The Skeleton

By Larry Fagin

The skeleton has his own
bathing suit

He enjoys swimming and being
in the world

The xylophones are playing

The skeleton is dancing
on the beach

We respect his frugality, neatness
patience, tact

He’s not just another
skinny person

DiPrima | Elmslie | Fagin

DiPrima, Diane Revolutionary Letters

[811.5 El] Elmslie, Kenward The Champ

[811.5 Fa] Fagin, Larry I’ll be seeing you : poems 1962-1976

I finally made it to the November session of the Glen Baxter Poetry Reading Group a few minutes late and was pulled straight into discussion of Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. These letters, written in the late sixties, introduce themselves better than I can: ‘I have just realized that the stakes are myself / I have no other / ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life’. Due to my current predilections I was instantly taken to Hamlet’s triple ‘Except my life’ Act 2 Sc 2, but I needn’t have been. The language that followed felt very immediate in its imagination of life after the revolution — these are letters addressed to me who is you who is anyone after that time. There is an ambition to be all encompassing — life. But not life in an abstract sense, there are lovely details about how to survive on your own. Some very real, some quaint. A list of suggested foodstuffs to have in store:

 20 lb brown rice
20 lb whole wheat flour
10 lb cornmeal
10 lb good beans — kidney or soy
5 lb sea salt
2 qts good oil
dried fruit and nuts
add nutrients and a sense of luxury
to this diet, a squash or coconut
in a cool place in your pad will keep six months. 

Other details seemed alarmingly outdated. This post-apocalyptic survival manual now might be misconstrued as a manifesto against eco living: ‘fill your bathtub every day’, ‘drink bottled water’, ‘keep hibachi and charcoal, CHARCOAL STARTER a help / kerosene lamp and candles’. But we are reading at a time of significantly increased awareness. Not to mention the absence of institutional or corporate energy consumption, and the implied vegetarianism, all of which would already be significant mitigating factors. 

There is an excitement which the letters give off through di Prima’s imagining life after the revolution, it draws on an animalistic spirit of survival. Oh my god, the revolution has really happened —what do we really need to keep going? —what will sustain us? REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #5: ‘at some point / you may be called upon / to keep going for several days without sleep… you may have to crash…you will need painkillers’

Yet it is all imagined. What di Prima is describing feels real, but it is all away, in a future. Is she locking it in a future by writing it? Reading it now I cannot work out whether we are with or whether we are receiving her. The solution lends itself to both.

Though we are being offered all this advice, we are really left to ourselves as readers. The poem too is left to itself. There is no form, no defining structure to hold onto. The various numbered letters range dramatically in length. It is a poem because there are line breaks. But they are also letters. They are for us to read, and they were written to be read, they just don’t belong to us, they are for everyone: REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #8 ‘NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us / shoving at the thing from all sides / to bring it down’  

With these revolutionary rhetorical pieces I often find myself wondering what this thing is, this uncertain, occluded authoritarian object. Is it the government? No, says di Prima, ‘don’t kid yourself: government / is not where it’s at: it’s only / a good place to start’. The anarchist writer has a difficulty; to use language is, inevitably, to employ a system. As such, formlessness must remain an ideal — there are always problems.  ‘Left to themselves people / grow hair’ diPrima then uses this start of the line two more times, ‘Left to themselves they / take off their shoe’s. / Left to themselves they make love / sleep easily.’

In the last letter, frenetic ‘Free them’ in line after line — ‘Free all political prisoners / Free Billy the Kid / Free Jesse James / Free all political prisoners / Free Nathan Hale / Free Joan of Arc’ gives way to ‘DANCE’, and I feel the velocity of, speeding down, free this free that — there is a ‘Polar bear at San Francisco zoo’ that should be freed. For me, herein lies a problem. To free the polar means taking it where, back to the wild? But what would happen then? It would surely die, it hasn’t lived in the wild — how would it know what to hunt, where to sleep, would instinct alone be enough to go on? Nono, I don’t think so. Nor does di Prima. But she cannot write a letter to a polar bear. Instead she writes a letter to us, in the hope that we would survive outside of the zoo. The letters tell us what to do. 

The spirit of the letters is strong and sustained. There is a lot of energy and a lot of hunger and power. That is what I got from them anyway. Not to mention some tight aphorisms:

REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #9 ‘None of us knows the answers, think about / these things. / The day will come when we have to know / the answers.’


Kenward Elmslie — The Champ

Looking at the pictures, there are lots of pictures, Elmslie — who is a long-time collaborator with Joe Brainard — worked in theatre and collaborated with composers on opera and musicals. I am listening to a song ‘Chain of Love’ from the musical Grass Harp (1972), words by Elmslie, getting a sense of horrible slush, very slushy and not enjoyable — too sweet.

But in the writings in print, like The Champ, the sweetness is hollowed out sufficiently so that the reading experience is bearable, there are the elements that are childlike, fairy-tale, simple, but hollowed out, there is a framework that is still in place for sweetness, but it no longer attacks the blood in such a strong and horrible way. Here in the poems there is something that speaks, gets more awake, more careful, cautious ‘Each tired day (an orgy of clichés)’.

We talked about Dadaists dressed as ninnies.

He assassinates his mother, is born,
flowers. Perfume. Boredom. Asparagus.
The tree map smells of asparagus.
Ever find a coin in a church

covertly? It’s like stepping on friends
(wheezing from obvious dreams) under newspapers.

Anti-cliché detonation is what Bruce Andrews describes it on the back of the book in the blurb? — but it is also funny — having worked on the New York musicals circuit, he certainly has the right credentials for being aware of cliché, and of wanting to separate himself from it. But what does avoiding-cliché actually achieve? And does Elsmlie manage to do it?


Then came Larry Fagin’s I’ll be seeing you: poems 1962-1976, including 7 Poems. The seven poems, to see them in their original form in the little yellow-covered chapbook, are very beautiful and sparse: little squares of text surrounded by lovely blocks of white space. Geometric? They are eerie, hollow statements — Fagin uses logic words, clauses that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and seemingly empty ‘I’s and ‘you’s. So many monosyllables especially in the first — hard to read out — there was something lacking of the usual rhythms, I tripped over the words. We also compared Fagin to Gertrude Stein, a clear influence to many of these second wavers, and Ashbury, a seemingly all-pervading presence. Also enjoyable were the recorded speech style mixed with internal monologue — like this; ‘but, how do I look? / and look away, to be loved, and how do you know it’s / a lie, you look fine, just fine, a certain way to be / seen’

We tried to piece together what is going on — definitely a house, two people, thought at first it was a male speaking to a female, but then realised that that was not necessarily the case. In the final poem, the seventh, everything seemed to slot into place, we read it and we saw the ‘I’ differently. The ‘I’ became ‘the poem’ in a more literal sense. I am the poem.

There, there, because you see the way I look, and
in the time you take to tell me, I am changed

Is this literally the telling of the poem? We got excited by this idea for a while, felt the need to go back, to look over the earlier poems for further clues. But perhaps this was only a suggestion, the spark of an interpretation that could never be brought to a conclusion. Then we thought of Plato, and his cave, and this change that occurs in the poem:

…part imaginary, part yours, a thing, trembling
before another, whose eyes fix me in the shadow and
lose you in the light…

Ultimately Fagin is quite far out there and away, abstract, in the world of ideas — the opposite to di Prima — Fagin doesn’t offer any prescriptions for a way of new, rawer life. Which approach is more appropriate, in New York then, or to us now?

— Will Kemp, November 2015

Just Then There Was a Knock at the Door

Don’t pass us by. Inquire within, speak to Cleopatra, she’s our UPS girl. So is Olympia. Packages are ‘partly’ broken open. What isn’t ‘partly’? Seen and unseen, never complete. Oh yeah? What about death? I’m open to it but only partly. Try to find your way out of whatever you’re in, door open just a crack. Don’t ever mention development in my presence. Cleopatra says when she woke up from someone else’s dream she started a dream of her own. That’s something. I’m working on one of mine. All is wax emulsion.

-Larry Fagin

No Real Than You Are

Not to know me is not to not love me. I could be anywhere near you. Lemon meringue? It’s no good unless it falls apart. It not you. Someone put a logo right over my face. Call for the opener of the mouth, Philip Morris. The words want to be alone together. It’s one way to put them through it. Ethics not aesthetics demands it. People yell, attracted by a gesture — personal, spontaneous, sincere. But jammed verbally. It’s all automatic, spooking the flowers. Are you asleep? The sleeper has two left sides. It wants no straps. Its dreams are light glowing up from under flowing water. We’ll finish the story later with the words at hand. Keep a top eye out for visions.

- Larry Fagin (From

Adventures in Poetry.
Editor: Larry Fagin
Complete set, issues 1-12, 1968-1975.
Includes first appearance of Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries (issue 2), cover by Ed Ruscha (issue 4), and works by Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Aram Saroyan, Diane Di Prima, Bernadette Meyer, James Schuyler, Rudy Burckhardt, etc. Issue 10 (the anonymous issue) is pictured.
New York, The Poetry Project.