Thursday, May 07, 2009

ONE ROOM TO ANOTHER: ROBIN BLASER (1925-2009)

Charles Bernstein sent out a message to the Buffalo Poetics list re-marking Robin Blaser's passing. Blaser died this morning just a few days shy of what would have been his 84th birthday.

Spicer on Blaser (Vancouver Lectures): "Robin Blaser once said in talking about a serial poem that it's as if you go into a room, a dark room, the light is turned on for a minute, then it's turned off again, and then you go into a different room where a light is turned on and off."




The picture of Blaser above—out of focus—is one I snapped during a reading he gave at Trinity Church on Delaware Avenue during the October 2006 Creeley conference here in Buffalo. Despite the poor focus I find the image pleasurable. It seems to disclose a quality in Blaser utterly undefinable to me but something uniquely his own. We see this same quality in early photographs of Blaser. It is the jaw perhaps—maybe the brow—something that comes with the calm, certainty and confidence of a stone in the wood. Self-possessed.

The Creeley conference happened the weekend of a storm that quickly unfolded into a destructive sort of arborgeddon. Winter snow arrived a season too early and as it settled on the turning but unfallen leaves of thousands of trees across the region it brought many of them crashing down across roads, driveways, powerlines, homes, cars and trucks. Much of the city was without electric for several days if not a week. The beginning of the storm coincided with the first day of the conference. Neither Bernstein nor Marjorie Perloff were able to make it. Fortunately Blaser, Ashbery, Rosemarie Waldrop, Anne Lauterbach, Michael Davidson, Stephen Fredman and others were. The mayor of Buffalo declared a city-wide state of emergency and placed a 24-hour ban on driving but the conference unfolded largely as planned.

When Blaser first arrived at the opening reception with DuPlessis, Peter Quartermain, Ashbery, Peter Middleton and others in a large conversion van driven by Michael Cross, I recall Blaser making his way through several inches of snow, ascending the stone steps of the chapel flanked on one side by Michael and the other by his partner David. At 81 years old Blaser moved with a measure of dignity and grace I found myself stunned by. And his body, like his movements, appeared delicate—not fragile but delicate and unswerving. I see this same delicacy, the quiet fall of light metrical feet, in his sense of the line (i.e. "Forest I": "this lovely mind, but the word fall is, for me, too loaded / with a theological beforeness—rather, he or she may step / into oblivion—the state or act of being forgotten—an / answer in real terms—philosophical as they are—of our exit / from origin, that summertime and lacy curtain where we become")

At times Blaser willfully undercuts this delicacy—this measured grace—to great effect with unmasked indignation, scathing irony and humor. Take "The Skill," first written in 1975 and later revised in 2004:

the heart must not be confused
with the body—
the lives of the star-fuckers
who believe a quick rub-down
and come will turn them
into this poetic, thoughtful
art—must not be mistaken
for the desire they never had
except to be beyond themselves
and I love this desire
to go beyond...

A desire to move beyond oneself, the body as permeable shell or discarded shield (that Archilochus fragment, Lattimore's trans:

Some barbarian is waving my shield,
since I was obliged to
leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind
under a bush.
But I got away, so what does it matter?
Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

Blaser read the opening night of the conference, shortly after the reception. The size of the crowd was surprising given the circumstances (by 7:00 or so in the evening a deep, rolling thunder punctuated the calm of Trinity Church while snow continued to fall and accumulate.

The theological. This was a church (Episcopal) and the podium Blaser and others were to read from was situated immediately in front of the altar. I think now of Blaser's Nerval—Les Chimeres. The epigraph by Jean-Paul that opens "Christ Among the Olives" in both Nerval's French and Blaser's translation: "god is dead! The sky is empty / weep, children, you no longer have a father." According to Stan Persky (his comment in Caterpillar 12) when Blaser read Les Chimeres to he and Spicer shortly after completing it Spicer remarked, "I wish I could write such an apocolypse." Ἀποκάλυψις. A revelation. To lift the veil—that a translation once removed from the source might cut to the chase and disclose or make a forward-looking gesture toward the real. To point us in the direction. The gesture is deeply theological but grounded in a carefully imagined system which, as Bernstein says in his afterward to The Holy Forest , "is wholly secular."

When Blaser stepped up to the podium in front of the altar at Trinity he began to read but couldn't be heard. People in the audience (everyone seated in pews) began shouting, encouraging him to get closer to the microphone. And it snowed out. Each time he stepped closer to the mic people told him to get even closer. And no matter how much closer he got we still couldn't hear him. This went on for what felt like an absurd length of time until finally Blaser climbed up on the mic and mimed a hummer, as if he planned to take the mic into his mouth whole. He asked, "Is that loud enough for you?" And at precisely that moment a sonorous shock of thunder rattled the stained-glass windows of the church. No joke. No hyperbole. Thunder crashed. A priceless moment. A sacred moment. I can't recall if he read from Les Chimeres but I would like to think that he did.

Through the reception, up to that moment, the Church was somber and tense—seeming more a memorial for Creeley than a celebration of his life and work. But Blaser's gesture seemed to break the tension and realign the event. A desperately needed gesture of defiance in an oppressively sacred space. The gesture was apocalyptic, disclosing at one and the same time something about the present moment and also the unactualized possibilities embedded in it. I would like to think of his poetry—his Cups, his Faerie Queene, his Nerval—as work that performs in a similar way, a way that reimagines the sacred, redefines the theological and redirects our attention to the primacy of a particular type of heart capable of moving freely from one space to another, from one room to another. In "The Truth Is Laughter 6" Blaser begins with the following lines:

moving from one room to another a shocked
resilient heart...

And closes the poem with a quote from Blake:

'I cannot,' he wrote, 'consider death as anything
but a removing from one room to another.'