The Alchemy of Trash
The West Coast Art of Spiritual Collage
The Alchemy of Trash appeared in the excellent Yeti Journal, number 3, 2005.
The trivial is as deep as the profound because there is nothing in creation that does not go to the profound.
The symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum.
Philip K. Dick
The Alchemy of Trash
You have probably already heard the one about the yogi huddling in his mountain cave who believes he’s finally cracked through the cosmic egg. Having reached enlightenment, he decides to clamber down to the village below and spread the love. As he wanders through the town’s crowded market, some poor slob jostles him; without a thought, the holy man turns on the guy with anger. The point is that it’s easy to get clear on a mountain top, but much tougher to manifest the light in the messy world most of us actually live in. But the tale also makes an ecospiritual argument, of sorts: mountains are the sites of mystical transcendence, while the human towns below embody the ordinary grind of this world.
In “Time is the Mercy of Eternity”, the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth anarcho-leftist, Buddhist, and proto-Beat describes his own mystic moment in the Sierras. This slice of time does not put him in touch with God or cosmic forces, but with the simplicity of ordinary material life: “The pale new green leaves twinkle / In the rising air.” What he sees is the “holiness of the real,” an experience he contrasts with the faraway city, “burning with the fire of transcendence and commodities.” In a key Californian insight, Rexroth recognizes that the urban market, rather than the Zen mountaintop, is the zone enflamed with transcendent desires or rather, that the desire that enlivens the commodities of the urban milieu is, at its essence, a desire for transcendence. Arising from the core of human suffering and dissatisfaction, the essential energy of desire is not separate from the sacred, even through it gets funneled into the secular and frequently crass fantasies that drive city life: lust, entertainment, distraction, power.
By the same token, spirituality, for us anyway, takes place in the midst of the market and its commodified fantasies. This feedback loop is especially true in California, where esoteric spirituality has long been a part of a feverish and mercantile popular culture rife with trash. What religious seeking and California culture share most essentially is an investment in fantasy fantasy not simply as “illusion,” but as the forms that fuse imagination and desire. As both ironic and populist fans of low-brow culture can attest, the ferocity of fantasy can lend a delirious dreamlike power to corny things like UFO cults and commercial entertainments like B-movies or comic books.
This paradox gets us close to the heart of sacred Los Angeles, a city that dreamt (and sold) itself into existence through real estate hype, Hollywood, and the siren call of the perfect bod. The very architecture of Los Angeles suggests this material dreaming: in the teens and twenties, the town exploded with “fantasy” buildings like Babylonian ziggurats, pyramids, witchy cottages, castles, teepees, and restaurants shaped like derbies. This slap-dash and often garish architectural raid on the collective unconscious looked forward to Disneyland, fast food signage, and the corporate “thematization” of contemporary urban space. The exotic imagination crudely stimulated by these buildings, which were often equally crudely made, also prepared the ground for the Orientalist moods and esoteric concepts that exerted enormous influence on LA’s spiritual scene. In other words, the construction of trashy fantasy in the built environment created the cultural and psychic “space” for exotic, imaginative, and otherworldly faiths and experiences to grow.
Some fantasy architects were themselves active in California’s spiritual fringe. The most notable was Robert Stacy-Judd, one of countless Brits who long ago transformed Los Angeles into a sort of London-on-Pacific. As a young architect in England, Stacy-Judd designed various Orientalist structures, but in California he discovered his deep and abiding love: the Maya. He built the amazing Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, which is well worth a visit, and used Mayan stylings for private homes, a Baptist Church in Ventura, and a Masonic hall in the San Fernando Valley. A kooky self-promoter, Stacy-Judd styled himself a Mayan explorer-archeologist; he also hobnobbed with Theosophists and the Philosophical Research Society’s Manly P. Hall. Stealing a few pages from febrile crypto-archeologists like Ignatius Donnelly and Lewis Spence, Stacy-Judd argued in his Atlantis: Mother of Empires that the Maya descended from the Atlanteans. Presumably, Stacy-Judd believed that by creating a regional architectural style rooted in Mayan culture, the West Coast would tap into that mighty spiritual source, though it’s tough to say whether the history of the Aztec Hotel a brothel and speakeasy during prohibition bears this out.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, a restless hunger for exotic fantasy and escape helped make Los Angeles ground zero for California’s paradoxically popular esoteric scene what I call its pop occulture. “No other city in the United States possess so large a number of metaphysical charlatans in proportion to its population,” wrote local Willard Huntington Smith in 1913. “Whole buildings are devoted to occult and outlandish orders mazdaznan clubs, yogi sects, homes of truth, cults of cosmic fluidists, astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians and other boozy transcendentalists.” These groups drew from the creative imagination and a common pool of psycho-spiritual motifs in order to sculpt a range of sects, fads, and mental health regimens. Futuristic pseudo-sciences fused with the ancient lore introduced by Theosophists, astrologers, and encyclopedists like the afore-mentioned Hall, author of the classic omnibus folio The Secret Teachings of All Ages and collector of one of the world’s greatest library of hermetic and alchemical texts (the best of which were recently pawned off to the Getty). Even Protestant fundamentalism was transformed into Hollywood spectacle by the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who wore costumes, played jazz music, and hired Hollywood special effects guys for her “illustrated sermons.”
Given all this activity, Los Angeles grew into a kind of theme park of the soul, a carnival of transcendence offering esoteric sources of entertainment, transport, and commodified wonder. Understandably, many of us react to this spectacle with mockery or befuddlement, sometimes leavened with pity for the poor dupes who get taken in. The metaphor of Oz lies heavy over California (L. Frank Baum wrote all but the first Oz book on the coast), and its pop occulture is dense with humbug and hucksters in wizard capes. But cynicism about this scene is the easy road. Such mockery usually comes from secular people–in other words, from people who believe that religion is just a cultural invention. But if this is the case, why not appreciate and enjoy the creativity? By recognizing religion as, at least partly a cultural creation, we can appreciate how, in a rootless place like Los Angeles, this creativity can and does run riot, generating novel and mutant forms for ever more deracinated souls. In its own plastic, Hollywood-backlot way, sacred LA came to resemble ancient Alexandria or modern India. Different times and places smashed into one another in a restless quest for the beyond. Syncretism reigned: esoteric notions and symbols mingled and mixed; forms of practice were nailed together as quickly as they imploded. By the time the counterculture arose, everything had become a potential source of mystic lore and spiritual intensity: surfing and comic books, sado-masochism and pharmacology, electric guitars and military research.
There is a gnawing absurdity at the heart of this mystic carnival, this tacky tinseltown of snakeoil simulacra. At its most extreme, LA’s restless sacred imagination grows violent and apocalyptic; at its most banal it becomes the “spiritual supermarket,” a California condition of mix-and-match cafeteria religion that has now gone global. But even the spiritual supermarket, with its Sufi audio books, Tibetan trinkets, and pre-packaged ayahuasca vacations, has a truth to tell. The truth is that the universe is pluralistic, down to its very marrow. There are many ways to God, and some of them dodge the Big Guy altogether. My way is not your way, and my way will probably change as my perspective, and the self that holds that perspective, changes.
In contrast with the absolute claims of traditional monotheism, a creative spiritual life is fundamentally relativistic. This does not mean that it denies the Beyond, only that it distrusts the packaging we give it. Whatever essential truths it seeks, such a life demands that we artfully shift between different forms, adopting multiple perspectives on a reality that remains an essential mystery. One is called upon to shake up the usual binary distinctions, like sacred and profane, trash and treasure, commerce and consciousness. Perhaps the spiritual culture that emerges from such a shake-up is, in the open-source software guru Eric Raymond’s terms, not a cathedral but a bazaar. In any case, by the middle of the century, California’s pop occulture was a popular market dominated by fragments, fusions, exotica, invention, and juxtaposition a bazaar of the bizarre. But this garish and sometimes exploitative scene also suggested a more subtle lesson: that a conscious spiritual affirmation of relativism gifts us with creative uncertainty and an openness to ordinary things that can become, in the right hands, simply extraordinary.
California’s heterodox market of “transcendent commodities” helps explain why the best postwar California art of the 1950s and 60s was so overtly concerned with spirituality. Here I want to dodge the well-tramped territory of Beat mysticism and ramble around the formal territory of juxtaposition, particularly as it was manifested in assemblage, collage, and other appropriation-based arts and practices. Though rooted in any number of popular and folk practices, assemblage and collage represent distinctly modern artistic strategies that reflect the twentieth-century experience of a cultural landscape densely cluttered with signs, commodities, and urban detritus. Juxtaposition was important to Surrealist Europeans like Max Ernst and New Yorkers like Joseph Cornell, but, for a variety of reasons, it also flourished in the postwar West. As Peter Plagens noted in his book Sunshine Muse “Assemblage [with its essential logic of juxtaposition] is the first home-grown California modern art.” Simon Rodia’s cathedral-like Watts Towers, constructed out of broken pottery, chicken wire, and the fragmentary flotsam of consumer culture, prophetically foreshadow a number of postwar artists like Jess, Bruce Conner, Larry Jordan, George Herms, Wallace Berman, and Helen Adam who appropriated and recombined images, styles, and materials in a variety of media.
If West Coast spiritual bricoleurs had a guru, that person would have to be Wallace Berman, a quiet but powerfully influential mensch whose work and life seemed to achieve the Beat blend of sacred and quotidian. Though he crafted some remarkable work, particularly a series of collages made with an old Verifax machine, Berman was less a formal trailblazer than a germinator of scenes and styles, a diffuse presence who influenced his peers with an underground Beat sensibility both hip and human. Berman was a disseminator. In a brief cameo appearance in his friend Dennis Hopper’s film “Easy Rider,” he plays a sower of seeds.
Berman grew up a secular Jew in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights and Fairfax districts. Hebrew letters were scattered throughout his environment, on newspapers and in butcher shop windows. Later this alphabet became his signature sign, especially the letter aleph, which he painted onto his motorcycle helmet. In the 1950s, Berman created faux-Dead Sea Scrolls parchments using the alphabet, and placed the letters in assemblages; later he would paint them on rocks. But these letters never formed actual words; they remained conventionally “meaningless”, at once surface decorations and hieroglyphs too deep for common sense. If you want to, you can go Kabbalistic on all this, though Berman himself was typically incommunicative about his intent. During one early show of the parchment paintings, Berman told the actor Dean Stockwell about the work’s Kabbalistic dimensions; to the poet Philip Lamantia, who, unlike Stockwell, actually knew something about Jewish mysticism, he denied any connection.
In Kabbalah, language is not seen as a human filter that we overlay onto some more primordial reality; instead it is that reality. There are many visions of this original Torah, and a few of them anticipate Berman’s linguistic assemblages. One eighteenth-century rabbi from Syria claims that, before creation, the original Torah was “a heap of unarranged primal letters.” In response to Adam’s actions, this original alphabet formed the particular words that made the world the way it is today. But it does not have to be this way; some kabbalists suggest that the messianic world will come about through a renaming. Berman’s “meaningless” combinations are in a sense a kind of sacred “cut-up.” Though he ignored the divinatory and synchronistic potential of the cut-up that so compelled Brion Gyson and William Burroughs, Berman does gesture towards the redemptive potential of hermetic nonsense. His letters are playful but profound mysteries – an attempt to invoke the creative plenitude of language as if it were the jazz scat singing that Berman imbibed as a zoot-suit-wearing hepcat in LA’s 1940s jazz scene.
David Meltzer, the West Coast Beat poet and sometimes Kabbalist, approaches Berman’s mysticism in a less literalistic way. Meltzer explains that his friend was acutely “aware of an unarticulated imperative to sacralize and somehow repair the broken post-war world.” He compares the operation to tikkun, the notion, drawn from Isaac Luria’s messianic Kabbalism, that humans must put back the fragmented pieces of creation. For many twentieth century mystics, this sort of labor is placed under the goals of unity and wholeness noble goals that don’t often make great art. More subtly, Meltzer compares the work of tikkun to the hipster trick of “digging” something, which he characterizes as “appropriating the most mundane object, the most vilified or rejected artifact, and restoring it to a primary glory.” Meltzer describes in loving detail the marvelous bric-a-brac found at the Berman’s home, and most of us know of or live in “bohemian” spaces whose poverty is redeemed by strange and gentle shrines constructed from marvelous ground scores or thrift store finds. Once these objects have reached the end of their life cycle as commodities, another kind of life is possible, the life of sacred appropriation. Explains Meltzer: “It was a hybrid kind of anti-materialism or counter-materialism, privileging the continuously-new beauty of a particular stone or a time-deformed mass-produced object found in the gutter in the same way it embraced Cocteau’s Orphee or Vivaldi.”
Berman actually made only a few assemblages during the 1950s, and many of those are arguably sculptures or installations. However you pigeonhole them, his most important mixed media show took place at the Ferus Gallery in 1957. His religious concerns were palpable. Temple resembled a large wooden sentry box or confessional. Inside, a robed figure stood with a key hung from its neck, while its head turned away from the audience. The floor beneath the figure was strewn with pages of Semina, a collage-like “magazine” of images and poems by friends and heroes that Berman sent for free to his circle of compatriots through the early 1970s. Though it came in different forms, Semina was essentially a folder of loose paper that had to be arranged, Tarot-like, by the reader; Michael McLure, whose “Peyote Poem” debuted in Semina 3, called it a “scrapbook of the spirit.”
Panel were a much denser piece than Temple: a mysterious wooden cabinet that incorporated photos of his wife, hidden compartments, mirrors, letters, and a long narrow image of swimmers surfacing into the light. There was a hushed mystery to the piece, at once a wrestling and an opening. Cross featured a slender wooden cross; from its left arm dangled a small shadow box that included a mandala-like photo of a cock plunging into a cunt above the inscribed motto factum fidei (true facts). As Rebecca Solnit points out, in the hypermodernist American art world of the mid-1950s, such hieratic objects which “pointed at something beyond themselves and drew their meaning from that beyond” had the force of blasphemy.
Local law enforcement also found them blasphemous. Summoned to the gallery because of Cross’ photo, they ironically overlooked the graphic shot, but busted Berman for an sketch included in the Semina issue scattered on the floor: a lusty, almost Frazetta-esque fantasy of a demon taking a woman from behind. The item was drawn by Cameron, Berman’s most direct connection to LA’s occult underground and a woman whose full story remains to be told. The red-headed artist, scenester and occultist had been married to Jack Parsons, the CalTech rocketman who led the Los Angeles Agape Lodge of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templar Orientis and took the Beast’s sex magick even more seriously that Crowley himself. Cameron served as Parson’s muse during the latter part of his apocalyptic “Babalon Working”. Following Parsons’ mysterious death in 1952 (he exploded in his garage lab), Cameron became LA’s pre-eminent bohemian witch, making the odd talismanic art piece, upstaging Anais Nin as the Whore of Babylon in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, and even frightening Dennis Hopper. She also clued Berman’s scene into the power of magick (which, as Anger’s film shows, is itself all about acute psychic montage). George Herms, whose assemblages would outpace Berman’s tiny output in both formal power and enigmatic fire, said that Cameron “molded and formed me.”
Berman’s Ferus installation was a pretty hermetic deal; you get the sense that you kinda had to be there, maybe be part of the scene to really get it. But in the early 1960s Berman began to work on his most accessible and compelling works, a series of collages that seemed to tune directly into the collective mind. Using an obsolete Verifax photocopier, which used negatives and treated paper, Berman made a series of pieces that channeled the overwhelming spew of images, ads and information that came to define the 60s mediascape. Each image contains single or multiple repetitions of the same visual placeholder: a hand holding a small AM/FM transistor radio. Within the “frame” of the radio, Berman placed an enormous range of images, including magic mushrooms, cheetahs, astronauts, hermetic glyphs, naked ladies, pot leaves, Buddhas, airplanes, Indian chiefs, popes, starbursts, movie stars, dolls, and clocks. Originally Berman used a TV set for the frame, but the transistor radio fused speech and image into a deeper alchemy that Christopher Knight called “a visual chant.” The resulting collages suggested that the emerging global mind, for all its image storms, had the magical intimacy that McLuhan called “acoustic space.”
Berman’s Verifax collages had a modest influence on the art world, earning Berman a spot in the gallery of oddballs that Peter Blake created for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Berman’s repeating figure and appropriated images also clearly anticipate Pop Art’s later obsession with mechanical reproduction and commodity images. But as with other California artists, Berman’s relationship to the signs on the street carries a more esoteric intensity and fragile sense of yearning than the self-conscious impersonality of Warhol, Lichtenstein or Rauschenberg. Part of this difference is environmental; New York was at the heart of the secular world of media, whereas California’s strong media culture, however dominated by the culture industry, has always radiated an air of fantasy and transcendence, however garish. But much more important is the lived context within which Berman and his fellow friends and artists worked: a life authentically rooted in the noncommercial margins of bohemia, a magic circle of art and fellowship and esoteric romanticism that transmuted the objects and images it embraced.
Berman was by no means the only spiritual collagist on the West Coast. Another artist was Helen Adam, an obscure Scottish-born San Franciscan who wrote morbid ballads and, beginning in the mid-1950s, made simple but intensely witchy collages of women interacting with strange beasts; to these she attached textual fragments drawn from folklore and Victoriana. Adam’s great inspiration was her friend Jess Collins, the godfather of California collage. Abandoning his career in atomic chemistry in the late 40s, Jess pursued abstract expressionist painting at the California School of Fine Arts until he gave himself over to making “Paste-Ups” out of pop ephemera. 1954’s Goddess Because Is Is Falling Asleep whose regal central figure sprouts a huge foot beside a lobster bouquet surrounded by text like “Of Nature and Art and a Puppy Pilgrimage” is halfway between Max Ernst and Terry Gilliam. At the time Jess also made seven Dick Tracy comic-strip collages called Tricky Cad; by placing odd text in the dialogue balloons and mocking the authoritarian slant of a comic he had loved as a kid, Jess not only anticipated the Situationist detournement of comic strips but the vital postwar strategy of scrambling high and low art.
By the 1960s, Jess’ earlier, more satiric and disjointed paste-ups had evolved into fantastic landscapes assembled from hundreds of puzzle-like fragments. Dense and fluid, and with an architectural sensibility lacking in many later pothead collages of this type, these worlds are chock full of visual puns, curious correspondences, and shining denizens of the archetypal otherworld. Even in reproductions, which make large scale collages look flat and busy, Jess’ work still radiates an intense hallucinogenic suggestibility. Many, like his incomplete Tarot series, directly engage esoteric themes; others pursue a hermetic homoeroticism that reaches its apex in his late work Narkissos. In light of later hippie excesses, such esoteric subjects may seem banal, but in the late 1950s the material had not yet gone the way of mystical kitsch. Jess engaged the mysteries with a romantic intelligence both modern and anti-modern. On the one hand, he was an appropriation artist celebrating the possibilities that arise when art world hierarchies are inverted and fragments torn from the passing surfaces of modern life are slammed together. At the same time, these possibilities also suggest the old romantic heresies of magic and transcendence: faced with a jumble of resonant and juxtaposed images, our minds inevitably start playing the game of analogies and correspondences. As we connect fragments into hidden networks, the logic of those connections becomes dreamlike, even erotic. Such subconscious montage, which is what real magic entails, was well known to the Surrealists, but by using appropriated materials, Jess moves even closer to a direct enchantment of the ordinary fragmentary world.
For all their immersive intensity, many of Jess’ collages are marred by the giddiness inherent in such dense and richly colored overlays, and they largely lack the clarity and power of his “Translations”. This series of oil paintings, which he began in 1959, are based directly on images Jess would lift from old yearbooks, alchemical tomes, bubblegum cards, or moldy stacks of Scientific American. Strictly adhering to the outlines (though not the colors) of the original images, the Translations gesture towards Warhol’s later by-the-number paintings. Though they are tinged with a similarly tart sense of belated irony, the Translations more closely resemble the internal theater of creative memory, which remakes or translates random but resonant snapshots of the world into internal phantasmagoria. When Jess reproduced the Translations in books, he paired them with texts from sources as wide-ranging as Plotinus, the Popul Vuh, and the American John Uri Lloyd’s 1895 proto-psychedelic fantasy Etidorpha. Oftentimes these parings juxtapose modern and mythic, as when a somewhat bilious image of a nineteenth-century grinding machine is paired with a scene from Celtic lore where the hero Fionn mac Cumhal asks Finnegas for the craft of poetry. These pairings deepen the question of what, exactly, is being translated: is it the images, the words, or some more ineffable spirit behind such markers and correspondences? What fuses fragments when they remain, for all intents and purposes, fragments?
Like the Paste-Ups and his later Salvages (thrift-store canvases reworked on the easel), Jess’ work relies on his own resonance with largely marginalized pre-existing images. “I salvage loved images that for some reason have been discarded and I come across them. I’ve, at times, found wonderful things on the street, just thrown away. If you find something that you really respond to that someone else has thrown away, it’s a kind of mini-salvation.” This is the alchemy of trash. Though recognizing his high art predecessors (the Translations quote Kandinsky and Gertrude Stein, and Surrealism looms large), Jess also tipped his hat to the popular and folklorish dimension of the art of appropriation an affirmation of premodern sources that set the West Coast apart from Europe and New York. When discussing influences, Jess would place San Francisco’s Playland-by-the-Beach and John Neill’s Oz illustrations alongside Ernst and Gaudi. Today this kind of hip populism is tediously de rigueur (“Margaret Keane and Esquivel are geniuses!”); in the 1950s, before the self-conscious ironies of Pop, it was scandalous, visionary, romantic, and, perhaps most importantly, rooted in the ordinary truth of modern experience. Jess, who grew up in LA, talked about visiting old mining towns in the Mojave Desert with his dad. The fabled prospector Old Sourdough was still alive, and Jess remembers the slapdash collage of calendars, posters, and ads that graced one of his ramshackle cabins: “a little palace assembled from scrap wood, pieces of aluminum, junk, tins, almost any type of found object you can imagine.”
Jess was no gutter artist, though, and his most profound work of mythopoetic collage achieves a high tone of lyrical and philosophical intensity. Narkissos is an immense paste-up assembled from hand-drawn copies that Jess made, in pencil, of bits and pieces he had cataloged over the decades. Based on a sketch first made in 1959, Narkissos stands almost six feet tall and took Jess over twenty years of obsessive work to complete (and then only after he gave up the plan to execute a mirror image of the work in oils). Narkissos is a masterpiece, perhaps the single greatest work of collage by an American, and, for my money, the high peak of spiritual plastic art in California. It is a dark and playful palimpsest of fairy tales and heavy gnostic truths, a hall of hieroglyphic mirrors that reflects on the myth of Narcissus until the reflections and the desires that motivate them melt into the empyrean. Narkissos drips with allusions, inside jokes, puns, and echoes (including Echo). The figure of Pan, for example, is a composite figure drawn from a Pan-amanian flute player. Similar, if less corny, gotchas await those who contemplate the woman on the tricycle, or the ergot of rye that lies near the pool, or the figure of Eros himself, which Jess assembled from a Hellenist bronze, a hunk from The Young Physique, and a trippy design from the Symbolist painter Charles Filiger.
Behind all this archetypal ping-pong lies the mystical real deal: an elusive and many-layered invocation of the romantic imagination based on Jess’ deep study of the hermetic, Neoplatonic and Romantic transformation of Ovid’s classic telling of the myth. Of course, Jess doesn’t hand you such meanings on a platter, and not just because he wants you to do your own conceptual and spiritual work to make the meanings real. In Jess’ romantic conception, meaning itself is infinite, not in the endlessly deferred sense of the deconstructionists, but in the excessive, almost carnivalesque sense of dream’s endless labyrinth. But even as Jess’ esoteric reading resonates in the primal Platonic cave of myth-making and desire, its echoes can also be heard in the clamorous din of commercial culture. Metropolis and a Maurice Sendek frog both make an appearance in the work, and the figure of Narcissus prominently clutches a strip of Krazy Kat panels (whose creator, the brilliant George Herriman, lived and worked in Los Angeles). Myth-time is always ready to burst through modern time, or even the personal mythology of the individual, countercultural artist. In other words, if Jess’ romance is true, then the forces he evokes are much larger than the individual artist: the imagination we discover working in this hermetic cartoon does not, as he once said, “stop where my imagination leaves off.”
As with Berman, Jess wove together his work and his life. And that life in turn was thoroughly intertwined with the life of poet Robert Duncan, whom he first me in 1951. A Bay Area denizen whose poetic voice matured in the 1950s and 60s, Duncan’s standing among popular readers of poetry has suffered unfairly from the fact that, while he wrote some of the most spiritually mighty poetry in postwar America, he was not a Beat. It also can be difficult stuff. As a poet, Duncan was more an heir of H.D. and Mallarmé than of Whitman or William Carlos Williams, and, though he shared the romanticism of figures like Ginsberg and Snyder, his tastes and sensibility were almost anachronistic. The mountain-man populism and loud-mouthed, self-promoting sass of so much Beat poetry, which for all its marvels is largely to blame for horrors like the 1990s poetry slam scene, was alien to Duncan, who was deeply versed in hermeticism, mythology, and gnostic literature. Like Yeats, he was beholden to a high and esoteric romanticism, but a romanticism whose spectral beams he redirected through a postwar filter of Freudian self-consciousness, social fragmentation, and an acute awareness of the violent contradictions of eros and the mercurial inconsistency of the psyche.
Commentators often explain the Beat celebration of drugs, mysticism, and Zen as just ways that bohemians could resist the mundane values forced upon them by their upbringing. This pat reading, which tends to reduce transcendence to rebellion and the spiritual to “culture,” does not work with Duncan, whose adoptive parents were bourgeois occultsts members of a small Bay Area Hermetic Brotherhood that had spun off the UK’s proto-Theosophical Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Duncan’s parents picked the baby based on his astrological chart, which suggested to them that his last incarnation occurred during the fading days of Atlantis. As a boy, Duncan had a recurrent apocalyptic dream that he came to believe was a memory of Atlantis; this dream later formed the psychic nut of one of his most famous poems, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.”
Though a lifelong acolyte of the romantic imagination, Duncan was never a true believer, and he never became a public mystic like Ginsberg or Gary Snyder. But though his appreciation for the occult was in a large part aesthetic one senses that he loved Hermes Trismegistus the way he loved Tic Toc of Oz he intimately understood that esoterica was, in essence, a spiritual assemblage. Syncretism was the name of the game. Duncan was fascinated, for example, by Madame Blavatsky’s core texts Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, which are both frothing stews of astrology, alchemy, numerology, neo-Platonism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Vedic systems. He called them “midden heaps where, beyond the dictates of reason, as in the collagist’s art, from what has been disregarded or fallen into disregard, genres are mixed, exchanges are made, mutations begun from scraps and excerpts from different pictures…to form the figures of a new composition.” While he did not believe Blavatsky’s mystic claims, he still bought her basic line. As Duncan put it in his amazing H.D. Book : “until man lives once more in these awes and consecrations, these obediences to what he does not know but feels, until he takes new thought in what he has discarded, he will not understand what he is.”
Duncan tried to live and write his life in obedience to these “awes and consecrations,” thoses transpersonal forces that surround and in some sense compose the self. Rather than “express himself,” like the heroic Beat soul, Duncan took the passive part, opening his soul to influences incoming from literature, dream, painting, the newspaper, the gods, and the spontaneity of language itself. Poetry was the “opening of a field” where such forces would meet, combine, and clash; as the poet, he was as interested as anyone to see how it all came out. Of course, there is an oracular dimension to all this. Duncan did not revise his poetry much, and his great “Medieval Poems” were essentially channeled a la surrealism .
On a more intimate level, this field is a frame of spiritual collage. Duncan’s relationship to the forces of the psyche was essentially that of an appropriation artist who, as Jess once described it, allows found images to find him. On a broader level, Duncan believed his writing was part of a “grand collage” of aesthetic and imaginative life, a belief reflected not only in the numerous citations he weaves into his verse, but also to his poetry’s almost Borgesian ambiance of allusion, reference, and bibliomania. His long series of “Passages” cite Emperor Julian and Ezra Pound, and occasionally simply lists cool books like The Aurora, The Secret Book of the Egyptian Gnostics and The Princess and the Goblin . “Apprehensions,” perhaps his single most haunting and convulsive work, weaves quotations from Marcilio Ficino and Bruno of Nola into a poem that reads like the tendrils of a fast-fading revelation tickling you from the far sides of dream.
Duncan’s citations and allusions are hardly bubblegum cards found at the side of the road, but his work is still an extension of the Californian alchemy of trash the “midden heaps” of its pop occulture, the ugly bric-a-brac of a mercantile frontier awaiting transformation. In “Nel Mezzo Del Cammin Di Nostra Vita,” written in 1959, Duncan reflects on this alchemy in his praise of the Watts Towers, built in the flats southeast of downtown LA by the untrained Italian tile-setter Simon Rodia:
from the city dump, from sea-wrack,
taller than the Holy Roman Catholic church
steeples, and, moreover,
inspired; built up from bits of beauty
sorted out-thirty-three years of it-
the great mitred structure rising
out of squalid suburbs where the
mind is beaten back to the traffic, ground
down to the drugstore, the mean regular houses
straggling out of downtown sections
of imagination defeated.
Nothing shocking here: these are good old twentieth-century Bohemian values. Duncan praises the outsider artist, who goes against the grain, risks height, ignores dogma. This is all part of our “alternative” myth these days, but it remains to be seen whether the margins still exist culturally, economically, spiritually that could allow such creative feats to flourish. Juxtaposition has become an advertiser’s art. Trash is not the same thing today, in our belated self-conscious world of thrift-store savvy, mediated hipster rebellion, and omniverous collector mania. Before you know it, it’s on Ebay. Many of us still hear the spiritual call of redemptive refuse, of glimmers, junk, and “bits of beauty.” But it remains to be seen whether we can join the ranks of those who, in Ginsberg’s howling words, “dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed…”