Like Mercury Over a Wall of Garnets

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A particular joy of Mysteriosos and Other Poems is the apprehension of current—biological, electric and historical, and in other forms– that distinguishes the most rigorously thrumming beats from their sallow imitators.

Michael McClure, a “founding member of the Beat Generation,’’ understands the burdens and joys of this honor as well as any of his companions on the poetic road, which in his case began in Kansas. Mysteriosos and other poems, his newest collection, displays his fondness for CAPITAL LETTERS in a way that remains appealing. Printed lines create their own page-backed bursts, as in “MYSTERIOSOS ELEVEN :

STREAM OF FACES, FACES ON SAND GRAINS
UNDER THE OSPREYS AND HIGH GREEN WAVES.
STREAM OF ROARING NEURON LACE.

S
I
L
E
N
T

as pink flowers of peyote.
Free in the preserve the soul inspires.
No beginning or end
(like a pelican gliding low over breakers
where the night will be star sparks).

There’s alchemy here, and with images like “ROARING NEURON LACE, “ a kinetic glimpse of what William Blake might have imagined in another century. Many mediocre living writers have been compared to great dead writers, but McClure has been justly linked to Blake for his rambunctiously ablaze yearnings, his unblinking sight and knowledge of art, his spirited intellect and gift for getting it right.

Though this book is only a hundred and forty-four pages, longtime McClure readers can look back at more than a dozen collections of poetry, two novels, seven plays—including “The Beard,” which won an Obie–five books of essays, and collaborations in sound and film with The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and with Janis Joplin. His music is as effective at the slimmest pianissimo as in full-bodied roar. DEAR BEING is a suite of thirty seven pieces, repeating lines in earlier work to create newly animated poems. Some are dedicated to individual friends like City Lights co-founder Nancy Peters, though the section in entirety is dedicated to Amy, his wife. Number 21 is an astute, adoring cry :

THE CLOUD THAT RAFAEL FOUND is the rules of freedom.
Dark green shamrocks grow in a bowl where
Dead friends live in dreams. Sounds of blue-black
Jays screaming. YOU
ARE
THE
LAWS
THAT I WANT
to flow like water
over spongy moss
and like mercury over a wall of garnets
and yet you are solid flesh.
Delicate and pale and sleepy in the morning.
YOUR SOUL FILLS YOUR EYES.
The pain of loving you
is almost more than I can bear
and I think I will melt in a hundred emotions,
then I am saved when you see
the small black-headed bird through the window
on the deck rail. HOW
HARD THIS IS,
DEAR BEING

All talk of consciousness is nothing
compared to this.
The anguish of age is not speakable.

No, it isn’t. But with McClure’s voice it becomes manageable.

“HORNS, CYMBALS, AND LIGHTNING BOLTS OVER GLACIERS,” he writes in DOUBLE MOIRE FOR FRANCIS CRICK of double helix fame, who quoted McClure in 1965, igniting a long friendship:

softness of velvet under the feet.
Toes going nowhere.
nowhere to go but
halfway to freedom;
just a being, a beast, among creatures.

BEARDED SEA OTTERS CRACKING MUSSELS
ON STONES ON THEIR STOMACHS.
That’s as rich as it gets in the sparkle
of waves in the rain and sun.
There’s the need to swim and to fly
but resting and playing and eating is right for the day.

A particular joy of this book is the apprehension of current—biological, electric and historical, and in other forms– that distinguishes the most rigorously thrumming beats from their sallow imitators. Yes, poets have always been concerned with war, destruction of the environment, appreciation of the natural world. McClure has never been afraid to move with the majestic maelstrom, and his fearlessness has led him to a lifelong engagement with science that enhances his poems.

“I see there is no wall between biology and poetry,” he notes in the introduction to this book. As a child and grandchild of serious botanizers, I agree, and have reason to believe he shares my view that scientific inquiry is a necessary of poetic practice, even if the poems one intends to compose do not directly concern scientific issues.

Like the best performances in any medium, McClure’s poetry also puts on a show that becomes precisely organic, giving his unique stretches and turns a sweet-clear authority, quenching to anyone with open pores.

The last poem in this book is called TO ROBERT CREELEY and is ‘’for Penelope.’’ Creeley was McClure’s equal in countless ways, and the poem brings him to life:

Farewell Bob, from your syncopated
whip-crack of Miles Davis
and your deKooning stroke
to your vision of the paintings
in the Cro- Magnon caves. Goodbye, poet,
touch my shoulder as you touched it.
You were my first literary friend
and you were a drunken and demonic adventurer
who changed to become a father and a husband
in this world and to the writing realms
and dimensions of spoken genius.
From you we learned grace and accuracy
of the gestures of the voice
and to flex syllables
upon the breath of muscular intelligence.

Outrider of energy,
guardian of poetry’s dark serious laugh,
today in the sun the fiddleneck ferns unclasp
and the first mariposa tulip
opens in the field.
Inspired by your shadow
none of us will yield.

THERE IS SO MUCH HERE I WANT TO CELEBRATE, so I shamelessly borrow McClure’s capitals, an act I’d never presume to attempt in my own poems. As always, he covers vast areas with the meticulousness of the verbal diamond-cutter Creeley helped him become. ALL FELLOW HUMANS willing to be accessible to inspiration by the likes of Creeley and McClure, will learn much on their exploratory steps over time. We will receive a welcome lesson in guarding “poetry’s dark serious laugh,” some strength to keep from yielding, and will become part of an urgently disciplined, universal tradition of song.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →