Tucked among my juvenilia is a poem titled “Leave Me Alone with This Dead Man.” It recounts an unfortunate bit of policing I was subjected to while I was sitting on the clean grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Cimetière Montparnasse. The gendarme disrupted my two-fold aim: to pay my respects to a poet I loved, and to place myself in a propitious setting in the hopes of receiving a bit of poetic genius “by osmosis.” A recent return to this, my favorite Parisian cemetery, along with my upcoming appearance in Jason Mitchell’s reading series, Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover, got me to thinking about the rituals and respects some of us practice around the accoutrements, objects, birthplaces, and death sites of the poets we love. The liturgies of poetry, one might call them: pilgrimages, offerings, silence, ceremonious readings in significant places, benedictions and genuflections. The material book, from codex to paperback, seems to encourage ritualistic behavior: the slow unrolling or turning of pages, a treasure of magical knowledge waiting to be released.
When Jason Mitchell arrived at the University of Maine to do graduate study he was already possessed of a reverential, though not obsequious, relationship to poetry. I learned quickly of his value for literary ephemera: limited edition chapbooks and broadsides. Before moving away, Jason helped Steve and I bring some order to our overflowing chapbook collection. Watching him hold little stapled nothings I had all but forgotten about as if they were precious gems I felt I’d grown callous, no longer able to see their true value amidst the glut. On the fortieth anniversary of Paul Blackburn’s death Jason organized a living-room reading of that neglected poet’s works. A small group sipped wine and read from the Collected. The poems sounded especially good that night. Jason continues to remind me of things I have forgotten, and he always does so by going back to the poems. In a recent letter he wrote: “I hope the holidays were pleasant and warm for you, Steve, and Odette. Mine were fine, tho I think my favorite was January 6th, being both the Feast of the Epiphany and John Wieners‘ birthday. I read NERVES then watched John Huston’s The Dead.” The thing is that we too had watched The Dead on the Epiphany, but I hadn’t recalled it was Wieners’ birthday, though he’s one of my most beloved poets. I needed Jason to remind me.
I’ll be reading this weekend with my dear friend Kevin Killian, who is a master keeper of similar observances. In his care the dead fare well. He has dedicated countless hours of painstaking collaborative editorial work and research to preserving the work of Jack Spicer for generations to come (see Poet Be Like God; My Vocabulary Did This to Me). And through Kevin I have learned the names of writers who, because they died young, might otherwise be forgotten (Sam D’Allesandro; or the amazing tale of Jack Sharpless in the new issue of Paideuma). It was Kevin who insisted we mark Carl Rakosi’s passing at the National Poetry Foundation’s 2004 conference on poetry of the 1960s with a candlelight vigil. It was a beautiful and moving event.
The respect for the dead these two men practice was recently put in concert, when Kevin helped Jason (visiting the Bay Area) coordinate a visit to Jack Spicer’s grave. As Jason wrote, “the columbarium where his ashes are kept has the most beautiful stained-glass ceilings, they alone are worth the trip. We read poems standing next to Jack’s tomb . . .” The poems they read were Spicer’s. Now Kevin will be in Philadelphia, and I have heard that a visit to Walt Whitman’s burial place is in the works. No doubt a volume of Leaves of Grass will also make the journey. Jason stays close to the works of others; you can read one of his poems here.
It was Jason who introduced me to the work of CA Conrad, who will also be reading his work at Snockey’s Oyster and Crab House this weekend. I suspect CA may have some responsibility for cultivating Jason’s innate tendency toward poetic ritual; after all, as I understand it, CA’s reimagining of poetic practice centers on new rituals designed to encourage embodiment. Long ago I remember Jason recounting the homage to Jonathan Williams that CA organized in Philadelphia: local poets gathered at Bartram’s Garden and read from An Ear in Bartram’s Tree before pressing leaves of the Franklinia tree into copies of Williams’ book. At the Miami International Book Fair I sat for a good long while talking with CA about his life and friends and poetry. Not long after I returned home I received a package in the mail containing, along with Ecodeviance and the wonderfully named chapbook, You Don’t Have What It Takes To Be My Nemesis, a crystal. It was “a beautiful chunk of dumortierite,” CA wrote, which should “open the third eye” and “enhance psychic abilities.” The gift came with a ritual: I was to set the crystal on a bed of sea salt overnight, then, upon waking, flush the salt down the toilet. Perhaps this is common in crystal culture, but it was new to me. Cleansing task completed, I was to sleep with the stone under my pillow. I did as instructed.
Though I wrote in my essay “Rites and Ceremonies” that I have been privileged to lead “an unceremonious life,” I spoke only of those conventional rituals which society provides to save us the trouble of thinking for ourselves. These new poetic liturgies and their solemn keepers continue to intrigue. Last week I was in Paris and I returned to Baudelaire’s grave for the first time in many years. There was no gendarme to shoo me away, but neither was I alone. The custodians must have given up trying to quell the contact between the living and the dead, as the grave was covered with flowers, stones, and hand-copied poems on scraps of paper.