Louise Landes Levi

The Cranberry Island Series

Review by Ian MacFadyen



The aim of Buddhism is neither submission nor renunciation, but detachment, the quiet mind. Although Louise Landes Levi pursues this quest for the quiet mind in her poetry, we find in her work a suffering mind, a mind in turmoil, a mind full of self-doubt. Her writing charts the desire to heal and understand, but wrestles with chaos and conflict, fear and self-abnegation - it is a process of continual self-overcoming, attempts at psychological and emotional restitution shot through with moments of rapture and radiance, but falling back into confusion and a sense of loss. LLL's lineage is that of the Beat and bohemian women writers and artists - Vali Myers, Hope Savage, Joanne Kyger, Patti Smith, Janine Pommy Vega, and her life and work connect as well with the vagabond writings of Sufi seeker Isabelle Eberhardt in the very early 20th century and with the fiery attack of punk conceptualist Kathy Acker in the 1970s and '80s - 'Crazy Louise' is also the 'Guru Punk', (the title of her 1999 book), a moniker which combines the transmission of wisdom and peace with the spirit of anarchy and rebellion. LLL is one of those women artists who directly addresses in her work the multiple roles and sacrificial responsibilities which are imposed upon women - the (obedient, or bad) daughter, the (good, or bad) mother, the woman who is not a mother (bad), the (perfect) wife and lover, and the artist (tolerated, scorned). But while she testifies to a fractured self-image, her work is also driven by the desire for self-validation and self-(re)creation. In particular, the book Crazy Louise seems linked to Anne Sexton's poems about mothers and daughters, such as 'The Red Shoes', 'Mother and Daughter', and 'Dreaming The Breasts'. Like Sexton, LLL explores how the sufferings of the fractured mother are reformulated in perceptions of the 'dysfunctional', errant daughter. Poet and Buddhist John Giorno has written that "Louise is Sarasvati, goddess of poetry" - Sarasvati is also the goddess of knowledge above all worldly things, and presides over the arts and learning, speech and music. She is connected (in the Devi Mahatmya) with Maha Kali, who is a key subject in the book Crazy Louise, and characteristics of the two deities combine in LLL's poetry through an identification with female power, self-restitution, and music. Kali ma is the benevolent maternal goddess who cares for the helpless infant Shiva, and for LLL, as for other feminists, and ecologists, she embodies wholeness and healing as well as repressed female power and sexuality. In Crazy Louise this 'power of the goddess' passes to and through the poet who restores the lost, feared, tormenting, dying and dead mother through a new awareness of the mother's private history, humanity and divine nature. Crazy Louise is the writing through of a process of destruction and creation of memory and attachment, and embodies a rebirth of the mother in the poet's mind through recovered, hidden memories and through a new identification with the mother's suffering. According to Ramakrishna, Kali is the Ultimate Mother, the principle and ground of consciousness, and she symbolizes awareness and bliss, but she is also the incarnation of "inebriating darkness" and the infinite mystery of death - the search for her is interpreted as the desire for rebirth, a blissful embrace with the Great Mother, but it may also promise dissolution, utter forgetfulness. It is a psychically fraught process, and its aim is not 'therapeutic' but a dangerous quest for healing through rapture and dissolution of the ego.


"I guess 90% of my most neurotic / problem is the isolation I felt 'at home'/torture. / I need to see divine Mother / inside / Louise./ So just call me/Kali Ma. . ." Throughout Crazy Louise LLL seeks her own "human and divine nature" and so reformulates and reinterprets the pronouncement "I am that I am" (God's response to Moses in the Hebrew Bible, and also the Divine Tautology which Brion Gysin would sabotage in the early 1960s in his greatest permutated poem). Against male authority, against sexism and abuse, against the woe and anger and indifference of the mother, LLL vaunts the erotic potential and psychological power of the words "I Am", turning the philosophical apothogem into a declaration of selfhood, liberation and love - "I am reborn, resist / this war, this war between, the / great balances, of nature, / of human & divine / nature, / I Am, that I am, / reappropriated, it refers to my CUNT, it refers to / my Warmth, my Desire, to Love / You." As Emma Jung wrote in Animus and Anima: "What we women have to overcome. . . is not pride but lack of self-confidence and the resistance of inertia. For us, it is not as though we had to demean ourselves, but as if we had to lift ourselves." Crazy Louise is especially poignant because the poet has to 'lift herself' up as a woman despite the indifference and callousness of her mother, and yet, to overcome her own lack and frustration, she must forgive the mother and restore the mother's own essential womanhood, suppressed and oppressed through marriage and parenthood and age.


"The Nature of the Mind / is emptiness beyond rational thought. / Whatever objectifying thoughts arise / they proceed to the expanse of the sky of / sheer lucency. & at the end / are held in the kingdom / of the / UNBORN" It is in that sky of the "unborn" that the mother appears, and in Crazy Louise LLL invokes the Akashic Realm of Madame Blavatsky, a prevailing concern of Levi's friend the poet Ira Cohen, in which the 'psychic ether' of the universe permits clairvoyance and telepathy, and communication with the 'Akashic Records', the divine history of humanity, akin to the Tibetan Bardo Thodol. LLL writes in Crazy Louise of "the BARDO / of / Repose", and the voices and messages in her text may be understood as akin to the Akashic transmission of voices - the synaesthetic internalisation of the voices of the dead and communications from 'elsewhere' (where else do communications come from?). LLL: "When I play my sarangi, & hear all those / long long tones, I find you / I / hear your voice just like music / inside of me, / So don't worry, Mama, / I'm here. & I can / hear / you." A lone bird flies through the station at Genoa, Pleiades and Orion are spread across the night sky, the moon rises over the Pacific Ocean, a luminous UFO appears on a Spring night, and flags flutter above the bowery in NYC, and the mother is "in the sky of mind, / in the sky of my desire, / in my pain at her departure. . ." As in Whitman's 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer' (1865), the scientific, material, analytic is surpassed by direct, intuitive, mystic experience of the cosmic natural: "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, / Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars." In LLL's writing this becomes truly metaphysical. Whitman's "I sing the body electric" is transformed in Crazy Louise into "I sing the body music" which continues: "Sleep has cleansed / your mind / it is the vessel of the / SPIRIT / the / MOTHER / Awakens, / all is quiet, I mourn, I grieve, I rejoice, I / see, / You, / solitary, / but no more in pain, Mother, dissolving, / the universe becomes who you are, / totally I am, You, have been / always, / You."


LLL refers to the "ancestral harmonic" of love as "the Equivalent", though elsewhere she writes, in notational form, "It is not a ? of. . . / equivalents". Here, 'equivalents' would be understood as metaphors (as the critic I.A. Richards used the term), and LLL rejects literary metaphors in her poetry, but "the Equivalent" has a quite other meaning. The great photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Anselm Adams referred to their pictures as "Equivalents", the term conveying both the idea that the photograph was a recording of an event, and that the image should be equated with the artist's emotional and psychic state at the time of making the exposure, so that in the photograph 'Equivalent', 1930, Steiglitz presents an image devoted almost entirely to a sky streaming with diagonally falling clouds - without the treetop in the lower left of the picture, the image might be read as ectoplasm or as an example of 'spirit photography', and equally as a work of photographic 'expressionism'. This 'Equivalent' signifies the image as a portal to the awe and exhilaration felt by the photographer, who is as much the subject of the picture as the sky he has evidently, if peculiarly 'recorded'. Likewise, LLL in her poetry both records moments of the world 'out there' whilst simultaneously expressing her psychic condition and emotional feelings at the moment of 'exposure' - the writing, like the photograph, cannot be seen until it is printed, and the resulting image is both an "artist's print" and (a) proof.


What Jacqueline Gens has called, in regard to LLL's work, the discovery of "bliss midst the bricolage of samsara's discarded moments" is a notable feature of Landes Levi's method of creating a poetics of consciousness which foregrounds the intrusions and, in the parlance, the 'bombardment' of language(s). Citations of spiritual teachings take their place among newsprint bric-a-brac and street signs, as the poet passes through the world of happenstance and destiny - and which is which? Read and see. Her poetry, in Crazy Louise and through much of her practise as a poet, is not unmediated subjective speech, but is often cut through with quotations - news headlines and reports, "tombstones as texts" (including graffiti on John F Kennedy's shrine - "CIA COUP D'ETAT / NEVER AGAIN"), song lines ("Do not forsake me, O My Darlin'"), a voice on the phone, ghost voices in memory, conversations remembered and lines overheard on the street, advertising signs, addresses, rail tickets, bumper stickers, sudden terrors of unwarranted memory words, banal e-mails and phone numbers, (while LLL's previous books have also included photographs and postcards), as well as citations from the spiritual teachings of Michag Labdron and Namkhai Norbu among other masters, challenging the self and affirming creative awareness. Textual or oral, or visual in origin, all these phrases, however seemingly quotidian or profound, mass media or philosophical, are part of the poet's reading of the world - what is coming in, those very words, their visualisation and their rhythm, they strike her and insist upon being recorded through a shifting matrix of transcription and feedback. As in the work of Philip Whalen, a poet admired by LLL, the desire for "emptiness of mind" returns ineluctably to the writer/reader's own "mind of words". And 'silence' is a word, and it recurs, it resounds - it is textually insistent, it has a persistent, sibilant hiss.


In a world of celebrity and status, the poet and the woman are pressured by the lure of fame and sex, and in Crazy Louise the self is under ego pressure to change, to become another: "Gradually / I will transform, / fr. your favourite lady 'hobo', into / someone / Johny Depp / Wld / really / like". But in this writing aimed at recruiting a new spiritual existence, LLL must face the facts: "If I was / Destined / for / STARDOM / I'd be Patti Smith. I'm / LOUISE. . ." It is this "LOUISE" who is reconstituted in Crazy Louise - against the grain of celebrity and fashion, despite the poet's confession that she, like so many, has been irresistibly seduced on occasion by what Joni Mitchell has described as the "star maker machinery". The poet turns her dismissal as "crazy" into an avocation - she possesses "Crazy Wisdom" and "It's a virtue after all."


Paradoxically, LLL's insistently fragmented, aleatory, multiform textual citations reflect the psychic disequilibrium and distraction and the turmoil of the speaking/writing subject. Simultaneously this bricolage breaks up and challenges the habitual, hierarchical templates of the mind set/the set mind. These written, transcribed textual messages, cryptic or declarative, move through the poet's memories and meditations in a matrix which encompasses both triggered, seemingly fateful connections and haunting disconnections. The voice which emerges is that of LLL, however hesitant or sometimes enraged, now entreating, now courageous, as she passes through languages, through her own associations and memory connections. Crazy Louise is a spiritual quest and not subject to chronology and we may move from Bologna in 1992 to New York City in 2001 to San Anselmo in 2000. The aeons of the Kalpa, LLL notes, are "intrinsically / beyond /time", but the records of her lifetime travels, the writings of who she once was or may have been, are fragments of time shuttled through the work and through the mind, time and place encoded, yet dealt like cards from a Fate Deck. And the voice changes - we can never speak as we once thought we could and should speak. Pound and Eliot's quotationary practice broke with poetry's accepted, unchallenged, direct connection between the poem and the privileged speaking subject, and postmodernist intertextuality took their challenging of unmediated speech to the limit point of "text saturated culture", to the linguistic desert shore. LLL's achievement is that her use of intertextual bricolage is at the service of her spiritual quest - she speaks through the plethora of discourses and linguistic signs of the world as it is written and the fragments of texts which strike her, which she discovers and recognizes as valuable, to her. These 'texts from elsewhere' appear throughout Crazy Louise (and through LLL's other work) and they demand or permit her to reveal their significance in her life - the reader-as-writer, the writer-as-reader may "read the lines of fate", and so write and re-write her own life. Intertextuality is put at the service of a psychic unfolding, a questioning of the transmission and reception and interpretation of the Word, and the written world. LLL's intersubjective 'poetic' voice does not need to be rescued from the 'impersonality' of intertextual citation and bricolage - it is not textual concatenation at the service of the 'literary', but a spirit reading of life as literally written: Mektoub. Here the poet is the decoder. Significantly, LLL includes an anecdote at the end of Crazy Louise: "A student once found a paper saying that in prior incarnations he worked, as a master, to liberate beings fr. Hell Realms. The student-translator covertly read the text. When the master entered the hotel room where the two were staying, the text had, of course, been put aside. The master smiled & said, go on reading." Significantly, in the text of Crazy Louise, LLL also writes: "cut yr. dreams / write like Kerouac / keep on writing."


Unlike those postmodernist texts in which language is cut-up and bricolage taken to the point of Brownian stasis, LLL's intertextual practise is a reading of the signs and messages and word memories tracked through a reading of the world - beyond text or spoken discourse, the poet also reads the places she travels through, the people she encounters, her experiences, as a developing map of mind. Her writing is both a recording and a divining of signs. (When someone told William Burroughs that he thought there were messages on the radio which he felt were aimed at him, Burroughs replied, "Of course they're addressed to you, you're listening to them.") LLL's poetry is related to Goethe's Naturphilosophie and the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, in which the objects, signs and encounters of the world are subject to questioning and to intuitive, subjective understanding. Crucially, development of the inner life through self-contemplation leads to seeing one's own and others' experience and actions through identification as well as through meditative detachment - the most insignificant action or encounter may reveal transcendent meaning, unleashing unsuspected or repressed feelings, thoughts, and desires through sensory-spiritual attention. Crazy Louise draws upon LLL's esoteric learning, her knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism, and upon the teachings of Namkhai Norbu - she accepts "the suffering of Samsara", she sounds the OM, she evokes the Dakini and the primordial ground of the cosmos, but this writing is something other than ritual observance and ascetic control - it risks emotional damage, as well as the banality and stupidity of just being and getting by in the world.


LLL writes in free verse, vers libre, and her lines, though not metrical, may be rhythmically scanned as they break and flow and zig zag down the page, descending in clusters and trails, the staggered divisions of lines and floating phrases producing semantic gaps and abrupt switches as part of the poet's questioning of her own mind, perceptions and thoughts, while phrases are suddenly blown up in bold, striking typographic blasts, overwhelming the page. The textual spaces themselves create semantic and syntactic differences in feeling, tone and colour, charting the synaptic firing and radiating of the mind. This is not just "free verse", but the freeing of the verse. The work determinedly shuns the seamless, its elements are not harmoniously reconciled - LLL embraces the provisional and notational as well as rapidly alternating passages of insight and rapture, remembrance and self-castigation. Paul de Man believed that continuity and coherence were in all cases textual illusions and that beneath every text there is "a discontinuous world of reflective irony and ambiguity." (And as a secret apologist for Nazism he had good reason for believing so - making his own theory a deferred, ironic apologia). But LLL refuses all ironic armouring - hers is a poetry of self-exposure and striving in which textual fissures and caesura are necessarily part of consciousness in flux, seeking enlightenment and 'emptiness' whilst accepting the condition of imperfection and struggle, of not knowing. There is nothing ironic in LLL's address to her dead mother. The poet Peter Reading once argued with poet George MacBeth that addressing the dead in a poem was pointless, absurd, and could only be an ironic gesture, but then George MacBeth died and Reading wrote a poem addressing his colleague (and adversary) - a poem which in the context acknowledges the absurdity of this 'poetic' act, but turns it into a human testament of loss and fellow feeling, recognizing that the dead live on in us, and we converse with the dead. The poems of dead poets commune with living readers, and living poets compete and converse with dead poets, and with dead lovers, and the linguistic surpasses and overrides all mortal division.


LLL's method is part of her mother subject - "Fragmentation & collage / KALI MA" - immediately after which LLL quotes her own mother's words to her: "one day I'll kill you". The context of these words is given earlier in Crazy Louise: "My / mother is living in a specialized mental / asylum, perfect / fr / her / 4 yr. old / mind / She's / like a beautiful / doll / 'I'm going to kill you one day' / she / says. . ." The poetic progenitor of this poem which addresses the dead mother, the torments of the mother's own life, and the suffering of the mother's child and that child in adulthood, is surely Ginsberg's Kaddish. LLL's poem, however, preferences not the mourning rituals of the Kaddish, but chod, the Tibetan ritual practice, which has a female lineage via Machig Labdron, a practice aimed at the cutting and evisceration of ego and its attachment to beliefs, memories and material existence. To overcome her own feelings of fear, anger, recrimination, of being persistently haunted by her mother and the past, LLL cuts through/re-WRITES those attached memories, and the poetic method is both vehicle and testament. LLL's "Fragmentation & collage / KALI MA" may be transposed as "Cutting through ego / MY MOTHER". Because the mother has become so many confused thoughts and hurts, layered memories, recriminations, inchoate emotions - her image and her history must be cut through. In a note at the end of Crazy Louise, LLL writes that chod was "well known to Burroughs and Gysin who used its central tenet to define and refine the cut-up technique." That technique went beyond the cutting up of texts, and Burroughs and Gysin recognized that consciousness itself is a continual cutting up of perception and thought processes, whilst Gysin said that the technique was in part the result of trying to find a "Strong Black Medicine" to help Burroughs break through his catatonia and deal with his drug addiction. In her poetry LLL tracks the cutting up of her own consciousness and cuts through her own habitual emotional responses and fears - her poetry is not postmodernist literary fragmentation but radical disassociation at the service of self-destruction/self-restitution, the splintered, meandering, uncensored, troubled, searching mind. This is not poetry as therapy, it's a rise for a fall, no buffers - let the terror and beauty, the anguish and rapture break through.


LLL validates and embraces her dismissive soubriquet 'Crazy Louise' by directly connecting her vocation as poet with Tibetan 'Crazy Wisdom', the realization that the phenomenal world and transcendent reality are of the same essence, and that this may be understood and resolved through non-duality. Louise's mother disapproved of her poetry and criticized her interests and beliefs and behaviour - the crazy child, the bad child, the vagabond. And yet, the words of the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz are repeated in Crazy Louise: "The True SUBJECT OF POETRY IS THE LOSS OF THE BELOVED" Seeking to recover this loss, LLL writes through the desire for things to have been otherwise, and in doing so she severs her own connection to replayed miseries and hurts - this is writing as the cutting of ego attachment. Through this process she begins to remember otherwise, to see otherwise: "my unrequited love paid off in the end," she writes, and she remembers "a freedom so precious, / a love so immaculate, it erased any trace of imperfection. . ." The damaged ego is cut through, and paradoxically restored. This is no fake eulogy, but a true elegy drawing upon unsuspected, restored, tender remembrance. The writing moves from detachment to identification and liberation - to see the mother as both an aged body and as returned to her original, childlike vulnerability: "then I learned/the smell, the body, how dear, / the odor, the blue eyes, the cheek bone, / . . . laid to rest. . ." Destruction of one's own self-serving, painful beliefs is called for before something true can break through: "I long for liberation & at times, I am / happy to report, / receive / IT." There is acceptance of loss, but through this LLL finds that love survives, is timeless: "After losing my / computer: / I went downtown / to / Chambers & Broadway / Many many / computers / lost, / also husbands, / wives & eyeglasses / policemen / were also / unaccounted / for". Poet Ira Cohen, LLL's close friend, continually lost his notebooks, his Photostats, his camera, his keys, and he wrote a number of poems about this - some of which he also lost. I asked Ira, "What is losing something, what is losing anything but a dress rehearsal rag for death?" And then I regretted saying it. Ira thought for a moment, then laughed and said, "But how many fucking rehearsals do I actually have to go through?!" One thinks of Elizabeth Bishop: "The art of losing isn't hard to master. . . though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." Loss is written in order to be un-written in the mind: loss is "no disaster" when felt and understood through the act of writing. We might say that it is not loss but the finding again of the beloved, and of oneself, which is "the true subject of poetry". Or that finding a lost poem is the true subject of the poetry reader, and the grail of the true poet.


LLL's poetry is written in present time, written 'on the road', as she travels through the world, through its damage and ruins, and as she writes in her 2006 book Banana Baby: "My voice has been found, as the metropolis / crumbles, my voice rises, over the debris." In Crazy Louise, LLL's voice rises over the wreckage of war and famine, and over the loss and damage of her own felt and perceived life. . . "No longer shall you be called 'forsaken' / and your lands 'desolate' / but you shall be called 'beloved' / and your lands 'espoused'." The subtitle of Crazy Louise is 'La Conversazione Sacra', and that sacred conversation is between the poet and her mother, but also between the poet and her readers, her listeners, and, crucially, between the poet and herself as she questions her work and her role, and empowers her own transformation through the desire to incarnate the divine role of poet as seer: "I can't / sing. / I can't / cry. / I have to start / to be a poet / again / not to think abt. it. / TO BE IT." This is how poets become poets, again, and always, as if for the first time.

Ian MacFadyen, London, July 2014