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Small Notes #4

Small Notes: A Curriculum for the Soul/Matter//Anarch


I picked up an armful of  70s A Curriculum for The Soul chapbooks at the archive table at the Buffalo Small Book Fair.

It turns out that the Curriculum series, put out by no other than THE INSTITUE FOR FURTHER STUDIES, were commissioned after Olson died, the titles from a page of Olson’s notes titled “An Outline for a Curriculum of the Soul.” [citation] A course which I guess he never got to teach at UB. Probably funding limitations. The curriculum is eclectic and cryptic—“Alchemy,” “organs & / function – activity / of the soul / or psyche or / Heaven or God” – and relies upon categories which by modern standards are entirely objectionable in totalizing complex cultures into tiny fractions of “knowledge” (“the Arabs”). Others just seem awesome: “dance as individual / body-power.”

The individual chapbooks were supposed to in a sense announce a new wave of poets just coming into their own in the 70s, taking up and innovating Olson’s poetics, his yoking of history, science, armchair anthropology, the lyric, and constant roving. This didn’t happen.

And some peoples here in Buffalo I love groaned when I told them I was reading a few of these over. Instead, with a few exceptions, they seem like a cul-de-sac, an exhaustion of what his method could do, repeating the trope of the mini-voyage, revealing the lasting power of Romantic ideals of the environment and celebration of transcendent contact with virgin (i.e. depopulated) biomes that lead implicitly to boring and now useless ecological platitudes about the necessity of preserving wilderness and the repetition of human/nature binaries. What about cities? Cosmopolitanism?

Things look dim for poetics springing from Olson.

On the other hand, there’s Duncan and John Thorpe’s Matter. I’ve always found Olson intriguing in the ranginess of his ideas, the surprising juxtapositions and swerves; however, it never did anything on the level of language to make any of it stick. As a poet, he’s more interesting in theory than in practice. Reading Duncan’s contribution to this series, particularly the joyous “Go, My Songs, Even As You Came to Me,” underscored this fact. But Duncan was familiar enough already, and there were not surprises in his entry. These came in John Thorpe’s Matter.

If Pound was obsessed with economics and Olson in excavating (and inventing) indigeneity. Thorpe’s Matter treats science and technology as inescapably shaping the economics and praxis of his present, mediating both the “environment” and relations through production. Instead of sweeping away modernizing forces in favor of a literary or indigenous prime, he dramatizes them at work in perpetually reshaping the present—coffee plantations littered with old structures and new building, various types of labor, etc.

These lines get at the best and worst of what I’m talking about:

There is a primary drive, say, displaced.

The earth fractured prime. Oh did they

only want it to divide, in dense interactions

to trade it for something of greater

value? Niels Bohr, Edward Teller,

can those men know what pain

is? (Ed: GROAN!!!)…


…35% of the earth’s energy

consumed, the United States

dynamo cooking away like a

story that ends at the top

(the sewer pumped up to

the penthouse)…

They’re followed by a long prose passage—

By now we have started pruning. I checked out a pick leaning up against the shed by the water tank, stopped for a mouth of water & under the tank’s spigot I noticed slugs crawling around the chunks of drain rock. The water tank is huge, a landmark. We’re clearing coffee, cutting trees & small growths—more tiny snips & cuts than a man could do in his whole life, just on these few mountain acres.

Which takes a Gary Snyder sort of alertness to the labor and technologies which shape landscapes/ecologies and brings it into resonance with scientific and economic discourses. Thorpe’s constant return to the scene of physical labor, which is in this sequence distinctly masculine, and dismissal of atomic physicists because they’re not tough enough, limits this to what Edgar Garcia (check) referred to, in a killer talk of De Angula, a strictly heteronormative environmentalist discourse.

Still, being intrigued by lost causes and cultural losers, I was almost excited to find out that I couldn’t find out anything about John Thorpe. Which means he is almost anyone I want him to be.

Anarch by Frances Richards

One of the most intriguing books I’ve read in awhile, so much so that I thought to write a review proper then realized it was published in 2012, (and I’m not sure I have the lexicon anyway). They say that the tail of a book of poems is about 2 years (they work slow), like you can still write a review in that window. Which makes a magazine that only reviews books of poems 2-3 years after they’ve been published one of the many enterprises I’ll never get around to founding.


“if you turn to

if you go to

if you click

a dizzying trip. Rest

in hesitation. Something like totally

counterteleological collage–

sloppy thinking as good, as a messy come-on. In structural polyvocality, epic

pointing down between the spores, less a tiny

than a near unspace. Compassion

is the hardest human thing.”

The poem speaks, like many of Anne Waldman’s, from chaos, the space of creation which it encompasses, from the point of view of that, as death, constantly proposing, but as the poem itself notes, “counter teleological”-ly. That is, there are many poems which simulate a kind of chaos via a disordering of normative syntax, floating phrases, and so on, but these can often simply replicate a cinematic effect, a forward narrative simulating motion by fast forwarding many still images. There’s much more resistance in Anarch’s relation to its subjects as it swings from the macro, to the micro, the thing or a relation and a possible ontology animating it.

I remember a line Amanda read in St. Catherine’s that came off as metapoetic, like a an exhaustion of the use of “fire” and “milk” in poems. Then I came across Sprat’s observation on the poets of his day and those proceeding it: “They had tir’d out the Sun, and Moon, and Stars with their Similitudes.” This gloss by editors: “New discoveries can supply new images ‘which may relieve their fellow-creatures, that have long born the burden alone, and have long bin vex’d by the imaginations of Poets.’”

Which is why lines like this kill me:

“An experienced fire scholar

observes we hold a species monopoly

over fire, fire

is a profoundly interactive technology…


And out of the wilderburbs

we reinstated fire to remedy a longtime

fire famine. An expected major wind event

took place. Light ‘em or fight ‘em

and shoving biomass around, hazards

of reintroduction of the lost species of

fire resulted quickly

in a 14,000-acre black-and-silverscape

to anneal our eyes

Filed under: Book Notes

About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.

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