Woodrat Flat reviewed by Greg Bem
Prior to Saijo, it hadn’t occurred to me that the world of the “beat writers” expanded beyond the walls of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Burroughs, and a handful of others forming the face of a scene, movement, aesthetic experience, et cetera. Saijo, like Rexroth, existed in heart and mind alongside the most frenzied and the most astute writers of the beat face. Woodrat Flat (Tinfish, 2015) is a book about being “aside” and abreast of these other faces, be they institutional, ecological, dangerous, and societal. It is a firm but mindful book, one whole composed of many meditations. It is a mature book, too, one that can justify its own worth, its own righteousness, and, adversely, its own meek way of cupping a spoonful of quiet here and there to be dripped over the illuminated absurd of the modern world.
Imagine Albert Saijo, Japanese American, living in the heart of the Lost Coast, California, becoming one with the forest, the water, the marijuana. Intricate being fueled by the East but inspired by so much change in such immediacy. Endless classifications in Latin breeding and budding in every direction. Read these two Saijo fragments out loud:
“LONICERA HISPIDULA THE PINK HONEYSUCKLE CASCADING DOWN GRAYWACKE ROCK FACE – HOT ROCK SUN LOVER”
“GLISTENING GREENY IRIDESCENT JEWEL GOLDEN BUPRESTID” (95)
. . . pretty inducing of awe, is it not?
The poems are short: loud and quiet at the same time: hammer jacking goes the gods as they uncover new faces out of new leaves.
“FOREST THAT WAS HERE WAS ANCIENT BUT CLIMAX BIOME COMING BACK SPITE OF SEVERE TRASHOUT – IT’S INSPIRING – WE TRY TO LEAVE IT ALONE – NATURE IS DOGLIKE THE WAY IT COMES BACK EVEN IF YOU KICK IT – WE CAN DRINK OUR CREEK WATER – IT’S TASTY WATER”
goes part of the third section of the poem “WATER” (34). Like Celine, Saijo has mastered breath through punctuation, creating snippets of poetry linked together over space. The poems, which are linked fragmented lines of prose, can be opened up and closed at any link, emulating an engaged place in nature, in the world.
I admire reading Saijo in the age of the Internet, in the age of other types of emersion, evolved forms of serendipity aroused by modeling those forages of before. Before the digital. Before the page. I wish I had read Saijo in the 1990s, before our current madness reached maturity. I wish I had read him when the tweets were what birds did, physical birds with feathers and small skulls. Saijo’s world is a world of birds, then, but it is a world of little tweets and chirps coming from the day to day existence of meditation and protest. Where we succumb and suckle the bits of the screen, so too did Saijo find nurture within nature, within being one seed of many seeds. The Thoreauian ideal: to escape and to be one with nature through wonder post-haste.
The relationship between language and Albert Saijo, hippy gone recluse gone scientist cum gardener, is how we find this book. Woodrat Flat is, as editor Jerry Martien comments in the book’s intro, a fragmentary collection composed of block writing, “writing that does separate word from body.” I like this description and I think it’s quite accurate. When you get to those poems in the collection that find you thickly in the late 20th century, the century before cell phones, touch screens, and so on, those poems become small, compact universes. But in each of them aches and yawns and muses the voice of Saijo.
Saijo is present in his poems in ways many poets are not. What we see here is courage, velocity, and veracity. The journey into the heart of the world leaves most hanging their heads in shameful abstraction. Not Saijo. The little abstraction to exist, to carry emotions and such, results in harmony and ecological recognition much like the best Buddhist poems. Albert Saijo carries life and death in baubles as a sheer result of a world embracing us in its tangible splendor. In carrying the beginnings and the ends, as transferring to us life and death, Albert Saijo allows his own self to step into both. He even goes so far as to describe the deeply personal, warmly spiritual process of the mortal coil:
“DEATH WHEN YOU BECKON I WILL NOT LOOK TO RIGHT OR LEFT BUT RUN TO YOU & EMBRACE YOU LIKE A LOVER” (42).
We need this writing in our lives just as much today as when he originally wrote it. In an age of quasi-sustenance, in an age of asatisfaction, in a moment of glimpses and unremarkables, where that which is superficial leads us down so many paths of closed doors, overgrown trails. Where the nihilism roams free and the semi-conscious, semi-lucid addictions quench all our desires, we can do well to read and know Saijo’s
“ANGELIC ANIMAL – WE CHOOSE TO BE OUR OWN DEFINITION OF WHO WE ARE – WE DESERVE OUR FATE” (from “HUMAN” on page 66),
which might take us out of the hazy bubbly boundlessness.
Another lesson to be learned via Saijo: the world is terrifying and it is not only the self that makes it so. Other writers of the era, from Gary Snyder to Anne Waldman to Edward Abbey to Richard Brautigan, come close to embracing the vast expanse of dark otherliness that is humankind, civilization, and the ego of the Destroyer, “The Man,” the darkness waiting to feast upon souls. Saijo too found feathers ruffled and core roughed up by the presence of authority trouncing upon his peaceful, ritualistic narrative. The combat between farm life and circling helicopters is disruptive and surreal. The poem “TIME AGAIN” captures the spirit well:
“SOME THINGS ARE CERTAIN – YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW WILL GET BUSTED BURNED OR RIPPED OFF – PROBABLY FAMILY – JUST LIKE THE REST OF THE WORLD – MAJORITY RULE WILL AGAIN BRING ON ITS INCREASINGLY LUGUBRIOUS CAMPAIGN TO STAMP OUT THIS PLANT THAT HAS GONE NATIVE – THEY WILL COME WITH LAWS & GUNS & CAGES TO ROUND UP US ERRANT ONES AND TRASH OUR PLANTS & THEIR INNOCENT MARAUDERS WILL ARRIVE BY HELICOPTER LIKE SO MANY JOHN WAYNES” (25)
. . . Saijo captures in this body of work an idea of love resultant of strong, heartbreaking struggles with the unsettled beyond, an almost Trent Reznor like passion for an idealism corroded by rules, law, and relentless technology.
What results, what Saijo provides in response, is a cross between ecological exploration a la Williams’s Spring and All and the guttural, primitive passions of the core “animal,” covered in more conceptually prominent forms by another bea[s]t poet: Michael McClure. Similar to McClure’s Ghost Tantras and “beast language,” Saijo provides the occasional reversion to the sounds and elements of the surrounding wilds.
“I AM THINKING & DREAMING OF A SHAPE OF A PROSE I’M NOT YET ABLE TO WRITE – SPRINGING RESILIENT REVELATORY”
goes “NO PROBLEM” (61). In these wilds of Saijo’s mind grows a strength, a purity of awareness, awe inspiring in nature, echoing transcendentalism and the Emersonian buzz. We see this quake of existing and existence best in Going Native: A Book of Days, which records the crises, the mundane, the feuds and the futile, the snippet and the exaggeration in epic detail, a more LSD version of Bill Corbett, the naturalism equivalent to Frank O’Hara’s lunchtime walks through Manhattan. But:
“IS HUMAN LANGUAGE A STEP AHEAD OR A STEP BACK”
he asks (83).
How does he accomplish the feat of description, of world building, or representation harmonious between the self and the outside? The beats, when characterized generally, are often renowned for their “explosive” and “compounded” use of language. Stacking adjectives upon adjectives, a la Ginsberg (and later Ferlinghetti, and all the other copycats), poets found new, Futuristic energy could be driven through linking of language. This diarrhea of the mouth was a prototype to the poetic communication of our social media channel today. What does it have to do with Saijo? Well, he cannot be pardoned from such a trend, and he carries it well. In his own fashion, which is digestible and transgressive. Take a look at this line from “LIGHT ON THE CRYPTOSPHERE”:
“I’M THINKING OF STRUCTURES LIKE IGLOO WICKIUP TEPEE WIGWAM PLANKHOUSE MAMMOTH BONE HOUSE YURT SODHOUSE ADOBE HUT OR LOG CABIN” (29),
a line that exemplifies the symbolist and objectivist writing of late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is almost like reading three chirps at once, hearing the clack of two or three typewriters pounding at keys simultaneously. How many hands did Saijo have? How many minds?
I don’t know. What I do know is that what it comes down to is this: Saijo has many appeals. The sonic attraction is at the core of any “good poem,” and words uselessly piled on top of each other (see: Kerouac, Bremser, Ginsberg) are not those I necessarily lust over. I find Saijo’s most excessive moments his finest, the coup d’état of a long struggle, when that final, orgasmic rush of thought explodes into aural harmony.
“THE PLANTS WERE RADIATING AN AURIC COLOR BEYOND VIOLET – BIOGENIC ILLUMINATION WE DON’T SEE ORDINARILY – IT EXPRESSED JOY IN LIVING – EVAPORATIVE PRESSURE & CYTOPLASMIC STREAMING MOVING PULSING LIVING HALOED WITH RAYS OF LIGHT – DOTS OF NOURISHMENT ALONG INTERIOR CHANNELS – IN & OUT OF LEAVES – YOU DID NOT SEE IT – YOU WERE IT” (69) and “COME HOME FROM WORKING ON GARDENS IN BRUSH & PICK OFF TICKS – WHEN FULL OF BLOOD THEY TURN A PLASTIC GREY – HEAD & SQUIRMY LEGS LIKE TINY USELESS VESTIGAL APPENDAGES ATTACHED SWOLLEN PUDGE OF BLOOD” (88)
and so on and on and on and forth and on. Saijo and the restless world, the world that is 24 hours per day as cycle that is full, orchestral, loud, noisy, and active, moving, bulging at the seams.
As a writer who is obsessed with the Internet and who is obsessed with short poems, I find the new collection from Saijo a welcome transformation back to a comparable plane of poetic stratification: a plane that still exists and one that we need reminding, once in a while, us urban poets, us folks stuck in the vacuum of the machine and the mode of the busy. Albert Saijo’s Woodrat Flat provides that virtual environment, that isolated space to engage humanity and drips its guts across woodland floors and tide-worn coastlines.
Albert Saijo’s bio is here.
A good reviewer bio for Greg Bem is: Greg Bem, of Seattle, has been reviewing books and music formally for approximately 8 years. Another recent book of poetry Greg has reviewed is Brian Foley’s The Constitution. You can read Greg’s reviews of his personal life via Twitter @gregbem.