A Review of REBEL LIONS (1991)

by Jack Foley

I'm crying
that's me crying

                                    - Michael McClure, Rebel Lions

"I realized," a friend told me recently, an expression of shocked surprise on her face, "that I had a taste for sentimental, academic verse!" There is none of that in Michael McClure's new book, Rebel Lions, but there is almost everything else. The book vibrates with an openness which reminds one of Robert Duncan's great Bending the Bow or of Ivan Argüelles's new Pantograph, which Argüelles has been reading around town.

A few years ago, when I complained of trying to categorize the extremely varied work of James Broughton, McClure smiled at me and said, "Yeah, it must be like trying to categorize the ocean." "The ocean" would be a good way to describe Rebel Lions. It is limited, yet it seems at times, with its puns, resonances and recollections of other writers, infinite. It surges, swirls (McClure words) and seems to contain a hundred shapes. It can keep you alive, provide you with essential poetic food, but you can also - like the the great poet whose spirit is invoked in the title, Percy Bysshe Shelley - drown in its immensities. Above all, like the ocean, it requires a profound energy of response, the tracings of what McClure calls "a vivid and athletic intellect" ("Writing One's Body: Interview with Michael McClure," Lighting the Corners). It is a book which is deeply involved with consciousness and with the creation of consciousness (which McClure refers to by the old-fashioned, Keatsian term, "soul-making"), and it demands and repays attention.

McClure himself notes that the central poem of Rebel Lions ("Rebellions") is the long, complicated, wave-like "Stanzas From Maui," a kind of continuation of Fragments of Perseus's "Stanzas Composed in Turmoil" (1973). "Stanzas From Maui," writes McClure, documents "the exact moment in which one who is dying of one love falls in love again." It is, like the entire book, an energetic and imaginative response to a powerful and disorienting sense of pain, the "crash of a marriage" which leaves the poet "weeping where that / other hurt me...INTERMINABLY, INTERMINABLY, INTERMINABLY."

The pain named here is responded to in a number of poems in Rebel Lions, and it hinges, I think, not only on the issue of marriage but on the issue of separation, an issue which haunts McClure's work. The other long poem in Rebel Lions is "TO GLEAN THE LIVINGNESS OF WORLDS," a response to Rilke's "Eighth Elegy." Rilke's poem itself could serve as a key text in an anthology of Western poetry dealing with the separation of Consciousness and Being. "Rilke now insists upon a still more fundamental defect or limitation," writes one of his translators:

the fact that in almost all consciousness there is a distinction between what philosophers call subject and object: the fact that our awareness of Being, or existence, as an object, as something distinct from ourselves, prevents us from identifying ourselves with it and achieving a condition of pure Being or pure existence. Being or existence [is] perceived as something not-ourselves...and [Rilke] contrasts [this] with what he calls "the Open"....

From J.B. Leishman's Translator's Notes,
Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender

"The Open," openness, is precisely the issue. McClure's poetics centers on that question. He invokes the ancient principle of "agnosia," a dark knowing, a knowing through not knowing, not so much to assert his mysticism (though that's an aspect of it) as to emphasize one of the strengths of open form. Olson similarly invoked Keats's "Negative Capability": "that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Open form allows the poet to take the stance of not taking a stance, to situate himself here, there, and everywhere in an effort to occupy not any particular position but the energetic ground out of which "positions" (self or other, subject or object) arise. Whether McClure is contemplating a "crashed" marriage, a deer in his headlights, or the opening lines of Rilke's famous poem, the issue is the same, and in a way the pain of the book is essentially the pain of closed form, of the esthetic reminder of the unbearable gulf between everything and everything. Poetry, writes McClure, "THIS LIVING THING," allows us to see that "WE ARE IN WAR / against nothingness," allows us to perceive, as he says to the deer, that "you and I are the same stuff / - just slightly different mists of spirit."

Like the rebel angels of Paradise Lost, the hero of Rebel Lions is situated "on this side nothing," thrown there by his intense perception of separation, and the danger of nothingness is precisely the danger of forgetting life. The line break here is important: "I MIGHT FORGET THAT I AM / a swirl of spirit / in an ebullient world! / AND THAT THERE IS JOY." McClure is not usually perceived as a poet of pain, but pain is a guiding, hidden principle in this break-through volume, which is at once a return to source and an exploration of the new. In his "Eighth Elegy," Rilke understands experience to be a continual leaving of the womb, a constant articulation of farewells: "we live our lives forever taking leave." He sees activity as essentially decline:

We arrange it. It decays.
We re-arrange it, and decay ourselves.

(From "Eighth Elegy," Duino Elegies)

McClure, on the other hand, sees activity as a very different thing. In some of the finest lines of the book he writes,

Layer after Layer of thorny stalk and leafy stack
in sunny morning air
that vibrates with the cries
of mating hawks.

                         (From "TO GLEAN THE LIVINGNESS OF WORLDS")

The organic imagination is erotic, open, hurling itself out into the world. From McClure's bioimaginative point of view, both Rilke and the womb he thinks he's leaving are made of the same stuff, and so there is really neither leaving nor staying, only "the life / that's whirling there." But, as McClure recognizes, that position is not our ordinary condition. It is always to be regained, rearticulated. The "function of poetry," he writes, "is to create a myriad-mindedness." The phrase is from Biographia Literaria, in which Coleridge refers to "our myriad-minded Shakespeare," and McClure opposes it to Herbert Marcuse's concept of "one-dimensionality," which, as the poet explains it, "means that the individual in contemporary society has so little interior, individuated self remaining that the introjection of the values of society hardly phase his consciousness. They are his consciousness. There is only one dimension." The "vivid and athletic intellect" of poetry offers a way out of that condition by proposing a revolt: "The more one discovers one's bio-self as opposed to one's social self, the more one is moving out..." ("Writing One's Body," Lighting the Corners). Poetry, with its "muscular principle," and which comes "from the body," opens the door to the bio-self, that area which is neither "inner" nor "outer" but an active interchange between the two: "We are looking for a point that is both inside of ourselves and outside of ourselves because, as organisms, we are created of the environment" (Scratching the Beat Surface). The relationship of self to environment is like the relationship of child to womb, and suggestions of the womb and of re-entering it abound in Rebel Lions":

Like a bug within the rose
I'll be the thing I am

                               (From "BONFIRE IN THE SNOWS")

this Cave of Wonder. I'm deep inside this

                               (From "STANZAS FROM MAUI")

Interestingly, however - and in a way strongly suggestive of Robert Duncan, whose Bending the Bow contains the lines, "rimed round, / sound-chamberd child" - McClure represents the ecstatic connection between self and other primarily as sound, as rhyme or near-rhyme:

Tulips shadowing a hare
that's sleeping.

Sun beating yellow fields of wheat
and reapers - shadows reaping
while the women cook up pies and stews.
A boy's dream of the yew
that Robin used
to make his Greenwood bow


from which I stride!!!!!

No place for the Heart to hide!

                               (From "THE BULKS OF HEART")

The centered verse presents us with an idyllic scene involving nature, childhood, dreaming, etc. But the central fact of these lines is not so much their "imagery" or even their shape on the page as it is their extraordinary amount of rhyme. Sleeping / beating / wheat / reaping (the gerunds are typical of McClure). Stews / yew / used / bow / those. In addition, the concluding line of this poem, "No place for the Heart to hide," rhymes with the opening line of the next, "WE ARE DEEP INSIDE." And the entire book is divided into three sections whose headings rhyme or nearly rhyme: "OLD FLAMES," "ROSE RAIN," "NEW BRAIN." In a writing culture - and in the wake of the Modernist revolution - rhyme tends to be devalued, seen as one of the many atavistic aspects of poetry. (Olson called it "the dross of verse.") Yet in Rebel Lions McClure glories in rhyme, giving it a central place in his esthetics. (Even his puns tend to be rhyming puns, as when he rewrites Diane di Prima's line, "The only war that matters is the war against the imagination" as "The only love that shatters / is the love of despondence and horror" - though the syntactic displacement of di Prima's "war" by McClure's "love" and di Prima's "imagination" by McClure's "despondence and horror" is important as well.) It is precisely in the sound of these poems - in their rhyme and near rhyme - that one can recognize the "myriad-mindedness" of McClure's ambition, the "livingness" of his mind. In "Stanzas From Maui" he speaks of himself and his love as "meating," and the word not only emphasizes McClure's familiar insistence on the body, on "meat," but brings us to "meeting" and "mating" as well. Stylistically, the poems in this volume range widely, but sound, it seems, is their ground, the element out of which things tend to arise and to connect with one another:

and it is freed, yes freed, of all goals

and we are fools, otters, foxes, lions, kings, queens and foals
- fools, otters, foxes, lions, kings, queens and foals!

                               (From "REBEL LIONS")

Fools, foals, goals and souls - to say nothing of otters and foxes - correspond in McClure's network of sound and link the animal not only to our social structures (kings, queens) but to the universe itself ("AND IT IS HUGE").

Given such an emphasis on the sound of the work, one is not surprised to discover that McClure not only has a new book, Rebel Lions, he has a new video as well, Love Lion - a 70-minute collaborative performance with his friend, The Doors' keyboardist, Ray Manzarek. It is a handsome and very professional product, and one almost inevitably asks, "Which did you like better, the book or the movie, the written poetry or the recitation?" The answer, of course, is that the two modes have different strengths and that there is no need to choose between them. In Rebel Lions McClure cites Mallarmé's definition of poetry as "the language of a state of crisis." But language is what you do with your langue, with your tongue. Both writing and video (to say nothing of CD's and cassette tapes) are modes of preserving speech, and I would insist that there is nothing intrinsically "better" about the one than the other. Tom Parkinson remarked to me that he thought Charles Olson's natural medium was the cassette tape. And one might say that Celia Zukofsky informed Louis by way of "A - 24" that his entire life's work might be viewed as a performance piece! McClure himself is of course a distinguished playwright. Open forms have a tendency to cross over boundaries, and one of these boundaries is clearly "the book": they tend to fly off the page. But that "page" is itself no static entity. When someone says to me that, though he "enjoys" the performance of poetry, the real test is how the poem "stands up" on the page, I think which page? Are we thinking of the page in the notebook on which the poem was originally handwritten? The typescript? The typeset version? They are by no means exactly the same. Robert Duncan insisted that New Directions print a facsimile of his typescript of Ground Work I because he was afraid that the New Directions typesetter would ruin the book! It is at any rate clear that performance and page have different strengths and can emphasize different aspects of a work. Watching McClure on that video I thought again how his work is a crossroads for an extraordinary number of things, and that one of them was the spontaneity and immediacy of rock 'n roll. Would Jim Morrison have looked like that had he survived into middle age? This is a passage that appears in both the book and the video:

- but to the wound!

                               (From "MAYBE MAMA LION")

The pun on "fur" is apparent in both book and video versions, but when McClure pronounces the word "wound" he draws it out so that it is "wooooooound." One almost hears "womb."

Because Michael McClure has been around for so long and has been so successful, one tends to forget how good he can be, how exciting his poetry is. Both Rebel Lions and Love Lion are reminders of the tremendous urgency and "livingness" of that restless mind which moves at times "in the luminous world" and which attempts continually to leap into the area of its own sources. "All of this," writes McClure, "was done for consciousness," "to walk through the fields of consciousness."

In his interesting book, Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A., Michael Ventura quotes the great Cecil Taylor on improvisation:

Most people don't have any idea what improvisation is...It means the magical lifting of one's spirits to a state of trance...It means experiencing oneself as another kind of living organism, much in the way of a plant, a tree - the growth, you see, that's what it is...It has to do with religious forces.

(From "Hear That Long Snake Moan," Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A.)

Like Taylor's music, Michael McClure's poetry attempts to lift our spirits, to allow us to experience ourselves as "another kind of living organism." "The method that I have developed," writes McClure, "has allowed me to try to create poems that might become living things...." The poems in Rebel Lions vibrate with "livingness." Indeed, Ventura goes on to quote a saying current in Haiti: "If you want the loa [the Haitian "spirits"] to leave you alone - become a Protestant!" That is: embrace a faith which has no use for the animism of the earth. It is safe to say that Michael McClure has never even been tempted! As a "rebel lion," a Leo, myself, I would suggest that one buy both the book and the video. The needs of consciousness and the needs of poetry will be well served:

It is superlatively clear.

                               (From "THE ARTIST")

Copyright © 1998 by Jack Foley.
First published in Poetry Flash, No. 227, February, 1992.

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