I’ve just received my first advance contributor copy of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (University of California, 2013), which, with his widow, City Lights co-owner and director emeritus Nancy Joyce Peters, and my friend, City Lights author Andrew Joron, I edited for the University of California Press. This is in some sense the most important project I’ve ever worked on, for ultimately any writing I could do about him pales in comparison with the importance of making sure his poems get back out into the world. The appearance of Lamantia’s Collected has lifted a weight from my shoulders, because I’d felt responsible for making sure the book was done right, as near as I could guess from knowing him and taking into account his mercurial, ahistorical sense of his own poetry versus the need to come to a final historical reckoning of it. Would he have been happy with the result? No way! That is, no earthly version of him from any historical period would have condoned the methods by which we proceeded. But I like to think there’s a metaphysical Philip, now at peace, who at least understands, even if he doesn’t fully approve, the reasons why we did what we did. We basically privileged the published books, except we deferred to his ’60s rearrangement of his earliest surrealist work, because he never abandoned this preference after he returned to surrealism, seeing his first book, Erotic Poems (Bern Porter, 1946), as itself a Rexrothian rearrangement of his original surrealist impulse. Otherwise, we included all known published but uncollected poems and a few select unpublished poems. There are plenty of other cool unpublished poems in his archive that we didn’t include, because we knew he wouldn’t have wanted the unpublished work to overwhelm the published. He had exacting standards about what he put out there, and anything he hadn’t published wasn’t necessarily finished. In these principles we deferred to him but otherwise we let each period of Lamantia’s work speak for itself, something he could never quite bring himself to do. He might edit some lines when reprinting a poem in a selected, for example, or retitle a poem, based on momentary esoteric qualms, but in all cases, we followed the first book appearance, letting the Lamantia of each period have his due like a succession of Doctor Whos. He was the many in the one. Philip himself was incapable of such a perspective—who wouldn’t be—but I think it was the only way to do any kind of posthumous justice to the full measure of his genius.
With the unpublished work, in almost all cases, we followed typescripts, save for the final section, called Symbolon after the book he was hoping to put together late in life. Most of these poems were written out as “fair copy” versions, because he was having difficulty typing at that stage. The following text, however, seems to have been a straight-up first draft, pure surrealist automatism, which we included because it shows how capable he still was of producing fascinating examples of such work. Undated, the poem is undoubtedly post-9/11, probably after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, judging by the reference to Kabul. It appears on pages 426-427 of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia.
Humans Have Just a Few Genomes More Than Fruit Flies
Distract, to go off the text, forgotten clues to the
great game, enigmas of Cairo surveillances,
the Kuwaiti British chaos soup. Distraction like
a burst of electric flames.
Looking into the nation-face, the empire consolidates
Look away and it’s rubble.
Die to poetry, live to pray and not be diverted
George the Third the abstract George
and the missing George.
Intention guides attention. Absence is presence.
Praise to suffering phylogenesis
discarded forest of biped arms and
opposable thumb: the furious Emperor
in his cups and asleep.
the multi-billion abstractions offer up
altars to techne out of control
Information bombs over Kabul.
Where the white shadow opens the door
Dame Perenelle and Nicholas
Flamel pray together at the athanor.
Distraction has become the intention
of praise, presence and raison d’être
of distraction, fruits of dilemma.
Steady gaze to the ineffable,
logos crossed by mythos.
Cry of crystal
God is a surrealist
in the union of opposites, the great
proportional complements of
bipolar second raters.
This my dryness, depressive
of all the whos none I am
Totally invisible I see you clear
the simple way and the complex network