A New 'Turning': Waldman's Jaguar and Alcalay's History

At a moment of catching her breath, Anne Waldman wrote in the first book of The Iovis Trilogy (2011) that transformation is a matter of altering molecular rhythm. Following that mammoth-type focus and "dance on the grave" of the great (male) poets of the epic long-form (Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Olson others), Jaguar Harmonics: Person Woven of Tesserae (2014) is a more delicate and compacted filigree, arising from just such an attention to the "3-brane world" of string theory dynamics and strands that ordinarily escape our comprehension. Sure-footed in this re-weaving or re-constitution of the earth, it relies on the jaguar of its title in that beast's own imbibing of yagé, which led indigenes to its source. Here what Waldman calls "crespuscular power-mode" is birthed from ayahuasca trance-visions in Boulder, Glouchester and Captiva. Scientific American described this April a "renaissance in studying the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelic or recreational drugs", and last year LSD received its first clinical trials in 40 years, but Waldman consults ayahuasca not for relief from depression or post-traumatic-stress-disorder, but as a conduit of spirits.. These 'spirits' are not so otherworldly as apparitions from matter itself, the "woven tesserae" provisional conjunctions and shadowy fragments the poet as attractor has put into motion. Stressing the impacted vibration of sound, her experiment continues to be what power inheres in the concentration and thrust of a word, what new awareness can be summoned up from the pores or marrow of the body. In our disintegrating Moebius strip of a universe (or multiverse) Waldman doesn't parry the confusion - "as if we are Person woven into a system where higher orders/are installed we can't even understand error or essence/who to report to". Or pause too long on climactic destruction or any number of other catastrophes including "unresolved Jerusalem" - "precarious to breathe in this world this time of cosmic night". The challenge is what can be re-connected from these mobile infinitesimal shards, keeping in mind "the baby jaguar is blind at first." For Waldman it remains the case that "it's dawn in the adventure, space and time."

These are practices, poetic and otherwise, in keeping with what poet Charles Olson before her called "the turning," a collocation of forces at once social, political, psychic, artistic that would renew the moribund, and murderous, republic. An initiator in Waldman's poetic methods, Olson, who died in 1970, was also an enthusiast for the properties of hallucinogenic drugs, specifically for psilocybin mushrooms, introduced to them by Timothy Leary in "sessions" in December, 1960 and February 1961 via a synthetic version of psilocybin-39. Olson called Leary "the most beautiful brujo that we've had in this country." With Olson these sessions would be inseparable from what he called "a big longhouse take," referring to the Amerindians of New York state and their "longhouse principle," feeling that "I, under the mushroom, was absolutely a peace sachem holding, as chief, a longhouse ceremony, and I said it in so many words." Olson linked this Native American use of the longhouse with the psychedelic drug session even though he was convinced that the Iroquois, for instance, never used drugs in their longhouse only talk, in their resolutions of political and social matters. Yet in activating the political and social potential of the psychedelic movement that was such a goal of Leary and Olson's at the time, there was only the "session" to work with. Olson thought that could not be substituted by any other kind of discourse. In trying to convey the psychedelic experience, Olson returned to citing his favorite, Herman Melville, from a 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne - "By visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things." Melville's sentiment for Olson meant "we have, as a people, preparation of inordinate order already in these areas of non-mimetic imagination;" the advantage of what Olson called "autonomic drugs" was that they restore autonomic functioning and make one aware of autonomic functioning, in Olson's words, they "preserve our organs from our will." In advocating a return to awareness of autonomic functioning, through drugs if necessary, Olson was reclaiming the body as the platform for meaning, as in his concretized credo of "muthologos," or "words in the mouth." Autonomic functioning is "without the interference of the will. It has a will and is the will of free; that is, that which the organ itself requires to be permanently in function within the terms of creation." The implications of returning the body to freer organismic functioning both intimately brushes by and yet seems foreign to Antonin Artaud's anorganic and virtual envelope of "body without organs," Artaud who plumbed such similar sources as Olson taking peyote with the Tarahumara Indians in ceremonies in September 1936. For Artaud too, writing in 1946, "one does not command the organs through the culture of applied will, but through the organ it is the will itself which has never suffered the interventions of a science of thought."

Today Leary's "neuropolitics" may not be as convincing, but Olson's various disciplines, as Ammiel Alcalay writes, of "archaeology and astronomy, anthropology, ecology, neurology, biology, and linguistics, relating these and looking at production and culture as being of a piece, of being humanly connected...theories linking genes to language and migration" continue to resonate, and nowhere more than at the level of the nerves and the nervous system themselves. Hence the resurgence of vision linked to the yagé vine or various other psychoactive drugs, palliatives or otherwise. Olson's zeal for the psychedelic tentative is oddly left out of what is otherwise a remarkable and extremely rare research of retrieval in Alcalay's a little history (2013), an exploration and documentation of Olson's immense role in America's post-WWII poetry. Olson put his entire existence (like Allen Ginsberg's "queer shoulder") towards opening "another kind of nation" and a little history goes a long way to document the consequences of that nation not coming into being. As Albert Glover recalls, "Later, during the summer when he tried to make the [1965] Berkeley Poetry Conference a political convention, some, including a few of his best friends and supporters, did not return after intermission. That, really, was the end of that. When he returned to Buffalo, he raged about it at Onetto's; I'd never seen him in such agony. He had been wrong, he thought. But then his conviction would return and he would curse his friends for deserting him...Recently I had a brief exchange of email with a young academic who is interested in how [Olson] and Robert Creeley shaped their careers...Her interest strikes me as genuine. But I have been unable to communicate to her the dimension of spirit in which Charles lived and worked. There seems to be no explaining it to the next generation." The young Anne Waldman witnessed Olson's notorious performance July 23, 1965 at the conference as a "strange attractor" - "his reading was fragmented, disturbed, and chaotic on one level, but completely lucid on another. He kept the audience there for more than four hours." Yet the event of The Maximus Poems (1983) was of another order - as Waldman notes, "his only anchor or link to reality, as we know from the biography and various accounts. He was really possessed with this poem, people would visit him and he would be surrounded with little scraps of paper and speaking the poem, living the poem...Poets of my generation and much younger have the conversation about whether it's ever possible to have these kinds of heroic poetic figures again."

And yet the coherence of Olson's truly enormous and eirenic poetic reach and "temporal scope," as Alcalay puts it, rests in his "insistence that all human time connects." As in that pregnant pause, the spaces separating "Buchenwald" and "new Altamira cave" in his "La Préface". A faith and energetics in human creative response, continued in Alcalay's poem as assemblage,and Waldman's virtuoso performance of "metabolism of the grounded ones" in the groundless universe. As Olson wrote to Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones - "Please keep coming directly to me."