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Randy Roark reviews
Unhurried Vision, by Michael Rothenberg

La Alameda Press, at,
distributed by The University of New Mexico Press,
November,120pp., Paper: 1-888809-40-X US$16.00

For a different point of view, read Laurie Duggan’s review of the same book here.
This piece is 1,200 words or about three printed pages long

One of the aphorisms sprinkled throughout Michael Rothenberg’s “Unhurried Vision,” is one from Goethe’s “Conversation with Eckermann,” chosen to introduce a long catalog of Philip Whalen’s collected notebooks — each precisely dated. “And be sure you put to each poem the date at which you wrote it.... “Your poems will thus serve,” he said, “as a diary of your progress.” In just this way “Unhurried Vision” is not a collection of poems but rather a book of poems, written during a specific period in time, in this case one particular year (1999), from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. As such, I want to comment on its three most obvious formal characteristics.

The first is the most important — the deconstruction of the false “fourth wall” between the poems themselves and the author’s actual experience. “It’s all one poem,” Ted Berrigan said, but sometimes it’s not this easy to see it as all one poem.

What we get instead in “Unhurried Vision” is the quality of continuation. If nothing ever really begins or ends, it just continues in a new way. In this way, each poem here begins within a larger context — amending or “commenting” on what has gone before and ignorant of what’s coming up next. Just like real life. There is even one “list poem” (in this case a list of Philip Whalen’s unpublished journals) that spreads over three separate poems, and in this way we actually re-experience the joy of the rediscovery of these “new” notebooks.

The third quality is less in the nature of the “daybook” but rather, I imagine, a result of Rothenberg’s interest in Buddhist meditation. The white space that is usually used to “set off” a poem has largely been incorporated into the poems themselves — almost as instructions for proper breathing, or in an attempt to get us to slow down, at least for as long as it takes to read these poems.

The book proper begins with the word “longing” and ends with phrase “Change barely detectable.” (Just like life.) But the real beginning and end of the book belong to two holographs that bookend Rothenberg’s text by Philip Whalen. Not surprisingly, the sprite has been brought in to totally upend this sense of implied continuity. The first holograph poem begins: “The End of the line.” And finally the last words we read in the book are from 1959:

        NO LIMIT
                 feature that!
                           [if you will]

In many ways, “Unhurried Vision” has the will to feature precisely that. In fact, this book that begins with a vague sense of loss (“Something gone again ... alone until midnight”) will largely consist of a specific catalog of exactly who has gone and everything else that gets lost in the following year.

But a wider sense of absence and loss continually haunts these poems as well — grief at a broken bud vase that used to be Rothenberg’s father’s shot glass, grief at remembering how Philip uncontrollably wept at the news of Olson’s death, and even compassion for Lenin, whose statues were being converted into bells to sell to the tourist trade.

There’s also a profound melancholy over the absence of so many haunting voices gone to us now, most noticeably Lew Welch’s. And the constant threat that by the time you read this book another one of those still living voices will also be gone. That pervading sense of doom erupts most completely late one night in Boulder at a Beat conference when Rothenberg succinctly summarizes his relationships to his mentors (at that moment Ginsberg, McClure, and Whalen): “Dead, sleeping, blind.”

The end of Philip’s life was written from a Sophoclean script: With the assistance of his family, a king, blinded, in humiliation, returns to his ancestral home to find peace in his last and lowest days, and is rejected and harassed by politicians and the general decline of civility. The metaphor of the banished king is made most clear when Philip is being discharged from the hospital and his sangha refuses to accept him because of the complications.

This collection may be the closest thing we have of what it was like to be in Philip Whalen’s presence (beyond his own writings, of course); the subtleties of which were only revealed after a long and curious exposure, such as in this gentle exchange:

Is clinging to life greed?
“It’s clinging that’s the problem
Attachment is a better word than greed.”

Which brings us back to the complexities of Philip Whalen, because Philip was not only a poet but also a Sensei — a zen priest. And what Rothenberg took on in 1999, that year of propitious endings and promised new beginnings, was actually more than just a poet’s apprenticeship but also an apprenticeship in death with a living zen master.

But Philip was a poet first, and there is plenty about poetry here, such as Philip’s list of the perfect poetry curriculum:

  1. give a good reading list, show multiple styles
  2. teach writer to distance self from work
  3. knock down blocks you have to keep writing

Or this, from “Ocean Restaurant”:

what you can’t remember
you write down

There are also passages in Rothenberg’s poems of heartbreaking poignancy, such as this passage from “To-Day Is”:

He’s sleeping
Infection back
Fever, irregular heartbeat
Between dreams
He’s not sure if I’m here
or if I’m a dream
He likes the feel of my hand
on his head
“I feel frail”

I sit beside him
This is the body of poetry

Or this, from “4th Floor”:

Does anyone understand
he would feel better if
he were not left alone?

Or this passage from “Conversation with an Inventory”:

and though we imagine these monstrous deep-sea
creatures to swim quickly and pulverize
with great sucking flesh
It’s more likely they float upside down and drift,
prey passively acquired
Living like this until one day
they wash upon a beach
a dead spectacle

But this book is mostly (for me) a celebration of community: of breaking bread with friends (who are about to become compost themselves), how the process of lineage actually works (and has worked for millennia), and the preciousness of everything (and everyone) that gets lost along the way.

As such, “Unhurried Vision” also includes the sudden and unexpected visits from old friends (just like real life!). These snapshots are often funny and true — Anne Waldman shouting out from the audience the one question Michael had forbidden anyone to ask during his lecture at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program; Diane di Prima’s withering, and precise, response to news that Philip has been turned out by his sangha; and Michael McClure’s confident and clear voicing of thoughts that have crossed every poet’s mind at one time or another:

“It has nothing to do with poetry, Fuck you!”
... “Fuck you! You should have told me
it was a big, huge piece of work, massive work!
You just call out of nowhere, want to know what I think!”

God, I love these poets.

Randy Roark is the author of The San Francisco Notebook, Mona Lisa’s Veil: New and Selected Poems, 1979–2000," and Dissolve: Screenplays to the Films of Stan Brakhage. His multi-media presentation that opened Hofstra’s Jean Cocteau Festival in 2003 is available on DVD through Laocoon Press as Jean Cocteau: The First Half.

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