Dale Smith
from Cento Magazine

A World of Difference
Edward Dorn: A World of Difference. Tom Clark, North Atlantic Books, 2002, 434 pp., $25


He grew up in Villa Grove--"The Grave" he would call it--a small town on the river Embarras in south central Illinois. Brown prairies and a blackbird sky informed his early imagination. That bleak geography demanded careful attention, hard work and grim determination from those whites whose settlements continued by habit and want to take from the land a meager living. Poverty made him self-conscious while the brute magnitude of the prairie turned his thoughts inward. His name in German meant "thorn", a piercing spine protruding from the softer plant.

Largely self-taught, his education, according to his friend and biographer Tom Clark, consisted of "the language and money theories of Ezra Pound, [Charles] Olson's far-reaching cultural projections [and] the subversive biophysics of Wilhelm Reich". With encouragement and a gift of $300 from a state college art teacher, Raymond Obermayr, he went east to North Carolina where he enrolled at Black Mountain College (1950-51) to study art, writing and anthropology. Charles Olson, recently back from the Yucatán, lectured that semester on culture, man and history.

With no money for continued tuition, he returned to Illinois briefly, then thumbed his way west finding work at the Monroe Logging Co. in the Cascades 25 miles northeast of Seattle. His weekends were "devoted to self-assigned studies," Clark writes. "Economics, cultural anthropology and psychobiology now preoccupied him". For light reading he turned to Pound's Guide to Kulchur.

LeRoi Jones' Totem Press did not publish Edward Dorn's first book of poems, The Newly Fallen, until 1961. In that decade between his first semester at Black Mountain and the publication of his book he had married his first wife, Helene Helmers Dorn, returned to that unique North Carolina college, traveled unsuccessfully in Mexico, turned down graduate studies at Harvard and the University of Iowa's writer's workshop, befriended Robert Creeley, worked as a Greyhound bus baggage clerk with Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco, labored in Washington, New Mexico and Idaho and had written a novel of geographic preoccupation and economic ruin.

He worked a string of menial jobs until he was nearly forty years old, moving his family with persistent restlessness. This migrant worker-artist examined his life of difference from a position outside the comfortable, post-war spectacle of American social economy. Too polished for physical labor, too rough for a desk, Dorn and his young family endured the hardships and humiliations of poverty in the land of plenty. Only in middle age would he find employment performing "casual labor" as an adjunct or visiting faculty at a number of state universities.

Ezra Pound noted that the study of literature is akin to hero worship. Edward Dorn's life should be read in such heroic terms, for he made from experience a penetrating and dissenting art. Heroes like Christ, or, as Dorn preferred, Hector, are models, examples of human perfection. The hero's life is a gage of sorts by which others can measure their own experiences of the world. The hero submits to impossible conditions to transform him or herself by absorbing experience, surmounting its intense obstacles to find private vision despite public or ideological pressures against doing so.

"Out of the black dirt" of Depression-era Illinois, Dorn "scoured the ground of the earth" to address the conditions of his impoverished birthright. By surviving the obstacles of poverty, and with the generous but humbling support of his wife's ex-husband, he perfected his imagination and study of the American West. His poetry became in time the record of resilient and hopeful discovery in a "world of iron thorns".

"A poet of multi-dimensional signaling," Clark writes, "Dorn in his best poems typically offers apprehensions variously geological, geographical, cultural, social, historical, continuously interlaced." Also, "for Dorn a geological or geographical idea about a landform variation cannot be separated from a historical idea about the cultural differences that landform variation makes".

Dorn credited geographer Carl O. Sauer's 1925 essay "The Morphology of Landscape" for "instilling his own aspirations to an attentive, educated 'love of the formation of the land'" and told an interviewer that love of landforms was "superior to an aesthetic because it was like handling the constituents, the bones of America". Using Sauer's term Areal--"(as of 'the associated or interdependent phenomena that make up an area')"--Dorn's early prose novel The Rites of Passage and the poems in The Newly Fallen and Geography look to the areal conditions of landscape to inform the human dramas that take place within them. An unattributed quote from Sauer prefacing the long poem "Idaho Out," according to Clark, "announces the poem's immediate theme:" "The thing to be known is the natural landscape. It becomes known through the totality of its forms." In that poem "areal is hopefully Ariel," the informing sprite of human condition. The pun "now becomes areal = Ariel = aerial--three ways of fathoming space cleverly compacted into a triple homophone on which the poem pivots".

"By placing the forms of the earth (areal) at the center of one's writing", Clark continues, "a writer may displace the function of the 'I' to the free imaginative play of the mind's eye (ariel): from this premise, contained in his critical play on words, Dorn develops in his more ambitious works of this period the active field of narrative distances and differences through which his writing freely ranges at play, tethered neither to the lonely ego that seems to hang back behind the singular diffident voice nor to the social forces against which that voice insistently poses itself in resistance".

Tension and resistance recur in his work, but here in his early discoveries and disappointments, an "'old hope'...instills Dorn's writing of these years with heart and spirit, the utopian signaling of a dream of freedom beyond resistance, annealing the old wounds of distance...."

Clark met Dorn at the University of Essex in 1965. They formed a close friendship and shared an enormous correspondence. So this biography is much more than a record of one man's heroic achievement. It's also an elegy written with great love for a friend. The epilogue makes that clear. There, Clark the chronicler steps aside, allowing the book to close with fragments from Dorn's final poems and letters. These address the grim condition of disease and coming death. Despite a flood of Decadron, the cancer originating in his pancreas ("seat of the soul") invaded "the 2nd Lumbar Region".

It makes me sad

to see I go, he was

I mean I was so perplexed

I's obsessions were almost real

me and I had an understanding

I don't like to see I die.

       (Gunslinger, Book II)

The young, struggling Dorn of Clark's biography stands in stark contrast to the Dorn of the popular, ontological epic Gunslinger. This book--an admittedly incomplete biography--looks only with glances to the fierce, dissident poet of Hello La Jolla and Abhorrences. It examines instead the early, isolated years of Dorn's life in the West, leaving much of the remaining thirty for others to consider. This is the story of a young man in limited conditions learning complex arts. In that fragile hopefulness, heroic vision discovers the art apparent in the outline of forms. The particular and abstract meet, and for an instant condition relents to another, inspired, view.

Dale Smith edits Skanky Possum with Hoa Nguyen. His books American Rambler and The Flood & The Garden are available through Small Press Distribution.