22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Avant-garde poet Louis Zukofsky is the subject of a splendid new biography, one I scurried through, with barely a moment's pause for rest or water, over the past four and a half hours, and you shut the book exhilarated wanting nothing but more, more of this wonderful blend of exposition, narrative drive, and critical analysis all hand in hand like the heroic girls striding the battlefield in Henry Darger's painting. LOUIS ZUKOFSKY THE POEM OF A LIFE is a masterwork of storytelling, and beyond that I expect it will do what any number of concentrated studies have done, open its subject wide up to a mass audience, which may or may not have appealed to LZ, but if I read some passages in Scroggins carefully, I think he might very well be glad when his lifework "A", for so long considered a book of grand difficulty, climbs the rungs of the best seller list in this country and wherever high modernism is spoken.
Rich in character development as well as exegesis, LZTPOAL takes us from the crowded tenements of New York's Lower East Side, where Zukofsky was born in 1904, into the world of international poetry and art, a world he took to like duck soup, and finally through a teaching career of the highest interest to those wondering how to combine art and commerce. Along the way he was aided and abetted by a brilliant and scintillating wife, Celia Thaew, with whom he had a son, Paul, a violinist who was the apple of his father's eye. In the green arbors of Port Jefferson, Long Island, Celia and Louis retreated at the end of their lives, but LZ was never to rest for long, composing in late, late middle age a final full length piece, 80 FLOWERS ("his most private project," as Scroggins aptly dubs it) and when that was completed to his satisfaction, made notes for a "90 TREES" piece of which only a tantalizing fragment remains.
Only a life's work, that's all. Scroggins follows John Cage in pointing out that Zukofsky died in exactly the same way as did James Joyce--the "sort of coincidence in which each of them would have delighted." That may be stretching it a bit, but it is true that Joyce and Zukofsky were in correspondence, over a proposed film scenario of ULYSSES. Film buff LZ was "bullish" on this plan, suggesting that Chaplin--or Charles Laughton maybe--would be a good Leopold Bloom. In such a way Scroggis is able to build up, bit by bit, a chain of associations which to my mind fully justify his reading of "A" as a poem deeply indebted to the cinema. Zukofsky like many other writers in the 1930s was polarized vby social upheaval and strongly drawn to the left; he worked for NEW MASSES and wrote convincingly of the need to write poems "that everyone can understtand." Scroggins points out that his bent was otherwise; while he urged poets "to confirm revolutionary theory in sensory values," it wasn't easy to practice what he preached, and yet on the third hand this tension goosed him into writing some of his memorable work between two masters as it were.
What of his much talked about relationship with haunted, Hetty Sorrel lookalike Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970)? Did it really end in a squalid Dreiserian tragedy of betrayal and abandonment? The truth is, Scroggins argues, that no one today can know the truth about what really happened between the two geniuses. It was all too long ago. The book will be controversial in its picture of disgruntled schoolteacher Jerry Riesman and what Scroggins considers a tissue of misstatements made by Riesman and given credence by some late comments by addled or airy Mary and George Oppen, two Objectivist writers whom Zukofsky apparently didn't really care for and who probably knew nothing whatever about whatever it was that went down with Niedecker and Zukofsky back in the 1930s. Those of us who gave the pregnancy story any credence get a real slap of cold water in the face here, and expect tears in the days to come!
Otherwise, where Scroggins excels is in exploring the many ways in which Zukofsky took the materials of his own life--and when that failed, the materials of his reading--and turned them into "A" 1-24.
Frankly I thought I knew as much about Louis Zukofsky as any other ordinary, educated person, but as the pages of the biography melted in my hand, I realized I knew nothing, insofar as everything I thought I knew was dead wrong. I suppose there are still a few areas in which debate is possible, especially in the final Port Jefferson years, years in which Zukofsky seems to have been playing a sort of Cheshire cat game with his admirers, retreating into his own legend and letting Celia step up more and more. In the end, Scroggins' book becomes a sort of bewitched and sustained threnody on Celia's brilliance and loyalty, sort of the way biographies of Nabokov always have to paint a new picture of Ada in the days after VN's death. Sad to say, she outlived him for only a year or two; they both slipped out of life without really knowing how much their war on the world would affect the life of poetry in our time.
For strategic reasons Scroggins chooses to breach the gap between Zukofsky's era and our own by concentrating on three well oiled hinges: the fact that poet Bob Grenier engineered one of LZ's last full length readings (at Franconia); the Poets Theater reading at San Francisco's Poetry Center of the Celia/Louis "A"-24 in the summer of 1978; and at greatest length the contretemps over Zukofsky's legacy fought by Barrett Watten and the late Robert Duncan at another Poetry Center event in the same time period. This makes Zukofsky relevant to today's readers is, I guess, the reasoning behind this move. It's elegant and simple and for me, it works, though I'm prejudiced.
I must say the book itself is a gorgeous physical object and David Bullen its designer is marvelous but he made one decision I hate, and that is, placing the page numbers on the inside of each page, close to the spine, compact and neat but pretty much useless to those of us with opposable thumbs. You really have to dig in there with a pick ax to find what page you're on, a shame in a book that's going to be thoroughly quoted and argued about for decades to come. Oh well, Post It Notes might help and they come in cheery colors too.