Finally we have in one volume all of Ed Dorn's poetry, including a large helping of uncollected work and assorted ephemera (anything but ephemeral). And what a remarkable collection it is. From those exquisite early lyric poems and political narratives like The Land Below, Idaho Out and West of Moab found in The Newly Fallen (1961), Hands Up (1964), Geography (1965) and North Atlantic Turbine (1967), to Dorn's immersion into the possibilities of the narrative that would eventually become the metaphysical comedy of the West, Gunslinger (1968-75). With "I" as a character/narrator disposed of, Dorn would go on to the slimmed down, but no less political, homage to Native Americans, Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974). Having seemingly exhausted the parameters of the narrative, Dorn, on some level, must have had to reassess what his poetry could accomplish, which led to a reduction in scope, while doubling-down on political intent. This resulted in those short, sharp lines of attack that comprise the epigrammatic poems in collections like Hello, La Jolla (1980) and Abhorrences (1990). Of course, Dorn had always been political, e.g., The Biggest Killing, On The Debt My Mother Owed at Sears Roebuck, up to prescient North Atlantic Turbine, but that handful of books- accessible, very funny ("only laughter can blow it to rags") and deadly accurate- comprise a venomous attacks on the Reagan-Bush era, and no doubt caused offense to some in the poetry establishment. Never one to stand still, it wouldn't be long before Dorn had once again repositioned himself, with a series of dyspeptic narratives in the 1990s, which were further critiques of the culture, beginning with Westward Haut (1986-99), and his investigation of the Cathar world, Languedoc Variorium (1992-99). And lastly, the excruciatingly beautiful, and perhaps most political of all, Chemo Sabe (2001), in which he follows his own cancer treatment and catalogues the final days of his life. And that's just a broad outline of what's in this book. We also get such items as the hilarious Bean News (1972), which could be seen as the precursor to Ed and Jennifer Dorn's Rolling Stock, the lyrical Manchester Square (1975), Captain Jack's Chaps (1983), etc. A number of items included here have, up to now, been hard to come by, which is another reason to welcome this volume which weighs in at close to a thousand pages. Though I can't help wishing the long-unavailable Bean News had been reproduced in such a way that one could read it without resorting to a magnifying glass.
With informative essays from editor Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, and long-time friends and fellow-poets Amiri Baraka and Jeremy Prynne, this is a book that will keep anyone busy for a lifetime. For me, Dorn was amongst the finest and fiercest practitioners of verse, notable for his contrary politics (deploying Wyndham Lewis' notion of The Enemy as something of a model), his willingness and ability to say the unsayable, and attitude to poetry. Though he's long been associated with Black Mountain, specifically Charles Olson, Dorn, in the end, belonged to no school and no movement, but a force unto himself. Though he held up poetry as the noblest of pursuits, he often found those pursuing it came up short, whether because of their view of the world or their view of themselves. At the same time, he was never one to give poetry a status beyond what it deserved, maybe no more so than an array of other pursuits gained by brain or by hand. With an ability to map the culture, and, at the same time, to laugh at it, it's unfortunate he wasn't around to lay into the second Bush years, or, for that matter, critique the economic scams of the early 21st century. As this collection so ably illustrates, Dorn was as fierce and honest (Baraka: he wd rather / Make you his enemy / Than lie) a poet-critic as you're likely to come across. If you only buy one book of poems this decade, this is the one to get.
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