Lately I have been struggling. It has been a multifarious beast that has
beset me. It started late last year with the onset of some medical problems,
which while not life threatening were natheless vexive; continued through an
incredible array of assaults upon my art & person by many small-minded
would-be artists who loathed my website & its contents; scurried with
several legal scraps resultant from said assaults; survived a car crash &
its own legal outfalling; weathered many small storms lost to the very moments
they briefly burped up out of & back down in to; as well the adoption of 2
cats, 1 of which- a kitten- needed some medical attendance that my better sense
told me my wallet should avoid, but which I ignored; yet has seen its
florescence most greatly in my several month barrenness to compose some of my
patented longer poems on historical things, folk, & stuff. True, I have
still written great poems of a smaller kind- sonnets especially. But in recent
years it has been these dense mini-epics which have defined by artistic impulse-
if not me. They do, however, require great concentration & periods of
aloneness in which to structure them properly, as well attain the requisite
‘in’ to the subject matter- which allows for a relatively easy time in
writing the poem. But all these other complications have cut in to my time,
complicated by the diurnal calls of employment, household chores, & dutiful
husbandship to my bride, which has been left to gather my art from the relative
scree of short lyric poetry.
So, I have set about decomplexing my life. My concentration will be mainly focused on recharging the batteries which have enlivened by my verse such topics as Paul Bunyan, Quanah Parker, Nat Turner, Marshall McLuhan, Andrew Carnegie, Richard Nixon, Grandma Chin, & a host of other personages you may be familiar with from my poetry. Poetry, you see- is where I am the artist. I must do it at home, in my den, weaving tapestry from the fragments of lines, ideas, & words crammed into & onto small pieces of cellulose I tote around in my ceaseless lighted wanderings through the minutes. Essayry (dare I be so bold to coin?) is a diversion from the ‘real art’ of poetry. I do so in the down times at home & at work, culling them from the vagabondia that inhabits, & occasionally inhibits, my mind.
But what to essay? Initially, this spacetime construct (which I previously thought) was reserved for an essay on William Shakespeare & the idea of greatness in verse. But it has been usurped. Sorry, Willy, but we shall engage again, shortly. Instead, I have been contracted by some weird oozing of duty to enrich you, I hope, with the knowledge of another great writer- 1 you probably are unfamiliar with, unless you have been an itinerant scanner of both poetry & science writing. The writer is Loren Eiseley. The book & reason for this essay is his autobiography All the Strange Hours. Its subtitle hints at both the man’s existence & its aim: The Excavation Of A Life. Eiseley (henceforth LE) was a well-respected anthropologist, scientist, & essayist. In his spare time he was also a poet. Many years have passed since I had read his engaging essays. He mastered what might be called the Covert Inner Essay- i.e.- those which tie in the ostensible subject matter at hand with whatever the essayist really sought to speak of: personal axes, incidents, or other such muses. Think of this not then as much an essay nor an homage- per se- but rather as an experiment in persuasion. OK?
As a child growing up in the late 60s & early 70s (right before the outburst of this current Golden Age of science writing began) I was compelled to marvel nature, even though Golden Guide books & How, Why & Wonder books were my lone baedekers to the world which lay beyond the asphalt abode I squalored in. Then, about 2nd or 3rd grade I discovered a book of essays- I forget the title- by LE. Even now I am singularly bereft of their content. But what mattered was that somehow THEY mattered & stuck in me. Whether they got me from a library shelf, a neighbor’s unkempt reading chair, or a forgotten chum’s bookbag is no matter. The name stuck in me as 1 of the people of substance. LE was a name that hovered in the fog of callow impressionability as a person who was bigger than we people that people like us meet in the day-to-day. Yet, even so, time trudged & years would see no intertwinement of us twain until I entered the sphere of poetry many years later. To my astonishment I encountered LE’s name on a number of occasions in old magazines. A few competent, if not spectacular, poems rekindled my awareness of that NAME from my childhood- that visage I had never glimpsed yet which had urged me on through my urban upbringing with the knowledge that there was more to living than my paychecks & failed attempts to win female ardor. But most of his books were out of print, especially his poetry & I’ve yet, to this writing, been able to secure a Selected or Collected edition of his poetry. But, a month or 2 ago, trudging through a used bookstore- the source of many a poetical discovery as the verse of James Emanuel, Judith Wright, & Hazel Hall- I came upon that familiar name. I glanced, saw it was an autobiography, thought it would be an interesting read, a sojourn back to my years earlier foray, bought it, & let it reside a few weeks in my pile of other books needing my eyes to bring forth a life from them that lay dormant since prior perusals. Then I decided to read the book. As I write these words it is only minutes from finishing the book & many was the time I had to put the tome aside to let the thoughts & emotions gather in me. As well dispel the occasional impulse to sigh or tear. Such the unexpected power that the book held. Far more so than his brilliant essays (yet agleam through the strewn cobwebs of early surmise), & infinitely more so than his rather pedestrian poetry, this book touched me like only 3 other books had done so previously. All 3 of the prior books had results which affected my existence greatly, & as yet I can only vaguely premonitor what will awash in its digestion.
The 1st of the books was Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the ghosted pages detailing that brief foray of breath in form I 1st found a real kindred in words. An odd pairing, at 1st blush, I admit. But lighten Malcolm Little’s skin, move him forward 30 years, & lop a decade off the age of the teen Malcolm’s adventures & 1 curiously finds a near blow-by-blow assessment of my childhood in the gloomed streets of Ridgewood, Queens- just a bullet’s chip away from the Stygian heroin galleries of Bushwick, Brooklyn. I must have been in my mid-teens when I encountered the tale. I do not recall whether it was an assigned read at school or a chance encounter at a library. No matter. It mattered. And like it, something in LE’s tale touches me as kindred. While Malcolm represents a shared past, perhaps it is LE’s ruminations on his past which coincide with mine on my past? LE seemed to (for he died in 1977) see things similar to me. He noticed the same sorts of things. And likewise he valued those same things. The little MidWestern someday scientist & poet & the little New York someday blue collar & poet congressed in these shapes of thought laid upon paper- both his & mine- spaced by decades & divergent experience. But where Malcolm & I would diverge- he into criminality & religion; me from it- LE & I would converge. As I write this essay I find myself not only drawn to his book’s subject matter, but to the very style of writing. Quite odd, the dovetail of our prosaic scribblings. I would like to think that he would be as moved by my verse as I by his book. This hoped for connection a strange afterbeat to my long ago hope that my poem Big Red, on Malcolm, would have comforted him as much as his youth comforted mine- if only in its resonant similarities. Especially cogent to my heart is LE’s approach to animals- both his natural scientist’s inquiry, & his human probing of the other things a scientist is not concerned with. I think of that duality of vision probing down upon the life arcs of me & Malcolm & wonder with what facility of wordplay he would render us into another’s mind.
The 2nd book that affected my life, & which LE’s book hearkens to in a different way, is old Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. I have written & spoken much of the Good Gray One in the past & will not rehash my affection for the book’s poems’ virtuosity & vision, its sentiments & embankments into my day. Suffice to say that Whitman would have welcomed LE as I welcome them both. But while it was not LOG that got me to 1st write poetry, it was LOG that kept me from abandoning poetry after its initial allure hooked me in my dull post-high school days. In reading, especially LE’s descriptions of his Depression-era adventures as a hobo, 1 cannot but see the thick vein of masculine Americana bind Whitman to Sandburg to Langston Hughes to Hart Crane to LE to (known only to me till now) my dad to me. Passages are rife with that very world gifted to me by my CCC-polished dad & his memories told & retold till near-nausea would result at their mere scent, & reflected in my own later descents into the impoverished areas of American being. The recurrent episode where LE encounters & recalls a stray dog that hangs tenaciously through his years’ desperate attempts at sloughing it off is worth the price of the book alone. So, too, am I reminded of my early memory of a stray cat named Friend, the 1st time I saw a man murdered, & all the things that bind that particularity to a place trailing behind me not too far. The rhythms of that beautiful versic book inform LE’s book as it once 1st cooed to me. And both find tears in my asides from them.
The 3rd book is, doubtless, less familiar in name as well memory, than the 1st 2. I 1st encountered it on a shuffling through a used bookstore’s inventory. It is Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics. When I 1st read it, a few years back, it helped to reorder my conceptions on Modern Art. I always knew instinctively that a great painting worked while a bad one didn’t. I also had a constant love for physics & astronomy- that lone great rival in science, to dinosaurs, that vied for young Yankee youths’ attentions. This book melded the 2 seamlessly. I now understood how & perhaps why great paintings worked; a thing that I almost instinctively understood with words (& poems especially) but was missing in the visual arts. Such insights then informed countless poems, most which had no ostensible connection to painting, & led me ultimately to my recently completed manuscript of great painting poems called The 49 Gallery. What Rodin was to Rilke’s New Poems Shlain’s book was to my poetry of the past few years. It reordered my vision & gave burn to my Muse. Similarly, I feel, LE’s book has torched a similar light. For months (& even years) I have had ideas lurking for poems on the Dust Bowl, the Rape Of Nanking, the 5th & final poem to my epic American Imperium poem series, & assorted Omnisonnets, Le Bestiare, What If?, Krazy Kat, Mario Culcasi, & Rosario poem series. If I’m correct, LE’s book has similarly reordered my vision and refired my poetic ideas to set about yet another attempt at resurrection via poetry. Yes, I said it- the word resurrection. Is not that the true goal of every writer or artist? Do we not hope to engage near infinite resurrections of our thoughts & emotions in the minds & vitae of our audience? And in those thoughts & emotions we resurrect the people & events & things dear to us? I do. Every reader seeks to make the world of another theirs- however briefly. This very converse is the sine qua non of art. It is at once the most intimate & selfish of acts- but all art! It is at once the most demotic & altruistic of acts- still, all art! It is the very thing we cloak to our inmost. We make art to be politic, religiot, to be creative, human- or so we declaim. And while each of these aims is true in some art I have grown to believe that these mini-resurrections of the past are the dominant thread that binds all art- it is the communication of these things which grip & heave us into each others’ living- oh. Well, maybe not. But it sounds nice. It moves me to such respirations, & that is the point that seems to glare at me from LE’s words & ideas, every bit as much as Shlain’s book- & the other books- did.
The book by LE is divided into 3 main sections: Days Of A Drifter, Days Of A Thinker, & Days Of A Doubter. The 1st of the 3- Drifter- concerns mostly LE’s youth through college & mid-20s. It has some of the most beautiful & poetically heart-wrenching prose I have read. His detailed episodes as a rail-riding hobo, assorted illnesses, his call to the natural & an episode in Mexico with an ex-hood from Detroit are marvelous. LE resurrects the Great Depression & Dust Bowl iconism with an eye & ear greater than Steinbeck. This section’s closest literary antecedent is Kenneth Rexroth’s Kenneth Rexroth: An Autobiographical Novel, however- as good & even great as that book is in sections- as a whole it never coheres nor moves 1 to the totality of empathy that LE’s work in this section does. It is this fidelity to the unnoticed conflated almost effortlessly with larger themes, & the utter Occam’s Razor-like detailing, that draws me because it is so resonant with my own writing style- both prosaic & poetic. There are a number of passages & images that will be with me always. Not only that, but it is the very way he uses words to damn-near holographically duplicate the scientific process of inspecting & investigating things. In my aforementioned poetic struggles of late it has been a combination of lack of time plus an exhaustion of ‘ins’- or approaches to poetry as a craft & myriad subjects. To constantly attract & retain a reader’s interest 1 simply cannot repeat things as subject & style too often. LE’s prosecraft, I believe, has given me a much needed fresh perspective; 1 I hope will last a good while.
The 2nd section- Thinker- has a more broad approach. LE ruminates in a style more in kinship with his essays, yet he still leaves images & weaves tales from his past that endure: his train ride to Philadelphia next to a mammoth would-be scab sailor, the life & death of an academic mentor who retreated into shamanism, a talented cat, a dying black man, & his ongoing encounters with occasional deafness. All leave impressions of varying kind, degree, & heft. Yet there is the oversoul of the man that flows through & under & about & in each sentence of the book. Philosophy masquerades as description. Humor oozes through as memory. Intellect girds with personal enmities great & not, fleeting & decades-long. In the whirr of a life LE has lent more of himself to the reader than any other biography I have ever read- & certainly more than any other autobiography. But the great thing of the matter is this: he suffers not 1 whit from the pornographically insincere self-flagellation or self-apotheosis most autobiographers indulge in & try to fob off as ‘honest examination’. For example: I cannot only not recall his wife’s nor parents’ nor brother’s names, but I cannot even recall if any but his brother’s was mentioned. Yet I know this family. I know it from the Point Of View of a 5 year old granted another year’s freedom from the stricture of schoolery due to his parents’ largesse after a mid-winter escape by convicts from the local prison spur them to decision. I know this man’s mother by a varicosing vein popping heavenward from his mother’s body. I know this man from his father’s re-emergence in his dying brother’s (or, rather, ½ brother’s) visage. I know his childhood from a near-death incident spawned from a tattered science book on aquaria. I know his wife from comments on his deafness & stray cats, not from some wordly rampart-erected entrée into their boudoir. This is insight. This is autobiography. This is GREAT WRITING!
The last section- Doubter- mixes memory with the aforementioned sections’ main thrusts. Here is where the man encounters his mother, his self, & a cat that talks. Here is where the man’s real nature as a poet breaks upon the difficulty of breath’s increase. Here is where LE makes his mark not just as a GREAT science writer- say, in the mold of such contemporary writers as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, or Jared Diamond- but as a GREAT WRITER, period. Perhaps the only other writers about science that immediately spring to mind as being near- but not equal to- LE are the fictionists Alan Lightman in Einstein’s Dreams, Edwin Abbott in Flatland, & essayist Wyn Wachhorst. But Lightman is fictive & all style, Abbott secularly theistic & whimsical, & Wachhorst never as consistently ‘in’ his essays as LE, & certainly not the scientist LE was. The mix of science with the personal is never forced to drive home a point, it is never wrenched by the obsessive tics & fealties to dogmas & heroes, nor is it merely a polysyllabic orgy deemed to impress with thesauric miasma. As with the rest of the book more is revealed in what the man notices & how he notices it, than in what happens. To LE the event is not so important as the way it is remembered. This is a sentiment that I confess to having long held & known as true. The way humans inflect themselves into the world & attach themselves to things in an attempt to create metaphor unconsciously is something LE is both at peace with, & at marvel of.
As I put down this book, now a day later than when I initially started this piece, I was struck by time’s distort during its reading. Not only did the craft of writing consciously do that upon the page, but within my cranial nook time ebbed & dashed in varied rhythms to such an extent that my both my emotions & intellect were disjuncted. So much so that I realize that I may have sinned. I have not excerpted pieces of LE’s craft. Did I write an essay? Did I review & critique it? Did I merely effuse? Did I declaim more copiously on the book’s apportive effect on my creativity than draw you to it? Did I put trust in you that yours in me & my words would kindle you to be where I am? Perhaps. But, maybe, I shall just content myself to reread it & you shall desire our company in some small resurrections. & if this experiment of mine has failed do not blame poor dead LE, or what was his life- the brunt is rightfully all mine. So, too, his book.
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