It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. November 2013. I stopped outside the sea cadets building in Stoke Newington's Church Street, now re-purposed as an exhibition space: 'building-F'. In the old bricks there were ghost traces of a painted sign: S S OKE. The roof was an abandoned deck with white railings and a solitary flag pole. Looking down at the street, a life-size photograph of J. G. Ballard. In the new front window, a neat stack of Iain Sinclair's American Smoke. Inside I was hoping to encounter the man himself, having heard that he would be selling off his old books for a limited period. But there was no sign of him: just framed artwork and a bookcase filled almost entirely with his own publications, signed and annotated, with prices to match. Ridiculous, I now realise, to imagine he would be there in person, presiding over tables stacked with the remnants of his book selling days: paperbacks by overlooked London writers, pulp novelists, underground poets. I lingered awhile - not buying anything felt like an affront to the couple from Test Centre who politely stood by as I looked at the shelves. Eventually I left with a book of poems: Firewall.
American Smoke begins in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Sinclair went to deliver a lecture on Charles Olson, 'poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College'. There he met Henry Ferrini, whose film on Olson I included in a post here on the Maximus Poems back in 2010. He visited Dogtown, where Olson came and walked in the woods 'to refine the art of getting creatively lost'. He even booked a tourist whale-watching cruise (assuring us that 'the excursion was being made for my wife'). Olson's first book, published in 1947, was a study of Moby Dick. The boat trip cancelled, he headed for the local library, looking for Olson's marginalia in books that had found their way onto the stacks after his death. He says he found rough notes for a poem in the endpapers of one volume (much harder to decipher than the text Sinclair added to his own books for the pop-up shop in Stoke Newington). Back in London he was pleased to have 'absorbed some of the weather of the place' but realised in watching Ferrini's film again that Olson can only be experienced in the energy field of his poems.
My landscape interest in American Smoke had been kindled by Sinclair's account of a journey to see Gary Snyder, published initially as an essay in the LRB. Snyder evaded discussion of poetics but was happy to talk about logging, ecological threats and the day-to-day work needed to maintain the land he bought cheaply in 1966: 'a hundred acres of manzanita thickets, with open stretches of ponderosa pine, black oak, cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, bunchgrass...'
'Taking responsibility for a portion of Sierra ridge, once occupied, river valley to densely forested upper slopes, by Indian tribes, was a major statement of intent from Snyder. ‘We were cash poor and land rich,’ he said. ‘And who needs more second-growth pine and manzanita?’ Alexander Pope, in his upstream exile at Twickenham, laid out garden and grotto as a conceit, an extension of his work into the world, and a powerful attractor for patrons and lesser talents. To fund the Sierra reinhabitation, as Snyder saw it, he took on reading tours and an academic position at UC Davis, fifty miles down the road near the state capital, Sacramento. He called his land Kitkitdizze, after the Wintu Indian name for the aromatic shrub known as bear clover. ... This Thoreau-inspired wilderness encampment, real as it appears, is underwritten by the requirement to represent itself as a topic for thesis writers, a reluctant paradigm. A magnet for approved visitors, students, localists, or anyone needing to understand if this thing can be managed: a self-funding, functioning centre that is not a retreat, but a resettlement...'The whole book is structured around these encounters with writers, living and dead: Corso in New York, Burroughs in Kansas, the grave of Malcolm Lowry in Sussex. From Vancouver, Sinclair goes to the Burrard Inlet in search of the shack Lowry and his wife constructed from driftwood and sawmill lumber. It was a kind of idyll - described as such in some beautiful passages in Under the Volcano - and Sinclair visits the spot on a crystalline morning. He is led along a winding path through resinous woodland, down to the shore. Lowry had enjoyed the view here, across the water to an oil refinery where the S had fallen from the word SHELL. Sinclair is tempted to go in - 'I'd like to swim, the water is strobing gold' - but he paddles instead in the cold, sharp-stoned shallows. There is an old bottle top glinting in the water - not Lowry's, but something to pick up and take away.