While I am in the hospital recovering from the removal of a tumor from my colon (along with a portion of the colon itself), I have asked my partner Robert Philen to post this excerpt from my forthcoming book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx.
Aaron Shurin and the Paradise of Forms
Aaron Shurin’s poetry has been formed within the dual matrix of gay liberation culture and avant-garde poetry (as he writes, “I was born, as it were, into Projective Verse, theories of ‘organic form’ and ‘composition by field’”), with Robert Duncan as the crucial linking figure. Indeed, he and Duncan were close friends, a relationship, in Shurin’s words, “built around mutual poetic concerns: the vitality of lyric writing situated within a framework of postmodern investigations of form and language.” Love and language, sexuality and textuality, have been central themes and central modes in Aaron Shurin’s poetry since the beginning of his career, and for him these two things have been keys to liberation both personal and social. His has never been a poetry of uncomplicated self-expression, but a poetry that seeks both to embody and to incite transformation; the linguistic transformations of the poetry are the model (and hopefully the catalyst) for the larger transformations it proposes and points toward. (Denise Levertov was an early mentor for many years and, as a deeply lyric poet with strong political commitments, was a model for Shurin’s “emerging sense of lyric mission and social activism.”)
In this way he is very much the inheritor of poets like Shelley, and he has written that his goal has always been “to sustain and remake” the Romantic tradition. As he puts it, he has struggled to articulate a cultural political ethos with “an intuited position” on the Romantic continuum.
In the shape of his poetic career that becomes clear in his selections for his 1999 selected poems volume, The Paradise of Forms (a retrospective shape that begins with 1980’s Giving Up the Ghost, since he excludes selections from his previous books), questions of intersubjectivity, the barriers separating persons (and kinds of persons) and the possibility of overcoming those barriers—of different selves intertwining, interpenetrating, and even merging—have always been central to Shurin’s work. In “Raving #25, Vernal Equinox,” which even in its title evokes liminality, the equinox being the point at which winter and spring hinge on and melt into one another, he writes of the body lying down with the bicameral mind “in the split field of/darkness &light/half of each over blackland/half over white.” Even as he lays out the divisions, the poet leaps over them, starting with the image of the body reuniting with the split mind (enacting two unions in one, mind with mind and body with reintegrated mind), and continuing into the image of black and white overlapping, which may have not only a temporal and metaphysical but also a social valence, evoking an image of racial harmony and the dissolution of racial boundaries. The poem ends with an invocation to both god (Shiva, who in Hinduism is both destroyer and renewer) and goddess to “Let all things equal their fearful/opposites!,” to “let earth/be where Heaven & Hell give up!” (Paradise, 10).
Several pieces in the prose sequence “Multiple Heart” (from The Graces, a book which in Shurin’s words “charts a movement from verse, through ever-longer lines, into prose-poems”) enact the intercourse of sexuality and textuality that is so central to Shurin’s poetry, for example “O that river song came through again body beautiful,” which calls up the ghost of Spenser’s epithalamium in an image of song flowing through the body like a river (the poem is literally in the blood here), and of the speaker and his beloved swimming through this river as an analogue of sexual union, fluids flowing and merging: song is sex, the poem is a wedding of writer and reader. Similarly, in “foregone and in conclusion the most,” the page of the poem is the sheet of the bed where the lovers meet: “I leap upon you on the bed right now, pull up the page.” The meeting of minds becomes the meeting of bodies: “How I am lost and how adore the music of your sphere” (Paradise, 25).
In the early Nineteen Eighties, Shurin began working almost exclusively in the prose poem, a mode that by its nature straddles and crosses borders and definitions, of prose and verse, of narrative and lyric, a mode that undermines certainties of literary knowledge (“this is poetry,” “this is prose”). This formal in-betweeness embodies Shurin’s ambition of combining what he calls lyric interjection and narrative tension “in a way that reflects in its complexities and contradictions the tension between individual perception and social control; a poetry simultaneously of praise and dislocation.” Exploring assorted shapes and crossing prescribed boundaries of identity and self-hood have always been integral parts of Aaron Shurin’s poetry, so it is not surprising that, soon after beginning to work in the prose poem (anti-)genre, he took the incorporation of various voices and subject positions in his poetry to one logical extreme of composing poems made up entirely of borrowed or appropriated voices, constructing his texts out of other texts.
As Shurin has written, the collage technique “encouraged me to break away from a centralized lyric voice, and [to] radiate that lyricism through and among the narrative elements.” It breaks down the sense of language as the possession of any individual, foregrounding it as a collective creation, placing the author as a Foucauldian nexus of overlapping, colliding, and competing discourses that find tentative, contingent shape in the text itself, not in the presiding genius of the omnipotent author. Whereas in such Modernist predecessors as Eliot and Pound, montage is a way of mastering the fragmented, overwhelming flux of experience and history, for Shurin it is a mode of surrender to the play of discourses, an abandonment of the drive toward mastery. As he writes of the prose poem format, in words that apply equally well to the collage technique, such modes can “better hold the narrative of events…essential to depict social relations—the relationships among hierarchies of power, the authoritarian and the dispossessed, the desirer and desired—as well as the interweaving of conflicting perceptions [we understand] as personal or subjective experience.”
The long prose poem “City of Men,” from A’s Dream (a poem that the poet refers to as an “erotic rampage”), is one of Shurin’s major accomplishments, and an important addition to and revision of the canon of American poetry. The piece is made up entirely of phrases by Walt Whitman, culled from the Children of Adam and Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass, melding and interspersing the two to create a montage of what Whitman called adhesiveness with a more bodily (homo)sexuality. As Shurin writes, “Calamus is his collection of homoerotic love poems, emotional, tender, idealistic, radically political, prophetic, obliquely erotic, but—alas—not sexual. If you want sex, go to the grouping Children of Adam, Whitman’s putative heterosexual songs. They are filled with body and body parts, physical material catalogues, paeans to the sex act—but—alas—no love. The body is electric but it is not affectionate” (Unbound 11). In “City of Men,” Shurin turns to both sets of poems at once to retrieve a language and a world that unites sex and love, eros and agape, body and soul, intercourse and adhesiveness, to “write my eros out of spirit and body, shamelessly, and perhaps for the first time in history from a completely integrated viewpoint” (Unbound 12). The textual intercourse he sets in motion between these two sets of poems celebrating apparently polar opposite sexualities and eroticisms is an image and model of the sexual/spiritual intercourse the poem proposes as not only possible but realizable, on the page and in the world, sharing subjectivities and mingling subject positions: “all men carry men…I glow spontaneous, know what he is dreaming. the same content, airs intimate that fill my place with him” (A’s Dream, 40). The end of the poem is at once an injunction and an invocation of the union of man with man the poem both evokes and enacts, asking the reader to participate in this union and simultaneously asserting that (by the act of reading) the reader is already a participant: “full of you and become you. any number could be me. read these and become a comrade. with you I am one” (A’s Dream, 43). The lack of a period to close the final phrase can be taken as a gesture of the open-endedness of the poem’s project: it is still in process, no more fixed and finalized than the texts out of which Shurin has rewritten a new world and a new word.
All of the poems in his books A’s Dream, Into Distances, and A Door utilize what Shurin calls “derived language” in the prose poem format, but recently Shurin has shifted modes again, writing once more in lineated verse, while still exploring methods that undermine traditional notions of authorial ownership of the words of the poem, as the very title of his most recent book indicates. As Shurin writes, “After a saturated period of writing poetic prose, and fifteen years of prose poetry, I began to re-imagine the possibilities of the poetic line. In 1996 I began a book-length series of verse poems called Involuntary Lyrics. [These were published in book form in 2005.] These ‘line-heavy’ poems try to intensely utilize the torque of line-breaks just as those breaks fall across conventional syntax, to create an interruptive but suspended measure that is both notational, like shorthand, and also largely colloquial.” Shurin has written a poem corresponding to each of Shakespeare’s sonnets, although the book Involuntary Lyrics does not include all of them. (Shurin says that he had to decide whether to approach it as a project, including all 154 pieces, or as a book, including only those pieces that held up as poems in themselves.) Each numbered, untitled “semi-“ or “meta-sonnet” takes its end words from the numerically corresponding sonnet of Shakespeare’s, though the order of the words has been rearranged prior to composition “to test the ear’s ability to hear rhymes across odd distances in the poem and through widely varying line lengths.” Shurin also intends the serial nature of the project to, in his words, “privilege the daily….The right-hand words are fixed by Shakespeare, brought into new contexts by the preceding and following language that comes, as it were, from the left side, which is open to ‘my’ world: personal events, friends, lovers, negotiations of economic reality, social circumstance, restless eros, mortality, and age.” Here again we see the confrontation and overcoming of boundaries—of different times and places, of various discourses and modes of expression, of literary tradition and literary experimentation, of ‘literature’ and daily life, of fixity and contingency—that are so central to Shurin’s work. As he writes in the beautifully self-reflexive and proleptically retrospective Involuntary Lyric CLIV (corresponding to Shakespeare’s sonnet 154, the last of the sequence):
Attention’s the remedy
for what it attends,…
of pure syntax contiguity face to face on fire
each line warmed
by particulars fore and aft. Love
’s the art imagined by desire (Paradise 142).