GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
From the Golden West Notebooks by Jason Morris with sketches by Jason Grabowski
(Alone Co. Editions / Publication Studio, Berkeley, 2011)
From the Golden West Notebooks, a soft little green book with a hand-printed, gold-foiled, and masking-taped wrapper, is a lovely little object: tactile and inviting, but not overly precious. The book opens with lines visually resembling a poetic epigram, describing the volume to come as “collage” and “an elegy in fragments for / what’s been left out.” And the project does feel intentionally incomplete – though not necessarily unfinished – for how could the West be contained? The writing here is in “Notebooks” after all, and even these drafts are “From” rather than “All.”
After establishing its fragmentary nature, From the Golden West Notebooks includes more than we might expect. Though Jason Morris’s poems cover only nineteen pages, the volume is quite a bit thicker than the average chapbook. The green binding houses two books: From the Golden West Notebook, by Jason Morris (with sketches by Jason Grabowski) and Walden—Economy by Henry David Thoreau (“with sketches from the notebook of Jesse Schlesinger” and the poem “The Pretensions of Poverty” by Thomas Carew). From the Golden West Notebooks is bound tête-bêche (head-to-toe); when one text is completed, readers turn the book upside down and begin reading from the opposite cover.
The tension of two texts sharing the same spine is compelling: why/how must these texts exist together? At first it’s unclear. Thoreau writes from Massachusetts, listing his actions – “I hewed the main timbers six inches square” (28) –, expenses – “Food, eight months……..$8.74” (39) –, and justifications – “It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life” (5) – as he builds a home at Walden Pond. Morris’s long poem centers in on the ironic Golden West of California; he describes “California / flirting with suicide” and indentifies “California” as “the haze /// hovering over / the state called /// California.” Thoreau instructs readers to “live simply and wisely” (46) and not to “play life, or study it merely,…but earnestly live it from beginning to end” (32), while Morris’s themes are less certain. “Desire is a killer,” he writes. “Desire is a killer,” he repeats, “I was prospecting the Interior.”
As we read, the connection between the two texts slowly clarifies. Thoreau, too, finds exteriors inferior to interiors; “The house is but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” (29), he writes, just as the state of California frames an entrance to the “Interior” Morris is looking for. In fact, “Walden / is a classic Western,” Morris tells us, “a bloodstained handbook of instructions / on accessing the Interior.” Seeking the last frontier of the “Interior” then, Morris follows the “occult” Route 66 into California, tracing myths and legends of the West. His Notebook glancingly alludes to Western totems like Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Shane. Too, he references a myriad of literary heroes: Ted Berrigan, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Joseph Conrad, Ed Dorn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lyn Hejinian, Weldon Kees, Herman Melville, Alice Notley, Charles Olsen, Arthur Rimbaud, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, and Walt Whitman. And, of course, Morris mentions Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen – presumably, bards of the Western Interior. “On the frontiers of poetry,” Morris writes, “nothing is sacred.” Of course, nothing is new, either. “I was prospecting … The true history / of the West the history of the Gold Rush / pretend. The total state of we already fortold it.”
Just as Thoreau dips into the rhythms of nature and the life of the mind at Walden Pond, Morris’s work in From the Golden West Notebooks tries on different modes of seeking – through language, through collage, through juxtaposition, through image, through book-form, through design. And, as he charts “the decline of how / the west was won,” Morris keeps his long poem firmly planted in the “now” rather than romanticizing the past of early western settlers. The “glimmering / heat-mirages” of California shout out the oases of “HOLIDAY INN” and “BLOCKBUSTER” and it turns out “under the skin of Westerns is nothing.” The new west is always anachronistic – “Oh my / I will know when you are texting me all of my pockets will vibrate” – though it remains as bro-centric as it always was: while “she” is in bed, “I’m sitting here having a beer and writing this,” Morris’s speaker intones, “plus she was gorgeous.”
From the Golden West Notebook is confident, focused, in charge of itself – and the arrogance of the classic western shines through. If “under the skin of Westerns is nothing,” Morris’s speaker responds, “I terror the nothing.” And, like those who have explored such lands before him, this narrator knows how to best behave on the new frontier: “I take out my shooter / & write it and tear it to shreds.”
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013) and In the ice house (Red Hen, 2011). She lives and works in southern California, but you can find her online at The Forest and the Trees (http://genevievekaplan.blogspot.com/).