MYSTERIOSOS AND OTHER POEMS
by Michael McClure
“Michael stands on my back / growing wrinkles”
— Michael McClure, Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven
“I’m an old man made of wheels of spinning flesh”
— Michael McClure, Mysteriosos
To read a Michael McClure poem is to bring ourselves back to something; it isn’t so much a specific recollection as it is a reminder of something we may have forgotten. “I AM AWED / by her demon face,” he writes of someone he calls “the secretary of deceit.” The tone here is political, ironic and momentarily judgmental. (He will later insist that he himself may be as bad: his own “trembling spirit is capable of everything”: “I will kill, torture, and maim Palestine / and tease it with fire.”) But the word “awed” is important, and it is to be distinguished from the context of “shock and awe”: “awe” — astonishment — is at the heart of this amazing septuagenarian’s work:
shrieking in rage,
and our aged guide,
the Anglo-Indian colonel,
shakes one finger
out the car window.
he shouts to his “old friend”
and she does
and she stares
from wrinkled eye bags
then swings back
her jaw-shaking trumpet blast,
into the swinging branches.
McClure’s world is a constantly astonishing place — a place full of, to use the title of this book, “mysteriosos.” “Myserioso” = “having a mysterious nature or quality; enigmatic; inexplicable.” It is usually used as an adjective or adverb but may also be used as a noun. McClure is thinking of the term specifically in connection with Thelonious Monk, the great, constantly questioning jazz pianist who released an LP, Misterioso, in 1958; the cover of Monk’s LP is a painting by the Italian Surrealist Giorgio De Chirico: The Seer, or The Prophet. McClure makes no such specific claim for himself — “I still long to be Shelley,” he sighs at one point — but he insists that his poetry “demands the tearing down of what we are and letting our energies and bodies of meat and nothingness rebuild themselves.” This biospiritual process happens over and over again but never in a straightforward, “logical” way: “NO MATTER — ANTI-MATTER — DARK ENERGY”; it too is “mysterioso.”
At 78 McClure is neither resting on his laurels nor kvetching about the loss of his powers. Mysteriosos is as challenging and demanding a book as he has ever produced. But differences can be noted. I wrote this about his extraordinary 1970 book, Star, which McClure himself described as “a blast of my poor brain splattered over Hell and Earth & Heaven”:
Star enunciates a moving consciousness which is constantly thrust towards both intellect and the flesh and which dizzyingly but illogically perceives intellect and the flesh to be simultaneously identical and painfully split apart. McClure frequently quotes with approval Mallarmé’s statement that poetry is the language of a state of crisis. The crisis of Star is that the very conditions of thought and utterance are constantly at war with each other, constantly generating the most painful of oppositions — and yet silence is not even a remote possibility: speech is the poet’s only salvation . . . Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid are less “characters” than they are huge metaphors, almost Blakean figures, by which McClure can express his constantly shifting ambivalence.
Here, in this book of “the truth of shifting / complexities,” McClure says, “Old age or childhood, it is all renewable, / reversible, delivered with a warranty / that nothing is there in the nothingness”; “I am a flowering.” Sounding a little like John Donne, he writes, “My mouth / with your nipple in it / is the rising of thought.” McClure’s vision is essentially the same as the one he had forty years ago — “Knowing in all possible directions”! — but it is considerably calmer these days. It is as if the Harlow figure who haunted his young manhood with its “SEXUAL ADDICTION” has “morphed” — the word is an important one in this book — into the apparition he calls “Dear Being”:
WHAT I HAVE GIVEN MYSELF
is this love, invented for you.
The phrase refers specifically to the poet’s wife, Amy Evans McClure, but it extends beyond that to a feeling of acceptance and love for the whole of the universe:
WE HAVE THE JOY OF HERETICS
By simply being here, drinking from footsteps.
No pleasure, no shame, no guilt, just as life is . . .
WE DID NOT CHOOSE IT — WE ARE HERE . . .
PERFECT. Perfect. Perfect blotches
Hanging together in undreamed causeless systems.
No time anywhere — like smears on fingers.
Inspiration changes tiny strings to thick
Frequencies of matter. Hear the clatter
Of a megatherium family by the water hole.
These lines are taken from a remarkable long poem, “Double Moire for Francis Crick” — the discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule and a longtime friend of McClure’s who lay dying as the poem was being written. The poem, which Crick never saw, begins with a moving reference to the endurance of “the MiddleWay” of Buddhism and to the possibility of the new — of liberation — even at such a moment:
THE CHANTING IN TIBET HAS NOT CEASED
— IT IS AS IMMORTAL AS MEAT —
it sings of the Middle Way.
Put out the fires in the eye
there is another style besides hatred and heat.
Let the soul go, build a pliant strong heart . . .
nowhere to go but
halfway to freedom. . . .
The most remarkable stylistic device of Mysteriosos is probably rooted in what McClure refers to as his explorations into “buddhist hua yen thought.” (Garma C.C. Chang’s The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism is one of the poet’s favorite books.) According to hua yen Buddhism, an individual entity is not limited to an individual point of view. Every thing includes the whole — includes Everything. Hua yen asserts the mutual containment and “interpenetration” of all phenomena: one thing contains all things that exist.
McClure tells us explicitly that the poems of the “Dear Being” sequence are “born from earlier books, repeating opening lines of poems to begin new poems” and that in “Double Moire for Francis Crick” he “worked with an earlier poem . . . titled ‘Moire’ and used each line to begin a stanza in the new enlarged poem”: “Like an organism, ‘Double Moire’ began to be free in time and place, and to exist in the oneness of everything.” What he doesn’t tell us is the extent to which these poems constantly repeat lines, phrases, words as they “morph” from one poem into another — as aspects of separate poems interpenetrate one another.
on page 35, for example, shows up as
It is all
in a quite different poem on page 65. Similarly, “Mist and a star in his antlers” on page 40 shows up as “MIST AND A STAR IN MY ANTLERS” on page 60. Indeed, the word “antlers” may be a morphing of the word “anthers” on page 44. If everything is everything, if all things interpenetrate, then the poems themselves cease to be self-contained, individual entities: words and phrases from one poem might just as easily be a part of another poem. Life repeats itself in various configurations — all simultaneously moving together and apart, all “QUICK.” This, in a way, is McClure’s version of what Jack Spicer named “the serial poem” and which Jack Kerouac practiced in Mexico City Blues — a primary text for McClure.
A poet born in 1932 might well dwell upon his memories and his — to use a word that shows up prominently in this book — “gone” friends. There are some wonderfully elegiac passages in Mysteriosos as McClure recalls some of the famous poets who have been his companions:
introduced, “Michael, this is Robinson Jeffers . . . ”
And I mumble something.
In his salon among
walls of books in wooden apple crates, and pastels
of Morris Graves, Kenneth Rexroth reads
a new poem in a nasal, grating voice.
With crossed eyes, and hair alight
with genius, Robert Duncan sings songs from his Faust Foutou [sic].
It is exactly like the play of the dark, pouncing weasel
in the abandoned corral under the buckeye trees,
or Kenneth Patchen’s bulging eyes looking down at the waves of the Bay
where seals haul up on the mud to sleep beside traffic.
McClure does not deny his age or his aging (Mysteriosos has beautiful elegies to Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia), yet the central message of the book is not elegy but the sheer aliveness, the wonderful, dizzying, endlessly interesting, “myriad” complexity of life itself:
AMINO TRIGGERS IN SPACE: in ponds
on ripples, and among the moons of Saturn.
Everything burns for the eyes that will
come into being. The twisting shapes
are hunting their forms, the big ones
grow and shrink and in themselves are the answers.
WE ARE ACTIVITY. . . .
Surprisingly to some perhaps, love and marriage are primary themes of this book — though, speaking of marriage, McClure remarked on my radio show that people are afraid to say I love you, “and they’re probably right: if people aren’t inventing love, they shouldn’t talk about it. Love has to be invented. It’s not a ghost that floats around in the air that you snap up when you get married or something. It’s part of soul making.” As always in McClure, you make your life: it isn’t something that’s simply given.
One of the most beautiful small poems in Mysteriosos is an “Epithalamium” the poet wrote for my son Sean and Sean’s bride Kerry Hoke. I’ll end this piece with that sweet, short, active poem, in which — as with all the poems in this wonderful book — the universe makes itself known in no uncertain terms:
PLUMB LIVES FROM MOMENT
carve lives from week
Plume the spines with touches
in whirlpool of foment.
It’s time to be growing
crowns on your heads.
Erase lines from nightly beds.
It all happens
with sun and with stars.
at the start of your life.
by Michael McClure
New Directions, 2010