RIP Joe Vanni

I'll be leaving Rhode Island soon.  As I noted in the first entry on this blog, we're moving to Minneapolis.  I've lived here most of my life.  When I finally finished college (at Brown), after dropping out & wandering around a few years, I was ready to get more active in the community.  I was a patchwork of unreconciled impulses (like many a 23-yr-old).  At Brown I had changed my major from Semiotics to History to "Local Agriculture" (an independent study).  I had gone through a nervous breakdown and a "religious experience".  I had hitchhiked around the U.S. as a budding Jesus freak.  I had met with the Rolling Stones outside London, hoping to replace Mick Taylor as lead guitar & change the concept of the band.  (Yes, I did do that.)

After completing school I spent about 2 years running a food coop near the campus ("Kneecap Natural Foods").  I was trying to keep literature and poetry at bay - like Rimbaud, I guess, I had very mixed feelings.  Then I got tired of working behind the counter, and signed up as a VISTA volunteer, working for grassroots community organizations.

In those days (late 1970s, early '80s) community organizing was more of a working-class thing.  It was not so ultra-hip & posh as it is today.  Yet I was not a working-class kid.  I was from an old Minneapolis well-to-do family (but in Minneapolis that means "regular folks" and "civic-minded").  I was trying to escape my Ivy League background.

I had the usual idealistic biases against business, money, capitalism.  But you have to admit, they can be boring.  People are seeking wholeness - this is why the transactional give-&-take of capitalism alienates many of our yout'.  It's impersonal, and it's not about love : it's about money.

Most of these attitudes, nevertheless, are sheer luxury.  Anyone who has grown up poor understands this.  Work is the only solution - not feel-good economics, not abstract self-righteousness.  "You shall judge them by their works.".

But then... we do have to work together.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s I attended the funeral of Joe Vanni - an activist I had worked with in the early 1980s (before retiring to librarianship).  It was a crowded ceremony - Joe Vanni was much-loved.

The poem is about the special parochial-corrupt-familial atmosphere of Little Rhody, Rogue Island (already perhaps fading into the historical distance) - the era of Buddy Cianci, Raymond Patriarca, Matty Smith... all the parochial power-players, who kept the state in a muddle of corruption.

I drove around Providence & environs all day today, a beautiful last day in July, taking photographs.  Something ironic about all this.  I'm leaving, sharing the faded photos, torn anew.  I never made a dent : never helped anyone much.  The neighborhoods of greater Providence & satellite towns remain crowded, poor, and incredibly ugly in a physical sense (not the people!).  Something still needs to be done about this apartheid of lush suburbs and grubby towns, rich & poor.  Of course individual people are doing beautiful things.  But it doesn't show yet in a physical setting.  The towns are impoverished; the roads are battered, horrible; the neighborhoods are cramped, a jumble of cars, roadsigns, power lines, noise, glass, metal, rubber, garbage.  Bleak, bleak.  I drove around through them today, feeling ashamed of myself.

from Shakespeare's Head

If you stand at the terrace, on the cliff above town, 
the clay forms a bowl, clay lips' parameters;
and I'm going beyond you, city fathers. . . 
– I'm moving toward stone.

Stone troubles my lips – a far-off circle, fractured now. 
I'm going beyond you, deep into the fosse,
a mutterin' snail or ostentatious ostrich feathers' 
bowler. . . down the incline, slowly.  Tubular.


I drove once in the rain (a midsummer ghost)
to the other side of town, to the West End.
To the hulking catholic church – a fortress, suspended 
over pastel tenements, tending their untold past.

To attend Joe Vanni's funeral.
A slight and motorcycled crippled man, 
a loco-honey man, who lived to lion-
tame the hometown carnival.

The workers were there, the volunteers –
nurses, charity cases, activists
(that green and negative network persists 
and persists – hauling the yoked pails of tears).

I was there on the sidelines,
asleep in my circulating book dream.
Closed my eyes, and suddenly there came –
a ship! Her prow was here – and her stern,

her stern was – Shakespeare's Head!  There
those city-minded wasps – buzzing at the axis 
of yesterday.  And here, at the sleepy matrix, 
the grave and cloudy promise – of a figurehead. . .


Between prow and stern of the immaterial vessel, 
within the perimeter of the muttering, droning bowl, 
at the bottom, in the stone caverns and tall
fingers of windows goes – the big buy and sell.

Crawl toward the rotten deck the whole fifty-two 
pick-up weeks now, Hamlet, boy-o –
down below the mates will check you
and even their odd scores.  You'll know

you know too late.  The high arched eyebrows,
the vainglorious attitude stabilizes there in the arena;
the swarms have their bull, their turf, their see-saw 
way of saying yes, no – like maneuvering crows.

And the high school's painted brown and gray
so that you can sock away three retirement plans. 
Your ghetto farm's run out of helping hands
to pay for riding lessons for little Fauntleroy.

Your idea of the city is not my idea, fellas.
You're caddies for some suburb golf protection racket. 
You guard your perks like Midas fingers his pocket 
money.  Everything in vice clamps for this cruise!

The week's meal is gruel and baked beans again
so you can fly your cronies to San Jose.
Children muddle through under the mediocrity
of well-schooled flunkies, so you can be a football fan.

Downtown is a quiet graveyard of wind-driven stores 
so you can play polo in Newport with a movie star. 
And everybody knows just what you are!
They're your cousins, after all – no one cares.

But I'm whispering beyond you, philistines. 
My eyes are in the clay.  I'm shaping the rim, 
I'm dreaming, I'm looking for the trim
sail.  Wind sighs through the pines.

"The Hannah", a ship sculpture in Burnside Park

Church of St. Mary, Providence

Church with two hands

It so happens that when I started writing Stubborn Grew, back in 1996, I was reading a very interesting study of Aristotle's Poetics, author of which I've forgotten.  I've also forgotten the main thread of the book, except I have the vague idea he analyzed how the Poetics managed to "do what it says" - that is, the style and structure of the work reflected or embodied the abstract argument Aristotle was making.  The Poetics in this way was itself a work of poiesis.

This gave me the vague idea of turning the analysis on its head.  I would work my way into a narrative poem by "acting out" in fairly explicit fashion certain abstractions regarding "what poetry is about".  So we have Orpheus, King David the Psalmist, Shakespeare, making cameo drop-ins in somewhat cartoonish fashion - totems for the more concrete dilemmas I would be trying to excavate.

The following is one of the first sections written.  It seems to summarize the risky foolishness of writing poems.  They lead one back into dreams, into childhood - possibly solipsistic, self-enclosed, & so lost forever.  Thus the closing image, which not everyone will recognize but which was familiar to kids in my milieu in the 1950s (maybe still is) : the game of making a "church" (instead of a shadow bunny rabbit) by interlacing fingers of both hands, lifting the two index fingers (for the steeple), and then opening the hands (showing the congregation).  It must have been a Sunday School thing.

"Rational animal" : Aristotle's definition of humankind's duplex, inherently dramatic situation.

from Shakespeare's Head

It begins with the headache of a rational animal.
Sepulchred, perhaps, in a whitened rhyme
or bibliophile's musty drawers – reflective rim 
or echo chamber, some titanic scuttled shell.

And you lose the thread, and this is the thread.
Purpled, from the mordant notebook,
from the charitable extinct awk's
last corkscrew into a cup of molten mead,

like lead.  The chorus and audience withdraw.
You are alone with the sound of an evening of a swing. 
Here's the church, here's the steeple. . . here's the door.

A gate in Fox Point

Slimy footpad

Reading back into this almost 20-yr-old poem, the scriptor is surprised anew by the special shiftiness, the jittery nervous glib patter of this Hen-fellow, trying to put one over on himself or somebody.  Interesting how the perception of place is also a projection of same.  If the poet is a slimeball snail, then of course he will be crawling through the gunk of a "rotten little state".

& now 20 years later, Mr. Photographer slithers around again, like an outsider.  Going in circles.

But then this sketch is another prelim, a lead-in.  The poet solo is not enough, is insufficient, incapable.  He need help.  Where does the "ink-feather pen" come from?  Read on, friend, & find out!!!

from Shakespeare's Head

What might be descried from such murky battlements 
of a rotten little state?  From elevated Terrace
the reproduced patriarch looks like pumice.
Air seethes through filed pediments.

The iron rail on the cliff is a kind of grid 
or magic lantern blanket for a snail. All shell, 
no pith. 
One slimy footpad

leftover.  But lights will go up again –
Walter will play the untested understudy –
will sketch the shadiest, draftiest city –
not with a bang, but an ink-feather pen.

Roger Williams Memorial, Prospect Terrace
Downtown w/grid


Optical Nerve

Some photos say more than poems can.  & vice versa.

Whose ocarina?  Who is the "hand-behind-the-arras artist"?  Who's at home in Shakespeare's Head today (aside from Nabokov)?  Anyone remember the Blind King (on Federal Hill)?

The way up-down is the way down-up.

from Shakespeare's Head


There's life in the clay, moving like wind, 
back and forth, an epic of beginnings. 
Through the flute lip mouth, uncurling 
that turtleshell of an ocarina, found

almost crushed in snow and puddingstone. 
New England Providence.  My Providence. 
And there's confusion and there's nonsense 
in the hamlet geometry of Shakespeare's son:

the hand-behind-the-arras artist 
feathered like raven, or robin gone blind, 
double-feathered, double-colored, crowned, 
a Venetian Blind King, coursing west.

On the optical nerve a wooden stage is set. 
The leaves whisper, clay ruffles,
wind sings, filters and rifles (while
I gulp down a measure of diminished fifth).

More news from Providence

Epic poems measure themselves.  They have to, it's part of nature.  Like tree-rings, exactement.  This is squawk #2 from the prelude, the prologue, the opening gambit, the 1st pitch.

from Shakespeare's Head 


A snail inches through earth become clay –
twelve miles by twelve around in a circle. 
And Shakespeare's Head (anonymous oracle)
still stands (on the East Side) to this day.

Blind newsboy tin of happiness!
Measured phrases squaring off those domes 
boxed-in and feuding until kingdom come.
I'll hide my own head in your field grass.

Time waves the robins across the prairie.
Settle down, Eurydice, Persephone –
he won't be long.  Trumped-up harmony 
will bear him (bleary-eyed) from the library.

Garden behind Shakespeare's Head

Hope High

Hey, I'm starting to learn, after my first fulsome day on the epic-illustration job, that there are phases of litwatchure, psychic implications, imponderables, sub-rosa subtics, which do not carry over so simply into glossy 3x5s (or whatever you call them now).  There be layers of irony and unintentional irony in Stubborn Grew, stretches of lost blab, unplaceables(?).

Welcome to Providence!  Every location is infinitely deep.  But the soul is even deeper - who can plumb its diversions?

You can, by golly!  That's why we have blogs!

Here be another proto-squawk from 1st chapt of Stubborn Grew.  God does not play dice with Eurydice.  Perhaps they rehearse violin duets?  Look there, through the chain-link fence - find the golden ring!

All's in play on the playing fields.

from Shakespeare's Head :


We were standing in the middle of the baseball field. 
Hope High School field.  A plateau, blue panels
of Providence afloat under the sundrenched wells
of sky.  I called your name – you turned again.  Smiled.

Black hair veiled your face.  Black sweater, black 
pants, black sunglasses over your eyes.
You bent your head sideways
and waved me off – a wavering stick

of blindness – dancing on your toes a moment 
in the middle of the field – of all
that brilliant sunshine.  Well
of the sky.  Wells up the fountain.  Surging, bent

over.  And over.  I can't go on, 
or write any more.

Athletic fields behind Hope High School

Eurydice, Eurydice

Following up on the various Orphic threads spooled out in previous post... here's another passage from the opening chapter.  You see how the local Rhody statuary & memorabilia are bumping up against another dimension, "vaguely realizing westward"...


Shakespeare's Head is the headwaters now
of the Providence Preservation Society. 
Here lawyers, newsmen, literati
swirled, 200 years ago.

A century before and two steps down the hill
old Williams called them out beside the riverbank
and there they convenanted – what to think
and what to speak not to be enforced by rule.

Up the slope and facing the art school
under the constant spray of a water slide 
stone Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice, all stand 
motionless beneath the fountain's endless fall.


The land, the land stretched out toward sundown.
At the end of the forests without end, the sun gleamed.
Magnitudes undreamt
by Greeks, the dry flute flown

into moist green, light fern-green 
ghosts in the trees.
I'm driving the empty roads
in early May, at dawn.

Someone cries out Eurydice, Eurydice 
into ramshackle and forlorn wastelands. 
Blind joyful grief behind the railroad lines. 
All gone to seed.  Oh say can you see.

Orpheus Ascending, by Gilbert Franklin, 1963

Shakespeare's Head

As mentioned in previous post, Shakespeare's Head is the name of a colonial-era building in Providence.  Here's the epigraph with which Stubborn Grew opens :

“At the sign of Shakespeare’s Head” must have been a fascinating spot in the politically exciting days before and during the War for Independence.  One can picture the culturally-minded folks leisurely fingering the leather-bound volumes of the classics that lined the shelves in the northwest corner of the lower floor, while the revolutionary-minded compatriots voraciously flipped the pages of the legal, historical and philosophical tomes, eagerly searching for ammunition…
– “Old Stone Bank” History of RI

Shakespeare's Head

There was a garden behind Shakespeare's Head. 
A long time ago, before you were born.
Before you were born, before you were born,
a garden there was, behind Shakespeare's Head.


So this morning I made an expedition to gather more photos.  Headed over to Prospect Terrace, where Stubborn Grew begins.  Here's the first stanza again :

Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay.
A spring breeze flows through the branches on the terrace. 
The city below flutters and flaps, roars
and drones like a resurrected bumblebee. 

And what did I find at the Terrace?  A flowering tree right next to the Roger Williams monument, swarming with bumblebees.

Time flowers

Writers will recognize the symptom I'm talking about when I say the approach of a new poem or piece of work is a bit ominous as well as exciting.  You know you are about to assume a new burden, new vow, new love.  Hunches start to integrate & synthesize, merge - & in the process gain mass & velocity.  You are going to have to dedicate some of your life to this.  You are going to die into it a little (the "little death" of creativity, you might say).

I had a sense as Stubborn Grew was approaching that it would be somehow "Orphic".  Orpheus is a sort of touchstone for poets, obviously.  He stands in the background of all those epic "descents" into the Underworld - Homer, Virgil, Dante, Joyce... & Jesus too (who spent "three days in the depths of the earth").  He dies singing, in order to come back again.

This was not my first long poem.  I'd written 3-4 previously.  I knew some of my own patterns.  There was the psychic obsession with my cousin Juliet, who committed suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971.  I wanted to bring her back from the dead.  There was the sense, too, that to create poetry is a healing process for the poet - through descending/ascending I would be renewing my own life too, as I was, bumbling through the library into middle age, dealing with great personal mistakes.  & there was the idea that "redeeming" American poets from this specific violence - suicide - was part of my job too.  To counter the death-urge, the inexorable tide-pull for Berryman, Hart Crane, Weldon Kees...  Finally there was the notion that all these personal motifs might feed into a larger "resurrection" plot - the silly idea that poetry has some role to play in setting the whole nation on a slightly different, maybe better path...

Then, too, in that regard, I was learning about Bluejay, one of the figures in Northwest Coast Native American stories... he had his own orphic journeys to relate.

But I wanted Stubborn Grew to bind together these different planes - ordinary & wonderful, reality & "dream song", plain old Hen and Berryman's "Henry", Divine Providence & funky "Prov-town".  These contrasts were always going to clash & struggle in the poem.  "Henry" the Orphic maestro, dream-rescuer of Juliet, was also Henry the Providence guy - the one who's marriage came apart (a marriage to a poet's daughter).  These contrasts needed to be in the poem.

Anyway, I saw these things coming.  There is the Dream & there is the tragicomic aspect (more on Aristotle's Poetics later).  Here's how the poem begins.  You can hear a little echo of Olson's Maximus - signaling the ambition & the focus ahead.  So... "- I'll show you the dusty photo, torn anew."


Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay.
A spring breeze flows through the branches on the terrace. 
The city below flutters and flaps, roars
and drones like a resurrected bumblebee.

Recorded organ music at noon from the cathedral 
drifts over the motors.  From the ornamental spine
of the ridge, domineering the town, I'm marking time –
soon have to head back to my monkey stall.

A detached head floats down the Hebrus River
like those Carrier robins, skimming out of electricity. 
Out of moving mud, out of sliding riverside.  See 
the kingfisher flicker now – dive like an arrow –

rise again, lips, out of, oh, out of the occasional, view! 
Clay, ribs, mud, marble, puddingstone.
My park bench careens down the local Rhine
– I'll show you the dusty photo, torn anew.

Henry, Juliet, & Cara, circa 1968

Epic by Bluejay

I'm going to pre-amble my way into this project, coming at it sideways, the way the poem began in the first place.  Preliminary squawks.

Bluejays hang around our street & the backyard.  They make the first raucous sounds every morning.  Once, though, as I was sitting out under the little dogwood tree, a bluejay a few feet over my head began doing something I'd never heard before - yodeling quietly, improvising, like a hopped-up mockingbird.  The poem which became Stubborn Grew was greatly influenced in its development by that particular bird.  I knew, if I was going to make an "epic", I had to open up.  To let go - be direct, be loud.  I had to squawk.  & change it up.  This may sound obvious : but it wasn't easy for me.  The bluejay led the way.

from Once in Providence

I sat in the backyard, in the May sunlight, 
in a whiskey haze, reading Ariosto;
there was a bluejay in a nearby pussy willow 
singing sotto voce scat with a pure delight.

I've never heard a bluejay sing like that –
like a manic soloing mockingbird
but softly, practicing – almost unheard, 
just overheard – hilarious arpeggios (b-flat).

That bluejay was a sort of humanist,
sowing his wild notes when he gets away
from neighborhood policing – jay, jay, jay!
and nay, nay, nay! all day (an airborne pugilist).

Maybe that bluejay – with the thick black 
creases around his eyes – etched by reading 
Time, and worrying about the times – seeing 
too much, too little – maybe he was that oblique

son of Ferrara himself, come to take charge 
of his only reader in Providence this year! 
and burble along with his blessed disio
dear bambino-talk. . . bird-humanist, at large. . .

Before he submerges (signed, untraced)
back into the ghost-world – into the maelstrom, 
like those robins, back where he came from. 
It's right that this clear crowing be effaced –

it's just.  Dark summer thunderclouds draw near. 
Epics of mockery will mimic their surrender;
Orpheus, another daunting barrator, goes under, 
breaking the code (with his broken-hearted mirror).


Starting out in Providence

45 years ago, in 1970, at the age of 18, I arrived in Providence, Rhode Island, from my home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to go to college.  I've been here (except for a brief spell, roughly 1973-1976) ever since.  Now I'm about to move back to Minneapolis.  I've spent a lot of my time in Rhode Island scribbling poems.  One of them, a long poem called Stubborn Grew, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2000 - pretty much to the sound of no hands clapping.  You can still find copies of the SD edition here and there, or you can buy my self-published spin-off, or you can read it for free on the web.

There's a lot of Providence in Stubborn Grew.  It's a kind of mock-epic (the first volume of a trilogy, actually, called Forth of July).  & since I'll soon be pulling up stakes & heading back to the midwest, and since I now own one one of these fancy telephone things that takes pictures, I thought I might try a little experiment : illustrate this local poem with a few excerpts and we-were-there photos.

We'll see how this goes.  I won't start from the beginning, exactly, but from my living room : this is a passage from a chapter called "Once in Paradise", which follows a previous chapter, "Ancient Light", which is set in London.  With "Once in P." I have returned to Providence from a trip to England.  ("Shakespeare's Head", by the way, is a building in Providence.  I will try to illustrate this soon.)  So here are the initial stanzas of the opening passage, with a photo of "Lucky", my mother's little boat, still there (for a short time) by the couch :

from Once in Paradise


There was a garden behind Shakespeare's Head. 
A long time ago, before you were born.
Before you were born, before you were born,
a garden there was, behind Shakespeare's Head.


Home again from London, I lay near Lucky;
a man on the sofa, nearly lucky, I lay.
A man of clay, eyes open, looking out at the sky.
As though the blurred porch window held the key.