Jim Feast
Review of Ed Sanders, Revs of the Morrow: New Poems by Ed Sanders (New York: Libellum, 2008),

            It would be hard to think of a worse way of beginning a review than by talking about the reviewer’s (not the subject’s) faults. Yet, such I must do in discussing Ed Sanders’ new volume of poetry, Revs of the Morrow.  In discussing this book in Big Bridge, I made cursory mention of a curious fact about the collection. I left it at that. In retrospect, I see how necessary an examination of that fact is for understanding Sander’s achievement.
            Let’s get to the fact, which takes a little explaining. In the long poem “Poseidon’s Mane,” the centerpiece of Revs, Sanders describes a visit to Charles Olson. While Sanders was friends with Ginsberg, Corso, Snyder and many other Beat figures, he felt especially akin to Olson, I think because both he and the older writer were concerned with “investigatory poetics,” that is, verse that looked into and elucidated history.  (Of course, Ginsberg also composed poetry of this category, in such pieces as those that centered on the CIA’s importing of drugs from Southeast Asia, but such work was hardly one of his major modes.)
            “Mane” duly praises Olson, who acts in a lovingly cantankerous manner.  Now, we come to the fact. While unstinting in his positive comments on Olson here and in other places, the most superficial comparison between Sanders’ epic poem America and that of the master, Olson’s Maximus, shows that in everything that matters Sanders decisively breaks with Olson’s practice.  Not that one has to emulate the object of one’s praise, but still this does give pause.
            It may seem all this, interesting or not, is quite extrinsic to an evaluation of Revs. “Extrinsic,” that is, unless in “Poseidon’s Mane” Sanders reveals for the first time why he has constructed his investigative verse in a way so at variance with that of Olson.

  1. Olson’s Practice As a Reaction to Pound’s

Some background. Sanders and Olson in their long poems write what might be called discursive epics. These works are not narrative (à la The Iliad) but rather (in the manner of The Wasteland) use a collage form to make a comment on history. For instance, in The Cantos,   another such poem, Pound diagnoses why the present is so degenerate, drawing allusions from multiple sources. Olson’s aim is similar, to see why America took the wrong track, but he breaks with Pound (who established the dominant style) in three decisive ways. 
            Like Finnegan’s  Wake, The Cantos moved toward a globalized discourse, taking in a vast trove of languages and customs. Olson, by contrast, limits his history to one point, Gloucester, Massachusetts. The town is small, yet, by studying records of the first European inhabitants and tracing forward the place’s meandering life, he is able to reveal as much about history as Pound with his much wider grip.
            Secondly, since Olson is dealing with one town, his own, he can personalize Maximus in a way Pound, the drifter, seldom does with his materials. Olson, for instance, picks up items from the town’s small talk. “Shea … had stolen a crew’s pay // 30 or 40 years before // The story // you could never get straight” (91). In-mixing the current day’s conversation at the café with accounts of the doings of Miles Standish and other colonists, Olson establishes that (in a sense) history is only dated gossip, which is no trivial point, but underlies his highly democratic thesis that the people are the wellsprings of history.
            And while Pound’s purpose is to elucidate a time when humans lived more whole-souledly, such a depiction is of little practical value except as a spiritual guide. Olson, in distinction, solves (at least in one dimension) the root problem. The situation, he explains, is this:

… O my people, where shall you find it, how, where, where shall you listen
when all is become billboards, when, all, even silence, is spray-gunned?  (2)  

            Mass media and standardization are draining people’s ability to remember their own history, yet by immersing itself in this past Gloucester can see the degree to which it has contributed to its own degradation. Then, it will be possible, even yet, to avert the approaching disaster, of having the city become a degraded appendage of larger conglomerations, “o tansy city, root city // let them not make you // as the nation is” (11).

  1. Sanders’ Practice As a Reaction to Olson’s

While Sanders takes Olson as a mentor, in practice, when it comes to writing his discursive epic, he goes back to Pound.
  America  isn’t limited to a history of a single place, not even the continental U.S., but contains the competing timelines of such major events as that of the Russian, Cuban and Chinese revolutions. The canvas is closer to the one painted by the world-roving Pound than to Olson’s miniature.
Moreover, Sanders’ self, though still in the poem, comes in exceedingly small doses. For instance, in Volume 2, he recalls his childhood, apropos World War II, “I remember making // a mock flamethrower // that spring in Missouri // and crouching among the lilac bushes // & the row’s of my mother’s tulips” (91)
To a degree, he does share Olson’s purpose in that both are intent in presenting American history from the bottom up. Olson focuses, for example, on the fishermen’s fight with ship owners, while Sanders stresses the struggle of workers to create a more equitable, honest life, as epitomized by the I.W.W. -- “Arise arise on the shores of America // Wobblies Wooblies” (America I, 57).  Both look downward to find the pith and worth of society.
Both, too, wonder what went wrong. Olson makes preliminary findings, but they are inconclusive. Sanders, by contrast, though he researches as much, no probably more, than Olson, is working with a view of history that is already fixed. America is not, like Maximus, based on primary documents, but is simply the fleshing out of the discoveries made by Zinn, Chomsky, Kolko, DiFazio and other Left historians. Here, too, he resembles Pound, whose Cantos, were spun out of already fixed ideas on the pristine beauty of society before it was debased by usury.
Overall, then, Olson and Sanders display a well-nigh ontological difference in approach.  

3. “Poseidon’s Mane”
So, Sanders turned his back on Olson, a perhaps surprising course, until, that is, Revs of the Morrow appeared and laid bear Sanders’ (poetic) thinking on this point.
As mentioned, “Poseidon’s Mane” in Revs describes Sanders’ visit, accompanied by his friend Weaver, to the Gloucester bard. The kind host, Olson brings out a pill bottle of LSD. Sanders states, “I took about 8 // Weaver as I recall had 12 // & Olson … 12 or so” (45). When Olson is driving them where they are staying, the hallucinations kick in.

Then I glanced to the front seat
and Olson had turned into Poseidon!
literally! the Horse from the Sea!
with kelp in his mane (45)

Later, safely home, Sanders leaves his friends chatting and wanders off, is picked up by  police, and, hours later, gets back to find “Olson and Weaver were still talking! // it seemed they had not moved an inch // during my adventure” (49). In order to come down from what is still a rough acid ride, Sanders continues, “I called Miriam // at our pad on Avenue A // and once again, she helped me to land // from another trip into the universal mosaic” (49-50).
So, what’s the problem here? Once Olson is on a talking, drugging jag, like most people, he is oblivious to the actions of others. Though Sanders says, “I felt a great surge of confidence // that my mentor, the O, was driving,” this trust is immediately undercut by Olson’s metamorphosis (45). Poseidon might be trusted piloting a speedboat, but a car on dry land? Nor does Olson wonder or care when Sanders disappears for hours.
I read Olson’s inattentiveness as symbolic of a general estrangement.  Maximus is addressed to all Gloucester, yet the poet admits, “It is not the many but the few who care // who keep alive what you set out to do” (18). Maximus, brilliant as it is, with its disjointed, at times confusing, weaving together of unidentified fragments, is a coterie production. It opens its beauties only to an audience educated in the refinements of literary Modernism.

  1. The Different Situation of Younger and Older Beats

The argument may seem a bit strained at this point. Let’s come at it another way. Most of the Beat poets were plain spoken. As libertarians (such as Corso or Burroughs) or out-and-out activists, (such as DiPrima, Snyder, Jones and Ginsberg), they were not writing simply to move but to instruct the audience. Their reader-friendly verse provided a good model for Sanders.
(Let me add a further thought since, in my opinion, the Beats have been consistently misinterpreted. Two books give us a clue to the basis of their literary direction. In Go, Holmes, another key Beat writer, states people of his cohort came of age just as World War II ended, so they never fully participated in the patriotic effort. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a sociological examination of the marked and growing lack of communal activities in the U.S., looks back to this same war as the one moment in national life when a shared sense of purpose and immersion in group action characterized everyday life. So, I would argue it is the just-missed opportunity for this moment of society-wide solidarity that is the subtext of major Beat writing. It’s possible, then, to read the episodes of male bonding in their depictions as surrogate recreations of military life, and to see their quest for immediacy as an imaginary substitute for combat experience.)   
Still, as much as their reader-friendly style might have been a model for Sanders, they didn’t write epic poems. The younger Beats, such as Sanders and Waldman, when they set out to write their epics, had to find other models. Moreover, less touched by memories of the glory and national unity of WWII, they were more politically concerned with, by the 1990s when they started their epics, the fact of the right wing riding in triumph for 20 years. The discursive epic is born of these circumstances, aiming at reassessing an historical period (as in Waldman’s Iovis) or taking a practical course to supply deficiencies in the readership. This last tall order is Sanders’ in America.
As I show in detail in Big Bridge, in his four-volume novel Tales of Beatnik Glory, Sanders describes the successes and eventual defeat of American New Left Bohemians who started in the late 1950s seeking a freer, more democratic society. In his diagnosis, Sanders finds one of the reasons for these activists’ downfall is their lack of grounding in U.S. radical history, which means they have trouble connecting with populations outside their own fringe. America acts to redress this imbalance by providing an informative history of U.S. progressivism and its opposition.  
But when it came to seeking a model as to how organize his work, the most immediately accessible model, Maximus, proved unsuitable. In its stead, Sanders chose a reinvigorated, popularized (but not dumbed-down) version of The Cantos.
So, my contention is that “Poseidon’s Mane” is an interpretive allegory in the form of a touching personal anecdote. In the end, it is not so much Olson who lets Sanders down by not helping the hero over his LSD hump, but Olson’s Maximus that does not prove flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the present.

  1. Sanders’ Interpretive and Substitutive Allegories

I call this an interpretive allegory to distinguish it from another favorite Sanders’ device, the substitutive allegory.  In the first type, as in “Mane,” a true-life story yields to an alternative interpretation. In an interpretative allegory, by contrast,  in such poems as “Jefferson, Hamilton, Kennedy, Cheney” in Revs, an event and its shadow interpretation are re-centered by being contrasted to a similar (but hidden or forgotten) event.
Let me illustrate. The aforementioned “Jefferson …” follows a poem about 9/11. By the time of Sanders’ “Jefferson,” which is dated 7-1-06, readers know the official story about the Twin Towers. Sanders also mentions a popular conspiracy theory. “Some are convinced // that they “let it happen” (26). This is the standard alternative reading: The establishment turned a blind eye to the hijackers so as to stir a patriotic mood in reaction to the attack.
Rather than weighing in on this, Sanders brings up the scheme of an earlier administration. “The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff … sent a proposal to JFK to set up Operations Northwoods // to develop a Cuban terror campaign // in the Miami area … in order to rouse the U.S. populace to an ire-fire of anger” (26).
The purpose here is to take a surface reality and a widely held alternative interpretation, which itself is a simple reversal (a cabal of Arab terrorists versus a cabal of White House conspirators) and face them with a focal point of  radical history, which, once displayed, dispels the phony story/inside story dyad in favor of a truth that shows the larger patterns in history.  In toto, Revs, like America, finds that a spirited presentation of lesser known history can help the reader contextualize the fibbing that makes up official discourse.
Yet Revs is not quite like America, due to its autumnal tone.
In the first poem, “To the Revolutionaries Not Yet Born,” Sanders prepares to hand on the torch, noting that the struggle for a society where, for example, “there is genuine protection of the environment” will stretch for years, “Think 100 years ahead” (11). It is up to the next generation to “Declare it! Name it! Work it!” (ibid.). Before tracing the autumnal impulse further, let us dwell for a bit on this last declaration.
Let me make the hardly controversial assumption that these opening calls match practices advocated elsewhere in Sanders’ writings. But what about the difference between “declare” and “name”? I think “declare” means to come out openly for the socialist/anarchist renewal of society.  Only by starting off with this initial decision can a person move forward with a broadened ability to understand and act.   
Understanding, the ability to “name it,” comes from following through on a reading of history by delving into the texts and cultures of struggle. And this leads to “work it,” life on the line, political intervention, the type Sanders chronicles in the poem in Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century, where he recounts his and other peace workers’ attempt to abort the launching of a nuclear submarine, and his subsequent weeks in jail.
The poems in Revs can be classified according to which of these trial impulses they support. As to declaring it, note the poem “Share-Flower,” which runs in full:

The U.S. Military Southern Command
Won’t be able
                        To stop
                                    Share-Flower (24)

In this piece, the poet states with calm, unassertive purity that confidence in oneself, the movement and the background community can be bound in one faith in a way that will work wonders.
Naming it, which involves both elaboration on lost or little known lives and the historical undress of widely disseminated propaganda, appears in such works as “For Emma Goldman.” This poem doesn’t present the anarchist’s whole life, but her last years when, hounded from country to country, she continues to pour her heart into radical causes, without diluting her clear-sightedness (“Emma went to Russia // but broke with Stalin”) or humor (13). Another fine specimen of Sanders’ honoring important forbears appears in “Ode to Rachel Carson.” Carson,  who beat the tocsin to warn against pollution, was caught in the “irony of researching a book // tracking the relationship // of pesticides & disease // while she herself fell prey [cancer]” (16). In creating these historical cameos, Sanders combines an eye for the main contours of an individual life with a straight-forward but impassioned use of language.
As to the third element of Sanders’ program, “work it,” I believe, he is leaving public action to his younger and heartier comrades – indeed his modesty in this regard recalls a comment by Peter Werbe in a book review in Fifth Estate, which runs, “We need elders in a movement, but no more than emerging youth. … Today’s activists … are doing a generally good job. I [an elder] have a few things to share but I wait until I’m asked before offering an opinion” (277). Still, as to illustrating the action component, he presents “Ginsberg in India,” which, unexpectedly, doesn’t talk of Ginsberg’s poetry or career, but when the bard devoted time to aiding a political refugee he found dying on the streets of Benares.
But let’s return to the autumnal tone, which occurs forcibly in the closing poem. “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” based on a Chekov story. This piece, at first sight, seems out of keeping with the overall tendencies that light the book.
In the poem, Yakov supplements his wages as a coffin maker (!) by playing in a Jewish orchestra, although he himself is anti-Semitic. He’s an unrepentant scoundrel, who  doesn’t regret his unsympathetic treatment of his wife till she’s dying, and will not alter his feeling toward Jews, though it causes him to lose his musician job. It’s almost at his own finish, after, “his life was almost done,” that he begins to relent (66). His last wish, told to his priest, is “Give the fiddle to [fellow orchestra member] Rothschild,” who also has heard Yakov play his final tune, a dirge (68).
A melancholy tale, but also a hopeful one, in that, for all Sanders’ merited and well-targeted condemnation of politically conservative leaders, here he concedes that even a man with the blackest heart can reverse directions and give something to the next generation, albeit, it only be a melody with which to celebrate his death.
Of course, Sanders’ gift w?th this book is much grander, another jewel in a bracelet of gems, his many poems of historical reflection and untiring (lyrical) militancy.

Works Referenced
John Clellon Holmes, Go (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1997)
Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems (New York: Jargon/Corinth Books, 1960)
Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York:  New Directions, 1993
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon  
and Schuster, 2000)
Edward Sanders, America: A History in Verse, Volume 1, 1900-1939 (Santa Rosa, CA:
            Black Sparrow, 2000) 
--- Tales of Beatnik Glory (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2004)
--- Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 1961-1985 (Minneapolis:
 Coffee House Press, 1987)