Post Number: 118
|Posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 - 12:53 pm: ||
This essay is the introduction to Ivan Argüelles' new book, The Death of Stalin: Selected Early Poems 1978-1989 (Beatitude Press).
Ivan Argüelles is one of this century’s finest, yet he remains known to only a few passionate partisans. His work is “difficult,” but it is no more difficult than the work of many far better-known poets—and his work is better than theirs. Argüelles is wide-ranging, restless, full of “references”—the author’s learning is immense—but also immediate, astonishing, visceral; his work communicates before it is fully or, indeed sometimes even partially, “understood.” Poet John M. Bennett insists that what Argüelles produces “is not really ‘literature’ as the term is commonly understood” and asserts that we must read it “with a new mind-set”: “one has to allow oneself to be ‘drowned’ in the ocean of this stunning and protean work and be receptive to all the ambiguities and contradictions it contains.” Argüelles’ own word for his work is “Enigma.”
Ivan Argüelles’ first book, Instamatic Reconditioning, appeared in 1978, when the author was in his late thirties. One of the poems in it begins,
in each animal there is the same
beginning and we see in each being
the creation and the light of the first day
if I extend my one arm into the air
it is to lift my entire body
from the hard earth
(“The Life of Sancta Doucelina”)
Another has these lines:
even in death I continue to suffer
my assassins do not worry me
as it was their mission to render me
this moment of absolute lucidity
(“Under the Volcano”)
These early poems veer between being dramatic monologues—the author is always wearing some kind of mask—and a sort of Surrealistic nakedness of consciousness in which it is clear that the supposedly “individual” speaker is in fact opening his/her mind to “the creation and the light of the first day.” The “lucidity” of the poems is not the lucidity of rationality but the lucidity of someone deliberately seeking what Yeats called “the face I had / Before the world was made.” Brilliant and vastly transformative, these poems attempt to name the “ground” out of which “individuality” emerges.
Ivan and his twin brother, the well-known New Age writer, José Argüelles, were conceived in Mexico but born in their mother’s home town, Rochester, Minnesota. They spent their first five years in Mexico City. Their father Enrique was Mexican, their mother Ethel was American. Both Ivan and José read and speak fluent Spanish. A Classicist and a polyglot, Ivan is also familiar with Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and several other languages. Enrique was a policeman as well as a pianist and a talented, though, finally, a failed painter. A “comunista,” he was acquainted with Trotsky and Rivera and was one of those summoned to the scene when Trotsky was assassinated. “I never saw so many brains in my life,” he commented afterwards. He could be cruel to his sons—he once kicked Ivan down the stairs—but he encouraged them to be artists, painters like himself. Ivan’s choice of poetry as a vocation evidently displeased him, and he was never responsive to his son’s work, though he continued to encourage José. A sense of displacement, even an odd desire to please, has haunted Ivan’s poetry.
When the family returned to the United States, they settled in Minnesota. The twins, along with their older sister Laurita, were brought up in Rochester, the small town which houses the Mayo Clinic. Their mother was diagnosed with TB—“the AIDS of the day,” Ivan comments—and removed to a “sanatorium” (which Ivan heard as “cemetery”!). Eventually, she was able to return to the family, but the sense of loss never left Ivan. “What a shock!” he writes, “This bitter cold snowy Minnesota winter. How did we get here, lodged in a sterile bedroom in our grandparents’ large white box boarding house? Everything was an ineffable and painful mystery.”
Predictably, the children did not fare well socially in their Eisenhower era home town: “Our first day at Lincoln School, the kids told my brother and me that we were not Americans but Indians.” Ivan took refuge in literature, drugs, and what was then called “kicks.” He was fascinated by all modes of music—he believes this to be an inheritance from his father—but he became especially interested in rhythm and blues and listened to it whenever he could. He likes to point out that he was experiencing Finnegans Wake and Elvis Presley at more or less the same time. “Dislocated or uprooted while growing up,” he says, “I became by nature a nonconformist. Never sure whether I was being accepted or rejected, usually for the same reasons, I always felt like ‘a stranger in my own home town....’” All these factors—the strict, demanding, frightening, and at times unloving father, the mother who is out of reach, the twin or double, the inhospitable environment, even the Mayo Clinic—find their way into Ivan’s poetry, though often in an oblique, enigmatic way.
Argüelles lived in a variety of places before settling with his wife Marilla in Berkeley, California in 1978. It was also in 1978 that his son Max tragically contracted encephalitis. Max’s invalid status has been a constant fact of life for Ivan and Marilla, who continue to care for him at home.
Argüelles dates the beginning of his mature style to his third collection, Captive of the Vision of Paradise, which appeared in 1983. “The title of the collection reflects how I felt being in California,” he writes. “The poems I chose for this set exhibited a greater variety of topics and styles than the two previous books. The surrealism was more intense. The mystical eroticism, the unrequited nostalgia, and the great cosmic lesson of randomness which Max’s illness had taught me also informed the collection.”
Now retired from his worklife as a reference librarian at UC Berkeley, Argüelles has continued to stretch his always fecund imagination in many directions—including a play, The Tragedy of Momus, which has never been performed but which was published in its entirety in Andrew Joron’s magazine, Terminal Velocities: An Anthology of Speculative Poetry in 1993. (One of Argüelles’ characters remarks, “beyond my ken these literary conceits.”)
Argüelles’ main occupation over the past twenty years has been the creation of a series of long poems often centering in a figure he calls (quoting “The Death of Stalin”) “‘That’ Goddess”—who is, the poet states, simultaneously “the White Goddess of Robert Graves [and] the muses of poetical convention, both the erotic and the sacred....” These works, culminating in Madonna Septet and Comedy, Divine, The, are an attempt to “touch on all the major themes of Western history, myth, death, and the archaic, from Gilgamesh to Teotihuacan”: “I have chosen this notebook, partly for its color,” he writes, “to record / not the frustration of separate poems, but to embark / on the Great Effort, Dear Reader.”
These works reach back to monuments of Modernism such as Finnegans Wake and Pound’s Cantos, but they also push us forward into new perceptions, new modes of beauty and insight. The reader of this book will want to go on to them, but, in the meantime, here are some of the most extraordinary “separate poems” anyone has ever produced at any time. Together, they are Argüelles’ Vita Nuova:
what kind of gift is blindness combined with total recall of the visible?
each leaf extends its oratory to the eternal optic nerve ...
the sea returns its buried to the skin of the Universal Day
and all around they cast their illicit glances waiting for History
to incarnate them those for whom the Republic was an uncultivated Vine
... the azure the crown the ring of day-stars dripping fiery dew
Enigmas ... who can elude their passionate and embryonic solitude?
Upon receiving The Death of Stalin, poet Andrew Joron wrote this note to Ivan Argüelles:
Heartfelt thanks for the copy of your selected early poems -- it's really moving for me to see this work assembled here, since it covers my own formative years and all this work had the greatest influence & impact on me during those years. Of course I possess all the original volumes from which this work is drawn, and have continued to refresh my soul with regular visits to these texts throughout the years, but I really appreciate the sequence & selection as presented here. This book once again demonstrates the wealth of your imagination, the power of your genius, unlike that of any other poet, as it moves through its phases from your early to mid-career. I hope this book -- with its wonderfully elucidative intro by Jack -- will circulate far & wide.
I remain, one among your (in Jack's words) passionate partisans,