by Cedar Sigo
My interest in Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) was first reawakened at a screening of Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2008. The film stars Taylor Mead and details a day spent in several bohemian haunts around San Francisco. Kaufman has a cameo in a set piece in which he and three or four others wander the interior of a wooden dome house. I remember that there was lettering on the screen before and during this scene that alluded to amphetamine use. I forget the exact wording as it was somewhat buried in the vernacular of the time. Kaufman was tall and lithe, in a turtleneck and fitted sailor pants, unforgettable as he literally climbed the walls of the dome, then ran along the circumference somehow, too. I was surprised that the curator hadn’t mentioned his appearance in the film during the introduction. His image was very in keeping with John Wieners’ description in his poem “Stationary”: “I’m thinking of last evening, the feelings had lying on the bed, dreaming of boys, old poets, Bob Kaufman, seeing him on 8th St. his hair burning out of his head. A cigarette smoking in my hand. A white sweater on corduroy trousers.” At the time I’d also recently re-read Raymond Foye’s entry on Kaufman in Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle. Berman published a short poem (credited to Robt. Kaufman) in Semina 5, the “Mexico” issue.
Before this reacquaintance with Kaufman, I had thought of him first and foremost as the author of the oft-anthologized poem “Heavy Water Blues”:
The radio is teaching my goldfish is teaching my goldfish Jujitsu
I am in love with a skindiver who sleeps underwater
My neighbors are drunken linguists & I speak butterfly
Consolidated Edison is threatening to cut off my brain
The postman keeps putting sex in my mailbox
My mirror died & cant tell if I still reflect
I put my eyes on a diet my tears are gaining too much weight.
I have always been fascinated by the effect gained in these opening lines. They are charming and funny enough to draw you right in to whatever Kaufman wishes to do next, so it comes as a bit of impressive shock that he repeats the ends of those lines just 4 stanzas further in. It’s the tight comforting rhythm a poet often gains with a ballad or sestina form, except that the lines don’t crash in and declare themselves as coming back—when they return, it feels as if it’s through some ancient mother-of-pearl inlay technique. The loose mind and pure enjoyment of the poet are made permanent.
It seems that the actual facts and dates of Kaufman’s life have been swallowed whole by prevailing myth. He was a merchant seaman, sailed around the world, gave endless monologues in North Beach, was harassed and often beaten by police, moved to New York, received shock therapy, narrowly missed a lobotomy, and took a 12-year vow of silence in 1963 following a dark vision after JFK’s assassination. He broke his silence in 1973 after the end of the Vietnam War and wrote a fascinating return sequence of poems now collected in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981), which is edited and with an introduction by Foye. His work could not be contained by the page. Foye writes, “So absolute was Kaufman’s dedication to the oral and automatic sources of poetry, it was only at the insistence of his wife, Eileen, that he began to write down his work.”
A vow of silence seems bigger than the act of writing poems, especially after writing and publishing successfully for years. By 1963 Kaufman had published three pamphlets with City Lights Books, Second April and Abomunist Manifesto in 1959 and Does The Secret Mind Whisper in 1960. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness followed on New Directions in 1965, and then Golden Sardine on City Lights in 1967.
I have always felt that a huge part of a poem announcing itself is dependent on the poet’s ability to recognize the surrounding arrangement of light. The poet is never satisfied with just calling it out or carving a close likeness, but rather, they wish to have the ability to invade and disappear, to change the light. In his abomunist manifesto, Kaufman states, “ABOMUNISTS DO NOT WRITE FOR MONEY; THEY WRITE THE MONEY ITSELF. ABOMUNISTS BELIEVE ONLY WHAT THEY DREAM ONLY AFTER IT COMES TRUE.” Through a simple repetition of the word only, Kaufman skips several steps and the reader is given the line at which the poet’s life meets his work.
In The Ancient Rain, the poems written after Kaufman’s silence fall under the heading “New Poems 1973-1978.” The variety of the sequence is marvelous. There are short poems, long songs, dioramas, epics, and invocations on display, 13 poems in all. The first, [All those ships that never sailed], was performed in February of 1973, just after Kaufman had broken his vow of silence with a recitation of a speech from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “They know and do not know what it is to act or suffer.” Poetry is often such a monument to compression, and so married to the locking and unlocking of language, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate form in which to return to the world of the speech and letters. The poem directly addresses Kaufman’s having gone away, and not so much regret, but a willingness to return to his own body:
All those flowers that you never grew—
that you wanted to grow
The ones that were plowed under
ground in the mud-—
Today I bring them back
And let you grow them forever
Other poems in this sequence, such as “The Poet” and “The American Sun,” build in a slower manner—they introduce lines that then drive the poem as a working chorus or invocation. They remind me of transcriptions of Native American prayer as they call directly upon the powers of the forces addressed. In “The American Sun,” Kaufman patiently lights our way through—the poem first has to get up onto its legs, and then Kaufman begins to signal a path. He keeps the reader a step ahead of his glorious collisions so we have time to step aside and enjoy each one:
THE BUDDAH HAS BEEN TOPPLED AND HAS BECOME AN
EASTERN IDOL WITH NO WESTERN
SKY, THE BUDDAH IS NOW STANDING
IN FRONT OF THE AMERICAN SUN CALLED
RCA VICTOR, LISTENING TO HIS MASTERS VOICE
THE BUDDAH HAS A BLACK SPOT ON ONE EAR NOW
THE AMERICAN SUN CALLED ARTHUR FARNSWORTH TELEVISION
HAS TORN DOWN THE TEMPLES
WALLS AND DRIVEN THE MONEY-
LENDERS FROM THE WESTERN
SIDE OF THE RHINE RIVER TO
THE EASTERN SIDE OF THE RIVER
THAT DIVIDES THE GERMAN EMPIRE
INTO TWO SEPARATE BUT EQUAL STATES
“The American Sun” is followed by my favorite in the sequence, an untitled poem that works as a full-action diorama of Egyptian regalia and ceremony:
THE EARTH MOVED, AND CHANGED ITS
ANGLE IN RELATION TO OTHER UNIVERSES,
THE SPHINX OPENS THE DOOR, HORUS ENTERS
HIS BEAK EMERGES FROM THE SUN OF
HIS HEAD, HORUS ARMS OUTSTRETCHED
GIVES THE POEM A SUBSTANCE, SET GOES OFF.
THE TIME OF SET WAS SHORT, HORUS IS
HERE FOREVER, HORUS ADMIRES THE
GOLD KING, PHARAOH TUTANKHAMEN,
AMON RA STANDS WITH OSIRIS AT KARNAK,
HORUS DIRECTS BOY HORUS TO
THE FLIGHT, PYLON GENTLE FLIGHT,
PRUFROCK ENTERS THE
DOOR TO THE ORIENT
AND EMERGES SWIMMING.
We see this action as from above, at the pull of invisible strings. Kaufman feels no need to muddy up the purity of our vantage point. Prufrock is laid in near the end after the staging has taken hold so his presence is never questioned—we only see his image breaking apart under water, on his way. There is never a false note or need to switch up syntax to gain any effect in language. Kaufman’s poems are visions fastened together without interference. The relentlessness of the narrative calls to mind the work of Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs, as if the words are attached to slides that continue into eternity regardless of whether the poet has a chance to write it down— it’s the fact that the line (or the sound of the projector ) continues. This return sequence seems to revolve around a set of recurring symbols and figures: the sun, Crispus Attucks, Garcia Lorca, ancient Egypt. I suspect “New Poems 1973-1978” to be an alchemical passage along the lines of Gerard De Nerval’s Les Chimeres, or The Poems of St. John Of The Cross. To simply read or speak the poem is to force change. In “The Poet,” Kaufman writes:
THE POET IS ALONE WITH OTHERS
LIKE HIMSELF. THE PAIN IS BORN
INTO THE POET. HE MUST LIVE
WITH IT. IT IS HIS SOURCE OF
PURITY, SUFFERING HIS
THE POET HAS TO BE A
A FISH WITH FROG’S
CREATION IS PERFECT.
We are left to marvel at all the intangible factors that dictate survival, which end up pointing back to Kaufman’s own bigger-than-life story.
I think of Bob Kaufman as I do Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph, the leaders of the last tribes to be “settled” in the west. I think of him more in sepia tone then in black-and-white or color. He belongs to and deserves to be discovered by anyone.
Born in 1978 on the Suquamish Indian Reservation in Washington State, Cedar Sigo studied at the Naropa Institute with Anne Waldman, Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley, Joanne Kyger, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. His first book, Selected Writings (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003), was reprinted in a revised edition in 2005. A writer on art, literature, and film, Sigo has collaborated with many visual artists and recently blogged for SFMOMA’s Open Space. In June 2009, he gave a reading at New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in conjunction with its Kenneth Anger retrospective. Sigo’s collection of poetry, Stranger in Town, is published by City Lights.