Dark Brown

by Michael McClure
   In Jack Kerouac’s novel BiG sur, Kerouac’s narrator Jack Duluoz praises “Dark Brown” by Pat McLear (a character based on michael mcclure) as “the most fantastic poem in America.” Dark Brown is McClure’s first book-length poem. The work depicts the poet’s quest toward clarity and a sense of rebirth, following a lengthy series of sometimes dark peyote visions that are chronicled most fully in McClure’s 1961 collection The New Book / A Book of Torture.
   Whereas The New Book / A Book of Torture represented McClure’s struggles with the dark peyote visions of “HELL PAIN BEWILDERED EMPTINESS,” Dark Brown offers what William King has called “a psychic restructuring” through which the poet discovers and finds renewal in a strong unifying force in nature. This universal force, which McClure refers to as “Odem”—a German word for the spirit of beasts—or the “Undersoul,” is the visceral bond which ties together all forms of life. Reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist concept of the “Over-Soul,” McClure’s undersoul provides a vision of clarity and unity in a chaotic universe: “Unclouded one. / Undersoul. Odem, Dark brown, Umber, Beast. / The undersoul a star!” By embracing this universal mammalian life force, the poet discovers within himself “the deep and / singing beast” and the “undamning” of his creative powers:
   As in much of McClure’s work, this acknowledgment of humanity’s connections to the forces of the natural world contains a strong element of what Walt Whitman had called the procreant urge of sexuality. Dark Brown is steeped in sexual energy and in the raw physicality of sex. As McClure writes in the introduction to the poem, the notion of love as ethereal—a product of the mind or the soul—is illusory: instead, he writes, “Love is body beating upon body, the confrontation of face and face or shoulder and shoulder. I say Love is not a dream or mind-invention.”
   While critics and censors found the raw language of Dark Brown to be offensive, it was the two graphically erotic codas included after the title poem, “Fuck Ode” and “Garland,” that spurred the most controversy. Perhaps more graphically sexual than any work in the Beat canon, these two works offered a compelling depiction of human sexuality as both sacred and erotic: “Freed / Of all lies the face is pure. The gestures are imm- / ortal.” As a result of its graphic sexual content, the 1961 Auerhahn Press version of the book was at times sold under the counter in plain brown wrappers in some bookstores. Despite the censors’ early objections, the poem’s vitality and energy endure, making McClure’s Dark Brown one of the finest long poems of the Beat era.
■ Phillips, Rod. Michael McClure. Western Writers Series 159. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 2003.
■ Stephenson, Gregory. “From the Substrate: Notes on Michael McClure.” The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990: 105–130.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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