Saturday, December 10, 2016



The Tortoise of History by Anselm Hollo
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2016)

My earliest recollection of coming across the poetry of Anselm Hollo was a quote in an old brochure for study of “Disembodied Poetics” at Naropa in Boulder: “Always treat language like a dangerous toy.”  This odd sort of warning has a sharp-witted cryptic hilarity to it I’ve since come to appreciate as typical of Hollo but which entirely escaped me at the time. Next to these words was a superimposed headshot of the poet himself with what looked to be an irrepressibly cagey smile, eyes merrily a-twinkle. At the time I didn’t know how to take either the advice or the frolicsome bon vivant poet’s mug. I was suspicious of what I took to be the overall playfulness on display. “But poetry should be serious!” was, I imagine, along the lines of what I felt. I was left wondering: “What’s with this ‘dangerous toy’ business? Language is for grownups and toys are for kids what’s the idea of mixing them together?” Clearly, I didn’t understand much about poetry, or life for that matter. Subsequent attentive reading of Anselm Hollo’s work however continues to teach me a considerable amount about both.

Although Hollo’s final collection, The Tortoise of History, arrives posthumously he did apparently assemble most of the book himself before his passing in 2013. His widow Jane Dalrymple-Hollo describes the contents aptly in her Foreword as “this peculiar compilation of old and new musings, revisitations, letters to past and future, love notes to friends—and to me”.  There’s an assortment of bits and pieces from nearly every corner of Hollo’s varied and ample poetic output over the years. And while it’s saddening to have no further new poems to anticipate from Hollo, he’d be the first to humorously remind us that although he may be deceased he’s certainly not gone and perhaps ever easier to love.

“Don’t tell me you can’t
love the dead
sometimes I love the dead more
than the still living”
(“Don’t Tell Me”)

As British poet and Hollo pal Tom Raworth remarked at the time of Hollo’s passing in the Independent: “There are many who will always remember and miss his distinctive deep laugh, encouraging the good but nervous poet while savaging the banal and pretentious.” Hollo’s laugh was indeed a distinctive feature of his presence in a room. I well recall the immediate pleasure I took joining in with him as he laughed away while reading his own poems at the single reading of his I ever managed to attend. Like every other key feature to be found in Hollo’s work, his humor has an easy air about it, at once irrepressible and natural as anything. No matter the subject at hand, reading Hollo’s work you get the crazy idea that poetry is meant to be fun. 

It ain’t the middle of life
            but I’m still
                       lost in the woods

Yet Hollo was also as about erudite and cosmopolitan a poet as they come. Born in Helsinki, he spoke German, Finnish, and Swedish at home when growing up. By the time he made his way to Britain and was working for the BBC in the 1960s he was speaking English and French fluently. In a sort of dream ascendance he began publishing his poetry in English and was soon after whisked off to the United States on what is a familiar tale for many poets of his generation of vagabond university teaching picking up gigs wherever he could. He ranged around through some of the major poetry scenes of the era; from Buffalo to Iowa, San Francisco to New York and on until finally landing in Boulder. Along his way picking up close ties to many fellow poet-comrades, such as Robert Creeley, Joanne Kyger, Ed Dorn, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Andre Codrescu and Anne Waldman among dozens and dozens of others. Hollo is a poet whose biggest fans are without doubt other poets.

Hollo experienced some bumpy times in his life but he eventually learned to follow his own Muse and offers solid advice regarding how best to keep up with one’s relationships as a poet.

“She Who Must Be Obeyed
She Who Laughs at Your Jokes

love them both as one
as best you can”

(“Wildly Tangled”)

He was ever humble in regard to his artistic vocation, “As a poet, I am merely one who writes poems (=makes things in and out of language).” (Poetry Society of America “Q & A with Anselm Hollo”) Teaching at Naropa may have come without much national or international fanfare, but that was never the kind of thing which interested him. And Naropa no doubt luckily, for those willing to make it there and listen, offered him opportunity to impart some advice now and then. A big part of which was surely not to presume whatever you’ve been told or otherwise have handed to you as being obligatory and expected is necessarily so: “I wish, however, that toilers in the field of poetics oppositional to those dominant attitudes would bear in mind that they, too, often succumb to corporate culture’s desire to have everything (not just poetry) clearly labeled and classified.” (Poetry Society of America “Q & A with Anselm Hollo”)

A large factor keeping Hollo’s poems active and appealing is the lively bounce between the words on the page, surprising and delicate transitions operative at the syntactical level. He is ever alert within the line of the poem to the unexpected and opportunistic occasion.
“and the poem takes you
to a love of the kind wisdom
refuses to abandon
           the endlessly
           human heart”

(“Rides with Bob Creeley”)

As Joanne Kyger has described his work, “the language—hip and jazzy, humorous, erudite and seemingly casual, overlays the serious rumblings of a non-complacent mind, always very ‘there,’ wary and alert.” Hollo’s work remains ever conversational by nature. Sometimes quite literally so, as when addressing a “Black Feline Angel / on opposite stool”:

“never mind, I say, us oldies
just have to hang on
to our lives
and true loves, too”

(“Late Night, Old Surprises”)

Along with walking the walk of professing upon poetry for a living, Hollo made much of his income as a translator of just about every sort of text imaginable. Also, as a multilingual speaker and reader he took great pleasure in exploring those spaces existing between languages. Translation was thus an activity he constantly pursued and kept a keen interest in.

The second part of The Tortoise of History fittingly presents what is presumably his last complete exercise in translation, “Hipponax, His Poems”. It serves as a kind of mini-grand Summa Poetica, paying homage to poets within the lineage with which he felt himself taking part: from William Carlos Williams and the Blues tradition to his late great pals Ted Berrigan and Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski. Hollo’s interest in the ancient Greek poet Hipponax’s “deformed and mutilated verses [that] were called choliambi, lame or limping verses” runs from Saarikoski’s Finnish versions published in 1959 back to mention of Hipponax in Williams’ Paterson Book One along with Book Five’s “the dance, to dance to a measure / contrapuntally, / Satyrically, the tragic foot”, forward to Ted Berrigan’s uncanny ear for the abruptly cut-off fragment of speech that’s yet a worthwhile bit of poetic address. 

While “no ‘complete’ poem by Hipponax survives” and Hollo admits several of the fragments which are left “may not seem all that evocative, or merely evocative, hovering just below the threshold of ‘interesting’”, he nevertheless presents an intriguing entrance into the work. He arranges his own versions under four headings:

“Careless Love” (check out Dr. John’s recorded version of that American classic)

“What a Mob” (consisting of angry, vicious, and slanderous material)

“Screech Screech Here Come the Ghosts” (Or, “People Who Died”) (see Ted Berrigan’s poem, Jim Carroll’s song)

“Still Waiting for My Winter Coat” (lines dealing with the ever-present needs and wishes of the unhoused and impecunious)

Turns out, as may be learned from reading Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, that Hipponax apparently had a feud over a woman, Arété, with the sculptor Bupalos. As a result, there’s numerous reference to this situation in lines of the poetry.

“here hang on to my shirt
while I bop Bupalos right

in the eye for I am ambi-
dexterous and my aim is


Along with aside-like comments, “was that a fart or a croak?” locality proximities, “he lived in Smyrna / the wrong side of town // halfway to Hades” and astute observations, “unfunny he who drinks his lunch”. Hollo delivers a brilliantly subdued take on a poet whose work shows how “the Greeks displayed their acute aesthetic sense of propriety, recognizing the harmony which subsists between crabbed verses and the distorted subjects with which they dealt” mixing in by way of exampled demonstration his extending of Williams’ poetic composition in the American Idiom.
In closing, I’ll risk gross self-aggrandizement by sharing a poem of my own written several years ago while aboard a plane back to San Francisco returning from my first and only trip to Boulder. It clearly seeks echo Hollo’s easy-going style, which is to say it attempts be successfully pedantic only in so far as to mock its own earnestness and laidback documentation of a few “facts”. I believe I had Hollo’s glorious Braided River: new and selected poems 1965-2005 (Salt Publishing) on the empty seat next to me, although it may have been the equally glorious Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: selected poems, 1965-2000 (Coffee House Press)—despite the similar coverage of years, there’s notably few if any poems overlapping between these collections—along with Hesse’s Siddhartha, a goodbye gift laid on me by my host, used books and nearly anything else acquirer extraordinaire the poet Michael Price, to whom the poem is dedicated. It had been a poet-trip organized by Price which brought me to Boulder. A group of us read at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, drove up into the Rockies on a day excursion, lounged in his backyard by his airstream trailer, and paid our respects at the grave of Ed Dorn. A meeting with Hollo had been floated as a possibility yet sadly wasn’t manageable due to his poor health at the time.   


Buddhists walk among us. Walk among us,
without hidden intent... Nothing a Buddhist may do
may be or not. Stay or go,

hidden or no. Although Buddhists do go:
walking amongst us. The sun goes away,
some clouds arrive & go. Maybe it rains.

Who knows? it's all without warning
& there's a lesson (there's always a lesson).
 Happiness, come & go, don't ever stay.

Up in mid-Plains air, where Buddhists love cats,
poetry, occasional pottery, teach irrational passion rationally,
chanting and walking semi-city pavement under permanent

bejeweled starry sky, would it were so forever.
A breakfast of 'almost', then airport drinks
& empty plane Hesse & Hollo equally share.

for Price


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. He is a graduate of the Poetics Program from the now-defunct New College of California, where he studied under Tom Clark, Adam Cornford, Gloria Frym, Joanne Kyger, George Mattingly, and David Meltzer. Alongside poets Marina Lazzara and Nicholas Whittington, he’s currently at work editing together an anthology of critical writings by Poetics Program alumni and faculty. His books include: GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling, 2013), from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books, 2015), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016), and THE DUNCAN ERA: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). He edited and wrote the introduction for Owen Hill’s A Walk Among the Bogus (Lavender Ink, 2014).

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by John Bloomberg-Rissman in this issue of GR #27: