Nonfiction Review by Richard Cole

Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett, Robin Blaser (Vancouver: New Star, 2011). Paperbound, 128 pp., $16.Robin Blaser

When Robin Blaser passed away in Vancouver in 2009, at age 83, he left behind a miscellany of literary friends whose diversity was only surpassed by the experimental fragmentation and non-narrative collage that we find so remarkable in his verse. From his formative years as a member of the 1960s San Francisco Renaissance with Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Spicer, to his tenure at Simon Fraser University, and later, in the 1980s, as a key figure for the Kootenay School poets, Blaser’s geographical movements illustrate that poetry, like friendship, is constructed through cross-border exchanges, linguistic, national, and interpersonal. It is no wonder, then, that Blaser’s lifelong serial poem, The Holy Forest, defines “friendship, which is guidance in every attention,” as a mediation of interpersonal boundaries. Coming as it does at the end of the poem—indeed near the end of Blaser’s life—his definition of companionship as an unrelenting exchange of instructions between people, clarifies intimacy as a social bond, forged by a mutual arrangement of trust and influence. Despite Blaser’s astute observations, there is a voice of trepidation about friendship in his later work. Sensing that the public sphere finds ways to contaminate the social interactions between individuals, Blaser’s later poetry is punctuated with descriptions that the unrelenting social invasion “of the Private Sector worries me.”

It is Blaser’s understanding of friendship as a “relationship between privies” that warrants the latest book on the poet. Blaser’s concerns about the atrophy of a certain kind of experience of social interaction—a friendship with a genuine connection or authenticity—is put to the test by two individuals who knew him best. Simply titled Robin Blaser, the book contains only two essays, penned by two of Blaser’s friends, Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett; thus it can hardly be described as a collection of critical essays. More peculiar is the absence of an introduction or preface—an unconventional publishing decision, though one that certainly corresponds to Blaser’s tendency to preserve fragmented knowledge, rather than to render it inauthentic with unwarranted connections. The only sense of a connection is historical, with two writers documenting very different types of friendships with Blaser at different points in his life. Located in the pages between these two essays are over a dozen wonderfully candid photographs of Blaser. Yet, perhaps the most meticulous aspects of the book are the anecdotal experiences provided by Persky and Fawcett. Thankfully, when their personal experiences with Blaser are shared, these stories do not come across as flagrant attempts to justify the poet’s actions as a patron saint of the arts, nor do Persky and Fawcett use such stories to glorify their own careers. Quite refreshingly, Blaser is revealed in equitable terms: as intensely social, and yet, quite paradoxically, at other times hesitant toward social contact. Readers learn, for instance, that Jack Spicer once groused, “Oh no, Robin never comes to the bar.” Of course, on that same night Blaser would show up at the bar. Through such anecdotes, Blaser’s complex sense of sociability is recounted by Persky and Fawcett as having such a degree of unpredictability that it evaded even those who knew him personally.

Stan Persky, who moved to Canada in 1965 with Blaser, guides readers through key moments that would define his own formative years writing under Blaser’s guidance; the essay then aptly shifts to closer readings—a dying art in criticism, to be sure. From his first encounter with Blaser in 1960, to the final poem he would show Blaser before he died, Persky asserts that Blaser sought an assurance in poetry for the mutual dynamics that facilitate both friendship and politics. “Although Blaser’s approach to politics is variously direct and indirect,” says Persky, “his poetry is perhaps surprisingly political, or, more important, almost always politically intelligent.” The question of closeness—between objects and people—is given particular attention. When Blaser “fumed, as he called it, over a poem at the book-cluttered table,” Persky demonstrates that most often the poet was concerned with getting the distance between things right. In other words, Blaser’s poetry demonstrates a cartographical impulse to map not only things, but the spaces in between them. As Persky explains, this affective mapping of the everyday spaces exposes readers to the complex hierarchy of things in the household. The ordered decorum of this domestic sphere is surprisingly tied to questions of social order: “as a museum, the house for [Blaser] was an order of objects, art, furniture, carpets, books, each deliberately chosen and arranged, so that their inter-relations set up a sort of field of activity.” But to what extent does Blaser purposely misread or intentionally embellish the distances between objects for poetic effect? More discussion is necessary to comprehend how, and how well, Blaser was able to distinguish the psychological impulse of poetry from its social function. Indeed, this boundary must be preserved rather than dissolved if we are to understand Blaser’s take on the problems and limitations for poetry in the postwar period. As a postmodernist poet, he was acutely aware that the modernist poets that preceded him had failed to achieve revolutionary change through their art. Blaser’s work also contains numerous references to the decline of poetry with the increase in popularity of other popular forms, such as television. That said, Persky’s essay illustrates that his own personal and writerly revolutions were defined by Blaser’s cultural anxieties. Importantly, this essay also follows Blaser’s skillful poetic references to his favorite social philosophers, not least Foucault and de Certeau.

Brian Fawcett draws upon his experiences as a former Simon Fraser University student, focusing his essay on the poets discussed in Blaser’s classes. Particular attention is devoted to Blaser’s personal interactions and poetic affiliations over the years with American poet Charles Olson. Fawcett makes several important distinctions that sever his own connections to Olson, who at one time was considered by critics to be the pre-eminent postmodern American poet—a label that certainly does not hold today. The question of canonization is not extended in Fawcett’s discussion of Blaser’s inclusion within Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry. Although Fawcett employs the title interchangeably to describe both the anthology and a new postwar school of poetry, it should be noted that many poets included in the volume have become adverse to the label. Marjorie Perloff and others prove that Allen’s anthology marginalized just as many postwar poets as it included. However, the impressive strength of Fawcett’s essay is that it provides a fundamental reference point for readers hoping to finally answer the question of how Blaser’s academic life as a Canadian professor allowed him to explore the creative and theoretical interworking of Olson’s “projective verse,” and Spicer’s “poetic dictation.” He would eventually part ways with both writers to distinguish his own poetic practice, culminating in “The Practice of the Outside,” which states, in short, that because voice is alien, poetry thus becomes a practice of the outside, to chart how this othering transpires from an inaccuracy of language that must be restored. “It is within language,” Blaser writes, “that the world speaks to us with a voice that is not our own.”

This triangulation of friendship between Blaser, Persky, and Fawcett yields a valuable glimpse into how it is that the coteries between poets can reopen the matrix of a social language that most often remains closed. As Blaser reminds us “In Remembrance of Matthew Shepard,” a eulogy penned for a friend he never knew, “what changes are not things but their limits.”

—Richard Cole

As in The Malahat Review, 176, Autumn 2011, 101-105