Nuovo sito per Casa della poesia. Cosa ne pensate? Inviateci un feedback


Superb landscapes full of horrible glory
12/11/2006 Alan Kaufman San Francisco Chronicle

As with that of most poets of genius, the career of Jack Hirschman is a tangle of almost irreconcilable contradictions. Regarded among West Coast poets and in leftist circles abroad as a seminal figure in contemporary letters, Hirschman is virtually unknown to the public, though he's San Francisco's current poet laureate. A die-hard Stalinist Communist, he is also a virtuoso kabbalah scholar who, as a Yiddish-inflected Jew and artist, would probably have been executed -- alongside such figures as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam -- in the Soviet Union about which he so fervently rhapsodizes. A poet who scorns the academy and advocates "the street," Hirschman speaks and translates in no less than 11 languages, holds advance degrees and once taught literature at UCLA, where the Doors' Jim Morrison was among his students (Hirschman was fired from the post for anti-war activities). And still more contradictions abound, the biggest of them that, as a self-styled cultural agitator, he praises such populist forms of expression as rap yet rails against what he terms the emptiness of "megaphonic culture." He refuses to perform before a microphone, but Hirschman is a superb showman, and to attend one of his public readings is to come away astonished and thrilled. Yet his best work is decidedly not his agitprop political poetry, which tends toward heavy-handedness, but rather his long, subtle and largely unknown poems heavily laced with obscure references; these are now newly gathered in an immense tome bearing the curious title of "The Arcanes." Recently issued by an Italian publisher and featuring a forward by David Meltzer, "The Arcanes" is a beautiful item and at $64 is probably the priciest newly published volume of original poetry in America -- yet another contradiction from a poet who hawks political newspapers in North Beach cafes for a quarter apiece. Not that Hirschman is making anything from these books. He hauled the first batch stateside in a suitcase. And in one of the most moving paradoxes of his career, these poems, few of which have ever been published or seen the light of day, many sequestered away in notebooks and accrued over a lifetime, will no doubt stand as the great achievement of his career. In fact, "The Arcanes" is in every way as unlikely and historically significant a literary production as, say, the appearance of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" or James Joyce's "Ulysses." Had this been another, more literate age, "The Arcanes" might very well be as universally acclaimed. For, like Whitman's and Joyce's masterpieces, it traces the progress of an individual consciousness through landscapes teeming with the horrible glory of modern life. And like "Ulysses," it is a poetic evocation of a voice so authoritatively essential that the brilliance and beauty of these poems might shake the world, if only someone were listening. But "The Arcanes" is 1,000 pages long, and no one reads poetry anymore. As it's nearly impossible to discern within the whole of the volume an especial pattern, I'll discuss, as illustrative of the whole, an excerpt from "The Cagliostro Arcane," a poem that seems to contain in microcosm the entire book and to summarize Hirschman and all his contradictions: In this street of old thongs and worm-eaten carrettas I find my figuredda as two kids carry a ladder across the cobblestone and the curve di Mola whet the moments of workers till they can sit with amaro and playing cards in the fish-mongery air I find my figuredda a box in a wall I can sink my beak into a trinosophia for my claws I have become votive with responsibility and indifference a cuntareddu of politics and religion a bald eagle jaded with hegemony on the shoulder of the Count I need this shingled little grotto with its black and white Star of David supporting small crosses with its IEVI ADONAY above, and its VOI CHE SIETTE AFFLITTI VENITE A ME For sheer loveliness of cadence, and richness of allusion, there is simply nothing in American poetry today to rival this. The "Count" referred to in the poem might be one of two notable 18th century occultists -- one something of a charlatan, the other a kind of saint -- each representing a split within the poet himself. One is the notorious Count Cagliostro of the poem's title, an Italian street thug and swindler who later turned occultist and spent years fleeing from the Inquisition. Hunted for his heretical views, he resembles, in some respects, Hirschman, who is also of tough, poor beginnings and who in his life as a communist facing down the capitalist system has dwelled in the constant shadow of suspicious authority. And, like Cagliostro, Hirschman has no doubt sensed in his poetry and activism an element of flimflammery, for such is the nature of art and politics, each, regardless of how well meant, its own form of existential theater. But against this life-and-death game of language and aesthetic charlatanism, Hirschman, like Caligiostro, has opposed his restless mystical core -- the undeniable, stirring sense of eternity within him that balances darkness and light upon the ineffable scales of his soul; or what the kabbalists refer to as "The Ein Sof," meaning "Without End" or more succinctly, "God." God is a dirty word to a communist. But great literature revels in great contradictions. Similarly, James Joyce, a major influence on Hirschman, was an avowed atheist yet was also, paradoxically, a disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Joyce's doppelganger in "Ulysses," Stephen Daedalus, finds in the image of a girl on a beach a mystical "world without end" -- a kind of embodiment of God. This from the son who refused his mother's deathbed request to pray with her. Similarly, at the heart of Hirschman's Red ideals trembles a religious, mystical passion that drives him, in the poem, to seek respite and communion within a shingled grotto bearing the paradoxical religious symbol of a Star of David balancing little crosses. In his vulnerable need for spiritual haven, he resembles another count conjured in the excerpt -- the one evoked by the phrase "a trinosophia for my claws" -- the famed Comte de Saint-Germain. Author of "The Most Holy Trinosophia," Saint-Germain was a benign and noble mystic, much loved, as well as a gifted musician, scholar, painter and linguist -- in other words, in some of his facets, a kind of Hirschman (who also counts painting among his prodigious gifts; one of his haunting Abstract Expressionist works is reproduced on the cover of the "The Arcanes"). But Saint-Germain, chiefly noted for his occult work, did not struggle, like Hirschman, against the concept of God or purvey a politics discrediting religion: He merely admitted he was obeying the orders of a higher power, saying his father was the Secret Doctrine and his mother the Mysteries. Interestingly, Cagliostro met Saint-Germain in London, and Saint-Germain initiated him into the rites of Egyptian Freemasonry and passed to him recipes for gaining youth and immortality. The implied presence of both counts in "The Cagliostro Arcane" presents a sublime polarity, kabbalistic in essence and portraying the rich division within Hirschman, finding himself between innocence and blindness, justice and prejudice, authenticity and self-betrayal. These are the recurring themes of Hirschman's quest in "The Arcanes," as he moves through the social dissolutions of empire, the warring rise of religious fanaticisms, the capitulation of humanity to the dehumanization of the corporation, opposing them all with his erudition, outrage, tenderness, wit, verbal brilliance, deep faith and profound skepticism. Alan Kaufman Novelist and poet Alan Kaufman is the author of "Matches." He lives in San Francisco.