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The Boston Phoenix Paul Metcalf

"Collected Works."

By Neeli Cherkovski

PAUL METCALF: COLLECTED WORKS, Volume Two: 1976-1986, 598 pages; Volume Three, 1987-1997, 520 pages. Coffee House Press, $35 each.

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Paul Metcalf has been publishing serious experimental fiction and poetry since the mid 1950s. His first book, Will West, gained the attention and admiration of such literary figures as Robert Creeley, William Corbett, and Robert Duncan, but he remained little known to the general reading public. Easily as inventive as his great-grandfather Herman Melville, Metcalf is now gaining a wider audience with the publication of three volumes of collected works from Coffee House Press. His innovative prose, often richly poetic, intertwines past and present in a supple dialogue, offering rare insights into American consciousness. It calls to mind the pioneering prose of Gertrude Stein or Jack Kerouac, especially in the latter's experimental novel Dr. Sax.

These two new volumes of stories, poems, and essays confirm what had already been established in the first volume of Metcalf's Collected Works -- that he is a writer who deserves much more attention. Metcalf's passion for history and its practical and aesthetic application to the present is epic in scope, and the 1000-plus pages of these two compilations obscure the boundaries between poetry and prose, fact and fiction, essay and short story to portray a richness of daily life rarely addressed by mainstream writing. Most work that makes the bestseller list offers only a set of surface images, rarely diving into the heart of consciousness; we're given quick, filmic "takes," as if the writer composed with the thought of a movie contract in hand. Not so with Metcalf. He remains committed to writing that, while respecting narrative, probes the art of the interior dialogue, giving us maps of the human condition that are not the product of a publishing company's sales department.

Metcalf's writing is often disarming in its unsparing portrayal of empire building, but he can be playful as well. Zip Odes, in Volume Two, is a series of haiku-like poems, one for each state. The entry for Hawaii: "Captain Cook//Volcano//Airport."

"Louisiana" is a bit more expansive: "Supreme Welcome!/Manifest Creole Paradis!//Pioneer French Settlement: Eros Echo//Jigger-Chase-Mix, Jigger-Chase-Mix, Jigger-/Chase-Mix:/Belcher, Grosse Tete//Waterproof Bywaters//Many Weeks, Many New Roads."

Another interesting work is The Island (also in Volume Two), an exposition of the idea of "island as paradise." It begins with Columbus voyaging through the Caribbean. Metcalf splices in the tragedy of a "paradise lost," which is a direct result of imperialism -- British, French, Spanish -- that continues to haunt the dreams of indigenous people, especially in the Americas. Martinique becomes the focus. The reader encounters the Code Noir of Louis XIV: "Jews and Protestants are not wanted in the colony./All slaves are to be baptized and instructed in the Catholic faith." This is juxtaposed with several accounts of the island as a verdant land, "another of the beautiful volcanic family: it owns the same hill shapes with which we have already become acquainted." Metcalf describes the eruption of the volcano Pelée: "Pelée shuddered/the crater moaned//seven luminous points/on Pelée//and//four deafening reports://a rending, crashing, grinding/all the world's machinery broken."

In Waters of Potowmack (Volume Two), Metcalf evokes the tone and tenor of a vast watershed and the people who inhabit it, revealing an interesting topology of American social and political history. Metcalf reaches back in time, showing textures glossed over in history texts as he quotes from travel diaries, the logbooks of explorers, and other documents. It's a living, tangible, and easily understood montage of echoes from other times, other cultures. The reader comes to see how land helps to shape human identity, and vice versa; here is a history in which the Indian is subsumed by the white man pouring onto a new continent, altering the landscape, leaving faint traces of the past.

Perhaps the most important poetry sequence in Metcalf's opus is Huascaran, a highlight of Volume Three. It is a cycle of poems on the Indians of Peru played out against the backdrop of a devastating earthquake. As in his prose, the writer works in and out of history, ranging over the past and delivering, in uncompromising language, a world-view not unlike that found in the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's "The Heights of Machu Picchu" -- a poem focused on the last Inca stronghold in the Andes, and, like Metcalf's poem, committed to internalizing the past in the minds and hearts of contemporary readers. What Huascaran brings us is a totally believable past, steeped in poetic myth and recodified by the writer's own idiosyncratic philosophies.

Metcalf's writings are a series of field notes on the human condition. Articulate, daring, and original, he has taken the time to explore past and present, ordering his findings into a useful handbook for further journeys. Poets are in the business of exploding time and place, revolutionizing the word and striking out for new territory. Paul Metcalf has faith in that kind of literary project.


Neeli Cherkovski's latest book of poetry is Elegy for Bob Kaufman (Sun Dog Press). He is also the author of Bukowski: A Life (Steerforth Press).


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