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
Among the many literary marvels for which the world can be grateful to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison are the numerous interviews she’s given over the years. Her inspiring genius sparkles as brilliantly in conversation as it does in her novels, librettos, children’s books, and lectures. In one such interview conversation, she expressed as her biggest fear that of being stranded somewhere without a book of some substance to keep her company. That makes flawless sense to those of us addicted to books at an early age.
I would not go so far as to call myself an abibliophobe but I am far more comfortable in spaces and places that accommodate books with some degree of delight than in those which ban them from the premises. To avoid such a potentially traumatizing condition, I try to stay as well-supplied with more books than I am likely to read––for pleasure that is––in a month, as a Beverly Hills fashionista remains stocked up on shiny shoes, bags, and credit cards.
El Nino on the Way
So with meteorologists predicting a 2015 - 2016 winter El Niño that could make some of us spend more time indoors than usual, lining up reads for the chilly wet days and evenings ahead is not a bad idea. My own mixed bag of pages includes biography, literary fiction, history, poetry, and social criticism. A couple of the titles I’ve already read once or twice but feel the need to revisit; several have been on the bookshelf for several months and patiently awaiting my attention. They now have it.
The list, which features a comment or two on why I chose a given title, could change over the next month or so. But, for now, you might call those already on it my literati posse for the duration of the 2015-2016 winter El Niño. The numbers are not to imply any kind of ranking but may say something about how my cerebral passions and priorities tend to cross-pollinate:
MY 2015-2016 EL NINO WINTER READING LIST
1. Tiny Windows (poetry) by Duncan McNaughton. One of the founders of San Francisco’s New College of California Poetics Program, McNaughton’s work as an educator and poet has long captivated and empowered many. Tiny Windows is his latest and to me that makes contemporary poetry a lot more interesting than before its publication.
2. Black Prophetic Fire (history and social criticism) by Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf. This book follows the same tradition as the great volume of dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (as well as those with Baldwin and other profound thinkers). It’s also reminiscent of the excellent Literary Conversations series, but with the dialogue centered by Cornel West’s expansive brilliance it obviously reaches beyond literary concerns.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life (biography) by Annie Cohen-Solal. I’ve read novels, plays and essay on philosophy by Sartre but this will be my first time reading a full-length comprehensive biography on him. As it happens, Cornel West wrote the foreword for this “Sartre Centennial” edition so that had some influence on my decision to buy this specific title.
4. The State of the World Atlas (globalization reference) by Dan Smith. This is the ninth edition of Smith’s book. He finished it in London in 2012 and it was published in 2013, which means significant changes have already occurred since it the last printing. It makes a good comparative reference though for helping to place current events in a developing historical context.
5. God Help the Child (novel) by Toni Morrison. I actually started reading this before the official publication date earlier this year. Because it is Morrison I chose to save it for a special occasion and El Niño popped up it so here we are.
6. Life of William Blake with Selections from His Poems & Other Writings (biography plus) by Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. This was the first major biography on Blake and is still considered among the best because the Gilchrist husband and wife literary duo met with contemporaries of Blake to complete it.
7. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (philosophy of education & social criticism) by Paulo Freire. This modern classic by a highly-revered author has been recommended to me many times over the years. With the various demographic shifts and cultural migrations currently taking place, now seems like a good time to give it some serious attention.
8. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (criminal justice, comics, graphic novel) by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer with a foreword by Michelle Alexander. There’s no such thing as overstating the crisis of oppressive human rights violations represented by the so-called “high school to prison pipeline” in the United States and its devastating impact upon African-American communities. The modern industrial prison complex is dangerously emblematic of apartheid-like practices. Dismantling it means coming to terms with how it came to be and why it continues to expand.
9. American Poets: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Vol. 49). True, this is not an actual book in the literal sense but it just arrived in the mail so feels right to place on the list. A quick peep inside indicates an interesting interview with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, some new poems by Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa, and notes on some older ones by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, and W.B. Yeats. There’s a big announcement also from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation regarding their acquisition of Mark Strand’s personal library.
10. Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away edited by Susan Srigley. That title kind of says it all doesn’t it. Reading of course is not the only way to stay pleasurably engaged during cold soggy El Nino days and nights. It is, however, for this author one of the most sweetly enduring and warmly compatible.
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.