Saturday, December 7, 2013

Psychedelic Norway - John Colburn

Today's book of poetry:  Psychedelic Norway.  John Colburn.  Coffee House Press.  Minneapolis, Minnesota.  2013.

     "Plain, simple: open this book to page 149.  when I heard John Colburn recite
     the poem on that page he made me believe in poetry again, all over.  It is a list,
     it is creation, it is the apocalypse, it has jokes, it talks about people someone loves
     or doesn't love, or know.  The plurality—the every all of it—forgets itself for a
     moment—'and they built a word for us / they called us the future'—John Colburn
     has brought us there, and you can have it.  Thank god for this book."
                                                                       —Amanda Nadelberg

This statement appears on the back of Colburn's Psychedelic Norway and it caught my attention.  I did turn to page 149 and read the following:

the number of heaven and earth

They stole chickens and
slaughtered cows
they castrated pigs
they cut the tails off piglets
they followed deer through the woods
shot them in their necks
they put out traps
they raised lambs then slit their throats
they hung animals upside down in their barns
the blood drained out
their guts were baskets
they carried babies or carried bread
downriver to grandmother's gut
in the fall they slaughtered and they boiled meat
they canned the meat and stored it
in root cellars in shelved rows
and other parts, even brains
they used for sausage
and they tied horses to iron equipment
and whipped them
while the dogs just ran free
they put meat in a clearing
and waited for a bear
all of this meat is how I am

          my great-grandfather stole three chickens
          he was put in jail
          he got out had a stroke
          then he could only swear
          only from half his face
          his wife lost her mind, was
          "committed" but when he died
          she "came out of it"
          lived for years
          never stole chickens

they caught fish and slid steel knives
into their bellies
they dreamt of animals
the animal terror went into their bodies
and they too lost their minds
coyotes came to speak to them
they killed other people
as they were told to
they kidnapped a Lakota woman
it was winter and there was so much snow
and nothing to kill
they survived on potatoes and
canned meat and canned pears
so that I was born

          and one day a rabbit bit the tip off my finger
          and chewed it up
          so we killed the rabbit

some of them lived with mules in Kentucky
or horses in Massachusetts
some of them turned their front yards
into pig wallows in Iowa
and they kept slaughtering
they bought guns and sows
and killed who they were told to kill
and made whiskey
and killed rabbits and raccoon and foxes
they poached and ran
or later drove their cars into ditches
and more of them went to jail
they wanted sex and families
they wanted to slaughter more animals
even a horse in the worst of times
they were ready
in their root cellars
and they sang about food and animals
they played guitars by the stove
or on porches
and more animals died and became songs
meat dripping everywhere
and I got here and began eating

          this morning I saw a rabbit in the driveway
          I saw its beautiful eye
          it was feminine
          it carried a baby it carried bread
          its eye was a womb
          I was given a heart-shaped basket
          made from dried plants
          and I rode it down the river
          I thought who is riding in the basket
          it feels like no one
          the incinerator came on at dusk
          in the old yellow sky
          and wolf-children came out
          their hair gone poisonous
          the people grew tired of their bodies
          grew tired of how years
          run together after dark

they kept their bodies warm to stay alive
they cut down trees
and burned them to boil water
they shaved the sheep
they spun and wove the wool
children watched the looms fill
they had to keep warm
and some of them burned animal shit
some burned oil from the ground
or oil from giant whales
hauled onto boats and hacked to pieces
and the chimneys glowed hot
the lanterns glowed
children slept near whatever could burn
the adults killed to stay warm
they killed to eat
they burned lost people passing through
and the children watched their faces melt

          he has a face problem
          there's the seed of a face in there
          all withered
          someone check his teeth
          looks like the kind of person
          to squish in a machine
          press the juice out of
          rip apart with horses
          pour boiling water onto
          shoot metal into
          tell him to keep moving
          or we'll set him afire

they wanted to stay warm
they wanted to make more children
the rivers flooded
they were alive but winter came on
night came too and they wrote letters
someone lit a candle
the church bell froze
a crow perched on the chimney meant
someone would die
a white dog on the road at night
was a spirit
a woodpecker at the window
meant prosperity
a coyote in the yard
meant bad luck and a hard winter
souls inhabited the fires
ancestors spoke from the mouths of fish
the cemetery glowed at night
an elk wandered up to the house
to deliver its message
how fire keeps the busy spirits away
sunlight in the pines
wild turkeys half-mad along the road
long lines of eggs and mothers and
sunlight in their feathers
each evidence of glowing sound
mind expansion practice dream
the squirrel alive and
the hawk in its piece of sky
and they prayed for sanctuary
they dreamt of the number twelve
and of twelve gears
turning this world
through the levels or urge
and in their dreams
where celestial fruits fell
into twelve tributaries
they prayed to be absorbed
by the divine
but instead they woke up
and drank whiskey
and wanted to fight
they distilled moonshine
in Kentucky
they took amphetamines and kept working
kept killing
the word was sacred
so they didn't speak
they built El Dorado
they built industrial parks
on the graves of each other
they built flashbulbs and stark faces
they built orchards and winding roads
and shutters for the windows
of home they built or stole
and they built a word for us
they called us the future
and they kept killing
they got to twelve and they started over
the future was both heaven and earth
the gods the months the stars
a spiral of twelve
a fulfillment
an eating sound.

...

Are you fricking kidding me.  This poem hit me like a punch in the face.  I was very dubious of Amanda Nadelburg's bold statement.  Now I bite my tongue.

John Colburn's Psychedelic Norway is a little like hearing John Coltrane's 'sheets of sound' for the first time.  It's all in there, the past, the present, the hoped for future and the sense of loss.  It is all bopping around and flashing out like sun-spots.

For this reader the individual lines became less important than the over all, the cumulative effect of Colburn's words as they bend the reader to their will.  The reader is constantly bombarded by the kaleidoscope focus which seemingly encompasses everything from the beginning of time.  Colburn's vision is crisp, crisp, crisp, but his panorama is sweeping by at light speed and on first read can be a bit of a blur.

pre-occupation

     1.

Saturday morning I fought the poison of sleep.
Hands came through the small window next to the door.
I believed I had a metal contraption affixed to the roof of my mouth that restricted the range of my                                                                                                                                                   lower jaw
Later, I realized I did not.
I drank cold tea and ate crackers for breakfast.
Two blue herons walked in the swamp where the horse track had once been.

Rain and snow do not have a house to live in.
A fish does not have a house to live in but lives in a specific area of water.
A cloud lives wherever a cloud lives.
A hoofed animal has limitations these days.
Room 11 featured a dirt floor I covered with a black mat from Wal-Mart.
A suitable room.
To my left was Alan, Room 10.
To my right was Jones, Room 12.
The hallway made by a low wall was otherwise open to the elements.
Rabbits occasionally wandered through.

At the County Information Center I read a pamphlet titled So You Want To Enlist in The Armed
                                                                                                                                        Forces...
It was illegal for me to enlist during the course of my probationary period.
I read a pamphlet regarding the etiquette of tourism.
It held the following recommendations:
          Never kick garbage cans.
          Speak kindly to prostitutes.
          Never stand and stare at any happening.
          Never ask an interesting-looking individual if he or she is an artist.  
          Do not attempt to direct traffic.

The period of my probation was indefinite, pending yearly review.
A moth flew into my throat.
I began to cry.

I was using myself up.
Some animal experts claim that pigs exhibit emotions, including shame.
I walked the corridors between various information centers, then to the inner district.
I sat near the Angel of Milk Park, disguised as a dangerous candy.
Birds were free to leave the country.
They followed migratory pathways in the sky.

"Hello," I said to the women who passed.
I said this politely, with my head bowed, a common practice
One replied but continued walking.
I bought a day-old at the bakery.
People got mad.
They heard some music and started popping.
A jeep bounced into the curb and flipped over.
"All is well," I told the crowd.
The decisions an elephant makes in one day.
In one minute!

The bus station was near Mill Park.
We were legally required to wear orange shirts.
For the bus ride we covered these shirts with white coveralls, left behind at the Down
                                                                                                                     by painters.
Orange showed through.
Five of us, spread throughout the seats of the bus.
I leaned my head against the window.
A man named Frank sat next to me.
Small eyes.
His vision swerved.
He held a paperback book.
It was illegal for me to visit a lending library.

...

That was poem 1 in a sequence of 31 that make up the long poem sequence 'pre-occupation'.

Colburn seems to be re-discovering the universe with every new line shooting a different phosphorus trail to a new reality.  There really isn't a narrative thread to follow.  The experience of reading these poems is something like weightlessness, that moment on a trampoline where you hit the apex, the top of your bounce and for one instant are beyond the rules of gravity - before gravity and reason weigh you back down to earth.

Colburn has some of the sorcerer in him and as much as these poems can be playful there are moments when something profound is being asked, dark challenges are being made and the reader is cajoled to Colburn's will.

Better minds than mine are necessary to give full meaning to John Colburn's Psychedelic Norway –
but it is one hell of a carnival ride of a read.  Worth full price of admission and then some.

John Colburn lives in Northeast Minneapolis.



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