Chicago Review 49:3/4 & 50:1 / Edward Dorn: American Heretic.
Reviewed by Matthew Cooperman
In a poem from Ed Dorn's first book, The Newly Fallen (1961) the poet declares: “The man stood / in his house / and thought to himself / the fence fell down-- / mad elements to be scrutinized.” Such diagnostic exactitude--of the thing to be seen, the landscape it's in, and the work to be done--is Ed Dorn's uncompromising contribution to American poetry; in his historical particularity he is a defining figure in late 20th century verse, situating “the inside real / and the out sidereal” within an ethos of current events, heretical resistance and late empire. The recent Chicago Review volume dedicated to his work, “Edward Dorn, American Heretic,” makes sure Dorn's savage acuities will continue to be appreciated. Published lately as a series of “primary figures” (the just released “On Zukofsky”; the forthcoming “On Christopher Middleton”), Chicago Review has made the leap from mere periodical record to focused scholarly commentary. Besides the usual fine gathering of poems, essays, interviews, and book reviews, the volume contains work from all areas of Dorn's career--poems, letters, lectures, class notes, “new journalism,” book collecting, editing, and essays. This is salutary in illustrating the wide range of Dorn's activity, an activity that was often at odds with traditional publishing practices such that much of Dorn's oeuvre is out of print. The intentions of Chicago Review are synthetic in this regard, bringing the range into focus while anticipating the publication of future work (Joe Richey's Ed Dorn Live will be published by the University of Michigan in the summer of 2005; a Selected Poems, edited by Michael Rothenberg, is forthcoming from Penguin in 2006).
Much of the credit has to go to editor Eirik Steinhoff, who has not only assembled a pungent selection of Dorn's (mostly late) work, and work on Dorn, but written a fine introduction to Dorn's sometimes abstruse career, and produced very helpful notes and annotations for future study. These appear throughout the volume, directing the reader to appropriate sources, and extending the address of Dorn's career (Dorn died in late 1999 of pancreatic cancer) very much into the present. So too, the order of essays, letters, and articles (and late poems) creates a useful trajectory of activity that corrects the incomplete (and problematic) nature of Tom Clark's recent biography Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, which leaves off in 1959, right at the beginning of Dorn's mature writing. Moreover, the design of the issue (the cover, photographs, drawings, ephemera), evoking the feel of 70s periodicals while maintaining in its 400-page bulk great attention to editing, makes Chicago Review 49:3/4 & 50:1 a very pleasing artifact. The issue satisfies, thereby, the Dorn expert and the casual reader, helping polish Dorn's lacerating critique of late capitalism, the po-biz, and the pieties of the culture wars, while locating him in a tradition of iconoclastic thinkers spanning Horace to E.M. Cioran. As we continue to gambol about in a field of “daisy cutters,” this recognition of “the mad work to be scrutinized” is particularly tonic.
Dorn's career is difficult to summarize, it being both a portrait of idealistic publishing ventures, poetic and otherwise, and a peripatetic road map of university postings. Chicago Review's theme issue provides an interesting “map of locations.” The early letters are seminal, exposing a young man reading everything, corresponding vociferously on the facts of the day (the Cuban missile Crisis, Black Power, hippies, Nixon), particularly with LeRoi Jones, and learning intimately the working conditions of his craft: “Out of a candor of short meter . . . a quest for more room. I can only look to the long adjectival line to stabilize my hold on the field . . . that the line will only stand so many nouns, and the line beyond five beats has not been practiced properly since Whitman” (Dorn to Olson, 3/19/61). David Southern's bibliographic essay on collecting the correspondence of Dorn makes a particularly useful point of suggesting how much talk and letter writing consolidated and refined Dorn's views. Dale Smith's “Forms of Dispossession” is important in linking Dorn's feelings of dispossession to historical land practices, from the black dirt tenant farming of his childhood in Villa Grove, Illinois, to the arid reaches of the Great Basin, and the subsistence practices addressed in his brilliant anthropological study, the sadly out of print The Shoshoneans. For Dorn, geomorphology was also social morphology; his working class background forged an identity with the dispossessed from Midwest Depression labor to Appalachia to Quebecois woodsman to the peasants of the Middle East: “I'm with the Kurds and the Serbs and the Iraqis / And every defiant nation this jerk / Ethnic crazy country bombs.”
Other highlights include Alastair Johnson's “Zephyrus Image and Ed Dorn,” which chronicles his collaborations with the crazed linotype and linocut artists Michael Meyers and Holbrook Teter, and Keith Tuma's “Late Dorn,” which adduces Dorn's late “topicality” as the utility of history as a living discourse into the forms and mechanisms of oppression. There's a compelling bridge here. The excerpt from Johnson's recently published book (Poltroon Press, 2003) shows how Meyers and Teter provided a graphic corollary to Dorn's kinetic zeitgeist-imagination, visualizing the drug-speech vocality of Gunslinger and the prophetic comic book Recollections of Gran Apacheria, Tuma's essay, covering primarily Languedoc Variorum and Chemo Sabe, distills the late poetry as a continuous registration of political resistance: “[His] late work is significantly informed by reading in economic, religious and legal history of Europe going back as far a the 1st Crusade, which is not only an historical event for him, but a living, still relevant sign of the violence of religious orthodoxy and all that it represents as the legacy of Europe in the world.” If Dorn made his writing (and publishing) life difficult by his intransigence, it was also a principled articulation of the means of production as complicit with history. As a heretical figure, his identifications were transhistorical; as a supremely ethical voice, his address to the contemporary was scathingly topical. Throughout his varied career, “the speed and synthesis” (Tuma) of his critique sharpened the realities of injustice, but always from the outside in. As a former student of Dorn's, I can say that I truly miss his “corrective vision” (and speech), in my moral consciousness, and in my application to writing; his piercing diagnoses are sorely absent in the blandishments and style wars of contemporary poetry.
I should add that the rest of Chicago Review 49: 3/4 & 50:1 is superb. There's a thread of resistance in the poetry included, most notably by Alan Gilbert and Mark Nowak; in the fiction of Jaques Jouet (tr. Brian Evenson); in the excellent interview with Eleni Sikelianos and the appropriately paradoxical essay on Robinson Jeffers, “The Man From Whom God Hid Everything,” by Peter O'Leary; and in the book reviews, which dovetail Dorn and other ethically uncompromising figures (Geoffrey Hill, Ammiel Alcalay, Devin Johnston). As a periodical that consistently spans the categories of creative writing and scholarship, Chicago Review continues to shine.