Reading Reports

Reading Report: Peter Lamborn Wilson

Note – Wilson read with Rob Halpern on Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Go here to read Stacy Szymaszek’s introductions for Peter and Rob.

Many years ago—before the Internet, when I gleaned almost everything I knew about contemporary ideas (outside Montreal) either in conversation or theory I read piecemeal in bookshops—a friend of mine described Hakim Bey as a Persian dissident, a total unknown, who composed anarcho-sufi communiqués from obscurity in NYC. I immediately pictured a slightly more peaceable Travis Bickle, driving taxi and chalking tracts on bridges and tunnels across the city. And well, the image stuck. So much so that when I went to see him read for the first time in person this past Wednesday at the Poetry Project and spied a jovial, Anglo-Saxon looking old man in a lumberjack shirt-coat and a Rasputin beard, it proved very difficult for me to believe that this was the infamous author of TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). Then it was announced that there would be no reading of Hakim Bey’s recent volume, Black Fez Manifesto (2008). Instead, Peter Lamborn Wilson would present his freshly penciled eclogues from the Hudson Valley. The effect was the rather ticklish evening full of suspense. Continually caught off guard—despite myself—by Wilson’s innuendo-ridden erudition, his relentless, ever probing easy touch with occult references and ten syllable words, I tittered and tee-heed: who is this guy?

What was my impression of these new poems? Well, I would call them—entertaining. And not in any pejorative sense. Peter Lamborn Wilson proved again how effective it can be to just get a few basic things right—like scoring the music of the poem on the page (often counter to one’s habitual lilt), or trusting precise thought to enlivened language rather than the other way around. Certainly, this (and much more) was on display in Wilson’s first poem, Opium Dens I Have Known; as close to an “instant hit” as I’ve heard in a long time. I also liked how this all-too-familiar tour of the last “big smoke” dens of Asia and the Middle East, worked as the confessions of a 19th century Orientalism junkie, perhaps even something of a self drug test. Touching down in real places as much as well-worn clichés—labyrinthine ‘old towns’, the open-sewer alleys under wash-hanging skies in port slums and whoring districts—Wilson spared no effort in surveying every familiar item, every broken down antique accoutrement, personality or fashion you might find in these sordid retreats, or in the available literature. This is the drug, he seemed to say: clotted sap, sure, but also, just as importantly, the second flowering of a once grand fantasy’s phrases and facts. Likewise, with every description, as Wilson’s exacting ethnographic details fishtailed into immobilizing ambiance, stopped, then started up again, you felt the high/low of it: words are soma, soma—words.

Quite different from Opium Dens I Have Known, every other poem that Wilson read Wednesday night was part of his recent bucolic study of the Hudson Valley, including various months from The Shepheardes Calendar, several eclogues, an interlude of spring “mud sonnets” and finally a sprawling “The Anglo-Irish Big House Eclogue”, which drew a lot from the spirit of Celtic lore. But again, without these poems available for me to re-read closely, I must reiterate my first impression. They seemed very lively, cipher-packed and funny. One image that I noticed recurring again and again was that of a midden or compost, which I thought suited perfectly Wilson’s scholastic-like tendency of always mining, always sifting through classical and arcane references without much care for order. And I thought it interesting too as a central, simultaneously political and sexual conceit, something that Virgil always insisted on for his eclogues. For instance, what better image of Class War in the Hudson Valley, than a refuse pile of quarried stones, or raked leaves? What better metaphor of the Culture Wars than organic food in a plastic composter, or the all-mixed-up brain fallout of the “information bomb”? Then, there’s the combustible heat of fresh compost, a hot bed for worms and insects. Along these lines, I remember Wilson specifically making an example of England’s white cliffs of Dover, a side-exposed midden of glacially ancient mollusk shells, whose vast legacy of slimy, salty sex ostensibly prompted Darwin to coin the less famous but more accurate adage—“survival of the happiest”.

Look out for these poems in the future, under any moniker.

Joshua Lovelace