Make It New Age
In 1959, Philip Lamantia found himself expelled from Mexico on drug charges. On crossing the border, he was welcomed home with a two-month sentence in a Texas jail. The same year his poetry was on fire. Auerhahn Press not only issued two collections, a sequence about drug prohibitions in Narcotica and a sequence of Christian devotionals in Ekstasis, but Grove Press soon accepted four of his poems for Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. Lamantia illegally returned to Mexico in 1961 to join a cadre of bohemian expats. One evening he and his friends decided to mount the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. It would have been a pleasant experience, for he relished all things pre-Columbian, but on this occasion the site of ritual human sacrifice precipitated a major downer.
Lamantia memorializes the excursion in “Ceylonese Tea Candor (Pyramid Scene).” The climax puts him teetering on a ledge where the killings supposedly took place (“babies included”). Staring off in the night he sees “burning across the Black Sky” an army of flying minions sent by Moloch. Thereupon, as they say, all hell breaks loose:
lets getout of here!!! i’ve had it!!! we raced downand the Black Shapes hundreds of them cut around us andwailed a weird banshee sound of hell I couldn’t quite believe itbut it was true!!! we were being pushed off thePyramid of the Sun that is the mountain of Hell itself.
It’s pretty hokey, but Lamantia doesn’t care. The message is one of trial and revelation. It ends on a beseeching note: “prepare and / change!!! change!!!” Lamantia is ushering our fair poetry world into the Age of Aquarius. When Lamantia cries, “take up your swords of the mind against the / mechanical materialist void,” he means for us to strike a wicked blow against the powers in charge. Make it New Age. Psychedelic demarcations, groovier sounds.
Lamantia was the American surrealist of the Beats, a title that he acquired long before the sixties. He was only a teenager in the forties when he saw his hometown San Francisco shed its identity as an artistic nowhere. The decade witnessed the first performances of Schönberg and Sessions, the first establishment of a modern ballet troupe, and, most influential for Lamantia, the first exhibitions of Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí. Harper’s branded the scene a “new cult of sex and anarchy.” In New York, meanwhile, surrealist refugees from Nazi Europe were publishing the magazines View and VVV. After discovering their work, the young Lamantia sent a letter to André Breton with several poems that Breton accepted for publication. When View offered him a position as editorial assistant, he jumped at the opportunity. Who on earth would choose high school over hobnobbing with Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp? He made such an impression that Maya Deren cast him — along with John Cage — in At Land (1944). Breton dubbed him “a voice that rises once in a hundred years.”
Such blessings at an early age can open doors. When Lamantia returned to San Francisco, the great Kenneth Rexroth took him under his wing as a personal apprentice. Soon Lamantia enjoyed a regular spot at the weekly anarchist salon. He became friends with Bern Porter, who was then the force behind Berkeley: A Journal of Modern Culture. Lamantia earned true outsider status when a Poetry reviewer panned his first book as “pseudo-erotic poems encumbered by false symbols.” In short, he was a fixture of the scene by the time the Beats arrived the following decade (the “comic obscenity,” William Everson called them).
These fruitful encounters are told with ample grace in the rollercoaster introduction to The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, edited by Garrett Caples, Andrew Joron, and Nancy Joyce Peters for the University of California Press. Will new readers take a chance on the book? If the answer is yes, it is first because of Lamantia’s role in the story of the Beats, of which the high mark was his performance at the Six Gallery Reading in 1955. Here we might pause to note that two readers of that night (Ginsberg, Whalen) can already be purchased in complete editions, while another (Snyder) is available in a well-produced reader edition. Such celebrity did not wear off quickly. Twelve years later, Lamantia’s Selected Poems, published by City Lights when he was only forty, sold an astounding fifteen thousand copies according to the editors of the Collected. For these reasons alone, the new edition marks an event.
If the answer is no, it will be because Lamantia does not fit neatly in any of the schools of the postwar period. Even among the Beats, he never fully received the acclaim afforded to his cohorts — and this despite the regard they evidently held for him. The editors remark on his cameos, for example, as a hallucinating reader of the Koran in Howl and again as a junkie in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. The affection went both ways, as in the valentines for Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Whalen in the poem “Binoculars.” Ginsberg also famously leapt to Lamantia’s defense after the hatchet job on his Destroyed Works in Poetry magazine: “I authoritatively declare Lamantia an American original, sooth-sayer even as Poe, genius in the language of Whitman, native companion and teacher to myself.” The full-throated endorsement would seem to secure a place in the Beat pantheon, and it certainly made good blurb material. At the same time, it captures Ginsberg’s ability to play the public in ways that never really interested Lamantia.
He might have found natural allies among the poets of the Berkeley Renaissance, for he shared their interest in magic and hermetics. His pronouncements almost recall Spicer’s poetics of the outside, as when Lamantia declares, “Poetry does not exist / the poet listens, looks / is a receiving machine / making what he sees.” And like Duncan, he marshals the antiquarian: “I open for you an ancient book / ... / Until the last mind’s eye / Records its precious wisdom.” The editors note that he also attended Ernst Kantorowicz’s “The King’s Two Bodies” lectures with Duncan and Spicer in 1947. But the dissimilarities pile up. Whereas the mythological affords Duncan a way to write about sex in a pre-liberation era, Lamantia can be pretty straightforward about dramatizing his straight libido. And despite parallels, Spicer is never as yippee-skippy as Lamantia can sometimes get: “poetry is made thru makers / tuning in / poetry is a quest of dead makers / poet is living Ice!”
Pegging down Lamantia’s affinities can be a dodgy game of half-made connections. The juvenilia of several Language poets bear marks of surrealism, but it is unlikely any would lay claim to a Lamantia genealogy — not with lines like “Words are magic beans.” Parading through the poems are Batman, Superman, Hulk, Swamp Thing, the Lone Ranger, Dracula, Buffalo Bill, Robin Hood, and Maid Marian, but Lamantia was more distancing himself from highbrow pursuits than announcing himself as fellow traveler of Pop Art. Today, contemporary surrealism survives in isolate flecks through Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, or perhaps Hoa Nguyen. And Kenneth Goldsmith has secretly taken on Salvador Dalí’s peculiar wardrobe style, but not his artistic credos.
Perhaps Lamantia belongs in the religious lineage that runs through the arts of the last century? After all, the editors suggest that his poems became extremely devout after he nearly died from a scorpion bite in 1955: “light beams entangled, heaven and the god enter my breast / Christ is the marvellous!” The cover of Narcotica, designed by Semina artist Wallace Berman, features a holy cross next to Lamantia baring hypodermic needles like stigmata. When Mike Wallace (of 60 Minutes fame) interviewed Kerouac and Lamantia, he inquired directly about the link between God and drugs. The editors also note that Lamantia once retreated to a Trappist monastery until Kerouac dissuaded him from going the way of Thomas Merton. How seriously should we consider his piety? I’m undecided whenever the straight-faced devotion is cross-tuned with bathos, as in “All Hail Pope John the Twenty Third!”: “Send great messages to the people / Keep taking porno art out of the Vatican.”
If it’s starting to sound like Lamantia jumped from one preoccupation to the next, that may well be the case. Take his estrangement of space on the page. In the fifties, Lamantia was drawn to the visual poetry of George Herbert. The new edition reproduces a series of visual poems in the shapes of a pyramid, a flower, and a cross. Like Corso’s mushroom cloud “Bomb,” most of Lamantia’s poems are fairly basic executions, e.g. “Christ” in the shape of a crucifix. The more complex arrangements nearly rise off the page, like “In a Grove,” which types out individual letters of words (e.g. “voice” or “electric”) in the silhouette of a flower on a triangular hill. Along the stem run the letters “b / i / r / d / s” where feathers might land.
Or take his estrangement of sound. Lamantia’s rhymes can be hypnotic if a bit silly: “Maggoteyed poets / implant with cellular call / the wall / that falls.” The same goes for the countless portmanteaus, which strike me as mawkishly sincere: “An autumn sky secretes chalkfrozen spermatons.” The most extreme forays, though, are the nonwords that Lamantia refers to as “Babbel,” or “language extending the sonic level.” Try to pronounce:
chat chewlelathu chutz su matz mag muhuli!zutzi mewetch jedicumiflegem setmetz coporaldebubihalu debu debi di chan uguptanetnitnitnetz capachulah!— From New Babbel
While the presiding spirit is Artaud, Lamantia takes various inspirations from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, James Joyce, and Hugo Ball, and from Lettrism, Gongorism, and Dada. The sound-play can border on nonsense, but its appeal in the sixties is understandable, for Lamantia holds to the utopian idea that eschewing any single language is inherently democratizing: “Babbel poetry is immediately communicable! // Poets of all tongues! babbel!”
Newcomers to Lamantia will be on the lookout for Lamantia’s politics, and there is no better place to turn than Narcotica (1959). Consider Lamantia’s poem “I Demand Extinction of Laws Prohibiting Narcotic Drugs!” Lamantia plays Beat-with-a-megaphone in classic style, with capitalized words, exclamation points, imperative decrees, volume turned to max decibels:
I say abolish the prohibitions on the sacred narcotics — stop the sensationalism ! To the dark ages with yr crime producing “law” not yet fifty years old, whereas the Temples dedicated to Opium and Hashish in the Orient were built four thousand years ago !
Lamantia mounts a defense of drugs almost unheard of since Rockefeller drug laws drastically increased prison sentences to penalties on par with violent crime. For Lamantia, drugs like opium, cocaine, and hemp are the “sacred medicines” or “the salts of the poet!” If historical poets are those who want to recover modes of human existence squashed by the modern world, then Lamantia might be reasonably called a historical poet. Lamantia ransacks sacred texts and ancient practices to justify a whole battery of narcotics: “in the middle ages they were Monk’s remedies.”
Not that it matters if the history lacks rigor. The disorienting effect on perception matters more than precise detail. Lamantia gives us an American version of Walter Benjamin’s “profane illumination.” Benjamin believes in the power of hashish to liberate the senses from bourgeois history. Lamantia’s idea is that narcotics are an escape from the pressure to get married, buy a lawnmower, and contribute to the Cold War economy. The point is that poetry is a counter-discourse to official policy, and the exclamation points are his weapon against the docility of the electorate. The same protest holds true even in poems that are not about narcotics:
The people walk as if in a movie-dreamAnd work in the terrifying orderOf a chaos their bodies reject,But their fear compels them to accept.The bureaucrats and idle richContinue their reign of permanent warOn the sweat and blood of the poor.— From A Simple Answer to the Enemy
Lamantia did eventually kick his habits. In later years he suppressed the original cover of Narcotica and talked as one who had passed through the belly of the beast:
I’m recoveringfrom a decade of poisonsI renounce all narcotic& pharmacopoeic disciplinesas too heavy 9-to-5-type sorrows.— From Astro-mancy
As moralizing as such sentiments seem, they have the virtue of amplifying his disgust at the middle class. His poetry is acutely cognizant that his readership contains members who come from positions of incredible economic privilege, and he wants to send them a message, e.g., “fuck yr safety / who needs it?”
I’ve been skirting a nagging issue with the poems, namely that there’s so much here that makes me feel like a bad reader of surrealism. The root of my confusion has to do with the images not being connected to any kind of recognizable sensation or vision. In countless variants of collage we can more or less identify the sources. We can do pretty good guesswork at why A and B go together, for example, in T.S. Eliot’s metonymies, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, or Jess’s assemblages. The same is not true for Lamantia: “I buy ectoplasmic peanut butter”; “A poppy size of the sun in my skull”; “The Female Pope with fish nostrils / The Emperor plowed into an egg garden / The Tower in a squall eating a bed of lava”; “I’m patriotic as banzai / I identify continually with the hair style of George Washington”; “Don’t just stand there like the Tetragrammaton.” The non sequiturs convey a reverie that he identifies in one poem as “indescript ekstasis.” Maybe there is a rational process that we can tease out. Peanut butter from a processing plant might taste artificial, and the unnatural flavor might suggest the supernatural, or ectoplasm. But I’m stretching to make sense. The images are so slapdash: poppies in the brain, aquatic female popes, flag-waving banzais? So now what? A traditional claim by art critics is that abstraction is secretly more realistic than realism. But this is not necessarily so for Lamantia. He genuinely wants poems to transport the reader out of the world. “Only Creative Violence Reveals the Beauty of the Marvelous,” says one poem that might represent his governing philosophy. The “fish nostrils” come up in the poem “Oblique and Direct,” except a better title might have been “Oblique and More Oblique.” For Lamantia, form and content are never more than an extension of ectoplasmic peanut butter.
Lamantia is difficult to sample because his lines cascade from one clause to the next and forgo clear sequential logic. This is not a complaint: folks go to poetry, after all, out of fondness for whacked progression. Surrealism, by definition, embraces the irrational. “Violet Star” is an exception, however, that is usefully self-reflexive about the linkages:
While I continue to raveover the dissimilar modesmoldingexcessively finitetransmutableat the coming of serpentine volitionson of the daughters of sleepthe absolute at every street corner with a braided capthe hair-lined tonguedisagreeably spills the indeterminate over the mirror of the world.
Is Lamantia apologizing for his obscurity? John Ashbery offers an almost identical concession: “I know that I braid too much my own / Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me. / They are private and always will be.” Lamantia molds rather than braids, but he and Ashbery are similarly attuned to the fact that many readers will simply throw in the towel. The game is up, poetry is henceforth a hermetic practice, and non-specialists need not apply. In this passage, Lamantia confesses a welcome doubt about his “hair-lined tongue.” The sensations come to Lamantia with a “volition” that not even he understands, and they wind “serpentine” through the poem. Chalk another victim up to indeterminacy. Still, the self-reflexivity jerks me awake because the whole enterprise of poetry suddenly seems presumptuous. Another alarm goes off in an untitled poem:
Why write about “things”?This map on the wall,less exact than the one in my mind.Take a shell of cottonmove a river southexact a city with rainpaint a sign with stars.Little do we know.
Beyond their self-reflexivity, one final virtue of these poems is an oblique chronicle of the twentieth century as witnessed by Lamantia’s capricious imagination. As grating to the ear as some lines might be — “supermarkets, televisions, and all the rest of it / ensnare vision / while spooks of social spells / revolve the cars”— Lamantia might in fact be the great chronicler of suburban misery. The aptly named “Vacuous Suburbs,” for example, opens with a protest against the closed garage doors of cookie cutter homes: “This silence doors shut against animals, spirits.” Another poem, “The Comics,” depicts what sociologists have called the feminization of the labor force:
Cussingthe men are going home to workon sleeping horsesand automobiles come aliveand return to the factorieswearing lingerie and makeupSteering wheels chrome fenders and gearsleer at the computersin the outer offices.
The history that cuts through is one of creeping uniformity in a manufactured landscape. If you dislike the average American commute (“the sleeper of inveterate cars”), Lamantia could be your saint for life. His poems first entered a political arena of attacks on communism, labor unions, and government health care, when private capital rallied to home ownership as the American dream. Lamantia does not refer to such headlines per se, but when he voices disgust at those responsible, it’s hard not to hear him hating on the suburbs.
A basic final observation. If surrealism is the offspring of Freud, then why does it so rarely feature interiors? Instead of the inside of the house — the site of the uncanny in our dreams — surrealism lays claim to the street, the vista, the landscape. European surrealism favored exteriors, no doubt, because it longed for revolution, and its Marxism predated the mantra that the personal is the political. But Lamantia is not a revolutionary in the sense that he rarely stresses collectivity. He seldom uses a plural “we,” though when he does, such as in “Dead Smoke,” those poems are among my favorites. His forte is rather the lyric self beholding the open air. The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia illustrates to what extent the surrealist idiom offered a brightly lit invitation to get out and escape the cul-de-sac doldrums. The invitation turns out to be just a bit marvelous.