I am a grown man who has procreated, which in my view exempts me from considerations about receiving Christmas gifts of my own; but it so happens this beautiful artifact arrived in the mail for me on Christmas Eve. It is the vinyl LP of Russell Hoke reading selections from his COLLECTED POEMS.
Russell was the inaugural artist in residence at The Skuntry Museum, more recognizable to the naked eye as my cluttered basement; and as such he is more vulerable than most to accepting it seriously as an actual facility, a proper destination for important poetic vinyl LPs.
Though a prodigiously gifted poet and musician - both songster and Highlands piper - Russell also is a very simple man. Among many other humble ways he puts a life together for himself, he scavenges objects of value from urban trash in San Antonio, Tex., where he lives. No surprise to me, then, that the mailer that protected his precious vinyl was fashioned from a couple of (used) Pizza Hut pizza pie cartons.
Russell did a good job of making the back of the record look like a classic, with the spare design, the mid-century font on the liner notes, and the exquisitely square and stuffy author photograph of the poet in his suit and tie in his study, with the obligatory work of art hanging on the wall over his shoulder.
Those liner notes, penned by our mutual friend the poet Stefene Russell, are themselves a finely wrought work of verbal art. I reprint them in full.
On the title page of Russell Hoke's Collected Poems, you'll see that the book was published by a mysterious entity called The Alchemical Guild. That's not just meaningless whimsy; though he doesn't write while surrounded by volatile gases and Buchner flasks, his is an alchemical process.
I saw Russell's manuscript before it was translated into book form, and it filled an entire suitcase. This was the prima materia that, after months of being reworked, rearranged, marked up in pen and pencil, and transported from San Antonio to St. Louis and back again, was distilled into a mighty, Blakean document pressed between blue cloth covers.
Now these poems, after all that careful microsurgery, come to life on this recording. Russell is also a musician, and his lines never stumble, never fall victim to that inelegant clunking so common to modern poets (even those who submit themselves to working with rhyme and meter). Though these poems have an inherent elegance arising from their classical poetic form and use of mythology, there is also an element among them that I can describe only as "Hokean." As the narrator in "Trickster" tells us, "Our egg has chicken physics on the run."
It's difficult to know how to read poetry properly without apprenticing one's ear to poets like Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot. Russell, who is a careful archivist, owns more poetry on vinyl than anyone I have ever known. He has thrown himself into making poems that please the ear, as poetry was originally engineered to do.SELECTED POEMS, we are told, was recorded in that same poet's study. The vinyl was pressed by United Pressing, Nashville, Tenn. The cover art of the record that fronts this post is by James Cobb of San Antonio.
I look forward to that day when John Eiler and I are in St. Louis at the same time, and in his garage, and jamming on this vinyl record.