To Dream Kalapuya, Cried and Measured, First Book of Omens From Middle American Dialogues and Questions & Goddesses from Middle American Dialogues, all by Karl Young. 1977.
To Dream Kalapuya
twig west wind
brain and high tide
to join high tide
Karl Young takes chances, literal and literary: “These poems were composed using chance and spontaneous process, with Leo Frachtenberg's LOWER UMPQUA TEXTS as base.” And as you can see, he’s using other material, matter —solid, to touch base. It is a small sized book, I measured it: 4" x 5" x 3/16th". Handy enough to carry around and hold to your friends when one of them starts throwing haiku at you. Then you can ask yourself if Young must not feel like a midwife, pulling these small poems forth, allowing them to live long after the haiku imitators have passed onto imitate the intimations of some other imported poesey initiation.
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Cried and Measured
I’ll not quote, it is not quotable. Young does a fine enough job of explaining how these poems were generated at the end of Cried and Measured. This statement standing outside the text is worth reading. Learn some interesting history from it. Then before making a return trip through the text take a quick read through Charles Olson's essay “Homer and the Bible” in Human Universe and other essays. (A “quick read” of course won’t do it except as a refresher but you may find that you can enter Young through Olson or maybe it will take Young to get to Olson, perhaps neither. I stumble as much as the next person. More.) Cried and Measured is one of the few books that is true to its title. There seems to have been this time, in the beginning as the good books say, when the word was that close to people’s activities that it was almost indistinguishable from them, when the word was so tied to gesture that to fix it, make it solid, it was necessary to laboriously carve and scrape the word into clay, into the people’s daily discourse. William Carlos Williams was not the first poet to make poetry from a shopping list.
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Two: part of a series, probably on going as most series are.
Again, at the end of Questions & Goddesses Young offers his sources as a guide: “The first three pieces in this set are based on the following sections of the Mayan Chilam Balam of Chumayel: 1. ‘The Interrogation of Chiefs,’ 2. ‘A Chapter of Questions and Answers,’ 3. ‘The Creation of the World,' and `Memoranda Concerning the History of Yucutan.’ The way I read these pieces is first down each column (ie., the first two lines of 1 would be ‘the sun / lances, lofty crosses in its heart’) and then reread it going across (ie., the first three lines of this reading would be ‘the sun / a fried egg / lances, lofty crosses in its heart) —everything gets read twice...."
Two poems for the price of one. A gimmick? How about a new vision? It is hard to argue against this kind of playing when it works. If in doubt then look to this and perhaps you can consider it a healing, a protection against the weak European derived surrealism that fills too many poetry journals these meek days:
(continuing the reading across)
words and gestures of benediction
green chili peppers
a large house
a hat on the floor
mounting white horses
stirrups of henequen fiber
hold white rattles
wear white capes
dried blood on the rattles
the gold in the veins of the orphan
the soul of our help mistress...living lianas
the guts of pigs
flowers of the nights....
If you deny that this is powerful it would be less than honest to question your sight and hearing. But what of it? Admitting that there is an indigenous American surrealism (not “sur” nor “super” nor autre, but another Realism that has hardly been tapped —which in itself tells a story worth recording some time) what can a contemporary poet do with it? How can s/he honor the materials, not be just one more in a long chain of exploiters? Do you want Cortes as your patron? It ain’t easy to court the materials and then hear someone say that your love is just another form of whoring No, it ain’t easy, and Young seems to have taken the hard way, which is the only way. It won’t satisfy everyone, nor does he expect to. He has been honest with acknowledging his sources and he has created —no, not created, but done an oft’ time more difficult task, he has made poetry from them. If a reader has doubts then s/he can go to those sources and attempt what he had done, perhaps an even better poem will result. I doubt if anyone would be more pleased than Karl Young. This country has ignored its own classics. Young is pretending that such a condition does not exist and by this act of his imagination is helping to create a situation in which the condition does not exist. I thank him for it, and continue to read on to the next book.
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In the First Book of Omens From Middle American Dialogues Young pulls away from the texts that he has been using, or have been using him, and allows them to speak through him more personally, though he is still some distance from “the public wailing wall” where so much weak verse is posted. He presents a dramatic movement, a choreography of the dance of blood: “the steps to the temple are steep / the heart pumps blood faster / as you ascend”. The poem records a sacrifice and in spite of the excellent printing that mirrors inscriptions cut into stone I doubt if the book will be popular —American poetry readers it seems are too removed from any feeling for sacrifice, it seems too many poets are so removed. Would not Keats recognize the poetry of these lines? —“the skeletons ribs knock together / he sees a heart inside them / as the ribs clash together / he reaches for the heart”. It is a record of a sacrifice and a conquest recorded with the senses fixed to details, as they should be: “stamp with your sandals when fighting / so you don’t slip on the blood of the field / a butterfly lands on his wife”.
These books help open the door onto a world, our world, of mystery and life and death, a world that makes the psychology—inspired surrealism of Europe look childish by comparison. If the poetry lovers would look as avidly to these books as the weekend dope smokers have looked to Carlos Castaneda then American poetry perhaps stands some chance of rejuvenation, of living again.
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To see the universe in a speck of dust
Days and Years by Karl Young, Membrane Press, 1987
$4.00, PO BOX 11601 / Sherwood Milwaukee WI 53211
Obviously my title mocks Blake. I’ve always been suspicious of the Romantics, even the best of them push my credibility with their inflated language claims and only years ago when I did LSD did I think I had any insight into the workings of the universe when seeing a grain of sand. Even though I still think John Clare is the best poet of the English Romantics. Karl Young’s Days and Years is softening my opinions about them. I have no idea if Young would consider himself a Romantic poet, but I have a suspicion that he and the man from Lambeth at least would have more to say to each other than most poets who would like to be considered such. Young starts his collection with this short poem: a speck / of dust / that wetness / can form around / a sword / so sharp / it draws blood from the wind. Now Young subtitles this collection (Plain Poems, Book 1). The language is indeed plain enough, and we can assume there will be more books to follow and we can hope so because these poems point to anything but what “plainness” denotes. Like the Romantics, Young is pointing to the cosmic within the mundane. And he, in a gentleness that also points away from self-destruction (and this lesson is as important as the music of his language), points to how it is possible to “break on through to the other side.”
The first poem makes the natural connection, and it is natural, feels just like what that word—
in spite of its being constantly debased and drained of meaning—feels just like what we mean by natural: organic, unforced, slipping into our consciousness it makes the natural connection of how a cube of ice melting in the kitchen sink links us through language, through the body’s metaphors, to glaciers, and to how dreams melt into the wind blowing one more question for the heart’s response. And he makes such magic possible for us again. And again. Every day, every day’s event, no that is not possible, but he is pointing to how it might be, when he shows how such a mundane act, and act of mistaken identity evokes the living memory of a friend dead nearly a year. Going to a supermarket and finding a melon someone didn’t or couldn’t pay for, abandoned near the checkout and his fingers trace its surface, and we are presented not with “only” a descriptive nature poem, we are shown an insight into how a person can make that essential identification with nature, and since we are nature it should be easy, but when is it? The poem:
On this melon
the nerves in the ridges of my hands
feel ridges and valleys
older than the shapes of my cells,
and know the fibers,
the oceanic swell of clear wetness
that breaks through them,
that someone decided to leave at the last minute
here between the magazines and candybars
in the aisle of the checkout counter...
well, I move forward, face the checker
and those miners
sometimes during heavy fighting,
slept in those caves,
beneath the pictures the Sioux took
as the drawings of god.
My hand leaves the melon.
Miners chipped a little gold from those walls.
The last lines again: My hand leaves the melon.
Mine chipped a little gold from those walls.
OK. Recall this poem the next time at the supermarket, more profound, yes that’s the word, more so than “Sunflower Sutra” any day. The book is a joy to read and be-hold, for it is plainly an eloquently produced book. At the end is the contents page. It’s another poem bonus, gift. Get this book now, and collect as many as are going to be a part of this series. Simply it is an important book signaling Karl Young as an important poet.
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Not Just A Few Short Lines
Review: A Few Short Lines by Sherry Reniker and Karl Young, Light and Dust Books, 1993,ISBN: 0-87924-074-1, 7112 27th Ave. Kenosha, WI 53143
This beautifully produced but modest book of poems, containing Sherry Reniker’s “Vanishing Peace, selected poems 1982-1992” and Karl Young’s “What To Whisper Until It Rains, short poems 1963-72”, is a treasure. It is a treasure not only because it is rare to find such consistently fine poems in a time of so many instantly forgettable collections of poetry, but it is a rare book because neither of these poets is well known. Both deserve to be. Both poets share a deep, perhaps mystical, appreciation for language as a physical development of the poetic impulse. Reniker comes out of her study of Japanese; Young’s poetry seems formed by his years of work in the printer’s trade. Both poets treat the poetic word with reverence backed by the knowledge of how space informs the sound we make of the printed word. Each poem becomes a self-contained sound portrait that is also a visual record of the spirit made “flesh.” A poem by Reniker, then Young:
eco / ego
and next year
the blade's incision
breaks unmulched straw
and I will not strike back
some things must not grow