Visions of Jack Foley
When I enter the restaurant, Nong Thon, in El Cerrito, California, Jack is already seated, sipping Thai ice tea, waiting for me. He wears black slacks and a black shirt printed with swirling green fire-breathing dragons. When I compliment it, he explains that he was born in 1940 and is therefore a dragon. The shirt was sent to him by a secret admirer who has been sending him shirts from time to time for years. Many of these shirts have dragons on them. He doesn’t know who has been sending them but believes the person is a woman and might be Chinese.
Jack is treating me to lunch because I was the first person to tell him I had read his 1,288-page, two volume magnum opus, Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Timeline, Poets & Poetry 1940-2005, from cover to cover. It took me nine months to read both volumes. The only other books I’ve read over a period of many months or years, I tell Jack, are the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and Ulysses.
He says, “I’m in good company.”
I tell him, honestly, that I found his books just as interesting and read them with just as much pleasure as these others, and we discuss how his books, the Bible, and Ulysses all contain many voices. What I don’t say is that I found many other parallels between Visions & Affiliations and the Bible. I’m not sure how to explain this over lunch without making it sound like I worship poets or poetry. But the similarities are many: both the Bible and V&A give the history of a particular group of people, a tribe. Both contain lineages, the Bible with its begats, and V&A with its lineages of poets who influenced each other. In both cases, many voices and events are filtered through a redactor. The prophets of V&A are the groundbreaking poets like Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, and Allen Ginsberg.
There are many occurrences of the language of sacredness throughout V&A. Foley reports that in Shirim: A Jewish Journal of Poetry, poet Jack Marshall said, “…each person would have to become their own Messiah.” We also learn that in 1975 poet Jerome Rothenberg insisted that “The act of sounding the poem…may (as in ritual or prayer or incantation) overshadow the urge to understand it.” Thus, poetry becomes like liturgy that can be chanted and felt without being fully understood. According to poet Neeli Cherkovski, “Poetry is where [Allen Cohen] placed his faith.”
I think that, like me, none of these poets worships poets or poetry. Instead, it seems that in our secular world, poetry can fulfill some of the roles once filled by religion in that it provides a sense of community—a group to belong to—and is a vehicle we can use on our quest to transcend everyday experience and find whatever deeper meanings the universe has to offer.
For some of the California poets whose lives and work are represented in Visions & Affiliations, the connection between religion and poetry is explicit. These include William Everson (aka Brother Antoninus), who was a Dominican friar for eighteen years, and Phillip Whalen, who became a Buddhist monk. For them, poetry and spirituality were inextricably intertwined, as it has been for many people through the ages: poetry appeared early in human cultures as a means for sharing religious experience and preserving communal history, and all known human cultures produce it, just as all cultures have religion. It is no accident that Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkadia (located in present-day Iraq), who wrote in about 2,300 B.C.E. and was the first known author to sign her work, was a poet who composed hymns to her goddess, Inanna. More familiar examples of sacred poetry include the Psalms and the Song of Songs.
These are my thoughts as I sit across from Jack. I have known him and his work for more than twenty years and have found that his books—whether poetry, literary criticism, or literary history—have a way of forcing me to think.
Getting back to the mundane, immediate matter of lunch, I consider ordering chicken curry, because I usually share food at Asian restaurants with my husband, who avoids coconut milk as carefully as he does arsenic and lead. Jack highly recommends the soups, especially pho, which comes with uncooked meat poking out of the broth. It finishes cooking when you stir the soup with your chopsticks at the table. He orders pho with beef, and I settle on vermicelli soup with shrimp and pasted shrimp (which is sort of like tofu, but made with shrimp instead of soy). We try a little of each other’s soup, and they are both delicious.
An hour with Jack Foley is never boring. He has read almost everything and has unusual takes on much of it. Somehow, the subject turns from Vietnamese soups to The Maltese Falcon. I haven’t read it, but I tell Jack that I recently heard a lecture on it that was part of an audio course on American bestsellers that I’m listening to in my car. Jack inquires about what the lecturer had to say, and I tell him what I’ve learned about the history of detective mysteries, the prevalence of detective mysteries (one in every ten novels published), and how Hammet’s characters and dialog make The Maltese Falcon a piece of memorable literature, not just pulp fiction like most of the detective mysteries that came before it.
Jack frowns. “Did he tell you the title of the first detective story?” he asks. When I say no, he adds, “It was Oedipus Rex. Oedipus has all the elements of a detective story: a murder, clues, someone who wants to solve the murder and bring the murderer to justice, and an identification between the detective and the murderer, who, in this case turn out to be the same person: Oedipus himself.”
Jack’s takes on literature are always intriguing. He has written that in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is not delivered by John Keats but by the urn itself. He has also written that in “Among School Children,” by William Butler Yeats, the famous conclusion, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” is not the expression of “organic unity” that critics usually take it to be. Instead, Jack writes, “Despite his sixty years, Yeats remains at the end of ‘Among School Children’ not a figure of wisdom but a learner—‘among school children,’ asking questions to which he has no real answer.” These examples are just two among many. Jack does not specialize in writing about a particular author, as some critics do, but has written critical essays about the work of poets as diverse as e.e. cummings, Louis Zukovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Weldon Kees, Adrienne Rich, Dana Gioia, Annie Finch, Diane di Prima, Carolyn Kizer, and Brenda Hillman, to name just a few among dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others.
Jack will tell you that he himself is not a unity, as in the word “individual,” but a multiplicity, and that he embodies not one voice but many. Thus, he is equally at home writing formal poetry and free verse, and individual poems of his often contain more than one voice. He and his wife, poet Adelle Foley, read the multi-voice poems together at poetry events, sometimes speaking simultaneously, which creates a lively and entertaining experience for the listener, who does well to put any attempt to understand what’s being said on temporary hold.
Like Jack, Vision & Affiliations contains a multiplicity of voices. It is a democratic, unbiased book, in which he does not take a stand for any particular school of poetry, whether the Beats, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the Objectivists, the Projectivists, the Surrealists, the Activists, or the New Formalists. Instead, he lets them emerge and coexist just as they did in real life in California in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. V&A chronicles the milestones and gives sample poems from all of these schools, as well as from individual poets who were never affiliated with any movement. I don’t know if anyone except Jack would include lines that come from such different muses as these in the same book: “stars in the dark their one/moral in the breeze,” from “The Little Pin: Fragment” by George Oppen; and “Outside, the sea was gray and dull as tin/It ruled the shore with tedious discipline,” from “Nimos Compos Mentis” (“Excessive Control of Mind”) by Leslie Monsour. Jack’s own work in V&A similarly spans diverse aesthetics, ranging from the intentionally unspeakable (“a wajubq dreanL,/sineibe Oone.bit neOOib a riiftioOObeubg cgased,” from “Letters,” dedicated to the sixth Marx Brother: Typo) to the exquisitely lucid (“to stay/at the edge of blackness/to keep faith/with/light,” from “Stanzas from Djerassi,” dedicated to composer Lou Harrison).
As we finish our lunch, Jack asks, saying that his wife advised him not to, “Now that you’ve finished Volume II, do you remember what you read at the beginning of Volume I, or do you need to start again?”
“I don’t remember everything,” I admit, “just as I don’t remember everything I read in the Bible, the Qur’an, or Ulysses, either, but I have sense of what I read in all of these books, including yours, and I will return to all of them, including yours, again and again.” I will also return to other books by Jack to revisit the visions of his many selves, all of whom are generous and democratic, and help us to see things in new ways.