Tapestry and the Web, The

by Joanne Kyger
   In her first poetry collection, joanne kyger revisits and revises Homeric epic myth, adding layers of personal, reflective imagery and references. The backdrop to the composition of her poems gives a snapshot of the West Coast Beat scene. Arriving at age 22 in San Francisco in 1957, Kyger was quickly swept up into the North Beach arts milieu, meeting poets and attending readings at the numerous lively venues that were popularized by members of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Writers visited from Greenwich Village, and there was an influx of students who had previously studied at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
   Kyger began to attend the poetry circle that grouped around Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, and it was there, on February 23, 1958, that she first read material that would become part of The Tapestry and the Web, the work that Kyger has identified as her breakthrough in establishing her own poetic “voice.” Duncan later described the scene: Kyger, in her habitual stance of kneeling and holding the text before her, intensely focused on her words, reads to the mostly male assemblage “The Maze,” a poem about a woman who was driven mad by expectations of passive fidelity. The response, said Duncan, was an immediate “furore” as Kyger’s passionate and iconoclastic vision registered with the usually highly critical group. Drawing on Homer’s tale, Kyger creates a dynamic Penelope who was more fueled by eros than the nobly stoic spouse of Homer’s epic; the latter guards her wifely virtue and nightly unweaves her daily tapestry work. Kyger reevaluates the passivity of Penelope’s patience for Odysseus, asking in the poem “Pan as the Son of Penelope,” “Just HOW / solitary was her wait?” Kyger portrays Penelope as wily and in control, and he essays new versions of Penelope’s long wait for the return of her husband, imagining more and more daring accounts: Penelope as a cheating wife; Penelope giving birth to a son fathered by all the suitors; Penelope slowly going mad. Through the central metaphor of dreaming and weaving, Kyger explores burgeoning female creativity. The poems of The Tapestry and The Web grow from the centering mythic narratives, which, in Kyger’s chatty, colloquial, Beat-influenced idiom, are grounded in personal concerns and a sense of immediacy. Critic and chronicler of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance Michael Davidson has argued that in some ways Kyger is herself analogous to Penelope, citing her position as a singular female in a largely male artistic enclave, surrounded by suitors/ male writers whom she “enchants” with her poetry. Certainly there is something both playful and subversive in Kyger’s challenge to Homeric and patriarchal authority. Influences in Kyger’s work include both the late modernism of Duncan and the nature-oriented, Zen-inflected work of gary snyder (Kyger’s husband from 1960 to 1964 whom she met in 1958).
   Ultimately it is the personal narrative in Kyger’s work, an impulsive and exhilarating voice, that bridges her navigation of these various influences. Kyger’s achievement in The Tapestry and The Web is the creation of a book-length, cohesive work that is autobiographical, laconic, colloquial, grounded in classical mythology, and yet personal.
■ Davidson, Michael. “Appropriations: Women and the San Francisco Renaissance.” In The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Midcentury. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 172–199.
■ Duncan, Robert. As Testimony: The Poem & The Scene. San Francisco: White Rabbit, 1964.
■ Friedman, Amy L. “Joanne Kyger, Beat Generation Poet: ‘a porcupine traveling at the speed of light.’ ” In Reconstructing The Beats, edited by Jennie Skerl, 73–88. New York: Palgrave, 2004.
   Amy L. Friedman

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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