselm Hollo
(Coffee House Press, 2007)
A few years ago, when Anselm Hollo experienced some heart problems, I sent him the following letter:
Yesterday, while visiting Tom Raworth’s web site, I saw that you have suffered a health crisis. It seems possible you might stand some cheering up, and that a gushy fan letter might do the trick.
In the late 60s I was still in my teens. A sequence of events too tedious to rehearse here brought me to what Anne Waldman has called a vow to poetry (little did I know how completely great and crazy would be the consequences …). I showed my early poems to Jack Shoemaker, who at the time worked at Serendipity Books (my father was a book collector; that was my in). Jack’s words: you haven’t read much, have you? Here’s some Pound, here’s some Olson … I walked out of the shop with your The Coherences.
That was the beginning of a lifelong Hollo-habit. Its latest manifestation: just last week we were in San Francisco. While in the poetry room at City Lights, I came across your translation of Saarikoski’s Trilogy, which of course I had to have. In addition, while I was deciding whether to pick up some Andrew Schelling (whose name I’ve known but whose work I haven’t read) I saw a quote from you on the back of his Old Growth, which swayed me towards purchase.
O, you have much for which to answer …
It’s undoubtedly true that I have internalized aspects of your poetics (as I’ve under- and misunderstood and twisted them) and brought them over into my own work. But every so often my debt rises to the surface where I’m conscious of it. I will take advantage of your current state to force one poem upon you, where the debt (and homage) is explicit:
[Dear reader of this review, I will not take advantage of your “present state” to force the poem on you … that would be really tacky, methinks … as it was probably tacky to force it on Hollo … but what’s done is done … ah, well …]
Thank you for everything, and best wishes for a speedy and full recovery.
I start here so you will know that for better or worse I’m not exactly an unbiased observer.
Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems 1965-2000 appeared in 2001. Braided River: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 appeared in 2005. You might wonder (I did) why the need for another selected so soon? Well, as best I can tell from a quick comparison of the tables of contents, these volumes only share one poem in common. So they should be considered complementary, rather than redundant.
I’m intrigued, though, by that one-poem overlap. The poem is called “The One”, and is from The Coherences (1968). Let’s take a look:
long hair in my beard
makes me smile:
In many ways, this is an archetypical Hollo poem. First, it’s written under the sign of Pound’s “Use no word that under stress of emotion you could not actually say.” Second, it’s a love poem. Love is another sign under which Hollo lives and writes, though it’s not always and often is not a Valentine’s Day kind of love. Love as I mean it here often means so damned glad -- so damned amazed -- to be alive, in spite of it all, because of it all. And that you are here, by my side. I should add that, though it’s not evident in this poem, said love is one side of a coin, the other being a righteous wrath that there are those among us so fucked up they’re willing to ruin life for the rest of us.
This is beginning to sound like a natal chart. So be it. Hollo: born (as “Anselm Hollo the Poet”, at least) under the signs of straight talk, love and wonder.
My notion that the straight talk, love and wonder aesthetic has been Hollo’s throughout his career is borne out by recent (2002) testimony: Tyler Doherty’s “Raven’s Revenge” (Hollo = raven in Hungarian; for reasons unbeknownst to Hollo, his grandfather adopted the name after “a family dispute” -- see his Corvus, 1995). The poem describes another poem of Doherty’s, in which “some raven flopping off / into the distance” carries “mountains / rivers / in [its] beak”, read aloud in one of Hollo’s Naropa workshops. Here’s how the poem ends:
& Anselm who knows ravens
almost before I’d even finished the
line had begun to rumble that
his finely tuned Preciousness Detector
registering off the charts as he sd
“Why don’t you just
have the raven carrying Gary Snyder’s
Mountains and Rivers book in its beak?!”
(I don’t know whether “Raven’s Revenge” has been published separately, but I found it in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry.)
It’s not as if my sense that there’s archetypicality to this relatively early poem, and a lifelong commitment to a no bullshit aesthetic, blinds me to the evolution of Hollo’s work over the years. One of the great pleasures of an encounter with Braided River is what Eileen R. Tabios (yeah, that’s right, suck up to the editor …) has called the inevitable narrative arc. It’s always found in retrospect, of course, it’s not as if most poets plot an arc at age 20 and actually follow it out through the rest of their careers. It’s more a “so, it’s all come to this.” In any case, it’s interesting and poignant to observe. And it’s often a challenge to keep up with “the growth of a poet’s mind.”
In Braided River one can see Hollo’s poems lengthen, into spaces where more and more can happen, where there’s room. Room = space = time = “big-world (planetary) awareness”, said awareness more or less equal to the “human condition” as the existentialists used to say. Sometimes these spaces take the shape of sequences or serial poems.
At the same time one can see him take into account more and more of “the world”, one can also see his work respond to all, well, maybe not all, but many of “notes and possibilities” heard in the sonic and inscribed textual landscape around him. Rather than build my own airy castle called “Hollo’s Poetics”, I’ll let him speak in his own prose voice a minute. This is from an essay called “Oh Didn’t He Ramble” (Caws and Causeries, 1999):
On (my) personal bias -- important to declare -- it seems to me that I have always been (not unpleasantly) “torn” between
a) a poetry that is both transparent, or, if you wish, limpid, and intelligent, that seems to be “saying itself”: “My poetry is just talk” -- Ted Berrigan; that runs word-thought/word-feeling by me with economy and elegance, sometimes playing with different levels of available rhetoric, switching back and forth between them, and has some surprises in it the way good conversation does, often of a humorous nature -- and
b) the total Sargasso Sea of Signifiers, from Joyce to Stein to Bruce Andrews. I remember Ted telling me once that he cherished the works of his friends Aram Saroyan and Clark Coolidge “because they do my research for me.”
Saroyan and Coolidge do much more than that, of course, but every poet takes what s/he needs and leaves the rest. Here are three excerpts from “Fool’s Paradise” (No Complaints (1983)):
“Oil is an act of God”
“Come Home to America”
“You always laughed at these things
it took a little time but you laughed”
Someone in movie Some remarkable dreck
I step into, slip
“You’ve sublimated that into ‘oops-a-daisy’”
Dreaming, deprogramming then awake
convulsed with rage-mirth at suave golem-blather
chewed ends of blond-gray Fu Manchu
grown out of stoned middle-aged chin
Object has spoken
in irritable parentheses
In the great return engagements
between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
we’ll experience many surprises
As for the news, it’s still punched in and out
by obedient punks I know, I was one
for almost a decade
Until one day on a very ordinary bus
suddenly deprived of impressions I became aware
once more Of the painful and weary
and tired of all sensational beauty tips tricks and freebies
It was the time of early to mid-period Rolling Stones
Their diction was excellent then It was a help
as was Herbert Marcuse
There’s this Assyrian rite
survives in southern Italy:
a year after death,
you dig up bones
and take them home,
and polish them, and talk to them.
“Dear Aunt Maria,
“Dear Uncle Gesualdo” et cetera
All night, all day
you polish them, talk to them
then put them back
in the ground.
Braided River concludes with two sections of previously uncollected poems. I read these later works as those of a poet become ruminative, touched to sighs if not to tears by the reality of mortality (his and so many of his friends’) and the impossible beauty of the “human condition” (though don’t think for a second he’s lost his “Preciousness Detector” or his good black humor), and the necessity for love in the face of it all. I see complete continuity with his youthful concerns. Here’s the last poem in the book. In some ways this can be read as another version of “The One”, 40 years on:
Remembering How Paul Blackburn Made Those Old Troubadours Sound
“Old age not for sissies” -- pas de question!
“May you stay
forever young” -- a big fat lie. Pas de question.
“Don’t be so literal” (well, maybe he is
that literal kind of poet. Perceval,
if you wish, so dumb he seems brilliant).
Where were we. Ah, my lady, it is your birthday tomorrow
& I wish for you all the happiness humanly possible
in this totally fucked-up world. I know,
“fucked-up” is not polite parlance -- does,
in fact, indicate an impoverishment of the author’s
language -- yet
I think, my lady, you will agree it is not
entirely inapposite, non? HOWever. It is,
has been, & one hopes, will be for a while longer
my incredible good fortune to share lives
with you, My lady,
& only the gods know what you, as they say,
“get out of it”
but I do know that you are my Paradiso
(my secular paradiso: Oh, I’m SO secular!)
& that I can’t even begin to express my gratitude
in any but this, the most private yet public way,
who slept next to me in a narrow cot
while I made my way back from the devastated
yet deeply bewitching cities of the dead
through many a night.
And in my conscious moments, my love for you
knew, & knows, no bounds, except for those
prescribed by present, early twenty-first century,
In some ways Guests of Space continues Rue Wilson Monday, the longest section in Braided River, and some of the other late work collected there, in the sense that it too is “a hybrid of day book, informal sonnet sequence (though more “simultaneist” than chronological), and extended “laminated” essay-poem” (Rue Wilson Monday, 2000, “A Note”, not found in Braided River). I will lean on a couple back cover blurbs to explain what’s going on:
Death! Truth! Meaning of Life! / Love! Romanticism! Loss! Reality! Consciousness!
Please don’t miss the slash between life and love. That slash may not be everything … but then again …
Hollo … [invites] us into his conversation with poets and thinkers, both here and gone, on subjects that range from politics and philosophy to creativity and mortality.
When it comes to the “here and gone” in the context of these poems the emphasis has to be placed on the “gone”. That only makes sense, given that Hollo is now in his seventies. Hell, I’m only in my fifties and “Death!” and “Loss!” raise their ugly mugs way too frequently. Twenty years on, and … damn, I’ll be whimpering in my beer (or, more accurately, in my sparkling water, since I don’t drink anymore). This is one place where Hollo is certainly a better man than I, or, perhaps less ridiculously put, an inspiration. Though he’s feeling his mortality, there’s no sense of self-pity in any of these poems. Here’s the first:
Guten Tag Herr Schopenhauer Bonjour Monsieur Cioran
good morning Mr. Swift how are you Mr. Burroughs
once again history the unstoppable proves you right
species no better than smart rat (maybe not even as smart)
evolutionary leap? my foot, my foot in three-foot hole
but let all peaceful mutants leap for spring
calloo callay, while they still may --
watch it! don’t twist that ankle!
don’t step into that three-foot hole!
“and wisdom has not come” “against wisdom as such”
oh, it is apt to give a gopher tantrums!
anecdotal befuddlement, infinite terminators.
toujours a mountain eased a previous you;
should it feel easier, writing? I don’t think so. No.
From Rue Wilson Monday on, many of his poems have included footnotes. “Guten Tag …” is no exception:
“and wisdom has not come”: “Wisdom has not come, says Pollagoras. Speech keeps strangling itself, but wisdom has not come.”-- Henri Michaux, The Old Age of Pollagoras (trl. By Laura Wright). “against wisdom as such” -- Charles Olson, in Against Wisdom as Such, pp.260-264, Collected Prose: “I take it that wisdom, like style, is the man – that it is not inextricable in any sort of statement of itself …” “gopher tantrums” -- minor “Ghost Tantras.”
I take it that these footnotes … are the man, -- that they are not extricable …
The last poem in the book, for Harris Schiff:
Boots on a treadmill “Do not lean on this wall
It is not secured to the floor”
Do not lean on this heart
It is not secured to the brain Boots on a treadmill
Well, here comes another book of poems …
What are the findings? Boots on a treadmill
Stagger on yes bloody well stagger on
George Orwell’s four motives for writing:
Sheer Egotism Aesthetic Enthusiasm Historical Impulse
The desire to record things as they are
For posterity & last but not least
Political Purpose -- the desire to push the world
In a certain direction
Stagger on yes bloody well stagger on
“Death! Truth! Meaning of Life! / Love! Romanticism! Loss! Reality! Consciousness!” To steal a bit from Bernadette Mayer, “Hoo! Hay!” What else do I want from poetry? I have been reading this man all my life. I plan to continue.
John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publication is OTAGES; a new chapbook from Bamboo Books, WORLD ZERO, is in press; and later this year, with any luck, NO SOUNDS OF MY OWN MAKING, a 200 pp. hay(na)ku, which in fact includes very few sounds of his own making, will be published by Leafe Press. Recently, he has begun to incorporate photos into his work, which certainly wasn't expected.