Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2100
Paul Metcalf is one of the undiscovered treasures of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century, and the publication of hisCollected Works by Coffee House Press is an occasion for rejoicing. This first volume, issued in the fall of 1996, will be followed by two more, the final volume planned for the fall of 1997 to coincide with Metcalf’s eightieth birthday.
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Metcalf’s obscurity is not what is interesting about him—he should not be read because he is relatively unknown—but it is the necessary starting point. That which cannot be readily categorized is likely to be ignored, and it has been Metcalf’s fate to write in a form that eludes familiar labels. He is not a poet, although his literary “fathers” are Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. He is not a novelist, though he began his career by writing fiction. He is not a historian, though many of his books are largely assemblages of historical source-material. He is an artist of collage—but he notes that “collage” suggests a static image, whereas his texts unfold in time, with a narrative drive. He proposes the unhelpful term “narrative hieroglyph,” and compares his books to totem poles (see the essay “Totem Paul: A Self-Review,” inWhere Do You Put the Horse?, reviewed in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1987).
One of the virtues of this first volume is that it allows the reader to observe the development of Metcalf’s distinctive style. There’s an excitement, apart from the pleasures of the individual works gathered here, in seeing how a powerfully original artist discovered his medium. Few readers could have predicted from Metcalf’s first book, the novellaWill West (1956), the riches that lay ahead. Will West is Metcalf’s closest published approach to conventional fiction. (An earlier work, a conventional novel, “failed to move the hearts of New York editors,” Metcalf recalls.) The protagonist, Will West, is a young Cherokee Indian pitching in the minor leagues. He meets a white woman on a sunny, deserted beach, where they make love and frolic in the waves—and where, suddenly, Will chokes her to death. After the murder, he returns home briefly to his mother’s cabin in the Smokey Mountains, then—wounded by police—flees west. Intercut with this narrative are passages set in italics. At first these are stream-of-consciousness passages that open a window to Will’s thoughts, but as the novella proceeds these counterpoint sections are unidentified excerpts from historical texts, ranging from early Spanish encounters with Indians in America to scenes from the Civil War.
As a novella, Will West does not succeed. The interplay between the fictional narrative and the historical extracts seems contrived, and the fictional scenes, despite some local intensity, lack verisimilitude. There is a curious affinity between this book and the French nouveau roman, not a matter of influence but of imaginative convergence: like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, Metcalf displaces the attention of the reader accustomed to plot and character (there is a lot of attention to geography in Will West).
From Will West to Metcalf’s second book, Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, written in the 1950’s but not published until 1965, is an enormous jump. Metcalf’s most complex book and his best known (though still it has never had anything approaching a large readership), Genoa resemblesWill West to the extent that it combines a fictional narrative with extracts from other texts. Yet it is a far more audacious, more assured assemblage.
Three facts about Metcalf are essential background to Genoa. First, he is a great-grandson of Herman Melville, and he was reared in a home that became a shrine to the Melville revival, presided over by his mother, Eleanor Melville Metcalf. Growing up, Metcalf rebelled against all this, but ultimately (in part following the lead of Charles Olson) he reencountered Melville on his own terms. Second, Metcalf is an autodidact. He left Harvard in his first year there, and that—as he has proudly proclaimed—was the extent of his formal higher education. He is a prodigious reader who has acquired his knowledge independently, with the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the self-taught (the latter outweighed by the former, but still to be noted). Third, he was an adept of Dianetics, the movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard and later transformed into Scientology. By that time, Metcalf has said, he had concluded that Hubbard was a con man, but he adds, “It is a truism that some of the most brilliant minds may be found in the heads of confidence men.” So while rejecting Hubbard’s promotion of Scientology as a quasi-religion, Metcalf retained from Dianetics “the notion that all memory is theoretically recoverable, from conception to the present,” and extended this from the case of the individual to all of human history.
And so Genoa is both an extraordinary meditation on the life and work of Herman Melville (especially on Christopher Columbus’ influence on Melville) and an interlacing of all manner of strange lore, framed by the story of the fictional brothers Michael and Carl Mills: Michael, the Melvillean narrator, and Carl, his monstrous Doppelgänger. A typical page of Genoa resembles a page of Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, and Olson’s Maximus Poems, juxtaposing texts from heterogeneous sources with different typefaces, playing against each other. (Genoawas published by Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Press, the publisher ofMaximus; its publication was subsidized by Metcalf’s mother, even though she hated the book’s dark view of Melville.) The sumptuous look of the first edition of Genoa—the poetry of the page layout—is lost to some extent in the smaller format of the Coffee House Press edition, as is true of Patagoni and other Metcalf texts, but that is a price well worth paying to have these works in accessible form.
If there is a single lesson to this wild tapestry of a book, it is that history matters. Not, Metcalf is quick to add, history as it is practiced by many academic historians, “who retreated thirty years ago into, let’s say, the eighteenth century and [haven’t] been heard from since” (see his essay “The Poet and History,” in Where Do You Put the Horse?). Indeed, Metcalf writes, “History is important only insofar as it impinges on the present.” This passionate engagement with history is Metcalf’s antidote for the
vast world . . . inhabited by scientologists and science fictioneers, UFO seekers and Brooklyn Buddhists, evangelical Christians and home-study astrologers— . . . all of them, in this uncertain and corrupt world, escaping into constructs that avoid the hard and/or glorious realities of their own genetic and cultural heritage. History and evolution may appear to disappear—and it may be comforting to believe in the imminent end of the world. But the world, manifestly, does not end. And all that you are, past and present, once more comes into focus, every morning, when you awaken.
In Genoa, for the first time, Metcalf appended a bibliography at the end of the book to acknowledge the sources he had used. In subsequent works the bibliographies would become more extensive, though he continued to leave it up to the curious reader to track down, among the many titles listed, the source of any given quotation, believing that notes or similar citations “would have broken the flow, the rhythms.” If Genoawas the book in which Metcalf found himself as a writer, establishing the form he would employ with variations through the rest of his career, it also marked a terminus. After this book, he dropped the scaffolding of fiction entirely. Never again did he plunge into psychological depths as he did here. And finally, while he continued to specialize in provocative juxtapositions, he simplified and clarified his designs. Genoa was one of a kind, a book into which he poured everything.
The remaining three works in this first volume, Patagoni (1971), The Middle Passage (1976), and Apalache (1976), show Metcalf writing the kind of books he had taught himself to write. (One cannot imagine anyone else writing them.) Patagoni, as Guy Davenport suggests in his introduction to this volume, “may be Metcalf’s most congenial book.” Here Metcalf explores contrasts and affinities between North America and South America, between twentieth century American culture and the culture of the Incas. In part this is playfulness; the dust jacket of the original Jargon Society edition of Patagoni features a photo of Henry Ford next to a photo of an Andean Indian, a la “Separated at Birth?” (The resemblance is striking, and in the text there are references to Ford’s belief in reincarnation.) Yet Metcalf has a point to make as well.
In an essay titled “The Scene,” Metcalf quotes from an interview with Robert Creeley, in which Creeley describes an encounter with an Indian in southern Mexico. For Creeley—and for Metcalf—this Indian embodies “the centering of physical being, the sensory system absolutely alert . . . vis à vis the awful success of the process of objectivity, the mind with almost no consciousness of the body it lives in” (ellipses Metcalf’s). That comment might serve as a gloss for Patagoni, and for Metcalf’s work as a whole. In Patagoni, Ford’s intelligence is splendidly physical, suspicious of abstraction, working by touch. And in Metcalf’s scheme this rhymes with the genius of Andean culture. (We also see this culture in its debased modern form, in letters and diary entries from a trip Metcalf took to South America in 1959. As with Genoa, there was a long hiatus between the writing of Patagoni and its publication.)
Metcalf’s insistence on the physical as against the disembodied mind seems unbalanced in its own way, a corrective carried too far. (And the spiritual? It is not even on his radar, except as an object of scorn.) Yet it does energize his language. Patagoni—the same is true of The Middle Passage and Apalache and any other Metcalf text—is a feast for the tongue. Whether he is quoting from a geologist on the South American land or savoring Inca words, Metcalf is a connoisseur of language. Like Ezra Pound, he has an eye for the luminous detail and an unfailing ear for the rhythmic phrase.
That sense of language, in which the craftsman and the musician share equally, gives Metcalf’s collages a classical gravity and beauty—a quality that sharply distinguishes his work from the typical productions of the contemporary avant-garde. The Middle Passage is a very short, intense book that, in its conception, sounds like a self-indulgence funded by an arts grant. Subtitled “A Triptych of Commodities,” it considers in turn the futile Luddite rebellion against mechanized knitting (“Ludd”), the slave trade, and particularly conditions on the slave ships (“Efik”), and finally whales and whaling (“Orca”). Yet there is nothing self-indulgent about this work, nor is there any of the obscurantism that passes for art in many circles. The Middle Passage communicates with great clarity an overwhelming sense of tragedy, a deep awareness of the perennial human temptation to commodify everything.
Apalache is tragic too in its evocation of native peoples wiped out as European settlers crowded the eastern coast of North America, and its tracing of the legacy of slavery. In counterpoint, there are passages full of wonder at the bounty and the beauty of the American land, and stretches of geology turned into poetry, and strange Indian words, and a seasoning of Yankee humor. None of this is news, exactly; we may think we know it all. Yet the language of the texts Metcalf weaves together is fresh and pungent and gritty, and the juxtapositions are striking, as when in parallel columns we follow contemporary accounts of the abortive slave uprising planned by Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1821-1822, and newspaper reports from 1961 concerning Robert Williams, a “militant Negro leader” in Monroe, North Carolina, who is charged with kidnapping a white couple during an outbreak of racial violence and who eventually flees to Cuba.
None of this is presented with a strident air. There is plenty to argue with in the implicit history of America that Apalache puts forward, but Metcalf does not cajole or wheedle or scold; he does not lecture or pontificate. He invites the reader to join him. Thanks to Coffee House Press, many more readers will have a chance to accept the invitation.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, November 15, 1996, p. 566.
Columbus Dispatch. November 10, 1996, p. G7.
Library Journal. CXXI, November 15, 1996, p. 65.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, September 9, 1996, p. 29.
St. Paul Pioneer Press. November 12, 1996, p. C8.