In 1953 Philip Lamantia joined four other poets for what is probably America’s most famous poetry reading, the word famous, of course, being highly relative when modifying anything to do with verse. Allen Ginsberg’s inaugural presentation of his declamatory epic “Howl” made the event at San Francisco’s Six Gallery historic, while the other writers on the bill—Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen—also took their first step toward wider recognition. For Lamantia, though, the reading wasn’t quite as decisive. Reluctant to offer his own work, he read poems by John Hoffman, his recently deceased friend and onetime fellow traveler in Catholic mysticism. In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac described Lamantia as looking like “a young priest,” an apt depiction of the quiet, inwardly inclined poet, who had only recently returned from a retreat at a Trappist monastery. His choice that night to read Hoffman’s work might be said to characterize the poet—modest and oblique in his self-presentation. The poetry, however, is something quite different: From the mid-1940s till his death in 2005, Lamantia produced verse rich in flourish and invention, every bit as intense as Ginsberg’s, even as it tunes in to abstruse and deeply interior frequencies. The Collected Poems offers a wide-angle view on a career that waxed and waned—sometimes owing to the author’s struggle with depression—over several decades.
Born in San Francisco, the precocious only child of Sicilian immigrants, Lamantia discovered the expressive mode that would drive his imagination when, in 1942, exhibitions of the work of both Dalí and Miró arrived in the city. Entranced by images that appeared to emerge from an unknown reality, the fifteen-year-old immersed himself in Surrealist texts and resolved to attempt with words what he had seen done with paint. In his readings he discovered the Surrealist-influenced magazines View, edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and VVV, edited by David Hare, in collaboration with André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Lamantia submitted work, contacted Breton, and soon after was being celebrated in New York as an American Rimbaud. Breton was so impressed with the teenager’s talent that he solicited from him a statement titled “Surrealism in 1943” to accompany the poems. One of the poems, “There Are Many Pathways to the Garden,” engages nearly all the aesthetic and formal concerns that would mark the mature poet’s work. The first line sounds a call for visionary questing (“If you are bound for the sun’s empty plum”) that’s delicately tilted by paradox. The imagery then quickens around unseeable contradictions (“all long pajamas are frozen dust / unless an axe cuts my flaming grotto”; “skulls shall whisper / of a love for a crab’s rude whip”), and the journey concludes with a final line (“your trip ends in the mask of my candle-lit hair”) that brings the hallucinatory proceedings to a close with an intimate, precisely visualizable evocation of ardency. The young poet had articulated his ambitions in the ars poetica composed for Breton: “Surrealism is fundamentally a philosophy endeavoring to form a unity between particular opposite forces,” and his deployment of paradoxical imagery enacted this dialectic. Lamantia aimed purposefully: He sought a poetry of transcendence via language designed to rise above mere meaning and chime at those higher spiritual elevations where emptiness and fullness are one and the same.
After being expelled from high school for defying the principal, Lamantia moved to New York and began associating with the editors and authors who admired his writing. He was disillusioned by the infighting among the Surrealists, and returned to San Francisco, where he grew close to Kenneth Rexroth and enlisted as a member of the city’s so-called Poetry Renaissance. During this time he and Hoffman became friends; both shared a profound connection to Catholicism, and a strong religious element began to coalesce in Lamantia’s poems as he explored a wide range of spiritual texts—Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, the Koran—in search of elusive “unities.” The work that emerged from this period appeared in a collection aptly titled Ekstasis (1959), which includes some concretist efforts (a text in the form of a cross, another in what seems to be an upturned chalice) and, overall, features an increasingly explicit mode of address and readily legible imagery, at least to devotees of assorted theisms: In “Mysterium Mysticus Ecclesia,” the “skulls under the Cross / curled serpent, emblems of dead empire” and “songs bled on a crooked neck” suggest visions spied from church pews. Strong echoes of Saint John of the Cross and George Herbert are sounded throughout the volume: “O Blessed Virgin Mary / ask Jesus to embed in me / a sword of sorrow / to kill my sin / my sin that wounds His Wounds.” Still, such directness can be confounded by lines far less apprehensible (“Stalks of madness triple fire”; “Narcotic air / simple as a cone / spun / interior suck of night”; “a tomb of clouds to receive you”). Lamantia’s hermetic inclinations, as well as his affinity for Italianate Catholicism’s visual excess, complicate his quest for revelation while charging even the most plaintive of Ekstasis’s poems with the subversive power of the unsayable.
Even as he composed these poems, Lamantia was working his way through the near-irresistible sway of the mediagenic Beats—Kerouac was a Catholic soul mate and friend, and Ginsberg’s demotic rhythms percolated into the stanzas of nearly every fellow poet. The influence wasn’t entirely salutary for Lamantia. While he shared the Beats’ affection for using drugs—he experimented with hallucinogens and became addicted to heroin—as a pathway to strange new worlds, Lamantia lacked their flair for slang, popular culture, and marketplace rhetoric, one that, most especially, Ginsberg possessed. Owing no doubt to its taboo subject matter, a 1959 collection of Lamantia’s most uncharacteristic poems, Narcotica, became his best-known book. (Cover photos by Wallace Berman showing a cross and the poet plunging a needle in his arm sparked expected notoriety.) With their strained incantatory style and liberal sprinkling of capital letters and exclamation points, poems like “I Demand Extinction of Laws Prohibiting Narcotic Drugs!” register as imitative in their condemnation of such hackneyed notions as “yr much flaunted machine age” and their bellowed threats: “I DECLARE WAR on your lack of intelligence, socalled lawgivers and arbiters of every man’s pain!” The numerous false notes not only highlight by comparison Ginsberg’s dexterity at making song out of diatribe, but also reveal the gap between Beat populist politics and Lamantia’s aesthetic of vatic revelation, one that proved unbridgeable.
Precocious success seems to have unsettled Lamantia; the ’50s were a decade of artistic uncertainty, a condition surely exacerbated by addiction and bouts of paralyzing depression. He abandoned the Surrealist modes that first inspired him as he sought fresher sources of visionary material in religion and social statement. But the idealistic questing that animated his poetry could turn on the poet. Sometime during this decade—the editors are unable to say just when—Lamantia renounced his poetic vocation and burned a large cache of his work. He hedged the decision somewhat by compiling a kind of anthology of passages to be saved from those pages destined for flames. This material—previously unpublished, but presented in this volume—gives some clue as to Lamantia’s understanding of his own technical strengths, as he was, in a sense, anthologizing himself. Indeed, these lines perform a self-diagnosis, suggesting that the catalytic image rather than the discursive poem is the author’s forte: “How can I write long poems when the best ones / the real muse things / die with me half asleep in my Father’s arms.”
Some of these fragments—chiefly because they’ve been untethered from the burden of serving a larger poem—hint at a more liberated, relaxed poet, one free of oracular duties and able to chance a syntactic playfulness that anticipates the disruptive tack of post-Language verse:
I think of my girl on a fork
taste back to the telephone
where the telephone over the wastebasket
in each room I walk into the Aztec metal head goes round
Drawing his vocabulary from myth and sacred ritual (wingless birds, swords, and garlands proliferate), Lamantia forfeited temporal specificity in order to conjure a more eternal-seeming world—the realm of the epiphany. The Surrealist impulse to force pictorial recombinations, if not the outright collisions between words (“dream of pyramid liquefactions from the thighs of Versailles”), enabled him to conjure poems that might have emanated as easily from the firelit chamber of an ancient temple as from an acid trip at Big Sur. An early poem, “Hermetic Bird,” is set nowhere and everywhere:
On the pillars of nicotine
the word pleasure is erased by a dog’s tongue
On the pillars the bodies are opened by keys
the keys are nailed to my bed
to be touched at dawn
to be used in a dream
A great unevenness, though, marks the collection, and furnishes readers with insight into the emotional complexities of composition. Individual lines and images are often so striking that we can imagine Lamantia keenly feeling the challenge of bringing all parts—sense, structure, figuration—to such a memorable level. “Now I will take hold of the wind as the tons of weeds tumble from the mouths of fountains”; “There’s soaring even among the tortured minerals”; “Beatific visions sprawled on coat hangers / And weigh the silence with real screws”; “I find myself smoking the dust of myself”—all of these plucked from his poems of the ’60s and ’70s, a time when he reconnected with elements of Surrealism and regained the assured, prophetic voice that had infused his juvenilia. But it’s difficult to argue that any one of these poems as a whole carries itself unfalteringly on the same plateau. The very nature of Lamantia’s lifelong project—to seek the unities between opposites—predicates the likelihood of missed marks. From line to line, book to book, the quest is risky, the collisions fraught with possibility as much as with annihilation. It is precisely this deliberate courting of failure that makes him such a compelling writer and a model for any poet who might prize safety over audacity. In retrospect, Lamantia’s performance at the Six Gallery is rife with paradox: Reticent, he ceded the stage to more boisterous talents. Yet, in the long run, Lamantia may prove the bravest among them. The pursuit of marvelous unities is, this Collected Poems reveals, a turbulent and uncertain one.
Albert Mobilio is an editor of Bookforum.