ANDY CLAUSEN’S WITHOUT DOUBT
Andy Clausen's book of poetry, Without Doubt, was published in 1991, just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and amid the rapid changes taking place within the old Soviet Union. As a poet who had been deeply influenced by the American democratic tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, as well as the Russian futurist poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Clausen's poems from this era were perfectly situated to offer a new and healthy internationalist vision to greet the end of the Cold War. In opposition to the cynical "we won" attitude exhibited by most mainstream U.S. commentators at the time, Without Doubt expressed sound criticisms of the militaristic and exploitation-filled betrayals of both East and West during the previous decades, and offered an imaginative literary recipe for more enlightened social possibilities. The book is also filled with moving poems about personal dreams, desires, and loss.
The original poetic voice of Without Doubt leaves quite a lasting impression. In Clausen's poems, empirical perceptions mix inventively with jazzed-up surreal and modernist imagery. Tragedy is juxtaposed with well-placed humor. Lyrical modes mingle easily with narrative, epic, and oratorical ones. Carrying on the most exciting, politically progressive, and intellectually probing aspects of the Beat tradition, strings of high-speed adjectives mix with considered speculations about the unfair nature of our socioeconomic landscape.
The book includes an introduction by Allen Ginsberg that is replete with well-deserved superlatives: "The frank friendly extravagance of his metaphor & word-connection gives Andy Clausen's poetry a reading interest rare in poetry of any generation." Ginsberg adds: "Would he were, I'd take my chance on a President Clausen!"
Without Doubt is one of the most consistently vital poetry books of its era. Just about every piece in the volume is a compelling, surprise-filled jewel. A six-page narrative poem, "The Bear," influenced by visionary poems like Mayakovsky's “An Extraordinary Adventure which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” and Ginsberg's "The Lion for Real," is told from the point of view of a female speaker who throughout the poem is being chased by a half-fantasized, half-real bear. The chase gives the poet time to ponder questions about politics and the imagination. But when the bear inevitably catches up to the narrator, she summons "all my power" and hits the bear in the mouth, whereupon the bear turns into a man who tells the narrator with a certain amount of sincerity: "All I wanted to do was kiss you." But the narrator sees through the curtained contradictions and a somewhat surreal tale includes the real anti-chauvinist message: "You didn't want to kiss me / You wanted to own me / to dominate." When the bear-man disappears, the "blood & teeth remained," and "Word raced through the community / 'Mayakovsky is Dead.'" Utilizing a Mayakovskian style, Clausen carries on the Russian poet's radical tradition and extends its political vision by metaphorically––in a surprising twist of an ending––killing off Mayakovsky himself.
"The Challenge" presents a moment of deep despair ("up & down the abandoned boiling / coastal waters of my desecrated torso") by lamenting how far the poet is from more optimistic historical moments, including the earliest days of the Russian revolution when it seemed, before Stalinism took hold, that a more progressive era might well be dawning in that country:
I will live & die never knowing
The Baroque Golden Age,
The Age of Enlightenment,
Let alone the night of the
The Stall of Pegasus
& Stray Dog Cafe
There's no 1917 for me.
And yet, most of the poems, in spite of the often-gloomy times, provide at least a potential glimpse of hope, either in the substance of the text or in the way that the poems' surrealist elements convey, in the beautifully descriptive phrase of philosopher Ernst Bloch, "anticipatory illuminations"––hints or sketches of social possibilities that do not yet exist in the actual world. In "Patriotism," the second poem in the book (pre-dating the fall of the Soviet Union), Clausen redefines love of one's country and peoples by predicting that "Russia & America / will pass in the night," implying that the end of repressive policies on both sides of the Cold War would open space for more democratic and egalitarian political arrangements. In "The Iron Curtain of Love," Clausen expressionistically transforms symbols of Cold War militarism into pacifist imagery: "there's a warhead strapped to the back / of the dove / It's the iron curtain of love." In the latter poem, he also paraphrases a Russian proverb to assert that, even in dire moments, "every wall has a door." Or, as the main character in "Old Man" puts it: "All in All, it's a rough life. One not only has to surrender, one has to keep fighting after that."
Many of the poems in Without Doubt focus on various aspects of late-20th century American life. Clausen writes with lyrical power about homelessness in "Sacred Relics": "red nosed busted blue derelicts / supported by lampposts & buildings / in the typewriter rain." These homeless are surviving, "gambling pain on the miracle / that's never happened yet." At the poem's end, Clausen ominously tells world leaders that a time will come when they will need these homeless folks' experience.
Clausen's poems explore the spectrum of human emotion. Love is ever-present ("Come Love, bite my brain with resplendent teeth") and, in true Mayakovskian tradition, so is heartrending lost-love ("It's an ancient and miserable wail / for the might have beens / this song of desire for one"). While "This table is supporting me / better than a lot of you ever did" ("This Table"), Clausen ultimately retains faith in the potential of human action, empathy, and creativity, for he knows that "Our Mission is the Future," and that "this paranoia, this body hatred / this genocidal pleasure / this doctrine of might / cannot endure our wailing." (from "Wail Bar Night").
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many American activists sensibly advocated for a "peace dividend," urging our government to take advantage of this historic opportunity by finally scaling back America's exorbitant military budget and prioritizing long-neglected social needs like affordable housing, health care, education, and the environment. It was not to be. Instead, subsequent administrations continued to support the bloated military budgets and pro-corporate economic policies that had largely held sway throughout the Cold War era. After the atrocity of September 11th, 2001, George W. Bush was able, by cynically manipulating legitimate American fears, to accelerate those regressive social priorities under the guise of a loosely defined "war on terror," a war which has included an unwarranted and disastrous military conflict in Iraq that continues to rage as I write this piece. We are living in an age in which there is still far too much poverty and violence, far too many unaccountable political and economic institutions, and far too many fundamentalist groupings within too many of the world's religions. The final poem in Clausen's Without Doubt, with its cautiously upbeat title "We Could," speaks poignantly to our current times:
We wouldst rid the epic of slavery
for women and all others
We'd smash the caste system
We'd put aristocrats to work!
sacrificing this puny life
for the Infinite Future
We'd give Shiva something else to do....
We are sentenced
there is no back to return to
We lick the Jewel in the Lotus
till it is human
We eat God alive!
Here is an imaginative tonic to the planet's dominant, rigid ideas about economic systems, the role of women, and the place of spirituality and creativity in daily life. Fundamentalism is challenged here not by metaphorically killing off the notion of an omnipotent, external god--or not by that alone--but by then taking the concept of a living, enlightened spirit and placing it inside of us. Not simply inside the "I" of the poet, but inside the "we" of us all. Clausen's book points the way toward poetry's emancipatory potential if only our overly dogmatic ideas and policies could be left behind on the antique Cold War trail.
Without Doubt was published by Zeitgeist Press, an independent press run by the fine poet Bruce Isaacson, who used to host a popular reading series with Clausen in San Francisco's Cafe Babar. As is the case with too many of the important books by writers in the Beat tradition who ought to be more well-known than they are, Without Doubt is currently out of print. Hopefully, that will be remedied soon, and this book will more thoroughly find its way to the "Futurians" to whom the book's opening poem is aptly addressed.
Clausen, Andy. Without Doubt (Oakland, CA: Zeitgeist Press, 1991).
Ginsberg, Allen. "Introduction to Without Doubt by Andy Clausen." Reprinted in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995. Ed. Bill Morgan (NY: HarperCollins, 2000), 431-433.
Katz, Eliot. "The Bear for Real." In Poetry Flash #225 (Berkeley, CA, Dec. 1991), pp. 1 and 8. The essay included here is a revised and updated version of this earlier review of Andy Clausen's Without Doubt.
[Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Beat Literature, edited by Kurt Hemmer (Facts on File, 2006).]