The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

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NOV 2019 Issue

The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman

ed. Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, & Tate Swindell
The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman

It has been 33 years since Bob Kaufman died semi-homeless of a pulmonary embolism. In America, the poet is often remembered for observing ten years of silence following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In France, upon the publication of his first, most-famous book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965), he was christened “The Black Rimbaud.” While the former fact is an astonishing achievement that reveals the extent to which self-discipline and endurance might serve one’s principles, it also affirms extreme resolve in the wake of the various inequities and horrors that have plagued post-war America. By contrast, the latter honorific addresses Kaufman’s literary excellence with unintentional condescension, for it acknowledges merely one aspect of the poet’s supple, multi-faceted approach to language and regards his poetic efforts as servicing the legacy of a literary master. Notwithstanding the surrealist inflections in several poems from Kaufman’s debut, the poems it contains suggest as much kinship to jazz, stand-up comedy, and important modernists like Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and Aimé Césaire. Clearly, Kaufman deserves much-needed reassessment. Given his aesthetic and thematic range, and the current, if belated commitment in American letters to center Blackness, City Lights Books’ publication of Kaufman’s oeuvre augurs good fortune for his posterity—something, ironically, Kaufman cared very little about.

Bob Kaufman, 1982. Photo: Chris Felver.

Organized into five sections, including three books published during the poet’s lifetime, one long, originally-unpublished poem called “Does the Secret Mind Whisper,” and a substantial gathering of uncollected works, The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman makes the case that Kaufman was more than the sum of various discrete identities. Beyond his Beat and jazz affiliations, beyond his connections to surrealism, and beyond his love for poetry as performance, he embodies the quest of one individual in relentless pursuit of an authentic self through uninhibited creative acts. Originally published by New Directions, the poems in Solitudes establish this quest with youthful verve. Some land with terse yet mysterious force. Consider the playful yet melancholy textures in “Dolorous Echo”:

The holey little holes
In my skin,
Millions of little
Secret graves,
Filled with dead
That won’t stay

The hairy little hairs

On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees
Filled with dead
That won’t stay

When I die,
I won’t stay

Other poems, such as “I, Too, Know What I Am Not” and “Camus: I Want to Know” are long, dazzling anaphoric lists that display considerable incantatory power. In this grouping belongs one of Kaufman’s masterpieces, “To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room,” where a litany of human achievements connected to various earthen landscapes gives way to an intimate paternal address:

On wild America’s green torso original men painted glacial languages.
On cold Arctica’s snowy surface leathery men raised totems in frozen air.
On this shore, you are all men, before forever, eternally free in all things.

Still others, like “Jail Poems,” are serial accumulations that sing with stunning clarity. Written during one of many stays at the San Francisco City Jail, the 35 sections amassed in “Jail Poems” demonstrate an alert and powerful presence of mind: Kaufman observes, records, and reflects upon the degrading conditions of his environment without self-pity, often tracking others’ sufferings and his own inner disturbance with impressive restraint. In this way, the entire poem contributes to a distinguished sub-genre of incarceration poems, and bears genuine kinship with Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison (1968), Muriel Rukeyser’s “Breaking Open” (1973), and Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile (1975). The sections move dynamically from longer, coherent passages to spare musings progressing towards silence. In section three, Kaufman approaches his circumstances with ironic curiosity, even amusement:

In a universe of cells—who is not in jail? Jailers.
In a world of hospitals—who is not sick? Doctors.
A golden sardine is swimming in my head.
Oh we know some things, man, about some things
Like jazz and jails and God.
Saturday is a good day to go to jail.

By section five, however, such reflection transitions to more sobering juxtapositions, where American egotism is contrasted with systemic inequity and neglect:

Nuts, skin bolts, clanking in his stomach, scrambled.
His society’s gone to pieces in his belly, bloated.
See the great American windmill, tilting at itself,
Good solid stock, the kind that made America drunk
Success written all over his street-streaked ass.
Successful-type success, forty home runs in one inning.
Stop suffering, Jack, you can’t fool us. We know.
This is the greatest country in the world, ain’t it?
He didn’t make it. Wino in Cell 3.

Despair gives way to detachment and the latter sections of “Jail Poems” achieve Zen-like clarity:


Cities should be built on one side of the street.


I have never seen a wild poetic loaf of bread,
But if I did, I would eat it, crust and all.


Come, help flatten a raindrop.

Kaufman’s “Abomunist Manifesto” (1959), which concluded the original publication of Solitudes, is comparatively broader in scope and decidedly sardonic in tone. It deserves more mention than is possible here, but is, as far as societal-critiques-turned-art are concerned, a head taller than other like projects. It’s easy to be disaffected with “society”—and one of the more disturbing aspects of Beat worship was its often-uncritical acceptance of “us” and “them” paradigms. But with “Abomunist Manifesto” Kaufman (called Bomkauf here) successfully deconstructs prevailing cultural assumptions with humor and self-effacement. “Hurry,” the poet deadpans in “Further Notes Dis- and Re- Garding Abomunism,” “bargain God week lasts one week only.” In “Abomunus Craxioms,” Bomkauf writes:

Roaches have a rough time of it from birth.
   People who read are not happy.
People who do not read are not happy.
   People are not very happy.

Bob Kaufman and Gregory Corso, Grant Avenue, San Francisco, 1982. Photo: Chris Felver.

It’s hard to argue with such plainspoken observations. Designed as a pastiche of prose and verse forms that include searing, often archly-conceived “notes,” lists, songs, and letters, the manifesto also manages to cohere through fragmentation, a formal strategy made famous by T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” but reimagined and extended here in ways that speak directly to political resistance. (Incidentally, the connection is significant: in 1961, Kaufman was nominated for the prestigious Guinness Poetry Award, which he lost to Eliot.)

Of all Kaufman’s books, Golden Sardine (City Lights Books, 1967) may be his least consistent effort. Compiled by Eileen Singe Kaufman, the poet’s wife, sometimes coeditor, and often amanuensis, Sardine gathers various unpublished and/or forgotten poems, and was apparently the result of financial desperation: while Kaufman maintained his vow of silence and ceased writing for years, Eileen needed money to raise their son. Even still, there is much to admire here, including “Results of a Lie Detector Test,” which concludes “Deprived of cherished exits, / I shall never again steal a month … or a week or a day or an hour or a minute or a second, unless I become desperate again”; and a great serial poem “Heavy Water Blues” features the following couplet:

I never understand other peoples’ desires or hopes,
until they coincide with my own, then we clash.

I have read towering novels that fail to address what this accomplishes with startling precision and conciseness.

The poems gathered in The Ancient Rain (New Directions, 1981) were culled from as-of-yet unpublished older works and then new poems. The collection is of high quality and, again, foregrounds Kaufman’s eclecticism. Among my personal favorites is “[I WANT TO ASK A TERRIFYING QUESTION]”:

I want to ask a terrifying question,
“What time is it going to be?”
That Sunday never came,
He lied, speaking in tongues,
Hot walking New York in smoky Januaries,
My back is moonburned,
And my arm hurts,
The blues come riding,
Introspective echoes of a journey,
Truth is a burning guitar,
You get off at Fifty-ninth Street forever.

Ranking with the finest of many New York poems, “[I WANT TO ASK…]” achieves genuine mysticism through a slightly-surreal haze of jazz and localized detail, thus transcending time and place by evoking it.

Ultimately, what each section of The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman demonstrates over and over is how present each poem is in the moment of its creation, as if the creative impulse asserts itself as naturally as breath. Instead of chiseling perfectly sculpted poems of Parnassian splendor, the poet’s arch, apt, and often wild work is an unmediated extension of the man who, by 1955, had already sailed the world as a member of the National Maritime Union and later, in San Francisco, climbed on top of stopped cars to recite spontaneous verse. Complicated, observant, yet uniquely uncorrupted and vulnerable, Kaufman earns the much overused and oft-misunderstood adjective “original.” His poems are suffused with humility, authority, and something approaching “Laughter on exotic beds.”


Tony Leuzzi

TONY LEUZZI's books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues