Derelict Air by Edward Dorn

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Derelict Air is the volume of poems Ed Dorn enthusiasts have been long awaiting. For those readers who always felt there must be unpublished chunks of Dorn’s work the scarcity of any new material in the posthumous Way More West: new and selected poems (Penguin 2007) edited by Michael Rothenberg was quite frustrating. Where were the “new” poems? Similarly, picking up Dorn’s Collected Poems (Carcanet 2012) the lack of any newly published work in the hefty 1,000 page volume was a disappointment. While the Collected remains nonetheless an essential presentation of Dorn’s published books Derelict Air: From Collected Out at long last satisfies the nagging desire for previously unpublished work.

Clocking in at 500+ pages, this gathering represents the absolute ransacking of Dorn archives far and wide to deliver a still compact and attractive reader’s edition of the surprisingly abundant number of poems Dorn himself, for the most part, never saw into print. There’s now extremely few, if any, Dorn poems left unpublished. While it’s questionable whether Dorn would have desired to have all of this work published, especially in a single large volume such as this, there’s plenty here to delve into and mull over. 

Outtakes from nearly every of Dorn’s collections appear. There’s also several complete works never published in their entirety such as The Day and Night Report (1971) previously known only via lengthy excerpts published in Tom Clark’s anthology of his pals All Stars (1972) and Clayton Eshleman’s magazine Caterpillar. Along with a number of poems from out Dorn’s extensive correspondence (notable poems included originally went out to John Wieners, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Tom Raworth, and J.H. Prynne); intimate family-oriented projects (even fragments of a projected children’s book); various scraps from out notebooks laid aside; and other tangential offshoots from the main body of his work which he never followed up on and fully developed.

The opening poems dated 1953-54 are drawn from letters Dorn mailed to his hometown pal Gordon Taylor. From this section comes the chiseled, beautiful brevity of “A Derelict Air” with its description of a woman whose “color was / velvet it darkened / just right, like love” and how

The blues, so slowly chant

a memorial counter-charm

keyed with coffee odors

yellowed during 78 whirls

of revealed lacquer.

Observing the manner in which “her dark hips / shift for cloth necessities” and drawing comparison with how “the blues demand space / as temporal as a snowman, / or marimba sounds.” In which may be heard echoes of both the sparseness found in Dorn’s peer, friend and early mentor Robert Creeley as well as the embrace of foreign exoticness found in the purely tourist’s poetic imagination of Wallace Stevens. Here Dorn clearly inhabits the role of the young protégé still figuring out his own path.

Continuing in the apprenticeship vein is the longer, multi-sectional, youthfully ambitious “The Righting of the Cat” completed while Dorn was under the tutelage of poet Charles Olson as a student at Black Mountain College. In this poem, Dorn draws reference to King Lear, W.B. Yeats, Greek & Latin, and displays textual argument in the form of a mathematical equation seeking to locate a depth of profundity within the scientific observation of the everyday ability of a falling cat to always land on its feet even “from two inches!” Aiming as it does after the range and authority found in Olson’s own work, Dorn’s attempt towards bridging poetic skill and comprehensive knowledge proves to be beyond his abilities at the time. He remarks elsewhere that upon being shown the poem Olson, as he likewise did with other of his Black Mountain students, such as poet Joel Oppenheimer, let him know that when it comes to writing poems he should go and find his own thing, that is his own approach, which in part led Olson to draft the seminal text A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn

There’s a marked difference between early Dorn and his work which follows from the late 1960s onward. In later work Dorn sheds any taint of apprenticeship. Leaving behind his early work ever so distinctly marked by the influence of Olson and Black Mountain he emerges with the hip, urbane, psychedelic, icily sharp-edged wit of his epic narrative Gunslinger (fragments of an aborted “Lil’s Book” are included here) and his uniquely social-political dark satire of The West in both historical and contemporary settings as found in Homage to Gran Apachería, Hello La Jolla, and Abhorrences. Discards from all these and other late collections appear along with a substantial amount of previously unpublished work. Derelict Air offers versions of Dorn’s poetry he rarely if ever allowed appear. For the first time readers have the opportunity to follow his experimentation as he develops his own path forward. Though often sardonically humorous, these poems also on occasion broach the deeply personal.   

In the late sixties Dorn was living and teaching in England when he broke off his first marriage leaving his wife Helene and their children to start life anew with his then student at the time Jennifer Dunbar (later Dorn) with whom he had two more children and remained married until his death in 1999. This upheaval in Dorn’s personal life remains rather underexplored as a major defining event in relation to his poetic development. Dorn was understandably always relatively circumspect publicly in regard to this time. Tom Clark’s biography Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (2002) opens with a brief reminiscence of a night out Dorn spent with Dunbar and friends—Clark was a member of the party that had gone out to the movies to watch The Magnificent Seven (one probable source Dorn drew upon for Gunslinger)—only to then commence on a straightforward biographical account of Dorn’s earlier life up until his arrival in England followed by an epilogue composed of extracts from correspondence Clark received from Dorn decades later during his final years. There’s been little critical engagement with the period in which Dorn left behind not only his earlier work but his first family as well.

Published here for the first time, the poem “Once, Again” (written circa June 1968) from its very opening lines, “My wandering / has cost me everything” reveals a startling instance of Dorn describing his emotional state during this time and the inextricable nature of the relationship between his personal life and his writing/reading life. As he takes assessment of his concerns, he appears alone at home with his books: “I sit in this room looking at some books / looking at my life” the books become interchangeable with the individual writers (“people”) who wrote them: “I’ve carried them around / some people I had to have, some I thought I should / have with me.” Soon he is mixing the people behind his books with his family, the texts of the books with the people of his life, those “who have tried to live with” him. He remarks how emotionally he’s “just cool in some areas”:

Sentimental shit.

This choked throat.

I didn’t even blink

when my son discovered

he doesn’t even bear my name. Maybe

I’m just cool in some areas. Signed copies

which won’t fit in my pocket. Some

came off on my brain and if you open

the covers of the book

you’ll find the print missing. The people

who have tried to live with me know where

to look for the missing pages. They have been

part of my life

Acknowledging that his circumstances are changing, as he finds himself drifting away from those who “have been / part” of his life, he finds himself, as he says, “split”:

I could walk out

and not look back into this room leave it

every individual page behind. My split

self tells me.

As he struggles aware that he is at a crossroads unsure of what is to come he reassures himself of the possibility of a future reconnection with his books, i.e. his family and these “friends” even as he moves away from them. Yet he affirms that it shall be they who will find him later, if they so choose:

There they are. Leave them all behind.

But not that way. No.

Leave your friends with your friends.

If some day

they want you

They’ll find you.

He holds himself responsible only to himself and his work which requires him to embrace a new approach to writing and, eventually, a new family. It’s fascinating to witness Dorn grappling with the utmost of personal crises, interrelating his family and friends with the books in his life and declaring these relationships will either prove enduring or they simply won’t. Just as it might be said his work as a poet will or will not last. He accepts the knowledge of who, along with what, he must leave behind in order to have the opportunity to move ahead. Never one to backtrack or leave what’s on his mind unsaid, Dorn continued on the only way he understood. Living and writing as he must.

ed-dorn-1987Never a poet to stick with a particular style for long, Dorn frequently catapults his way out of any particular corner once it’s become too comfortably familiar refusing to be pigeonholed. This is particularly true with his later work where his poems are often most admirable when pushing, or prodding at, many a reader’s expectations. Dorn’s takes always remain distinctly his own, particularly when late in life he developed an ever increasingly proverbial dislike for whatever he saw as an utterly two-faced corrupt society passing judgment upon as acceptable and condoned. He’s to be found more often than not taking up an antagonistic, underdog point of view, consequently his work is usually judged beyond the pale of liberal political cool.

Moving from reading early Dorn to reading later Dorn is already somewhat jarring, doing so while reading work he himself never brought into publication only makes it the more so. Amid multiple glimpses of realized success appear even more numerous partial strands and dead ends, resulting in what is undeniably a rather mishmash grab bag presentation of the erratic and bizarre alongside the austere and profound (of course, given the vast shifts of tone and range traversed, the same might also be said of Dorn’s Collected). Undoubtedly much of Derelict Air will prove incomplete, perhaps even incoherent and/or bafflingly incomprehensible to the unfamiliar or already predisposed disapproving reader. However, it is only in the nooks and crannies offered up that some previously submerged aspects of Dorn’s trajectory as a poet may now be more fully traced than ever before.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →