Saturday, December 10, 2016



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

The first book of poetry I ever bought was The Coherences by Anselm Hollo (Trigram Press, 1968). I was a kid. I bought it new. It was one of the books that taught me that poems were being written by people like me, just plain people.

            our fingertips              touching
            lit up those days

as a poem suitably titled “a poem” says, and yes, they did, and they still do.

I continued to read Hollo thru the years, how many, more than 45 of them, buying each new book, or at least the ones I knew about, as they appeared. Sometimes I was more in tune with what he was doing than other times. How could that not have been true? Then he died, in 2013. It was like losing a beloved uncle-goof. So I was happy when The Tortoise of History was published. Though it is posthumous, it is apparently a book Hollo himself assembled, a “peculiar combination of old and new musings, revisitations, letters to past and future – and to me”, as his widow Jane Dalrymple-Hollo notes it in her foreword. I suppose the next book by him will be assembled by others, so, if I am still around when that comes out, I will read it differently than I read this, a message in a bottle, a visitation, the last chance to listen to my lifelong companion-poet speak for himself.

Oh, those are just allergies or something, why else would my eyes be tearing up a little?

The book is divided into two sections. The first consists of poems written in his own voice, or, rather, in the voice of “Anselm Hollo”. While most of them focus on the quotidian, such as the following, which is one of my favorites:

            Bugs Killed Our Tree

            b u g s  k I l l e d  o u r  t r e e

others take on a wider world, for instance “African Gray Parrot with a Brain the Size of a Walnut Understands a Numerical Concept Akin to Zero”, which begins

            Yes my dear that may well be true
            but I do wish
            this pleasant early June evening breeze
            would evaporate
            all the terrible servants of Mammon
            masquerading as servants of the “American People” –
            in a kind of reverse “rapture”, i.e.,

            tomorrow morning they just wouldn’t be here anymore

and “Hunchback Mountain”, which includes the lines

            20 hours
            until the fish start to eat us

which is a quote from an Egyptian ferry disaster survivor. I think it would be fair to say that, while in most cases, his muse stays pretty close to home, home is more or less the whole planet, or whatever aspect of it comes to his attention.

But the tone is [seems? knowing that these poems came when they did?] more elegiac than anything, e.g.,

            a place is a place

            a place is a while

Nevertheless, I don’t want you to get the idea that this is a maudlin book. Hollo was a sentimental poet, sentimental in the best sense, but not a maudlin one. “Hunchback Mountain”, quoted just above, ends

            all right let’s go to heaven
            BEFORE we die

And perhaps the most typical poem in the book, at least the one that seems most “Hollo” to me, is “Sitting in Peaceful Lamplight”:

            reading a book on how to become a better person

            Zophiel the cat touches my leg and asks me

            “Why don’t you write a book about becoming just a pretty good person

            & by the way what happened to my late night snack?”       

The second sections is called, Hipponax, His Poems”, and is a translation of sorts. Hipponax was a 6th-century BCE Greek iambic satirist. He was apparently pretty good at it. As Wikipedia notes,

The Byzantine encyclopaedia Suda, recorded that he was expelled from Ephesus by the tyrants Athenagoras and Comas, then settled in Clazomenae, and that he wrote verses satirising Bupalis and Athenis because they made insulting likenesses of him. A scholiast commenting on Horace's Epodes recorded two differing accounts of the dispute with Bupalus, characterized however as “a painter in Clazomenae”: Hipponax sought to marry Bupalus’s daughter but was rejected because of his physical ugliness, and Bupalus portrayed him as ugly in order to provoke laughter. According to the same scholiast, Hipponax retaliated in verse so savagely that Bupalus hanged himself.

Hollo has reworked the surviving fragments of Hipponax’s work into four poems. Why? He doesn’t really know himself. He finds Hipponax reasonably unpleasant. And yet. In part because his friend Peniti Saarikoski translated him into Finnish, in part because William Carlos Williams mentions him in Paterson. So, in a way, and despite Hipponax himself, these “translations” are themselves a kind of elegy, a way of saying goodbye to his own goof-uncles and other tutelary deities.

Is this Hollo’s best book? No, I don’t think so. One can feel, I believe, the declining state of his health. Is it a happy addition to his oeuvre? Yes. Were I to introduce someone to Hollo’s work, this isn’t the book I would choose. Nevertheless, for someone like me, it’s a treasure.

One more thing. Hollo’s last poem is not included here. I found it in The Poetry Project Newsletter #236. I want to include it here, for everyone to read:

wild dreams

getting dressed      in odd tweed suit
to catch train in helsinki      call up papa mama
to hurry up “train is leaving at ______”

it appears we’re still living in soviet days
and some kind of petition is to be presented in moscow
for the freedom of some unjustly imprisoned person
but the weather is glorious and everybody in good spirits
except for my folks they respond grumpily
a la “do you realize what time it is?” and “no, dear, we’re not

going anywhere”
and “i” had been so enthusiastic about this trip
with my dead mother and father and sister
[Dreamt while imprisoned for circa 2 1/2 months in otherwise quite
congenial rehab home, an expression of wanting to go Elsewhere.]
2 (earlier)
                        in a stall not unlike one you keep your horses at night
                        there is a challenger next door
                        behind a small square opening
                        just about eye level
                        and i notice there is a wooden beam on the floor of the stall
                        it is my task to kick that beam through the small square hole
                        as soon as my challenger’s face appears

                        but wait there are 2 of them and there is water below them
                        enough said I emerge victorious
                        (Jane’s tape for further details!)
                        [I never was any good at athletics/ sports. It swelled my chest with pride]

I get up and get dressed in order to catch
an airplane to Bucharest
because I have received an invitation
from the press attaché of Romania

to go there
I show it to a taxi driver
who is helpful and deciphers it
so off we go      and are soon stopped in front of an impressive door
I realize I have no Romanian currency
but a few dollars will do
I check the board and recognize the name second floor
enter ancient elevator and ascend
I ring the doorbell      there’s no response

finally I turn the handle on the door it opens
to a vacant but well furnished apartment
nobody home here      well      I make myself comfortable
before retiring on a couch I entertain myself changing the décor on the walls
and so I wake up in the morning still alone then
there’s a jump-cut and I’m with Jane and Tamsin

[Who totally pooh-pooh the whole idea, attributing it to Andrei C.]

It is accompanied by some text by Tamsin Hollo, one of his daughters:

In the Autumn of 2012, as Anselm reconnected his brain to body after his second brain surgery, he began to piece together his experience during recovery. Translating thought to word to page was a frustrating, even anguishing process, but I was delighted to see his “just the facts” account taking form as poetry. In some dimension somewhere, perhaps there still exists an Anselm as he was then on a crisp Boulder day: tearing up and down 14th Street, chasing his racer red walker (the one with wheels); grinning, impatient, hopeful, free.


John Bloomberg-Rissman has spent the last dozen years or so working on a long project called Zeitgeist Spam. Parts published so far: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007),Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press, 2010), the text in A Picture of Everyone I Love Passes Through Me (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016), and In the House of the Hangman (forthcoming, 2017), which has turned into a 2,000,000-word metatext and which will be published in 9 volumes. Additionally, he “authored” the “conceptual” work 2nd Notice of Modifications to Text of Proposed regulations: Regulation and Policy Branch, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Leafe Press & Laughing Ouch Cube Publications, 2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of several volumes: 1000 Views of “Girl Singing” (Leafe Press, 2009), The Chained Haynaku (Meritage Press & xPress(ed), 2010, co-edited with Eileen R Tabios, Ivy Alvarez and Ernesto Priego), and Poems for the Millennium 5: Barbaric, Vast & Wild (Black Widow Press, 2015, co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg). His reviews appear regularly at Galatea Resurrects, and he blogs at Zeitgeist Spam (

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by James Patrick Dunagan in this issue of GR #27: