Monday, August 16, 2010


Trees, Leaders, Labors: a beginning on Larry Eigner's Collected Poems


On Friday August the 6th I picked up the four volume Larry Eigner Collected Poems [edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier; and if ever there were a labor of love!...--kudos to them] from the Buffalo Manhattan Avenue post office, and carried the fairly heavy carton the almost exactly one mile [Yahoo Local says 1.08 miles] back to my apartment--but no problem, believe me, if it had actually been a strain, I would have called a taxi.

In the subsequent almost-two weeks, perhaps I haven't strained myself enough exploring these stunning volumes, but I'd like to examine now a little of what I've seen in them:

As ever with Eigner, I encountered his brilliant--but not fancy; simple--ways of conceiving common natural phenomena like trees and birds, etc.: a challenge to all poets and other writers as regards whether we could create similar imaginations, quite apart from the question of whether we are(whether Eigner was?) adept at indentifying specific tree or bird species.

Eigner's June 20, 1966 poem [Volume II, p. 726], reads:

that bird got
  deep in the hedge

      a tree is an island


        cloud  fades off

Here trees (and hedges) are seen as islands of rest and refuge for birds.

When we get to the "rain" of lines four and five, there is a mild suddenness as we learn why the birds Eigner has been looking at were seeking refuge.

A reader's led to think: it's likely a day of shifting, highly localized raining, so the rain "passes" as regards space as well as time. And so the rain can be thought of as something like the birds.

When, finally, we focus on a cloud shifting out of sight, Eigner interestingly fuses our imagination of this cloud's lateral movement with a sense of other ways the cloud might have disappeared, since the cloud "fades off", suggesting 'fading out' or 'fading away'.

There's this, from April 12, 1966 [Volume II, p. 710]:

 the way a bird flies
from the 3rd brick step to
  the tree  towards the sky

 the burden of twigs

One is first surprised to read of diminutive "twigs" as a burden; but then you think of the tree trunk 'carrying' the rest of the tree--of each large branch 'burdened' by its tributaries--and you think, well yes, the numerous twigs add up.

So this one is fairly simply a contrast of the tree's rootedness and weights, and the lightness of the bird--plus at least two other things to think about. The reader might feel the need to decide: do I think of the bird's flight up to the tree as a motion "towards the sky"; or would I reserve that phrase for when the bird leaves the tree and actually begins directing its flight towards the upper atmosphere? And there is certainly an enigma as to how the thought of "the way [this bird flies in the path that I describe in the 2nd and 3rd line]..." is to be completed.

Encountering these, and other, new-to-me and familiar, poems celebrating trees in these Collected volumes, I had a sudden thought about one of the long-tantalizing mysterious moments in Eigner's poem prompted by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

That poem is dated April 2-5, 1968 [and therein hangs a nagging perplexity about the poem's genesis, for that dating would indicate, as Steven Fama points out in his enthusiastic and industrious March 28, 2010 post ((somehow,after proofreading myself over and over I haven't been able to link specifically to that post)) about Eigner poems inspired by news events, that the poem was begun before the assassination--Doctor King was shot and killed on April the 4th; while there's nothing necessarily odd about that, since Eigner might very understandably have been inspired to begin writing an MLK-centered poem simply by virtue of this leader's visit to Memphis in solidarity with striking African American trash collectors, what's weird is that in his 1977 interview with Stony Hills magazine, reprinted in areas lights heights, the invaluable 1989 collection of Eigner prose texts edited by Benjamin Friedlander, Eigner says "James Earl Ray sure hit me, that is King did, and in the few days after he was killed--April 2-5 '68 {emphasis added}--there was a 50-line piece which just came off, no work to speak of involved, just King, and the Memphis garbage workers and all..." (areas lights heights, p. 148). I would imagine that Eigner remembered vividly, and correctly, the nature of the poem's impetus, and was simply, and consistently, mistaken as to the dating, but who can tell.]

The first seven lines of the poem are as follows:

The world that was, the glass

                            King King King King

     of fashion burst in your eyes


             all the green
            over the arm

The flash of understanding I've spoken of was in reference to lines six and seven: I thought of how garbage cans left at curbsides are frequently enough placed under trees, so that the brief moment of the collector's reaching for and raising these containers involves a pleasant canopy--suggesting a perhaps idyllic aspect to this quintessential 'it's not a nice task, but somebody has to do it--please let it not be me' sort of labor.

I'd like to offer some further conjectures on these seven lines--some of which have also occurred to me during my recent reading of the poem in the Collected [Volume III, pps. 832-833], some of which I've arrived at over the years.

I'd like to suggest that the world "glass" in the first line refers to the lens through which Americans used to look at Race--at what racial inequalities were or were not totally incompatible with the nation's proclaimed ideals, and at what indignities non-White people were or were not willing to put up with. Thus the interrupting, and shoved-to-the-side, second line's repetition of the word "King" may refer not only to the man who had done so much to change things, but also to the succession of authority figures--presidents, Cabinet members, governors of states, etc.--who continued, with whatever variations and reforms, the old oppressive patterns, like a dynasty of kings committed to common principles.

(As soon as I think of, or propose out loud, this double-meaning of the syllable "King", I feel a little frightened of this perhaps silly-sounding interpretation: I'm very pleased to notice Eigner meditating about kingship--he alludes to the Romanovs, Caeser, and [presumably British] Kings Charles and John--in what is evidently the last poem he composed before the M.L.K. elegy [the late March '68 poem that's found at the bottom of Volume III, p. 833]).

My interpretation suggests to me a 2nd meaning of the words "sanitation/men": the authority figures--the "king[s]"--can be seen as people who often made efforts to reduce the worst of the stink of America's undone business.

I think the King poem as a whole is more focused on its central theme than Steven Fama has suggested. I'll perhaps type out the whole thing at some point, and give my interpretation. When and if I do that, I'll stop evading line three.

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The first poem, about the bird, demonstrates some cardinal principles about Larry's compositional techniques.

The stanzas exist as independent units--and frequently can stand alone as kernals or separate seed units on their own-- this "stasis" or "hovering" independence of parts gives them a kind of separation and space that is greater than the merely literal visual spaces on the page. The bird picked its way "deep" into the branching thicket of the hedge, so our mind is drawn into that complex space, then the next line is almost a completely separate event or leap to a new realization ("a tree is an island")--which of course it is, in the sense that for the flying and crawling things which live upon it, or light upon it, it is indeed an "island"--but you also have that cartoonish quality of a single tree on the classic "desert island" which the stanza's floating isolation enables...

then "rain/passes"--note it doesn't "fall" but slants or moves sideways across the field of vision--weather is never static, it's always moving, a "cloud/fades off"--not "fades away" but fades "off", as in off camera, or off of the field of the poem, or beyond the horizon, etc.

The poem doesn't have an "argument" about the existence of the bird, or the significance of the tree as a natural station for other living things, or about the changeability of weather. It's a record of a sequence of observations or reactions, a lived moment of meditation in which each separate thing (feeling) is given its requisite space and independence. There's a kind of "hands off" discretion with respect to the natural world--no twisting, no rhetorical manipulation of objects or nouns or matter--things left as is, and the poet's odd take on it.

Reading an Eigner poem--fast or slow--will usually result in slightly different senses of its meaning. They're deceptively "easy", but if you look at the weights and measures of their settings, you can usually sort the sense out to a completed order.

I'm seldom "convinced" of anything in an Eigner poem, because he's never trying to do that. He keeps tuning your sensibility--for me in the same way that Scarlatti or Morandi does--and you come away refreshed by the "leaving alone" of the external world which was so much a part (and also sometimes a limitation) of Eigner's consciousness. It's a rather Eastern approach to apprehension.
Hi Stephen,

This post makes me want to do but one thing -- drop what I'm doing right now, get back home, and open and read The Collected Eigner!

That you excite me to read Eigner, that you bring a new perspective, is very much appreciated. Thanks for sharing this!

P.S> My post that mentions Eigner's MLK poem, and the others that more or less specifically arise from then-current events in the news from the news, can be found here.

Thanks very much for giving this "unsure egotist" so glowing a confirmation that his writing in Eigner is a worthwhile perspective! I'll definitely try to do more! And thanks for the link I somehow couldn't create.


I hope my own discussion of the two short nature poems is consistent with what you say about the poems not being arguments; but I suppose you sensed at least a little bit of that 'wrongness' in what I wrote.

I think in some poems Larry E. is proposing arguments--as when he writes about MLK; and when he states regarding perception at the end of "LETTER TO DUNCAN"--I'm sorry I don't have the actual poem with me, right now I do my computer work in libraries--that any of us are asleep more often than we are alert. I think in that poem he even tells the reader why, in his opinion, people are of that nature, but I will save my discussion of this for a post.

Re/ "that bird got", thanks further, Curtis, for suggesting the presence of a cartoon image of a desert island with one tree; and for suggesting that "rain passes" refers to the falling slant of the rain, as well as the departure of that rain.
Hi Stephen,

If you care to, I'd appreciate hearing you unpack a bit what you mean about perception and the lines at the end of Eigner's "Letter for Duncan." Are you referring to that poem's concluding couplet?

        you'll always go to sleep
          more times than you'll wake

Yep, I was referring to that concluding couplet. I think I should discuss that final thought as arising out of the movement of the whole poem. I'll try to do a post on that in the next month or two--and, frankly, October is more likely than September. I may discuss the BEGINNING of Eigner's Duncan letter before that, probably comparing and contrasting Eigner's ideal of sensory aliveness with Olson's. Thanks certainly for your interest!

I really appreciate this. Thank you!
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