In Review

A Book Beginning What and Ending Away by Clark Coolidge. Fence Books, 2012.

cover of A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

Reviewed July 1, 2014 by D. S. Lawson.

Individual pieces of a longform work by American poet and musician Clark Coolidge began appearing in literary magazines and in pamphlet form in the 1970s and Coolidge gave a now famous five night reading from the piece in San Francisco in 1979. Coolidge continued to work on the poem until 1981 when he seems either to have abandoned it or to have decided it had reached whatever conclusion it could. Now three decades later the poem has been published with the title A Book Beginning What and Ending Away and for the first time readers have easy access to the work and can judge for themselves to what extent it has a place in the storied history of the “long American poem” and how it compares to a number of other recent long poems by American writers.

One way in which Coolidge’s oeuvre has simultaneously proven successful and frustrating is his refusal to adhere to conventions which would permit it to be neatly pigeonholed and in his additional refusal either to keep writing in the same style/manner or to shift his style/manner in any way readily seen in teleological terms as “growth.” Coolidge has written lyric work of great clarity and beauty as well as poems which seem actively to resist being anything more than ink stains on a page. He has from time to time written material that seems in tune with other “schools” contemporary with his work (the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, etc.), but in no way beyond the scope of anything larger than a single collection can Coolidge be said to belong to any of the schools or movements which literary histories of post-1960 American poetry identify. If one thinks of Coolidge’s poetry in terms of a now long career, its defining characteristics seem to be discontinuity and rupture and excess.

Coolidge’s title—an act of transparent linguistic description—invites the reader to approach the book in explicitly these terms (and indeed in one of the essays included as end matter in this edition, Kit Robinson writes, “The central gesture of the work is the act of naming”). I’m reminded thus from the beginning of the poem of the Biblical responsibility (or is it opportunity?) put on Adam to name the animals. Indeed the second word of the poem is a name—Floyd—bringing us instantly into one of the book’s several, tenuous narrative threads, a belated response to the story of cave explorer Floyd Collins, whose entrapment and death in a cave in Kentucky in 1925 were the subjects of one of the first “mass media” news events when the ultimately unsuccessful multi-day rescue attempt launched to save Collins was carried live on radio nationwide and thus set a paradigm for the coverage of such later events as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Watergate Senate committee hearings, and even 9/11.

So Coolidge begins with an imaginative reconsideration of the origin of a phenomenon we have come to take for granted—journalism as mass spectacle, news as entertainment, real life danger and death as commodified consumer products. At the same time, the particular subject of this mass media extravaganza, a man in a cave, gives Coolidge the opportunity to introduce and explore a trope central to the Western philosophical tradition, the same vein mined by Plato in the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic and Nietzsche in his use of Zarathustra leaving his mountaintop cave to preach the eternal recurrence and the Overman to his startled brethren.

Thus simultaneously from the outset, Coolidge follows (at least) two paths: a depiction of and implicit analysis of mass media culture and a philosophically based example of a seeker of knowledge who tries to share with others what he has concluded from his studies. He proceeds down those paths by a variety of means: association (Floyd Collins in the cave leads to material on minerals and geology), wordplay/wit (for example punning on Quisling with “quizzling”), “riffing” (a section called “The Music” features—among other things—a collage of prose made up of titles of jazz standards), visual jokes (“fewer” substituting where “sewer” would seem to make sense), and so on.

Often Coolidge will take up a single unit of thought (even just a single word) and play with it for a spell. For instance, in a single verse paragraph extending over a couple of pages in the poem’s opening section entitled “The Caves,” Coolidge repeatedly invokes the “boys” who hang around the staging area for Floyd Collins’ rescue: “But if you other / boys trouble here’s some”; “Home-place if you boy appeals”; “Watermelon / as big as other large boys beneath it.” The “boys” seem at once to invoke both historical figures at the periphery of the Collins rescue attempt and those readers following the linguistic path Coolidge blazes through his thinking on the event and its presentation as poetry half a century later. As readers, we find ourselves repeatedly both implicated in the “action” of the poem’s narrative and complicit in creating the “meaning” expressed by Coolidge’s verbalization of that experience.

Coolidge explicitly presents this as an “American” work: from the Kentucky setting of the Floyd Collins material, to his consideration of the American musical form “jazz,” to direct statements such as “I am so large I suddenly liked being an American,” to invocations of American figures such as Buster Keaton, Gabby Hayes, and Robert Creeley. In this sense, A Book Beginning What and Ending Away directly invokes earlier “American long poems.” In the breadth of material this book encompasses, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” seems an obvious point of comparison. The image of the cave runs through Coolidge’s poem the way the river runs through William Carlos Williams’ Paterson and the way the image of the bridge runs through Hart Crane’s The Bridge. In terms of tone, Coolidge seems more attuned here to Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems.

As there is a very wide variety of both prosodic and prose styles in the book, it’s difficult to excerpt anything like a “typical” passage as an example to show what the book is like, but here are two pieces (chosen almost at random) which give a sense of the book’s scope.

From part seven (entitled “Creeley”), here is a prose paragraph:

Could it be a fireman holding the beating behind closed places. Both one way, as all the day the next move will be. Uniform hope in the absence of goes. Call answers that do no more than water on a hill. Call the snow the solidified lag of hats, one tense and the other leaves. Speaks of the road. Speeds of a stair in seconds. Roars of the closed places in time. Puzzles in direction, holding hands or limbs to point the same way. They fight, melt, and second the reversal. Uniforms, one by one, uniform elsewhere.

This paragraph appears in a sequence of prose paragraphs which introduce the idea of a disaster happening to a habitation (and thus requiring a response by a fireman) by alluding to the Buster Keaton film where a house falls apart around the unperturbed, seemingly oblivious Keaton. The paragraph opens with what would seem to be a question punctuated as a statement (and I offer “a question punctuated as a statement” to be as good a short description of the entire book as I can muster). In this paragraph Coolidge repeatedly plays with visual/verbal puns (using “beating” where “heating” might be anticipated and “of” where “up” would make more literal sense). I take “fireman” as the implied subject of the sentence fragments which begin with third person, singular, present tense verbs (“speaks,” “speeds,” “roars,” “puzzles”), but after the first two, it’s as easy to parse these words as plural nouns as it is to see them as singular verbs. This sequence of fragments is interrupted by a whole sentence (beginning “They fight”) and then the paragraph concludes with a grammatically ambiguous fragment: are we to take “uniforms” as a third person, singular present tense verb in parallel with “speaks,” and “speeds” or as both a verb and a noun as with “roars” and “puzzles”? Does the “they” of “they fight” refer to an implied plural of fireman (i.e., rarely does “a” fireman respond to a call)? Or are “they” the “roars” and “puzzles” of the previous two sentence fragments? Or are “they” the “hands or limbs” of the immediately preceding fragment? I’d argue that one of the challenges and pleasures of Coolidge’s poem is going back through such a paragraph and “reading” it one or more times as if each of these possibilities were “the right answer.” In this way, Coolidge’s words enact a refusal of cloture; the reader can never get to a point where s/he can say, “Ah! I’ve connected all the dots now and see the picture.” Rather the reader is invited to continue re-reading, not in hopes of coming to a particular conclusion as much as to continue expanding the range of possible conclusions available.

For the second example, I’ll choose a piece written as verse. In the middle of section nine, entitled “A Geology” these lines appear paginated as if to begin a separate poem, but without a title or number:

The color of socks, the color of the cliff, if

I took it to the cliff, what would the cliff.

Cuts over wholes fence the sun whole. Rocks are a

separate crack. Heads, well washed, as a scar is,

after. Facets, to study it does, the huge, below.

Cuts bulge and warp sits. A whole hill, cube out of,

ladder less than light, a mass in fence parts.

As with the prose paragraph I offer above, we begin here with what appears to be a question punctuated as a statement (and the couplet is one very rare instance of Coolidge’s use of rhyme in the book). Coolidge gives us ambiguity from the outset: as neither socks nor cliffs have merely one “color,” we can’t be experiencing here an invitation to think of a precise color but rather to imagine the variety of colors which could potentially be found both in cliffs and in socks. I take the second verse paragraph to be a description of the cliff face and see typical Coolidge punning (wholes/whole/whole within four lines) and read the enjambment (sometimes so extreme as to come between the indefinite article and its adjective/noun complement) as a method to keep the reader pushing on through a tangle of words that seem just to resist falling into conventional meaning and sense. Yet again, we see a series of fragments beginning with words (“cuts,” “rocks,” “heads,” “facets”) which could serve as either third person singular verbs (though in this instance there is no obvious candidate for what could be their subject) or plural nouns. The section I’ve quoted ends with what could be taken as an apt synecdoche of the whole: “a mass in fence parts.” I see the implied image of a fence made of rocks as at least an indirect allusion to Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Here, it’s as if the words which constitute a description of the cliff face zoom in on particular pieces of the physical landscape, offer some kind of response to it, and comment on their own (in)ability to encompass that landscape in language.

The current volume ends with two essays—a scholarly piece on Coolidge and longform writing by Tom Orange and a memoir by Kit Robinson of Coolidge’s San Francisco reading of these materials. These both are of interest and use but are certainly secondary to the presentation of the poem itself. Orange’s bibliography contains most of the important critical and scholarly writing on Coolidge and there is a separate “Also by Clark Coolidge” list of both published and unpublished works.

Now that Coolidge’s poem is readily available in convenient form to readers, perhaps some assessment of his place among the American masters of the long poem can begin. A Book Beginning What and Ending Away is filled with pleasures and puzzles. Coolidge’s writing at times pushes his reader to the very edge of sense and meaning, but also at times suffuses the reader with beauty and grandeur. His command of—even magic with—American vernacular language in the form of a long poem earns him the right to be compared with Whitman and Crane and Williams and Olson as masters of the genre.

* * *

D. S. Lawson retired in 2010 after 29 years as a university professor and administrator. He widely published both his poetry and his scholarship. He is currently writing his first novel and caring for his elderly father.