As Ever: Selected Poems

As Ever by Joanne KygerJoanne Kyger
Penguin Poets ($20)

by Gary Gach

This gathering, an overdue celebration, presents an awesome range of poems with a stunning developmental narrative baseline, from Joanne Kyger's discovery of her "voice" on through 40-some years of evolution into one of the leading literary voices of her generation. Naturally, wide recognition's been delayed merely due to an extra X-chromosome (the same reason that Joyce and Pound are still commonly valued over Woolf and Stein), but also contributory may be Kyger's humility—a stance which makes her work all the more endearing.

Further reasons that Kyger remains a Poet's Poet, and thus too well-kept a secret:

* Hewing to the middle voice.
* Reporting the splendor of mere being.
* Her use of a multi-vocal, intertextual, and sometimes ironic discourse, but referential to an individually lived world, complete with a moral sensibility (like, say, Creeley's), and narrative.

Kyger has evaded affiliation with schools of poetry, though she's been closely associated with Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and the San Francisco Renaissance; the Beats; Black Mountain and Charles Olson's projective verse; the New York School (she's born the same month and year as Ted Berrigan); the Bolinas poets; and more recently the Language school. And she's rooted in Pacific Rim culture, with Eurocentricity still dominant in the apparatus of fame (New York as closer to Berlin-Paris-London; California as closer to Mexico, Bali, Australia).

Curiously similar to the overall trajectory of W.S. Merwin, Kyger's work begins in a poetics of myth and eventually ripens into a poetics of sheer presence. "Myth" here means the personal ("muthos" = mouth), with all its seeming irrationality. Myth is still a vital component in the life of any community ("polis" as place), still a motivating factor in our actions—a matrix of any residual ideology of our civilization.

So she takes points of departure from Homer, such as her examination of Penelope "Falling into her weaving, // creating herself as a fold in her tapestry"—but also widens her horizon (definition of "self") to embrace ethnopoetics, creativity as shamanism, from teachings of the Buddha ("What is this self / I think I will lose if I leave what I know") to Native American myth (power lines of a continent more-space-than-people). Ultimately, she weaves an amalgam of her own design:

Caught up in the placid hills
I must away to the scrub bucket right now. Humbly.
So the wash gods will have company.

Kyger's poetry depicts a human dot in the vast landscape, to lend perspective and to entertain nature, rather than vice-versa. She is concerned with the life of the mind, of particular place, the lives of particular people—and with marrying them.

In As Ever we embark on literal journeys. There's a nine-page novel, chatty commentary, gorgeous thoughts, and flights of fancy landing on both feet. Compact universes. Mantras and koans. Delicious mouthfuls of language. It's a fascinating page-turner, due to the integrity inherent in her work, cohering across time. Thanks is owed to editor Michael Rothenberg, whose strategy to build Kyger’s collection from these disparate elements is crucial to its success. Putting this diversity together in one place heightens some of Kyger's strong suits, such as

* journal entry as poetry,
* a viable vision of the relation of individual to world,
* serial poetry, and
* a commanding voice.

Kyger may be Queen of the School of Diary Entry as Poetry. (In his introduction, David Meltzer pays homage to this power by offering dated entries rather than any single "take.") It's a craft she probably came to early on; a Navy brat, she relocated with her family from Beijing to Pensacola to Bremerton to Lake Bluff. Home away from home, a journal becomes a portable shrine, ontic grounding, liminal companion.

Diary writing may call to mind conventions set by Madame de Stael and Anais Nin, but the genre also possesses East Asian traditions; the form of Chinese rhymed prose, called fu, is one example, as are Japanese classics such as Basho’s travel diaries and many works of women: Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, Lady Nijo, Lady Sarashine, Sei Shonagon. Kyger, who lived in Japan for three years in the '60s, once pointed out to Andrew Schelling that the Eastern journal tradition isn't so much about "who am I" as "where" and "when." As such, it's a Zen genre. Along this optic, diaries are typified by freshness and spontaneity, a certain unintentionality (based in what's immediate rather than projected), and an organic shapeliness to any seeming formlessness. As we know, journals can also be vehicles of spiritual growth or self-investigation, enabling a rigorous process of dialogue by a way-seeking mind.

In Kyger's method, there's a preliminary pass, made in her head, so that her poems are thought through, guided by a sense of intention, direction, disjunctive jumps, and so on, while still remaining open to actual composition in the moment determining the outcome.

Mist     on the orchids
and Mist     across the ridge     warm
sun at the door     come in

This is not writing to say what one feels; it's writing to see what one thinks. These entries record a daily practice of poetry—making real a regular relation to the sacred. And significantly, "journal," as in both "journalism" and "journey," is rooted in "jour," day:

Bird family
boat going out to sea
all this
every day

What can be done, thought, said, in one day. And then another.

Wherever you go, there you are: and so you discover your self in constant flux, and so is born a respect for the population of which one is a part. Compassionate wisdom.

Contemporary students in poetics could do well to consider seriality, of which this book is a sterling example. Seriality offers the idea of poems as connected in progressive dialogue or unfoldment—not necessarily discursive—one from the next, across the measure of a book. Pound's Cantos, Eliot's Four Quartets, and Williams's Paterson are the grand-daddies. Descendants include Olson's Maximus; Duncan's Structure of Rhyme; Oppen's Of Being Numerous; Creeley's Pieces; Dorn's Gunslinger; Diane di Prima's Loba; and many others.

As Ever incorporates some earlier books published in limited circulation, included in their entirety; taking as a unit both poems and sets of poems, the volume suggests itself as a serial poem composed of serial poetry. Boulders made of nuggets of bits—all of a piece.

Finally, it must be noted that Kyger is firmly in the lineage of Dr. William Carlos Williams (as a student at UC Santa Barbara, she arranged his visit to campus)—she perceives the immediate particular ("no ideas but in things") and expresses them in the most vernacular, colloquial way. And, as with Duncan, every line could be sung:

what I wanted to say
was in the broad
form of being there


trying to talk in the tremulous
morality of the present
Great Breath, I give you, Great Breath!

For all these reasons, As Ever offers another day in paradise. Enter here.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003