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Niall McDevitt, "Hakim Bey: Intellectual Magician"

Hakim Bey: Intellectual Magician
International Times

I cannot think of Hakim Bey as anything other than an intellectual magician.

This review of his book of ‘new poetic rants and prose poems’ from 2008 is belated, but the book deserves reviewing not least because of what’s happened to Western civilisation since he wrote it. No collection I’m aware of is more ‘on the money’.

As with his book Millennium from 1996 which was so prescient in its vitriolic musings about Capital and Jihad, Bey was once again just ahead of his time, as a good weatherman should be. As Millennium was a useful companion during Y2K and 9/11, so Black Fez Manifesto &c. is a lyrical guidebook to the current meltdown, and a really funny consolatio. Some of the poems in the generous 100 page volume must have been written before late 2007 when the shit hit the fan, and certainly before 2008 when it began to spatter ubiquitously. He is laughing in advance at the botched alchemy of America and its spiritual colonies.

Even the titles resonate: ‘Financial Sonnet’ or ‘Deep Salvage’ or ‘Financial Disclosures’ or ‘Adventures UnLtd’… Monetarism has failed, but he’s not down about it because he’s been saying all along it would, perhaps even willing it:

Invest yr Bank of Hades billions
In the imaginal Wall St. of money gone
To heaven.

A culture which so often looks at its poets, anarchists, philosophers and artists as failures deserves all the schadenfreude it gets i.e. when that culture crashes. Bey is Thoreau-like, a prose and poetry conscience.

Perhaps the most pertinent poem in the book is ‘Failure as the Last Possible Outside’. Philosophy in a phrase, by someone who’s always sought metaphysical, metachemical and metabiological escape routes from the norms of Christendom. Its four sections seem to combine the dual sense of individual failure and systemic failure; the wit is wryer and more heartfelt than ever:

I am damp dynamite
outdated detonationless furred
with mildew but still with all my original
bad intentions.

The ever-expanding Section III is especially astonishing and hallucinogenic:

In science fiction terms, picture
a future where whole minor former 3rd-world nations & Midwestern
states are enclosed as literal garbage dumps by sinister forces of the
Global Imperium, no-go-zones secretly illegally still inhabited by
New Mud People…

It culminates in a vision of a cherubic redeemer:

… the child Harpocrates finger to lips in a gesture of sshh –
or of bewildered innocence – the divine fingersucker – the golden em-
bryo’s infantine goblinesque & perfect redness – imagination as chaotic
attractor – an alchemy within language itself that seeks transmutation
but never finds it except in the seeking – words of Adamic & oneiro-
critical significance that evaporate into gibberish whenever we awake
from the trance of self into the sleep of otherness: failure

Section IV signs off with a movingly sarcastic canzon in which the dandified failures are mistaken

… for trailer trash when in truth
we’re the Shaolin monks of the new millennium
disguised as outcaste beggars & percolating
thru the cracks in the Empire.

This is what I call – in relation to the current debate about poetry and politics – ‘the pathos of dissent’. To those conformist rather than nonconformist poet-critics who say that polemic is invalid, I reply that real political poetry goes beyond the emotional limitations of, say, a merely declarative anger, connecting to a deeper collective strand of feeling, which is ‘the pathos of dissent’. When I read Hakim Bey, I know that he stands outside his own cultural situation, that he is a latter-day Free Spirit looking in at the unfree, that such a position is not a bed of roses (though it has its ecstacies as well as agonies), and that he is just one of the voices in a collective choir of past-present-future contraltos. This adds an inaudible music to the writing which generates more sympathy, more empathy, more laughter and tears, as it communicates its unique message and tone, stance and style.

Hence the irony of:

Ideally I’d like to be an
intensely local poet the kind
that publishes in the town newspaper’s
“Poetry Corner”
remembered fondly by the County
Historical Society & recited at
Grange picnics.

Well, of course not, but any sensitive intellectual-cum-heretic will think about the fact of being cut off somewhat from the workaday realm, from a full participation in the quotidian and demotic, will spare a moment to imagine themselves as John Q. Public types, and muse on how they might have got on with a more ordinary life. Orwell does this all the time; it’s one of his major themes.

In poetry, it is the same when we read Olson or Ginsberg or Baraka; their various poetries are automatically privy to the pathos of dissent, because of the personal breakdowns, breakthroughs, breakouts or breakaways they were forced into by chance and circumstance.

This is also a counter-argument to accusations from more conservative quarters that the left is all about ‘ressentiment’ and that leftist art is merely an expression of that ‘ressentiment’. That’s resentment, that’s propaganda, from a right which can’t stand to be criticised or challenged or bluff-called or – most of all – exposed as common sophists.

Bey can be furious in his philosophy, and riotously gung-ho, but here in the poetry is displaying another side. Effectively, he’s an anarcho-warbler. There’s something birdlike going on here, a shape-changing and singing from the bough. He has his own language, he has minted his own brand of English as Dylan Thomas did, immediately recognisable, and its grace notes educate and entertain as he warbles on. His themes are familiar to us, but the versification of them creates a different and twinkle-eyed effect. The things he talks about, his opening gambits, are always of interest, and often finger-on-the-pulse.

One of those themes is Ireland, where he has regularly hung out, and which he mysticizes hilariously. ‘O makebelieve Ireland’ is a word-perfect 14-line harp-blarneying free-verse sonnet which celebrates Ireland as a Cro-Magnon paradise run by megalithic anarchists. It is pure delight, though not without controversy; a smiling nod to the IRA would displease the litigious, but the poem is a comment on the ‘makebelieve Ireland’.

America he blasts, as in the poem ‘Everyone in the country’. His ejector seat from an Amercianness felt to be undesirable or even contemptible is to mental travel so intensely that shape-change leads to race-change. Known also by his real name Peter Lamborn Wilson as a brilliant scholarly writer and thinker, his alter ego Hakim Bey is half-Paddy half Arab, half-Fenian half-Hashashin, purveyor of his own trademark ‘poetic terrorism’. A profound reading, a profound eloquence, and a natural poet-anarchist sensibility add to the aura of magical incantation his work gives off, as if we can intrude on the drooling soothsayer in his makeshift hut.

I was pouring over a manuscript of Tocharian B
the sweat of my pores in the dead
oasis of Turfan when suddenly the shilling
in my akashicometer ran out & I
snapped back on silvery umbilical to
the mere here.

We are always in good company, not only that of the author but a Kubla Khan pleasure dome of illuminators, high on paradise milk e.g. ‘Hermes as herbmeister.’ A Terence McKenna-esque psychoactive tribesman, in the Coleridge-Rimbaud-Ginsberg lineage of modern Dionysians, the whole point of eating the lotus is to render the logos itself as druggy as possible:

… mostly just to hang out as
evensong encroaches on lawn chairs beneath the viney
trellises of our faux-Ottoman kiosk and listen. Soak up
mind-bending vibrations, keep watch on odd bird be-
haviour nearby in the blue hour between dog and wolf.
This should suffice to send guests floating legally home
under pale moons quite re-disoriented.

New formalists would be distinctly unimpressed by his loose, laughing sonnets, but I’m impressed by his open-form abilities, the shape-changing of the texts themselves, and the range of the poets to whom he alludes with a friendly ‘Tip-o-the-fez’…

The manifold free sonnets are mostly successful, authentic, disciplined. Like many American poets, he seems schooled in Ted Berrigan’s rule-shattering The Sonnets from 1963. Unlike some, he graduates with flying colours. A mix of hip vernacular and occult vocabaulary customises and modernises his sonnets. Quite rightly he has understood that the sonnet is not just important as a transmitter of love poetry, but of mystical poetry e.g. de Nerval.

More importantly, he performs all the contortions of a LANGUAGE poet without neglecting the duty to say. An off-campus shaman by-passes the official U.S. poetry circuit, and the academic avant-garde, and goes straight to a significant dissenting readership. This is how poetry happens, always in spite of the civil service that builds up around it.

He is his style. There is a feel of ‘first thought best thought’ and this is a poet who is a true successor to the Ginsberg mantle. Certainly at times we are sipping a lineated stream-of-consciousness, where the phraseology is more adept than the linesmanship, but it is never a lineated prose. And he has his own D.I.Y. technique of end-stopping and enjambment. For instance, the opening of ‘Architoxicology’:

If we’re going to be poor by Allah let’s
be picturesquely poor. Salvage a candyapple
1957 Cadillac & have it drawn by black horses
down the boulevard of our most thaumaturgic aspirations
with hearts open to the infinite throbbing
potential of an idleness money can’t buy
the thrill of zilch, the zen of ZeroWork.

Excerpts, of course, cannot convey the geometrical variety of whole poems.

There is a charming mock-Rosicrucian concrete poem ‘Another Piece in the Shape of a Pear’ with a pear outline.

‘Ghazal’ is a beautifully skilful lyric, and a freeing up of ancient craft.

‘Somnium’ is a hip lullaby, paean to sleep, hymn to Morpheus.

‘Plot’ is an intriguing and labyrinthine prose poem, psychoarcheology at its best, a uniquely Beyan excavation into a linguistic underworld, a rites of the fascinator. I’m awestruck whenever I read it, by its cool and brilliance.

Bey is less concerned with current debates in American and English letters than in mining his own self-willed Sufism and Bardism, to say what he needs to say. As a serious Islamic scholar, his poetry and philosophy exude a dangerous sympathy, an un-American solidarity with the Arabs and their culture. He spices his sedition with it. He is a busy djinn-bottler.

One of his major concerns is with freedom from enforced labour, McJobs and/or the very imperative to have to make money. The Whitmanic ‘I lounge and loaf at my ease’ (and Lawrencian ‘A man has had too much of labour’) is a banner re-flown, an eternal poet’s litany. ‘The Seven Temples of the Planetary Deities’ is a fine poem, itemising the weekdays and their associated gods, concluding that only Tuesdays should be designated as working days. It reminds me of Peter Redgrove’s necromantic renaming of the months, ‘A Twelvemonth’.

‘Neotony’ is another highly imaginative, anti-work, Thoreauvian blast. We must look up the word, as so often, to find out about the larval immaturity of certain reptiles. If Cocteau is right in saying ’there are poets, and children’, Bey’s notion is that we should refuse to grow up by striving for neotony. An illustration of a lizard accompanies the text.

Another theme – a classic one of world poetry – is that of the poet’s impecuniosity. The poem ‘Financial Disclosures’ is a superb contribution to the genre, a big-hitter, again in shape-shifting sections. This should move anyone affected by the current bullshit i.e. the 99%. Check out the full title as an arresting opening:

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES

or
the budget of poesy
or
Eros as starving beggar
or the Danae of the Rhetoricians
break the bank o’ my heart
worthless as a paper fan
on a sultry day in hell

But is the song of Everyman….

The final section of the book sees him returning to his Celtic tendency. ‘CROM: Select Communiqués of the Cro-Magnon Liberation Front’. (This might be an Irish anarchist group with which he is affiliated, as he is with Garden of Delights). Crom is an Irish death-god, akin to Moloch, to whom vast numbers of humans were sacrificed on a particular hill. Celtic Cro-Magnons would naturally wish to liberate themselves from such authoritarian constraints. Don’t worry. It doesn’t culminate in an Irish Jonestown or Waco. It’s fun, and about ameliorating things for self and society. He ends as a wizened Ollave looking out on a changed land:

… lolling on pelts already. Snow
represents a lost mammoth shamanism
with clovis points & ritual huts
of mastodon ribs. Nothing human
outside the rockshelter. Only now
could we begin to speak in poetry.

A beautifully designed book by Autonomedia features a fabulous image of a burning black fez. Congrats to James Koehnline and Jim Fleming for the art and design. It makes me think of the Old Irish word ‘Imbas’ which means ‘fire in the head’ and is how the ancient Gaels conceived of inspiration.

Hakim Bey is a man of Imbas. Wit glows and overcomes the traditional poetry reader’s prejudices about craftsmanship or vocabulary or polemic, or even the comedic. It rule-breaks with panache. His book is full of poet-utterance, such that it would be a poor anthology of early 21st century American poetry that didn’t include some of these ‘smarigdine’ gems within its pages.

His philosophy is mostly free to download. This isn’t. Buy it for poetry. It might well be his finest book.