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  • Whispers and Roars
  • Patrick James Dunagan (bio)
Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems. Michael McClure; Leslie Scalapino, ed. University of California Press. 344 pages; cloth, $55.00, paper, $24.95, eBook, $24.95.

A friend of mine recently awoke from a nap while aboard a cross-country flight to the quite surreal shock of seeing poet Michael McClure up on the in-flight film screen. McClure's visage was soon exchanged for a clip of Jim Morrison crooning out a rock ballad, the film being a recent documentary of the late 1960s psychedelic band The Doors. A habitué of the Haight-Ashbury scene, McClure was familiar with many rock 'n roll stars of the era, even assisting Janis Joplin with writing the lyrics for her hit "Mercedes Benz." In recent years, he has been collaborating with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, releasing albums together and frequently playing tour dates in major cities. Short to say, McClure gets around. He's nothing less than a living icon. Throughout his life, McClure has remained a dedicatee of the arts, friend to artists such as Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Stan Brakhage, Jess, Wallace Berman, George Herms, and many others, all the while dedicating himself to his work as a poet.

As McClure says in his brief preface, he wishes his poems "be soft and vigorous as the breath of a sparrow on the redwood deck rail and as tumultuous as a lion purring in the rain by the roadside in Kenya." He's not kidding, either. McClure is bombastically driven to using rather hyperbolic images, yet his work also exhibits a lucid, Zen-inspired embrace of beauty and calm. In contrast to the at times overbearing enthusiasm with which he hurls images onto the page, McClure also offers up subtle rhythmic play of alliteration and rhyme as he delights in all forms of life. Whether it is as a young father watching his daughter in "Two Weeks Baby Sunbathing":

                This old brown velvet              by daylight is not eternal velvetbut the baby on it, bright in the morning sun,              is more beautiful than human.                Her glory fills the room.    Her back and buttocks are mounds of color.        Her toes and fingers are fat stars.

Or celebrating what he assumes to be the playfulness of wild creatures, as below in "Gray Fox at Solstice."

                The fox coughs,                    "Hahh!"                Kicks his feet—                    stretches.            Beautiful claw toesin purple brodiaea lilies.    He dance-runs through        the Indian paintbrush.            Galaxies in spirals.                Galaxies in balls.

Whether just imagined or eye witnessed, McClure's vivid imagery engages the imagination as strongly as any documentary.

McClure's conception of his own poetics follows the lead set by Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse" (1950), which bases the measure of the free verse line on the breath of the poet writing, yet for McClure, this focus yields a cosmic, ecological sense of identification within a greater whole from out of which he derives both purpose and value centered in the self as physical body.

Our breath            IS            TO        SERVE            THE    ULTIMATE       beautyof ourselves.

Possessed with a near manic desire to share a Message with his art, he verges on, and for many readers no doubt crosses over, a too-thin display of an easily come by sense of there being a higher meaning to the order of things.

In this regard, he's prone to a quasi-New Age Spiritualism that encourages an erstwhile yearning in his work to give space to representing the perspective and assumed interests of the non-human. In "Hummingbird Ode," McClure addresses a dying hummingbird "smashed on the plate / glass window." He pushes himself to ask: "WHAT'S / ON YOUR SIDE OF THE VEIL? / DO YOU DIP YOUR BEAK / in the vast black lily / of space? Does the sweetness / of the pain go on forever?" He can't help but continue: "WHERE ARE THE LOVES THAT MAKE THE BLOSSOM / of your body? Do they still spin / in the air? Your wives / and loves? Are you now / more than this meat? Finally / A STAR??" Meanwhile in "The Air," McClure goes so far as to adopt the mask of a lion...


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