by Kenneth Irby
North Atlantic Books 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
“the back / calm pasture of the mind”
In 2009, North Atlantic Books published a handsome book finally gathering the work of Kenneth Irby, one of Charles Olson’s lesser known disciples, who has labored in small press obscurity since the early ‘60’s. Irby fans (including myself) have been waiting for a comprehensive collection since Station Hill Press put out Call Steps in 1991. My first reaction was too much like the blurbs on the back, making me feel like, as Stephen King put it in the self-effacing preface to his book on writing, “a literary gasbag or a transcendental asshole.” But any review of Irby should emphasize that this work is not necessarily easy to approach.
As a title for his collected works, The Intent On is unpromising and not as representative as previous headings such as Orexis, Catalpa, or Relation might be, but it does make the point that Irby is writing in the space “after I,” and suggests two of his main influences, Louis Zukofsky and Ed Dorn, who might be overlooked beneath Olson’s looming presence. The title also points towards his increasing attention to tracking the atomic particles of language. I offer the following quote as an example of Irby’s pacing and form:
or all the high school years again, unslept, reviewing the annual faces over and over
till they run green in the movies after the eyes are closed
and still as distant as they were in person
the society of ordinary
high school days, never left, will it?
Noted book designer Jonathan Greene strikes a balance between Irby’s sometimes impossibly long lines and the steady accumulation of his sequences or sets, making it easier for the reader to track the progress of the author’s obsessive dreamscapes from the deceptively straightforward reportage of Relation to the denser, allusive mastery of Call Steps, often regarded as Irby’s central work. Comparison with the Station Hill edition suggests that a decision was made here to put multiple poems on a single page in order to emphasize the continuity of his career, not simply to save paper. It helps to see Irby’s poems set differently in other editions, as they are constructed in ways which inevitably emphasize the local circumstances of each printing. Although it’s sometimes annoying to see the lines broken in so many different, awkward ways, it shows how the limitations of the printed page animate the work. Ironically, A Set, a broadside printed landscape here to preserve the original lineation, is not his best work, and printing it sideways feels more like a gimmick than a revelation of the poem’s true shape.
Inspired by Charles Olson, and associated with three important Roberts (Duncan, Kelly, and Greiner), Irby’s work offers a bridge between the San Francisco scene, Deep Image and Language Poets, but don’t let that deter you. Irby’s work is not based on schools or theories, but values. From the start it was apparent that he was out to construct what Olson referred to as an “actual earth of value”: “There is nothing, then, that does not/ contain the divine.” Not only is every event interpenetrated by the divine, every historical event occurs in space based on specific local conditions: “We have approached the fact of this land/ as body as alive as our own.”
Starting from Fort Scott Kansas where he grew up, and moving west to New Mexico and Berkeley, California, and circulating back via the northwest coast, with intriguing glances towards China and Japan, Irby’s poetry rides the currents of our historical restlessness, surrounded by landforms; his lines stretch out to meet the horizon and stack themselves in geologic strata. They track secret migration routes to the west and south, currents useable by truckers and tourists alike. Irby knows that the east side of the street is a different world from the west side of the street, and that the land makes demands on us: “find the Secret History of your Self, wherein you live, which is more vast and great than any Shell or Strife you know.” If Olson nervously paces the beach, looking out over the sea, past Rome, past Greece to our prehistoric and geologic attentions, Irby searches for “that back/ calm pasture of the mind/ where all weather is.”
Irby turns the idiosyncratic particular into the universal with impressive ease, knowing that beyond our conscious attention we are drawn into continental gyres and mired in interior Sargasso Seas. Here’s Irby, in the early ‘70’s, drawing landform maps in the shape of animals, years before the digital work of Japanese cartographers presented in Katherine Harmon’s You Are Here. Decades before the alarming stories in the news magazines, he told us that the best place to fix global warming is to start with the weather inside the head: “I keep scratching my head, for the uncertainty of the weather in there.” In the mid ‘70s he wrote prophetically: “We’re living in the midst of a change like the ice age, that IS the ice age, so pervasive it’s hard to tell.”
As Irby’s lines pile into strata, seemingly geologic forces fracture the layers and puncture the boundaries between dream, myth, and reality. Fossilized particulars are pushed in by the waves and stranded by the outgoing tide like trash on the beaches of our attention, opening surprising vistas into “that endlessness of everyday/ that is precisely eternity.” Post-Whitman, he will look at our adolescent yearning and say “this is the rite of the drugstore counter heart.” Olson called Americans “the last first people.” We are rude, sensual, angry, not fully formed, and perpetually desiring self-determination and initiation into the earth’s mysteries, without realizing that our conflicting wishes can only cancel each other out.
Irby draws me back to the feelings that attracted me to maps and poetry in the first place. He names inchoate desires, locates them, and tells us they recur to be used as fertilizer for growth. I think of a specific image from my high school lit mag: someone hanging upside down from the highway overpass, waiting for the trucks to come, and preparing to pull up at the last second. Irby knows that this trope can appear in any American town bisected by a freeway, along with the darker but complimentary fantasy of throwing stuff off the bridge or shooting bb’s at cars: giving oneself to the flow, or violently disrupting it. Irby wants us to remember those selfish, destructive feelings, even though it may be difficult to respect them; these are the currents that reveal us, they are “limits to go see the sacred places on the table with the scrambled eggs and hash browns, between and on.”
Describing a noisy bus ride, Irby quotes from a letter he received from Gerrit Lansing to the effect that the challenge is reconciling “not chatter, [but] incessant loud yuk- yuk- fucking- yuk- yuk it’s always got to be insisted its right to enjoy […] to poetic elitism which grows & can reconcile Mallarme’s (& S. George’s) & Lautreamont’s (poetry is for everyone)… & the mirror of supernatural economics.” Irby’s take on supernatural economics is idiosyncratic, elliptical and elusive, but just when you think he’s gone off the deep end, he snaps you back to reality, parked out back by the dumpster, confronting the waste our culture generates.
Irby can use a word like opalescent with an entirely straight face. It helps if you can hear the flat Kansas accent he speaks in, but his lack of pretension shines through in various ways. Key to Irby’s work is his paradoxical push against endlessness and limit, an introspective fever based on an aesthetic of failure; things are constantly flubbed and fucked up, our language is not always up to the task, but the demand is always there:
We give, ourselves,
even in the stupidest words
or we are assholes
Similar notes of a breathtaking, urgent honesty seemingly unique to Irby keep the reader moving through an otherwise monumental book. Irby adds some real insights about domestic life and friendship, but as in Olson’s Maximus Poems, there is a pervasive maleness of tone and concern which may leave some readers feeling stranded. But it eventually becomes clear that however personal his emphases, he agrees with Walter de la Mare: “All that we are is in our love. It is an archipelago, and its islands may be visited each in turn.”
Ultimately, I find that The Intent On, ostensibly so derivative of The Maximus Poems, deals more with life as actually lived; and the more you realize Irby’s debt to other writers, the more you are convinced that here is a true original, above literary politics, a writer who has urgently charted the dream of the North American continent, tracing our psychic migrations in ways presciently germane to our current social, environmental and political crises: “The Climatology of Attention is not the Extension of Empire.” Though his mentor drunkenly declared himself President of Poetry at the 1964 Berkeley Poetry Conference, Kenneth Irby has stayed true to the quest for twice as many years as Olson was given, and staked a solid claim to be North America’s premier psychogeographer, if not Interior Secretary of North American Poetry.