My first encounter with poet Ed Dorn was in Donald Allen's epochal "New American Poetry" anthology issued by Grove Press in 1960. Most of the poems found there like the immortal "Hide of My Mother" were written in the mid-1950s, when Dorn was already one of the most compellingly original voices in American poetry. Dorn had a tough, leathery lyricism that protected, as well as it could, his rawhide heart from further injury at the hands of post-war American industrialism and imperialism. In time, this increasingly angry social and political elegist, who died in December 1999, wrote luminous laments for a society that was still decades away from confronting the domestic rot and foreign ruins that are the main byproducts of an unfettered Capitalist colossus. "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck" is one of the greatest depictions of a society that has perfected the art of metabolizing spiritual hunger into material need (and greed). It is the poem written on the face of every downcast farmer's wife in every FSA photograph of the 1930s and 40s. I've always felt that Dorn is a secular Isaiah and Jeremiah wrapped into one--but with the biblical intensity filtered through the most indignant plain speech of William Carlos Williams and straight talk of Charles Olson. Here's his own poetics and self-portraiture from 1965:
On the bed of the vast promiscuity
of the poet's senses is turned
the multiple world, no love is possible
that has not received the
freight of that fact
no wake possible that has not met
the fluxes of those oceans.
The moon orbits
only for that permission. . . .
--from: "Song: The Astronauts," Collected Poems, p. 137.
This poem taught me then, and still does now, that the first man to walk on the moon was a poet who set his longing eyes upon it. That relentless, searching gaze of the distance was the only space travel I recognized.
I confess there are days where I open this much-welcome book at random and just immerse myself in the most articulate angry consciousness and conscience of the generation that preceded mine. In his later years, Dorn had the armor of incisive cynicism to provoke his readers more than to protect himself. A for instance, from page 712, that rings more true in 2014 that 1985 when it was written:
These Times Are Medieval
They'd just as soon sell ya
a poison pizza as look atcha.
They'd justas soon fireya
And they'd rather
killya than feedya.
At the bottom of the same page we find the following:
Pow-Wow in Geneva
Stock market up 8 points.
Does that mean
the speculators smell war?
Or that the capitalists are
just on another optimism binger?
Oh, how right Dorn was by 1985 to rail at the energy vampires "who consider carbon mono / just a passing gas, and ozone holes / letting the sunshine in." Look, Dorn was still crying in anguish before the environmental and economic tipping points had been reached. And his critique of America is truer every hideous day of its denouement as an empire. It's probably too late to do anything but sit in a beach chair at Dover Beach and wait for the final tsunami. But if you insist on staying farther inland and fighting for a second chance or a satisfying morsel of grace, stock up on some of Dorn's later castigations against the profiteers to post on Facebook or use on Twitter after choking on the evening news. This book belongs in the library of anyone who professes a love for poetry.