To Dream Kalapuya, Cried and Measured, First Book of Omens From Middle American Dialogues and Questions & Goddesses from Middle American Dialogues, all by Karl Young
Commentary by Joe Napora
To Dream Kalapuya
twig west wind
brain and high tide
to join high tide
Karl Young takes chances, literal and literary: "These poems were composed using chance and spontaneous process, with Leo Frachtenberg's LOWER UMPQUA TEXTS as base." And as you can see, he's using other material, matter ‑‑solid, to touch base. It is a small sized book, I measured it: 4" x 5" x 3/16th". Handy enough to carry around and hold to your friends when one of them starts throwing haiku at you. Then you can ask yourself if Young must not feel like a midwife, pulling these small poems forth, allowing them to live long after the haiku imitators have passed onto imitate the intimations of some other imported poesey initiation.
Cried and Measured
I'll not quote, it is not quotable. Young does a fine enough job of explaining how these poems were generated at the end of Cried and Measured. This statement standing outside the text is worth reading. Learn some interesting history from it. Then before making a return trip through the text take a quick read through Charles Olson's essay "Homer and the Bible" in Human Universe and other essays. (A "quick read" of course won't do it except as a refresher but you may find that you can enter Young through Olson or maybe it will take Young to get to Olson, perhaps neither. I stumble as much as the next person. More.) Cried and Measured is one of the few books that is true to its title. There seems to have been this time, in the beginning as the good books say, when the word was that close to people's activities that it was almost indistinguishable from them, when the word was so tied to gesture that to fix it, make it solid, it was necessary to laboriously carve and scrape the word into clay, into the people's daily discourse. William Carlos Williams was not the first poet to make poetry from a shopping list.
Two: part of a series, probably on going as most series are.
Again, at the end of Questions & Goddesses Young offers his sources as a guide: "The first three pieces in this set are based on the following sections of the Mayan Chilam Balam of Chumayel: 1. `The Interrogation of Chiefs,' 2. `A Chapter of Questions and Answers,' 3. `The Creation of the World,' and `Memoranda Concerning the History of Yucutan.' The way I read these pieces is first down each column (ie., the first two lines of 1 would be `the sun / lances, lofty crosses in its heart') and then reread it going across (ie., the first three lines of this reading would be `the sun / a fried egg / lances, lofty crosses in its heart') ‑‑everything gets read twice...."
Two poems for the price of one. A gimmick? How about a new vision? It is hard to argue against this kind of playing when it works. If in doubt then look to this and perhaps you can consider it a healing, a protection against the weak European derived surrealism that fills too many poetry journals these meek days:
(continuing the reading across)
words and gestures of benediction
green chili peppers
a large house
a hat on the floor
mounting white horses
stirrups of henequen fiber
hold white rattles
wear white capes
dried blood on the rattles
the gold in the veins of the orphan
the soul of our help mistress...living lianas
the guts of pigs
flowers of the nights....
If you deny that this is powerful it would be less than honest to question your sight and hearing. But what of it? Admitting that there is an indigenous American surrealism (not "sur" nor "super" nor autre, but another Realism that has hardly been tapped ‑‑which in itself tells a story worth recording some time) what can a contemporary poet do with it? How can s/he honor the materials, not be just one more in a long chain of exploiters? Do you want Cortes as your patron? It aint easy to court the materials and then hear someone say that your love is just another form of whoring. No, it aint easy, and Young seems to have taken the hard way, which is the only way. It won't satisfy everyone, nor does he expect to. He has been honest with acknowledging his sources and he has created ‑‑no, not created, but done an oft' time more difficult task, he has made poetry from them. If a reader has doubts then s/he can go to those sources and attempt what he had done, perhaps an even better poem will result. I doubt if anyone would be more pleased than Karl Young. This country has ignored its own classics. Young is pretending that such a condition does not exist and by this act of his imagination is helping to create a situation in which the condition does not exist. I thank him for it, and continue to read on to the next book.
In the First Book of Omens From Middle American Dialogues Young pulls away from the texts that he has been using, or have been using him, and allows them to speak through him more personally, though he is still some distance from "the public wailing wall" where so much weak verse is posted. He presents a dramatic movement, a choreography of the dance of blood: "the steps to the temple are steep / the heart pumps blood faster / as you ascend the ". The poem records a sacrifice and in spite of the excellent printing that mirrors inscriptions cut into stone I doubt if the book will be popular ‑‑American poetry readers it seems are too removed from any feeling for sacrifice, it seems too many poets are so removed. Would not Keats recognize the poetry of these lines? ‑‑"the skeletons ribs knock together / he sees a heart inside them / as the ribs clash together / he reaches for the heart". It is a record of a sacrifice and a conquest recorded with the senses fixed to details, as they should be: "stamp with your sandals when fighting / so you dont slip on the blood of the field / a butterfly lands on his wife".
These books help open the door onto a world, our world, of mystery and life and death, a world that makes the psychology‑ inspired surrealism of Europe look childish by comparison. If the poetry lovers would look as avidly to these books as the weekend dope smokers have looked to Carlos Castaneda then American poetry perhaps stands some chance of rejuvenation, of living again.
Complete text of To Dream Kalapuya
Selections from Cried and Measured