Just before I took off running from Hurricane Matthew as it slammed the southeastern United States in 2016, presumably courtesy of the still-raging global climate crisis, I wrote the following notes on Duncan McNaughton's contemporary poetry classic, Valparaiso (Listening Chamber publishing, 1995):
As seen through the lens of this reader's experience of his work, McNaughton is a hunter and gatherer of significant meanings, and names, obscured by time and human negligence. Both a dissector and a sculptor of forms (as well as formlessness), a skillful translator of elusive moments crammed as much with pointless absurdity as with essential insights.....
Three years later, following a very narrow miss from Hurricane Dorian, I opened a copy of his SOMEWHERE IN THE STREAM (Blue Press Books, 2019). With this latest addition to the impressive and too often overlooked corpus of McNaughton's titles--now in fact time is the time for publication of a volume of his collected works--for some reason I felt a little less threatened by upheavals of physical-world conditions. Hurricanes seemingly indicative of negligent environmental stewardship, flaming tempests of political corruption, and suicidal addictions to war and hate fueling suicidal addictions to drugs and violence all took less of a toll on my personalized corner of the world. Maybe there was a reason for that.
A reader contemplating the title of this most recent volume of grace, wit, wisdom, and genius from someone often dubbed a poet's poet might suddenly ask: "Somewhere in the Stream" of what exactly? Potential answers--at least for those unfamiliar with McNaughton’s earlier works or unaware of his connections to genre-influencing poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Diane di Prima--could turn out to be as ambiguous or obscure as they might precise and informative.
Since the poet is McNaughton, stream of individual consciousness gives us one good possibility. So does stream of collective memory, or of human comedies, absurdities, tragedies, antipoetic ironies, and language. It makes sense also to consider the stream of life, or existence, in general. How it manifests, flows, diverges, halts, dims, or glows to the rhythms of its own self-determining frequencies with seemingly little, if any, regard for human intentions constitutes a recurring observance, if not an actual theme, in many of the 51 poems contained in this collection.
So why does any of this matter? Because McNaughton's sensibility is one which surfs brilliantly through history, layered philosophical concepts, and rhythms of multiple languages with startling ease to collect observations well worth the attention of Gen-Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Traditionals alike. Tagging along gives the feeling at times of accompanying an interdimensional space explorer seeking confirmations of intelligence and civilizations outside boundaries of known planetary systems. Or popular literary conventions. As such, his poemized captain's log (if you will) documents the many strange contradictions of what it means to be human.
Read the short title poem at the volume's beginning and you are immersed instantly in a sense of intimate familiarity:
Always an empty space out
Here, space in the physical (on the page) sense appears to underscore prominence in the emotional sense. A thorough embrace of human intimacy, romantic and otherwise, unimpeded by space or time, is one of the great gifts of McNaughton's poetry--and also one of its respectable challenges. On a planet home to billions where so many still find themselves condemned to a strangling sense of alienation, the poem lets readers share in the luxurious comfort of knowing a place exists where one is always expected and always welcome. It allows the narrator to become anchored in affirmations of community tinted with soul-sustaining beauty.
This sense of community as represented in McNaughton's poetry has never been restricted to zip codes, national boundaries, or even a single period of history. It has always welcomed the voices of different poets and thinkers grappling with the frequently-cruel and yet often-humorous demands of existence itself. With that in mind, his poems may read as engaged conversations, private letters, public editorials, or notes to a singular self taking inventory of a singular life. Many of those "who matter" the most do indeed "drop in" for cameo appearances in the pages of SOMEWHERE. Among them are both historic and more contemporary poets and authors such as: Bill Berkson, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Jack Collom, Robert Grenier, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer, Osip Mandelstam, Colin Christopher Stuart, Walt Whitman, and D.H. Lawrence--just to give a quick sense of the wide range of literary territory this astonishing title covers.
How a given society judges or misjudges some of the most powerful, if not necessarily most influential, voices humanity has produced is not always encouraging. In "AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS,"(caps McNaughton's) for example, the narrator observes:
The small man alone in the corner is
With Blake, one of the original titans of Romanticism, sitting ignored in a corner, the elephant in the room is the huge unasked question about our modern times. When an over-dependence on technology methodically shortens attention spans and ruling oligarchs pass demagoguery off as democracy: how wise it not to care about the sustained life-example of a poet-artist such as Blake?
NEXT: Floating along: A Review Essay on Duncan McNaughton’s Somewhere in the Stream Part 2
Astonished might be the best word to describe my response to the extraordinary gif featuring the reportedly blind Native American George RedHawk’s amazing animation of Polish artist Tomasz Alen Kopera’s 2014 oil on canvas titled “S14.” That it had been posted by the TedX Colombo chapter along with the following quote from The River of Winged Dreams doubled the intensity of my surprise:
Hearts rebuilt from hope resurrect dreams killed by hate.
The image of the flame-breathing eagle (or possibly hawk?) atop the head of a man appeared to me like an angel of the more fiercely hybrid variety described in traditional texts of the King James Bible. I was struck by the parallel that the TedX Colombo group drew between it and the quote. And then the sense it made not only became very clear but reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s famous lines:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
Hope in this New Year 2016, after the carnage and heartbreaks that have dogged humanity since 9/11, cannot make a difference in the form of nothing more than passive contemplation. It has to exercise strength in the manner described by Charter for Compassion as compassionate action. But before anything else can be employed to make a meaningful difference, hope itself has to remain intact within the hearts and souls of individuals.
The word hope (or a form of it) appears some 29 times in The River of Winged Dreams and 39 times in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry. On this first day of the year 2016 I find myself invoking the word not so much for myself––though there are many reasons I probably should––as for all those who may have reached a point where they feel there is no such thing as hope. Or if there is, that it is meaningless in the face of calamities currently overrunning humanity. Those who believe that to be the case are at liberty to give it meaning of significant applicable substance.
Consider, for example, the millions of refugees whose determination has gone beyond redefining their individual lives to changing the course of history itself. Think of the wrongly-imprisoned men and women whose faith saw them through years of agonizing injustice and whose examples of forgiveness inspire so many others. Witness those whose struggle to breathe the toxic air of outrageously polluted cities have turned their desperation into rallying cries for nations to take definitive action to correct the extreme destructiveness of climate change.
The Bridge of Silver Wings
The short excerpt below is from the introductory essay “Deliverance in Action” which was first published in The Bridge of Silver Wings poetry collection and later included as part of The River of Winged Dreams. It is shared at this time with the hope that humanity in 2016 can reverse the deadly trends of the past and create new life-sustaining legacies truly worth celebrating:
The truth is we do not always know how we go from falling off the edge of one cliff to running with determination beside the ledge of another. The Bridge of Silver Wings is what I’ve come to call the unknowable unquantifiable process of deliverance in action.
Is the happiness that everyone wishes each other at the beginning of a New Year possible? It certainly would not seem to be for the millions around the world who find their very existence threatened by potential immediate deletion with every second that passes. The good news on this day and every day of the year is that those conditions do not have to remain the same.
© New Year Day 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.