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Exultation Amidst the Ruined Whispers:
In the Grand Spectacle of Existence, Allan Graubard Strikes it Rich
by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
And tell the tulip summer
Quattro Books, 2010
Long associated with Surrealism, Allan Graubard unspools imagery coated in pregnant signifiers and loaded codes. His latest book is elegant, evocative and quite polished.
Surrealism as a mode of poetic expression, never really caught fire in English. The startling inventions of Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, and company were bypassed in favor of more rhetorically conventional narratives.
There is a potent strain of Surrealism though, that has been nurtured and developed in North America, especially in San Francisco with its Renaissance where Robert Duncan pioneered esoteric themes.
Later on the the Beats in general were so iconoclastic that they incorporated some Surrealist imagery in ironic ways. Think: “Reality Sandwiches” by Ginsberg. A Beat/Surrealist, San Franciscan Philip Lamantia’s confrontational spirit is echoed in Graubard’s brutal examinations. And San Franciscan Bob Kaufman’s improvisations were akin to automatic writing. The same “visionary lyricism” (as Jack Micheline describes Kaufman’s work) also illuminates Graubard’s writings.
When the Hippies came along they picked up on the Beats’ interest in ancient cultures and religions. The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita got mixed into the literary canon along with Tarot cards, shamanism and psychedelia. The poet Ira Cohen bridged generations and continents with his wild images and expansive juxtapositions. He was good friends with Graubard and there is an exquisite poem dedicated to him in Part VI.
Another San Franciscan, Ronnie Burke infused “exultative” language with re-configured pantheism, something Graubard also does. And Anne Waldman still conjures spectral choruses in her transportive rant-mantras. Graubard finds much in common with her lexicon and cosmic inflection.
Currently Surrealism remains mostly absent from mainstream or alternate poetry. Virtuosic practitioners do maintain staunch bastions of radiance. On the west coast, Will Alexander and Micah Ballard are creating amazing, unique poems. In New York City Valery Oisteanu has re-rooted his Dada-istic Rumanian heritage to produce cosmopolitan litanies that scintillate with innovative impressions. And in the heartland, John Bennett rings out with his experimental texts and typographical disjunctions.
Allan Graubard is one of the tribe’s luminaries. His latest book of poems, And tell tulip the summer, is a varnish-peeling blowtorch that strips the dross off language to reveal its stunning nucleus. Patterns emerge like blobs of molten magma rolling in heat convections . . . scrollwork . . . filigree . . . brocade . . . nebulae and webs appear and subside as Graubard tempers the poem in a fire of finely chosen words.
Walking a tightrope between nature and myth, Graubard balances biology and imagination. “Bats fattened on nectar” keep the “phantom words” company. Behind the mundane detail looms the grand pronouncement.
The collection is presented as nine groups. The first poem is a bold prediction: “All Those Who Drink from This Fountain Shall Return.” The title is more of an introduction to the poet’s method and resolve than to any unnecessary bravado. Owning up to its boast nevertheless, it is a remarkably lyric poem, full of assonance and internal rhyme.
where tiny trains carry shards of thistles
and brief scars burn on feather beds
portable gold leaf mirrors.
Cascading images are draped over the persona in “What is it that rises . . . .” Graubard constantly pushes this poem forward by elaborating on the condition of his subject. In one of his ongoing metamorphoses, “a thin door made of the frail silhouette of kisses,” changes when he touches it. It dries “into a bowl lapping with fresh ashes of a falling night.”
The cadence is sure as the ever-evolving image spirals onward. Graubard’s control over the mesmerizing effect seems to magnify as the book proceeds over a decade’s course. In “Old Drawings” we are likened to sketches that will be “hanging from walls sheared from vandalized echoes.” The pitch is heightened and carries an uncanny, jarring note . . . a transcription of some eerie dimension carved out of millennia from our species’ collective unconscious.
In Part IV, a series of prose poems, Graubard continues to cover repetitive structures with his signature transmogrifications. This strategy serves him well and allows him to stack layers of disparate imagery that remain unified in their relation to one subject. The conceits often reach an astonishing zenith.
“Together we walk alongside the quay, gazing at our reflections in the sluggish iron gauze of the river.”
Here, Graubard pulls off one of the main goals in poetry — the ability to commune with a reader — and to convert that reader into becoming the muse.
The charged location — a quay — is loaded with metaphoric and transportative import. A quay is a place of arrivals and departures, a conduit and a hub. It is a place of excitement and possibility, which translates into the energy of the poem itself.
Inviting the reader to gaze “at our reflections” activates a double associative phrase. This ability to conjure alter-loci is territory Graubard can claim as his own and represents a sophisticated advancement in Surrealism.
Astro-planing between seams of arcane argot, biology, dreamscapes, romance, shamanism and homage, Graubard assembles a grand procession. His potent process of reconfiguring linguistic DNA unleashes hybridized imagery that lifts us off the lotus pad.
In the poem “Modette” each phrase begins with the same refrain, “you came.” After each of these openers Graubard goes on to startle us with a twisted vision, stringing together his trademark chimeras.
You came without a word
holding the flame of your skirt in your hands
above the endless slumbering cities
of shadowy engines
You came with crossed eyes of dawn and dew . . .
You came with arms runneled with ink . . .
You came with your glyphs of buried dolmens
to barter for vials of painted sweat.
A dolmen is a prehistoric stone structure thought to be a tomb and a portal. Graubard’s funereal metaphors are classically Surrealistic in tone. But the visceral physicality of “painted sweat” is gut-felt and here he breaks new ground.
A kind of black and white scrim tints the work throughout, as if it carried the weight of a time capsule. Graubard should be more rigorous in resisting easy tropes. I counted the words “wind” and “shadow” in too many poems. And his reliance on the preposition “of” is a classic Surrealistic trap. Otherwise, I find Graubard to be mesmerizing.
Always lofty, never snickering or tittering, mirrored panels reflect ciphers from an otherworldly atmosphere. Magritte, Dali and Breton would be comfortable here.
Graubard faithfully and incisively inscribes his charred porticoes with “instantaneous forbidden revelations.” Within a churning universe of super-charged totems, he articulates equations that emit lyricism and meaning — which is what poetry is all about. If you have a soft spot for Surrealism, these serious, sensuous and masterfully gilded anti-solipsisms will whip your ride.
Jeffrey Cyphers Wright is a poet, artist, critic, impresario, eco-activist and publisher living in New York City. His latest book of poems called Triple Crown.