Dysfunctional Troglodytes with Mail-Order Weaponry

Iain Sinclair

  • Collected Poems by Edward Dorn
    Carcanet, 995 pp, £25.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84777 126 1

The publication in Britain of Edward Dorn’s Collected Poems is a big moment, a bonfire of the verities, for the embattled tribe of local enthusiasts, veterans of old poetry wars who are still, more or less, standing. Dorn’s face is news again, live and loud, on a cover laid out like a wanted poster, or the freeze-frame of a sun-bounced downhill skier, against a backcloth of enlarged script (his own words, not the usual blizzard of corporate logos). Here, cooling us out, is the essential leanness, the string and sinew of a Clint Eastwood with more candlepower and a much fiercer obligation to his nonconformist talent. Ed wrote his own one-liners. He wrote them, hand tied to the wheel like Count Dracula’s Whitby helmsman, as he commuted down 101 to a seasonal teaching job in San Diego. ‘A rather open scrawl,’ he said, ‘while one’s eyes are fixed to the road is the only trick to be mastered.’ He could hit it, when he chose, in a couple of lines. ‘The duty of every honest American/is to emigrate.’ ‘Recycling has grown to be/a major part of the pollution industry.’ The face on the Carcanet cover is a deeply scored calligraphy of experience, framed by rock-starish lightly silvered hair and reflective shades, behind which eyes that miss nothing flick from side to side, tracking through the exploitable sets of a working life: railside Illinois, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a film festival in Havana, San Francisco, Rome, Avignon, Paris, London, Colchester.

That list comes in no particular order, but demonstrates a certain restlessness, and the gun-for-hire nature of academic near-employment twinned with necessary performance gigs and conference substitutions. Dorn trained himself to be a beautiful technical reader of the particulars of roads. He speaks of this, reporting on his expedition with the photographer Leroy McLucas through the Basin-Plateau, where Idaho meets Utah and Nevada. ‘I was tagging along making notes, looking. I was really looking at the kind of terrible awesomeness of the miscellanea of American upper landscape.’ That ability, ‘really looking’, was Dorn’s USP: an unblinking gaze behind the quasi-ironic aviator shades of a street-smart dealer in language. When J.H. Prynne dedicates his own single-volume gathering, Poems, to his friend and correspondent, he makes some play between the living spirit and the slick specs that were the signature of the poet’s transit through the noise of the white world: ‘For Edward Dorn, his brilliant luminous shade.’ The after-image flares and burns like the night the atom-bomb test in the Nevada desert overwhelmed the insolent rococo of the neon waterfalls of Las Vegas.

Edward Dorn by Philip Behymer
Edward Dorn by Philip Behymer

Dorn died of pancreatic cancer, on the cusp of the millennium, in December 1999. He took his alien, the tumour, with him. Which, as he reported in ‘The Decadron, Tagamit, Benadryl and Taxol Cocktail Party of 1 March 1999’, from Chemo Sábe, gave him considerable satisfaction. The tumour was interested in what interested him, but not interested in his essential fuel, love. The fruit of all those decades of hard research, two-lane blacktops and ravenous notebooks.

She’s like Wittgenstein’s lunch, utterly invariable,
and, she’s like your own private third world
she arrives and breeds like guinea pigs,
ever more progeny and evermore food
and the priest cells
demand evermore progeny and then
they all demand independence and this
is in Your territory. But then I see her
puzzled misapprehension and know
what she can never anticipate when my spirit
will watch this Bitch burn at my deliverance
in the furnace of my joyful cremation.

We were fortunate that Donald Davie, setting up an English Department at the University of Essex in 1965, invited Dorn to cross the Atlantic as a Fulbright lecturer. This was a pivotal episode for Dorn and for the mass of younger English poets who had heard rumours of Black Mountain College, read their Pound and William Carlos Williams, cannibalised Donald Allen’s influential anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), but never experienced a prime specimen of this fascinating otherness. Where Dorn was exceptional, as Prynne points out, in a conversation recorded at a reception after the funeral in Boulder, Colorado, was in the fineness of his ear ‘for spoken English and for the cadences of English speech, both grand and passionate, and ordinary off the street’. John Clare was an inspiration. Prynne took Dorn to Northampton to investigate the asylum where the poet spent his last years. John Barrell, another member of the new Essex University cluster, was working on his groundbreaking Clare study, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place. When Dorn delivered The North Atlantic Turbine, his poems of English politics and place, to Stuart Montgomery of Fulcrum Press, the book was dedicated to Davie, Prynne and Tom Raworth (another Essex figure with whom Dorn had corresponded for years). A classic late modernist genealogy was being laid out; to be ignored, comprehensively, by the movers and promoters of the established verse manufacturing orders, those sharky cultural bureaucrats and strategic prize-givers who fix the syllabus and polyfilla inconvenient holes in sponsored periodicals.

The scene was being set for the arrival in Colchester of Charles Olson, last rector of the now collapsed and dispersed Black Mountain College, theorist and psychopomp of ‘Projective Verse’ and open-field poetics, author of the great post-Poundian epic The Maximus Poems, and headline star of Donald Allen’s anthology. At six foot eight or thereabouts, Olson was an inconvenient guest, as Tom Clark, another itinerant US poet and Essex academic, told me when I visited him in California. Sunset to sunrise, Olson would rumble, thump, burn, growl; whaling his chain of Camels, as Dorn said, in one gulp. He hibernated, postponing an expedition to Dorchester to dig into the records of the founding of the colony at Gloucester, Massachusetts, the germ of The Maximus Poems. ‘Oh yes,’ Dorn remembered, ‘those were amazing times. Jeremy Prynne came over from Cambridge. Olson turned our house into a kind of salon. Those were beautiful active times. I mean not literary active, but more expanded. It was never literary with Charles. He liked the literary, but that was a small role for him.’ A taxi arrived, sent by Olson’s wealthy lover, to carry him back to London. All his books and effects were piled on the roof, Dorn said, like a gypsy caravan or an Indian train.

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