Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review of Ed Baker/Cid Corman "Restoration Letters" and Ed Baker "Restoration Poems"

“Building Words in Time”: A Review of Ed Baker/Cid Corman’s “Restoration Letters (1972–1978)” (tel-let, Charleston, IL, 2003) and Ed Baker’s “Restoration Poems (1972-2007)" (Country Valley Press, 2008, countryvalley@mac.com)

In the age of e-mail, at a time when the Post Office is deep in the red and thinking of scaling back delivery to five days a week, it was a welcome pleasure to receive “Restoration Letters” as a companion to “Restoration Poems” from poet and artist Ed Baker.

Ed’s minimalist, stream-of-consciousness poetry had caught my attention several months before, as did his goddess drawings, and I was eager to read the collection of poems he had written while restoring the John Penn house outside Hanover, PA during the years 1972–1975.

“Restoration Letters” represents five and a half years of correspondence between Baker and the poet, editor, and translator Cid Corman, who was living at the time in Kyoto running a struggling coffee shop with his wife Shizumi, a former television news editor.

Corman loved poetry and believed in the condition of poet as a way of life, and reading the letters, it is clear he had found a kindred spirit in Baker. There is a strong sense of movement and an evolving relationship over the course of their correspondence. The first letter, dated September 22, 1972 is to “Ed Baker” and is hand-signed “Your’s Cid Corman.” By the time of the next letter (July 1973) all formality is gone and the closing is “Love Always, Cid.”

The letters, although each covers several topics, have two main thrusts—Corman’s insightful and at times hardnosed feedback on Baker’s evolving collection of poems during his renovations of the Penn house and Corman’s relating the trials and travails of trying to survive until the coffee shop became profitable and dealing with the challenges of running Origin Press and Origin magazine.

There is a wealth of insight here for both the poet and the small-press publisher. Corman had been in publishing for over 20 years by the time of this correspondence and his understanding of the nuances of the poet’s world (personal and professional, artistic and practical) was vast. He is gracious and giving, trying to connect Baker with other poets and publishers who would enjoy his work/be able to help and even trying to get him a renovation job through his brother.

For the politically minded reader, Corman’s analysis of the 1975–1976 Democratic primaries and presidential race is fascinating reading, calling to mind the razor-sharp combination of wit and analysis in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

The overwhelming percentage of letters are from Corman to Baker, so it is interesting and in many ways fun to piece together what Corman may be referring to in his responses.

As a poet and editor, I have long been interested in these types of collections (such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Ferlinghetti’s correspondence and a collection of Harvey Goldner/Robert Pomerhn letters I recently reviewed as part of the anthology Letterhead, Volume 1) and “Restoration Letters” is as vital and relevant as any I have read.

The staple-bound collection of photo-copied letters has a charming appeal, as there are hand-written notes in the margins as well as hand-corrected and typed-over typos. There is an intimacy here that more polished, typeset collections completely miss.

This sense of intimacy and genuineness in their work and in their lives sets the stage (or, the foundation, if you will) for “Restoration Poems,” and for several interesting reasons.
First, it was Corman’s intention to publish the poems in the ‘70s and it took another thirty-plus years for them to see print. This is noteworthy in and of itself and plays, ironically, into Corman’s advice to Baker in “Restoration Letters”: “No hurry with the book: it won’t improve with haste.”

Second, there is a great deal of talk in the “Letters” using house-building/carpentry as a metaphor for creating poems. While this is not a new concept, the strength and beauty of the metaphors in the “Letters” seem to have had a profound impact on the poetry of “Restoration Poems,” itself an extended metaphor intertwining writing and working with wood, especially since there is a Japanese temple carpenter who recurs in the “Letters” who works in an ancient and spiritual way.

“Restoration Poems” is richly designed. It is a small, thin book with a deep green cover, with linen pages at its start and end. It holds a palpable energy that carries the reader through from start to finish. The sound of hammer on nail, of plane on plank and the smell of the wood and the land dress the words, which are sparse and carefully chosen. (Corman advised Baker in the “Letters” to let the words have their own weight, not to overwrite, to not obstruct with verbs…) When Baker writes “fire/source/waste-wood” we know there is no such thing. Everything is used; nothing is wasted; all is there because it needs to be.

The book reminds me of the collections of Basho (whom Corman translated), Li-Po, and others of the Eastern tradition. The pages are not numbered, nor the poems titled, nor are there many words on the page. When Baker asks “how to put/new materials/into old/ spaces” or talks of “space/transformed” the reader can see the metaphor at work. He even uses a bill for sand and Blue Bond as a poem, and it succeeds quite well.

A third appeal of the book is the connection of work with worth, irrespective of profit. Corman is virtually penniless, and yet relevant and essential to the work he does and Baker never mentions what he is being paid. It is about the (re)creation of the space, and he often refers to his “raw hands” as an emblem of his passion for the work.

I found it interesting that I read the book (the first time) in 36 minutes—one minute for each year Baker took to write and revise it, paralleling to some degree the lines “throw-/down/ 250/year s/chimney/ in/one day.”

If you have ever had the pleasure of restoring a centuries-old house, you will share in Baker’s passion, manifested and held in these poems. If not, the fine writing and degree of craftsmanship and care make this essential reading for all true lovers and practitioners of the poet’s art.