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Kyger’s Poetics of Interconnectedness
reviewed by Trevor Carolan

On Time: Poems 2005-2014
Joanne Kyger
City Lights Books



I can’t think exactly when it began coming clear that Joanne Kyger is among the, or perhaps is simply the most critically neglected major poet in the United States, but it seemed to coincide with delivery of the 6th or 7th edition a few years back of the popularly used “pocket” anthology of poetry in North American colleges and universities. Why, I wondered yet again, was she ignored for inclusion when yet another cluster of AWP conference self-promoters were plumped for academic attention until the next expensive edition was due.
Humour was probably at the root of it, I reckoned. British poets like Craig Raine laugh and write goofy lines, but not Americans, except Billy Collins, and scholars don’t seem to take him very seriously, although they ought to. Popularity, I considered. For a poet who doesn’t make the anthology coach’s all-star line-up, Kyger usually tops out one-two with Diane di Prima when it comes to student choices, especially younger female students, for their tutorial talks in English classes in the U.S. and Canada. And at international conferences, Kyger regularly runs with Emily Dickinson as a non-male American poet that people want to hear about. Lack of critical theory? Ideology, politics? Beats me.

Back in the real world, so many workaday acquaintances in the writing world have been excited by the news of Kyger’s latest book with City Lights that I’ve been thinking about her poetry for months. Re-reading it for the fifth or sixth time, I’m put in mind of what Allen Tate said of E.E. Cummings; that this is a poet with vision, who in a dehumanizing world takes us back to the roots of our humanity.

On Time, her latest, shows Kyger as a non-overtly-political radical with a vision of inclusion and dissent. Note that it’s a community vision, one that like a bird-watcher’s extends easily from a favourite reach of nearby countryside to the migratory flyover routes in spring and fall that link up local and distant avian habitats. That’s Kyger’s turf, the dharmakaya realm of natural shapes and forms, along with conversations over the neighbour’s fence. Her narrative work flows evenly, although images and references not unlike in Philip Whalen’s poetry are frequently discontinuous. For example a reflection on war criminals and George W. Bush and company shifts as quickly as a hiccup to view a baby quail pecking in the shadows.

Humour runs like an underground stream throughout the collection; there’s more wit here than in a generation of late-night TV comics. “You Go To War With The Army You Have” laughs at the absurdity of clapping outdoors at the end of a meal to scare off poaching whiskey jacks from the patio, only to be mistaken by a foreign visitor as a California New Age ritual of grace. Quirky dream accounts and panoptical references abound—there’s screen idol Tab Hunter; now it’s women presidents abroad; then it’s a friend’s ashes that disappear—macabre, yet somehow funny like teenage horror movies. What’s it all about? The poet calls it her book of days: “indulging the maintenance / of the thin emotional line of balance / is what I call life these days” (“The Studio”).

Not everything is comic. “White Kites” and “For a Moment” are brief Pound-like Zen pensées in English that lasso fleeting glimpses of joy and sadness. There’s appreciative stillness in her seeing surfers waiting out offshore, hanging for a breaker. We are reminded too, this is a world poet who hears the news and bears witness when stuff happens, reflecting on U.S. Government policy tragedy after tragedy, but who remembers to read outdoors during a rare dry spell in the rainy season.

I’ve always appreciated Kyger’s nutty ability to come up with titles that say it all, or don’t even try to. In this, her only serious American rivals have been Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Have a taste of these:

* “Really There Is No Solution”
* “A Great Vampire Squid Is Wrapped Around the Face of Humanity”
* “I’m Very Busy Now So I Can’t Answer All Those Questions About Beat Women Poets”
* “Everything I Know About You Guys Is Wrong”
* “Nobody Told Me Grief Felt So Much Like Fear”
* “Make Yourself Home in the Dreamy Bardo”
* “Post-Extinction”

The poems accumulate, each dated, and we sense the sharpness of her absorption in the consciousness of being purely attentive, while remaining non-complicit in the routine savageries of military and governmental bad-idea men who make the news cycles go. Amidst it all, like a gracious, cranky friend, she reminds herself to be kind and to cut late-arriving Good Friday visitors some slack in crappy weather. It’s impossible not to love the random, but still linked associations between ideas and images in Kyger’s work. In “Pomegranate Syrup” a power outage, the sound of backfiring car motors up the road, droning plane engines overhead, and a moment’s contemplation on bamboo; each melds in a gawky, but congruent assemblage that echoes with an old myth about Dionysus. In the mosaic of everyday happenstance, everything plays some part.

On Time collects poems from all over the place; from Kyger’s home on the California littoral, from the Mexico that she knows well, and from a grab-bag of road-stops from every other direction. There are goodbye poems for some familiar names from America’s modern lit fraternity: Anselm Hollo, Peter Warshall, Arthur Okamura, Albert Saijo, as well as a neighbour or two. For literary gossips, other poems refer to a constellation of writerly veterans: Philip Lamantia, Lyn Hejinian, Ed Dorn, Charles Olson, Walt Whitman, W.C. Williams, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Rod Padget, Robert Duncan, Christopher Isherwood. And there are references to the sixties and its ephemeral Summer of Love, her own Zen teacher acquaintances, and always her community pals from along the lane. If you’ve followed Kyger’s work, you’ll recognize that within her poetic vision everybody’s in.

The results are subtle, lucid and offbeat. Kyger is unique. There’s simply no other voice in contemporary poetry quite like hers. Nature literate, Buddhist-inflected, a veteran roadie who’s seen some miles, this book is a treat, especially if, like her, you take delight in looking at birds and fauna: her observations train on sharp-shinned hawks, scrub jays, herons that eat gophers, flickers, song sparrows, and northern California’s ubiquitous wavering eucalyptus.

This is a poet who declared her turf, her aesthetic and ecological interests back in 1965 with a volume called tellingly The Tapestry and the Web. Her message, amigos y amigas—no theoretical decoder ring necessary—is that everything is interconnected. There’s unity even in her quixotic dissimilars. It’s known as “sticking with what got you here”, and Kyger’s latest communiqué from the biome we know as our beloved Blue Planet arrives right on time.

Trevor Carolan is the International Editor of PRRB.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #20