Poems: Don Gordon. Edited and with an Essay by Fred Whitehead
University of Illinois Press, 2004. 277 pp. $34.95 cloth.
is the latest title in The American Poetry Recovery Series,
a project of the University of Illinois Press - a series devoted
to the work of neglected poets - that is, poets not included
in the standard literary canon of modernist American poetry.
Previous volumes in the series are editions of Edwin Rolfe,
Sarah Platt, and Frank Marshall, as well as two war anthologies:
Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War and
The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about
the Spanish American War.
Gordon (1902-1989) lived for the better part of his life in
Los Angeles, California. Fred Whitehead, in his afterword
"On the Life and Work of Don Gordon", provides the
reader with the biographical facts of the poet's life, and
a critique of the six previously published volumes that make
up Collected Poems. The reason Whitehead's essay follows,
rather than precedes the poetry, is because Gordon had no
truck with "forensic literary criticism"; of dissecting
poems on the operating table.
late poet was even reluctant to be interviewed, but Whitehead,
who had begun corresponding with Gordon in 1978, and had published
Don in his magazine Quintaro, eventually visited him at his
home in Los Angeles, and was able to talk with him about his
life and work. At that time the editor promised Gordon he
would see to it that the poetry was collected. Whitehead has
fulfilled his promise with this excellent anthology.
all poets write from life experiences, and from social and
political positions, here are aspects of Gordon's life pertinent
to his poetry: he was the son of an immigrant, Lithuanian-Jewish
father who ended up practicing law. Gordon (an Anglicized
name) himself was born with a club foot, and had to have many
operations to correct this birth defect. Editor Whitehead
surmises this may have been the reason for the poet's shyness.
the family moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles, the son,
too, decided to study law after his graduation from Pomona
College. But Don Gordon disliked courts and law offices. He
then got work reading novels for the movie business, helping
to select potential film scripts. During the thirties he became
active in union organizing, and joined the Communist Party
in 1932, and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the
myself, as a reader and writer of poetry, had not heard of
Don Gordon until I was sent a review copy of the book. I was,
quite simply, astounded at the quality of the work. I don't
use this qualifier very often, but I consider Don Gordon a
great poet, one who could stand among the likes of Ezra Pound,
T.S.Eliot, W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos
Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Robinson Jeffers. Gordon claimed
that Jeffers was his only stylistic influence.
Gordon, throughout his life, published widely in the literary
magazines, and had six books to his credit, his likely disappearance
from the literary landscape probably had to do with the fact
that he was a poet of the left. Though Gordon uses the same
modernist prosody as some of the poets mentioned above, his
content is almost always socio-political. Don's method is
carboniferous, that is, history, anthropology, politics, war
and technology are laid down and compressed until each poem
is like anthracite. He comes up with many stunning similes
and metaphors that are, to my mind, as memorable as a a line
of Yeats or Auden. His tone, or music, is somber, a Wallace
Stevens of the left.
have one quarrel with the format of the book itself. The small
print, the tiny, eye-glazing font works against the very majesty
of the poetry. Often I had to read the poems aloud - always
a good test of true poetry -to keep from dozing off over the
blurred pages. Though this was probably done to save on publication
costs, the effect is like seeing the work of a great painter
in a poorly lit gallery.
close my review with a poem in its entirety, "Defoliation",
from his fourth book On the Ward (1977). The context for the
poem is the Vietnam war.
bones of defoliated trees
some deep marrow
growing leaves again
water buffalo will not graze
the sick branch,
the young men move like panthers,
ever the lovely psychotic women
repairs her wounds
angry scar tissue.
does not replace arms or eyes
belief in men, or innocence,
immanence of deities
east or west
in the star clusters.
has done penance
the acts of felons
the leafless and the bloodless dying
she tries to live with her grief:
ashen; scant; fruitless
is a slightly rewritten version of a review that first appeared
in The Secular Humanist Press, Spring 2004, and is here reprinted
with permission of the SHP editor, Barbara Dority)