By Jackson Meazle
The poet Bill Knott died on March 12th of this year. I only own his first two books, but I have often felt that a writer’s first books are their best. The exception that proves the rule is perhaps Barbara Guest, whose last two books, Miniatures and Other Poems and The Red Gaze, are easily my favorites of her career. Bill Knott’s first two seem a world unto their own. There are few poets I can think of where the work changes so drastically yet remains the same in such a short period of time. It’s much like debut and sophomoric albums. Leonard Cohen’s first two albums sound like Volume One and Volume Two. Honestly, I haven’t read much after Knott’s first two releases. There is a sensuality and a crudity to the works that end up making an almond between two circles in my mind, as they reference each other literally and subliminally. They are both tempered and spontaneous, bust a gut hilarious or down in the dumps.
I am one man, worshipping silk knees,
picking myself from between my teeth,
I write these lines to cripple the dead,
to come up halt before the living:
I am one man, I run my hand over
your body, I touch the secret vibes
of the earth, I breathe your
heartbeat, Naomi, and always
I am one man alone at night. I fill my hands
with your dark hair
and offer it to the hollows of your face. I am one man,
alone at night
like a beacon of ashes….
There are a handful of interviews with Bill Knott on the Internet, his responses to questions range from witty insight to being a real downer. His life doesn’t really get talked about, but it sounds like his early life was especially horrible. He famously faked a suicide in 1966. But what draws me to Bill Knott is always the tragic beauty, the brevity, the humor, and the darkness to light. The cover of his first book, written under the pseudonym Saint Geraud (1940-1966), is a very dark blue. There is a woman’s head with wistful hair emerging from water. The book is called The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968), the title being a pun on another book title, Robert Desnos’ Corps et biens. The wet-haired head seems to belong to Naomi. It is dream-like, and the image supreme of this book is the dream. The book is filled with piercing incantations to Saint Geraud’s out-of-reach muse Naomi, with plenty of sexiness:
The beach holds and sifts us through her dreaming fingers
Summer fragrances green between your legs
At night, naked auras cool the waves
I kiss every body of you, ever face
Many poems in this book are very brief, and are just called “Poem.” In another one, the image of Naomi is set beside “love” and, ultimately, “youth.” The Naomi Poems reads like a first book in that it celebrates a youthfulness, but it also feels more like a seasoned poet’s book. Craft-wise, these are mature poems with most of the humor being cynical wit more than jokes. Now that I think of it, the book seems elegant in all of its moods but never soft. There are a few overtly political poems in the book like “To American Poets,” which expresses the futility of breaking into schools or groups of poetry when people like Hitler or LBJ are running around with all the cards. The end of the first section reads:
are not important. Your black mountains, solitary farms,
LSD trains. Don’t forget: you are important.
If you fail, there will be no-one left to say so.
If you succeed, there will also be a great silence. Your names,
secret in all hearts, no-one will say. But everywhere
they will be finishing the poems you broke away from.
It’s like a thunderstorm and an early morning shower simultaneously. The Naomi Poems is a great, sleeping beauty with a couple heaps of salt thrown in. Mostly I’m devastated by the book’s pretty conflict with the unrequited dream.
Knott’s second book, Auto-Necrophilia: The _____Poems. Book 2 (Big Table, 1971), cranks the cynicism up a notch revealing a stark and debased maturity, almost as if Knott reverts to schoolyard babble as a weapon. He has given up the pseudonym yet leaves the dates (1940-1966) after his name, with Naomi’s name having been erased from the book’s subtitle. Even the Table of Contents is funny, replacing all the names of the poems with B-Horror films like The Manster and Night of the Blood-beasts. Knott drops the blue eroticism of The Naomi Poems for a psychedelic money-shot only three years later. “Survival of the Fittest Groceries,” certainly alludes to the Vietnam War and conjures familiar sentiments of his earlier political poems:
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST GROCERIES
The violence in the newspapers is pure genius
A daily gift to the reader
From some poet who wants to keep in good with us
I shot 436 people that day
2 were still alive when I killed them
Why do they want to be exhumed movie-stars,
I mean rats still biting them, the flesh of comets, why do
they walk around like that?
I’m going to throw all of you into the refrigerator
And leave you to claw it out with the vegetables and meats
The “shocking” imagery of some of these poems places an apocalyptic context to the gradual blending and abruptness of contrasting lines:
as though Bill Knott (1940-1966) were being thrown
by the stems but these flowers
wake no mirror like a mobile of stabs into light
when we fucked he liked
to take a length of intestine from a new corpse and fix it over and around my penis and have me enter him
the tiny misprints of the rain
Oddly, the images and scenes don’t seem so anatomically brutal, but nearly casual due to Knott’s deadpan tone. It’s probably the “thus.” He lets us in on a public joke made private and intimate. The poems are lyrical dwellings for stand-up comedy. They contain an up-front cynicism, a little looser than the first book, but their musical qualities are poignant as ever:
With the toys of your nape
With your skin of mother-of-throe pearls
And your fire-sodden glances
From the sidelong world
We break rivulets off the river and wave them in the air
Remember the world has no experience at being you
We also are loving you for the foreverth time
The light, torn from leaf and cry
Even your shoulders are petty crimes
One book of Knott’s written around this period is called Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy??? (Cloud Marauder, 1970), a collaboration with James Tate. The only instance of me chancing on some of the contents of this wild book is a 1970 recording of Knott reading at the San Francisco State Poetry Center. On the reel-to-reel tape, he addresses the audience of students, saying that they probably heard Philip Lamantia read at the Poetry Center the week before, and that Philip is the greatest poet writing in America today, so now they get to hear the worst. I can’t remember if he actually says “worst,” but he implies it if he doesn’t. Everybody laughs. Knott reads from the poems that will make up Auto-Necrophilia, along with a handful of brief poems in Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy???. I remember something like “Advice for Young Poets” a la Rilke, but it only contains a few lines about lighting farts. Really bottom-of-the-barrel humor but quite charming. I’m pretty sure that I only hear nose laughter on Knott’s part, but I know I hear the living poker-face through the old hiss of the machine.
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
**All poems quoted here are from The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968) and Auto-Necrophilia: The _____Poems. Book 2 (Big Table, 1971)