“A Fish With Frog’s Eyes”: Bob Kaufman, George Romero and the Power of Radioactivity

Kaufman The Ancient Rain

By Kurt Kline

 

In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to heal the wounds of racism, capitalist exploitation, and war. If Kaufman is, as many critics have suggested, a shaman, it is perhaps most properly in the tradition of Hoodoo, which employs music as a mode of otherworldly transport or to facilitate trance states. If Kaufman recuperates the bizarre dreamscape and linguistic paradox of the ancient shaman’s song, however, these elements have now been transplanted to alien, perhaps even hostile, Western cultural climes. I examine George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead to demonstrate more clearly Kaufman’s position as mispositioned shaman-healer of the postmodern age.

Although there is no single moment when modernism ended and postmodernism began, the period around WWII can be seen as a time of great transformation. The European avant-garde movement dispersed not only bodily to the far corners of the globe, but spiritually, as a functional vehicle of liberation. But after the war another generation arose. Allen Ginsberg seems to bridge the gaping chasm torn by the war in the middle of twentieth century American and European literature when he gives Ezra Pound a ritual spanking at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The Beats represented a new way of configuring self, art, and world. The postmodern artist was no longer a priest of culture, but an actual enemy of the state. Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce were brought to trial on obscenity charges; Carl Solomon was locked in a madhouse; Bob Kaufman was repeatedly jailed. Beat writers were fighting on the side of the imagination in a war that threatened to strip America of her soul. “The war that matters is the war against the imagination,” Diane Di Prima declares in her poem “Rant”: “All other wars are subsumed by it.” The artist became not a high priest but a culture worker, working within the mythos of the American legend to undermine its insistence on collective conformity, on homogenization of spiritual experience.

The Beats accomplish this in their poetry through the juxtaposition of elements of American mainstream popular culture (its film stars and political figures, its movies, popular myths, and songs) with elements which threatened to revolutionize and perhaps fundamentally undermine it: jazz, blues, Eastern and Western mysticism, Zen, and psychedelic drugs. When Bob Kaufman used the word Beat to describe the poetics that he and his friends were engaged in inventing, it may well have been in reference to the beat of the shaman’s drum, which propels its listeners into the Otherworld. Certainly the Beat poetics seems to recapitulate, within the changing landscape of American popular culture after WWII, the liminal poetics originating from the shaman’s song. Ginsberg writes of the madness and schizophrenia of the artist and of his country. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantra poems GRRRR and GRRRARH their way through a secret language of the animals, filling up the dadaspace of emptiness with new possibilities of meaning. In Bob Kaufman’s art, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to discover the source of and cure to the homicidal madness that Poe, the father of American culture, had intuited as somehow an inherent part of our national consciousness.

Jewish and Black, sane and insane, Kaufman inhabits liminal space in many ways.  In the eyes of mainstream 1950’s culture he is criminal, schizophrenic, the rebel, the outsider. But from the point of view of the poets, the musicians, the artists of North Beach and Paris, Kaufman is unbelievably inside, inside inside, showing the workings of the creative mind as it contorts to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by consensus consciousness. Taking into account the ancient poetics of the shaman’s song we are in an excellent position to understand the precise relationship between the poetry of this “screamer on lonely poet corners” and modern culture.

There is in the first place an inherent connection between the shaman’s song and jazz. Jazz grows out of a cultural aesthetic which places a different valuation on shamanic experience than does the European model. The African slaves brought to the new world were only recently and perhaps dubiously converted to Christianity. They preserved their old gods and shamanic customs in folktales, music and art, and, as blues musician and author, Julio Finn observes, “the Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that the African slaves brought with them.” Elements of the Yoruba religion survived in Hoodoo and Voodoo on the bayou and elsewhere as the African witch doctor became the Root Doctor, Obi, Vodun, Wangaleur, the Hootchie-Cootchie Man or Woman. Although Kaufman did not, to the best of my knowledge, receive formal shamanic initiation at the crossroads, as perhaps was the case, as Finn demonstrates, with blues great Robert Johnson, the poet would nevertheless have been quite aware of the Hoodoo tradition, being raised in Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans. In the Hoodoo tradition, music is a key element of spirituality, and opens a channel of communication between man and loa.  Kaufman writes about, as I fancy, his younger days in New Orleans, and some of the music that he heard there in the following terms:

 

Orleans…  New Orleans…  the bend in the river cleaves to the sky…

…the flowers are still up there on that wall, stem, petal, all,

Their roots playing the silences, between

Babatunde’s drumbeats,

Feeding pongee petals to soft breezes, flying in darting wonder.

 

Olatunji Babatunde is the Nigerian drummer whose 1960 album Drums of Passion was so influential on John Coltrane. “Babatunde’s drumbeats” are in clear reference to the African tribal tradition in which rhythm is the soul of life, the source of all human and universal action. Kaufman’s poetry grows out of be-bop, which is integrally linked to this intuition as well as to the struggle of African-Americans for individual and political liberation and the recovery of authentic spiritual experience.  Kaufman’s improvisatory, spontaneous, oral poetics, like be-bop, is rooted in spiritual insights deriving from African tribal traditions.

 

…I DREAMED I DREAMED AN AFRICAN DREAM, MY HEAD WAS A

BONY GUITAR, STRUNG WITH TONGUES, & PLUCKED BY GOLD

FEATHERED WINGLESS MOONDRIPPED RITUALS UNDER A MIDNIGHT SUN, DRUMMING HUMAN BEATS FROM THE HEART OF AN EBONY GODDESS, HUMMING THE MELODIES OF BEING FROM STONE TO BONE AND FROM SAND ETERNAL…

 

Kaufman’s jazz rhythms set to words hurl the listener into the Otherworld even as does the shaman’s drum. His poetry is truly “Beat” in the sense that it is concerned with and expressive of the shaman’s primal rhythm.

In Kaufman’s poetry will be recognized features of the shaman’s song. The poet’s surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery call to mind the illogical, unnatural images of the shaman, expressive of the bizarre dreamscape of the shamanic Otherworld, a realm of impossible existences, of linguistic paradoxes. To express the liminal reality of the Otherworld the shaman employs a secret animal or nonsense language. Kaufman expresses the inexpressible through linguistic paradox and through the secret language of jazz. Kaufman’s poet moves across “AN UNIMAGINARY LANDSCAPE THAT EXISTS IN A REAL, UNREAL WORLD,” populated by strange “UNBEINGS.” The location of this liminal reality is somewhere, as Kaufman has written,

 

…BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR, MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF AN OTHER SIDE…

 

The shaman’s otherworldly journey is recapitulated by Kaufman both in terms of the underworld descent in “THE POET” and a flight into “crackling blueness” in “Ancient Rain.” Such shamanic visitations are common in Kaufman’s oeuvre. “I have walked on my walls each night/Through strange landscapes inside my head,” he writes in “Would You Wear My Eyes?”  In “Slight Alterations” he writes:

 

I climb a red thread

To an unseen existence,

Broken free, somewhere,

Beyond the belts

 

The purpose of these otherworldly travels is always for Kaufman to redeem suffering through love. In “Plea” he enjoins the “Voyager, wanderer of the heart” to “Seek and find Hiroshima’s children/ Send them back, send them back.” The poet must retrieve the lost and mangled souls of the new atomic age. The poet is the shaman of the culture, who must remember the truth of the nearness of death to us all, and how interconnected our lives are with all the other beings on this planet.

Finally, Kaufman’s poetics conforms to that of the shaman’s song in situating itself as an instrument of healing. Kaufman sings the “song of the broken giraffe,” the “nail in the foot song,” to bring back as if from some quagmire of Hell America’s very soul, ripped from it by greed and warfare and held in thrall by a vast brainwashing apparatus. In “The Ancient Rain” Kaufman writes:

 

At the illusion world that has come into existence of world that exists secretly, as meanwhile the humorous Nazis on television will not be as laughable, but be replaced by silent and blank TV screens.

 

The poet exposes the hypocrisy around him and dispels the illusion that has been foisted on the populace, the false myth which asserts there is a single, unitary and unchanging truth. The Ancient Rain is coming to remind everyone of the necessity of change. “The Ancient Rain splits nations that have died in the Ancient Rain…so that they can see the culture of the living dead they have become.” But if everything falls apart it also comes back together again in the Ancient Rain. It falls like balm from the sky, and brings retribution.

 

The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. The Ancient Rain has moved me to another world, where the people stand still and the streets moved me to destination.  I look down on the earth and I see myself wandering in the Ancient Rain, ecstatic, aware that the death I see around me is in the hands of the Ancient Rain and those who plan death for me and dreams are known to the Ancient Rain…silent, humming raindrops of the Ancient Rain.

 

Kaufman is a visionary in the sense implied by Jonathan Swift when he writes, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” But if Kaufman has a faith in his vision’s veracity and sagacity that rivals Blake’s, he nevertheless experiences vision in every bit the problematic manner of tortured Sioux shaman Black Elk. There is a burden to seeing for Kaufman, even as there was for the Sioux visionary. “I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet, spread-eagled on the bone of the world.” In “African Dream” he experiences as a sort of racial memory the pain of seeing the slave ships that ripped Africans from their homes. As he sees it, he lives through the horror of it: “Green screams enfold my night.” The source of the poet’s purity, his legacy, is his suffering. He sees more deeply because he has to. Suffering is transmuted through the magic of poetry into a medicine or sacred herb. In this, Kaufman closely follows Rimbaud’s seer in seeking alchemical refinement of the soul and distillation of a universal balm such as that sought by the Rosicrucians. Kaufman hails Rimbaud as “brilliant maniac,” and “desert turtle” – in an apparent reference to the hexagonal patterned tortoise backs upon which the I Ching is based – and describes the two writers – himself and the French seer-poet –as

 

Remnants of neo-classical witch doctors

hurling jagged missives of flame-sheeted bone,

affecting space cures, on curved people…

 

Implicit in seeing for Kaufman is a deeply rooted social conscience. The grim tattoo of the beat-walker’s nightstick on Kaufman’s body becomes a watchword for seekers of life’s mystery everywhere.

Perhaps the most comprehensive, touching and absurd rendering of Kaufman’s poetic is his “Abomunist Manifesto.” In his Abomunist writings, Kaufman launches a humorous but at the same time radical critique of the mainstream American culture. Distorted scenes of American life as filtered through the media weave through Kaufman’s “Abomnewscast…On the Hour…”

 

America collides with iceberg piloted by Lindbergh baby… Aimee Semple Macpherson, former dictator of California, discovered in voodoo nunnery disguised as Moby Dick… New hit sweeping the country, the Leopold & Loeb Cha-cha-cha…

 

This is the real news, “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist,” a collaging of media items which reveals the absurdity and yet the morbidity of American life. “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV set off and get under it,” Kaufman’s Abomnewscaster advises us, juxtaposing the traditional healing, transformative, shamanic symbol of the mushroom with the destructive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Standing counter to the Puritan work ethic, the beatnik poet cultivates a Zen-inspired uselessness. “In times of national peril, Abomunists, as reality Americans, stand ready to drink themselves to death for their country,” Kaufman declares, only half-jokingly. In other words, the Abomunist opts out. “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” They will have nothing to do with the system.  “Abomunists vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” The Abomunist philosophy is essentially rejectionary. “Abomunists reject everything except snowmen,” Kaufman writes, meaning presumably that the Beats reject a puritanical mindset that subjugates everything to the degree to which it can be exploited. The Abomunist refuses to grow up, to conform to societal expectations, and privileges a child’s sense of play which is painfully at odds with the suffering he sees around him. The Abomunist is further linked by pun to the Abominable Snowman, a dubious creature inhabiting precisely the liminal region between known and unknown, between the possible and the impossible. The fusing of wonder and horror, miracle and sham, are perfectly captured in the monster Yeti. The Abomunist suggests the possibility of seeing the sham and stepping away from the brainwashing machine at the same time as staying attuned to the miraculous. But here is the difficulty. The poet has seen too much of the world’s suffering. “Long forgotten Indian tribes fight battles” on his chest. As reportedly did the Buddha when he attained enlightenment, the poet feels the cut earthworm’s pain as his own. Like the shaman, the poet has journeyed to the source of the pain in order to affect a cure. But will he make it back in one piece?

In “Still Further Notes Dis- & Re- Garding Abomunism” Kaufman presents us with a curious document, supposedly a translation of the Live Sea Scrolls, “one of the oldest Abomunist documents yet discovered.” Kaufman’s story of a beatnik Jesus is perhaps, as Damon suggests, inspired by the Lord Buckley routine “The Naz.” For all its humor, however, its characterization of Jesus seems analogous to the Jesus in Gnostic workings of the Jesus myth found in Nag Hammadi Library.  In “The Dialogue of the Savior,” for instance, Jesus says:

 

Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest.  For whoever stands at rest will rest forever.  And I say to you be always above…time…

 

Like Kaufman’s Abomunist poet, Jesus is telling his disciples to opt out of the system.  The Gnostic Jesus is more rebellious and more paradoxical than the Jesus presented in the canonized gospels. He’s more the rogue and scoundrel of Bruno’s estimation. Kaufman’s Jesus reports:

 

Nazareth getting too hot, fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night.  Beat vagrancy charge by carrying my toolbox to court–carpenters O.K. Splitting to Jeru. as soon as I get wheels.

 

Kaufman’s satire of the last few days of Christ’s life imagines Christ as a poet at odds with the conventions of society. In identifying the poet with Christ, Kaufman demonstrates the shamanic impulse in the postmodern era. Christ is the archetypal symbol of the shaman, the healer of physical and spiritual pain, the mediator between worlds. Although Christ’s image is valorized, however, the actual point of his message is often lost, and many who claim to believe in him would still consider his philosophy and actions impractical. But the Abomunist is the very master of impracticality.  The drag of the thing is if one wants to be Jesus, one sooner or later must get crucified. And so our beatnik poet does – but it’s out of the pain of this crucifixion that a beatification of the poetry occurs.

Kaufman continues the lineage of shaman-Gnostic visionaries we have been tracing. Gnostic philosophy is embedded in his work. The poet is nailed to the bone of the world – imprisoned in matter. He “HIDES IN A JUNGLE OF WRECKED CLOCKS” and asks, “What time is it going to be?” He rejects time altogether and lives instead among “days and weeks/ That cannot be found on any calendar” and “hours and minutes unknown to the clock.” The Gnostic call for freedom from the Demiurge and his minions becomes in Kaufman’s oeuvre a call for liberation for all sentient beings from the retrogressive spiritual, mental and political forces that bind them.

A significant feature of postmodernism, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, is its pastiche of and commentary upon the mediated world – the texts and sounds and pictures that make up the mythological life of our culture. But although Kaufman joins the offices of poet/culture worker with that of entertainer à la Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce, his attitude toward film has less the zaniness of John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” or the celebratory irony of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” but more of a problem that comes out of Kaufman’s understanding of the role of seeing for the poet.  Although many of his poems make mention of movie stars and filmic characters, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Shirley Temple to the Wizard of Oz, Kaufman salutes Hollywood as the “artistic cancer of the universe” and holds the movie industry culpable for the brainwashing of America, to whom war is made a possibility and all record of genocide erased. On the other hand, he uses cinematic motifs and structures to re-write the brainwashing script, to reveal, by exaggerating the lie, the truth that lies behind it..

Kaufman’s filmic genre of preference seems to be the horror movie. He writes humorously of Dracula star Bela Lugosi and describes his Carl Chessman film script as “a horror movie to be shot with eyes.” That the horror movie has played such a pre-eminent role in defining the American cultural landscape says a lot about a tension that is held between us and the natural realm, especially as this is accessed through shamanic praxis. The lycanthropy and vampirism that are mainstays of horror cinema can be looked at as remnants – twisted recuperations – of the transformation into animals undergone by shamans in the séance setting. Dr. Frankenstein employs the theories of Mesmer –themselves thinly disguised recuperations of shamanic wisdom – to reanimate the dead. Poe invented American culture when he invented the horror story, the horror-madness of guilt over having gotten away with it. We got away with it. We slaughtered the American Indians. We enslaved Africans. We decimated Hiroshima. We conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve wreaked evo-havoc on the Black Lagoon in which, in sunnier days, that strange amphibious creature used to play – before a seemingly oblivious John Agar poisoned him, set him on fire, shot at, speared, and caged him before blowing up his lagoon entirely. But now we have the dues to pay, and we’re afraid, very, very afraid. What is the horror movie if not this primal fear – the fear of some lurking remnant of ourselves, still unresolved, that might intrude itself in all its hideousness upon our pleasantly numbed state? The murdered dead don’t stay buried, but have a way of turning into zombies, or ghosts, or ghouls.

In “THE POET” Kaufman describes his underworld journey as a passage through “THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING/DEAD” – an ironic reference both to the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, as Damon suggests, but also to the 1968 George Romero horror film in which a hapless band of humans battle a horde of flesh eating ghouls. Romero’s lampoon of racism and conventionality is quite an appropriate allusion for Kaufman to employ. The poet too, is holding out against hordes of mindless zombies, agents of lifelessness, shambling shades inhabiting this particular version of Hell.

In Romero’s film, the protagonist, Ben, is a young black man and this single fact ironically seems both his power and his curse. Like Kaufman, Ben comes from a culture more connected to tribal shamanic praxis than that of the white folks with whom he is unhappily marooned. Only he knows how to fight the ghouls, which he does, in fact, with the conventional tool of the shaman, fire. With fire he puts the ghouls to rout before taking a fortified position in a house, which now becomes a sort of shamanic tree, an axis between worlds, between the basement and attic, between the living and the dead. He prepares a safe retreat into the underworld of the cellar, but only withdraws there when there is absolutely no hope that any of his fellow humans will be able to extricate themselves.

In the final scene of the film, the zombies have been defeated by sheriff’s deputies armed with flame throwers and shotguns. Ben emerges cautiously from his subterranean retreat, and carefully climbs the stairs of the house, only to be shot in an upstairs window by a white deputy sheriff who mistakes him for one of the remaining walking dead. Who doesn’t see him. Who renders him invisible in order to kill him. Romero makes a sly comment here – reflected in the films stark black-and-white coloration – on the culture’s condemnation of shamanic praxis and its linkage to the blindness of racism.

Kaufman’s “THE POET” shows us the Hell that is imposed on us by our own symbology. The poem is “about” how this hell is created, and what role the poet plays in its creation. The poet is the master of the process of creation. He creates the poem, the world, life itself, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The poet and the poem are each described as “A FISH WITH FROG’S/ EYES.”  This forms a haunting refrain:

 

A FISH WITH FROG’S

EYES,

CREATION IS PERFECT.

 

The poet appears here as half-fish, half-amphibian. A frog is a more complex organism than a fish. It is a sort of super-fish able to do everything a fish does but much more. A fish can only see within its underwater domain, but an amphibian is master of water and surface realms. A fish sees what falls into the pond but no more. The fish has no communication with or effect upon the surface world. From its lily pad, the frog can observe and interact with what from the fish’s viewpoint are the sensible and super-sensible realms. A fish with frog’s eyes has a sort of super-vision that allows it to see what other fish would dismiss as beyond the spectrum of their finny experience.

Kaufman’s “FISH WITH FROG’S/EYES” is very much an image of the atomic age. Kaufman felt the Hiroshima bombing as a terrible psychic rift. This horrible power and the war machine which produced it were sanitized by the popular media, but Kaufman sees the glimmer of murder in the cold eye of conformity. He writes with fierce sarcasm:

 

Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning

Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,

And remember the stereophonic screaming

 

He wants America to realize what it has done. But meanwhile the Hollywood propaganda machine tries to make a killing at the box office with heroic portraits of men in uniform and their plucky women waiting at home. Even radioactivity was valorized in a special way.

The possibilities of mutation due to exposure to radioactivity were romanticized in science-fiction movies and comic books of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A strange radioactive mist causes the Incredible Shrinking Man (in the film of the same title) to shrink down into the very microcosm of the atom. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it’s a “mysterious high-level radiation” causing a mutation that reactivates the corpses’ brains. A fish with frog’s eyes, an atomic mutant, is the perfect symbol for the poet’s alchemical transformation of the stuff of the post-atomic world.

Kaufman’s poet must write what he sees. He must “WRITE THE TRUTH/EVEN IF HE IS/KILLED FOR IT,” and then he will be killed for it. The poem is that which cannot be denied and which cannot be explained. The poem is life. When death removes its cape from him, the poet understands what he has lived through, and he has no regrets. Although he has been “NAILED TO THE/BONE OF THE WORLD” the poet has at least lived. Like Rimbaud’s seer he will at least have seen. His poem, like Lorca’s, is “WOVEN INTO THE DEEPS/ OF LIFE.” Suffering is the poet’s legacy, but it is a suffering that has been transformed, redeemed. Meanwhile,

 

THE POET LIVES IN THE

MIDST OF DEATH

AND SEEKS THE MYSTERY OF

LIFE…

 

It is significant that the poet seeks not the answer to life’s mystery, but the mystery itself. The mystery is the enigma, the incertitude, the paradox, that is creation, that is the poem, that is “PERFECT.”

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.

An Anthology of New Poetics.  Ed.  Christopher Beach.  Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.

 

Di Prima, Diane.  Pieces of a Song.  San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. Print.

 

Finn, Julio.  The Bluesman.  London:  Quarter Books, 1986. Print.

 

Kaufman, Bob.   The Ancient Rain.  New York:  New Directions, 1981. Print.

Golden Sardine.  1967.  San Francisco:  City Lights, 1976. Print.

—Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness.  New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.

 

Romero, George, Dir.  Night of the Living Dead.  1968. DVD.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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