Ed-Dorn-Burgh Review

Edward Dorn, Collected Poems (Carcanet), 995pp, £25

(This review of Dorn appeared in Edinburgh Review 139.)

In several key ways Ed Dorn’s magisterial Collected Poems is a bridge between the late Modernist milieu of Black Mountain poetics within which he began writing (and which he almost immediately reacted against), and the conceptually various landscape of contemporary American – and by extension, English-speaking – poetry.

From the Poundian matrices of Charles Olson toward and beyond the politically radicalized syntax of the Language poets is a long way to have travelled, but this most emblematic of US poets was always a chronicler of intellectual journeys, an historian of discourses, whether within a poem or across cultures, through inner space or into political denunciation. As he says in his 1974 preface to a previous collected poems, ‘From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone.’

In three key periods – the early 60s work, the epic masterpiece Gunslinger, and the posthumous collection Chemo Sábe – Dorn developed new ways of considering American idioms (including those of political power and the media), cultural history both as myth and repressive force, and twentieth century Modernism’s fascination with (and fetishisation of) the long poem. No small achievement, especially set beside the fact that his wit, an important source of his intellectual energy, makes him singularly approachable.

One surprise new readers of Dorn will perhaps experience at the outset is the role played by Britain and British writers in his earlier work. As J.H. Prynne puts it in a warm and insightful afterword:

…he spent a good deal of his middle-formative time in England, and that’s rather exceptional for American writers…many [of whom] couldn’t at all tune in to, and understand, and accept even the distinctive voices of their English forebears and contemporaries.

Both the ability to listen and absorb other voices, and the reluctance to align himself with orthodoxies, even radical orthodoxies, mean that in his earlier work Dorn is constructing and compositing, augmenting his own distinctive cadences and territories with those of others and other cultures. In ‘Sousa’, from his first collection, he already knows the music of nostalgia carries its own contradiction:

Great brass bell of austerity
and the ghosts of old picnickers
ambling under the box elder when the sobriety
was the drunkenness…

While in the 1965 collection Geographies (dedicated to Olson), a desacralized America is depicted in terms that restate Eliot for a newly permissive society:

…american men
who may no longer wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled
but who are certainly all circumcised without ritual
and wear the ends of their penises rolled…

His stay in England brings references to Harwood and Pickard – his influence on the latter and Barry MacSweeney via his trip to the Morden Tower being noteworthy in this context, and the landscape of the North-East allows him to create a significant historical footnote:

Note: if the americans built a wall
in Vee-et (past tense of ate)
NAM, they would at least leave
something behind as made – the
way stations could even have Texan

– An idea which seems to predict Geoffrey Hill’s use of anachronism in Mercian Hymns. In the same collection and in the same country, the idea for Gunslinger (already implicit in the 1964 collection Hands Up!) crystallises after seeing The Magnificent Seven:

Tom remarked, on the evidence of
the last scene when the Mexican-
Japanese said Vaya con Dios
and Yul said a simple adios,
“that was philosophical.”

Gunslinger’s premiss is simple enough, that the mythologizing of the Western, having absorbed other cultures into it and been exported back to those cultures, offers a ripe allegory for Western values. Its execution, however, is dazzling. A comic oratorio for a series of counter cultural voices and their opposites, it admits a number of tropes from cinema – including, in Book 1’s recurrent form of capitalized ‘strum’s, soundtrack – as well as parodies of song, hints of Elizabethan and later English lyrical poetry, endless stoned and psychedelic puns, a fissiparous ‘I’ which it rapidly becomes clear both can and cannot be identified with the poet, and, of course, a talking horse:

My god, Slinger, she said
I am at your service,
replied the Gunslinger.
Oh knock that off!
I’ve got a Business to tend to
and the smoke in this corner
is blindin besides, say
haven’t I met that Horse
before? The Horse
rose from his chair and
tipped his stetson XX
Hello Lill, it’s been a long time
here have a seat,
we’ve got a lot to talk
about, Slow down
the Gunslinger said and
that was the only time
I ever heard anybody speak
obliquely to the Horse.

The poem is full of typographical play, so it’s an especial delight of this edition that it reproduces as an appendix the Bean News, a kind of newspaper, which shadows the text like an allusion to journalism’s way with history in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Gunslinger changes the frame of reference of the American long poem as we understand it from The Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, or Carlos Williams’s Paterson, in that there is a redefinition of Poundian paideuma: this is not an epic which seeks to re-educate us about history, or reconnect us to culture. That doesn’t mean it eschews the dimension of moral critique of contemporary society which access to the historical imagination validates.

Its real achievement is rather to remove the hierarchical distinction between historical example, and how history is portrayed, discussed and distorted in the parallel cultural fields of cinema, the press, genre fiction, and cartoons, etc. Its primary means of doing this, the ‘virtue of its inherent tone’ is still, arguably, pure Pound: what he called logopoeia, or ‘the dance of the intellect among words’, which ‘takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word.’ Or, as Taco Desoxin puts it:

We also supply Hi-grade lunatic information
you can get it here & so forth
also do Pre-pourd Scorn, that’s on
twenty-four hours notice

Gunslinger, then, works by manipulating registers and creating tensions between different discourses. This simultaneously brings us into the media-saturated latter half of the twentieth century, and risks stranding us there. An element of the delight of Gunslinger now rests in its depiction of a period. The self-obfuscating exchanges of its stoned heroes may become as quaint as they are (occasionally) protracted, and time will have to tell us if it can transcend this.

However, the dissolving and reforming narrative voices seem to prefigure the refusal of a singular coherent referentiality we find in Language poetry. Furthermore, its influence extends beyond the US, and can be seen, for instance, in the poetry of Andrew Grieg, whose early work, particularly Men On Ice, uses dialogue between allegorical figures in a similar manner to play out his metaphysical exploration of mountain climbing.

The latter part of Dorn’s writing returns his focus firmly to the historical in unfinished sequences like Languedoc Variorum, and, in Captain Jack’s Chaps, his account of an outing to a literary gathering in Houston, the horseplay of Gunslinger appears to be played out again, but with named individuals (‘We debouch into the lobby. There’s Marj Perloff/confident and bright, but not overdone.’)

The difficulty with this is a marked drop in satiric subtlety, as in ‘Self Criticism’, in which a Republican mindset sets forth a repellant credo, but the poet seems have lost interest in both character and voice: ‘I will approve of genocide in Central America/because it is proprietary…’.

Tragically, it takes the diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer to restore Dorn’s vision in several senses of that term. Firstly, he writes descriptively again with a shrewd eye for the ideologies underlying ordinary phenomena:

Big red balloon tethered over Cub Food
winterpale shoppers, struggling with the load

like overweight ants dragging their take
away from an abandoned sandwich

A long ghost-white buick idles at the zebra
black glass, chrome gone, white tires

A deal in every aisle, every hour, every day…

Secondly, having to take an intimidating range of powerful drugs, he notates their mind-altering qualities in striking terms:

Decadron sharpens the senses
around the optic nerve and the neo cortex,
enabling one to see through walls and into
the present – there goes the Pope, mobile as ever –
…as the drip is connected to the pump I see W.J. Clinton
full humping St. Monicka panting in the pantry…

Finally, in a gesture which will remind a Scottish reader of Edwin Morgan’s marvelous dialogue between a cancer cell and its healthy equivalent, ‘Gorgo and Beau’, he gives allegorical life to his own tumour: ‘She’s like Wittgenstein’s lunch, utterly invariable,/and she’s like your own private third world…’ – that last line, implying we’re all moral conservatives when it comes to the body, shows that Dorn’s wit as well as his imagination has triumphed over his disease.

The tumour can therefore be seen as a terrible but normal part of the body’s geography, and his familiar tropes are permitted a final moving permutation:

My tumor is not interested in love,
no neoplasm is – the blind cells thereof
are not interested in love or affection,
she sends out little colonies, chipped genes
mark their crossing the river, they are
without variation, they keep time with terror.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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