Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Noticing 2: Jack Sharpless and 'Working Stiffs'

                                                      (photo by Jonathan Williams, c. 1978)


Jack Sharpless is a poet little mentioned or read though he wrote four perfect books and was at work upon a fifth when he died of AIDS at the age of 38.  Unpublished during his life, the first four were given to the world by Jonathan Greene’s Gnomon Press in 1989 (the year after the poet’s death) as Presences of Mind: The Collected Books of Jack Sharpless, edited & introduced by his friend and advocate Ronald Johnson with afterwords by Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams, and exuberant blurbs from Creeley and Duncan.*  The “collected books” consist of quantum, twenty-four carefully oracled definitions (“each poem defines a word”--GD); Inroads, a superbly graceful accounting of Elizabeth I’s last twelve hours on earth written from inside her head; A Soldier in the Clouds, “Variations on a Parish Hymn Recurring in Dreams and Nightmares of Aircraftsman T.E. Shaw”; and The Fall of the X Dynasty, works snatched from “an imaginary Chinese dynasty (X is X here, not 10) which appear to be translations but are not” (Johnson).  Each a little boke, as Williams writes in his afterword.  (One must remember that a revolution took place in only 27 pages in Pound’s Cathay, a book Johnson brings up in relation to the X Dynasty.)  Each book is finished as a Poussin and unpredictable as a poem by Williams (W.C.).  Four excerpts from the four books, given in reverse order of how they appear in the Collected, for a taste:

The Tyrant

young soldiers’
sweet bodies
lined the roads
to Llasa and
the outer steppes,

yet he sat,
drinking it up
with the old boys,


a sea






her out
into the
of Edinburgh








In 2014, the Song Cave--publisher of a number of permanent books**--gave us the unfinished fifth, Working Stiffs, again introduced by Johnson.***  Here the Jack of Diamonds, as Johnson nicknamed him, turns to a new metric--more spontaneous, more involved with speech than anything he’d written before--and works it well, rolling out the narrative quick, appropriate to--fitting perfectly--the tale, based as it is in the lower-vulgar (not a slight--I’m thinking of Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia): scenes of bar-talk, gay-sex pick-ups, film noir dinginess, workingman’s gripes.  His rhythms give--better put: invent (“to find”)--grace to every line.  The first of the two poems in the book, “Palooka”, has the bar-met Joe skip to and fro, telling his life to the interested listener (I give a good portion here so the flow, rhein, can be felt):

I’d follow a line
of cocaine
wherever it strayed!

I lived in England,
France, Spain,
Singapore, LA,
Nebraska, Georgia,
Maine and Florida all
in one year or two.

Can’t remember anymore
the differences between.

A real army brat,
dragged from school
to school, hither
the fuck yon
around the planet.

The instructors in
the French schools would say:
Pulley-vous your ass,
and I’d spit back:
Fuck your own asses!

They hadn’t the faintest
where I was coming from,
nor where they were at.


My wife is Russian,
from over there; --I
tell you, they come here
and go all goofy on
religion and morality.

She really hates
my hanging around bars like this.


But, what was I to do,
sit home in front of
the tv and eat the Bible?

I just couldn’t
stomach that.
Afterall, Jack,
we all get horny.


On the inside flap-cover of the book the two poems in this chapbook are said to be ‘the only known examples of the “big gay book” that Sharpless was writing toward the end of his life.’  Hearing the rhythm, certain poems of Jonathan Williams**** came to mind, especially those found in Get Hot or Get Out and his other homoerotic verse (I mean as distinct from some of his other work--Mahler, the various Samuel Palmer poems, the elegies for Olson and others).  Williams’ rhythms are different, but both can be read beside one another and a kin-mind emerge.  Williams can be bawdy or majestic, as can Sharpless (Inroads a kind of Mahler).  Both had an interest in passionate speech--Williams wandering all over America and England seeking out in a kind of field-recording (I think of Lomax or Child) whatever might best be planted in the fields of Elysium; Sharpless waiting tables, taking drink and speech in bars (“He listened, he listened,” Johnson writes)--and Sharpless may have taken this interest as far as Williams if he’d lived to be 79, as Williams did.  

Another, also under-read and not-much mentioned, queer wild-man amphetamine Boston poet Stephen Jonas comes to mind as kin of Sharpless.  His Exercises for Ear is an absolute classic.†  His ear for speech, rooted in jazz and with a concern for exact, generative notation, is ostensibly far afield from Sharpless’, but the spirit’s grown up from the same root (EP: “We have one sap and one root”).  Here’s “CXVII” from Ear:

once i saw Bird so high
       that he came wingin’
over from the apple
w/ a busted foot & a gig
      to make at roll-a-way
he came in on the chorus
      from a wheelshair &
       just made the bridge
on one wheel
                           oh.  man the hippies
at mass.  & columbus
                          were moderately

Where Sharpless keeps a narrative in his speech-rhythms, Jonas is more concerned with the isolated spark of passionate utterance, registered with a rapidity found almost nowhere else in the language.  (Amiri Baraka, who was Jonas’ friend, may be the exception.)

I mention these as company.  Other poets come to mind, for speech or theme or both: Joel Oppenheimer; the lusty queer poems one can find in Thomas Meyer’s work; CAConrad’s possessed detonations; Jeffery Beam’s electric pan-amative “mustard seeds” (as Meyer’s called them); Spicer, whose Blaser-edited Collected Books echoes in the Presences title.  Others.  James Broughton.  Gerritt Lansing.  


This all to say: read the Work.  Sharpless should be read--Catullus’ corpus is not much larger, Sappho’s smaller though a superior melodist‡--, studied, delighted in.  The world is filled with read unreadable dross; Sharpless is a poet who never managed to write anything but exquisite charms: besasa out of Kirke's isle.


Two poems to leave off on: from The Fall of the X Dynasty, and the closing lines of the second poem in Working Stiffs (called “Graveyard Shift”):

The Recluse

What have I besides poetry?
Bed, table, lamp, some books.
A dozen years of scratching
does not relieve the itch.


I will look directly
into death’s unmoved,
onmoving grin,

but will I see you
again, or remember
all of your names?

* Creeley: “These intent, elegant verses are instance of an accurate and feeling mind.  We wander so abysmally in a maze of arguments and opinion that I hope we can still hear such compact wit and good will.  Jack Sharpless is a pleasure we had best accommodate while we still can.  His is the world that matters.”  Duncan: “Jack Sharpless restores my faith in the new generation.  He’s by far the best of them all.”

** A few titles as a hint to the keen minds in the cave (to be found here: Alfred Starr Hamilton’s A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind; Thomas Meyer’s Essay Stanzas; Nate Klug’s Rude Woods; Fanny Howe’s The Lamb.  I don’t think there’s a miss in the whole catalogue thus far.  Gems.  

*** Some of these poems were first published in the Chicago Review (Vol.45, No.1, 1999).

**** To listen to some of them, vide:

Can be found in his Selected Poems (Talisman House, 1994), edited by Joseph Torra.  The subtitle of the poem is: being a Primer for the Beginner in the American Idiom.  

And both of those poets--Catullus, Sappho--registered passionate speech in indelible fashion.  

No comments:

Post a Comment