Philip Nunzio Lamantia (1927-2005) was a bard from the San Francisco forest made King who burned with the mercurial fracture of Rimbaud’s edict toward a le dérèglement de tous les sens, Breton’s crown of dark green (“The kind of voice that rises once 1,000 years”), and made it back from the steep forestry of the other side only by a few steps to find his spiritual home with Christ.
This new collection of Lamantia’s poems, edited by Garret Caples, Andrew Joron, Nancy Joyce Peters and with a foreword by beat/sometimes proto surrealist/legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti, biographical insights from Michael McClure, Joseph Donahue, David Meltzer and Will Alexander.
Though in the surrealist anti-tradition we often like to imagine ourselves immune to the canonical processes of hero worship and canonization, nothing could be further from the truth. Since Guillaume Apollinaire first coined the term Surrealism in 1917, watchwords and signposts unfurling freely as balustrades grasped in a drowning seize fever have grasped for radiated conniptions as breath as fast as one could muster a “LAUTREAMONT” or a “RIMBAUD” or a “VACHE” or “BARAKA”, these names filling Breton and Rosemont’s tracts and declarations as assuredly as one might tamper with a lighter and scream FIRE in a theater to announce the presence of danger. And LAMANTIA
was added to this canon as assuredly and firmly as all the others.
Though Philip Lamantia’s contribution to the surrealist canon cannot be underestimated and there is little doubt he was one of the few genuine American surrealist geniuses of his time, this eagerly awaited collection of his poems gives a more rounded out picture of who, exactly, he was. A mystic to be certain, fascinated with Native American cultures who frequently visited Mexico in his own Artaudian quest for the ecstatic experiences indigenous cultures had to offer, his unrelenting and lifelong obsession with Catholicism, reminiscent of the Prodigal Son, and also an individual with cyclical bipolar illness that at times caused him to withdraw completely from the literary world of his time.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reading some of Lamantia’s work at a Summer 2005 memorial event, once described Lamantia as “a man who it was hard to say goodbye to.” Lamantia voraciously devoured every form of language he could find, and described Robert Duncan and the poet’s conversations as “brilliant streams-of-consciousness discourses that flew over my head like exotic birds making letters with their legs” in the foreword to the collection. This is the earmark, perhaps of the true poet, if one has been fortunate enough to be in one’s company: an almost merciless energy and passion that leaves one needing desiring a manifest gold “miracle in words” as Philip wanted to create with every poem, or a long, dream filled nap afterward.
More important than the mystification so inevitable with a poet of this caliber and what he said she said or they said about him are his own thoughts and poetry. Lamantia’s own definition of Surrealism, one I’d never encountered before, and his fervent Catholicism (it actually did seem fervent, if one follows all 400 steps of his spiritual trek), surprisingly revelatory about this figure:
“Surrealism is fundamentally a philosophy of endeavoring to form a unity between particular opposite forces….Surrealism carries this dialectic process to one of it’s farthest points.”
Particularly surprising–considering that Lamantia was favored over many other young poets because of his perceived loyalty to orthodox surrealism–are his numerous
poems which express the faith of a Vatican II Catholic, trying desperately to believe in his Church and even praising Pope John Paul II as the antidote to postmodernism and bloodless literature. I never saw these poems in “Bed of Sphinxes” or “Meadowlark Visible”, and I always under the impression that Lamantia had an irreconcilable difference with the magisterium, as might be predictable. In fact, as soon as he arrived at his Catholic faith, he began to stabilize. Like Holderlin, though, that had a double effect: a withdrawal from the world of letters albeit more serenity.
In the end, the frenzied quest of Philip Lamantia for Truth and Reality reminds me of poet David Emery Gascoyne, a British expatriate surrealist responsible for translating “The Magnetic Fields” and bringing innumerable otherwise unknown French poets (Pierre Jean Jouve, Benjamin Fondane) into the English language. Not as fortunate as Philip, Breton reprimanded Gascoyne early on for translating Fondane’s book “Rimbaud Le Voyeu”,
which suggested that the Charleville poet might have had deeper Christian roots than some of the more scatological poems might have suggested.
Gascoyne once wrote that a poet in his time period (which was also Philip Lamantia’s most productive period, the 60’s) could only accept the Church of Vatican II. “Christ of revolution and of poetry/redeem us from our sterile misery/so that man’s long journey through the night/may not have been in vain.” A phlegmatic Lamantia with the same mental and spiritual struggles, I see them meeting underneath the rainbow prism that a simple, unadorned cross produces, the smoke of incense like tusk ivory inhalants of fairy dust.