There are a lot of David Gordons out there, and a lot of them have written books; in trying to disentangle the LibraryThing author page I managed to separate out six different ones before it was time for dinner, and there are still over a dozen books labeled “David Gordon (unknown).” The one I want to talk about here is currently author #6, the American poet. I bought his Rest: Part III of a Long Poem some years ago, instantly attracted by the Cantos-like air of it… well, hell, it’s basically a ripoff of the Cantos, in fact you could (if you were in a cruel mood) photocopy a page or two and use it to separate a true scholar of Pound from a phony who would be taken in by I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ezra. But what do I care? I’m a sucker for the polyglot, polymath, polyrhythmic style, and if I can get it without the typos and antisemitism (and with explanatory notes at the back), all the better. I always wondered who Gordon was, and now the magic of the internet brings me this biographical page from the Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre (30 rue Mazarine, 75006 Paris), from which I present to you the first few entries:

1929, Washington, D.C. born.
1932, New Iberia, LA, picked up Cajun phrases from playmates.
1939, Began to piece together that my paternal grandfather, Alexander was born in Sialkot, in the Punjab of Pakistan, which city was founded by an uncle of the Pandavas, heros of the Mahabarata. As a young child Alexander spoke Punjabi; his missionary parents had escaped by a 60 mile night ride to Lahore by horse and buggy through the midst of the Sepoi Mutiny, where more than 70,000 Sepois were massacring foreigners. As a kid I puzzled over some of the mysterious inscriptions.
1941, Just after Pearl Harbor my father mentioned a Huguenot ancestor’s horror tales about Louis XIV’s dragoons being quartered in the citizens’ homes without their consent.
1945, Met Yehudi Menuhin in an ice cream parlour, who expounded a 15 minute music lesson that remains useful to this day.
1948, Trombonist in a Navy Band, where in Guam I heard some Polynesian dialects. Got polio.
1949, Renewed interest in Sanskrit at an Indian temple.

Then he met Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky and Hollis Frampton and E. E. Cummings and Guy Davenport and Reno Odlin and Hugh Kenner… Well, I’m jealous, and I’d like to hang out with him sometime. Anyway, here’s a brief excerpt from page 43, so you can get an idea of what he’s like; someday I’ll have to get parts I and II of the “long poem”:

To break loose, fog-locked,
          locate our own place,
landnám, settle, get stone, lay house groundsel
(murre holds narrow ledge long before egg is laid),
to break through fog-slab somewhere, Skagafjord to Thule,
Tyli, Θούλη, “not land, sea nor air” Pytheas saw,
but real fog, niflheim, “jellyfish” fog, niflhel.
       To navigate the thick of Ginnunga-gap,
ΧΑΟΣ ΧΑΣΜΑ ἄπειρος, out of which
all comes, fog-gulped, sky without confines;
what good bearing-dial disk,
            sólar-stein, no sun to see,
no ice blink, geese, driftwood, weed,
sound in void, out of magic gap comes being…


  1. … Sialkot, in the Punjab of Pakistan, which city was founded by an uncle of the Pandavas, heros of the Mahabarata.
    Erm… The Pandava are “mythohistorical figures”, like Romulus and Remus. Neither the Pandava nor their uncles can found real cities. Has the qualifying expression “According to legend …” gone out of fashion ? Are we expected to be more laid-back about such clarification nowadays ?

  2. Um, it’s a brief autobiographical summary, not a scholarly paper. I think he probably took it for granted that the reader would grasp that the Mahabharata was a mythological work.

  3. And if he didn’t—well, given his occupation, the term ‘poetic license’ does seem rather appropriate.
    Though I must confess I don’t care at all for that style of poetry. It seems quite vulgar and showy.

  4. Many people don’t, but I happen to love it.

  5. E. E. Cummings

    Thumbs up!

    1948, Trombonist in a Navy Band, where in Guam I heard some Polynesian dialects. Got polio.

    All autobiographies should be like this. It reminds me a bit of my great-great-grandfathers diary/journal/yearbook (I think – haven’t seen it in a decade).

  6. Kári Tulinius says

    As an Icelander I get the feeling that he didn’t quite understand the words he was using, but at the same time, it’s quite interesting. It’s not that he doesn’t know what they mean, but the connotations seem a tiny bit off.
    Also, I think he may be unknown to Icelandic scholars of Icelandic literature. At least I can’t find any traces of him in places he’d be most likely to pop up. I’ll have to send this to people I know.

  7. I once met a composer named David Johnson, who irritated the Hell out of me. Just for spite I decided that some day I’d write a paper titled, “The Music of David Johnson.” The joke is that there must be about 100 composers named David Johnson, so no one would know who I was writing about.
    Oops, I meant “whom.”
    By the way, you know about Hollis Frampton. I’m impressed. I wonder how many others reading here know who he is. Was.

  8. Well, he was mixed up with Ezra Pound and Stan Brakhage, two of my aesthetic heroes, so it would have been hard for me to avoid him. I still haven’t seen Zorns Lemma, though.

  9. Good for you, hat! Brakhage has been my hero for many years. In fact I wrote a book inspired by his work and his ideas. I knew Frampton and helped him with the soundtrack for one of his films. I have mixed feelings about his work, though, which always struck me as a bit dry. He was a very interesting character, though and it was fun talking with him. Also extremely intelligent. I saw Zorn’s Lemma. Once. I loved and hated it at the same time. Which is a good sign, I guess.

  10. It’s on Ubuweb, if the problem is lack of access. If the ice & snow melt, and you feel like a schlep across the Commonwealth the beginning of next month, there are more scheduled at the HFA.

  11. It’s on Ubuweb, if the problem is lack of access.
    Lack of access combined with lack of enterprise and full grasp of the wonders of the new online world, which you have now remedied. Many thanks!

  12. From an obit I discovered online, in case it disappears (Google cache):

    As the child of a father who worked for the State Department he lived in many places. He worked on the Sugarland Ranch in Florida, and attended Ruskin Academy in Cuba, and particularly enjoyed his time in Alabama where he took care of various farm animals and began his life long love of cats. One school year he spent on his grandfather’s farm in Minnesota where initially he was only allowed to practice his trombone in the barn where he milked the cows until they discovered he was very proficient and was then allowed to play in church.

    After a year studying music at Augustana College in Illinois, he was accepted in the Navy Music School in Washington, D.C. and became a Navy Band member, touring around Florida. At this time he also obtained a pilot’s license, studying with an RAF pilot who always took a Chihuahua in his pocket on the test flights. In 1948 he was transferred to Guam with the Navy Band where he unfortunately contracted polio.

    After recovering from his illness, he attended George Washington University where he became interested in translating Chinese poetry, wrote to Ezra Pound, and began visiting him at St. Elizabeth’s on a regular basis. Pound encouraged his work during these weekly visits and arranged the publication of his first translation, a poem by Li Po. At this time he was also studying Greek, Italian, French and Provencal poetry. In 1953 he married Ellen Hendry (whom he had met at George Washington) in the Washington National Cathedral, and two years later published his translations of Mencius in Melbourne. In 1956 his play, Through a Needle’s Eye, was performed and reviewed by Dudley Fitts at Oberlin College, and La Martinelli, a book of photographs of paintings with an introduction by Ezra Pound, was published in Milan.

    Following his graduation from George Washington in 1956, he continued his study of poetics with Pound in Italy, returning to the University of Wisconsin so that he could complete a Masters degree, concentrating on Greek, Latin, Provencal, and Beowulf. In 1964 he published Mang Tzu, an experimental translation from the Chinese of Mencius, in Florence and in 1975 the Ohio University Press published Equinox, a translation of T’ang Chinese poets. Three additional books of translations of the Chinese poet Lu Yu followed. In 1988 and the next few years the first three parts of his Long Poem were published by the National Poetry Foundation.

    In addition to his work as a translator and poet, he wrote a number of short stories and many articles such as “L’influence de Whitman sur Pound” published in Paris, a tribute to Louis Zukofsky, and research and contributions to A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound published by the University of California Press. He edited Ezra Pound and James Laughlin: Selected Letters published by W. W. Norton in 1994. Also, he was an editorial assistant to Paideuma and made contributions to it.

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