“River-Root: A Syzygy”
- by William Everson (Brother Antoninus)(1976)William Everson’s long narrative poem, “River-Root: A Syzygy,” is said to have been written in response to allen ginsberg’s “howl,” which appeared in the 1957 second number of Evergreen Review-and to which Everson reportedly responded in horror. The report emphasizes his revulsion from Ginsberg’s autoeroticism, thus occasioning this 173 strophe, 32-page counterpoint that celebrates heterosexual love. Perhaps this is true but, as thus bluntly stated, it is certainly as to the essence of the piece insufficient and short-sighted. The poem seems more appropriately described as a paean to the erotic fullness of the world itself, the masculine and feminine sexual drives reflecting the very dynamism of God’s creation and of God Himself/Herself—as personified in the extremely explicit lovemaking of a Catholic couple, who are the parents of four children and who become the poem’s centerpiece only after establishing a geologic-in fact, a cosmic—reach that recognizes the interacting opposites that allow for a dynamic existence that is sacrament itself.The “River” is the Missouri–Mississippi, and the “Root” is a kind of inverted tree of creation, the multirivered, multistreamed origin and feed of the Father of Waters. This torrential creative force is also the cosmic source of galaxies, stars, and planets. And, of course, by homonym it is the “Route,” or way, by which all creation is fashioned and directed. In this metaphor of creation all things are sexual:For the River is male. He is raking down ridges,And sucks up mud from alluvial flats, far muckbottomedvalleys.He drags cold silt a long way, a passion to bring,Keeps reaching back for what he has left andchanneling on.All head: but nonetheless his roots are restless.They have need of suckling, the passion to fulfill.In the glut of hungerHe chews down the kneecaps of mountains.And bringing down to bring on has but oneresolve: to deliver.It is this that makes up his elemental need,Constitutes his primal ground, the under-achingsex of the River.The poem is archetypal. It is the cry of all life that is intent on multiplying—buck and doe, buffalo and cow, squirrel, coyote, rabbit, drake, pike, turtle, and bullfrog—culminating in a mixed-race couple who represent consciousness with brain capacity and immortal soul, is able to give glory to the maker of it all. The couple is resolving their recent quarrel of wills in sacramental coitus, repeating, varying, fast and slow paced, aggressive and gentle, in a whole night of lovemaking, intermittently dreaming of separate childhoods and ongoing burgeoning in children. It is sex at its most explicit. One thinks of two pornography trials in San Francisco, the first for Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956, the second for lenore kandel’s love Book in 1967; the first cleared, the second judged guilty of obscenity, though later a mistrial was declared. The second was precisely the same ecstatic and specific word spilling as in “River-Root” with its “phallos–thrust” and “labial door,” “scrotum” and “vulva,” but “River-Root” outdistanced the second by 24 pages with 151 verse paragraphs of explicit sex compared to the Love Book’s six pages and 12 verse paragraphs. All three poems, candid to an extreme but upright, would constitute a significant test of whether discernment and justice were possible from a jury of peers. The essence is not in the details but in their moral purpose. Everson’s poem at any rate is intended not as a rejection of the Beat world nor as a condemnation of Ginsberg. It is a desperate expedient to widen and deepen the context of sex and love in that world and to give a counterpoint to “Howl,” where sex is a symbol of the alienation caused by society.Everson would offer assonance to the prevailing dissonance:Beyond him [that is, the lover] the River,And beyond the river the continental mass,And beyond the humped hemisphere,somnolent, awash like a whale on its primal sea,And beyond the hemisphere the globed earth, female, . . .Each one is seized,As the God so seizes in the act of existence, in the swept fire,The excellence of the creative act, . . .[m2]Everson echoes Ginsberg’s “Howl” but challenges his fellow poet:For the phallos is holyAnd holy is the womb: the holy phallosIn the sacred womb. And they melt.And flowing they merge, the incarnational joinOned with the Christ.This sexual love, though lost in the world of established superficiality, gray flannel suits, conformity, mediocrity, deaf and dumb response, materialism, repression, exclusion, and so on that the Beats reject, exists beatifically in God–presence, wholeness of spirit, worship, mystery, and incarnated God.The great mystery for Everson is the Incarnation, God entering and becoming part of the world, a world in which Ginsberg perhaps wants to believe but that is obscured by the time’s all-flattening veil of post-World War II willful forgetfulness and even forgery of mystery.The word Syzygy closing the title has a dictionary meaning: “the conjunction or opposition of two heavenly bodies,” “any two related things, either alike or opposite,” from the Greek “yoked,” “union,” “pair.” The poem was published in 1976 (though written in 1957) as a celebration of the bicentennial of the United States, but its original context, though meaningful also to the national persona, was the Jungian joining of male and female, animus and anima, a wholeness that Everson found missing both in the postwar country and in the Beat response to that disjunction. “River-Root: A Syzygy” was a breakthrough for Everson/Antoninus. After a two-year dryness or writer’s block in the monastery, the poetry flowed once more in that year 1957 with all its breakthrough events. Although the poem was not immediately published (one wonders what his priory officials and the order’s censors would have thought of it!), it prepared him for the later 1967 Rose of Solitude and the 1973 Tendril in the Mesh integrations, which freed Everson more clearly and cleanly to choose to leave a monastic life that was not congenial to his nature. The nine-year publication delay, however, also blocked any response from his confreres, the Beats. How they would have judged it must remain only a guess. Everson’s own words on “River-Root” and its relationship to his other poems should be read in the essay “The Priapic Image,” which is most readily available in two collections of his forewords and interviews.Bibliography■ Everson, William. “The Priapic Image.” In Earth Poetry: Selected Essays & Interviews of William Everson, edited by Lee Bartlett, 205–218. Berkeley: Oyez, 1980.Robert Brophy***“River-Root: A Syzygy” by Sanders, Ed(1939– )Ed Dorn writes, “Whereas movie stars think of themselves as movie stars, Ed Sanders is a movie star.” If Sanders had to pick his own gravestone, he would want it to read, “Ed Sanders, American Bard” because a bard, he explains, is a poet who takes public stances. Though poetry and public stances are two things that characterize Sanders’s life, they are two of dozens. American Bard, though apt, is a grave understatement.Much younger than most of the first Beats, Sanders discovered allen ginsberg’s “howl” as a 17 year old in Kansas City, Missouri. He was, as he tells it, overnight reborn, quoting from the poem (which his teachers proclaimed “filth”) in his classes, questioning authority at every turn, even being suspended for a time. After high school graduation he headed to New York to become a poet himself, kicking off a head-spinning list of achievements from poet activist to musical inventor to rock star.After earning his degree in Classics from New York University in 1964, Sanders founded the Peace Eye Book Store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he ran a free press that was dedicated to helping renegade magazines and insurgent leaflets blanket the streets with their messages. One such magazine was Sanders’s own Fuck You!: A Magazine of the Arts, a venture that proclaimed itself “a total assault on the culture” and as such garnered much notice from the police at a time when perceived obscenity, like that of comedian Lenny Bruce, was literally being put on trial. Then, along with Tuli Kupferburg, Sanders formed the controversial “folk-rock poetry satire group” The Fugs. As he writes in the liner notes to The Fugs Second Album, “We vowed to live from our art, to have fun and party continuously, and somehow to translate our creativity to tape.” The band was a shock to the system with loads of satirical songs such as “Kill For Peace,” had a penchant for using envelope-pushing “dirty” words and sexual innuendo, and had an honest desire to draw attention to “the oodles of freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution that was not being used.” True to their 1985 album title, Refuse to be Burnt Out, The Fugs still perform occasionally and released The Fugs Final CD in 2003.As Cuthbert Mayerson, a character from Sanders’s “The Poetry Reading” in tales of Beatnik Glory, believed, “if you piss off the cultural frontal lobes of Time Mag, you must be doing something right.” It seems one of Sanders’s goals has always been in service to just such an idea. As Brooke Horvath writes in “Introducing Ed Sanders,” “Ed was the stuff of counterlegend, up there with [ken] kesey and [bob] dylan, Ginsberg and Emmett Grogan.” More than even a writer/poet, rocker, bookstore owner, and controversial magazine editor, he has been a tireless social and political activist. With his doctrine of “fierce pacifism,” he has walked the South for racial equality and marched on the Pentagon literally attempting to exorcise it. In 1961 he was jailed for attempting to board the Ethan Allen, a submarine carrying enough Polaris missiles to kill, he estimated, “about thirty million people.” In jail he penned his first book of poetry, “Poem From Jail,” on wads of toilet paper, which he transferred to sections of cigarette packs. Of his many writings, what has possibly gained Sanders the most fame (and infamy) is his investigative book The family: tHe story of cHarles manson’s dune BuGGy attack Battalion. Interested not only in the warped psychosis that bloomed in Manson’s circle but also in the circumstances and the society that allowed such a blooming, Sanders went undercover to shed light on the Manson Family’s exploits. As Thomas Myers writes in “Rerunning the Creepy Crawl: Ed Sanders and Charles Manson,” “Sanders discovered in his grisly data one possible destination of his own journey as activist and anarchist, where his idea of ‘total assault’ might also be interpreted in the writing of DEATH TO PIGS, RISE, and HEALTER SKELTER [sic] on walls with the blood of random victims.” Not deterred by the horror of the Manson Family but enlightened by his own self-discoveries, Sanders continued with his own bardic brand of cultural assault.Sanders speaks both Greek and Latin, translating songs like The Byrd’s “Turn Turn Turn,” into “Tropei Tropei Tropei” for his 1990 album, Songs in Ancient Greek. Other solo albums include Sanders Truckstop (1970), Beer Cans on the Moon (1972), and American Bard (1995). He is the author of four musical dramas and three volumes of Tales of Beatnik Glory, a series of short stories that chronicle underground city life of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to many prestigious fellowships and honors, his 1987 poetry collection tHirstinG for peace in a raGinG century won him an American Book Award. For his long list of published poems, he has even invented instruments to facilitate their proper reading, among them the Pulse Lyre, the Microlyre, and the Talking Tie, an instrument literally worn as a tie. Sanders continues his writing and activism in his hometown of Woodstock, New York, where, along with his wife Miriam, he writes and edits for the local Woodstock Journal and hosts a local cable-access talk show where he discusses such topics as water pollution and a place to dispose of such waste as old tires and paint and where he conducts interviews with rockers and poets. Keeping to his belief in the transformative power of the bard, Sanders lectures on investigative poetry, insisting that “poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.” As such, he is currently working on a nine-volume America, A History in Verse. The first three volumes, 1900–39, 1940–61, and 1962–70, have already been published by Black Sparrow Press.Bibliography■ Horvath, Brook. “Edward Sanders on His Fiction: An Interview.” Review of Contemporary Fiction. 19, no. 1 (1999): 23–30.■ ——— “Introducing Ed Sanders.” Review of Contemporary Fiction. 19, no. 1 (1999): 7–12.■ Myers, Thomas. “Rerunnng the Creepy Crawl: Ed Sanders and Charles Manson.” Review of Contemporary Fiction. 19, no. 1 (1999): 81–90.■ Sanders, Edward. Tales of Beatnik Glory. New York: Stonehill, 1975.■ ——— “The Fugs Second Album.” Liner Notes. The Fugs Second Album. Fugs Records, 1993.■ ———. Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 1961-1985. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1987.Jennifer Cooper
Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. Kurt Hemmer. 2014.
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