by Lorine Niedecker, ed. John Harkey
Review by Jessica Smith
Published by the The Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, The Lost & Found Series publishes “unexpected, genre-bending works by important 20th century writers Unearthed from personal and institutional archives.” Graduate students select and write introductions to these texts and they are published as chapbook-style, saddle-stapled books in groups of 4-5. These groupings of chapbooks are loosely separated by theme. There are seven series so far, with texts ranging from Audre Lorde to Robert Duncan, from letters to lectures.
Lorine Niedecker’s Homemade Poems is a facsimile edition produced by the Center for Humanities Lost & Found Series III, and it shows her handwriting during a specific period of her life (1964, when she was 61). She prepared this specific copy for friend Cid Corman– the other two, later copies (for Jonathan Williams and Louis Zukofsky) are, presumably, a little different. Although the text in this edition is dark blue like the ink she wrote in, the covers of the chapbook are black and white in this edition, but the editor writes that they were made of wrapping paper. Because they’re black and white, I presumed (before reading that they’re made of wrapping paper) that they were made of paper doilies, which resonates more with being “at home” (to me) than wrapping paper does– wrapping paper is “special” in a way that doilies aren’t. White lace doilies are a “folk art,” resonant with Niedecker’s interests, cheap to make to preserve surfaces from heat and water (i.e., coasters and trivets). Surely the subject and consistency of the cover– wrapping paper or doilies– is as important as the color of ink she used or the shape of her handwriting, since she chose to cover the book in that way. It’s not like her choices were limited or she had no knowledge of book arts– she’d previously worked as a librarian and lived in marshy areas (miraculous producers of paper fibers).
“[One] must turn to the minor records that give local data” (Carl O. Sauer, quoted in editor John Harkey’s thorough afterword). The black-and-white wrapping paper cover is resonant of both doilies and the “special occasion” use of wrapping paper. And doilies are “anything but charming handicrafts or domestic trinkets,” but then, although doilies are now perceived as “charming handicrafts or domestic trinkets” for people who can buy coasters or use paper doilies for Valentine crafts (another possible level of resonance, given Zukofsky’s interest in valentines), in rural/folk use they have real functional value. This part of editor John Harkey’s sensitive Afterword resonates: “…[W]hat are usually referred to as the ‘isolation and hardship’ of Niedecker’s life are not the keynotes of that life. These very terms can assume an overly narrow social space for poetry and cut Niedecker off at the source of her creativity” (Afterword inset, p. 2). Niedecker’s life was different than most of her readers’. Her midlife was shaped by the Great Depression. She spent 4 formative years (35-39) making a guide to Wisconsin for WPA and absorbing local culture(s). Her immediate environment was wet. In her environment, doilies aren’t cute or kitsch but functional.
Harkey writes that the paper of the book is from a “dime-store sketch pad” but what is a dime-store (the concept is almost foreign now)? What’s the paper weight of a dime-store sketch pad? Does he indicate “dime-store” to reinforce the mythology of Niedecker’s poverty, or to point to availability or artistic decision?
Opening Homemade Poems to the first page, which references both the cover ("thick cream blossomy") and cooking, this book cooked up from bacon fat and bones (leftovers used to flavor folk foods), "presenting them as if they were made merely 'from scratch'" (Harkey, p. 4), brought me to the place of keeping-home, using bits of very flavorful things. It also reminded me of some of Simon Cutts and Erica VanHorn's small handmade books, such as Companions and Menus (VanHorn), the way that Coracle Press (when not making books for "mass market," but only less than 100 copies at a time) uses household materials like junk mail envelopes and details everyday happenings such as what they ate with what guest on what day. Keep this: even this small thing. Even this day was important. I was here.
“To my pres- / sure pump” (p. 4) sounds like Niedecker’s perhaps most famous poem, “Paean to Place,” in its rhythm, line length. The content is even more everyday, because it’s an ode to a pressure pump and small meditation on how much it costs to keep up the pressure pump, while it also refers back to birds like P2P. “I plumbed for principles” sounds like her “I” statements in P2P or “I learned / to sit at desk / and condense.” Ends with “humming / water / bird” -- the mechanical made natural, the alien pump made part of the ecology of everyday life such that she’s “jet-bound” to “service / / cost.” We don’t write odes to pressure pumps, generally, even if we are involved in the handiwork of home repair. Niedecker takes the matter of the everyday to its most functional, least romantic mechanical element.
“March” (5) condenses to one tiny image: “Bird feeder’s / snow-cap / sliding / off” and has the minuteness of Basho’s haikus and a particular sense of place/time: in a particular band of latitude, snow melts in March and glides off a bird feeder’s triangular or domed roof. There’s a sensibility of a place where, in March, there may be snow or thaw, and it may snow or thaw again. Also the snow cap reminds me of the black-capped chickadee, year-round resident of Wisconsin and a bird likely to eat at a feeder.
“Something in the water” (6) might be my favorite poem here. It’s short: “Something in the water / like a flower / will devour / / water / / flower” The beginning word, “something,” opens a mystery that the poem doesn’t solve, but complicates like a koan. There’s a little rhyme in “flower / devour.” Does something devour the flower or does the flower devour water? The final two words create an almost endless cycle of wonder: one imagines the flower in a vase of water sucking up the water (capillary movement), or flowers in water (irises, lilies) or water (as a verb) demanding to water the flowers, or the idea that water and flower are made of each other, water-becoming-flower, flower-becoming-water. (“All one in the end-- / water”)
“Frog noise” (9) again Basho-like (“old pond / frog jumps in / splash”), “Frog noise / suddenly stops / / Listen! / They turned off / their lights” -- besides the ultra-condensation and sense of place this gives me -- and note, it’s warmed up, there are no frogs in thaw-March, it must be later in the Spring or Summer -- the facsimile here gives motion as Niedecker’s handwriting on “off” and “lights” blurs into what look like dashes, reminding me also of Dickinson (her frog poem, obviously, unavoidable).
“In the transcendence” (11), in two stanzas, first discusses reading Basho, then breaks into a Basho-like poem, indeed so Basho-like that I’m not sure if it’s a translation of Basho or Niedecker’s own work: “I lay down / with brilliance / I saw a star whistle / across the sky / before dropping off” with the ambiguity of whether it’s the star or the subject dropping off (both). I would think this was definitely Niedecker, but “what happens in the sky at night” is a common theme in haiku but not in Niedecker’s work. Of course, could just be Niedecker feeling inspired by Basho (“Reading Basho in Wisconsin,” as it were).
“Margaret Fuller” (13) -- is this the visitor from Boston mentioned in “Santayana’s” (7)? In that poem, Niedecker’s like, “yeah I don’t interact with ‘all the right people’ but I do know what I’m doing, geez,” and it’s funny, because she is interacting with all the right people, Zukofsky, Corman, Williams, Finlay! But not in person, in real life. It’s funny, because the San Francisco Renaissance and New York School poets famously inscribe each other into their poems, but Niedecker’s doing this too, as if to say, “God, they don’t have a patent on it. We know what we’re doing even if we’re living in the backwoods.” From Harkey’s Afterword, p. 68: “By committing herself so consummately to a life of poetry on her own terms -- choosing to root herself firmly in and around Black Hawk Island and Fort Atkinson and choosing not to pursue a poetic career in the same public places and manners chosen by many of her contenporaries-- Lorine Niedecker produced one of the most singular, intricate, and forceful bodies of poetry in the twentieth-century. Her poetry has been characterized as objectivist, imagist, folk, modernist, inward, outward, poignant, unsentimental, concrete, abstract, precise, cryptic, realist, and surrealist.”
The final two poems, resonating with the aforementioned spirit of Basho, are perfect to my ear:
(25) Syllable count: 3-5-3-2-3-3 (19) (almost the same as a haiku, 5-7-5), repetition of t/th, “oo,” “f” and “or” sounds:
For best work
you ought to put forth
in north woods
The sonic field and syllable count are so tiny/limited, and then there’s the command “to stand” “among birch” (like birches are in a “stand”). The “or” shifts so slightly into “ir” in “birch.”
The radio talk this morning
was of obliterating
I notice fruit flies rise
from the rind
of the recommended
Reminds me of the Lucille Clifton poem about the cockroaches. I love “the recommended / melon.” Honestly, how often is the media talk not about the end of the world, directly or indirectly? In that second stanza, “fr” “fl” “ri” “ri” “re” “me” consonance and assonance condensing the poetic elements into 17-17 (two haiku) syllables.
Although Niedecker’s Homemade Poems are available in the indispensable Collected Works (ed. Jenny Penberthy), this facsimile edition and the included commentary by John Harkey should be acquired by Niedecker scholars, fans, and the libraries that serve them. Seeing how Niedecker writes, how she literally “puts together” the poems in her handwriting, with their almost Dickinsonian elongated dash-letters, reveals her visual imagination. Harkey’s sensitive analysis will be a classic element of any Niedecker scholar’s knowledge of her work and related scholarship.