by Gregory Stephenson
Extravagant, extreme, even excessive: the writings of Michael McClure aim at nothing less than a rediscovery and a redefinition of humankind. McClure's work is essentially alchemical: a process of reconciliation and transmutation. Beginning with the apparent contradictions of mind and body - mysticism and materialism, spirituality and sensuality, atavism and transcendence, human and nonhuman, energy and structure - the poet forges a new harmony and wholeness, a new coherence. McClure's poems, plays, and prose are the record of his struggle for personal liberation and of his evolving bio-alchemical vision. The following notes represent an attempt to trace the main direction and the major developments of his work over the last thirty years.
- Let that which stood in front go behind!
and let that which was behind advance to the front and speak
- Walt Whitman
The most convenient and appropriate point at which to begin a consideration of Michael McClure's oeuvre is his autobiographical novel, The Mad Cub. The book presents an account of the poet's adolescence and young manhood and of his crucial passage through a prolonged and acute mental-physical and metaphysical crisis to a state of self-renewal and the affirmation of a secular faith, a faith in life. McClure's bildungsroman,his portrait of the artist, is in many respects a key to his work, providing a n introduction to his concerns, his imagery, and his vision.
As the title implies, the central imagery of The Mad Cub is drawn from the animal world. Throughout the book, the narrator, Pete, likens himself and the other characters to various beasts, including pigs, goats, horses, bulls, wolves, calves, and rats. The numerous animal similes serve to convey the essential theme of the novel: human beings are mammals. This assertion is by no means as simple as it may at first seem. It serves as the foundation of McClure's vision. For the narrator it provides a release from his physical afflictions, from his neurasthenia, his alienation, his despair, and his madness, and it represents the principal datum for a new orientation to his own life and the life of the world.
Predominant among the animal images in the text is that of the lion, which is employed as a metaphor both for superconsciousness/divinity and for authentic identity, full physio-psychic being: "God is a vast robed figure of beauty who moves in space and simultaneously is space. He has a gentle maniacal face like a lion's.... "I'm sick of all the things that have held me down and dragged me and disgusted me with life.... I want to grow and become the lion I truly am". With its heraldic, mythological, and astrological associations, the image of the lion serves to unite the individual and the universal, the microcosm and the macrocosm.
The development of the narrator from "mad cub" to "lion consciousness" is finally achieved by a summoning forth of beast consciousness by means of "growling and imitating an animal and roaring". Following this cathartic experience, the narrator is at last capable of selfunderstanding and self-acceptance and of the untrammeled expression of love for others, especially for his wife and daughter whose affections he has abused and alienated in the rage and pain of his sickness. His final vision of, and joyous identification with, the physical-metaphysical processes of the cosmos is expressed as a poem. The narrator rhapsodizes and celebrates a sense of sacramental unity with stars and nebulae, with mountains and trees, and (as in Joyce's Ulysses) he concludes his paean with a grand, universal affirmation: "YES".
The situation of Pete in The Mad Cub - "suspicious of everyone", false, competitive, self-destructive, obsessed with sex, unable to express or to accept love, frustrated and blocked with unrealized potential-may be seen as emblematic of the human condition in general, perhaps more especially in Western culture. Pete's salvation through mammal consciousness is more, then, than a personal solution, it is a proposal for a transformation of human consciousness. To resist and arrest the psychic disintegration of man and to redeem and realize true human nature involves, for McClure, reclaiming our animal identity, coming to terms with the prelogical, primitive spirit of the senses, the unconscious, the body.
The Mad Cub provides a précis of McClure's themes, as well as a compendium of motifs and images which are further developed in his other works. The image of the self-divided man as embodied in Pete's physical appearance ("I look thin and romantic because of my skinny face. Secretly I'm fat. There's flab around my belly and my chest sags a little" .) is important in this regard. So, too, are the characters of Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow who are figures in the narrator's private mythology. Also significant here is the growling and roaring, the expression of the preverbal intelligence. Finally, the three-part movement of the book (the presentation of the problem, the achievement of a resolution, and the portrayal of liberated, visionary consciousness) corresponds to what may be seen as the three main phrases of the author's entire literary production.
The first phase of McClure's work is characterized by a sense of disequilibrium, of confusion, of torment, of alienation, of diminishment, of constraint, and of restriction, while at the same time, he exhibits a bold determination to resist all such limitation and negativity and to strive toward liberation, toward wholeness and health. In this regard, I recall reading that the first step in the alchemist's enterprise is the discovery of "a great crack in the heart of things. " From this point the process of transmuting the corrupt to the incorruptible may begin.
McClure's first published poems are two villanelles titled "2 for Theodore Roethke, " printed in the January 1956 issue of Poetry. It is noteworthy that a poet later remarkable for radical poetic experimentation should display such technical mastery in this intricate, elaborate form. McClure's villanelles are polished, deft, and elegant; he exhibits faultless control of the rhymes and repetitions and achieves richness, complexity, and resonance of imagery. The two villanelles are probably so titled and dedicated because of the common concerns and sympathies of the two poets. Roethke was at that period also writing poems of personal suffering and transformation, and he, too, distrusted intellection and celebrated nature and the unity of all things.
The first of the villanelles, titled "Premonition," contrasts the "I" speaker's present psychic state, one of darkness, noise, fear, discomfort, and confusion with his aspirations to ascent, flight, song, sight, and light. Two opposing clusters of images are the vehicles of the conflict. Physical imagery, that of the body (bones, heart, toes, eyes, feet, ears, blood, skin, and skull) contends with imagery of flight and ascent (sky, clouds, height, birds, and the verbs "spiraled up," "ascend," and "climb"). The state of the body is "wingless" and "tight," burning and aching with the intensity of its desire to ascend, to fly.
Although perplexity and distress are established by the condition of noise and the statement that "the echoes from the sky are never clear," more hopeful indications are given in the affirmation that "what sings inside me climbs above my fear" and by the repeated lines declaring, "I work toward light." The "arsenics of sight" by which ascent is accomplished in the poem would seem to suggest a process of death and rebirth, while the "Great Bird" suggests a mythic force or spiritual energy, the very embodiment of transcendent freedom (the Holy Ghost) whose bite is blessing. The arsenic and the bite unite as images of an ordeal or death of self that must precede enlightenment or liberation. Significantly, it is in the heart and the body, not the intellect, that the longing for light and for flight is felt.
The second, untitled villanelle is much darker in mood. The body and the senses are again prominent but in a distinctly negative respect. The images of the body are here set In opposition to those of the natural world (copse, earth, mole, rock, plant, ouzel) and also to a mythic, mysterious level of existence encompassing the secrets of nature (Elysium, song and romance, and the undine [an alchemical allusion: a water nymph, from the writings of Paracelsus]). The body is imaged as "corpse," very strongly suggesting its lack of vitality and energy. McClure reinforces this image by words and phrases applied to the senses, such as "defeat," "in the way, " "dumb, " and "numb. "There is a strong sense of awkwardness, clumsiness, bluntness, insufficiency of the senses as tools. The phrase "these stocks of body" may refer to the body as being lifeless, dull, and stupid or may constitute a metaphor of the body as pillory or stocks-confining, imprisoning.
McClure establishes a further conflict in the poem between the wayward and the straight or between elemental mystery and logical positivism, between nature and civilization, between the unconscious and the rational, analytical faculties. The image of the mole seems to suggest a regenerative force within the psyche, perhaps the deepest self, associated with the deep "soundings of the earth" or the impulses and truths of the unconscious mind. The present state of the self in the poem is as yet one of "weighted trance," of loss and of death-in-life, of alienation from nature and from the powers of the unconscious, of separation from mystery and mythic consciousness. The mole has not yet succeeded in rescuing, redeeming the "I" speaker, and the strict order of the rational mind still prevails over nature and the life of the imagination.
Aside from their beauty of expression, these early poems of McClure are significant for their delineation of the poet's physio-psychic crisis in terms of patterns of images. The formal restraint and the poetic artifice of the villanelle form seem an attempt to contain and control the intensity of the conflicts. The two poems serve not only to describe the problem but also to prefigure its eventual solution: the Great Bird and the mole represent mythic, elemental forces-redemptive energies capable of transforming the self.
The issues of these early poems are more closely examined and more fully developed in the collection Hymns to St. Geryon and Other Poems. What is immediately striking about the poems in this volume is their metrical structure and the visual impact of their typography. Rather than beginning at the left margin, the lines are centered on the page, creating a vertical axis. The arrangement of lines along this axis creates an effect of both equilibrium and dynamism, both a centripetal and a centrifugal poetic action. The lines are without regular meter and of unequal length, measured by their meaning and music, and more nearly approaching natural speech rhythms than the poet's earlier verse. Dramatic emphasis of particular words and phrases is achieved by the use of capitalization. Pauses are indicated by spacing. The total effect of McClure's prosodic adaptations and innovations in these poems is a heightened sense of experience, an intensified discharge and transfer of energy, a greater urgency, vitality, immediacy, and force of expression.
Geryon is the monster of Fraud in Dante's Inferno, Canto 17. He is "the beast that makes the whole world stink," the embodiment of duplicity and corruption: "His face was innocent of every guile, benign and just in feature and expression; and under it his body was half reptile. " Geryon is sainted by McClure because we have sanctified and canonized Fraud in our lives, in our civilization. Geryon represents the fraudulent lives we lead, our poisoned bodies and senses, the patterns and preconceptions that obscure the world from us, the monstrous denial of our energy and true nature, the monster of measurement, habit, and custom that constricts and dams our vitality. But Geryon is also for McClure a very personal demon: "He seemed to be my patron. I had a luminous handsome face and a rather gross and flabby body. I felt that I was a kind of living hypocrisy or fraud."
A motif common to a number of poems in this collection is that of enclosure or confinement by walls or barriers and the necessity of effecting a breach, breaking through, breaking out. The first poem of the volume, "The Breach," describes the urgent, desperate assault (hurling, crushing, knocking) against the barricade of custom, the stronghold of habit, and a fleeting, timeless moment of penetration into clarity, into visionary consciousness. Other such ecstatic occasions are recorded in "The Mystery of the Hunt" and in "Poem" -moments when we perceive in common things with "the secret behind them," moments when "the mystery is unveiled," when we can see all living matter from algae to mammals as "creatures of grace-Rishi / Of their own right" ("Poem,"). (A rishi is an illuminated sage.) It is noteworthy that, far from rejecting the phenomenal world (as do certain mystical traditions), McClure embraces it with rapturous attention, finding that the path to the noumenal is through the phenomenal and that ultimately the two are identical.
McClure is very much aware of the inadequacy of language, even the heightened, imagistic language of poetry, to communicate the absolute otherness and intense suchness of self-transcendent perception, of visionary experience. "THIS IS NOT IT," and "this is failure he protests in disappointment and discouragement ("The Rug,"), concluding that at best "the image is only a fiery shadow ("The,"). But, though "the poem / is confusion," the poem for McClure is a necessary gesture, a mode of self-discovery, self-creation ('And there is no end to it / to the covering,"). Writing poetry is an act of being, an act of love; and as such, it is an assault on apathy and inertia, an indictment against mediocrity, compromise, complacency, sham, and inauthentic life.
As in his early villanelles, McClure continues in Hymns to St. Geryon to sense the presence of a liberating energy within-a spirit or motive power, an instigator. "THE SELFS FREE HERO," he names this spirit ("The Gesture,"), and "THE HERO INSIDE" ("Canticle,"), and in another poem's title declares, "HE MOVES US THO WE DO NOT KNOW HIS NAME". This hero, this power, survives and resists all our evasions and denials of life, all the tricks of limitation and abstraction that we marshal against direct experience and perception. This motive power is wiser, deeper than the intellect and expresses itself through the body, the senses, and the emotions, through gesture and act, especially the act of physical love: "my body moves to you yearning. / Tho my head is full of images" ("Moving to cover the other proportion falls away,"). It may occasionally manifest itself in dream or vision or in one of its guises:
("Peyote Poem," 36)
Thus the metaphor of confinement has a double meaning: we seek to liberate ourselves from the prison of restricted being, and there's that within us that we keep in close confinement and that seeks liberation. The key that may open both prisons is the knowledge that "we are stars with our five / appendages" ("OR HE WHO MOVES US THO WE DO NOT KNOW HIS NAME,"). That is, we must learn that there should be no hierarchy among our consciousnesses, that the organs, the limbs, the senses, the glands, and the brain form an equilibratory composite of awareness, a union of autonomous entities, and that by elevating one and denying another, we imperil the life of the whole.
But this concept of aggregate being is still tentative at this point of McClure's writing; it is neither fully defined nor realized. And so the poet's personal torment continues; he cannot discover a passage. He can but break out momentarily, only to find himself immured again: "Walls do not change to pearls" ("Walls do not change to pearls. There's no speed,"). The concluding poem of the volume is titled "The Chamber," again suggesting enclosure, and its imagery is infernal. The poet feels himself confined in "DARK HELL," in "Hell without radiance," where "nothing is changed," where there is no transfiguring vision, no "Vita Nuova," but only "the dead, dead world".
The motifs of hell and of enclosure and constraint are also prominent in The New, Book / A Book of Torture. The first poem in the collection depicts a psychic state of "HELL PAIN BEWILDERED EMPTINESS," a sense of being fallen and fragmented, capable only of "half-desires ... half loves." Darkness, sorrow, anguish, lostness, lovelessness, sickness, deadness, confusion, misery, fear, vacancy, pain, and stupor are the terms in which McClure describes his dark night of the soul. These poems are desperate cries, agonized probings of the spirit, alternating between expletives and prayers, between despair and determination. The struggle between the forces of pain and of vision, of sickness and of health, has intensified, and McClure images it here as "a war" ("Rant Block,") in which we "are battlegrounds / of what is petty and heroic" ("For Artaud,), a grim but "noble combat" waged in the body, mind, and spirit. In this collection some engagements are won, others lost; the outcome of the conflict is as yet uncertain, but it is fought right down to the last poem in the volume in which McClure still cries his resolution and defiance: "I DO / NOT SURRENDER" ("Mad Sonnet,").
Walls and barriers continue to be central images in The New Book, metaphors for the patterns and systems that enclose us, that separate us from true being, from beauty and freedom. Kicking in, smashing through, breaking down walls, is a refrain common to several poems here, together with the recognition that "there are no walls but ones we make" ("Ode for Soft Voice,"). A group of images complementary to the above are those of constraint and obfuscation. Locks, seals, nets, webs, smoke, and vapor represent in these poems the complex of socially conditioned responses that repress our essential human identity, check our spontaneity, sensuality, spirituality, our latent energies and potentialities.
In "End-Fragment of a Hymn," McClure images the inner messiah as the Fenris Wolf and as Prometheus. Both these figures, it will be remembered, were bound by the gods (the Aesir and the Olympians, respectively). Together they represent the Beast-Redeemer, the forces of the instincts which have been suppressed and constrained by the high gods of the intellect, but which will one day free themselves from their bonds and destroy the rule of the gods who have restrained them. Prophecies of the liberation and the victory of these elemental, redemptive powers occur repeatedly in these poems. "I am the animal seraph" ("Rant Block,"); "I AM BEAST" ("The Column,"); and "I am black beast and clear man," the poet proclaims ("The Flowers of Politics, II,"). But the apocalypse of the body is not enacted here; the "raised force" is only momentarily raised, then banished again, returned to its dark exile ("The Column,"). The struggle for deliverance continues.
A decisive change in the conflict occurs in Dark Brown with an eruption from the substrate, a bursting forth of chthonic energy that shatters the walls and scatters the nets and webs. This is the beginning of the second phase of McClure's writing: the achievement of a resolution. In this vigorous, vivid book-length poem, McClure celebrates the resurrection of the "INTER-RED BULK SPIRIT," the awakening of the "sleeping Lion," the rising of "the deep and / singing beast. McClure names this entity the Odem or undersoul. The word is German and may be translated as body-spirit, as distinct from Geist, which is the more ethereal soul. The coming of the Odem was prefigured in "Lines from a Peyote Depression" in The New, Book / A Book of Torture, where the poet quoted a passage from Ecclesiastes 3:21 in German that was used as a text by Brahms in Four Serious Songs. McClure also refers to the Odem in a journal entry for September 1959, which is used as a statement of poetics and as a preface to the combined edition of Hymns to St. Geryon & Dark Brown.
The coming forth of the Odem may be likened to a rebirth for the poet. He feels cleansed, freed, ennobled, returned to pleasure and joy, to desire and love and hunger. He is "undamned" - released from envy, falsehood, deceit, and vanity; unburdened of customs, patterns, forms, and habits; free to be and to act and to grow in new clarity and truth. The Odem brings wholeness ("THE BODY THE SPIRIT ARE ONE") and renewing vision ("NEW EYES TO SEE I AM A SERAPH") (Dark).
The two erotic poems that complete the volume, "Fuck Ode" and "A Garland," extol "love INVENTED," "love made anew," and declare the truth of the body, the mystery of physical actuality, the poetry of the skin and the senses. The act of love is celebrated as sacramental, conferring grace on the communicants; it is shown as a sacred act partaking of the infinite: "Freed / of all lies the face is pure. The gestures are immortal" (Dark). The sexual act is represented both as the negation of constraint and enclosure and as the affirmation of expansion, extension, and union. McClure has written in his essay "Revolt" "the basis of all revolt in one phase or another is sexuality. The Erotic impulse is the impulse to destroy walls and Join units together in larger and larger structures."
The emergence of the Odem in Dark Brown is followed by its ascendance in Ghost Tantras, a sequence of ninety-nine stanzas composed partly (some stanzas entirely) in beast language. Beast language consists of pure emotive sounds phonetically transcribed on the page. There are growls of aggression, passion, and anguish, roars of joy and delight, grunts of pleasure and attraction, purrs of tenderness and affection, howls of sorrow, fear, and loneliness -all interspersed with lines of verse. Beast language is most commonly characterized by plosives (g and k), liquids (r and 1), by the aspirate h, and by prominent and prolonged vowel sounds: aaaa, eeee, oooo. These sounds are distinguished by unconstricted breath and they vary in quality from deep and gruff to sonorous and melodious.
Ghost Tantras represents a magical, mantric use of sound and vibration, a linguosomatic tool. The poems must be read aloud in order to exert their peculiar power. They are physical-metaphysical exercises that release physiological and psychological tensions and that exhort the reader to rapture and vision. Ghost Tantras is a return to the earliest poetry, to primitive song that summons healing or helping powers and induces states of trance or vision. The poems are shamanistic invocations, incantations, evocations of the beast spirit, of mammal consciousness. In terms of imagery, the dominant motif in these poems is sensory, supporting the central theme that "physicality is poesy." Color imagery is most prominent, with bright, intense colors and an extreme sensitivity to subtleties of tone and hue. Qualities of light also figure very largely: flaring, shimmering, flashing, beaming, shining, gleaming, glimmering, glowing, radiance, brilliance, translucence, lamplight, candlelight, sunlight. Sound imagery includes the breeze through leaves, rainfall, rustlings, creakings, thumps, boomings and silence, the cascade of water, references to music and musical instruments. ('All sounds," McClure proclaims, "are unjudgemented love" [No. 56) Tactile images are also frequent: textures, temperatures, surfaces, erotic fondlings and caresses, and the response of the skin to stimuli such as the motion of cool air" (No. 54). Tastes and odors are also represented: nectar, honey, sugar; the fragrance of hemlock, musk, and copal; the scents of flesh, perfume, and smoke.
Significant to the theme of visionary perception, of seeing anew, discovering new correspondences, is the occurrence of synaesthesia in Ghost Tantras. McClure writes of a "radiant chorus" (No. 42) and of "satins of sounds," of "the ear's vista" (No. 51) and "eyed feet" (No. 68), of drinking stillness and hearing the feel of music, of "space sounds" (No. 31) and "strawberry-peach darkness" (No. 3), of touch-scent" (No. 93) and of "an ultimate chord. It started bright ivory yellow and swiftly turned to black" (No. 78). These sense transferences are suggestive of a larger, fuller awareness and a higher degree of response, of an integrated, direct experience of physical sensation. The scales (in both the sense of measurement and encrustation) have fallen from the senses and we regain "what we once knew and have forgotten" (No. 72).
Appropriately, where in earlier poems there were walls and barriers, there are now doorways, entrances, hallways, vistas, vastness, hugeness, infinity; and where there was infernal torment and torture, there is now the pleasure and grace of "multitudinous heavens" (No. 68). "The heavy curtains are raised / by roaring," writes McClure (No. 82), and on the other side of the curtains there is an Eden of sensory delight, where we are incarnate joys," (No. 67), attaining "total acceptance and god-belief' (No. 71), and are blessed with liberty and tranquillity in 'A UNIVERSE OF ENERGETIC STILLNESS" (No. 18).
McClure's plays from this period treat the same issues and themes as his poetry, and the two modes are mutually illuminating. The Blossom, or Billy the Kid is McClure's first drama, written in 1959 "between the finish of The New Book / A Book of Torture and my sexual poem Dark Brown" and first performed in 1963. The play is more in the manner of an inquiry into the causes and nature of McClure's psychic conflicts than a resolution of them. That is, The Blossom is essentially diagnostic, a dramatic exposition of self-dividedness as a personal and general human condition.
The characters in the play are based on actual historical figures, participants in the Lincoln County War of New Mexico. The drama is set in eternity, though, and the characters do not remember either their deaths or their former relationships. As entities within the play, they embody various attitudes and perspectives, different aspects of the psyche.
Tunstall espouses boldness, courage, the nobility of action. Alexander McSween represents a more passive, fearful, restrained type of person, taking refuge in the forms of orthodoxy, such as the Bible and romantic ideals, denying his senses when they contradict his mental images and his conceptions. Mrs. McSween is sensuous, erotic, nurturing. The Mother, bound in bandages and rags and living in the darkness of her narrow chamber, seems to personify all the forces that limit and arrest growth and hamper freedom and action. In a sense, these characters may be seen as emanations or extensions of the Kid, the central figure of the play, who is caught between and torn by violence and love, pain and desire, horror and beauty, the coldness of space and the hear of action.
Flowers provide the unifying image of the play, symbolizing the growth and unfolding of the deep, true self, the spirit: "THE FLOWER RISES UP OUT OF THE EARTH BRINGING FIRE FROM COLD BLACKNESS." Light and heat are important supporting images, significant of love, courage, the realization of freedom and authentic being. The Kid's growth of spirit during the course of the play may be measured by his pronouncements: "There is no warmth but the warmth I make" (Mammals, 25), and "I do not reflect light but cast light" (Mammals, 31).
The Blossom offers no final solution to the conflicts that it presents. Even after his second death at the end of the play, the Kid discovers that "there is no end. There is no end." The unfolding, blossoming of the spirit continues, "swelling at once to one eternal / last final act swelling" (Mammals, 39). The process of transmutation is one of successive stages of transition, a cyclic distillation of the spirit.
A more conclusive working out of the theme of self-dividedness takes place in !The Feast! (written and first performed in 1960). This play presents thirteen characters who may be seen as embodiments of forces in the psyche or components of the self - some are light, others dark; some are male, others female. With their robes of shining cloth, their long hair and pharaonic beards, and their strange names, they have the aspect of noumenal entities. There is a solemn, ritual quality to the play, a sacred and ceremonial ambiance.
McClure alludes to the Last Supper in the thirteen figures seated together at a long table, set with black wine and loaves of bread and red plums. The central figure (at the table and within the play) is Yeorg, lionpawed, the Beast Messiah. He delivers the main speeches of the play and his presence and his words serve as a catalyst for the dialogue and the action of the drama. His utterances are oracular; he declares that "the fur and blood / of living are denied by (the) closed vision" and that "the Dumb rises to full voice and song." He prophesies that "the right hand shall bless the left."
Yeorg's prophecy is fulfilled when, at the end of the play, the six figures seated to his left and the six figures seated to his right rise and exchange places and assume the names of their counterparts. The dialogue of the play is partially in beast language (preceding its use in Ghost Tantras) thereby raising what has heretofore been dumb "to full voice and song." At a symbolic level what has taken place in the course of the drama is a readjustment of forces in the psyche: the life of the body and the senses has asserted itself against denial and repression by the "closed vision" of the intellect; the Beast Messiah has risen to effect reconciliation and to establish a new balanced interrelationship among the constituents of consciousness.
The Beard (written and first performed in 1965), probably McClure's best-known play, provides a further treatment of the theme of psychic division, the conflict of spirit and body. Again, although thoroughly modern on the surface, the play possesses strong ritual, ceremonial elements and a mythic, magical quality that harks back to the sacred origins of drama. With its use of obscenity and explicit sexuality, its oneiric setting, primal situation, and incantatory dialogue, The Beard is at once contemporary and archaic, a work of poetry, potency, and mystery.
In common with The Blossom and !The Feast!, The Beard is set in eternity and the characters are ritually bearded with white tissue paper beards to indicate their status as spirits. Billy the Kid appears again as a central figure, in this instance, together with Jean Harlow. In contrast to the longer, lyrical speeches of the earlier plays, the dialogue here consists of short sentences delivered in a succession of quick exchanges. The Beard is altogether a more concentrated and austere work than its predecessors.
The terms of the conflict in The Beard are inherent in the two characters: the outlaw and the sex goddess. For the Kid, humans exist as "bags of meat," whereas for Harlow the flesh is "an illusion." In the course of the play each character moves closer to the other's point of view, modifying his or her own, until at the end they arrive at a higher truth, finding accord and unity. The dramatic action of The Beard proceeds from the opposition and affinities that obtain between man and woman-attraction and repulsion, aggression and tenderness, dominance and submission, truthfulness and dissimulation, and most importantly, between meat and spirit. The reconciliation of contrarieties, the resolution of tensions, in the play is achieved at two levels: as concept and as act. Both characters discover that meat and spirit are concurrent, not exclusive, categories of being, that they (we) are "sheer spirit taking the guise of meat"). They agree at last that they (we) are divine incarnations-beautiful, mysterious, and at perfect liberty, absolutely free. Desire is the key to the realization of our divinity and our freedom: it must be enacted. This enactment of desire is literally accomplished and symbolically imaged in the erotic tableau that concludes the play. Harlow's final, ecstatic cry of "STAR! STAR! STAR! STAR!" confirms the state of transcendence, of divinity attained through the union of head and genitals, spirit and meat.
At this stage of McClure's personal and artistic evolution, when he has definitely overthrown the forces of denial, negation, and restriction within himself and has achieved a psychosomatic equilibrium, his writing begins to undergo a shift of focus and emphasis, moving from the inner to the outer, from the personal to the universal. This change manifests itself in his work in an increasing concern with social and environmental-ecological Issues (well in advance of the vogue of the latter) and in repeated strivings to articulate a vision of the process of life in the universe and of humankind's position in that process. This is the third phase of McClure's work: the attainment of freedom and visionary consciousness.
Poisoned Wheat is the earliest of McClure's revolutionary pronouncements: a manifesto in verse form but an antipolitical manifesto in which the poet assails the prevalent political doctrines and dogmas, denouncing capitalism, communism, and fascism for their essential insanity and their manifest cruelties and failures. McClure calls instead for a revolt against the repressive codes and "structural mechanisms of Society" that impede individual and collective human evolution. He advocates "no single answer" but "a multitude of solutions" and declares that "POLITICS IS DEAD AND BIOLOGY IS HERE!"
Poisoned Wheat is an impassioned, indignant denunciation (in the Blakean, Shelleyan tradition) of the organized barbarism of the state and of society. War, overpopulation, mass starvation, mindless consumerism, and the rapacious exploitation of natural resources are seen as the Inevitable consequences of abstract political and economic theories that have been and continue to be imposed upon actual human, planetary realities. A direct correspondence lies here between the intellect's domination of individual human beings to the neglect and detriment of the unconscious, the emotions, and the consciousness of the body and the domination of the nations and peoples of the world by abstract theories and doctrines. Both are mutually reflexive aspects of a single tyranny that suppresses "the freedom creature" and denies "mammal, sensory pleasure."
Thus, appropriately, Poisoned Wheat is framed by Odemic Grahhrs as invocation and coda. In order to resist the guilt, fear, aggression, cynicism, and hysterical millennialism that are inflicted upon individuals or called forth by the crimes and failures of their social structures, McClure proposes the assertion of primal being, of mammal consciousness. This biological revolt consists of disavowing the patterns, projections, and preconceptions of the head (the state, social, political, and economic theories) and affirming, exerting the wisdom of the body: clearing the senses to see the world as it is, awakening the corporealspiritual energies of desire and love and tenderness and compassion. Biological revolt arises out of the need of the animal body to adjust to the influences and conditions of its environment, to survive, and to achieve a state of active equilibrium. This process is as natural and as necessary as the body's efforts to reject infection or poison.
The other dominant theme of McClure's middle and later work is cosmology. His writings persistently explore the processes of life, energy, and matter in order to discover and delineate essential patterns and configurations of the universe. McClure unites perspectives from biology, physics, myth, and metaphysics in his cosmological poems and plays, recognizing the insufficiency of any one viewpoint and the interfertility of more comprehensive, eclectic approaches. In a sense, this bio-alchemical vision of McClure, together with his use of concepts, images, and vocabulary drawn from natural science, may be seen as a contemporary renewal of a poetic tradition that stems from Lucretius, Erasmus Darwin, and Walt Whitman but which since the nineteenth century has fallen into disfavor and neglect. McClure infuses scientific themes with new energy and beauty and in so doing reclaims for poetry a large and fruitful territory.
"The Surge" from the collection Star is perhaps the earliest of McClure's enquiries into the nature of the cosmos (the theme has always been implicit in his work), and the poet himself in a prefatory note accounts the work a "failure," describing it as "not fully achieved" though he allows it represents a "Step." McClure's remarks notwithstanding, "The Surge" is an effective and compelling poem whose four parts form a coherent whole and convey a complete statement or meditation. "The Surge" is an effort to gain "a more total view" of the "Surge of Life," to achieve a mode of seeing or conceiving that exceeds those of philosophy and science, especially insofar as these disciplines reflect what are essentially male points of view and are thus inherently limited and partial.
The poet proposes love as a mode of understanding and declares that the female / who is unprincipled, sees further and into more." In evidence of this last assertion he describes a valentine "made by a woman as gift of love in a casual moment," a drawing which for McClure constitutes a picture of the living Universe," an intuitive, artistic representation of the "Surge of Life" that "calls all previous images to abeyance". In the poet's apprehension of it, the valentine depicts a dynamic, metamorphic, mysterious, equivocal universe, a cosmos of sensuality, love, joy, ascent, and progression. Nearly every creature or object in the drawing may be seen to be something else, expressing the interplay and interrelatedness among all things.
Inspired by this perception, the poet feels himself momentarily immersed in the Surge, experiencing it in a vision of the "roaring meat mountain" of mammals, men, and birds (25), and in the smallest particles of life and knowing it also as a "rosy, / full, flowing, and everspreading and con- / tracting, spilling flash" in infinite space. He sees too that "the cold seas beasts / and mindless creatures are the holders of vastest / philosophy," for they are fully engaged in the Surge while we humans are too often merely self-conscious observers of it. He recognizes that the universe is in need of neither explanation nor justification; it simply exists in, of, and for itself. "There is no answer / -and no question!" As human-mammals we should learn to accept and celebrate our part in the Surge: "We are bulks of revolt and systems of love-structuring / in a greater whole".
References to Dante and Beatrice and to Paradiso serve both to unite the poem and to extend its meaning. "The Surge" makes clear that "in our male insistency on meaning we miss the truth" and that woman's view of the universe is at once more gentle and more bold than man's. As Beatrice guided Dante in Purgatorio and Paradiso, so may our male cosmology be enlarged and enhanced by the insights of woman. In the alchemical union of male and female mind, a new awareness, harmonious, and whole, will be created. The poem concludes with a prophetic declaration that humankind will undergo a transformation, attaining visionary consciousness: "Beatrice! Beatrice! Paradiso is opening! / WE ARE AT THE GATES OF THE CHERUBIC!".
The informing concepts, energies, and emotions of "The Surge" are more fully developed and more completely expressed in McClure's booklength poem Rare Angel. The work originates, as the poet informs us in a foreword, "from the substrate" of muscle and nerve, from the cells and selves of the body, and it concerns "the interwoven topologies of reality" in which we exist and of which we are comprised. "Rare Angel gives form and shape to "the alchemy of being," to the intricately intertwining, rising and falling, expanding and contracting, constantly changing, cyclically recurrent, heterogenous agglomeration and inseparable wholeness of the phenomenal universe.
The poem consists essentially of catalogs of images-real and surreal, juxtaposed and linked-which are interspersed with poetic commentary and pronouncements. The verse lines are generally quite short-many are made up of only a single word-so that the poem is read more vertically than horizontally, creating (as McClure intends) an Oriental scroll effect and suggesting also the action of frames of film passing the eye in rapid succession.
Rare Angel proceeds by accretion, repetition, and sudden sweeping waves of words to represent the force of cosmic energy that incessantly forms and transforms all life and matter. The poem depicts a universe of which love is the motive power and luck the catalyst and agent of change; a universe of inconceivably myriad forms and of essential unity and indivisible identity; a universe composed simultaneously of spirit and matter, inseparably interwoven and interdependent; a universe that is an organism, self-creating and evolving; a universe that the poet proclaims as "the messiah".
The concept of the universe as messiah is further treated in several poems collected in September Blackberries, including "The Basic Particle," 'A Thought, " "The Skull, " "99 Theses, " and "Xes." McClure has always scrupulously avoided the vague and indefinite vocabulary of religion and mysticism, preferring the more precise terminology of natural science, but as a poet using language as a tool to express the inexpressible, he occasionally avails himself of metaphors drawn from spiritual traditions. Concerning his special understanding of the term messiah, McClure explains in an essay: "For the artist or animal there is but one religion.... The religion is bein itself.... In the religion of heing the universe is the Messiah....... The universe is the Messiah because it is the possibility of our being....... Each life is a tentacle or finger of the Messiah or Tathagata experiencing itself and the universe through entrances of perception, movement and contact. But to assign the Messiah human nature any more than the nature of a sea cucumber is beyond reason. "In this sense, then, McClure declares in these poems that "MATTER IS SPIRIT!" that the universe "IS DIVINE" ("Springs," 66), and that we are all "Pseudopods of Messiah" ("The Basic Particle,"). Microstructure recapitulates macrostructure, and each being and the totality of all being is "all one starry thing of selves and selves / of selves of selves of selves of selves of selves" ("Xes,"), in which "we are ONE and ALL" ("Gathering Driftwood on Christmas Morning").
September Blackberries is a rich and varied collection which contains a number of shorter poems of diverse moods and forms. McClure employs an aphoristic style (somewhat in the manner of the "Proverbs of Hell" section of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) in poems such as "99 Theses," "Moiré," and "Springs"; he adopts an angry, rhetorical, polemic tone at times, as in the extended poem "We"; and he demonstrates durable skill with short lyrics that are most often built around observations of natural phenomena: animals, flowers, birds, terrains, and landscapes. These latter poems are little gems of visionary attention, changing our perception of familiar things and providing glimpses, flashes of unknown beauty, elusive truths. An unobtrusive use of internal rhyme and end rhyme frequently distinguishes these lyrics, which in their stillness and luminousness contribute a sense of a deepening of the poet's vision.
Quietly, clearly, surely, McClure unites and strengthens the interweaving themes of his art in the pared-down poems of Jaguar Skies. The personal, the social, the environmental, and the cosmological themes are joined here as aspects of a universal unfolding and growth, a process of progression, an ascent. The photograph on the cover of the volume is worth remarking upon in this regard: it depicts a long flight of steeps I hewn in rock, weathered and worn -a scending to the dark, open door of a temple-like building; behind and above the temple there are windblown white and dark clouds and patches of clear sky. The photographic image seems a visual counterpart of the poem "A Stepping Stone," which states:
"New plateaus of seeing" and "acts of seeing" are very much what the poems in this collection are about. Seeing, for McClure, is a mode of action and not simply the passive reception of visual stimuli. True sight involves a creative extension of the self, a level of will and attention that must be attained and sustained. The "EYES ARE WIDE EXPLOSIONS" ("Ode,") that can be instruments of liberation: "THE WALLS OF THE FRONTIER ARE DOWN FOR THOSE / WHO CAN SEE IT" ("The Bow,"). In acts of seeing we can become "radiant momentary gods" ("Hwa Yen Totalism,") when the world is transfigured to a "living gold" of aura, haloes, and glows of energy ("Movies,"). McClure summarizes his counsel in "Mad Song": "Away with the frown and up with the eyelids!"
The poems in Jaguar Skies explore the connections between the denial and violation of the substrate of our individual psyches and our collective destruction and exploitation of the substrate of the planet. McClure writes of endangered primate species and of ravaged landscapes where
Go to The Michael McClure Home Page
Go to Light and Dust Poets
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.