Categories
Gregory Corso

Vestal Lady on Brattle

Unfortunately the second half of Gasoline, called the Vestal Lady on Brattle, Corso’s first book of poetry, isn’t as brilliant as the first half of the book. Still, I gained insights into Corso and the effect that his background had on his vision of life, and there are several poems that are good in their own right.

It seems to me that if we were to accept Ginsberg’s contention that the Beats were an extension of Transcendentalism, even though I personally reject that argument, then Gregory Corso would be the Hawthorne of the group because he seems to understand, or at least portray, the nature of evil better than any of the others. "In the Tunnel-Bone of Cambridge" rightly asserts that Corsco seems destined for "Black:"

IN THE TUNNEL-BONE OF CAMBRIDGE
1
In spite of voices-
Cambridge and all its regions
Its horned churches with fawns’ feet
Its white-haired young
and ashfoot legions-
I decided to spend the night

But that hipster-tone of my vision agent
Decided to reconcile his sound with the sea leaving me flat
North of the Charles
So now I’m stuck here-—
a subterranean
lashed to a pinnacle

2
I don’t know the better things that people know

All I know is the deserter condemned me to black-

He said: Gregory, here’s two boxes of night one tube of moon

And twenty capsules of starlight, go an’ have a ball-

He left and the creep took all my Gerry Mulligan records with him

3
But he didn’t cut out right then
I saw him hopping
On Brattle street today-
he’s got a bum leg
on his way to the tunnel-bone
He made like he didn’t see me
He was trying to play it cool

4
Wild in the station-bone
Strapped in a luggage vision-bone
made sinister by old lessons of motion
The time-tablebone said: Black

Handcuffed to a minister
Released in a padded diesel
The brakeman punched my back: Destination, black

Out the window I could see my vision agent
hopping along the platform
swinging a burning-lantern-bone like mad
All aboard, he laughed, all aboard
Far into the tunnel-bone I put my ear to the ear
of the minister–and I could hear
the steel say to the steam
and the steam to the roar: a black ahead
A black ahead a black and nothing more.

It’s not too difficult to imagine why Corso would feel like a "a subterranean/ lashed to a pinnacle" at Cambridge. It’s hard to be positive, but it’s likely that his "vision agent," "the deserter" is identified with a satyr, or even the devil, "hopping on Brattle street." Whoever it is, he has put the narrator on an express train to "a black ahead/ A black ahead a black and nothing more." No doubt where that’s headed.

The fact that he feels like an outsider is reflected in several of his poems, but the title poem for this section probably best depicts his alienation from the people in this town:

The Vestal Lady on Brattle

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up at dawn, as is her custom,
with the raise of a shade.

Swan-boned slippers revamp her aging feet;
she glides within an outer room …
pours old milk for an old cat.

Full-bodied and randomly young she clings,
peers down; hovers over a wine-filled vat,
and with outstretched arms like wings,
revels in the forming image of child below.

Despaired, she ripples a sunless finger
across the liquid eyes; in darkness
the child spirals down; drowns.
Pain leans her forward – f ace absorbing all –
-mouth upon broken mouth, she drinks…

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up and about, as is her custom,
drunk with child.

the vestal lady on Brattle
is up at dawn, as is her custom,
with the raise of a shade.

Swan-boned slippers revamp her aging feet;
she glides within an outer room …
pours old milk for an old cat.

Full-bodied and randomly young she clings,
peers down; hovers over a wine-filled vat,
and with outstretched arms like wings,
revels in the forming image of child below.

Despaired, she ripples a sunless finger
across the liquid eyes; in darkness
the child spirals down; drowns.
Pain leans her forward – face absorbing all –
-mouth upon broken mouth, she drinks…

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up and about, as is her custom,
drunk with child.

Now, like many of his poems, I’m not sure what all the images refer to, but I do know that it’s not a good thing to be trapped "Within a delicate grey ruin." Delicate or not, it’s still an ancient ruin if it’s grey. And I doubt that a young college student would be much attracted to an old lady who "pours old milk for an old cat."

It’s what happens beyond here that defies easy translation. It appears that the woman tries to conjure up a baby in a "wine-filled vat," suggesting the Salem witch trials that must have happened nearby. Since "vestal" suggests "virgin," the only way, with one possible exception, to have a child would be to conjure one up. Amid this conjuring, though, she waves a "sunless finger" and the child "spirals down; drowns" suggesting even more macabre possibilities. No matter the exact translation, the narrator clearly sees these "virtuous women" as somethng other pillars of society. They are sterile, haunted sirens "drunk with child."

The brilliant, if mind bending, "In My Beautiful…and Things" foreshadows the even more brilliant later poem "Marriage:"

In My Beautiful…and Things

All beautiful things
My things
In dead dogs in cellophane wrapped and tied
And still as beautiful as mine
In my tomb-rooms of dust and no things

A present practice of mine
When a beautiful chick passes by
To squeeze it thru my keyhole
Or slip it under the door if she’s old
And not like a mother or a bitch

Or a motherless dog
Then I’ll take her in my beautiful
And things
And will love her in cellophane with string
Like music for a world and no things

But I’m not proud with my dirty sink
And her things hanging on my doorknob to dry
It were better to be alone than a bitch
Housewifing my unwrapped dust
With nylons and sticks of tea and no things

Now, this poem makes no more sense to me than Harry Belafonte’s beautiful rendition of "Man Piaba" did to my beautiful four-year-old daughter years ago, but I love it as much as she loved that song. Makes me laugh, makes me cry. Sure sounds like love to me. Mostly I dig that part about, "It were better to be alone than a bitch."

D’ya ever wonder why love don’t come easy?

Here’s the best page I found on Corso on the net, though it’s relatively easy to find articles on him.

Corso at American Academy of Poets

Categories
Gregory Corso

Gregory Corso’s Sound and Fury

It’s even harder to find Corso’s poems than it is to find Ferlinghetti’s poems. In fact, the only new book I could find after considerable searching in three different states was Gasoline published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, which is one of Corso’s first books.

However, the search was well worth the effort because I like Corso’s poems very much, though I’m still unsure why. Perhaps I‘m drawn by the sound of his poems, for at his best he reminds me of Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manly Hopkins. Perhaps I’m drawn to his imagery, which reminds me of Salvador Dali, with strange, grotesques, disconnected but linked images that seem to emerge from another plane, plain despair.

His best poems in this volume range from short imagist poems like “I Miss My Dear Cats” to Whitmanesque poems like “Ode to Coit Tower” reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Most of his poems, no matter how conventional in some aspects, contain a weird twist that identify them as Corso’s work, as in “I Miss My Dear Cats:”

I Miss My Dear Cats

My water-colored hands are catless now
seated here alone in the dark
my window-shaped head is bowed with sad draperies
I am catless near death almost
behind me my last cat hanging on the wall
dead of my hand drink bloated
And on all my other walls from attic to cellar
my sad life of cats hangs

At first glance the poem seems merely a tribute to an elderly lady who has loved cats her whole life. At first it even appears that she like to paint her cats, “my water-colored hands.” But this nostalgic little reverie is suddenly snapped to attention by the phrase “dead of my hand,” and “bloated,” like dead, bloated. This line makes for a rather ambiguous, and haunting, last line. The poem, despite its cheerfully inviting title, reminds one of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

Perhaps I like “Puma In Chapultepec Zoo” purely because it captures the way I’ve felt about zoos ever since I can remember.

Puma In Chapultepec Zoo

Long smooth slow swift soft cat
What score, whose choreography did you dance to
when they pulled the final curtain down?

Can such ponderous grace remain
here, all alone, on this 9×10 stage?

Will they give you another chance
perhaps to dance the Sierras?

How sad you seem; looking at you
I think of Ulanova
locked in some small furnished room
in New York, on East 17th Street
in the Puerto Rican section.

A perfect metaphor? a beautiful, zooed puma compared to a world famous dancer, now trapped, forced to remain forever on a 9×10 stage. Who would dare consider doing the same to a human dancer?

“Paris” is a more typical Corso poem than the previous two, though. It contains delightful wordplay, driving rhythms and interesting rhymes and off-rhymes.

Paris

Childcity, Aprilcity,
Spirits of angels crouched in doorways,
Poets, worms in hair, beautiful Baudelaire,
Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire,
Look to the nightcity –
Informers and concierges,
Montparnassian woe, deathical Notre Dame,
To the nightcircle look, dome heirloomed,
Hugo and Zola together entombed,
Harlequin deathtrap,
Seine generates ominous mud,
Eiffel looks down — sees the Apocalyptical ant crawl,
New Yorkless city,
City of Germans dead and gone,
Dollhouse of Mama War.

The opening line, with the invented “childcity, aprilcity,” somehow captures the romantic view of Paris. But this original clichéd view of the city is corrected through later images and magical words like “deathical” or “New Yorkless,” “entombed,” “ominous mud.” Ah, cans’t thou not imagine what couldst happen in a New Yorkless minute? It must have been magical to hear Corso read this stuff live.

Now, don’t quote me on this, I’m sure in retrospect I’ll deny it, maybe I’m just high on spring sunshine, but I think “Ode to Coit Tower,” might well be my favorite poem by a Beat poet that I’ve read so far:

Ode to Coit Tower

O anti-verdurous phallic were’t not for your pouring height looming in tears like a sick tree or your ever-gaudy- comfort jabbing your city’s much wrinkled sky you’d seem an absurd Babel squatting before mortal millions

Because I filled your dull sockets with my New York City eyes vibrations that hadn’t doomed dumb Empire State did not doom thee

Enough my eyes made you see phantasmal at night mad children of soda caps laying down their abundant blond verse on the gridiron of each other’s Eucharistic feet like distant kings laying down treasures from camels

Illuminations hinged to masculine limbs fresh with the labor sweat of cablecar & Genoa papa pushcart

Bounty of electricity & visions carpented on pig-bastard night in its spore like the dim lights of some hallucinating facade

Ah tower from thy berryless head I’d a vision in common with myself the proximity of Alcatraz and not the hip volley of white jazz & verse or verse & jazz embraced but a real heart-rending constant vision of Alcatraz marshalled before my eyes

Stocky Alcatraz weeping on Neptune’s table whose petrific bondage crushes the dreamless seaharp gasping for song O that that piece of sea fails to dream

Tower I’d a verdure vagueness fixed by a green wind the shade of Mercy lashed with cold nails against the wheatweather Western sky weeping I’m sure for hu-manity’s vast door to open that all men be free that both hinge and lock die that all doors if they close close like Chinese bells

Was it man’s love to screw the sky with monuments span the bay with orange & silver bridges shuttling structure into structure incorruptible in this endless tie each age impassions be it in stone or steel either in echo or half-heard ruin

Was it man’s love that put that rock there never to avalanche but in vision or this imaginary now or myself standing on Telegraph Hill Nob Hill Russian Hill the same view always Alcatraz like a deserted holiday

And I cried for Alcatraz there in your dumb hollows 0 tower clenching my Pan’s foot with vivid hoard of Dannemora

Cried for that which was no longer sovereign in me stinking of dead dreams dreams I yet feign to bury thus to shun reality’s worm

Dreams that once jumped joyous bright from my heart like sparks issued from a wild sharper’s wheel now issued no longer

Were’t not for cities or prisons 0 tower I might yet be that verdure monk lulling over green country albums with no greater dream than my youth’s dream

Eyes of my hands! Queen Penthesileia and her tribe! Mes-senger stars Doctor Deformous back from his leprosy and woe! Thracian ships! Joyprints of pure air!

Impossible for me to betray even the simplest tree

Idiotic colossus I came to your city during summer after Cambridge there also no leaf throbbed between my fingers no cool insect thrilled my palm though I’d a vision there Death seated like a huge black stove

Inspired by such I came to your city walked Market Street singing hark hark the dogs do bark the beggars are coming to town and ran mad across Golden Gate into Sausalito and fell exhausted in a field where an endless scarecrow lay its head on my lap

How happily mad I was 0 tower lying there amid gossipy green dreaming of Quetzalcoatl as I arched my back like a rainbow over some imaginary gulph

0 for that madness again that infinitive solitude where illu-sion spoke Truth’s divine dialect

I should have stayed yet I left to Mexico to Quetzalcoatl and heard there atop Teotihuacan in T-prophetic-Cuauhxi–calli-voice a dark anthem for the coming year

Ah tower tower that I felt sad for Alcatraz and not for your heroes lessened not the tourist love of my eyes

I saw your blackjacketed saints your Zens potsmokers Athenians and cocksmen

Though the West Wind seemed to harbor there not one
pure Shelleyean dream of let’s say hay—
-like universe
golden heap on a wall of fire
sprinting toward the gauzy eradication of
Swindleresque Ink

Corso’s vision here seems almost Blakean (forgive me, Jeff), Blakean in both its glory and its wonderment, enhanced, perhaps, by a dash of confusion, a vision of a tower dedicated to the workers forever despoiled by its nearness to The Rock, to Alcatraz, “Ah tower from thy berryless head I’d a vision in common with myself the proximity of Alcatraz and not the hip volley of white jazz & verse or verse & jazz embraced but a real heart-rending constant vision of Alcatraz marshalled before my eyes/ Stocky Alcatraz weeping on Neptune’s table whose petrific bondage crushes the dreamless seaharp gasping for song O that that piece of sea fails to dream.”

It’s nearly as impossible for me not to be caught up in the highs and lows of this poem as it is impossible to understand exactly what Corso’s vision is.

Surely, though, this home of the beats, this new paradise, is found lacking, for it does not harbor “one pure Shelleyean dream of hay-like universe.”

Still, ‘twould be a dull jack that did not jump “joyous bright” to find phrases and lines such as “sparks issued from a wild sharper’s wheel,” “verdure monk lulling over green country albums,” “Joyprints of pure air!” or “singing hark hark the dogs do bark the beggars are coming to town.”

Rock me, rock me baby, for a little while, the man doeth out-dylan Dylan.

Doeth it matter if it be but sound and fury signifying nothing?

Categories
Blogging

Make Mine a Picture, Please

Some days I’d just plain rather photograph than write, especiallly when it includes a hike in the sunshine. I’ll tackle Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder a little later this week.

Categories
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

How to Paint Sunlight

I enjoyed reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s latest volume of poetry How to Paint Sunlight. As the title might suggest, most of the poems in this volume touch on the positive side of life. The long poem that opens the volume “Instructions to Painters and Poets” is an excellent poem that uses the paint’s canvas and paints as a metaphor of the artist’s attempt to create “the lighted life on earth,” a “brave new world.” This emphasis on light is the dominant motif in the work. The rest of the poems, like “Blind Poet,” touch on the negative aspects of life, on those things Ferlinghetti feels are preventing the light from coming though.

The poem “The Light of Birds” is representative of the positive poems in this volume:

The Light of Birds

I early learned to love birds
the light of birds the kingdom of birds
in the high treetops
stricken with light
living their separate
weightless lives
Light years they lived
apart from us
flashing in sunlight
high above Bronx River Parkway
or high on Hudson’s Palisades
they flew about
light as leaves
(and they were as leaves
except in the fall
when they did not fall)
calling to each other
over and over
in the upper air
or lost in the sky
as they soared up there
way up behind the reservoir
where we came as kids
chattering like birds
on a Sunday at sundown
and played in the falling light
and heard for the first time
the distant muffled caws
of our own night

Ferlinghetti’s description of the birds he learned to love is both straightforward and striking. The birds are both literally and figuratively “light years” apart from the children playing below. The children’s lives are weighted down by their circumstances, while the birds seemed to the children to have “weightless lives. The poem concisely conveys the kind of optimism that almost all young children feel, no matter what their financial situation. The last lines present an interesting twist to this poem that seems to be lacking in some of Ferlinghetti’s other poems: the moment when the boys go up up to the reservoir at the fall of light, and hear “for the first time the distant muffled caws of our own night.”

“Blind Poet” is one of the poems in the book that looks at what is wrong in American society, and, just as in real life, there is plenty that is wrong with America in Ferlinghetti’s book:

Blind Poet

I am your blind poet and painter
I am contemplating my navel
I see my own insides
I see my own mind
full of fantastic phrases and images
I am painting the landscape of my soul
and the soul of mankind
as I see it
I am giving it a voice
I am singing folk songs
about the workers
I am singing about the downtrodden masses
and the rich on their fat asses
I am the painter who feels
with his fingers
I am the blind seeing-eye poet
I see what you can’t see
I eat well and drink well
and dream of great epics
I am your postmodern pastmodern multi-media artist
I am the most avant of the avant
I’m site-specific and totally conceptual
Even the greatest critics have been baffled
by my profundity
I once knew Andy Warhol
I’ve slept with you know whom
And I’m a fast-speaking man
I am your deconstructed language poet
your far-out poet
full of ecstasies and visions
your wandering workshop poet
your university poet
with tenure
your buddhist quietest poet
I go on poetry reading tours
where everything is paid for
I hear everything
and it’s grist to my mill
I use it all
to make great sound poetry
or great concrete poetry
that no one can see through
Life is a real dream
and I am dreaming it
And I’ve got it all in my head
the Song of Humanity
and the Song of Inhumanity
I’ll paint you a profound picture
an action painting
a gestural painting
nothing but pure gesture
I’ll write you a far-out song
of common people
If I take off my mask
I’ll see the real world
for the first time
But I won’t take it off
It fits too well
It’s a perfect fit
It’s too comfortable
And I’ve got my career to think of
my life to think of
We only live once
and living well is the best revenge
Get your own blindfold
You can’t have mine
You’ll have to face the world without it
And anyway I’m too young to die
I’m an American
and Americans don’t die
We’re the conquerors
We’re the new roman emperors
We’re conquering the world
with global capitalism
I can see it but you can’t see it
It’s the Invisible Empire
And democracy is capitalism
No more poor people
No more Huddled Masses
in our empire
The rising tide lifts all boats!
No more people starving and dying
No more hunger and torture and death
So get smart, get with it
Hang my painting!
Publish my poem!

It takes a few moments to realize the sarcasm in the poem because I, at least, took the title as literal, not figurative. The phrase “contemplating my navel” should have been a giveaway, but considering the close connection between the Beats and Buddhism, I wasn’t sure right away where the poem was going. In fact, being the liberal that I am, I sort of appreciated the phrase “I am singing about the downtrodden masses/ and the rich on their fat asses.” By the time I got to the lines “I am your postmodern pastmodern multi-media artist/ I am the most avant of the avant/ I’m site-specific and totally conceptual,” however, I was pretty much convinced that the poem was sarcastic and that Ferlinghetti was describing the kind of poets who have helped to undermine the real revolution that the Beats had hoped for. There are so many types of poets condemned in the poem that it’s not quite clear which poets are good poets, but it’s obvious that the poem is a cry for honesty and for poets who can see the world without a “blindfold.”

Although Ferlinghetti claims not to be a Beat poet, the themes in this book — the emphasis on the potential of the “light,” on transcendentalism, if you will, and the opposite emphasis on the decadence of society are — are precisely the themes one expects to find in Beat poetry. However, the images, at least the images used to present the positive side of life, are pure Ferlinghetti.

For my taste, the poems tend a little too much towards a black-and-white view of the world, and lack the shades of gray that I often find coloring the portraits of my own past. Personally, as a child I was as apt to want to shoot those birds down with my B.B. gun as I was to admire their ability to soar to heights I could only dream of. It is only as I have grown older and found it more and more difficult to simply rise from the couch after an expedition that I have gained an appreciation for the lightness of birds and their abilty to soar.

Sources on the Web:

Blue Neon Alley

Literary Kicks

Perspectives in American Lit

Seattle PI article

Poetry