1989 • 96 pp. • $10.00
In a recent article on contemporary music, Village Voice critic Kyle Gann discusses Bela Bartok’s use of the Fibonacci sequence – the series of two numbers in which each number is the sum of the two before it – as an aid to composition. Bartok’s aim, Gann says, was not to enslave his lyrical invention to mathematics, but to use the logic of sequence as a blade to cut his music free from the rhythmic conventions and melodic cliches of his time. Gann points out, however, that living audiences don’t listen to Bartok’s music to marvel at his ingenious use of the Fibonacci sequence. We listen, says Gann, “because Bartok dissolved the system in voluptuous waves of melody, a compelling fusion of intellect and emotion.”
The volutpuous lyricism of Aaron Shurin’s A’s Dream was, like Bartok’s, generated with the help of a system. Each text in A’s Dream takes another text as its lexicon; that is, the writer used only words found in, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets to produce “Artery.” For “Material’s Daughter” the lexicon was Emma Goldman’s autobiography, for the title poem, Shurin’s own Barron notes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Though Shurin’s procedure raises interesting questions about language as inheritance, originality, and so on, we don’t listen to Shurin’s poems to marvel at his ingenious use of a procedure. We listen because Shurin’s system is dissolved in language that shimmers with ‘unearthly majesty’ as it addresses essential questions about the nature of self, the nature of language, the discovery of one’s own true face in a courageous act of loving.
Shurin’s first collection, The Night Sun, published in 1976, was distinguished by the young poet’s conviction that love and sexuality between men was a doorway into a new, more compassionate social order. A poem about walking down Castro Street in drag for the first time glowed with primal fire: the transformation was recognized as not a change of appearance only but a transubstantiation of self, an initiation of shamanistic power.
Shurin’s mature work deepens the concerns of his early poems, maintaining the passion and sharpening the wit, his language aquiring new folds and subtleties to capture what Shurin’s teacher, the late Robert Duncan, called the “snake-like beauty in the living changes of syntax.” Shurin writes with his ears open for the shimmy and whip-crack of contemporary idiom, revelling in producing memorable aphorisms, whether humorous (“animals, like Republicans/must first be given trainers”), fey (“a twinkle never chooses the simple route”), oracular and philosophical (“appearances, after all, may be only speculations; identities are of the real”), or self-referential (“I am a master making/deception without/ deceiving. This is / that thing.”)
The adjectival slots into which I fit Shurin’s phrases give some sense of the poet’s range, but one of Shurin’s particular gifts is to allow several voices – sensual, intellectual, ‘dishy,’ coyly evasive – to speak in the same word or phrase, and to have the whole seem lit from behind by a gnostic apprehension of the essences of things. Shurin is, at heart, a Romantic: his ambition is less to dissect than to ravish, to worship more than instruct.
The best work in the book, for me, is “City of Men,” which takes as its lexicon poems from Whitman’s “Calamus” and “Children of Adam” sequences. Shurin explained his intentions in a postscript to “City of Men” called “Full Circle,” published in Temblor #9:
As most careful readers of Whiman know, Calamus is his collectio of homoerotic love poems, emotional, tender, idealistic, radically politcal, prophetic, obliquely erotic but– alas– not sexual. If you want sex, go to the grouping Children of Adam…filled with body and body parts, physical material catalogues, paeans to the sex act – but – alas – no love. The body is electric but it is not affectionate…
My historical period has permitted me to come full circle, to write my eros out of spirit and body, shamelessly, and perhaps for the first time in history, from a completely integrated viewpoint.
“City of Men” is the beautiful and singular child of the two poets’ ambitions, combining the virtues of Shurin’s work with the inclusive spirit, celebration of the revolutionary potency of fearless love, and consecration of the minutely physical that Whitman fathered in our song.
The poem begins, “I heard my name” – the self is disovered or revealed in an act of communication with another. The lover – “my friend of liquid, my most same” – is not a single, possessible “thing,” but a presence nearly divine, instructing, eluding, terrifying, drawing nearer or away, a destination :
appearances, after all, may be only speculations; identities are of the real. hold me by the hand, that is subtle air, impalpable, curiously words hold untellable. reason confounf us, sense surround us, he travels to me and these are the shining things I perceive. I walk in the fable of a man, charged with points of view, skies of colors, densities, and something yet to be known…
Love between men was, for Whitman, more than loving one man, but a way or path into the world. By paying tribute to his lover’s body, or to his own, Whitman celebrated embodiment itself. Shurin takes up that tradition of love as a recognition of the sacred in body, using Whitman’s vocabulary to create a language that is completely personal and contemporary, of our time and beyond it. “I have lived orgies and will one day make pageants,” brags Shurin, a proclamation made more necessary by AIDS and the current sexual clampdown.
“It seems essential to me in the age of AIDS,” Shurin says in his postscript, “to keep the body forward, to keep the parts named, to not let ourselves get scared back into our various closets by those who would profit from sexual repression, from sublimation and fear of sex…I do of course propose safe sex – medically safe but not politically safe, not socially or even physically safe. And towards the day when the Human Immunodeficiency Viruses I and II are consigned to the dustbins of history, I’ll dream – with Whitman– ‘unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’”
Shurin’s poetry is least affecting for me when its strategies and evasions seem too willed, mannered, obscuring the poet’s convictions. A couple of the pieces – “Agora,” for instance – seem hampered by the enervated, emotionally neutral contents of their lexicons.
We may admire a body of work for its technical brilliance, but the writing that stays with us grants us new possibilities of knowledge – unscrewing the locks from the doors of the senses, giving us sharper eyes or ears, a mind more alert to the kingdom that is everywhere at hand. The final poem in A’s Dream closes on the phrase “Unfolded light had fallen when he woke” – that light that is where new feelings are beginning, light shinig in heroic acts of love, the primal light out of which A that is alpha dreamed beta and the rest of speech and sign into being: the light of intellect and emotion, invention and spirit, unfolded in a single flame.
–Steve Silberman, Poetry Flash, January 1990
Aaron Shurin is an American poet, essayist, and educator. Since 1999, he has co-directed the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. Aaron Shurin received his M.A. in Poetics from New College of California, where he studied under poet Robert Duncan. He is a recipient of California Arts Council Literary Fellowships in poetry (1989, 2002), and a NEA fellowship in creative nonfiction (1995). Shurin is the former Associate Director of the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University. He is the author of over ten books, including A’S DREAM (O Books, 1999), NARRATIVITY (Sun & Moon Press, 1990), Unbound: A Book of AIDS (Sun & Moon Press, 1997), THE PARADISE OF FORMS: SELECTED POEMS (Talisman House, Publishers, 1999), A DOOR (Talisman House, Publishers, 2000), INVOLUNTARY LYRICS (Omnidawn Publishing, 2005), KING OF SHADOWS (City Lights Publishers, 2008) and CITIZEN (City Lights Publishers, 2011).
Listen! – the earth roar, every mile off in the distance. Then with a piece of fat from a little bag he made a looking glass; with great care he contemplated the effect. “I shall kill it.”
Children of the Keeper, of the Leader, of the One-eyed, the Terrible, the way is before us, no trickery! The light in you and eat shall argue, it was made – and he pointed to the north. Galloping clouds to a farther mountain, fired the mist, and followed him into the lightning.
“This noise is king! This noise is king!” thundered through the worship, the elders clapped their hands and ran away. The country grew in wreaths, diaphanous, burning vegetation, the sun odorous. Into square blocks are dome-shaped and built; men can walk six feet wide, surrounded at a distance by a circle of smaller stars.
It is good, we are weary, let us rest. Stepping into the milk, skinned and jointed. Turn and turn about, three of us flung ourselves, the sweet weary, and slept down.
As we were overtaken a horseshoe shaped sunset, a smooth river ends there. No twilight, and the shadows shoot arrows. Mine has been a life, and we shall fall by the way. A hut is ready outside the town, “Unlimited,” in a great grass city. Each of us was ready when we woke it. The spectacle standing behind us.
Stood still in silence, in his right hand enormous silence. A girl came, bearing a red jar, boiling with “our lives depend on it.” Still stood for a minute, projected an inch, and began to speak: “Listen, stars and storm and unborn words!” Hearts died away in a faint wail, including our own. “I smell it, I’m old on the ground, footsteps, footsteps –,” she pointed to the mountains – “Not here, not stones, not gleam, strip off the features –” and was carried back into the hut.
The great space, instantly ourselves, was empty. Windowless indeed, with the outer air driven through the roof. Running down the length of the place as my legs would carry me, I am free to own another five minutes. Enter it again, but he held me tight, I could not, stopped, became focused. “What is that thing? And what are those things?” pointing to the white company.
Very slowly one began to shake in the whole world. When our eyes grew used to it we followed.
As far as the eye down the vapory horizon, line, square, triangle of lurid gold. Measureless cranes against a flying sky. And then the air quivered, turned round, turned over, and got him by the throat. The end fell forward and rolled for a minute. Afterwards, we managed ablutions.
I suppose I slept, yellowish and frizzed up; an old man hung loosely, eyes of paper and a look of monotonous snow. “Stranger” he said, “and by the way they teach their children foot language here. Come up out of the sea.” I reached the motion of a drained lake. I saw no signs destined to be gratified.
We discovered the mouth was the contents, hollowed out by a steaming hand. We squatted, the skins ate with satisfaction, orders for destruction were set before us. “Pardon me” I interrupted, “How long is the fifth day of absence?” Watching for our appearance, they saw us come out smoking. Hung upon the wall all shapes were clarified. From a stem was passed the wood of constant attention, burning low. A palm tree showed silence contemplating the shadows.
He rose. There was no air, no furniture, running stone length. Get away, please hold me, I can’t. This never happened, as we stood there literally. The other woman took a walk, shaped like a big spear. As time went on we descended from these men.
They had come forth in a giant cloak, muffled voices. Those who waited could tell no tales, but had power over all things. The land was “households,” resembling this stretch of swamp country.
I have been inclined one or twice on the time left. Something happened when I shut my eyes: chosen, beautiful, strong arm, happy face. Ask me what I saw. I love to wash your feet with bitter memories.
They fell upon the white wrappings, hand on the rock. Night by night, soft or stiff, tossing in the slab-form of solemn sleep. Give strength to wander across blotted identity, burst in the past and melt echoing up the cliffs. He stood staring; partial stupefaction. “Cover it up and take me away.”
Going to the shelf she bent down and loosed the man, her mouth tied up with a bladder kissed the head and chest. Fumes prevented us from seeing. The hour burst noiselessly, witness.
After some months, boyhood hardened, better than the old one. No ordinary marriage could give such wonderful shame and grief. In the face we had impotence, in the heart insolence; experience is possible. Leaving our hands down, we awaited earthly habitation.
Some spare boots, a rifle each, the appointed minutes. “We are ready,” I answered, “though for my part I have no memory.” A man in a nightshirt pointed out of the cave to a central path. Light did not consume our bodies.
A sheet of water appeared to descend, a mountain wall, and evident ruins. Remote a little more, we reached high through the sinking ground, filed across. Some idea of sight met our view, shrines and palaces and party walls. We came to a pile of fading light. I think I may as well as have been a tangled thing, pressed enormous enclosing another of a small size. There used to be a spot here; it has passed. While we were eating the moon – cold meat – thickness began to flood the place – I brought you, I can see it, I shuddered.
I brought you your eating; when done we will go out. The brooding days ran from our whispers, imperfections in all their majesty! Upon each other we poured forth the tale, a little untamed solitude.
There remains a basin in the outer court, ready to start. This man bowed humbly till we grew old. “Well, let him come, he will bear this.” I slung a spare skin on my back till he had vanished. Quaking, we sprang from ledge to ledge. Angles gave the appearance of blown bodily movement. There was a humming sound beneath us, like a living thing. On our stomachs, grain of the rock, against the wind, we saw the other side. “That’s it!” I groaned, crept, a wilderness of gathering fear. Clasping, I met my own and hauled.
The white day streamed across the plain. Heavy with blood, we rose and ate inward. Years stamped out the murmuring land, sting passed, story passes with it. I shall forget them; I forget them and you. Across the sea – another overshadowed path – a gathering song:
When he was thrown in with men: their history.
An attempt has been made, Chief of incidents.
Something ignited the grass, up to their heads weeping.
His name does not matter.
His name does not matter: he went to bed.
We swept our heads through the curtain, a cutting wind.
Quick, this space wheels, they can never bear this cold.
In the shelter they vanished; you told them nothing.
You told them their spoor was obliterated.
What is to be done?
Look at this hand – it dropped slowly to the earth.
Quiver in their sound, but where are they now.
We saw a woman walking toward us, walked like a woman.
“How is your name and what are your people?”
“My name is ‘fall by the way,’ but I ran faster.”
“My name is ‘stood still and watched,’” and he came forward.
Now I will tell you something more.
Now I will tell you lost in the clouds.
When we have stamped the earth flat I have spoken.
Grow fat in my shadow, the liar has spoken!