Monday, June 2, 2014

SEEING THE ALL: Li-Young Lee, Walking With Walt

                “A flower is one station between earth’s wish and earth’s rapture…it’s just me in the gowns of the wind.” Li-Young Lee, fr. ‘Have You Prayed’

It may have seemed de rigeur to hear Li-Young Lee advise a host of young prize-winning Long Island schoolkids  at the Walt Whitman Birthplace to emulate the Good Gray Poet’s capacity to ‘see the all’ and communicate that vision through poetry.

But the life trajectory by which Lee has found himself in the position to offer that bit of advice to would-be next generation bards, at the annual Whitman birthday celebration in West Hills, LI has not been de rigeur at all. In fact, it’s been decidedly un-Whitmanlike.  

“I struggled with Whitman at first,” said Lee, a man whose family story in China – unlike Whitman and his 19th century Dutch-English yeoman farmer origins -- is peppered with warlords, generals, gangsters and a short-lived 20th century emperor. “But I grew up practicing Taoism, and was blown away by how Eastern Walt sounded to me -- his expansiveness, his largeness, his vision of the multitudity of the human soul. I wanted that in my work but I didn’t know how he pulled it off. “

Struggle no more. Reconciling Whitman’s ‘shirtsleeve transcendentalist’ conception to his own world view, emergent from cultural traditions to which Whitman and other American romantics could only allude, is well within the cognizance of this year’s poet in residence at the Whitman birthplace.

Particularly when it comes to yin and yang  -- the concept of duality forming a whole.

 “Whitman’s expansive voice is part of his picture – that’s his yang,” said Lee. “But to understand Whitman is to understand that real power doesn’t come from expanding your ego, it comes from practicing great emptiness, great isolation. That’s what Whitman did – his expansive voice, his yang, exists in the context of his yin. You have to shave your ego to do that. That’s what makes his work different from a slam poet.”

And that’s what makes it possible for a writer like Lee, known for his capacity to ‘craft the atmosphere of silence,’ to find common ground with Walt Whitman and his nominative penchant for exhaustive cataloguing of particularities.

“I’ve thought a lot about how Taoist Whitman really is,” said Lee. “In a sense, many of the Taoist classics, translated into English, sound like Whitman. They’re concerned about the all, the inflected all.”

“Lee reminds me of the saying ‘walking into the river we turn not one ripple; walking into a forest we turn not one leaf,’” noted Gladys Henderson, 2010 Long Island Poet of the Year honoree at the Whitman Birthplace.

Ripples and leaves aside, Lee’s voice has been turning heads, hearts and minds since he emerged in the world of American poetry in the 1980s.

Li-Young Lee is the 34th poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, a list of distinguished figures  that includes William Heyen, Billy Collins, William Stafford, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Espada, Sharon Olds and Robert Bly. Influenced by the classical Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu, his poetry is noted for its use of silence and, according to Alex Lemon in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, its “near mysticism” which is nonetheless “fully engaged in life and memory while building and shaping the self from words.”

“When I write, I’m trying to make that which is visible—this face, this body, this person—invisible, and at the same time, make what is invisible—that which exists at the level of pure being—completely visible,” Lee explained at a recorded lecture and reading at UC Berkeley.

The goal? To be one with the cosmos. “I want to get there for real -- not just as a literary experience, but a personal one.”

In a sense, everything a person does can be a way to that goal, from sweeping a floor to mending a shirt.

“But poetry is a way,” he added quickly. “What you feel in a great poem is this pressure to see the all. If you do your homework as a poet, if you try to account for things rigorously, you will be practicing this vision.”

Those who would see the American poetic voice incorporate the ‘great emptiness of yin’ into its well-known capacity for big, expansive utterance may well hope that a few students  at this year’s Walt Whitman birthday celebration in West Hills LI were paying attention to the advice of Li-Young Lee – and are doing their homework.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Walt Whitman At Bear Mountain  
           Neither on horseback nor seated
           But like himself, squarely on two feet
                     Louis Simpson, Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

When W Averill Harriman diverted a statue of Walt Whitman called “Open Road: Afoot and Lighthearted” to an out of the way outcropping of rock in upstate New York in 1940, he said he thought Whitman would’ve wanted it there -- to breathe  ‘the fresh air of the mountains’ -- instead of asphyxiated by the fumes of a million cars a year on Long Island.

To look at the poem written about the statue by Pulitzer Prize winning poet (and long-time Long Island resident) Louis Simpson and published in 1960, there’s certainly logic to Harriman’s point of view.

In his poem, Simpson decries the corrosion of the American myth of the open road. “The Open Road leads to the used car lot,” decries the Jamaican-born poet in one his most famously anti-material progress utterances.  “all the realtors, pickpockets, salesmen and the actors performing their official scenarios…turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted American dreams.”

Yet Simpson offers some hope of redemption in the very loneliness of the statueplaced in an out of the way place and viewed by few. “All that grave weight of America/Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome./The future in ruins!...
The man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
The housewife who knows she is dumb,
And the earth, are relieved!’

The statue – and its placement – support that redemptive hope.  Entitled “The Open Road: Afoot and Lighthearted,” portrays Whitman without regard to placement on highway or outcrop of glacial rock – America’s visionary poet is in full stride, hat in hand, one hand thrust confidently forward and his eyes fixed firmly on a distant destination.

Originally designed with Central Park or Battery Park in mind, but rejected by the New York City Parks Commission, the statue was the handiwork of sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952). It was not the only statue of a beloved literary figure sculpted by the man. Over his long career, the New York-born man was tapped to portray many of them – including Carl Sandburg  Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling,  Rabindrinath Tagore and J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

But Whitman may very well have been the most well-known work of his, at least when it was first exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. According to one newspaper account, so many visitors reportedly tried to shake the statue’s hand at its location in front of the ‘perisphere’ in Flushing that the soft bronze hand was bent out of shape – and a new one, made of harder material, had to be put on the statue.

After the World’s Fair, the statue faced a new hazard, at least to Harriman’s way of thinking. It seems the influential Robert Moses was intent on having the figure of Walt placed along Grand Central Parkway – but Harriman would have none of it. Instead, the future New York governor succeeded in having placed upstate.

In choosing the spot, Harriman said he was seeking a location visitors have to hike to. “Fifty years ago the rocky hills and lakes seemed of little or no value, but they appealed to my mother and father and it was here they made their home,” he said at the dedication ceremony. He cited his father’s promotion of roads, rather ironically, and proclaimed that whoever should see the statue of Whitman would have to ‘come here by foot.”

That having been said, he set old Walt atop an outcropping of granite, with a sign which reads: “presented to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission by William Averell Harriman in behalf of his brother and sisters as a memorial to their mother Mary Williamson Harriman on the thirtieth Anniversary of her gift to the State of ten thousand acres of land and one million dollars to establish the Bear Mountain – Harriman section of the Palisades Interstate Park.”

While the site today does receive considerably more attention than in 1940 – a park museum and zoo is located very close to the statue – it may be argued that William Averill Harriman succeeded in giving the ‘afoot and lighthearted’ Walt Whitman an appropriate ‘road less traveled’ to call home.  

Or as Louis Simpson put it, a spot where one may imagine an America beyond the ‘used car parking lot, ‘the castles, the prisons, the cathedrals/unbuilding, and roses/blossoming from the stones.”

(nb For those whose 'Long Island Pride' is put off by Harriman’s insistence that the statue not be located on its byways, there is this to consider. Seventeen years later, as the sitting governor of  New York State,it was William Averill Harriman who accepted the petition of local residents to have the Whitman Birthplace designated as a state historic site. )

Wednesday, March 19, 2014



The old maps show that back in the 19th century, across the road from Anna Heck's drug store at the corner of Half Hollow Road and Hart Place in Dix Hills, Long Island, was a place belonging to someone named Mrs. Gustavsen.

There's no farmhouse there anymore, or anything else to indicate that this corner of the suburban world of Long Island holds a place of some significance in American literary history.

Yet it does. That farmhouse figured prominently in the childhood experiences of Djuna Barnes, an iconic literary figures of today’s LGBT communities, an exotic expatriate 20s who consorted with Gertrude Stein, Charles Henri Ford, and later ee cummings.

Mrs. Gustavsen, it turns out, was Djuna Barnes’ grandmother. Zadel Barnes Gustafson – a woman whose utopian and experimental ideas about sexuality and relationships - enacted, at least in part, in that very farmhouse -- proved so pivotal in shaping Djuna's life.

In fact, biographers state in no uncertain terms that the boundaries of Barnes' romantic and emotional relationships were profoundly influenced by the experiences she had living in Zadel’s farmhouse in Dix Hills -- the period of her pre-teen and teenage years -- providing her with a profoundly conflicted view of the world which included both a broader than normal concept of the range of acceptable human behavior and a negativity and pessimism about that range.

It was in that farmhouse that Barnes (1892-1982), whose writings like Nightwood and Book of Repulsive Women have become staple reading for the cogniscenti not only because of their 'modernist' trappings but because of their focus on lesbian sexuality, fell under the sway of her paternal grandmother. Zadel Barnes Gustafson (1841-1917).

Zadel, it turns out, was a suffragist, spiritualist and temperance advocate who wrote for Harpers Magazine and other publications in the 1870s, including such crusading articles as 'Why Is There A Woman Question?"

"The Barnes Family is distinctive for its longstanding tendency to select unconventional  names and for a particularly high rate of solitary life and divorce, much before this became commonplace," notes the Univ of Md Archives. "The family even had a divorce in the seventeenth century."

Zadel’s life was colorful, no doubt about it. Married first to her Latin teacher and then to a Swede named Axel Gustafson, she was an ardent unionist during the Civil War and an early supporter of women’s suffrage. She had a literary salon in London where she consorted with Oscar Wilde, Victoria Woodhull and others.

Returning to the US sans Axel Gustafson, Zadel was soon part and parcel of an experimental open relationship household both at Storm King (an area in New York popular among Bohemians of the time ) and in the farmhouse in Dix Hills -- described as freethinking rural utopian scheme.

She brought along her son Wald – a composer, libertine and sporadic worker – and his children, including Djuna, who she ‘home schooled,’ conducting 'educational seances' and summoning the spirits of her favorite authors, including Oscar Wilde and Jack London, as teaching aids.

On the home front Zadel, wrote Djuna, 'believed in free love --everybody screwing each other.'  "They often slept in the same bed together," notes Susan Ware in A Biographical Dictionary of Notable American Women. "Barnes later suggested that she associated her grandmother with her attraction to women."

Zadel also manipulated the romantic relationships of her son and grandchildren -- and notably cajoled Djuna at the age of 17 into marrying the brother Wald’s second wife, a soap salesman named Percy Faulkner. Djuna left him after two months.

Eventually in 1912, Djuna moved out, with her mother and her brothers, relocating to the Bronx and then to Greenwich Village.

But the die was cast -- her life in Greenwich Village, in Paris, and eventually as a recluse living with the likes of ee cummings in Patchin Place in NYC, was inalterably shaped by Zadel Barnes Gustafson. So was her literary output.

In the poems from "The Book of Repulsive Women," Djuna’s mixed feelings about the scope and nature of the intimacies in her life are made manifest.

Originally published in a landmark chapbook series by Bruno of Greenwich Village in 1915, the volume of poetry presents portraits of women of the period - a mother, a prostitute, cabaret dancer and others - which critic Douglas Messerli explains were ‘'dominated  by a seething beat of sexuality and vice, whipped up into a delicious sense of perversity by Barnes' art."

What Messerli does not mention is a palpable sense of disallusionment, ennui and even contempt - beyond what is found in other modernist writing of the era.


So she stands - nude - stretching dully

Two amber combs loll through her hair

A vague molested carpet pitches

Down the dusty length of stair

She does not see she does not care

It's always there.

Or here, from the poem From Fifth Avenue Up: "Someday beneath some hard/Capricious star...We'll know you for the woman you are...With your legs half strangled/In your lace/You'd lip the world to madness/On your face."

Her prose possessed a similar duality. In Nightwood, Barnes examines with barely concealed venom and vindictiveness events in her relationship with her lesbian lover in Paris. In Lady’s Almanack, she alternately satirizes and celebrates the women around Natalie Barney, a lesbian leader in Paris. Her novel Ryder  and her verse drama, The Antiphon re-enact the ‘psychologically murderous’ upbringing she experienced – a deadly mix of freedom, license, and trauma.

Obsessed with a conflict between the ridiculous corruptions of the body and the severe weaknesses of the spirit, the author places herself, and her readers, ‘midway between redemption and damnation, ascending toward salvation, descending into the darkness of the unconscious and doom,’ according to one critic.

In no small measure, it was her time spent in the crucible of comfort and cruelty – trapped beneath some hard, capricious star of her grandmother’s conjuring -- in a long-gone farmhouse in Dix Hills, which led Djuna Barnes to this fate.