August 27, 2003

On Poetry and the Occult

Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz
translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander
University of California Press ($19.95)

A February Sheaf
Gerrit Lansing
Pressed Wafer ($15.00)

It is only with great modesty that I can speak of the occult, though I understand, right or wrong, poetry as the occult's highest practice. Since the study of nature has been for so long divorced from the inner experience of scientific observers, it's no wonder that all that is proper to occult relations of the world is alien, frowned upon and scoffed by reductive rationalists. This is not the place to address a division of mind and spirit that for hundreds of years has dominated the big Western shove to colonize the imagination. Instead, I'd like to consider through two recent books how poetry responds in diverse cadences to phenomenal relations.

First up is the Bolivian poet and novelist Jaime Saenz (1921-1986). An intense alcoholic for periods of his life, Saenz nevertheless created a formally personal and probing poetry activated by diverse strands of European and Latin American Surrealism. It's a kind of Walt Whitman in reverse, with lines of rich imagery and cadences that interrogate the mysterious crossroads of self and community, magic and society.

"His work was certainly innovative," write translators Johnson and Gander, "absorbing the fantastic, the psychological, and the symbolic. But it wasn't formally radical enough to situate him among the international avant-garde; it wasn't politically specific enough to find favor with the ascendant literary left, and it was too weird to ride into popularity on the coattails of writers like Cortázar and Vargas Llosa during the Latin American boom of the 1970s."

It was also hermetic in its origin and aim, an intensely conceived personal vision as well as one rooted in indigenous Bolivian cultures. His poetry stems in part from the visionary imagination and memory systems of the Kallawaya, Aymara and Quechua. His work is talismanic in execution, reaching for those anchors of language that locate meaning amidst the chaos of mind, culture (as it is) and other social relations. For Saenz, poetry was a measure of those relations by which Art "disorganizes all the senses," to use Rimbaud. This is an extension of European Faustian bargaining into the New World visionary violence of Andean mountain people. A Paleolithic animism roots it here, a relation prior to magic in the European sense.

The obsession for mutable and migratory essences reaches our English ears in this vivid, feverish translation. In "To Cross This Distance" Saenz writes

This body, this soul, are here.
I am and here am I in this soul, in this body, in this soul that I love and this body that I love.
By way of its breath, in the invisible and the concealed, I found this soul.
In the way of gazing out and being of this body—in the way of being of its vestment,
in the vestment's dark and subtle way of being present and not present, I found the secret,
I found presence. (52)

The theme of emanation is recurrent, as if the unreal modernity of La Paz threatened modalities as instinctive as they were secret to Saenz's singular will. The Americas, north to south, are rife with conflicts of social power, destabilized native geographies and massive personal irritations. But only a man of Saenz's peculiar personal affections—or disaffections—could perform a poetics of emanation—a calling out of energies and forms latent in the objectified experience of European and Andean magical ecologies. There is a kind of desperation to retrieve an original presence that predates the bad history of that unreal and subject continent. This phenomenological necessity for Saenz results in incantatory spells of vast range. Beyond history, geography and the particulars of economic and social violence and repression, even beyond the socially defined limits of the sexually immanent body, there lies for Saenz a Platonic order to be called. Here is the strict crux back to the matrix. He bears a cross of unreality to retrieve the felt presence and intuited power latent in matter.

When you allow us and this beautiful world to wound you,
and you pretend to stumble, or sleep, and feign to have been seen or hint that
someone has spied a trace of you,
and with a bolt of light you radiate fear and surprise into our world,
we will come round to give out from the animal, from the dead and from the
living and from the guts of our world,
and we'll never again forget. It will be redemption, blue way.

The musician and the rifles, lightness, heaviness and the shade, the nicknames,
the cotton and the cramp, hatred, the swindlers, the magpie, age and the
padlocks, spelling and the café and the liars, the flea and ivory, the
number, the bees, the vision and me, the tail, the gold and the shelves
and the frail,
we await the sign, eager to fuse into each other and continue the dialogue with
you, blue way. (58-59)

We have needed in English a translation of this order. Latin American poetry is too little known, and Saenz probes relations to the unknown that reveal essential poverties of imagination up and down the vertical axis of the Americas. His voice carries a lament for what there is and isn't—emanations of contrasting potencies. He is a Neo-Platonist dropped into a Bolivian city, and this makes him a stranger always to his intimate physical climates. His role is to be explorer in a land thoroughly exploited, and he assumes the role of immanent recovery with devotion: "I want to discover what wind carries you and what rain, and your vision's essence in the country of first causes…." (65)


A February Sheaf gathers selected writings, verse and prose by the Gloucester, Massachusetts, poet Gerrit Lansing. Generous, inquisitive and devoted to poetry and magic, this selected work shows a wide range of concerns for the relations of inner life, nature and the creative imagination. His engagement with the occult differs from Saenz in its sober and penetrating perfection of Art as science or gnosis. His vertical attention connects through the field of the poem diverse patterns often unrealized in their discrete origins. Nearly half a century of work here shows a dynamic process of Art. It's achieved by a broad but intimate re-cognition of patterns through the phenomenal world.

A recent poem, "The Wizard of Oz in the Blizzard of Oz," comes early in the book. It's a good example of what Lansing does well in his poetry. He juxtaposes diverse perceptions, fictions and historical grim realism to achieve a poetic vision of the American heartland. "Oz," he writes, "is for the strong who are strong enough to be bent, / the bent, the bending, overcome the strongest jock." (13) This poem is a site of compressed dynamics, showing how admixtures of religious intolerance, political manipulation and commercial evaluation exploit one geographic and imaginative expanse. It's broken dream country for sure, this ""Holy Land of Kansas.'"

John Kendrick wrote these words, 1908 maybe:

Onward Christian Soldiers, rip and tar and smite
Let the gentle Jesus bless your dynamite.
Splinter skulls with shrapnel, fertilize the sod
Folks who do not speak your tongue deserve
the curse of God. (15)

The poem's about various bamboozlements, but it also asks, finally, "who is naming the naming of namelessness?" (20) That question runs clear throughout Lansing's work, whereas Saenz sought immanence behind all forms. But immanence is a kind of fundamentalism compared to Lansing's pagan inquiries, historical connections and conceptions of social patterns. Magic as I understand it is a highly personalized system devoted to the employment and re-cognition of patterns in nature or the imagination. This differs from Kerouac's religious piety, or Whitman's devotional projections. Lansing takes responsibility not for the forces of religious offerings, but for the willing application of mind onto a world formed by an imagination of it. In this sense, he is as much its creator as its steward, "fuming in delightful delusion…" (19)—regarding Kansas once more.

Those who know his work in The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward and The Soluble Forest will be familiar with some of the poems reprinted here. But it's good to see them in a new context. His ear is influenced by Elizabethan music, and song is close to the heart of his poetry. Often his humor and plainspoken riffs deflate on the surface the seriousness rumbling behind his work. This "Quatrain for Contemporary 'Amazing Grace' Stanza Collection" spoofs the hymn with legal advice from Aleister Crowley:

When all the malls go up in flame,
and jails the mighty built,
then we the newly free proclaim
the Law: Do What Thou Wilt! (31)

And there's this lovely opening line from "How We Sizzled in the Pasture:"

Down in the boondocks rhematic sinsigns multiply…. (35)

He loves putting words together, and that word "boondocks" puts a hick localism against "sinsigns" to register the youthful hayseed horniness of "high dick fun at the fair." (35) It's a delightful Herrick-like pastoral derived from pleasurable memories in the kingdom of greeny youth. Such delights are abundant among the images of his Art.

The reviews, essays and introductions to his magazine SET (1961-1964) gathered here are insightful and gracefully articulated documents to the Arts of writing and perceptive living. They are erudite without blasting and rich with observation and generosity. I like the size, the contained focus and, above all else, the modest engagement his reviews offer. Whether he's looking at Crowley, Nerval, Thoreau, or contemporaries like Clark Coolidge and John Clarke, his words are often illuminating. Rather than merely relating information, ideas or opinions, his prose writing transfers energy toward a goal, making an illumination or extension of another's work and words. In a short piece on Henry Thoreau, for instance, we read: "Walden is one of the last great religious books of the West." (123) "Thus Thoreau made of his daily and local experience a rich mythological fabric, a cosmos as complex and individual as any system of totemic classification." (125) This is a lovely and generous acknowledgment of New England's famous naturalist. Besides literary considerations, other pieces treat astrology, magic and visual art.

"The Burden of Set" editorials reprinted here are still valuable artifacts of the dynamic possibilities of creative achievement. "This magazine," Lansing writes, "is about the poetic exploration of the swarming possibilities (some occult, unused) in American life, urban & local (the rural is no longer available to poetry; to life?), here & especially now. Its character is conceived as dual, historical and magical, the emphasized characters of Time." (156)

Part manifesto, part spell, these projective essays outlined possibilities for poets in the 1960s. What's interesting is the fronting of historical and occult concerns. These are dynamic proposals for new times. Lansing is socially critical and evaluative, and gets right to the point: "Since kulchur is dead … we are all enveloped by its stink … but energy at least & at last is free to recognize itself…." (159)

"Poetry," he continues, "falls on an age of undoing like nothing known before, & rite measure & metric flow from the crystal of the Moment."

The moment he pinpoints has not exhausted. Thankfully, we now have this intrusion of historic record. Lansing's occult preoccupations offer alternatives to the socialized cages mental health freaks continue to construct. There's a lifetime of work here to consider closely, and to enjoy as completely as earth and sky.--DS

Posted by Dale at 02:36 PM | Comments (590)

August 22, 2003

Texas Democrats in Exile

This came from You may have seen it already, but thought it was worth passing on in the event you outside Texas have not.


Dear friends,

I am writing to you from a hotel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
where I and 10 of my colleagues in the Texas Senate have been forced
to reside for the past 20 days. If we return to our homes, families,
friends, and constituents, the Governor of Texas will have us

I know, it sounds more like a banana republic than the dignified
democracy on which we have long prided ourselves. We are effectively
exiled from the state due to our unalterable opposition to a
Republican effort -- pushed by Tom Delay and Karl Rove, and led by
Texas Governor Rick Perry -- that would rewrite the map of Texas
Congressional districts in order to elect at least 5 more Republicans
to Congress.

You may not have heard much about the current breakdown in Texas
politics. The Republican power play in California has obscured the
Republican power play in Texas that has forced my colleagues and me to
leave the state.

Recognizing that public pressure is the only thing that can break the
current stalemate, our friends at MoveOn have offered to support our
efforts by sharing this email with you. In it, you will find:

-Background information on how the situation in Texas developed;
-Analysis of what's at stake for Democrats and the democratic process;

The Republican redistricting effort shatters the tradition of
performing redistricting only once a decade immediately after the
Census -- making redistricting a perpetual partisan process. It
elevates partisan politics above minority voting rights, in
contravention of the federal Voting Rights Act. It intends to decimate
the Democratic party in Texas, and lock in a Republican majority in
the U.S. House of Representatives. And Republican efforts to force a
vote on this issue by changing the rules of legislative procedure
threaten to undermine the rule of law in Texas.

We do not take lightly our decision to leave the state. It was the
only means left to us under the rules of procedure in Texas to block
this injustice. We are fighting for our principles and beliefs, and we
can win this fight with your support.


Rodney Ellis
Texas State Senator (Houston)
August 18, 2003


During the 2001 session of the Texas Legislature, the legislature was
unable to pass a Congressional redistricting plan as it is required to
do following the decennial Census. A three judge federal panel was
forced to draw the plan. Neither Governor Rick Perry or then Attorney
General John Cornyn, both Republicans, objected to the plan, which was
reviewed and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2002 Congressional elections, the first held under the new
redistricting plan, resulted in a Congressional delegation from Texas
consisting of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. However, five of the 17
Democrats prevailed only because they were able to win the support of
Republican and independent voters. All statewide Republican candidates
carried these five districts. Most experts agree that the current plan
has 20 strong or leaning Republican districts and 12 Democratic

Meanwhile, the 2001 redistricting of Texas legislative seats (which
was enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting
Board, after the legislature again gridlocked in its efforts) resulted
in wide Republican majorities in both the Texas House and Texas
Senate. Now Tom Delay has made it his priority to force the
Republican-controlled Legislature to enact a new redistricting plan to
increase the number of Republican-leaning Congressional districts.
Republicans believe they can manipulate the districts to elect as many
as 22 Republicans out of the 32 member Texas Congressional delegation.
They achieve this by packing minority voters into as few districts as
possible and breaking apart rural districts so that the impact of
independent voters will be reduced and suburban Republican voters will

During the regular session of the Texas Legislature, Democratic
members of the Texas House of Representatives exercised an
unprecedented parliamentary move to prevent the House from passing Tom
Delay's redistricting plan. While Democrats are in the minority of the
House of Representatives, the state constitution requires that at
least 2/3 of the House be present for the House to pass a bill.
Because it was clear that the Republicans would entertain no debate
and brook no compromise in their effort to rewrite the rules by which
members of Congress are elected, the Democrats were forced to break
the quorum to prevent the bill from passing. Because the Republican
Speaker of the House and Governor called on state law enforcement
officials to physically compel the Democrats to return, the lawmakers
removed themselves to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma -- outside
the reach of state troops(1). In there effort to apprehend the
Democrats, Tom Delay officially sought the help of the Department of
Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation and the Department
of Justice.

The House Democrats (nicknamed the "Killer D's", based on an earlier
episode in Texas history in which a group of Democratic state senators
called the "Killer Bees" broke the quorum in the Senate over a
similarly political stalemate) succeeded in stopping Delay's
redistricting plan during the regular session, returning to Texas
after the legislative deadline had expired for the House to pass
legislation. However, because the Texas Legislature meets in regular
session only every two years, the state constitution gives the
Governor the power to call a 30-day special legislative session at any
time between regular sessions. Despite statewide protests from Texas
citizens who oppose Tom Delay's redistricting plan, the Governor has
called two special sessions(2) already this summer to attempt to force
the legislature to enact a new plan.

The first called session expired in a deadlock, as 12 of 31 Texas
Senators(3) opposed the plan. Under Senate rules and tradition, a 2/3
vote is required to consider any bill on the floor of the Senate,
giving 11 Senators the power to block a vote(4). The Republican
Governor and Lieutenant Governor then determined they would do away
with the 2/3 rule, and called another special session, forcing 11
Democratic Senators to break the quorum and leave the state.(5) These
Senators have spent the past 22 days in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Governor has indicated he will continue calling special sessions
until the Republican redistricting plan is enacted, despite the fact
that the Republican-controlled Texas Supreme Court recently rejected
the Governor's writ of mandamus filing to compel the Senators to
return to the Senate. Meanwhile, eleven Democratic state senators are
exiled from their state, unable to be with their families, friends,
and constituents, for fear of being arrested as part of a partisan
power play by Republicans. In the most recent indignity, Republican
Senators voted to fine the absent Democrats up to $5,000 per day, and
to revoke parking and other privileges for their staffs as long as the
Senators are away.

What's at stake:

At stake, on the surface, is whether Tom Delay will succeed in
exploiting Republican control of the Texas Legislature to add to the
Republican majority in the United States Congress. But deeper issues
are also at stake.

1. If the Republicans succeed in redrawing the Texas Congressional
lines to guarantee the election of five to seven more Republicans, it
will ensure that Republicans hold the majority in the U.S. House of
Representatives for the entire decade and will likely result in Tom
Delay becoming Speaker of the House.(6)

2. The Republican advantage would be gained by removing many African
American and Hispanic voters from their current Congressional
districts and "packing" them into a few districts that already have
Democratic majorities. The voting power of these minority voters would
be dramatically diluted by the Republican plan, in contravention of
the federal Voting Rights Act. If the Republicans succeed, over 1.4
million African American and Hispanic voters will be harmed. It would
be the largest disenfranchisement of minority voters since the Voting
Rights Act was passed.

3. Redistricting exists for the purpose of reapportioning voters among
political districts to account for population shifts. The purpose of
this reapportionment is to ensure a roughly equal number of voters in
each district, to preserve the principle of "one man, one vote."(7)
For this reason, redistricting has always been conducted immediately
following the U.S. Census' decennial population reports. Tom Delay now
proposes a new redistricting plan two years after the Census report
simply because Republicans gained control over the Texas Legislature
in 2002 and now have the power to enact a much more Republican-
friendly plan than the one drawn by the federal courts two years ago.
This is an unprecedented approach to redistricting, one that
subordinates its original purpose of ensuring the principle of "one
man, one vote" to the purpose of perpetual partisan politics.
Redistricting, in this model, would never be a settled matter, and
districts would constantly be in flux depending on the balance of
political power in the Legislature.

4. The Texas Legislature has traditionally been defined by a spirit of
bipartisanship and cooperation. This issue has polarized the
legislature in a way that threatens to destroy that tradition. The
Republicans have effectively exiled their Democratic counterparts in a
power play that makes our state look more like a banana republic than
a dignified democracy. The arbitrary decision to discard the 2/3 rule
in the Senate sets a precedent that undermines that body's tradition
of consensus and cooperation. The deployment of state law enforcement
officials to apprehend boycotting legislators erodes the separation of
powers between the executive and legislative branches of government,
and diminishes legislators' ability to represent their constituents as
they see fit. The unilateral Republican effort to penalize Democratic
Senators and their staffs

What is needed:

The Democratic Senators currently in Albuquerque have two critical
needs. The first is to generate increased public awareness of the
situation. By all reason, every day the Senators are out of the state
this story should get bigger. Instead, news media have gradually lost
interest in the story. The California recall has dominated the
attention of the national media, and the Texas media has largely lost
interest in the story -- out of sight, out of mind. Without public
attention to this story, the Republicans have all the leverage -- if
it does not cost them politically, it costs them nothing(8) to
continue calling special sessions until the Texas 11 are forced to
come home.

The second critical need is funding. The cost of hotels, meeting
rooms, staff support, and public relations efforts is mounting. In
addition, the Senators must defend themselves legally against
Republican efforts to compel their return, while also filing legal
claims against the Republican power play. The Senators are actively
raising money for the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus Fund to offset
these costs and prepare themselves for a stay of indefinite duration
in Albuquerque.


1. A recent Department of Justice investigation chronicled Republican
state officials' illegal attempts to use federal resources --
including anti-terrorism resources from the Department of Homeland
Security -- to compel the Democratic lawmakers' return. See
for a news report on the Justice Department investigation, or for a copy of the
complete Justice Department report.
2. At a cost to taxpayers of over $1.5 million per session.
3. House Republicans passed a redistricting bill in the special
session despite an outpouring of public opposition in hearings across
the state. All 12 Democratic state senators opposed the plan, along
with Republican state senator (and former Lieutenant Governor) Bill
4. The "2/3 rule" requires the Senate to reach broader consensus on
difficult issues than a simple majority vote. It is a combination of
official Senate rules and tradition. The rules of the Senate require a
2/3 vote to suspend the "regular order of business" to consider a bill
that is not the first bill on the Senate calendar. By tradition, the
Senate has always placed a "blocker bill" at the top of the Senate
calendar, so that every bill requires a suspension of the regular
order of business to be considered. The process requires compromise
and consensus to achieve a 2/3 majority on each bill. One Texas
insider has said that the 2/3 rule is "what separates us from
5. In fact, the Governor and Lt. Governor attempted to "surprise" the
Senators by calling the second special one day early and "trap" them
in the Senate Chamber. The Senators were able to escape the Capitol
with literally minutes to spare.
6. Republican party activist Grover Norquist, head of the Washington
D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform, was quoted as follows in the
August 17 Fort Worth Star Telegram: "Republicans will hold the House
for the next decade through 2012 if Texas redistricts…It depresses the
hell out of the Democrats and makes it doubly impossible to take the
House and probably depresses their fund raising…Anything that helps
strengthen the Republican leadership helps DeLay become speaker
someday if he wants it."
7. Established in the landmark case Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)
8. Notwithstanding the millions of dollars it is costing taxpayers.

Posted by Dale at 04:14 AM | Comments (438)

August 08, 2003

A Book of Witness, Spells & Gris-Gris

A note on Rothenberg

Jerome Rothenberg's new one, A Book of Witness, Spells & Gris-Gris, is now available from New Directions. One of the great things about it is the conversation extended between a range of living and dead writers. That they are all vital to his work is clear, with voices subtly entering these poems in acts of witness. Picabia, Stein, Duncan, Notley, Niedecker and even the Elizabethan magus and geographer John Dee bring words to his imagination, the living inner world. An investigation of historical loss, and mythic deprivation, these poems also enact a resilient hope, or profound longing, for a future world's safe passage through, well, the great evil all around us. Dramatic, edging on the surreal, the poems here conserve form and seek a kind of occult enactment. It could be the secular world is as full of spirits and superstitions as the sacred.

"There is in all of this a question of inventing & reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as 'I,'" he writes in an afterword. A kind of new beginning, from scratch, to acknowledge self as center and margin, "I" is a transpersonal tool not the exposed outer limit of ego.

I jubilate.
I gabble.
I implore.
The earth is friable
& falls
short of my vision.
I walk between
two friends
to slow the passage.
I write for science
with my thumbs.
The aim of health is medicine.
The monkey's scream
is not the monkey
but the end's the same for all. (from "To Slow the Passage")

Posted by Dale at 02:11 PM | Comments (408)