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Reviews of Philomene Long's Work

Philomene Long, The Queen of Bohemia and Cold Eye Burning At 3 A.M.
(Lummox Press, POB 5301, San Pedro, CA  90733)
Jack Foley

I dont worry about the forms. You might see forms like eyes, but you wont know if its a face thats facing you or a profile. This is almost like a face of a woman here, and then it goes up and becomes a bird and a crown. I was brought up with animals. This looks like horns coming out of an animal. This piece has got a face here, something like a torso, a pelvis and legs. There is something like an energy, a sexual energy that comes here and opens up. Sometimes it orbits, and sometimes it floats on a sea into nothingness.


For me, the thing is not to care where the images come from but to be devoted--to have a devotion for the path, for the unexplored, for the unknown.

   --Marie Wilson, Surrealist painter, in Grace Millennium (Winter 2000)

There are times one encounters a passage so obviously perfect that one can do little except read it over and over again in sheer admiration. The concluding lines of Philomene Longs Cold Ellison I are like that. Long read the passage at the end of one of my radio shows, and I found her words echoing in me long afterwards:

There are no roads
From this cold Ellison
Better sit still
And quiet the ills
Of the mind.
I sit high in this old building
Higher yet the sky passes slowly
The birds swirl
Incautious, completely free
I climb the road
To cold, cold Ellison
The road that never ends
Who can break the snares of the world
And sit with me
Among the white clouds?

 

One can go on about the i sounds and the o sounds that echo throughout, or the near rhyme of road and cold, or about the wonderful appropriateness of the concluding quotation--from Han Shan, whose Cold Mountain Poems are a constant presence in this book. Who has written about poverty like that? Listen to the vowel sounds of I climb the road / To cold, cold Ellison--they are as beautiful as anything in the early Yeats. Ellison is the apartment building in which Long lived with her late husband John Thomas. Despite the fact that it is in Southern California (where everything is supposed to be warm) it is cold. The poem is full of bitterness (The window is bricked up / The pipes leak / Puddles always on the kitchen floor), yet at the conclusion it opens out into something magnificently beyond any of its own annoyances. Even if the Ellison were a warm and comfortable place, it would still be among the snares of the world. Long has chosen this life--and it is by no means an easy one--precisely so that she can break such snares. It is a life, in Lawrence Liptons resonant phrase, of voluntary poverty.

Philomene Long began her life as the daughter of a naval officer. Growing up in San Diego, she went to Catholic schools and graduated from Our Lady of Peace Academy. Her vocation as a nun came at age seven, and she entered the convent, she says, as a rather wild teenager. She became, writes John Arthur Maynard in Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California, a rather wild nun. In 1959 a friend told Long about the Venice scene and informed her that she was a beatnik. When Long asked why, her friend replied, Because you spend so many hours looking at the sky. After leaving the convent, Long moved to Venice to write poetry, shoot film, and live exactly as she chose, writes Maynard. She became a regular feature of the Ocean Front in her tennis shoes, black thrift-shop dresses, long, straight hair, alarm-clock pendant, and heavy silver cross. She met Venice poet Stuart Perkoff in 1973 and began an intense relationship with him. After Perkoffs death in 1974 she continued to live in Venice, where she lives today. To be a poet in Venice, she says, is to be an exile among exiles; Venice became for me another cloister--except that there were drugs and sex.

Over the years Long has published many books of poetry, including two collaborations with John Thomas: The Book of Sleep and The Ghosts of Venice West. She has also made films: The Beats: An Existential Comedy, with Allen Ginsberg, and The California Missions, with Martin Sheen. Her interest in Zen began in 1968. In 1974 she began to study with Maezumi Roshi and continued with him until Maezumis death in 1995. A book arose out of her relationship with Maezumi: American Zen Bones: Maezumi Roshi Stories. She and John Thomas were friends of Charles Bukowskis, and she also wrote a book about that author. She currently describes herself as by choice a Zen Buddhist but Roman Catholic by blood. Yet she adds by way of qualification, What Zen master said, Every word out of your mouth is a lie?

After Long left the convent, she asked for five straight years, Is there a God? I asked it with such intensity, she says, it was like a Zen koan. She received her answer in the midst of a Venice party, where everyone watched it. The experience was so overwhelming it brought with it a visceral reaction. Ive just seen God, she said to a friend, and I cant talk about it: Im nauseated. Youve just seen God and its made you sick! said the friend, whose remark became as well known as the incident itself. The religious element of Longs poetry centers in the figure of the Lady--a Muse figure who haunts the Venice scene and who, Long says, is utterly unlike the Virgin Mary of the convent. The Muse breaks you, she says, and it doesnt seem that she cares that she destroys. Yet the Lady needs poets: cantankerous as she is, poets keep her alive.

All these elements--the Lady, God, Catholicism, Buddhism, poverty, the sense of suffering and sacrifice, the longing for ecstasy--are part of The Queen of Bohemia and Cold Eye Burning at 3 A.M. At one point Long writes of the terrible hoof of God; at another she describes her life as A terrified eye / Dedicated to ruin; at still another she speaks of what the poem costs her, its agony of light. The title, Cold Eye Burning at 3 A.M., refers to Yeats famous lines, Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!--Long is Irish--as well as to the fact that Long is a happy insomniac. (The poet adds that the title refers to the eye that never sleeps as well.) To someone brought up on the Latin Mass, the very name Cold Ellison suggests the repeated phrase Kyrie, eleison--Lord, have mercy on us. It is as if Long has moved from Kyrie, eleison to Cold Ellison. In the seventh poem of the series she remarks to her husband, You said you would get / My queendom back for me! He answers grandly, indicating the tiny apartment they share, I have...What do you call this! The queen is at once the Virgin Mary, the Lady, a fantasy projection of Long herself, and an instrument of parody:

Queen of Bohemia!
Now Queen of Leaks!
Queen of Pigeons!
Queen of these catacombs!
John, youre making me feel
Like this squalor is better than Heaven!

  

The poetry of The Queen of Bohemia and Cold Eye Burning at 3 A.M. is rich and  enigmatic, haunted by darkness and solitude. It is also sometimes wildly comic--as when poet Jack Micheline inadvertently pees on himself in the midst of an impassioned recitation. (Micheline was diabetic, so that may have been a factor.) Micheline comes across as simultaneously heroic and like a little boy who has had an accident--Long obviously means the poem as a tribute--but the vision here constantly moves towards modes of depletion. Feel it, the absence, she writes in Eyes of a Ghost. In Last Confession she admits, There were moments / When my mind scarcely / Belonged to me at all:

Inward was the only direction
Not closed to me
A luminous point
To which the eye loves to return
To detach myself for hours
From my species

 

Long asserts that what distinguishes the Venice scene from other Bohemias is the fact that people there not only know each other: they share a Muse.  These books are meditations not only on Long herself but on a community--a group of artists which was first publicized in 1959 by Lawrence Liptons The Holy Barbarians and who have tried in every possible way to live their lives in an alternative fashion. Voices other than Longs enter the poems frequently:

Once in the Venice Temple
I shouted into the crowded room
WHAT IS THE POEM?
William Margolis replied
The poem is black on black.
Yes, Will  

 

What do these voices, finally, have to say? To be is to be other, outside, in darkness (dark and black are words which repeat)--in a state of exile. One remembers Baudelaires ironic remark upon reading George Sands assertion that the true Christian could not believe in Hell: She has good reasons for wishing to abolish Hell. Long does not insist on the non-existence of Hell. Hell is all around her: So much hair, and / Each strand causes me pain. For her, the world of the convent is perhaps the world of Being--untroubled by the darkness and squalor of Venice Beach. Yet if Longs Bohemia is fabricated around a kind of death--and the Christian tradition of dying to the world is relevant here--it also magnificently asserts an ecstasy unavailable to the merely living:

Every poem I write
Is a suicide 
It will say
I am your death
Hidden in a spasm 
Dazzling, ferocious
Now only a
Flame in your hand.

 

The poems of The Queen of Bohemia and Cold Eye Burning at 3 A.M. are a fierce confrontation with ecstasy, with a consciousness which is most alive when it is at the brink of extinction.

 

Jack Foley

 

(C) Copyright Philomene Long Estate 2008-2011, All Rights Reserved. Photographs by Pegarty Long.

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