Desert Journal

by Ruth Weiss
   From 1961 to 1968, Ruth Weiss labored on what was to become her masterwork, DESERT JOURNAL, a collection of 40 poems, a record of a journey of self-discovery in the inscape of the creative mind. The text, illustrated with line drawings by artist Paul Blake, who became weiss’s life-partner in 1967, is indebted to both modernism and Beat postmodern aesthetics. weiss limited the composition of each poem to a single page of paper, reminiscent of but not directly inspired by jack kerouac’s basic method for the construction of many of his blues poems, allowing her internal processes to determine the content. The result is the creation of the illusion of the unrestrained moving mind, the many facets of consciousness revealed as a sparkly gem. The appropriation of myth, especially the biblical stories of Moses and Jesus wandering in the desert, faintly undergird the structure of the poem in the tradition of high modernism. The collection’s mixture of languages (real and imaginary) and its dreamlike setting also link weiss to the heritage of writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, whose signature use of repetition and word inversion is unmistakably present
   in lines such as
   pain is the first step
   into the desert
   absence of pain
   is the desert
   not have where
   is the desert
   not to have where to dance
   is the desert
   the desert becomes the dance.
   The speaker, whose gender shifts throughout the text, concludes the inner journey as the human female principle propelled toward the male principle of divine light. Not overtly sectarian, DESERT JOURNAL’s triumphant release of the human form fits beautifully with the spiritual pursuits of many Beat writers, particularly their study of Buddhism and the Gnostic traditions of Christianity and the kabbalah. DESERT JOURNAL, now out of print, was published in 1977 by Good Gay Poets in Boston. weiss’s poetry and prose reflects her affinity for a fascinating range of literary, musical, and cinematic texts. The influence of Stein can be seen in her love of word play, often daring to revel in the nonsensical and surreal. Johann Goethe, Johann Schiller, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allen Poe, Djuna Barnes, Francois Truffaut, Frederico Fellini, Billie Holliday, Django Rhinehart, and Charlie Parker all blend in her voice to create a vibrantly subtle vision of mystical confession. The characteristic that most distinctly renders her work “Beat” is her use of a spontaneous method of free association akin to Tristian Tzara’s Dadaism, William Butler Yeat’s automatism, jazz improvisation, and Buddhist intuition. She also believes deeply in the collaborative nature of artistic production, and many of her readings are performances involving collaboration with jazz and other musicians (including classical guitarists) and the audience members themselves. She will spend hours in rehearsal with musicians prior to a performance to establish a simpatico relationship of sound and narrative enabling the final improvisational performance to flow in unfettered synchronization.
■ Grace, Nancy M. “ruth weiss’s DESERT JOURNAL: A Modern-Beat-Pomo Performance.” In Reconstructing the Beats, edited by Jennie Skerl, 57–71. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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