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'Blue Clear Down'

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Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems
in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all
three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the
author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity.
"What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking
when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the
candle down."

When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in
mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems,
Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise
of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.
Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and
caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once,
during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical.
Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,"
Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face
almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the
run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm
house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little
book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without
loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs
for Lorine
in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker
with the diminutive "poetess."

The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't
be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the
avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had
just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and
both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But
Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of
her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's
The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and
Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of
Lorine Niedecker
. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented
contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of
Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and
domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home
for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those
lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems
with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its
emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island
is useless.

"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it
grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles,"
one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny
Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems
that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's
lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions.
Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections,
New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete
unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems
in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul
and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems;
uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and
unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of
essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and
ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile
version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how
T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a
new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of
that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but
thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be
treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?

"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them
off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas,
writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors
like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled
with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several
little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The
standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of
Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited
in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the
early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal
Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's
focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism":
"Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore
unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a
difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic
sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of
language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words
and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound
phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate
in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there
were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in
"Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought
to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and
feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense
because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived
speech.

In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's
subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them
into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had
tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the
furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the
unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the
ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why.
"Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my
name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic
sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In
the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project,
working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger
State
. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker
extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the
guide:

What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.

Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific
local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the
history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression,
betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about
New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic
with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling
her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera
instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have
resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys
the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to
an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my
hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is
Niedecker's rainacular.

Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began
a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's
Dairyman
. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's
in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a
job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor
eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his
letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when
she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or
at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For
Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed
to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi
epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or
stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to
204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the
hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six
syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of
sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with
verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.

The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most
remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip
through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in
1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend
in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was
speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of
the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of
the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That
azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't
allegorical.

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the
next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who
have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson,
who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse
the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake,"
Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by
Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and
the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an
eruption of sensuality.

Ruby of corundum
lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard

Greek named
Exodus-antique
kicked up in America's
Northwest
you have been in my mind
between my toes
agate

Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is
mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for
Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems.
"Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it
might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of
quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though
the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone.
"The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and
language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her
poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where
words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American
rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."

In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
         the leaf beside it
once was stone

Why should we hurry
           Home

These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be
unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after
Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has
found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The
stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound
creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker
acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal
desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the
sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.

"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a
fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The
ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator
of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never
overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map
of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her
own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior"
is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to
be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.

This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is
neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the
trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the
Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to
heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike
Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual
cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he
struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for
survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The
struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the
Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the
sound/of the pianoforte.'"

In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake
Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava,
glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended
through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from
Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they
are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker
catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses
open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.

I remember, he said
         those tropical nights at sea--
                     we sat and talked
   on the booms

Tierra del Fuego's
         shining glaciers translucent
                     blue clear down
   (almost) to the indigo sea

Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its
awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a
human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The
possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time
as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing
lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the
grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is
something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an
idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm
and toad:

the universe
not built by brute force
         but designed by laws
The details left

to the working of chance
   "Let each man hope
        and believe
   what he can"

"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and
understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how
passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin,
Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and
sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often
fantastic enough.

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