Review: Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master

By Patrick James Dunagan

atkinsBoth pro­lific and diverse, Rus­sell Atkins’ lit­er­ary out­put crosses over tra­di­tional divi­sions of genre, style, and form. He has drafted musi­cal scores for many of his lit­er­ary works and the­o­rized his orig­i­nal the­ory of prac­tice in his essay “A Psy­cho­vi­sual Per­spec­tive for ‘Musi­cal’ Com­po­si­tion.” His spelling, syn­tax, and sub­ject mat­ter all tend to be unortho­dox. The one prob­lem with this selec­tion of work is that it leaves you feel­ing there should be more included. Let’s have a full Col­lected Poems rather than this slim gath­er­ing. Of course, that is the point. The for­mat of the Unsung Mas­ters Series calls for the selec­tion of the writer’s work to be fol­lowed by inclu­sion of recent crit­i­cal essays by schol­ars. Respond­ing here to Atkins are Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Tom Orange, Evie Shock­ley, Sean Singer, and Tyrone Williams. The essays not only pro­vide con­text for approach­ing Atkins’ work, but also demon­strate the ongo­ing rel­e­vance located within it.  The hope, at least in part, is to gen­er­ate a broader inter­est in Atkins among poets, schol­ars, and gen­eral readers.

Atkins’ work may be all but for­got­ten to most read­ers, yet, as with all good poetry, it con­tin­ues to have zing. There is a per­sis­tent pur­suit of the exper­i­men­tal through­out. He is clearly con­cerned more with how the poem is work­ing rather than what its con­tent expresses. This is not to sug­gest that he doesn’t use his art to make a state­ment but rather that he never allows the con­tent to dis­tract from the fact that he is craft­ing an object of art. If any­thing, his devo­tion to exper­i­men­ta­tion at times dis­tracts the reader’s atten­tion from what is hap­pen­ing within lines of a poem. As with the speaker’s rant­ing in “World’d Too Much (Irri­ta­ble Song)” against con­tin­ual intru­sions by oth­ers every­where it seems he goes for solitude:

                          Once, woods’d,
(hazed by a dell’s emerald’d,
that is, pastel’s from a green rain)
aloned hush had ban­ished heard,
no one for hours! Per­fect, I thought,
such Garbo! —until
I saw some­one afar’d, some­body by
—again

In these instances, Atkins pur­sues a zesty sense of sheer sound that, to my own ear, is sim­i­lar to that of Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins’ the­o­ries of “Inscape” and “Instress.”  He searches out the tune beneath the words, the inner rig­ging that’s just wait­ing to be sounded out.

Over the years, sev­eral poems have under­gone visual changes on the page for dif­fer­ent appear­ances in print, with Atkins never appear­ing to favor one over the other. “Night and A Dis­tant Church” is a very Cummings-esque performance—in terms of how the poem is laid out typographically—of one such instance. The clos­ing lines of the ear­lier ver­sion read:

wind mmm m
     mmm
into the mm wind
rain now and again
the mm
           wind
    ells
 b

        ells
     b

The later, more stolid, and, per­haps, less-thrilling version:

wind mmm m
          mmm
into the mm wind
rain now and again
the mm
wind
bells
       bells

As Evie Shock­ley notes: “Humans recede into the back­ground, our pres­ence marked only by the sounds we send out to play in the sky with the nat­ural ele­ments.” Aldon Nielsen refers to this as Atkins’ “con­crete play­ful­ness,” iden­ti­fy­ing how “many will see (hear?) ‘hell’s bells’ emerg­ing from the dis­tant church, but this dis­junc­tive typog­ra­phy also gives us ‘ells’ that ‘b’ (‘ells be’), an ‘ell’ being some­thing L-shaped, but also a unit of mea­sure­ment, round­ing out Atkins’ measures.”

The Intro­duc­tion, penned by edi­tors Kevin Prufer and Michael Duma­nis, gives an inti­mate account of recent vis­its with Atkins. They recount the haul­ing down of boxes, the going through, stack­ing, and sort­ing of man­u­scripts and cor­re­spon­dence with Atkins, who is near­ing ninety, along with his gen­eral liv­ing conditions.

On the eleventh floor of Fen­way Manor, over­look­ing the Cleve­land Children’s Museum, is Rus­sell Atkins’ Apart­ment. These days, he spends most of his time in an unadorned liv­ing room, where he’s got a sofa, a twin bed of the kind designed for hos­pi­tals, a walker, a wheel­chair in the cor­ner and a flat screen TV that chat­ters on in the back­ground. He hasn’t many pos­ses­sions on display—a few books, a cou­ple black and white fam­ily pho­tographs. The most trea­sured of his items he keeps in six or seven tat­tered card­board boxes, some stacked in the closet, oth­ers placed at the foot of his bed.

Rus­sell Atkins is an Amer­i­can orig­i­nal, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an often African-American or increas­ingly His­panic Amer­i­can work­ing class side of Amer­i­can cul­ture and soci­ety which is at an ever increas­ing rate being dropped by the way­side. This is the down and out, every day under­belly of Amer­i­can cities. As Sean Singer argues, for Atkins “the urban envi­ron­ment is a vital source for [Atkins’] imag­i­na­tion. Urban life, and specif­i­cally black urban life, is impor­tant to his work. Cleve­land, and the cul­tural imag­i­na­tion of Cleve­land, are ‘main char­ac­ters’ in most of Atkins’ work.” His writ­ings are of a quirky, odd sort and there’s no easy “fit” for them, since there’s often noth­ing very fash­ion­able hap­pen­ing in them—not now and not at the time he was writ­ing. Born and raised in Cleve­land, he’s never left. The major­ity of his pub­lished books come from small presses, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Paul Bremen’s Her­itage Series pub­lished out of Lon­don in the 60s. In 1976, Cleve­land State Uni­ver­sity brought out the largest selec­tion of his poems enti­tled Here In The. There has been lit­tle atten­tion given his work on any sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic level since. The inclu­sion of Rus­sell Atkins’ work in the Unsung Mas­ters series by Pleiades Press seems des­tined. He’s exactly of the sort whose work and life this project is meant to serve.

Rus­sell Atkins: On the Life & and Work of an Amer­i­can Mas­ter
Edited By Kevin Prufer and Michael Duma­nis
Pleiades Press 2013
ISBN: 978–0-9641454–4-3

 

Patrick James DunaganPatrick James Duna­gan lives in San Fran­cisco and works in Glee­son library @ USF. His lat­est books are “There Are Peo­ple Who Think That Painter’s Shouldn’t Talk”: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duck­ling forth­com­ing 2013). Other things are appear­ing or expected with: 1913 A Jour­nal of Forms, Amer­i­can Book Review, Amer­ar­cana, Bright Pink Mos­quito, Dusie, Greet­ings, House Organ, HTML­giant, Life­and­deatho­famer­i­canci­ties, Lightning’d Press house mag, New Pages, Rain Taxi, The Rum­pus, Sham­poo, Switch­back, and The Volta.

New Comment