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sighting d.a.levy

by karl young


Review of The Egyptian Stroboscope, by d.a.levy and D.R. Wagner [$20.00]; Random Sightings (d.a. has Left the Building), [$15.00] by d.a.levy; and Random (Invisible) Sightings [$20.00] by d.a.levy, published by Kirpan Press, P.O. Box 2943 / Vancouver, Wa. 98668-2943.

The riddles of d.a.levy's poetry continue to take strange paths 32 years after his death. According to the outlaw mythology that began before his suicide, and perhaps contributed more to it than any other factor, levy was a roaring wildman, ripping poems still bloody and throbbing from his viscera as he battled the evil forces of Amerikkka's puritanical gestapo. Occasionally, new editions of his work come forth, either to buttress conspiracy theories or as extensions of cute and sentimental outlaw legends. levy the poet tends to get lost in the myths, and the mythology continues to grow. With the giddy freak show whirling off into the misty vapors of speculation when he reappears, who could have predicted that levy would also attract the painstaking and devoted efforts of some of the most careful textual editors of the work of any poet during the second half of the 20th century? And who could have guessed further that such editors should come not from academe but from the counter-culture of which levy was a part? Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that they should be practicing poets.

There are odd (at times comic, at times almost eerie) reasons why levy needs good textual editors. levy's opus bristles with typos that are no more than that. It wouldn't matter much if typos such as these were simply corrected, as it would not matter at all if the typos in my works of the period were cleaned up. But typos wander in and out of language full of other characteristics. Most often, levy warped individual words according to pronunciation, the needs of scoring the text for reading, puns, and a full range of neologisms. In many poems, at least one such variation appears in every line. They are necessary, and so are editors who can distinguish them from typos. What happens to the poetry if the deliberate and integral neologism, puns, phonetic scores, elided words, and so forth get ironed out or standardized by an editor? Typos and some textual variations arose from the rapid and not particularly careful circumstances of production. This could include not only changes from one edition to another, but also such conundrums as those arising from altering or replacing mimeo stencils in mid-printing. If levy had been nothing but the wild-eyed lunatic of the mythology, someone whose death mattered more than his life, this wouldn't mean much. But he was more than that. His conception of poetry was fluid and volatile, leading him to perpetually reshape and rethink the nature of language as he went. On one level, you could see this as an act of rebellion on one of the most basic scales. On another, this constant rethinking and reworking of words, syntax, and sentence structure forms an integral part of the sense, the sound, and the feel of words as used in everything from speech to advertising to the playing of games. This practice was often inextricably bound to what I can only call conceits, in the 17th century sense of the term. In this respect, levy bears an uncanny similarity to John Donne, who could spell the same word three different ways within a dozen lines, for reasons that run from sound properties to a particular kind of wit, which could include horny grinning and metaphysical speculation, in a manner not altogether foreign to levy. It's also interesting to note that Donne's secular poems, some considered obscene or blasphemous by the norms of the day, circulated in hand-copied fascicles, essentially the mimeo or samizdat of his era. Comparison with someone like Donne may help break the gestalt of levy hagiography, but shouldn't be pressed too closely. And the textual difficulties presented by levy's work leave an editor with different sets of problems. On one hand, the texts demand emphatic and accurate attention to what may seem minor details and idiosyncrasies to preserve both the sense and the spontaneity of the work. On the other, slavish adherence to correctness goes against the spirit of levy, and could be just as misleading as the outlaw mystique.

More than any other poet of the time, levy was the heart and soul of the 1960s mimeo movement. For him, mimeo was not simply a passive vehicle for poems that could just as easily have been published by some other means. Many poets of the time simply used mimeo as a simple expedient. levy raised it to an art form in itself. Even when printing a book such as The Tibetan Stroboscope on offset presses, levy carried mimeo techniques into it. Perhaps most noticeable and most importantly, levy had learned how to achieve visual effects by over- or under- inking a stencil or turning a stencil around and printing it backwards. This not only produced visual effects, it became an essential part of his vision and the visionary qualities of the late work.

Ingrid Swanberg stands foremost among levy's advocates. No one has done more to keep the memory of levy the poet alive and in focus. Among her efforts, probably the most important is her edition of levy's selected poems, Zen Concrete & Etc., which will probably remain the definitive edition for many years to come. Publishing a decent edition that walks the delicate line between saleability and faithfulness to both the spirit and the letter of the texts seems miraculous enough. But having worked with her on other projects, most notably the levy web site which we curate together, constantly gives me greater respect for her abilities as an editor. At this point, with original levy editions fading and crumbling, the sense of how he used language as speech and in poetry must be accoplished by people working within living memory of levy and of his publications. To go back to the previous instance from traditional scholarship, I don't think John Donne found a better editor in John Shawcross. How much better would editions such as Shawcross's be if he had known Donne and had seen the original fasciles as they came frsh from the pen of the author or a copyist?

More recently, Alan Horvath has put out a series of small editions of levy's work that shows the same sort of sound judgement and faithfulness to the spirit of levy as Swanberg. Ten volumes have come forth so far, and more are in the works. Horvath works closely with production methods that catch the feel and the tenor of levy publications as closely as anyone is likely to do. Again, another paradox arises in problems of production. Immaculate facsimiles such as those of medieval and Meso-American books produced by Akademishe Druck u. Verlagsanstalt would make accurate renderings, but the nature of such productions would probably always remain at odds with the cheap paper and spontaneous workmanship of levy's manuscripts, books, broadsides, and paintings. Sticking to low-tech methods when appropriate, and going to more sohisticated techniques when the work requires it, Horvath's editions never become over- or under-stated. Much of the series reprints works from extreemly small editions and previously unpublished manuscripts, reflecting long, arduous, and painstaking research, and show a thorough knowledge of levy's use of language and the nature of textual problems similar to Swanberg's. Horvath's editions almost by nature can't reach a larger audience, as Swanberg's edition can, but along with her volume, these editions remain essential for anyone seriously interested in levy as a poet. Here is a brief synopsis of the most recent editions from Horvath's Kirpan Press.

Horvath presents The Egyptian Stroboscope, a colaborative work written in 1966 with D.R. Wagner, as one facsimle volume. Like much of levy's mature work, it operates through frames within frames within frames. levy produced a number of stroboscope poems, and in strobes he found and projected seemingly endless layers of contradictory significance. The strobe reflected a part of the glitzy world of high-pressure commerical hype, and this found a mirror in the hype of the hip scene of the 1960s. The strobe mimicked and helped shape the altered states of consciousness brought on by hallucinogens, and this in turn wove its way in and out of various forms of mysticism. The strobe could give hints of ultimate truth and enlightenment, and the strobe could produce the great beacon for the most vicious cons and stupid illusions moving through both hip and straight worlds with colonialist powers. The strobe could act as a surgical tool for delineating dualism, and this in turn could make the fast moving scene seem to stand still, or it could reanimate its most quiet corners. The stroboscope in this poem emphasizes fast- moving wit and comedy, but its other characteristics flash and disappear through the work. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, with its incantations, invocations, chants, curses, negative confessions, images of separate realities and multifaceted psychies, provided another basic frame for this poetic collaboration. It also pulled another book much loved and toyed with by the counter-culture, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, into its orbit. Other literary sources, ranging from Pound's Cantos to Ed Sanders's poems based in Egyptian hieroglyphs to the concrete and visual poetry of the day, found their way into the book's omnivorous rush.

levy's work revels in puns, neologisms, and verbal distortions. This book is densely packed with puns in the most common sense of the term. Even the titles run through lengthy permutations: The Book of the Dead becomes the BOD, not only in the slang term for body used most often in sexual contexts, but also in conjunction with the Egyptian concept of part of the soul, as well as an expression of disgust or dismissal, the BA, which in turn runs in and out of permutations of the BOO, a name for marijuana and an exclamation made to frighten children. The Egyptian Stroboscope can morph into such multi-referential tropes as "The Egyptian Straw Boss Cop" and "The eGyPtIan logos cop," at times affiliated with "The John Ba Society," and reaching its apotheosis in "Osiris X," kin to Oedipus and Malcolm, among others. It also included such distant relatives as the x-rated and the stroboscope's cousin, the x-ray. The linguistic play flies fast and furious, energized by the opportunities provided for exchanges of wit by the two writers, each egging the other on. But puns take on a larger significance in the book. You can easily read the creative anachronisms, the weaving together of ancient Egypt, Tibet, and conceptions of altered states of consciousness and the world of the transitional states between life and death, existence and rebirth, with the political pushes, Captain Marvel Comix, advertising slogans, topical references, jokes, and other features of the mid 1960s as puns made on a larger scale. The puns run from wise cracks to the frames within frames through which the smaller scale puns flow.

Ra, the Egyptian sun god, plays a prominent role in the book. In hindsight, it indeed seems a sunny work, a shimmering play of wit and humor, pulling in a huge range of ideas and forms in a highly charged improvisation, exhausting all its sources and extensions, and looking ahead to levy's "destructive prose" in some of its final pages, overstruck, reversed, and otherwise mutilated to the point of near or complete illegibility. The most celebrated works in the beat tradition, including Ginsberg's "Howl," don't do this any better. The sunny exhuberance of the work, however, runs into biography, which, in typical levyesque paradox, simultaneously makes it sunnier and darker. levy and Wagner began the book in levy's appartment and continued it through the mail in mid-1966. In December, it became one of the books seized by the police during levy's first arrest. The second printing, published the following year, probably using some of the same stencils, though bearing a different press name, proclaims this on its cover. levy's final strobe, The Tibetan Stroboscope, reaches greater depth and intensity and covers a wider range of possibilities, but never again would levy be as light-hearted.

The original book was produced on legal size paper, and so is the reprint. This is important because levy, first and foremost a mimeo book artist, thought in terms of 8 x 11 pages. For him this was as basic a measure as the pentameter line of Jacobian poets. Whether the work was purely lexical or contained graphic elements or visual poetry, levy tended to fit the word to the page, usually bringing a poem or section of a poem to its conclusion as the page ran out. By 1966, this was no longer simply a matter of convenience or chance, but an integral part of levy's thinking as someone who deliverd "the news that stays news" to the milieu around him on mimeographed sheets of paper. The page meant something more to him and to his readers than a passive medium: it had to make its statement immediately. Whether bound or circulated as a single sheet, levy's work presented itself as broadsides, in every sense of the term. Horvath faced some curious difficulties with the book because of differences in the two editions. I can't go into detail on the complexities of sorting them out in this review, but I can't imagine anyone doing a better job. The book also binds reproductions of some of the manuscript pages into its covers, giving the reader a glimps into its circumstances of composition.

Random Sightings (d.a. has left the building) reproduces manuscripts of poems written throughout levy's literary life, beginning with lyrics composed in 1961 and previously unpublished or only distributed to friends, often in photocopies or carbons. At the beginning of levy's opus, these lyrics show what might seem surprising mastery of the basic art for a 19 year old. But such mastery of basics, seen from a chronological distance, seems necessary for the more complex work that lay ahead. Some, such as "granny," suggest the guffaws that would become integral to levy's later work. Just as important, however, is the rhapsodic gentleness and fasscination with the processes of creation that would also become essential to more complex poems. In "flaming ice," perhaps the most memorable of the group, levy joins otherwise disparate images to his own body movements in a series of delightful surprises. The last lines come closer to a manifesto than the manifesto that opens the book:


the snow on a mountain top
two flowers emerge grinning.

The volume ends with a reprint of Red Lady, this recension coming from a carbon of levy's original ms. instead of the 1968 Open Skull edition. This prose poem begins as a rhapsody of erotic innocence and maintains that base through its stages of disjuncture and transition. Following the dream orientation of traditional surrealism, disturbing images appear, both on a movie screen in the narrative line and as extraneous interjections of separate films, which at times become stroboscopic. As the lady moves through encounters that she may or may not want, the additional film includes shots of Tuli Kupferberg leaping in the air, an audio clip of a sound poem by bpNichol along with a still shot of one of his visual poems, an ad for birdseed, a sequence of prominent poets masturbating, stills of Charlie Chaplin and J. Edgar Hoover, etc. The lady maintains a personal lyricism in what she says, which mirrors poems by her and by levy. Her path moves toward the status of priestess in a small and circumscribed inner world, while the narrative takes on characteristics of the existentialist writers in vogue at the time. Superficially, Red Lady could be read as arty pornography, but through levy's seemingly endless ability to balance disparate accumulations, the book remains a major instance of North American surrealism, akin both to William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell and some of the raunchy-but-sweet lyrics of Bob Dylan. Like "flaming ice," it needs to keep turning not only to aquire greater significance, but also to keep its balance an essential characteristic of levy's art.

The bulk of this volume consists of the manuscripts for "beret," a mantric and mandalic anti-war poem; "brotherhod of bhang" an editorial for marrahhwanah quarterly dealing with those in the hip subculture of Cleveland who act as police informants; "kibbutz in the sky - book2," a narrative of the tensions surrounding his first arrest; and "a dream of the dream-trial inquisition," a meditation on his persecution by the Cleavland police. Except for the second, all are fscsimilies of his hand written drafts, and "brotherhood" comes directly from his typescript -- all but this one appeared in ukanhavyrfuckinciti bak (levy's first collected works, which, following the 17th century parallel, finds some odd echoes in Shakespeare's first folio). This Kirpan volume samples major areas throughout levy's opus.

Most of (Invisible) Random Sightings consists of previously unpublished work, and work not published in its original form. Perhaps most important among the poems in this volume are collages, reproduced in color. Most levy collages went unpublished, and virtually all that found their way into print did so in black and white. Not only do the Kirpan facsimiles accurately reproduce the originals, they give a much better impression of the stroboscopic and psychedelic environment in which levy operated and which in turn informed his working procedures as well as what he had to say. The book also features early mail art, including a sculptural prayer-wheel book made as part of correspondence with Ian Hamilton Finlay. Of the three works considered here, this may be the one most dedicated to hardcore levy enthusiasts, yet it foreshadows much work current today. Joel Lipman, Geoffrey Cook, and Michael Basinski are among the wide spectrum of people who acknowledge their debt to levy. Others ranging from Christy Sheffield Sanford to Jake Berry to scores of others, may or may not be familiar with this body of work, yet they move similar ideas forward from the place where levy left them.

Some see levy as an embodiement of the strange currents and counter currents of a subculture during a chaotic period of history, and the archetype of the outlaw poet and martyr. To some extent this is true - his rants, curses, jeremiads, and imperications remain unsurpassed. But such a narrow focus takes the life out of his poetry, reducing him to little more than one of the cartoons by his sometime friend, R. Crumb. levy was a complete poet, with a range that extended beyond the wise-ass hipster and raucous iconoclast of his legend. It's easy enough to compare his wit to that of John Donne, but, in a truly levian set of contradictions, a work such as The North American Book of the Dead bears closer resemblance to the gentle mysticism of George Herbert than to the belicose pseudo-Buddhist pontifications of the beats, just as some of his lyrics continue Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and levy's visual poems extend the visionary- utopian enthusiasm and plentitude of Blake and Patchen beyond the rigid concrete of the day. The carefully produced editions of Swanberg and Horvath don't take any of the fun and games or the adventure or the final tragedy out of the work, they simply make the breadth and deepth of the poet more accessible to readers. In showing levy the basic respect he deserves, they simply do the job that editors and publishers should do.

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First published in American Book Review Vol. 22, # 3, March/April 2001

Copyright © 2001 by Karl Young