Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

A Meditation On Michael McClure’s Mule Kick Blues

MULE KICK BLUES – AND LAST POEMS. Michael McClure. City Lights Books. Edited by Garrett Caples.

Cover courtesy of City Lights Publishers.

I.

Poet Michael McClure was obsessed with the way words hang on the page – forming like crystalline icicles on the cool midnight eaves. And in Mule Kick Blues, his final collection of poems, he explores this obsession until it leads him to the edge of the ultimate rainbow.

Mule Kick Blues is a book born in images of both mortality and eternity, with man as “vessel” lingering in half coil at the steps of death. And McClure writes:

DEATH IS COMPRISED OF DEEP BLUE TORTURES
and filled with dark chocolate cake.
Birth has gone with the losses
of endless imagination.
A round brown leaf whirls at the tip
of a spider thread.
In
late
Winter
I will study
the whiteness of plum blossoms
and look for knots in an old trunk
at the edge of the forest fire
near some deer bones.

From “Death Poems,” page 28 of E-Edition.

II.

A founding member of the Beat Generation, McClure was the movement’s most versatile performer: Poet, playwright, novelist, pop cultural journalist, rock orator, Zen philosopher, and shy-voiced teacher. His work and person inspired sections of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur; Jim Morrison’s investigation of William Blake; and Bob Dylan’s mystical theater pieces “Black Diamond Bay” and “Lily Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts.” He also generously counseled countless unknown kids in classrooms throughout the world who looked to perfect the essence of their own voices.

At its finest hour, McClure’s poetics were a sweet mix of Rimbaud, Baudlaire and Blake all stained with a musty, black and blue baritone. His sound was always like no other. And he writes in Mule Kick Blues:

MORTALITY IS BEAUTY THE BEAST SPIRIT
LIVES FOREVER
IN FIGURES OF FLESH
that may not know their inhabitants.
Our shapes are meeting as we always greet another.
Love invented by nights on horseback
and infinite senses in the saddle
— this myriad trail
IN
ALL DIMENSIONS.

From “Mortalities,” page 5 of E-Edition.
Michael McClure was a generous sort and he often sent his friends gifts – books or freshly typed poems – meant to bring joy and enlightenment. I was sometimes the recipient of these surprise mailings. Back in the late 1980s, he once sent me a copy of his magnificent study, Scratching the Beat Surface. The facing page, reproduced here, bore a hand-written inscription illuminating the mysteries of consciousness: “There is no form but shape.” 

III.

I once sat with McClure in his Downey Street flat on a rainy San Francisco afternoon talking about how to make paper cry into sound. I asked him what he identified as the catalyst that brought words into life, lighting the stillborn page.

He smiled broadly and fingered his chin and thought on the question for a long time without speaking. He then went to his library and returned with a worn copy of Pound’s Cantos. “You’ll begin to hear that here,” he said. When I read Mule Kick decades after that conversation, I see that McClure had reached the final chapter of the journey as he turned a key on his final book of doors. 

“Sound is the personification of form – with words assuming their predestined place on paper. The purpose of sound, then, is only to tell the random stories that hover just outside the twisting tongues of human eyes,” I once wrote him in a letter. I hear him answer me in these Mule Kick lines:

Shall I put a hairy tail where my head is?
It makes no difference.
Think with the shape
of the hands.
There’s no change
only
the sizeless thought
preceding consciousness.
But it’s not thought, it’s the shape
of the hands
making a space
holding nothing.

From “Spring/Fall,” page 21 of E-Edition.

IV.

Mule Kick Blues is Michael McClure’s last book of poems, writ as he fought against the sick bed while graves called out in the distance like a series of thirsty bells. In the end, these pieces are only about eternity;  they tell us this in voices sharpened with claws of thick blue smoke.

And like all great books, Mule Kick delivers a timeless message – that death does not bring about our ultimate escape from the hollow chains of form. Instead, death only kneads the molecules, changing us to that next shape as we linger like the breath of a poem rising against rose petals of wind at dawn. And McClure wrote in his final tribute to consciousness:

TO GROW OLD IS A JOY PRECEDING THE BIG ONE.
Death is a dark chocolate cake,
sweet, and filled with deep blue tortures.
A gold and ivory crown
decorated with damp moss and pearls
is less heavy.
The great blue heron sails overhead,
her crop filled with frogs,
making a shape
of tendoned grace.
A feathered hand and arm
rise and point
where the stream flows.
But that
is imagination
as the rest is. It is form
and emptiness that I die too

From “Death Poems,” page 26 of E-Edition.

Suddenly a glimmer in the distance begins the next chorus. Mule Kick Blues evinces that McClure is still singing out there somewhere over the invisible skyline in your next life. 

Just follow that tremble in the wind. And keep listening for him and his wild-man roar.

by John Aiello

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