Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 8, 2017

Gathering Sparks

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Titled “Gathering Sparks”, Paul Pines’s latest collection of poetry convinces me that he is one of the U.S.’s finest poets. Since most of you are aware that I shy away from reviewer hyperbole, my recommendation is one that you can bank on. Now in his mid-70s, Paul is arguably the last poet working in the grand tradition of the new American poetry that emerged in the late 1940s and that is sometimes referred to as the product of the beat generation. But the poetry renaissance that was taking place in New York and San Francisco, as well as at places like Black Mountain College, had deep roots in the American cultural traditions going back to Walt Whitman. This was a literature that was deeply spiritual without being religious in the conventional sense and that was a cry in the wilderness against Mammon. In many ways, the changes that have transformed this country as the benign result of the Cold War winding down are as much cultural as political. People like Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still alive and kicking), Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg were its prophets. When Percy Shelley, a political as well as a cultural radical, wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, he had such people in mind. In this review, I hope to acknowledge Paul Pines as the latest such legislator.

Although a poem might consist of about as many words as you will find in the page of a novel, its value is not based on quantity alone. There are poems that you will read a thousand times and that will keep coming back to because they are like epiphanies. You know how a novel ends but there is no ending to a poem. Reading a great poem is like looking at a Van Gogh painting. You will never get enough of it.

“Civilization” is one of those poems. I have read it 5 times already and will likely return to it another 50 times before the year is up:

Civilization

The naked mole-rats
at the Philadelphia zoo
run blindly through their tunnels
with no imperial ambition to dominate any other colony
of their hairless kind
though they have a queen and are very ugly
they delight in feats of engineering
and their underground design

Not long ago, I told my wife that although old age has its drawbacks, particularly dealing with the typical medical complications of aging such as glaucoma, there is one asset that makes it all worthwhile. A lifetime of political experience and reading gives me a perspective that would have been impossible when I was an impetuous 25-year old. In tribal societies, the village elder had the respect of everyone. He or she had insights that were key to the survival of the community. I doubt that anybody would consider me anything except an old fool but I am sure that some young radicals will give me credit for saving them the trouble I went through when I was young and foolish myself.

What about poets? Paul Pines’s poetry is suffused with a lifetime of experience that never would have been known to someone who learned their craft at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He grew up in Brooklyn near Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 1960s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 1965 to February 1966 in Vietnam.  In 1973, he opened the Tin Palace, a jazz club on the corner of 2nd Street and Bowery-which provided the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel.

Every single word of a Paul Pines poem has the authenticity of having been written by someone who has lived life to the fullest. Forsaking the false complexity of most academic poets, Paul’s language is conversational—like listening to an old friend. A poem on the “Death of Carlos Castaneda” begins:

Seated at the window of the Kiev
surrounded by NYU film students
post-modern kids with ontological tattoos
rite-of-passage piercings

I spot ghosts on 2nd Avenue
Adam Purple who peddled through the 60’s
still on his bicycle (no longer in purple)
a new girlfriend in the wake
of his white beard

Like the other unacknowledged legislators, Paul’s antennae are finely attuned to the madness of our epoch. Drawing upon erudition gained from a lifetime of reading religious and philosophical classics, he takes on a prophetic tone writing about the terrible waste of life and treasure in the Middle East in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “Redness Remembered”:

Cardinals in the back yard
bring their redness to bare limbs
in a time of war when we are bombing Ur
from which Abraham
rose with his household gods
and left the flaming ziggurats
temple whores
that terrible lust
for death and renewal
their redness
after a long winter in the north
we can hear their song
before sunrise
whistling fills our ears
while elsewhere
missiles explode over the Tigris

Much of “Gathering Sparks” has an autumnal quality as questions of aging and mortality loom large. To some extent, this is to be expected from an author who is facing major health issues currently. But there is nothing morbid about these poems. They are a celebration of a life well spent and a testament to the nourishing spirit of the written word, both to those who hear them and those who write them.

My advice is to buy the collection from the publisher. If there’s anything that can be viewed as the total antithesis to Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, it is the world of small presses that make the invaluable work of a Paul Pines possible.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you Louis for the introduction to Paul Pine, as well as the innumerable articles on film, literature, politics, and so many others. The Unrepentant Marxist has been my home page since the time you put Vlad the Impaler (aka Michael Ignatieff, Canadian politician) so thoroughly in his place. So long ago you probably have forgotten it. I deeply appreciate the work, if I do not always agree with your conclusions, and the admirable effort to hold fast to our great and shared Marxist tradition.

    In solidarity,
    Charles Steele,
    Vancouver, Canada

    Comment by Charles Steele — October 9, 2017 @ 4:32 pm


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