Collected Poems: Don Gordon
reviewed by William Witherup

Collected Poems: Don Gordon. Edited and with an Essay by Fred Whitehead University of Illinois Press, 2004. 277 pp. $34.95 cloth.

This 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.

Don 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.

The 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.

As 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.

When 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 fifties.

I, 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.

Though 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.

I 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.

I 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.


The bones of defoliated trees
From some deep marrow
Are growing leaves again
In that country.
The water buffalo will not graze
Under the sick branch,
Or the young men move like panthers,
Or ever the lovely psychotic women
Smile upon them.
Nature repairs her wounds
With angry scar tissue.
She does not replace arms or eyes
Or belief in men, or innocence,
Or immanence of deities
From east or west
Or in the star clusters.
She has done penance
For the acts of felons
By the leafless and the bloodless dying
of the trees.
Now she tries to live with her grief:
Replaced; ashen; scant; fruitless
for a generation.

(This 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)

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