by Patrick James Dunagan
by Joanne Kyger
Blue Press, 2013
$10.00 / Buy from Blue Press
Joanne Kyger periodically taught in the now defunct Poetics Program at New College of California, much as she still teaches now and then at Naropa. Over a decade ago I had the pleasure of being a student in one of those classes. We officially focused on “the serial poem” reading books by Jack Spicer, Ed Dorn, Alice Notley, and Ed Sanders, but more vitally the class was an uncompromising lesson in the wider practice of living—with poetry happening to be our focus—one among many of life’s daily occurrences.
A serial poem in its own right, 2012 exemplifies how fluidly Kyger’s writing practice is a sustained fact of her life. This journal-like suite of nine poems, presented in chronological order with dates of composition, is well representative of her ongoing engagement with the world via poetry over the last half-century. The writing is finely sculpted if often deceptive in giving off a carefree it’s-all-no-big-deal vibe. Of course, the simultaneous action of these characteristics only contributes towards how totally great the poems actually are.
Reading Kyger’s work is to take part in sharing her daily intimacy concerning wildlife, gossip, books read, current events, past memories, friendships, and more, all balanced by her keen awareness of detail. Observation is her abiding practice and discipline. Who’s that and what’s it doing?
The deer here spend all their lives
in a two mile radius.
The back yard is
ankle deep in pellet poo
They are practically domesticatedThe fearless male quail hops right over
the red shafted flicker
pecking the new grass.(“The Epic of World Mythology” Dec 26, 2012)
These lines act as detailed reminders of place, the specific locale where Kyger lives, which is Bolinas, CA a town on a plateau next to the Pacific just north of San Francisco. In a poem also including such varied facts of history as “the Giant Asian Hornet arrived in France, / hidden inside a delivery / of Chinese pottery” to “Constant sound of drones over Gaza,” along with dream imagery (is it a dream?) of a visit “At dawn on my 78th birthday Allen [Ginsberg] and Peter [Orlovsky] / dressed in Indian whites,” the relating of information concerning local deer and juxtaposition of behavior among two different species of birds slows down the experience of our reading. We are being intentionally guided along the course of the poet’s trajectory of thought as images both mental and verbal weave over one another.
The final lines of the same poem offer:
in the very very far west
Kyger firmly believes in the poet’s reliance upon “breath” and the possibility of the page carrying over to the reader clear indications of how the poet intends the lines be sounded out. She opened the Poetics class I took with a heady exegetical, quite personal interrogation of Olson’s Projective Verse essay wherein he makes the explicit claim “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath.” That “very very” is uttered with repetitive soft Oz-thud. It is the opening of the door of example, executed with tutorial finesse.
As a teacher, Kyger brooked nothing half-assed from her students. The expectation was that you came attentive and remained so throughout the three hours each week. Not simply attentive to her, but to each other as well as yourself and your own writing. Particularly striking was how much effort she would put into coaching students when reading out loud. Every week we read not just our own work to each other but also, round-robin style, extensive passages from the assigned reading. Kyger frequently stopping us mid-reading, advising on volume, pace, inflection, and passion—show some interest! Always pointing out that how the work is presented upon the page indicates in a specific manner how to approach oral presentation.
to bring in the sun’s
pale silk of the summer’s new yearstitched with meadow’s wild flowersfinally a breath
moves around the garden
(“Romantic” July 21, 2012)
Nine poems to account for one year worth of writing is a demonstration of tactful restraint. Kyger’s not at all phased by the digital blizzard of our times where the old adage regarding the mistaken value placed upon quantity over quality continually rings true. (Just because you write a poem or more a week for a writing workshop doesn’t mean after four months you have thirty-odd poems to round out a book! If you have one of value, you’re lucky.) She’s plenty thankful to have this many poems available to cull from out the year, providing her ample opportunity to
so those dead ones
can speak again(“Wild Current is blooming Pink/The Odyssey by Random Chance” February 18, 2012)
The writing is always ongoing another elemental factor in attending to life’s concerns. Everything works together.
and then freezes still
for 5 minutes
as do I—This is a chance to practice ‘meditation’He’s my teacher
listening for worms turning
In a ‘dry and merciless reality’
‘You’ are what remains
(“Everything I know About You Guys is Wrong” March 30, 2012)
There’s an overabundance of detail worth paying attention to surrounding every one of us every day. It never gets boring if you’re paying attention. Your participation as member of an engaged audience will return you to yourself. Kyger’s work is open invitation to raising your own consciousness. Get with it, get aware, why not go ahead and join in.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson library for the University of San Francisco. Many book reviews appear here and there. His most recent books are A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling 2013).