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In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, Lawrence Ferlinghetti remembers Lamantia's voice as "the most distinctive poetic sound I had ever heard." Much of his work is gone, destroyed by his own hand, but the most depressing part of all is that what's survived seems to have escaped most.
Lamantia is not as well-known as those assigned in English classes, the poets who have movies made about their lives, but his seminal influence on their work contributed to what we know as American poetry today. When Lamantia met Allen Ginsberg, he lured him away from conventional poetry in favor of stream-of-consciousness. They shared the stage at Six Gallery on October 13, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg read Howl for the first time. He hit the road with Jack Kerouac, who took notice, as many did, of Lamantia's manner of speech. In Desolation Angels, Kerouac wrote his "distinctly flavored accent made up of (apparently) American Italian second-generation but with strong Britishfied overlays upon his Mediterranean elegance, which creates an excellent and strange new form of English I've never heard anywhere."
Lamantia would ultimately settle in San Francisco and run with Ferlinghetti's famed circle. But he was a man who enjoyed independence, which no doubt contributed to bouts of reclusiveness and depression. "The gods are vomiting," he wrote, "I am entering earth I am walled in light I am where song is." He wrote all over the world, spending extended periods in New York, Spain, France, Morocco, Italy, Greece, and Mexico, where he spent two months in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Nayarit with the Cora Indians.
Before his death in 2005, Lamantia worked on fragments of High Poet, an incomplete memoir with a fitting working title for the man who introduced Keroauc to peyote, and constantly sought out, sometimes through provocation, powerful visions. In 1960, Lamantia renounced poetry and burned most of his unpublished works, turning to Egyptian symbology. The poet was after spiritual transcendence, alternately leaving and returning to Catholicism and mysticism until, in the last decade of his life, he melded his own spirituality with intellectual understanding.
He would return to poetry after meeting his future wife, Nancy Peters, the renowned City Lights Books editor. The two would separate, but remain close friends, and indeed Peters served as one of the editors of The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia.
Perhaps Lamantia's hermetic nature played a role in his modern day obscurity, but when The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia is released later this summer, UC Press will bring long overdue attention to one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century. In that vein, a poem from the 1980s, "Visibilities:"
Through the cotton balls of sleep
a table from my stomach
walled on the precipice by gossamer veils
the anvil hungry for its metabolic secret lights up the bobbing motors (apparitions your fingertips silhouette the sky with)
There is a voice of your singing glance
There's a coriander leaf with a spiked foot
as the terrace sleepily descends to the water
I pick up embittered mica
rolling from a bed confused with your castle of hair-spun riddles
You are behind me as I rip up the pavement
palpitant as a squid on a roulette table
The black lines lead the white however your see the invisible tendril burrowing out
of a cyclone
Deeply sacked below
a tulip raves among the murmuring metals
whose ravines reconstruct my life
from the flight of vegetable-crows