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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 135-145

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"A Hard Rain"
Looking to Bob Kaufman

Aldon Lynn Nielsen

We fly ahead into the past . . .

--Bob Kaufman (Cranial 76)

Who will look to Bob Kaufman-if we don't?

--Barbara Christian (29)

para el topo, la aguja del agua.
No busquéis, negros, su grieta
para hallar la máscara infinita.
Buscad el gran sol del centro
hechos una piña zumbadora.
El sol que se desilza por los bosques
seguro de no encontrar una ninfa,
el sol que destruye números y no ha cruzado nunca un sueño

--Federico García Lorca (Poet in New York 24)

In the world of Bob Kaufman's poetics, Federico García Lorca and Crispus Attucks stand together in "The Ancient Rain." Kaufman asserts a kinship with Attucks, writing "Crispus Attucks is my son, my father, my brother, I am Black" (Ancient 80). Kaufman here fathers his own father. Further, he envisions an afterworld where "The Negroes have gone home with Lorca" (79). The music of "The Ancient Rain" is "purely American, not European" (77), and yet that pure product of the America that is shared by Kaufman with another poet whose roots are in the Caribbean, William Carlos Williams, that purely American ancient rain "illuminates Lorca, the mystery of America" shines in Lorca's eyes (79). It is Ben Belitt's English, however, that Kaufman embeds in his poem as the representation of the "voice out of the whirlwind": [End Page 135]

Federico García Lorca wrote:
Black Man, Black Man, Black Man
For the mole and the water jet
Stay out of the cleft.
Seek out the great sun
Of the center.
The great sun gliding
     over dryads.
The sun that undoes
     all the numbers,
Yet never
     crossed over a
         dream. (Kaufman, Ancient 80)

Kaufman's incorporation of lines from Lorca is not unique to this poem. As Maria Damon has pointed out, two lines in another Kaufman poem, "Oregon," are derived "almost verbatim from 'Los Negros' in Ben Bellitt's translation of Lorca's Poet in New York" (Dark End 56). We need more weight on that word "almost" as it contends with "verbatim." The lines we read in "The Ancient Rain" turn out to be neither quite what Lorca wrote nor what Belitt translated. By conjoining Attucks and Lorca, Kaufman effects a yet more radical translation of Lorca and of modernism, conjuring a transmigration of African-inflected verbal innovation that transfigures modernism, placing Kaufman himself in the position of both father and son to the modern, temporally as well as racially miscegenated.

Still, in the chaotic chorus that has accompanied that turning, Kaufman's audacity has fallen into a silence deeper and longer-lasting than his own legendary periods of self-imposed or self-inflicted silence. Kaufman's rewriting (perhaps rewiring) of the program of the modern became one of those "Beat Occlusions" that Maria Damon speaks of in her essay in Beat Culture and the New America. From the time of Barbara Christian's 1972 essay "Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?" to the recent appearance of studies by Kathryne Lindberg, Mona Lisa Saloy, Mark Reid and Damon herself, few American critics have broken the silence surrounding what must be seen in retrospect as a veritable transubstantiation whereby Kaufman raised the body of black arts from within the entombment of modernity, retaking at the same time the terrain of the American cultural future anterior. "Beat Occlusions?" In The Portable Beat Reader, editor Ann Charters declares Philip Lamantia to be "the only American poet of his generation to embrace fully the discoveries of surrealism" (318), thus silencing the remarkable similarities between Lamantia's poem "High" and the poem titled "O-Jazz-O" by Bob Kaufman (a poet only two years older than Lamantia), a poem that appears just eleven pages later in Charters' anthology; apparently occluding as well the work of Ted Joans, who seems to have been insufficiently potable for the Portable Beat Reader. Joans is not even mentioned in Charters' list of "Books for Further Reading" (623-31).

Kaufman anticipated these occlusions, not...


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