Tuesday, July 05, 2011


On the roads of exploded continents

For some time I've wanted to write something here about poet Don Gordon, whose Collected Poems, edited by Fred Whitehead, was published in 2004 by University of Illinois Press. Gordon was one of the "Marsh Street Irregulars," a group of poets in Los Angeles in the 1950's and early 1960's who gathered poet Thomas McGrath, when McGrath lived in L.A. during those years. In a note on the back of the book, McGrath (quoted posthumously) calls Gordon "One of the very best of the revolutionary poets."

The Collected Poems gathers work from six collections published during Gordon's lifetime (he lived 1902-1989). The book also includes an in-depth essay by editor Fred Whitehead, giving an account of Gordon's life and a detailed discussion of his work. Gordon was born in Connecticut; his family moved to Los Angeles when he was ten years old, where he lived into his young adult years. He published six books of poems during his lifetime; three between 1943 and 1960, and three more between 1977 and the end of his life. Starting sometime in the late 1920's, he worked for many years in the film industry, reading novels for possible development into movies.

Don Gordon joined the Communist Party sometime around 1932, and he and his wife Henriette Gordon (known as Henrie) became involved in labor organizing and similar activities. In 1951, the screenwriter Martin Berkeley, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), named a large number of people in the movie business as Communists, Gordon among them. (In his essay, Whitehead cites the Los Angeles Times and HUAC hearing transcripts as the source of this information.) When Gordon was called before HUAC later that same year, he refused to cooperate or give information about anyone else. Shortly after that he was fired from his job at MGM, and found that he had been effectively blacklisted from the movie industry.

During the next years, Gordon eventually found work assisting doctors in a clinic for people with psychiatric problems, and he subsequently did various similar work in a couple of other such facilities. During this time he largely stopped writing poetry, resuming only later in his life; this apparently accounts for the gap of many years between his third and fourth books of poems.

In Don Gordon's poems I find a lyricism of astonishing directness, rising at times to a resonance that evokes the voices of Old Testament prophecy, often while maintaining the immediacy and urgency of news dispatches. These are poems of great gravity by a poet organically engaged with the world.

Now imminent on earth the enemy in tunics; hussars have taken the mainlands.
It is the lost season west of the red star but our years
Rumble on caissons -- subterrain, the single muscle, the manifold heart.

Berlin applauds the opera. The war below gives passwords
Through quiet doors -- the press turns urgently in oil.
Nights are alive ten paces under Brandenburg Gate: mornings rise
Beyond bayonets -- but the walls speak. They will break the bronze horses.

Herr Strauss relieves the capital: wine is taken in Vienna
Boldly by light, the howitzers drawn in the lair. Yet they remember
The Karl Marx -- the detonations still in ghostly Floridsdorf:
They build now, from their black case upward, on sturdier rock.

Hussars on Caesar's road but there are seven hills in Rome,
The guardsmen dream at intervals. They spread fire in the dark,
Knowing the jagged forum dead, seeing no god great in the empire.
They ferment in catacombs -- some will bear witness at the graves of giants.

(From the poem "Underground, 1935", in Gordon's Collected Poems, from which all quoted passages here are taken. The above poem was originally included in Gordon's book Statement, published in 1943.)

In many of his poems Gordon works at interweaving psychological insights into the actions of human beings with a larger depiction of the political events of the world. In his use of language, the emotional landscapes of human beings become political and historical landscapes as well. All human activity exists in a historical context.

The quality of nightmare is incomplete: on the roads
of exploded continents, real bones are moving
the prisoners like a tropism in the homeward direction.

The family is instructed to receive them calmly in surburban houses;
The public cry is raised at the sight of dislocations;
The protruding ribs, displayed for nine days, are buried in the archives.

The blue welts are the map of the region from which they came.
The kommandants touched off the final mines under the human relationship.
Dachau    Belson    Maidanek    Cabanatuan hide in the wounded lights.

The enemy began as men; they receded to the time of the little horses;
They vanished with the lizards on the bare shore; the last glimpse
Was like the single cell, the uncolored jelly pulsing in the sea.

(From the poem "The Prisoners," originally included in Gordon's book Civilian Poems, published in 1946.)

In many poems Gordon begins with a description almost mythological in texture, which transforms into a sharp image of modern life, the muscular movement of history, as the poem progresses. I find this in some lines in the poem "The Hunted" (originally included in his book Displaced Persons, published in 1958):

The one who walks in the river is the constant man.
He hides his footprint from the dogs:
engraved like a leaf in the black stone,
the fossil is to amaze another time.

Shapeless, duly malignant, blind as a fog,
the epoch is a wild thing intent on the kill
before he gives it form: direction: heart.

The second constant is the border police;
they have business in the mountains.
Someone is always cutting the wire, the shadow
of thought is always at the edge of the forest.

He considered the meek, or said the earth was round;
he taught the young men in the cypress grove, or listed
the ape's ascending bone; he entered the dream
and saw the indelicate mother, or imagined continents,
or found laws in the lungs of the English weavers.

Reading the above lines, I mentally weigh them beside the assorted philosophical musings that stir in many of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke -- one poet who comes to mind. To my perceptions, Gordon's poems are iron hand tools in comparison to Rilke's porcelain relics. While I enjoy Rilke's work on occasion, and can appreciate the seriousness with which he embarked on his voyages into the realms of the spirit, I speculate, thinking about this, what sort of poet Rilke might have been, had he touched his hands to the earth a bit more firmly on from time to time.

Consider the following lines in the context of the news headlines on any given day in the past ten or twenty or fifty years.

When the war begins
It seems to have reasons;
An hour, a day, a week later,
No one can recall them.

The field of violence remains;
The demolition of children;
The life of the back wards.

Strategy arises in the ego of the king,
Tactic in the anxiety of the general.
Someone is always giving orders
Out of his secret depths.

The commander-in-chief, at the mercy
Of his childhood, prolongs the battle
To conquer his father and/or mother.

The officer with the recurrent dream
Takes his ship into the sea of mines
To relieve the guilt-ridden.

The squadron leader, who never made it
Among equals, wipes them out
With the huts of colored strangers.

(From the poem "History," originally included in Gordon's book On the Ward, published in 1977.)

I'm still amazed when I encounter, even now, poets who feel that politics is not a legitimate subject for poetry, that poetry should have no part of politics. One might as well say that poetry should have no relevance to life.

(As I sit here typing this, outside are the sporadic distant booms of bombs bursting in air, fireworks over the Mississippi River on the northern edge of downtown Minneapolis on a warm July night.)

Again, consider some lines from the poem "Statues" (originally included in Gordon's book Excavations, published in 1979):

Who occupied whole continents
Now sit on iron benches
In the plaza of a hundred lands.
The parts not missing in action
Want to explain themselves
To the young --

Who do not believe in the great valor
Of a year they have not seen:
Old wrecks are always speaking
Of enormous tides
To attract and skewer another generation.

The veins quiver in their temples,
They try to remember
The reason for the war;
Or if the victory was confused with defeat;
Or defeat with the music of triumph
In the smoke
Of the splintering forest of guns.

I didn't know Don Gordon personally, and never had the opportunity to meet him. I knew of him for quite a few years before I tracked down any of his books of poems, having heard of him from Tom McGrath (both directly from Tom, during the time I knew him a little, and also through the poems and published interviews where Tom mentions him), and from several friends who knew Tom better than I did. Fred Whitehead, who edited Gordon's Collected Poems and wrote the critical essay at the end of the book, has been a longtime friend. The network and friendship of left-wing political poets and writers and artists tends to be wide-flung and deeply rooted and tenacious, even in the face of the occasional ideological breaks that can occur. And history isn't over yet.

Tom McGrath told, once or twice in interviews, that at one point during the late 1950's he was thinking about writing a long poem -- he thought it might turn out to be 15 or 20 pages. He showed up at one of the regular gatherings of the cluster of poets who were gravitating toward each other (the "Marsh Street" crowd, mentioned above), and he mentioned his notion of a long poem, but said he didn't know how to get started on it. And, as Tom has told it, Don Gordon said, "Well, what you do is, you go home and you sit down and you write the first line." Simple enough advice.

So McGrath (again as he has told it) took Gordon's advice, sat down and wrote the line that came to him: "From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east." Readers familiar with it will recognize this as the first line of what became McGrath's booklength epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend. (Sections of the poem were published periodically over the years; by the early 1980's the complete poem was available in two volumes, from two separate publishers; in the late 1990's a definitive one-volume edition of Letter to an Imaginary Friend was published by Copper Canyon Press.)

I tell this to give a little of my own sense of the importance Don Gordon and Tom McGrath played in each other's lives as poets, and the long close friendship between them. I would like to have had the opportunity to have met Don Gordon. I'm grateful that his Collected Poems is now available.

Gordon's book is one of several that have been published as part of the American Poetry Recovery Series of U. of Illinois Press. I searched the press's website, but didn't find a specific list of the books included in the series, even though the website gives links to many other series published by the press. Other books in the series that I've seen and recommend include collections of poems by Edwin Rolfe (a close friend of Tom McGrath and Don Gordon), Joseph Kalar, Vincent Ferrini, and The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War edited by Cary Nelson.

I'll finish with lines from one more of Don Gordon's poems.

Born in the galaxy of despair,
It will come without a name
Unless it is the star of compassion,
Or tenderness,
One beast to another.

It has to fall a timeless distance:
We need eons to prepare for it
After this savage childhood.
The hostile eye, unable to bear
That incandescence,
Will close in the dark and the dying
Of the angry mind.

It will be in us and around us
Like air and water,
Like a great calm,
Like the embrace
Of the father and mother of the sun.

(From the poem "Light," originally included in Gordon's book "The Sea of Tranquility," published in 1989.)

Terrific post, Lyle! Gordon is a wonderful writer; he sounds like nobody else, and like McGrath, his chords are three octaves deep....
Joseph, thanks much for your comment.
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