In recent book review Dwight Garner of the The New York Times contrasted the “old, weird America” of forgotten history and folk music that fueled the imaginations of Bob Dylan and the Band during their time together in Woodstock, a story told by Greil Marcus in Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, with the “old, weird England” that influenced English folk music in the Sixties. What England didn’t have, Garner wrote, was “a W.P.A. Or a Leadbelly or a Jack Kerouac. It has no tradition of the open road, so urgent an injection into American culture.” What it did have, as Garner quoted from Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young, was “pagan chants and Christian hymns; medieval, Tudor and Restoration secular sounds; the nature worshipping verse of revolutionary Romantics.”
England and the United States may share the same language, sort of, but we don’t share the same fever swamp—or should that be a misty fen?—of cultural imagination that gives rise to songs and poems. This clarification made me appreciate all the more a poem about the Woodstock Festival by James Lasdun, an Englishman who lives in town. The fantasies he nurtured at an English boarding school were a far cry from my own as a boy peddling my Schwinn around the Connecticut suburbs. For his Queen Guinevere I had the Bond girl painted fatal gold in Goldfinger. For his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I had Planet of the Apes. My friend, Bobby Fisher, had an older sister who actually went to the Woodstock Festival, but the two of us were too young to be impressed. We spent our summer afternoons crouched on his basement steps with a BB gun aiming at backyard squirrels. Then we sat in his father’s car in the garage, pretending to drive. Bobby behind the wheel made a different lip flapping noise for each gear as he shifted. Graduates of sixth grade we were already primed and pumped for the road.
This poem comes from Lasdun’s terrific book, Landscape with Chainsaw, which also forces me to confess that for all my self-proclaimed woodsiness, I’ve never gone near a chainsaw. For the five years that I lived in a log cabin with a wood stove, I bought my cord wood cut, split, and delivered by a pickup truck. Lasdun himself sounds like he was content with life until his wife bought him a chainsaw to save their meadow growing up in red meadow, alder, and poplar trees, but also perhaps to transform him into a man willing to slash through the thickets with an angry ripping beast under his command. As the subject of several pieces, it’s one hell of a poetic muse. It even introduces him to a chainsaw salesman at the stripmall worthy of Robert Frost, who warns, “We still need teeth,/and not to bite our nails, as I see you do./Either you clear your woods or they’ll clear you—”
But back to Woodstock, or in old English, Wudestoc.
Wudestoc: a clearing in the woods.
Forty miles from the town itself;
the name, as in Herzl’s Judenstaat,
less about place than disclosure—
of a people, or an idea.
I was in prep school in Surrey at the time,
pre-pubescent; under my yearning eyes,
the grounds—all greensward with copper beeches—
glimmered like the veil of heaven
about to be torn open.
At noon we stood on parade in divisions
and marched into lunch like soldiers.
The dining room
was painted with scenes from King Arthur.
Vividly out of green water a naked arm
held a great shining sword…
In my first wet dream
Queen Guinevere seduced me in her tent.
There was an initiation rite:
six boys scragged you on the stony puntabout.
You were terrified but you wanted it.
Thereafter one had trouble with one’s pronouns.
I found Queen Guinevere in the bed to my left.
Her name was Richard, I think, or Robert;
a cavalier to my roundhead,
or as one goy put it,
Nightly my left arm crept between her sheets,
sneaking home in the small hours,
sticky with Guinevere’s flowers.
We were like South Sea Islanders,
worshipping existence from afar
with our own cargo-cult
of whatever beached on our shore.
One boy found the empty sleeve
of Electric Ladyland.
We gazed till we felt the heavens opened
and the spirit like a dove descending:
Jimi and twenty-one naked girls,
Guineveres to a man;
Jimi in a braided military coat
and flower-power shirt;
a hawk-taloned dove
late of the 101st Airborne,
mouthing our cry of love.
I signed up for classical guitar
and plucked a lute-gentle twelve-bar blues
at our all-boys disco night
where the nursing sister briefly graced us,
spending her thanks and kisses on scented paper
which, in our excitement, we tore to pieces.
Later I bought an electric, though by that time
my left arm was half-numb
and the best people, Jimi included,
had checked out of the stadium.
I’m in Woodstock now,
on a mountain clearing,
my own Lichtung
or niche in existence,
watching old footage of Woodstock.
Peace and Love…and War:
the throbbing choppers ferrying musicians
over the refugee traffic,
over the city-sized singalong
of Country Joe’s “What are we fighting for?”
Pete Townsend in white jeans and braces
like one of Kubrick’s droogies,
beating up his own axe;
Joe Cocker playing air-guitar, or is it
air-chainsaw, or air-bazooka?
Had I not seen this in a vision?
That record sleeve my tab of pure Owlsley:
vividly out of the lake the woman rising,
bare-breasted, flower-strewn, Guineveres to a man;
Kesey’s yippies frolicking in the mud—
A Mesopotamian puntabout;
Wavy Gravy offering to feed the multitude,
addressing them “listen, man…”
Too much already!
And after Max Yasgur’s blessing,
Hendrix, amused-looking, laconic,
as in his Dick Cavett interview—
Cavett: “are you disciplined, do you
get up every morning and work?” And Jimi:
“well, I try to get up every morning…”
The long fringes on his sleeve
make eagle-wings as he sharpens his axe,
the usual left-handed Fender,
with its phallic arm
and womanly curves.
It was at Monterey, not here,
that he set fire to it on stage
after dry-humping an amp;
his instinct for sacrifice narrowing in
like Adam’s in the Talmud,
his axe the re’em or one horned ox
offered up to Jehovah.
I think of my left arm rising
vividly out of Lake Como,
slashed by a speedboat propeller
I’d summoned for the job
(of my hand didst thou require it)
of securing a right-handed future
right-handed, that is,
which it did with the dexterity, ha-ha,
of a kosher butcher
removing the sciatic nerve
in honor of Jacob who lost his sciatic nerve
dry-humping an angel.
The water foamed red, red
as the mingling red chain-oil and flower-juices
of the blossoming red maples
I cleared from our meadow
—Guineveres to a man—
and vividly out of the water
the unsheathed sword of my own
startling white bone And he said thy name
between two labial flesh-flaps
shall no longer be called Jacob…
But Jimi, who still later could be said
to have offered up his own head
that we not forget to remember
the art of not getting somewhere
but of being there,
is in mellower fettle here. Calmly
he sharpens his curved axe
Quat! Hit clatered in the clyff
for a few bursts of “Machine Gun,”
bringing the torso to his teeth,
a panther devouring a fawn,
our eagle-clawed dove;
then with the dexterity
of a kosher shohet,
or Saladin with King Richard’s handkerchief,
or Sir Bertilak blooding Sir Gawain,
proceeds to slash apart the Star-Spangled Banner,
bending the strings till they
carve through its flesh like the blades
(I will not let thee go except thou bless me)
of a speedboat propeller,
the bitten steep biting back
into his flesh, which is ours,
just as the Star-Spangled Banner
is the blood-spangled heavens torn open
for the spirit like an F-105 Thunderchief descending,
and the sound you hear is the sound
of something being annihilated
calmly, and for good;
and your name,
whatever it is,
is no longer what it was,
for as a prince
hast thou power with God and with men,
and hast prevailed.
On Saturday, June 11th James Lasdun will read at the Woodstock Library at 5 pm with Joshua Coben, a terrific poet with an American imagination. It promises to be a treat.