APRIL 19, 2014
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“IT’S IMPORTANT TO ME that you write,” James Dean said to 19-year old Barbara Mor when he dropped her off at her boardinghouse on Franklin and Beachwood. They had dined at the famous Villa Capri on McCadden Place, where Mor remembers Dean “referenced ‘that Frenchman’s poem’ & then recited ‘barbare… barbare… barbare…’ just that word 3 times.” Rimbaud’s poem describes the bleeding flesh and the fires that underlie the fanfare of heroism and mythology. It was a prescient poem to invoke. Six days later Dean was killed in an auto accident on his way to Salinas, giving rise to one of Hollywood’s greatest myths, and Mor was left at the beginning of a life disarticulating the “nauseous allegories” of America, picking apart the bleeding flesh and conflagrations that underlie our national fanfare.
Some know Mor as the co-author of The Great Cosmic Mother, a tome on Goddess worship published in 1987. But her life’s work as a poet taking apart the visceral reality beneath our national mythology appeared in Clayton Eshleman’s Sulfur, the influential literary magazine of the 1980s and 1990s. This was a brutal time for Mor. She was living in poverty, often homeless, on the streets of Tucson and Albuquerque, in total eclipse with an abusive partner, “a pharmacopeia, he was; junkie, street thug, Mexican boxer, pimp prostitute hitman […] a notorious crazy street person.” She saved what she could from the slow fire eating her skin, “sitting in 24/7 BurgerKing with free coffee refills into infinity, air conditioning, writing in notebooks.” Into these notebooks she put the thoughts and words that became the material of her first book of poems in more than thirty years, The Blue Rental, the evisceration recently published by Eric Larsen’s Oliver Arts & Open Press.
Blue Rental displays the gangrenous nerve and bone of life on the streets of the American southwest. Alternating in focus from cosmology to autobiography and politics, the book of poems in prose spans eons but never loses sight of “the Soul w/out a Home in America.” Informed by a deep curiosity and sensitivity, Blue Rental touches on a wide range of topics like homelessness, Neanderthals, nuclear proliferation, the shape of native time, the spiritual cost of American consumerism, and the Juárez Murders (the ongoing spree of women-killing in Ciudad Juárez which Mor considers “the Guernica of our Time”), to name only a few. But its greatest triumph is to bring these far-reaching meditations into a single epiphanic study of the spiritual state of America today, a bright moment in the light of a raging and all-consuming fire. The opening section of the poem welcomes us to its elusive place, a crime scene like a flame in blueshift:
blue womb or rental room of empty houses inside a vast night
blue adobes along a street are radiant with such light strangely
occupied as museum or uterus blue immense of a universe
looped and rerun perpetual for the stars insomnia who never
sleep it cant get born out of in which it always dwells
or who lives in the other rooms
who knows why they continue to love it watching static when
the show is over or now stare at a blue screen a hypnotic
stare injects blue into everything 1 light year is 6trillion miles
so they do not sleep or dream trance is a slower brain as
gods watch an indifferent spectacle
Devonian 395-345million yearsbce swamps forests ferns
something crawls from sea to wet green then fish may walk
4limbed vertebral land dwellers 360millionyearsbce repeat
250million dinosaurs 65million mammals 8million hominids
humans 200,000 years from explosions of Cambrian
multicells Great Ordovician biodiversification methane
ammonia hydrogen+lightning spark=amino acids 3.5billion
years a universe they say 13.75 billion years began
that eyes stare at such distance or the crime it means
what is a chronic absence to do with enormous pain
to create an Other to end the Solitude of Everything that IS
it gropes blind first invention of feelers eyes beauty words
i look up at starry mirrors and desire translation into words
and becomes what it has become i am therefore i am
i am not obscure i do not remember the crime
In a way, Mor’s view of the US in the 20th century was paradigmatic. She was born in 1936 in California “before the freeway, before plastic & fastfood franchises,” and watched it transform with war industry and suburban sprawl. As a teenager eager to escape an oppressive home life, she was a beach bum and later a beatnik in the Hollywood area. At age 17, she married “a guy from Las Vegas” and by the end of the decade she was living “in Baja with a Beat artist.” When the 1960s reared its head with the assassination of JFK, she was a first-year student at SDSU (then known as SDSC), where she stayed for six years until she walked out nine units shy of a degree “cuz in WorkStudy I’d found obscure books on ‘ancient matriarchies’ in Mega/Neolithic Europe & the Mediterranean buried in the basement, & after all my education (including Anthro, Comparative Religion, World Lit & Mythology etc etc) I’d never been introduced to such texts.”
She then began to write for a San Diego women’s newspaper, Goodbye To All That, a series of essays that would form the basis of her work in Great Cosmic Mother. Amid the political explosions occurring on college campuses, Mor became more deeply involved in the women’s liberation movement, editing an international all-women’s poetry anthology, until the paranoia programmatically disseminated by CoIntelPro leaked into the movement, causing a crippling “politics of serious infighting.” She left just as Ronald Reagan’s governorship put the squeeze on welfare mothers, dispossessing California of one of its greatest minds. She moved to New Mexico. In 1987, she moved again to Tucson, believing the prestige of recently published Great Cosmic Mother might secure her a lectureship at the University of Arizona (hoping to simultaneously write a comparative study of Celtic and Mesoamerican spiritual systems). Instead, she failed to get even cleaning work in their maintenance department. She was soon on the streets. Mor remembers a particularly telling episode during this period of homelessness when she was caught sponge bathing in a bathroom at the University. She was run out by a maintenance worker even as her book was being taught at the University. The University, she says, “was not home to my body even though its Library might house my book.”
But the same alienation from the academy kept Mor in close contact with a life and world unimaginable to many. Blue Rental is a collection inhabited by the frayed people, spirits, and animals she met in those Tucson years, homeless children, roaches, scorpions, Maya sorcerers, women beaters, heroin addicts, wild dogs, prostitutes, rapists, and murderers. With a Rimbaud-like eye to the conflagration beneath the epic fanfare, Mor’s book shows us the grim scene beneath the surface myth of American life. And the deeper she goes the more textually distorted the book gets. In one of the poems, “Linguistic Duplex,” the poet cuts textually into the future when she sits to read a women’s magazine with a homeless girl while the girl appears in a news report about her own murder. The girl is snatched away by her perplexed mother in an interplay of time, text, and terror that recalls scenes from the novels of William Burroughs and the films of David Lynch. (A portion of this poem can be heard read by the poet in the appended recording.) Each page turns into hell, whose heat keeps its denizens from sleeping, laying awake worrying if exit is possible. Mor’s basic conviction is that it is. But it is unclear what labor, belief, or supernatural power is required for it. “Tricky angels and canny demons” abound:
the girl does not know if he sees or truly
lives in darkness, wearing dark glasses at midnight the burn
retinas of his partner sometimes spin like tornadoes they
share between them one white stick w/ruby knob. Poco
thin in jeans white t-shirt Loco even skinnier sometimes a
baseball cap looking backward. they ate everything, everything
one dish after another back to the table never sated never fat
they ate all night. clowns to nightworkers, a rapid
Those old people fed the Sun
corazones humanos, wrapt in warm tortilla flesh
ancient Mesoamerican fastfood: burritos por El Dios
a brown thumb jerks at the outside mirage, 4am parkinglot
crouched before dawn neon smog pulsed in blackbeats of unslept
cars. Gringos feed god farts. Talk about a religion
Tonan, Our Mother, w/many wiry dirty fingers he taps the
table, they could be spiderlegs. what does She eat? Creature
excrement menstrual blood raw placentas corpses. dump
all this good food in the toilet, guero. rivers oceans it becomes
water. Pocho stares into his Coke. I think I’m drinking it
no wonder She croaks
the girls body appears at the table, he leans & deeply
sniffs her crotch. no sangre de las flores, relojes de la luna
no iron no sulfur no ammonia no chemistry between you
pero bugspray, no morbid bodies! his fingers on in & out of her
in strange ways, the starving maggots. organs lockt in cans cars
antidecomposition boxes, UR coffins. Ocho very excited now
digs Bic from levi pocket clicks openLight flares upward thru
his skull becomes an owl reverse ocelot, fountain of Death.
the girl stares & smiles. this dialog between them quantum
tlachtli faster than light she like many others mildly retarded
yet cheerful therefore. from the top of his head come fireworks,
my girlfriend the Witch ate my heart w/her eyes or just looking
she can chew off yr leg muscle, no pain, you just fall over. is
no counting for Taste
speaking of waist, la cinga, news item Aug 02: the Equator
circumference is growing. The world is fat
eats too much junk
speaking of justice, his finger sibylically moves upon the
air, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a chronic wasting disease.
todo el mundo is wasted. I have dumps in my head of dead
species, upsidedown extinct little toenails & babyeyes. maybe it is
these cannibals, his fingers fluttering many unseen knives fly out
embed surrounding neurons of eaters. Bovas Sponges Encephalants,
mis hijos! revenge of bushmeat
after all it is not brain surgery
do you believe in poetry?
a mute exchange of stares thru black mirrors, the smoke
curling up from somewhere they have no cigarettes, then
Chuyo y Puyo laugh it is a very dry laughter like snake
rattles behind a rock in the arroyo
In 1536 Cabeza de Vaca y 3 companeros crawl delirious from
this desert back in Sinaloa bullshit their homey slavers re
7 cities of gold I saw them in El Norte
1540 Coronado goes after the gold of Cibola
Mr Head of a Cow Senor Cowhead who hallucinates civilization
from a shitpile
Cibola is a softdrink i think
No longer sipping Cibola, since the late 1990s Mor has lived in Portland, Oregon. Her recent writings have left behind the Tucson experiences, turning instead toward the “shavd polymorphd” world after September 11, 2001. Inhabited by terrorists, quantum ghosts, (dis-)honest politicians, and other things which may or may not exist, this world—in which she sees Joan of Arc argue with Dostoyevsky and Pussy Riot play in a clitoral-shaped cosmos—is “not doomed,” Mor stresses, “by Nature but by DumbIdeas.” Her life’s work has been an untangling on this basic premise, giving a corpus and destiny to Dean’s insight that it was important that she should write and in her writing reveal the bleeding flesh and conflagration beneath our American fanfare. Some of these writings—poetic and polemical—are available at her blog. Her next collection, a trilogy titled Metals, is currently unsmelting itself at her computer in paradise.
I met Barbara this winter. Trekking to Portland on Interstate 5, I felt myself mainlining a 1,300-mile artery parallel to the Pacific Ocean, winding inland to British Columbia on the 99 and traversing the peninsula of Baja California on the 1. When I approached the Columbia River, I thought of Smohalla, the 19th-century Wanapum who brought back the Dreamer faith and the Washat dance in order to resist colonial incursion of the area. He told the white settlers that he would not cut into the breast of his mother to farm and profit. Instead, he would be fed by her as he had always been — with respect and admiration for regenerative cosmic processes.
You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair? It is a bad law, and my people cannot obey it. I want my people to stay with me here. All the dead men will come to life again. Their spirits will come to their bodies again. We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother.
Today Smohalla’s beloved valleys make most of the hazelnuts, Christmas trees, and grass seed sold in North America. I am told that a sizable number of the people that work these plots are undocumented, indigenous migrants from Mexico, many of whom speak neither English nor Spanish. The time, texture, and terror of history enfold: In preparation to revitalize the Dreamer faith and Washat dance, Smohalla walked in agony southward through what he called the “Land of the Dead,”: California, Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, over paths perhaps walked by the Mixtec and Nahua workers of these fields, over paths perhaps walked by Barbara Mor.
She welcomed me to her small, book-filled apartment with a cup of tea, apologizing that she had no snack to offer since, having overrun the bookshelves, her books had taken over the cupboards too. A drowsy cat sat in a patch of sunlight. Barbara and I sat across from each other amid all the books, gradually becoming familiar with each other’s physical presence after nearly a year of email correspondence. We started by recapping how we had met. She had had her daughter contact me after finding that I posted some of her Sulfur writings to my blog. I had been taken by the flagrant intensity of her writing, riveted by its polemical propulsion heading God-knows-where:
Life on Tuscon streets with an Aztec-Mayan streetfighter will of course Intensify It. It is a matter of enormously condensed and suspended energy, can blow up Universe with any microflick of the tail. But: is wholly unliterary, unhistoric. These exist still packed in DNA; as Pancho says, “I am the Book.” No-word dream-state of images, magnetic fields, and body action. It needs a good translator. The energy of verbal work, writing, is a high-speed or short-wave radiation. My brain works, but it is long waves, below the sound-threshold. I mean I don’t hear much going on in there: the metallic drone of the Malabar caves, one-way traffic on Lead St…
When I got her daughter’s message I thought that I was in trouble for posting the poems without permission. But I wasn’t; the poet was happy to find herself found. I told her that I first came across her name as the author of The Great Cosmic Mother, to which she winced, disavowing the book, cursing the publishers, and condemning its title (which suggested that women could only be cosmic if they were mothers; she wanted to call it “The First God”). I told her that I had learned a great deal from the book and that I had found it provocative and inspiring. She admitted that it had some good to it.
Dedicated to her mother and Meridel LeSueur, the book begins with a prayer from the Takic-speaking Indians of Southern California entirely of a piece with Smohalla’s regenerative cosmic vision: “As the moon dieth and cometh to life again/so we also having to die, will live again.” The book tells the story of the programmatic destruction of matrifocal paganism and the socialist political structures with which it is associated. But, in addition to a deep history of women, paganism, and communalism, the book is also a kind of Woman’s Technicians of the Sacred, rich with poetry, spiritual writings, and traditions collected from around the world. These stories, incantations, artifacts, technologies, and strategies are the counterprogram to the erasure, silence, and destruction. They are the texts by which the moon is supposed to live again.
As it turns out, I am visiting when the moon is in Scorpio. The scorpion is a creature that controls its destiny. It prefers the sting of its own tail to the assault of an enemy (“can blow up Universe with any microflick of the tail”). Curled into a crescent, its tail is said to regenerate, maybe because it looks like a crescent moon. Barbara and I talk about destiny. She tells me that she always knew she was a writer (“at age 8 I’d declared myself ‘a writer’ and I think the universe heard me; from then on everything was part of the required course”). Still, there was a hellhound on her heels from the start. Her mother, who played pop songs on piano and taught Barbara to read music and play (“my first poetry was Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter”), died when she was 12. She married at 18 to escape her father and “evil” stepmother’s home, didn’t find the experience of marriage “educative enough,” so fled to Hollywood to meet Dean. She hangs out with him a few times in the week before his death at the crossroads, another hellhound, “last minute he decided to drive the car, thus […] destiny.” In the years that follow she stays in Hollywood, taken by the growing Beat scene.
Low rent, minimum wage jobs easy to get and leave and get another one, 10 books a week from downtown LA library plus Pickwick Bookstore where Zen and Existential and Beat books were shelved. I lived on coffee, cigarettes, green apples, cans of jack mackerel, and lots of Spearmint gum. And books.
She adds that every night she walked from Highland east to Hollywood and Vine to hang out at an outside coffee bar at Hollywood Ranch Market and talk with other weird people. She asks if I’d ever heard of the 24-hour Hollywood Ranch Market. I hadn’t; it closed a decade before my family moved around the corner from Santa Monica and Hudson. My memories of growing up in the Hollywood area are of vatos, punks, and transgender prostitutes. Not beatniks. We talk about how much LA changed in the last century and how much it is changing today. LA and the Island of California; Aztlán, apocalypse, and Atlantis; terraforming missions gone haywire. When Orion got to Crete he hunted with Artemis and Leto and boasted that he would kill every beast of the island. Gaia heard this and freaked. To stop him she sent a scorpion to sting Orion to death. Thus… destiny. Orion was elevated as a warning in the sky; to the rest of the hemisphere it is a constellation that hangs over Southern California.
Evening overtakes the sparsely furnished room in which we are sitting across from each other. We stare like moons at their own reflection in a darkening river. Barbara’s sharp blue eyes shine over her face etched like pale Navajo sandstone. Conversation with her is aeolian and eonic; talk of geological processes, Neanderthals, and ancient ceremonial magic are carried as if by gusts to discussions of Charles Fort, Aleister Crowley, Gertrude Stein, and quantum poetics (“Quantum Mechanics seems to describe a Poetic Field to me”). Intellectual, aesthetic, political, mystical, and cultural activities are fused in this field in an intelligent, exciting way. Her voice is hoarse from so much speaking. Feeling intensely moved by our day together, I ask her if she could throw me a spread of the Book of Thoth, her preferred Tarot deck for various reasons. With a wary but sly smile she tells me that she hasn’t thrown in many years — but that she will on this occasion. She walks to one of the bookshelves and pulls down a large, dusty box that opens to a deck with worn edges and surfaces faded from long use. She has me cut the deck in three deliberate steps, takes it up with her staggering, shining, sandstone hands, and begins to drop the cards as we nosedive into quantum fields.