“Karensui” (karensansui) is the art of Japanese rock gardens, usually featuring large, carefully placed rocks surrounded by a carefully raked, smooth sweep of sand or small pebbles. Ryoan-ji is a temple in Kyoto, Japan, with one of the finest karensansui gardens in all of Japan. B. visited Japan in 1957, and he wrote the poem about a year and a half later. It was one of the most important Dream Songs to him because the karensansui became his model for the collected Dream Songs. The idea of the rock garden is that because it never looks the same from any two angles, one can never actually “see” it directly. Its shape and structure can only ever be put together in the imagination, though this takes repeated viewing from different angles and deliberate contemplation.
So it’s a good time, maybe, to back away from this one poem and reflect on what themes have arisen so far in The Dream Songs as I’ve watched it come into shape from different angles. To wit: fear of nuclear war, geezer lust and a frank invocation of sex and sexuality, self-effacement and diminishment, criticism of political power structures, the complications of fame and artistic recognition, identification of the poet’s self with the repressed and victimized condition of African Americans, shame and embarrassment, alcohol dependence and abuse, a broader existential despair at the state of the world, and of course, overlying and triggering everything else, the ongoing effect of a serious, persistent psychological wound caused by the suicide of the poet’s father when he was a boy. This is most often sad and melancholy, but it can turn to anger or compassion at times as well.
Uncomfortable, disquieting stuff. The poems are also marked by a puzzling obscurity (at times), a remarkable verbal compression that can communicate through allusion, through silences, and the fragmentation of which also communicates in unexpected ways. The poems can be quite funny, but they sometimes shade toward the self-absorbed and self-indulgent.
The other thing that comes through for me is the unshakable artistic confidence, or what may actually be a simple devil-may-care rejection of worrying about what anybody thinks. Perhaps these two things have to work together. Think of the kid in school who knows damn well he’s ten times smarter than the blockheads who pick on him, but he’s been bullied so relentlessly he gave up long ago on trying to be cool. He wears what he wants, reads what he wants, has no friends, lives in fear, and bides his time for the day he knows is coming when the blockheads who torment him will sell used cars or industrial flooring and live for college football games on the weekend, and he’ll have made millions before he’s thirty. That’s sort of how I picture him, with the added quality, of course, of an intimate look under his hat because he’s a poet and not something else. He makes mistakes all the time. So what? He moves on immediately and makes more, and it’s all kind of a brilliant mess. Which is the opposite of the careful, raked perfection of the karensansui dry garden, I suppose.
Actually, I don’t see that a karensansui ethic is at work in this long poem at all. I’m much more inclined to see The Dream Songs as a linguistic/poetic equivalent of the great jazz record album covers of Jim Flora: http://www.jimflora.com/gallery/recordcovers.html and the equally great paintings Flora did a bit later, during the same years B. was writing The Dream Songs: http://www.jimfloraart.com/gallery.html. I’ve always understood how B. works in the mode of mid-century modern illustration—the strange palette, the fragmentation, the dark surreal cartoonish whimsy, the odd but characteristic shapes—but when I remembered Jim Flora’s work awhile back, the association for me became solid. He has the same kind of quirky energy, analogous combinations of shapes and colors.
Flora has a woodcut print, called “Railroad Town”, which maybe best captures the overall sense of The Dream Songs as a whole. http://www.jimflora.com/fineartprints/railroadtown.html. While the print is only 11” x 22”, it is conceived on a grand scale, as if you had 50 of Flora’s album covers competing for attention over the same ground. The effect up close is a visual madness, but from a distance, it all takes on a kind of uniformity and it becomes calmer: Instead of the up-close cacophony of horns blaring, tires screeching, women screaming, men fighting and grunting, kids banging on pots, from a distance it resolves into a gently sparking buzz. Now take 50 of “Railroad Town”, each unique, variations on the same theme, and juxtapose them next to each other and back off further: The activity is like the jumble of random pebbles and sand grains: Zoom in up close, chaos; back off far enough and you can rake it all smooth. If The Dream Songs have any affinity with karensansui, you begin to feel it from this distance.