“The Pants of Time” is an excellent review by Benjamin Hollander on the latest book by an excellent, sadly neglected poet. Opening paras below; the rest is on its original publication platform, the Boston Review. Link to it is below the excerpt.
Who knows or can speak of Duncan McNaughton and his poems: of the Boston-born poet (1942), now living in San Francisco, editor of the two 1970s poetry journalsFathar and Mother; founder and director of the Poetics Program at the New College of California;master teacher in the 1980s with that other Duncan (Robert), among other extraordinary teacher-poets who refused academia or whom academia refused (David Meltzer, Diane di Prima, Michael Palmer); author of a never published dissertation on Shakespeare’s sonnets, along with eighteen books of poetry, which, by and large, have never been reviewed, relics of the generation of slow hand-made small press poetry books mostly out of print.
And so who knows, who notices, that to speak of Duncan McNaughton’s poetry is to go against the current of poets rambling in poetic rhetoric about the role of poetry in today’s social-media world, as if, McNaughton wrote in a March 3, 2006, letter to the poet and critic Dale Smith, it is “a matter of the poem and the poets having to become ‘better’ communicators or to come up with means which generate wider social attention to them.” Such exertions are not for McNaughton. Instead, he critiques discourseas a cultural practice serving systems of power; in this sense he sees the poem as disobedient to that enterprise. Words do or don’t do the work of the poem—they are, as Jack Spicer said in his second letter to Lorca, “what we hold on with, nothing else.”The work of the poem, McNaughton writes, “is not in any sense a job for rhetoric, in order to gain efficacy of persuasion, to gain social affect i.e. power. . . . Language and discourse, specifically generated by the advent of writing itself, are in the agency of power. . . . It is like Alice Notley said, words aren’t language—they never were.”
McNaughton’s sense of what words are about, what the poet can do with them, is captured in Charles Olson’s description of the poet as an “archaeologist of morning.” At SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s, McNaughton became part of the lineage of poets who have “dug” Olson’s poetics, working with Olson’s colleague, the poet-scholar Jack Clarke after Olson’s death. As Smith, who in turn studied with McNaughton at New College of California in San Francisco, writes:
Clearly situated within the tradition of Modernism, and opposed to the total bullshit castration process encouraged by Postmodernism, McNaughton’s work achieves a testament of personal observation embedded in a trans-historical tendance of the imagination. It’s Olsonian, and behind it, like so much else, he owes a great deal to Pound. He’s also unapologetically Romantic, in the tradition of Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Nerval and Robert Duncan.
Smith is describing the work of a writer looking back to the future. He discovers history for himself anew, following the word’s etymology in the Greek istorin, “to discover for oneself,” one of Olson’s informal directives for the poet. The poet is on a dig, breaking ground, which at times hides or occults a buried reality. The common facts right at our feet can be transformed through the words of the poem into magical or mythical or theological narratives: poem-stories structured by names of sites and people. Olson learned the possibilities for this kind of telling from Victor Bérard (among others), who had speculated that some myths in Homer’s Odyssey were guided by Phoenician maritime logs, which named the islandoccupied by volcanoes they passed “the island of the one-eyes,” and which Homer transformed into the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops. This is what the poem’s words as names can root out: the news of the Phoenician place names, buried in Semitic etymology, long ago become fable or story; the Phoenician facts on the ground (or on the water), motivating the wanderings of a Greek or, as in James Joyce’s transmutation of the story, a Jew in Dublin.
McNaughton’s poems return us to these kinds of rootings and wanderings: names are always shifting on his journey, with the lyric and epic voices of Sappho, Homer, John Keats, Olson, John Wieners, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley in the wings.Take this excerpt from the poem “Lost and Found,” with which Tiny Windows begins:
Bring me the telephone number of Juan,
that’s John in Spanish, Garcia for I
have piers to be set and if I do it
myself neither they nor I will be on
the level, and bring me Greer with a beer
for my wife and my life for Jack Kerouac
If you listen closely you can hear a similar shifting of pronouns in Robert Creeley’s famous poem:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
The impulse in both poems is to travel in Keats’s mysteries and doubt, in negative capability. It is to be on Kerouac’s road and “to look out where yr going.” These poems are always acts of discovery. They are places where being is explored across what is near and familiar, where the “darkness surrounds us,” where “the hand is blackened that reaches through”:
So, here I am again on
the threshold glancing again into
eternity’s open doorway. The hand
Is blackened that reaches through. Old now,
futile, my blackened art. To be is a
verb, it means to be. You could call it a
dream of ethics. You could say, Waiter, there’s
a Jew in my soup. Trust me. Dining
bemusedly with fiends and demons
drifting downriver aboard the Fidèle.
McNaughton’s “blackened art” turns voice into persona: a trickster voice, dead serious and deadpan comic, on the level and off-balance, as we go along for the ride. “Trust me” is uttered in the suspect spirit and tone of Melville’s Confidence Man and his crew of avatars, “fiends and demons/drifting downriver aboard the Fidèle.”
On this trip, let’s allow for what some might see as McNaughton’s bad form if only for good measure. For example, in “So, here I am again on / The threshold glancing again into / Eternity’s open doorway,” the word “again” appears twice in successive lines. This flies in the face of the creative writing teacher’s dictum—“don’t repeat the same word if you can find another”—a short-sighted “organic” truism that McNaughton de-naturalizes. Things work differently here among the small words, which, Louis Zukofsky claimed, are “weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve.” In McNaughton’s poem, the prepositions—“on,” “into”—resonate, but without resolution, so that the word “again” can, must appear twice. McNaughton measuresthe meaning of these lines in relation to our hearing the “n” sounds and syllables: “again” leads to “on,” leads to “glancing again into / Eternity’s open,” taking us by echo into the open door of darkness. As Robert Duncan spoke of the “tone-leading of vowels,” here we have the tone-leading of consonants, as the path of creativity takes shape in the parts of the poem building upon each other.