by Karl Young
One of d.a.levy's last and most important works, The Tibetan Stroboscope explores his abilities as a master of visual poetry to the fullest extent, showing how much he could do to make a relatively inexpensive tabloid a form of book art comparable to any other. The largest edition of levy's work, this book was produced in 1968, the hectic last year of his life. As always for levy, the interaction of paper and ink was essential, and he worked with the soft texture and lower contrast level of newsprint in such a way as to maximize his materials. He worked extremely fast, putting together some of the collages at the print shop. For some people this may make the book look sloppy, but despite its purposeful roughness, there's nothing sloppy about it: levy's spontaneity and deliberate avoidance of neat layouts were informed by a complete sureness of craft and trust in intuition. At this stage, anything else would have worked against the invention which he brought to every page.
Although The Tibetan Stroboscopewas printed offset, levy had worked with mimeo for years and mimeo characteristics had become part of his aesthetic, an aesthetic shared with other poets of the 60s. Unless you’re very careful, mimeo tends to blur letters and to leave flecks of ink in random places. If you don't slip-sheet the pages - - that is, throw pieces of cardboard or heavy paper between the pages coming out of the machine -- ink will set-off on the backs of sheets as they enter the delivery tray. In levy’s case, letting this happen, and even anticipating it, created a sort of casualness as purposeful as the deliberate crudeness of cups made for use in Japanese tea ceremonies. At a time when most poetry came in modestly printed books, and even the books published by City Lights and New Directions were exceedingly plain by the standards of the 1990s, this was not only something to which readers had become accustomed but something they expected. levy's publications functioned in a social and political environment where mimeo had taken on a life of its own. Not only were many magazines and books of poetry printed by inexpensive means, so were publications of the civil rights and anti-war movements. At demonstrations and other actions, mimeoed flyers were ubiquitous. Activists of all sorts cranked out mimeo, often working spontaneously in response to events in progress. Song lyrics by Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan and poems by local poets found their way quite naturally into political flyers and booklets -- for many, in fact, they were part of political statements, and certainly a strong reinforcement and incitement to action. In this milieu, printing that came across as too neat or too prim lacked credibility.
But the most important characteristic of levy's avoidance of neatness goes much deeper, into a kind of integration that has not been surpassed. Checking out collages in vogue in the 90s makes this clear. The images tend to be chosen for the sake of trendy cleverness or a snobbish sense of kitsch. Neatly pasted down so they’re in line with the goose-stepping computer types among which they march, they remain perpetually superficial in content as well as in appearance -- lifeless accumulations with no visual depth or integrity. Nothing could be farther from levy's visionary aesthetic in this book, in which all elements fuse tightly and inseparably. Perhaps his occasional use of superficially affixed overlays may help demonstrate the kind of unity in The Tibetan Stroboscope. A related book, Zen Concrete pushes what levy called "destructive writing" as far as he could go with it. Virtually all basic text is obliterated through variations of blotted erasure. Illegible blocks of letters become unstable and dynamic visual units, sometimes working through massed blocks that resemble roads or towers, sometimes suggesting human hair or spattered blood or tenuous streams feeding into lakes, sometimes losing all hint of their origin in text and becoming traces of swirling energy. Most legible text is pasted onto the page in such a way as to emphasize its disjuncture from the organic masses below it, insisting that these texts are simply the exoteric pointers that can be read, not the voids that must be entered on a more profound level, at once both pre- and super-verbal.
For levy, collage sources were essential, and usually not selected for one reason only. During the last weeks of his life, he sent bundles of printed ephemera, art prints, cartoons, clippings from (and even whole issues of) magazines and newspapers to friends. If the importance of source material doesn't strike the reader from looking at the work, this act of salvage, of giving things he prized to friends at the last moment before his death, should form a persuasive argument. The clip from a "skin mag" on page 15 seems a good example of a carefully chosen image. From a strictly formal point of view, the circle of the model's breast gets repeated in the wheel, tank, and headlight of the motorcycle on which she reclines. The circle gets picked up in the tantric sculpture on the same page, as well as in a simple line drawing of a lotus to the left, and in circles in succeeding pages. The circles move, in good Tantric fashion, from voluptuousness through details of daily life to allusions to the Buddhist Wheel of the Law. The erotic figure embodies odd contradictions of aggression and passivity, definitely a figure that suggests a milieu "on the make," as the text says, but not knowing what to make of itself. Although the model fits perfectly into the photo of the motorcycle, she would fall over if she were actually seated as she appears to be, and the composite remains an unstable balancing act. The poise of the classic sculpture contrasts with this nicely. The block of Chinese characters follows the nature of the two images: a dark field for the upper half of the page that breaks into a rectangular division of clear text above the Tantric figure and a square zone for defaced characters surrounding the erotic figure. The face of the Tantric sculpture initially seems pleasant and benignly inviting, but on further examination, it begins to look odd, goofy, almost cartoonish. The expression on the erotic figure may initially come across as sexy or alluring or vacuous. As with much pornography of this sort, it's hard to know what's going on in the model's mind. Is she trying to prove something -- perhaps saying "fuck you" to parents, ministers, highschool teachers, childhood friends? Does she get off in one way or another over the thought of men oggling her? Is she posing at the demand of a boyfriend or pimp, or to support a drug habit or out of other economic necessity? Perhaps a combination of any number of the above? The expression on this model's face, as well as her body language, seem to become less meaningful as you look at her. After a while, her photographed flesh seems more inert than the stone of the sculpture, while the Tantric figure's odd expression yields more possibilities. This may switch back the other way if contemplated long enough. Whatever the case, the dynamics of the interaction between these two figures gains in symbolic significance the more you get to know the book.
"REALISTIC 3 DIMENSIONAL" reads the text at the top of the page. The model's pose accentuates the forward and downward thrust of the breast precisely to make it seem more like something the viewer can grab. Likewise, what appear to be straps emphasize the breasts of the Tantric sculpture. A mandalic, perhaps lotus-based, disk covers one of the sculpture's breasts, flattening it, and the figure appears to be emerging from a block of stone that has been carved to represent a more or less flat surface. The pornographic, occidental figure appears against a dark ground of oriental text in white; the half of the page dominated by the Tantric figure has English text printed in black on a white ground. levy could not read the Chinese text, and he may not have seen a gloss for it. An important passage in the English text is mostly obliterated. It begins, however, "eyed them only as preparatory" and after several totally obliterated lines, the word "preliminary" struggles toward visibility in the last line of the block, which seems to end with the word "yoga" or "yogi." The English words throughout the page vacillate between phrases that deal with perception, particularly sight, and with Buddhist doctrine. The page, like the book as a whole, questions the nature of reality, muses on dimensions of it beyond basic perception, and suggests that at this point, with the police and the demons of his manic-depressive disorder closing in on him, none of this was worth much in the ordinary stream of things. But the page seen as a whole creates a yin-yang figure, a wheel of light and dark, of positive and negative, of sexuality and obliteration in which either element of a pair contains the nucleus of the other, and each creates and destroys the other in an endless cycle. On the simplest level, the components of the page make up an Escheresque puzzle, in which figure and ground regularly flip as you look at it. On the most profound level of integration with the book, the polarities of the page energize the Tantric wheel of interdependent creation and destruction.
On a larger scale the book works through two basic conceits, the newspaper and the stroboscope. Essential to the newspaper level is Ezra Pound's statement that poetry is "news that stays news." Printed on newsprint, employing elements collaged from newspapers, and bound as a tabloid, the basic format of The Tibetan Stroboscope implies a newspaper in the literal sense. That many people in the counterculture of 1968 saw little mags and related publications as hip, as central to their community, made this literally so. This was strongly reinforced by the sense that mainstream newspapers were vehicles of police-state propaganda which could only be repressive and deceptive, and that the only meaningful sources of reported news came from underground papers. These tended toward aggressive reportage, with a strong polemical stance. Milwaukee's Kaleidoscope, which levy read, carried the banner under its title "The only dope worth shooting is in the White House." The Fifth Estate, published in Detroit, a brief drive from Cleveland, carried a less comically militant message. The Rabellasian put-ons in Paul Krasner's New York based tabloid, The Realist, carried a mythic truth that made more sense than the empty lies of the military-industrial complex. In 1968 mainstream newspapers reported that the Tet Offensive in Vietnam was a resounding victory for the U.S., though anybody who paid any attention at all knew that the American forces had been beaten silly. Poetry was an essential part of the scene, not a detachable ornament or amenity. It embodied creativity, vision, intensity, subversion, searching alternate or expanded consciousness, personal commitment, the supremacy of individual perception -- all basic virtues of the counterculture. Personal discoveries need not relate to current events: they could include sacred art several thousand years old as much as epiphanies found in sex, personal introspection and revelation, what was happening among small groups ranging from communes to rock bands, and even discoveries extracted from contemporary ephemeral print sources that did not try to pass themselves off as news in the conventional sense. Ephemerality, in fact, was part of the news. Experience of all sorts was ephemeral, as was life. In this context, news of personal discoveries carried a great urgency with it -- the sharing of individual visions couldn't wait for detached contemplation: this news was vital in a way that the deliberations of the state's oligarchy could never be.
Keenly aware of his poverty, and the lack of funds of many other counterculturists, levy worked with inexpensive materials not only out of necessity, but as a means of opposing and subverting the capitalist superstructure. He charged very little for his publications, and he gave them away to people who seemed unable to afford them. Hard as it may be to believe now, segments of the counterculture often waited for new underground poetry the way farmers in arid country wait for rain. The group that waited for levy publications in 1968 had grown significantly as a result of the notoriety of his arrests and the campaigns to save him. In this book, levy not only carried on his activities of publishing the real news and working as skillfully as possible with the kind of paper and printing techniques available to him, he also included layer upon layer of ironic reference to his own publications, to underground newspapers, to his arch-enemy The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and to the position into which he was being helplessly shoved by a notoriety he didn't want. When the usual contingent had gotten their copies of levy publications, levy hawked the rest in coffee houses and on the street, often button-holing passers- by and reading to them whether they wanted to hear him or not. He sometimes claimed that these people sent telepathic messages to him, sometimes crying out to him in distress without conscious awareness of their cries. In this instance "telepathy" may have been an intuitive sense of who needed poetry rather than a form of clairvoyance or anything related to the occult or drug use.
The second major conceit, the stroboscope, may be more difficult for people not of the right vintage or experience to understand. Technically, a stroboscope is an instrument used for industrial and scientific procedures that call for the intermittent flashing of beams of light. Such a device can be used to test machinery and to make rapidly vibrating objects appear to stand still for inspection, measurement, etc. Strobe lighting, a variation on this in which the intermittent beams of light might be colored or otherwise altered, had come into use as part of the hip subculture, sometimes as an adjunct to rock music. Strobes could produce curious effects. Under strobe light, a partner dancing energetically could seem to hang suspended in one position. At the same time, people could be seen as a series of immobile still- shots, with different positions interrupted by blackness. Spending significant time in strobe light can produce something akin to altered perception. If you've smoked some marijuana or used some other drug, this might strengthen the effect.
The nature of perception and its relation to other forms of experience are at the heart of much of levy's work. Strobe light can seem like a mild means of questioning the nature of perception. Let me stress the word mild here: this pales in comparison to the effects of many forms of meditation and of such drugs as LSD and peyote. That levy considered it a minor form of revelation, something that could as easily work for satire or invective, can be seen in related works, including such titles as "The Egyptian Straw Boss Cop" (though even here the levels of irony can stack up in strange ways, one of them being an allusion to the Egyptian captivity and the Exodus). And strobe lighting often seemed part of the apparatus of "the hippies," whom levy distinguished from other counterculturists on the basis of their trendyness and lack of commitment to creativity and exploration. Still, strobe light can make what people usually take for granted as perception seem much less certain. In The Tibetan Stroboscope, questions of this sort get asked in terms of light-dark duality. Under a strobe, light and darkness constantly alternate, which can be seen in terms of existence and nothingness, or in the dualism of many occult traditions -- including the yin-yang already discussed.
On the first formal level, the interactions between the flat world of a printed page and the multi-dimensional world of strobe light go in all sorts of different directions, each with different significances. The news is changes in perception. That sentence can be read in several ways, as can just about anything in the book. Newspaper photos come as single images; a strobe light breaks everything down into what seem to be still-shots. People have interpreted light and darkness as creation and destruction in many traditions. Throughout The Stroboscope, levy creates and destroys large areas of text. On one level, this should be read as an allusion to censorship and a forecast of his own impending obliteration. On another level, it can be seen as a form of catharsis. Catharsis in turn brings forward self-chastisement and a Lustrum, an offering made to atone for the sins of the community -- which in this case could be read as anything from the Cleveland police to the whole human race. It can be read as an escape from the bonds of self or as a way of keeping something to yourself ("I created this, but you'll never know what it is; even I will forget it; and I too will be forgotten"). It can be read as an elaborate exercise in textures or as a type of used toilet paper. It perpetually asks questions: Is the text figure or is it ground? If it is ground, what figure will it call forth? Does ground always create figures? Is existence figure or ground? Can the duality be escaped? The news was there; now it's gone. You turn the page, and the turned page is closed into darkness and a new one brought temporarily into the light. If something was created and destroyed, it can always be recreated in some new incarnation, reinforcing the notion of personal reincarnation, one of levy's deepest beliefs, and, as is typical of levy, something about which he also held serious doubts. That this stroboscope is Tibetan brings in Tantric mysticism, which includes hefty doses of eroticism, elation, liberation, and defilement, all of which can find refracting mirrors in newspaper and other pop-cultural images and texts.
As in most of the late work, levy had integrated a strong sense of the necessity and interdependence of polarities on many levels. Most important perhaps is the absolute mutual dependence of destruction and creation. Throughout the book, he constantly works out new strategies to destroy or subvert or negate a text, from such simple devices as mirroring words to blotting them out. But even in the blotted passages, there is great variety, and the progression of variations creates a new type of text. On the graphic level, the blotted texts range from heavy, dense, uneven lines with clear edges to lines or individual letters with many thin, spidery strands moving out from them. As you gain more familiarity with these pages, it becomes questionable whether the strands are thin drains off the image or forms of radiance. Some largely-obliterated texts can and should be deciphered even though it takes some time to do so. Others work as support mechanisms: that is, they cover parts of a text as a means of creating a new one or bringing out significance in the old one that the original writer or publisher would not have understood. This emphasizes clearly legible passages, often brief phrases or mirrored or lightly typed or half erased lines that gain force by their isolation. Tom Phillips and Doris Cross discovered similar blocking techniques independently at the same time, and each used them in radically different ways. I wouldn't want to say that any was better than the others, but levy was more intense and more urgent in his use of these techniques.
The images abound in contradictions, paradoxes, opposition, and the kinds of flipping polarities that at times attract and repel each other. Thus a photo of a devotional sculpture occupies the same forcefield as a clip from a pornographic magazine; passages from the Karlgren or Wade-Giles Chinese dictionary form a margin for gossip; coarse, runny erasures balance against delicate etchings, images of propriety and elitism face clumsy cartoons; a south Vietnamese soldier in western uniform sits in something like lotus position at a time when monks were burning themselves alive to protest the onslaught of capitalism in their land, whose Buddhism predates the northern variety more familiar to people in the west. At the time of his first arrest, a police officer told levy that if he was a real Buddhist he should pour gasoline over his body and incinerate himself.
On one level, this book is levy's recension of the Buddha's "Fire Sermon," the most eloquent statement of the ephemerality of the material world. levy's version seems the strongest reiteration of it in the poetry of this century. On another level, it makes a wheel of Tantric statements of boundless energy and possibility. On all levels, levy refrains from taking a fixed position. He can be simultaneously passionate and indifferent, disdainful and comic, outraged and friendly; experience can reach extremes of intensity or settle into trivial jokes. levy's type of mysticism isn't for everybody; but his expression of it should be an essential part of everyone's understanding of what American poetry, including visual poetry and book art, has been and can still be.
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Copyright © 1998 and 2000 by Karl Young
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