Thomas Rain Crowe

The Missing Orchid:

A Review of Philip Lamantia’s Tau

Philip Lamantia’s Tau emerges in the spring of 2008 like a first
orchid or like the “lost poems” of Arthur Rimbaud. An unpublished
manuscript from the 1950s, it was found amongst his
belongings and papers left behind after his death on March 7, 2005
by his wife and City Lights editor, Nancy Joyce Peters. This collection,
titled “Tau” (from the word for the Greek letter t, an ancient
Christian symbol for the cross), was suppressed from publication
by the author for unspecified “religious” reasons. Lamantia’s discriminating
personality as well as his mystical and religious eccentricities
are nothing new to those who knew him, and so while this
book is the stuff of literary archeology, (and in that sense has to be
considered the discovery of the decade), it comes as no surprise to
find this “hidden” work that was unknown to the public.

While this book has been given an esoteric Christian title, it would
have been more aptly titled “Homage” or “Mentors”, as it is dense
in content attributable to any number of elder poets who he knew
or that came before him and consequently influenced his early
efforts to come to grips with his infatuation with surrealist notation
and ideology. Heralded by no less than Andre Breton as “a voice
that only rises once in a thousand years,” Philip Lamantia was, as
a teenager, the rising young star of the Surrealist Movement both in
the U.S. and abroad. Published early by Yvan Goll (whose
Surrealist Manifesto predated that of Breton) in his literary journal
Hemispheres, Lamantia’s work appeared alongside Breton,
Rexroth, Williams, Patchen, Apollinaire and Whitman. And perhaps
it was because of the unevenness of the book’s “voice” or the
borrowed-from influences of his early teachers in this collection
that Lamantia made the decision to suppress its publication.

One of the most obvious influences in this small but revealing collection,
is that of Dylan Thomas. Thomas was all the rage in both
Europe and the U.S. by the early 1950s. This mentoring connection
has, to my knowledge, never been made to Lamantia’s work. But in
several of the poems, here, beginning with the poem “Going Forth
By Day” and lines like “the gong going day,” we see very clear
Dylanisms. Then in the untitled poem on page thirty-one, is the line
“Upon the seaswell air of fire”; and then again in the following
poem with “and the wind roared spittle.” And perhaps none more
so than the poem “To the Music” which is literally littered with
alliteration, double-decked metaphors and verbal gymnastics which
are signature devices and had heretofore only been seen to such
extreme in Thomas’s work. Wonderful as they are coming from
Lamantia’s pen, one has to see them as a young poet trying on the
“shoes” of an elder literary hero. Lines in “To the Music” such as
“Where green arteries broke / And their blood bleat,” and “And
alone they died in a lie / Of the wildbleet sound of starry truth” are
direct references, to my ear, to Thomas’s well-known poem “The
Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”

Among the other poets whose work is honored in this collection, if
one reads between the lines, is Apollinaire (such as in the untitled
poem on page 26). And then there is Baudelaire in the poem on
page forty-five which begins with the line “18 beings and The
Other.” We also see hints of Yvan Goll (“and black sky: a flying
milk—”); Breton (“Across the distance light unflickers active
infinities”); and even Shakespeare in the poem “Question” (“…and
it: redescend the stair by invisible hour stream / (as it has said) or it
and I change / a space between and if it be there / where shall I
arrive to its death?”) And last, but certainly not least, we have
Rimbaud galore. From the poem “Intersection” which is very much
reminiscent, in places, of poems in Rimbaud’s Illuminations, we
have the lines “Here / take my breath / out of all cities I haven’t
seen / from quick pleasures I haven’t noticed / from a room without
doors I wouldn’t want to leave / Take my breath for your breath….
I’m thinking of some impossible drug…” And earlier in the same
poem: “An old look follows me thru the town: / a look of daggers
and autumn winds / a look that betrays where it came from in the
pool / at my feet / fish comb water and change it into fire. / It’s useless
to ask who’s behind these eyes….” And in Lamantia’s poem
“Out of crystal beginnings” which is a lyrical poem written as a
song, complete with four-line stanzas and refrain (“his love loveless
in a cloud”) harkens back to the early rhyming poems of Rimbaud
one finds in The Drunken Boat.

But while Lamantia exhibits his skills as a masterful “thief of
words” in this collection, there is also classic Lamantia originality.
Licks that we see later from next-generation American surrealist
poets such as Ken Wainio, Jerry Estrin and Kristen Wetterhahn, all
of whom knew Lamantia and sat at his feet in his North Beach
apartment listening as he held-forth during the 1970s and 1980s in
San Francisco. Lines and phrases like “O rocket me, / He who is
mine is I / and wins the Sky: / A Sun & Moon ago, kissed to stars, /
a momentary string of sands to go, / arriving on the silent sea
roar,” are reminiscent of poems that would come later from Estrin,
Wetterhahn and Wainio. In truth, much of what is in this collection
Tau will show up in altered forms in the work of myriad poets
across the land and, indeed, the ocean waters. Lamantia’s influence
over the last half-century has been that far-reaching. And this new
collection, while somewhat youthful and juvenile with its meandering
voices and in its experimentation and mimicking, is nothing
short of brilliant. Dare I say it? Nothing short, of being “a touch of
the Marvelous” in providing an auspicious beginning to a new
literary year.