Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meet Harvey Goldner—A Review of The Resurrection of Bert Ringold

(Cinco Puntos Press, 2008, www.cincopuntos.com)

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” —Oscar Wilde

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”—Harvey Goldner, “Another Ancient Mariner”

I never met Harvey Goldner, and now it’s too late.

Harvey, who passed from this Plane in July of 2007, was a poet and personality loved by many—mostly in Seattle, where his death has left a void in the poetry scene, underground and otherwise. But elsewhere as well.

I was first introduced to his work in late 2007, when I received a review copy of Letterhead, Volume 1, a collection of poems put out by Highest Hurdle Press. Within its pages was a tribute to Harvey in the form of a series of letter-poems exchanged between he and the Buffalo, NY–based poet Robert Pomerhn. In reading those letters, I was struck by Harvey’s brutal honesty as he tried (and succeeded) to help shape and mature the art of a hard-working and talented wordsmith. He was perfect amounts of praise and brutality, all conveyed in layers of meaning, metaphor, and reality that reminded me of the letters of the Beats or the correspondence I’ve had with Colorado-based poet-musician Patrick Porter. Whether writing as Harvey the sage, Gob Wah or Dr. Roarshock (Roarshock being the name of the journal he put out), he mixed humor with scholarship and astute analysis, suggesting a wide breadth of poets whom Robert should read and making such adept comments as liking Artaud and Camus more than Breton and Sartre because the latter pair were “Stalinist bullies.”

Given his deep, almost boundless, knowledge of other poets and styles of poetry, as evidenced in his letters to Pomerhn and in the poems of Bert Ringold, it was striking to me that Bobby Byrd, co-publisher at Cinco Puntos Press and childhood and late adulthood friend of Harvey Goldner, wrote in his Blog that Harvey is rejected out of hand by academics and that this book of poetry would not sell well.

The latter notion I more than understand, having been part of the Small and Independent Poetry Press for many years now, but Byrd’s initial statement—rejection by academics—is of great concern to me. In a perfect world where poetry sold as well as the factory-template novels of Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson, there would be no exclusion of a poet’s worth based on his or her small reach and lack of formal education (read PhD) or because he or she was not old enough or dead enough to be a part of the narrow Canon to which “institutionalized” students of poetry are formally exposed.

I am lucky to mentor promising poets at the high school and college level, most of whom attend selective schools for the arts and I think that they are lucky as well, because, as Harvey did with Pomerhn, I make it my mission to introduce them to not only the well-known poets (many of whom still aren’t being read in “ivy-walled, lecture halls,” to semi-quote Eddie and the Cruisers) but to the most talented of the Small Press poets. And there are many. It is always a memorable day in workshop when I bound into the room with my box or bags full of chapbooks and other Small Press publications and dump them in a pile on the floor, saying, “Dig in. And when you read things you like, go out and buy them. Contact the authors, make a connection! These folks do it for the sheer love of it.”

Harvey Goldner’s book, The Resurrection of Bert Ringold, is going to the top of the pile next session, where it will no doubt remain for many years to come.

Now, to the poems.

It is a credit to the talent of Harvey Goldner that, having read through the book twice, and some poems even more, that I feel somewhat ill equipped to try and define or analyze any of the writing in this collection (poems such as “Merrily, Merrily” invite months, if not years, of reflection). Nor do I feel in this case that such an approach would be what Harvey would want. He operates as a sort of prophet-philosopher in the tradition of Blake, and depth-diving into the psychic layers of his word-pool takes more time than deadlines will allow.

Instead, I will share my insights and reactions to the collection overall and talk about specific titles, lines, and themes as appropriate.

In general, Harvey’s storytelling style of poetry reminds me of insightful travelers the likes of Harry Chapin and Johnny Cash. It is readily apparent that Harvey made it his business—as a poet, artist, and person—to get to know all types of people. The opening poems: “Apocalypse September 1994,” “The Resurrection of Bert Ringold” (a friend of Harvey’s who was schizophrenic and committed suicide), “Memphis Jack,” and “War and Peace” were well-selected by the editor to introduce the unfamiliar reader with Harvey’s style.

For a sense of Harvey’s ability to mix high artistry with humor, I suggest “We Went Speeding, Memphis 1972.” It’s best read aloud, allowing the sounds to color the images being sketched. Follow that up with “Buddy Harley’s Longgone Drunkcheck Blues” and make note of the turnaround he does on the lucky number 7, because it is one of the keys to his whole blessedly topsy-turvy take on things.

For the poetry and creative writing teachers out there, spend a few hours working through “Ancient Pilot” with your students (after working through it a few days for yourself). At 10 pages, the poem is multi-layered, well-structured, and full of striking images.

“A Mardi Gras of the Mind,” although stylistically dissimilar from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” not only calls attention to Harvey’s extensive knowledge of other poets (the opening quote is from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; he also mentions Bukowski and Whitman) but painters as well (Jackson Pollack; “Colossal Botticelli angel nipple stiff like a pencil eraser”), as Ferlinghetti was both.

This collection is full of nods and winks like that. There’s “La Belle D.C. Sans Money,” with its Keatsian main character “squeezed into the gold lamé of life.” And in another poem he references Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, termed by many the “cornerstone of modernism”; what André Breton (ironic, given Harvey’s less than like of his communist bullyism) called “the core of Picasso’s laboratory.”

In another poem he references the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; calls to mind, with a little Latin, Dante, Daniel, Eliot, and Pound; and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (played, in this case, “with a country twang”).

Again, to all you teachers of writing out there looking for new material to share with your students, Harvey’s poetry opens the doors to so many other forms of art that it’s impossible to rationalize not using it in the creative learning space.

Harvey’s style was broad—in addition to the takes and homages I have already mentioned, his “Big Pig” uses language and rhythm in a way reminiscent of the great HS Thompson.

I could go on and on—“A Wild Rose Romance” is another longish poem that takes numerous readings to fully appreciate and, thanks to its perfect placement by Bobby Byrd, reflects back on many of the recurring images and themes of the previous 100 pages of poetry.

To complete the volume there are 51 more pages of poems, all working at the levels and with the artistry I’ve already illustrated; and an interview with Harvey that appeared in the final issue of Duckabush Journal and a one-page biography by Bobby Byrd, both of which serve to further illuminate the quirky genius of this all-too obscure poet.

Summer’s fast approaching, and I can think of no better volume of poetry to spend the sunny months reading, rereading, deciphering, and enjoying than Harvey Goldner’s The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.

The void he’s left as a poet-philosopher is much wider than Seattle, as I hope will be his posthumous reach.