back toJacket2

   |    C O N T E N T S    |    H O M E P A G E    |   
J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Jonathan Skinner

Generosity and Discipline: The Travel Poems

"If you think you are responsible
for an entire institution, time to go
to Mexico."


IN THIS post Earth-from-space, presently internetting world, we have to ask ourselves: what poetry is adequate? Adequate to the expanding sense of our simultaneous, multiplicitous, hybridizing/balkanized, billioned populating planet? Ever since the Beats began to circumnavigate the globe with Whitman's "largeness and generosity of the spirit" - in conscious and curious contradistinction to the genteel, informed tourism (mostly Old World wise) of the academy poets - American travel poetry (if there be such a genre, perhaps a subgenre of the journal poem) has sought one such adequation.

Nevertheless, the attempt largely has been represented by an exportation of American largesse (Ginsberg), primitivism (Snyder), or other variants of the "open road spirit." The unstated ethical pressures of Oppen's "being numerous" offer another, less imperial road South. Olson took SPACE to Yucatan, digging with a spade that, while Melville may have brought it home from his journeys on the open seas, was nevertheless a very (North) American spade. A counter development highlights the local, as in Olson's Gloucester, a holding pattern willed in the cross currents of global trade. Creeley's place in space, the peculiarly American redemption of self-presence (here now), travels light, refusing to be overwhelmed by "the world:"


I want to get off
the fucking world and
sit down in a chair
and be there.

                      4/21 (Hello)


Joanne Kyger's work, while intimately rooted in Bolinas, her home of thirty some years, is unimaginable without the perspective of travel. Kyger's travel poetry - and here I address particularly the volumes Desecheo Notebook (1971), Mexico Blonde (1981), Phenomenological (1989), and Patzcuaro (1999) - may have its inception, however inadvertently, in "Beatnik" vagabondage, but she elaborates an altogether different poetics, one approaching a veritable poetics of travel - "on the verge," as tourism as well as living in other places "for months at a time."


Desecheo Notebook cover Such making is not absorption, does not incur other languages, exports little but the traveler's shoestring budget, imports only what self can be limned, unappropriated, in the discipline of knowledge and generous attention. The San Francisco scene is, of course, formative, as must be Kyger's four years abroad, in Japan and India (1960-1964) - not only for the early initiation to Buddhist practice, of which her work could be considered one steadfast application and deepening, but for the "experience of the simultaneity of all human beings on this planet,/ alive when you are alive" ("And with March a Decade in Bolinas"). Kyger is an invisible companion in the experiences informing poems in Snyder's The Back Country and Mountains and Rivers Without End, as well as in Ginsberg's Planet News; and her The Japan and India Journals can be read largely as a kind of captivity narrative, the controlled maintenance and development of a relentlessly invisible/isolated self.

Indeed, Kyger's portraits of the "savages" (Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Snyder) are the crucial countertext to Ginsberg and Snyder's own India journals. Any sense of the foreignness, the SIZE of, India is curiously absent, the focus being largely on individuals, particular places and day to day survival: "Calcutta. Arrived 8 o'clock. Two narrow facing seats. Try to sleep slung between them. We don't have change. An Indian pays for our tea" (JIJ 166). These journals are also scattered with bits, starts and ends of poems:

the wind shifts
direction - the
time making no
difference now
the elements dictate
our course.
work out a pattern
like the pattern the
flowers make or is it
shadows that make a
pattern on the wall.

I am thinking of a
woven pattern placed
by hand of flowers
Noted in addition are many details that could have entered a Kyger poem: sharp, often damning portraits (with the pungency of a Paul Theroux, but also a saving humor, as if O'Hara traveled India); attention to nonhumans; and an unstinting record, at least in the India segment, of what's eaten - but little of this material fronts Kyger's first published poems, those collected in The Tapestry and The Web. There are two movements here: one a mythic tapestry-making, a weaving of experience into epic themes that reworks them in the process; the other an essentially counter-mythologizing movement toward factual experience. In particular, Kyger is keen to counter the Beat mythologizing of woman-as-muse:

Gary says women are always associated with water, and holes are mystic entrances. The well is essentially a woman's thing. And the well as KNOWLEDGE. Well I don't know. Well I do know. Contemplation & awareness. Are you Well. Well, well, how nice to see you today. Bringing up, drawing up the water. Drawing and painting. Snail moves circularly in the upper damp areas of the well. I pulled a beetle up in the wooden bucket I had seen him floating on the surface, also before the surface was disturbed my face I saw way down reflected. (JIJ 34-35)

This material later appears satirically reworked:
It is lonely
I must draw water from the well 75 buckets for the bath
I mix a drink - gin, fizz water, lemon juice, a spoonful
of strawberry jam
And place it in a champagne glass - it is hard work
to make the bath . . . (Going On)


While myth, and epic amplification, remain an important frame for Kyger's work - cf. "After Sunset:" "The Dark Surfer/ is still out there" (Patzcuaro) - her way into poetry seems to have taken the second route: toward a poetics of (extra)ordinary attention in the everyday. At least, it is the above untitled poem, rather than the Penelope pieces in The Tapestry and The Web, that most closely resembles the later travel work, as in:

"Could be anywhere
on Earth and Time focused completely
on chopping
the tomatoes, chilies, and onions."
In Phenomenological, "Could be anywhere" is literalized at Chichen Itza when the narrator, after contemplating the "Platform of the Jaguars and Eagles" runs into (or dreams) a fellow poet:
Treading softly behind the Nunnery
In old Chichen Itza
I meet Leslie Scalapino

Blue and white flowered dress and webbed plastic
shoes, she's flying with friend Tom for
four days before she flys to Bard in New York
for readings. I tell her to say hello to
Alice Notley and Anne Waldman.

Returning to Casa Bowen we have early bed
and easy fiction.
This is less colonial intimacy than a staging of poetic community in the wilderness, one that undoes wilderness by deflating the exotic otherness of its places. Old Chichen Itza becomes North Beach; its nunnery uncloistered as a college, the generation of strong(?) women poets just after Kyger. Duncan is an acknowledged influence, but I hear and see (in the poems' spacing on the page) much more of Larry Eigner/Robert Grenier (the Creeley connection) and of Ted Berrigan (the O'Hara connection) in Kyger's travel poems - as well, of course, as the spiritual note-keeping of a Philip Whalen and, in places, of Kerouac. Spicer's influence probably mingles with the chronologically driven seriality of the journal form; though we might certainly look to earlier models, as in Basho. If Kyger can be partially situated in the interstices between these various (male dominated) schools, coasts or lineages, it is only because she has resolutely pursued her own path, down many non poetry-world roads. In any case, in the uninteresting discussion of influences, it is virtually impossible to determine which way, at least between peers, the influence truly flows.

To say that Kyger demythologizes is innacurate; it would be more correct to say that she approaches myth, the myths of anybody and any place, with caution and respect. In Patzcuaro, the 'poet' approaches the ubiquitous icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, reverently, an icon as potent as Nut or some Buddhist emanation, only to withdraw before any loss of self:
Worshipping the void topped
with crown or simple shawl
Face on space above
her long tunic, blue cloak
adorned with stars
. . .
Your 'poet' notes this down
remembering her heart
back in a room in a book

and retreats
                      ('Under the roof of the Archangels')
Poetry stages a centered retreat from ego. If travel, in these poems, involves the cliched quest for self, it is without any of the false identification, the posturing that so often marks such journey. Rather, it is generous curiosity - "to learn the knowledge/ out there/ possessed by the world" (Desecheo); amusement - Kyger's humor does naturally what could often feel concocted in that vital New York School sense of the muse; and, as I attempt to argue here, it is one path of humility for the Bodhisattva. Not that Kyger is out there with a begging bowl; to the contrary, the persona of these poems is a dandy's, well dressed and mannered, fastidious, seeking the best in food, drink and chemicals, discretely and stylishly managing life's hungers: "How nice it is to have a 4 o'clock shower, a change of clothes, smoke a little grass, a sip of mezcal with a lime squeeze. And sit down and think about interior decorating" (Mexico Blonde). (In one hilarious episode, in Mexico Blonde, Kyger has to have her partner lock her in the closet of a room too close to the landlord's, to smoke grass and "think of things like black polished bead necklaces." Also because of the landlord's proximity, she must whisper when she wants out. It takes a long time for her partner, who is "busy reading the newspaper," to hear her.)

Humility lies in no extreme but in the balance of curiosity, even escape, with a willingness, finally, to bear down and face all one will ever know, the first and last self: "Generosity: I allow/ your existence/ equal weight with mine." Or perhaps it is "fronting" self, as the self in these poems is phenomenology, not fixed idea: "the 'psyche' is not/ a personal but a world existence" (Desecheo).

In fronting, does Kyger make Mexico (or Puerto Rico) wilderness? It's the wildness she's fighting, when she goes south, to discover America. Not to export wildness but bring it home, where it belongs: "it helps on this island/ to do exercise/ thoughts stay/ in the mind close/ to the home camp"(Desecheo). Self can be anywhere - anything can be wild - and that includes the dreaming self. As Kyger pays the same attention to dreams paid any other phenomena, the narration in Desecheo Notebook, for example, locates in Bolinas, or in Spain, returning the same afternoon to a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico. Here the framing is such that one honestly doesn't know whether the tide that sweeps over the camp - sucking back her companion "Peter's rucksack and all his papers" - is dream or reportage, or reported dream. Either way, "between the real and the apparent," it quickly becomes allegorical, as "Waist deep in foam/ His papers [she] collect[s] busily & tidily,/ the second sea bath for his Thesus,/ monkey papers, Golem, notebook/ in 2 pieces." Kyger's mock sea-born muse is a characteristic countering of familiar circumstances: "no place to sit/ all these men/ I just want a place/ for myself."

Desecheo Notebook intensifies feelings of captivity as it works toward a crisis of sorts - "I strongly sense I will not leave this Island alive" - in which Kyger allows herself a rare epiphany (where Kyger's page based technique is evident, her way of placing words rather than breaking "lines"):
This is incredible
Big pounding waves
the beginning of my 4th week
the gold light of
late afternoon
A big heron
fine milk foam
rise up and pound
This was a flat sea
In the later work Kyger plays with captivity (locked between the nose and ears of the landlord, whispering to be let out of the closet) as a dream poised on the demands of the self:
Picking the easy bhakti worship everyday
a candle, flowers, incense
in front of local clay form
of Virgin maiden, thumb-sized Ganesha,
Buddha pin. Bow occasionally.

'Do it every day you fool!' No one
but yourself to please
or plead the lonesome empties
in the late afternoon cold
in a long forever nap
of true sleep 'which god in his infinite mercy
bestowed upon rocks and drops of water
making them more noble than us'
Kyger's god is a bastard god, a "local clay form" she tells the myth of in 'The News from Patzcuaro.' In the colonization of the Purepecha, "Their old Mother God was transformed/ into the Virgin of Health - de la Salud - // fashioned from corncob/ and orchid honey paste" (Patzcuaro). This is the same God that, in Phenomenological, gets Sor Juana in trouble, arguing "that the sacrifice of the Mexican corn god, and the ritual in which his image shaped in corn dough is eaten, anticipates the Christian symbolism. . . . This idea which favors the native Indians was a big no-no." Sor Juana "struggles thru her life with compassion and talent in intellectual pursuits, not granted to women. . . . She becomes a nun, but runs into trouble with her own mind, 'I thought to flee from myself/ but wretch that I am/ I took myself with me.'" There is no mystic escape in asceticism or travel; at the bottom of the well floats the poet's face. God is native, makeshift self, the 'I' beneath the obfuscations of the poem. In all of this Kyger's identification with Sor Juana, and the Purepecha locals, is partial, a simple matter of bowing, "occasionally." If the god is one's own fact of attention, no other's, why bother with the idol? Well when in Rome...

The occasion of travel is a retreat from ego possible only in fronting ego's desire, curiosity, generous impulses. Pursuing the impossible occasional idol, in occasional poems: "When Maria gives birth/ to the son of god/ but somehow/ becomes the mother of god himself // We eat carefully prepared/ chicken, cheese and mushroom crepes// Where is He?/ He is here in your poem" (Patzcuaro).

I have begun to think of Kyger as the ultimate occasional poet, in a general economy of the occasion. Just as some of Mallarmé's best poetry appears as Vers de circonstance. Imagine that all is occasion, while crafted words (in Kyger's exact attention) are anything but occasional - Kyger attempts to show us how they are in fact so, at the same time that they are resolutely body and soul: "Don't forget to write about// the two white plastic spoons/ from the San Francisco Airport/ coffee shop now used everyday/ throw-aways" ('Noche Buena:' Patzcuaro). The occasion is not instrumental but miraculous, that "verge" of creation, "- when things have not yet condemned themselves - by coming alive - to extinction" (JIJ 254). It is the sudden blossoming of "leaves out the west window" - "This is what happened" - always just past us ('Trying to Write'). It is beginning again: "The old ways still for the birth of the innocent// victor, Christ. And before that, / Before that...? We start again" ('Noche Buena').

Such a retreat behind epiphany, however, is not punctual. It is enacted over a course of weeks, travel being, above all, a matter of making place. Neither here nor there, 'between the real and the apparent,' neither exotic nor familiar, travel might be Kyger's own version of Paradise but it remains liminal: "I am making a place/ in the doorway of the Jaguar/ Temple in the jungle" (Phenomenological). What's striking about this travel poetry is that it rarely imparts a sense of movement. There is no straying from the you hollowed out for the reader's careful attention, "close to the home camp." If Kyger's poetry stalks experience, it is doubled by an admonition to stay at home: "A penetrating stare shatters the privacy/ of those locked away pages - a burning look. You! Gringa spy! . . . / Keep the fire going" (Patzcuaro). Place is the shape of observed self:
Monstera, birds nest fern,
bromiliad, ceiba tree, and an arm
thick vine reflect my attempt
to display them
in the form of this body watching
In Phenomenological, Kyger repeatedly cuts to finding oneself caught, sometimes hilariously, coming to terms in a foreign situation. The Chichen Itza segment of this poem quickens with the arrival of "Thousands of tourists from all over the world," and the hilarity of "their comments in many languages," as well as an ironic vision of "Teenagers of U.S. galloping/ up and down on/ history's past conquests." The poet can't resist joining in:
I immediately challenge myself to El
Castillo's top

And once there, weak legged, wind blowing
terrified to walk around the temple at the
top for fear I'll fall off

want immediately to descend while I can. What
vertigo! Holding on to the chain, praying
and trembling I descend backwards down the
narrow steps, remembering the human sacrifice
practiced by the Itzas.

I have rubber legs for the next four days.
Kyger gains firmer ground as, in the Patzcuaro book, she connects place with history, even the nightmare of history - "Dead in Acteal, Chiapas:" "It will never be 1997 again./ Forty-six arrested/ forty-five dead" - more than with self nightmares (or dreams). She also reaches out beyond a narrow American lineage to admit a "wholehearted brotherhood" via the "the warmth of the feelings and language for his fellow poets" of Neruda in his Memoirs, which Kyger was "fortuitously" given a copy of. The poem, 'The Beautiful Adjectives and Magnificent Metaphors of Pablo Neruda,' is a kind of cento, made from Neruda's words, in praise of fellow poets: "Poetry was man's first cry/ setting a hidden butterfly in motion." (Perhaps this is the butterfly, in Phenomenological, that sits on the poet's finger at Palenque as she writes - "the continuing embellishment of life.") Listed in Kyger's notes are poets from Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Spain, France and Hungary. Desecheo Notebook, a dreamlike record of time spent in the "wilderness" with a biological field group (one guesses) on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico, ends with a questioning, a retreat from the notion of, wilderness:
can a wild animal
exist anymore
words. spirit guides
further away
into crammed people land
New York
That the land is crammed with people is the traveler's principal insight. Such a world requires the discipline of total honesty, pretending to nothing beyond one's self. The wilderness of American incarnation, the vastness of a world appropriated to fuel expanding ego, is here inverted, brought back to words. Spirits, guides, it is words that are wild, when one heeds the wildness of their exact occasion. The traveler of Kyger's poems seldom pretends to any vantage other than tourism, traveling out of a desire for the world, not any desire to save it. In Creeley's words, "The tourist will always be singular, no matter what the occasion otherwise"(Hello). This is no escapism.

At the same time, a world crammed with people requires an absolute generosity of compassion, "to keep memory compassionate of all the/ interconnections of people one has loved/ and known." Phenomenological, documenting a 1989 tour of the Yucatan construed as a search "between the real and the apparent" for a rendezvous with a dying friend, Black Mountaineer Bill McNeill - who did pass away in this time - is ultimately a testing of such compassion. Keeping the Bodhisattva's vow becomes the trial of a poetics which requires "evidences of the whole self in the poem;" including the selfishness of memory - "No, you are not free/ from the memories/ of others, Ted Berrigan" [this line returns to haunt Kyger in Just Space, 'June 26'] - and the self who "dreams too much. Completely pensativo," along with "two white plastic spoons" picked up in an airport (Patzcuaro). Near the end of Phenomenological, Kyger describes the fate of a Yucatan parrot:
Little Yucatan parrot
on the Unicorn today a 32 foot
sailboat at Puerto Abrego's dredged out
harbor at Yucalpeten, the northern tip
of this peninsula. Bonnie and Steve
getting their boat worked on,
to sail on with their bright green
bird friend. They lost another one at
Sea, nowhere to rest when it flies
off and they find its body 20 minutes later
floating on the waves

- big water, small bird . . .
A poetry adequate to this world, as Kyger's is, survives by never losing sight of the disparity between the bird and the ocean. It's a big world out there in here. Ars longa, vita brevis? Travel widely, stay close to home.


J A C K E T  # 11 
Contents page 
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog |
 Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice
-- Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose  | about Jacket |
This material is copyright © Jonathan Skinner and Jacket magazine 2000
The URL address of this page is