June 1, 2015
Poems to Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine Edited by Vincent Katz
(Cuneiform Press, 2015)
Post by Jack Kimball
It’s a good time to be braced by new poetry; it’s much like spring. This spring we have Poems to Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine, open flights and linguistic enactments (“up your ass faithfully”) from the late 1960s and early 70s (over 100 pages) as well as pieces from 1994 forward (over 130 pages). The poet, a.k.a. prolific artist, shows us he’s making ‘work’ out of available materials and experiences mediated through painter's methods. Here, in a brief piece, “My Poetry Biography,” Dine summarizes an approach, often writing “first on long sheets of paper tacked to the wall,” sheets as long as nine feet. He composes in crayon or charcoal, and paints over words with pigmented shellac or he literally slices letters off with a box cutter for stapling or gluing elsewhere. Most writers can recognize these procedures, erasure, substitution, etc. Yet the choreography and graphic scale of Dine’s methods imply an unprecedented level of immediacy: Poems to Work On interacts with itself and its readers — Dine exposes elements of doing the work and of openly figuring it out.
“Jane,” an early poem from the late 60s, starts “The shower is on hard / and I’m soaping up like mad,” establishing first the tangibles, putting up a physics in motion, in situ. He does this again and again in early poems as with “A Short Biography”:
I was born in Cincinnati
with the usual wrangle from
me about finding a tit
to keep my mouth quiet —
But also in the first 100 or so poems we join the ‘pop’ artist literally going about his artwork, talking shop so to speak:
making a long painting using all sorts of painting
techniques I’m making a long painting using all sorts of painting
techniques paint staining with all kinds of plastic paint washy oil...
Not fantastically “in electric moccasins,” Dine proclaims, “I wish only art for my sons / nothing less than / all kinds of words / and landscape.” I’m fairly sure we can resource battery-inspired mocs from the 1970s, so nothing is far-fetched here. In these first poems the painter and poet are one in the landscape; in the poem “Wind Marks” one sees “Violent wind” as a “dream,” yet also “I got your head smell // All over my nose.”
The later poems entail robust visual emotion and formal experiment (landscape and words). In a section of more recent work, “About Her for You,” there are shorter pieces alongside bigger poems, 3-pages or longer. Some later formats were adopted for inclusion in digital graphics, polaroids, gelatin prints, and so forth. More striking, perhaps, so many of the later poems aggregate lived experience, call-outs addressed to departed friends, Robert Creeley and Kenneth Koch, among others, as well as many variations to Diana Michener, poet, artist and collaborator with Dine. The rhetoric is crisp, frontal, performative: “BLAND NOTES / TO THE DANCER / KISS ME / THRU GAUZE…” In writing words and rearranging them on walls, the poet’s sounds and moves emanate from a visual imagination physically working out: “FAIRY ISLE / Your name — / clear / Lily of the Valley / HOLY GHOST. / BRING the bright / red paint / to your mouth.” So many of Dine’s poems are charged, however, with enactment of limits to sound, sight and something other.
SQUARES OF COLOR
IN THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE
THAT DOESN’T DESCRIBE
Squares of color that glow only so far, but alive and surging with surprises you may find antic and addictive: “I half holler fuck you — / William Carlos Williams.” On second thought, “I start running / backwards...” Limits to artistic practice are always with us but here’s Dine at work (inviting us to join in), stepping beyond those limits,
fittings on galvanized pipe are put together making nothing real
but a selection of pipe fittings put together...
His point paraphrases text from one of four lithographs in Poems to Work On, “I visualized / a miracle — appearing anywhere.” Dine is deliberate, never to lessen what provokes, compressing visuals with a comedian’s ease in “Gide Lines to Paris”:
A man’s face turns to soft rubber
He twists it
To look like his wife
— Light comedy, slapstick to self-disparaging turns, “My nose goes vibrating down the street.” A friend of the poet tells me the B in the next title refers to one of the George Bushes. Thinking more of the New Yorkiness of the sentiments, I guessed more parochially what follow vibrating more achingly, more indignantly when performed to an empty stage by an ex of Balanchine’s —
GEORGE B. POEM
That’s an entire poem, an entire theater of vacant, beautiful anger.
Included with the collection are indexes of titles, dates of composition, as well as lithographs and endpapers by the poet. The verse here, hundreds of grown-up toys, diagrammed scenarios — ‘all sorts...all over’ — new poems that go for broke and will stay new. Just a few artists operate with the sense that poet Vincent Katz picks up from Dine, “a sense that poetry matters.” Katz edited Poems to Work On and offers a helpful foreword to Dine’s chronology and “offhand calculation.”
Jim Dine’s poetry is calculation en plein air, a show of what has been done to self-empower and self-amaze:
THAT’S WHAT I LIKE!
I GO TO SEE SOMEONE —
THE NEXT THING I KNOW
I’M SCARED —
INTO MY FACE [...]