from Cento Magazine
Some Notes on Edward Dorn's
"The Problem of the Poem for my Daughter, Left Unsolved"
Dorn's poem is first and foremost an indictment of what culturally staid and socially stagnant systems effect on individuals. One necessary first fact to a consideration of the poem is that human perception is geotropic; that human "personality" is constantly stabilized by gravitational pull, the primordial encounter with external reality thus allowing us to "have" our being, turned both toward the earth and into language in no sense of time but that experienced as freshness; this is the basis of the moral stance Dorn strikes in the poem - the moral as right behavior with respect to the flux of perception rather than to over-arching ethical construct. But this flux remains the source of culture, even as culture moves developmentally through persistent cycles of thesis / antithesis / synthesis / parenthesis / paralysis: culture is a ratio correlating wreckage, renewal, and time. Space is the constant, and intensity is the place an individual occupies at any given moment on the arc of intersection, as, the hours of the day in what Olson called "one's now alive life."
Intensity is an imaginal quality, that is, it rises and is in expression theoretical and abstract, while at the same time inferring itself from the entire weight of gestural event in much the way that gravity stabilizes organisms. As Olson said in "Ed Sanders' Language", "it takes the earth / to make a feather fall." It is through this rise to the shifting weight of occasion that Dorn, in this poem, and in subsequent political poems, finds his critical range as a continuous and sensible integrity negotiated across what is at hand, which in this case involves the cultural norms evident in 1965, these measured against the "freely disposed intellection" contingent on the individualizing "pull" of geotropism. This perpetual recombinance comes to form in continuous and complex interaction, at times abstruse, through which Dorn extends various angles of critical approach, which nevertheless have as their object the achievement of a profoundly common lyric and polemic expression, as Dorn noted in the preface to his Collected Poems re: his work as "theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone." Which is to say that the work is an index of common feeling framed as cultural expression, and how it comes to be that way. The "problem" of Dorn's title thus has to do with his outrage at how individual volition is constricted or invalidated by social constraint, and how the expression of this outrage may put the poem at risk of supporting the very thing that ignited its outset.
But the problem is also topical, in terms of his daughter, and what she will become in terms of what, socially, is given. She has just come of age, "[s]o tears, or the rose enfolds / the moisture of its passion" inferring both beginning maturity and menses, and so the sexual in its broadest terms, sex as "invented outward of life and driven in on it, forming it. Armor is the denial of a gravitational import trillions and trillions of times the size of any organism and called by [Wilhelm] Reich orgonotic, or erotic, instead of gravitational" [Richard Grossinger, Planet Medicine]. It is this armoring that Dorn writes against, and so his diatribe is not only social in its import; it is equally sexual and in part alchemical - returning quality to the quantity in which it is most essentially resident, or, in Dorn's words, "to create a cognizance in society of itself" - intended to raise the moral as form to the stance that is both the cause of, and the result of "the poem as an instrument of intellection."
While the thrust of Dorn's earlier poems, and the tenor of his career as a whole, show him to be a lyricist with increasing political predations, the poem for his daughter marks the first time the singular intensity of much of his earlier work is brought to bear on dimensions both political and spatio/temporal in a more direct, yet equally more complex manner. The poem is focused on the social construction of the American individual as this relates to his daughter's coming of age, and is framed in a polemic revolving around a sense of free life as nomadic, a mode through which the imagination comes to its senses as a kind of transfigured, open receivership. This is contrasted with a "totally onanized culture" in which "the Kaddish will be said / not as a formal memory / but for the working of a curse, venus / will be likewise a disease transmitted for a secure experience / a memory of Eve for some isolated engineer / who said if I don't do it, someone else will". It is marked more heavily than earlier work by sarcasm ("Hello there Ed, congratulations / I've forgotten the details / but it sounded fabulous), wit (". . . other women / marked by sex, fold out of the minds of American men / who may no longer wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled / but who are certainly all circumcized without ritual / and wear the ends of their penises rolled") and homage ("[a]utomation ends with a moral proposition, THE LESSON of / one maximum factor of it / will sugest all the correspondences . . . " sounds both Olson's Maximus and Max Factor). It is also rife with elaborate syntax, elision and shifts of reference that often make its meanings difficult to work out.
And the difficulties are immediate; the poem begins with a chance encounter in a grocery store between Dorn, who had gone there to buy ice cream for his daughter's birthday party, and a woman who wears at her neck a string of pearls and a scar left from the removal of a goiter, both signal evidence of hyperthyroid activity. He presents her as the product of "a brutal economic calculus, where to / place the dark hair / save above moist eyes / the black slacks, / the desperately optimisitc rouge of the fallen cheeks / (cheeks are up / when they live / both forward and / posterior, the colorado of new day not a new state . . . / where the leads are I despair to find lead mines" The reference to lead implies that the burden of the poem is gravitational - having to do with a heaviness of time - and Saturnian, lead being the Saturnian metal, the prima materia of alchemy, and Saturn the sign of "long contemplation and hard, abstract study" [Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition], through which one may reach the "small green island" Dorn suggests we should all move our daughters to, ie., the quantitative earth felt gesturally through the defining passage of time rather than an "isolating [and fulsome] youngness."
While the poem in part concentrates on the figure of the woman met in the grocery, and her like - "the shocked woman", "housewife", "phoenician raped broad . . . willingly captured by another", "hopeless divorcees, / the wrinkled millionaresses of resources dwindled / to a day dream, the exhausted mesaba of their dangling breasts / soft wax structures to support our collective greed / for legitimte youth" - the clear indictment is on the culture as a whole, ie., what makes them that way -
- the "green island" as an apprehension of the earth - the combined mons veneris and pinnacle of desire into which one "disappears" - to which Amelia Earhart "flew, like something familiarly / transvestite in us, a weirdly technical Icarus / she was sent for by some morse-code spiritism [ ... ] her destiny was not qualified by myth / She came in all her beauty / to a small green island / in a bag of metal, oh misfortune that to be exemplary is so difficult". The difficuly involves a woman's entry into the social world without being sacrificed to image, as a centerfold "fold[ing] out of the minds of american men" . The question is, what does one do with themselves, and what can one do with themselves in a "totally onanized culture" whose sense of use is increasingly focused on the applied genetics of reproducing its own terms? What is a woman to become? Or more to the point, what can a man tell a daughter about becoming that she doesn't already have access to as a body (of knowledge) that can in no way be proscriptive of demeaning societal norms but by the beauty of her occurance?
Dorn recognizes that the beauty is not unassailable, and that "[t]he sum of her / shall perish, has begun / to perish in the darkside / in the prescribed field of misery / and she will hardly avoid the destruction / of her nature, / a material of birth / as a car of new life / not new, novel, the life / is older than what we know as prima materia". Which is to say she inhabits a liminal space, and that she will be visited by societal norms that grant her no other existence than sheer access. These she will have to surmount and/or participate in order to gain some sense of her actual being. It's a question of self-satisfaction, involving sexuality. And the issue, unstated but underlying the whole poem is, to what extent can fucking commute need expressed as toxic inner frenzy and hyper-sex ripoff? Dorn offers no answers, but does note below that it is not a theological question, but more one of admission, some token, language, that can permit the essentiality of "surrounding,/ female principle [as] structure" -
Nomadism is the material analogy to "freely disposed intellection", and what Dorn appreciates; the negotiation between man's ability to abstract, and to some extent ameliorate the deadness of a materially "described" world set against the ugliness that thereby results from man's distance from his environment. As this negotiation proceeds and involves the application of social norms working against individual volition in terms of sexuality and one's "now alive life", the clarity is of the order of so knowing, with an identifying helplessness that is nevertheless mortal, and thus intimate, as Dorn closes the poem, "I can tell my daughter no secrets" because she is the secret, enfolded, and, in and as the poem, unfolding.
Stephen Ellis has lived over the last dozen years sequentially, on the Connecticut River in northern Vermont, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in the Northern Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, and on the southeastern coast of Maine. In the early 1990s he co-edited, with Stephen Dignazio, the little magazine :that:. From 1994 through the present he has directed publications at Oasis Press, and is the founder of a related organization, the Mercy Seat Collective, a vibration orchestra of elective affinities whose members are aware of everything but their membership. Publication history: poems and critical writings in House Organ, Talisman, Tyuonyi, Notus, Compouind Eye, H2SO4, & the websites ReadMe and alterra. Pamphlets White Gravity (PNY) and Interface (Jensen/Daniels), along with a larger collection, The Long and Short of It (Spuyten Duyvil), came out in 1999. He currently lives in an Ohio trace just west of Marietta, in North America's only tropical rainforest clime.