Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader

Stephen Jonas
Edited by Garrett Caples, Derek Fenner, David Rich, & Joseph Torra
City Lights ($21.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Arcana brings together the first major gathering of work by Stephen Jonas in over two decades. Jonas, a poet of Boston who died in 1970 at the age of 49, is an American original, as brilliant a wordsmith as any in what might best be termed the poetics of the New American vernacular. The intensity of Jonas’s poetry surprises and delights as his words burst across the page. He introduces a gay, gender-bending, street hustling voice into the Modernist tradition, deeply immersing his work in Ezra Pound’s use of collage in The Cantos while paying due diligence to the intricacies of William Carlos Williams’ poetics of the variable foot and the American idiom.

Like some other recent projects, this book offers an archival resurrection of what Gerrit Lansing rather infamously phrased, in his original introduction to Jonas’s Exercises For Ear (1968), as “an occult school” of Boston poetry. With Arcana, Lansing once again provides context for Jonas; an unpublished notebook entry of Lansing’s serves as epigraph, describing how “the old Boston vortex still swirls / thru the lives of us poets forever old forever young.” The poets of this 1950s vortex were Jonas, John Wieners, and Ed Marshall, along with mid-century drifters-in from out west, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. Lansing himself mingled in this vortex, of course, as did Ammiel Alcalay, who grew up literally at the feet of these poets, alongside magisterially larger than life figures such as Charles Olson, just north in Gloucester. Some of the editors of this book likewise came of age as poets under the tutelage of the same vortex.

Jonas is a figure who has often gone missed in discussions of his peers. He’s the outcast, the true outrider of this tradition who undeniably impacted the work of all those who surrounded him. His home provided a central gathering hub for poets from the 1950s through the 1960s, while also serving as a friendly crash pad for assorted associates trading in various illicit practices. Jonas himself was involved in some light fraud and petty crimes from time to time, but the driving force throughout his life was a passionate dedication to the poetic powers at work upon the page.

As John Wieners declares in his introduction to Jonas’s slim volume Transmutations (1965): “Here is Steve Jonas, here is the language he makes real, the city he lives by and that has died under his grasp, the gods he lives with, the poets he meets, and the men he has loved, and the painters, that are thrown in for good measure. Here is the poetry he makes come alive.” And Gerrit Lansing, once again from his introduction to Exercises For Ear, is spot on when claiming “it is a Boston lingo Jonas tunes up.” The poems frequently capture language straight from the streets, hip yet focused, nothing loose to it. Jonas remains in tight control, as in “The Music Master (after a Mozart divertimento)”:

“that’s it
for today, baby.”
Now he calls me “baby”.
This to be follow’d by
my dishy
sister’s voice:
“did-DENT you
make him
YET?” Hell noe
besides, he’s straight. Letz go
ovah to grease alley

Though at times some poems might at first appear sloppy or demonstrative of an uncared for free hand, Jonas’s grip is ever firm. He captures unmistakably living speech patterns drawing out exquisite musical forms imbedded in everyday sorts of spirited exchanges. As Wieners explains in a 1965 notebook entry published in Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners (2015), echoing his statement cited above—the notebook was likely where he worked out his ideas for his introduction to Transmutations—it is

here in the order of Steve Jonas’ poems
that the orders are given.
And not in the poems, alone. But
by the life also.

Jonas offers palpable demonstration of how poetry should not be pushed aside or separated out from any other daily affair. The poems also provide an endless number of tutorials on how spacing a poem out upon the page should operate, where to break a line to get at the rhythm of what’s being said. In “Poem,” a 1959 culling from unpublished work, we see:

the excitement of their laughter
like leaves
moving together

to no other purpose
than this
that they move

While in “One of Three Musicians,” Jonas compares his “first time” hearing Ornette Coleman perform to Picasso’s Three Musicians, describing how the painter’s imagery came alive for him under the influence of the sounds made by the jazzman:

They reproduce the spears, the screams
the outbursts of dark religious ex-
orcisms. These are not the
shoed peasant feet out of Brueghel’s
painting The Kermess, these are
bare black feet pounding
delta clay

Jonas did not balk at embracing the scorching blast of the seer’s oracular voice:

like an Egyptian mummy
whose guts have been excerpted
i tell you

there is a bourgeois
that settles plumb blank upon
the blobs of american cities
(from “Back O’town Blues”) 

The poem was where the world as lived in became transformed by powerful forces:

To separate elements
by introduction of
additional elements is to use
this opaque substance
we call reality
(from IV Orgasms/Dominations)

Jonas frequently celebrates the act of creating the work, recognizing the hazards and the splendor of the poetic calling he shared with his friends:

it is a Poet’s madness
driving him
willy nilly
howbeit to his own destruction
maskd or
metamorphosed into
some wondrous animal guise
centaur, unicorn or faun
my sweet will be twenty
on sunday next
so even to the birds
whose calls
the ancients invoked
& unabashedly coo’d
their canzones
to wit-a-woo
all of it i bring
again, my sweet, to you
in the spring-time of the Poem
(from “A Revel” for John Fusco)

The real treat offered up in Arcana is the inclusion of previously unpublished work. There is a small portfolio of singular poems as well as two private notebooks: One, relatively short, delves into alchemy, while the other is a “tarot diary” reproduced in facsimile on facing pages with the typescript. In the tarot notebook, Jonas appears to have recorded his own take on the cards while giving himself a tarot reading, yet it isn’t so much a reading regarding his person as it is of the cards themselves. Jonas describes the imagery on the card, along with offering his own impressions surrounding the root causes and concerns at work within humanity as he sees them reflected within the subject of the card. This results in some startling instances of insightful clarity, for instance:

Justice XI: exact, bilateral
equilibrium—Scales are symbolic of
equilibrium; of good and evil.
Also The Word of God—The enigma
is related to libra. Justice
is astrea. The Devil is the
product of human lies. Men
invented the Devil in order to
have justification for themselves—
to regard him as the cause
of wrongdoing.

Jonas has little time for either the superficial or artificial formalities of society. He is after the full rush of impassioned living. The connections which are made person-to-person in the heat of the moment. His poems are tender avowals of his commitment to those he loves:

Tony, your head is for
dark kisses; it is
the rear’d heads of stallions.
(from LXXIV Exercises For Ear)

These poems are for lovers as much as they are for hustlers, let alone poets themselves.

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