- But Seriously, How Long?
Stephen Freedman, ed.
University of New Mexico Press
408 Pages; Print, $36.56
I first met David Antin’s work in 1968, when I was a suffering graduate student in Comp Lit at Rutgers. Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology, Technicians of the Sacred (1968) came into my hands, and life changed for the better. Instead of the canon that was force-fed to us, here was new life-blood, the oral tradition––past, future, worldwide. In the commentary section, we hungry readers found contemporary American poets who were energetic and innovative, who challenged the staid traditions of “forefathers.” I have taught work from Rothenberg’s anthologies in my classes ever since. I always offer David Antin’s translation of André Breton’s “Libre Union” (1931) (“Free Union”) to workshop poets; it still hits like a revelation. In the context of world poetry that drew on the oral tradition, Antin never seemed like an outsider. His work was at home among tribal poets, sacred clowns, and shaman. Entering at the back door of Technicians, Antin’s poem, “From Definitions for Mendy” (1965) offered an elegy and companion piece to “Free Union.”
Antin’s translation of Breton and his own elegy-chant in Technicians are poems of process, fugues rather than architectonic set pieces. Predictive: his lyrics then and now spin like cosmic wheels; they draw on images that proffer themselves and are provisionally accepted––resonant place-holders rather than poems built like houses of worship. Antin’s poems discover big and little truths as they go. As he wrote in “Mendy”:
we must go down into ourselvesdown to the floor that is not imaginarywhere hunger lives and thirsthunger imagine bread thirst imagine water
Poets can be truth-seekers or Tricksters––sometimes both. David Antin does some fine tap-dancing with language in How Long is the Present: Selected Talk Poems of David Antin; I think his work locates itself firmly in the company of truth-seekers. Yet his Trickster side is also agile; his wry asides remind the reader of Woody Allen––without the child molestation charge. A savvy article placing Antin in the tradition of Jewish comics and Talmudic scholars can be found online in Tablet, “Talmudic Improv: A Visit With Poet David Antin” (2015).
How Long is the Present embodies Antin’s ongoing poetic inquiry into what thinking aloud rhythmically can uncover. The long poems gathered here were originally performed as improvisational “talk poems” during the period from mid-1970 to the early 1990’s. How do these poems read in print, without the stage, microphone and amps?
The book challenges a reviewer, as it is large and varied in its threads. Reviewers, like academics, like to categorize. This book resists. As I commented to my friend, “Reviewing this book is like reviewing the Grand Canyon in varied seasons and weather.” I can also picture this dynamic language as a waterfall of words and light such as what we experience at the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, where “Justice Rolls Down like Waters” in a light show of names (supporters of civil rights; a panoply of names that changes every second).
At times, this language feels material, like fabric. Its rhythmical pauses create the impression of woven cloth, of wearable art. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Antin had previously written about material culture, museum culture. I told my friend that the pauses in Antin’s book remind me of skywriting. At once solid and evanescent, these “beautiful [End Page 18] contradictions” are enfolded in Antin’s book.
The title, How Long is the Present, lets us know immediately that the poet is investigating the nature of time and art, as did French philosopher Bergson, when he posited a notion of “durée,” the qualitative time of art (1889). Proust took up Bergson’s idea and embodied it in his great project, A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927). Like Proust, David Antin explores the experience of inner time. How...