The Long and Short of It
Spuyten Duyvil, 2000, 104 pp., $14.00. [Order from SPD]
Beauty not the fancy of a demi-god
but planted in a carpenter's sharp eye.
This book has a plain white cover imprinted with a small black-and-white seal of Lenin, presumably an official stamp of some kind from the 1920s. The seal is also used to separate sections of this collection of short and somewhat longer poems: it serves not so much as a metonymy for authorial Leninism, but as a metaphor for Ellis' ferocious, headlong, all-or-nothing commitment; in a funny way it serves to ward off any bored functionaries or indifferent readers who may happen upon this volume.
So long, misty academies of the 20th century; so long, idiom-as-fashion-statement, style as card-carrying tenureship; so long, glib oppositionalism, so long, freeze-dried elliptic fetishry. Ellis has taken a deeper breath and is dancing down the road, armed to the teeth with a fluent techne based on simple, glorious, ecstatic trust in the ability of poetry to explain. Everything. Within a lyric or rhapsodic mode. There is nothing of the narrative, the dramatic, the epic, or the prosaic here -- Ellis' poems are philosophical investigations founded on a more basic ring-structure or circular logic: i.e., that reality at its highest, lowest, deepest reaches begins and ends in the evocations of song. He is like a Galilean Nazir or ecstatic teacher, repeating over and over in endless lyrical variations -- here is truth; here is eternal life; now is resurrection; the kingdom of God is with you, here ...
Now we know that many a poetaster has lain down in Tiamat in vain, worshipping just such lyrical circular logic. But Ellis underwrites his findings in three different ways. First is an outstanding verbal-syntactical-musical skill, an ability to unite high and low, serious and comic, sublime and goofy. Ellis is a carpenter who has taken the measure of the labyrinth of poisonous sounds beforehand, and has decided to stand in the center, where he can bear and communicate the whole scale of values. There is no extra space for "the poem as object," the reification of partial or neutral assertions; the lyrical process is totalizing (Lenin, again?). Second is an awareness -- a constant awareness -- of the close kinship between poetry and poverty. He repeatedly links the human condition with basic drives: what do we eat? How do we share it? Poetry goes through poverty to victory: "the word is bread and suffering" (Mandelstam). Third, finally, is the weight of Ellis' own conflicts. One of the perennial problems of aesthetics is the false finish, the glib triumph; but true works of art show a conjunction of opposites. In our weakness is our strength. The poet is not only a questing Galahad, but a pathetic, wasted Fisher King as well. Thus Ellis' obsession with instinct and basic processes of eating and defecating is part of a drive toward redemption, just as in the Divine Comedy Dante and Virgil had to pass through Satan's ass to reach the Earthly Paradise. Ellis thematizes these processes via hermetico-Egyptian imagery, simultaneously cosmopolitan, funny, and weird. His rhapsodies emerge somewhere south of the Aswan Dam, in the foothills of Ethiopia, between canopic jars of Pharaonic intestines and a Timkat dance around the Ark of the Covenant (that is, in the temple of one's body). The covenant is with language as both song and talk, music and explanation -- there is nothing outside the talk (which fact motivates both the range and the extremity of these poems) -- in this extremity Ellis is directly in the line of Pound, Olson and Clarke. There is no "framed" play or framing-at-play here: no set pieces, no allegorical ironies: the humor and lyricism are glancing effects from a steamroller drive, improvisatory, demanding, energizing -- the beauties are asides and squawks thrown off from a centrifugal saxophone fury. Here's a sample of his tooting:
not letting the singularity of event become single-minded vision, cock-eyed
in the belief that getting laid will solve the relation between timing
and release more than it may of its instant, Polyphemos blinded by
his own burning stick not an end in itself, but a re-beginning previewed as
an escape or electromagnetic wave to ride, arcing outward through a world
whose chaos remains the order of quark particles and pecker gnats,
the buzz at base of brain made formal in the act of dancing to it,
a heard expansiveness useless without feeling equally -- to return to
the medulla oblongata, the ability to grab the universe by the tail,
reading Genesis by the light of a comet as Butterick said -- the polarity
resident in what Ken calls the somatropic Gemini play station of the inverted fetus,
whose function is to restore the time gone into the apparent changes of
life's organic passage -- one's growth -- from the felt loss through its image
bereft in a line toward hope, to its tropaic inversion resurrected as twins interlocked
in the blood-soaked three-fold tissue of the Dionysian inner ear, source of
the rhythmic hearing of the circularity of first blurts from the receivership
and giving forth of the aura Brian characterized as star throat, through which flows,
pre- post-water, wine or blood, the denser nectar of what Ken connected
through the ides of juice from the wine press of the Akashic-Afro-American-
Greco-Hebraic-Iranian-Mayan-Tibetan Bristol Stomp to the aether inverted
by the sounding compelled through a hearing of what becomes useful
In no other way but so saying, natural law preliminal to the weightier substance of
artifice, the Hermetic key to which turns two ways, inwardly gravitational
and outwardly formal, the latter the nucleus of the former's protoplasmic mass,
the center being an outside, the reticulum or determining skin of which materiality is
the balancing humility and arrogance combined in asking yourself a question
suchwise that it demands an answer, what restored the withered Grail King
to his requisite actualization of rule being, who those measures were for, . . . .
Long wild rants like that are broken with small surprises like this:
a church of criticism, full of echoes, doubtless with demise in just the way that
each full round tone that rings the air rises from and re-falls to the air so used
to shape it as definitive of mortal life, past as passed, each new song will bite the dust, yet
the grasp of each remains a binding elemental of the image of the rich red earth
that equally falls and rises in tune with the verticality of one's spine that mind alone
attempts to clock as the timings of one's soul, whose form is found in the crushed
fern beds where deer have lain the whole night through as if waiting to be
spooked by the odor of the waning moon. . .
Ellis' vision is grounded, sincere -- there is an actual argument being made within the enormous pressure of the rant, it's not sheer verbal flummery. Even the darker poems glint with cheer and playfulness. My only hesitation regarding this work is that I find the same problem that afflicted Pound and Olson, when self-reliance is set in simplified contrast to social life. In the weaker poems, mankind is a deluded ant-like creature, trapped in social conformity, whose symptoms include voting, etc. The only solution comes from the Promethean explainer, who will demystify the cycles of the micro-macro Body. The poet wears the mantle and paraphernalia of Yeats' gargantuan role -- "profane perfection of mankind" -- the instauration of post-humanist Maximus-man, measure of all things. This sublime faith and faith in sublimity has inspired great poetry, and it is good to think of Stephen Ellis up in Portland, making these songs -- it means poetry is still alive, undoing the complacent recipes of the last few decades. Only, poetry's manifest verbal universe might also imply forms of justified social relations, not just cartoons of collective Maya. In Ellis's best work, the jaguar-fierce gnostic exploration is leavened with humor and humility.
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