Jake Berry

Ralph La Charity’s Fevered Litanies — A review and interview with the poet

Ralph La Charity
litanies said handedly
poetry, collage, & performance
Dos Madres Press, Inc.
P.O.Box 294,
Loveland, Ohio 45140,


All the best elements of Ralph La Charity’s considerable powers as a poet and multimedia artist are brought to light in his remarkable new book. litanies said handedly is a visually and textually stunning volume of poems and collages that grab the eye’s light and abolish our deeply ingrained habits of reading and seeing.

Why “litanies”? and why are they “said handedly”? The collection is the result of decades of performances at open poetry readings — those wildly unexpurgated festivities that once populated every town and city of any size or containing something resembling an institution of higher education. It was in these small congregations of poets and similar miscreants of consumer society run amok that these litanies found their audience. La Charity lists many of the locales at the beginning of the book. Though a good number were in or near his home port of Cincinnati, they range all over the country from the east coast to the lofty peaks of Denver and that loftier mecca of poetry, North Beach in San Francisco. One can’t help but wish for at least a snippet of video from each locale as La Charity held forth, perhaps holding ruffled papers in hand, or just winging it for whatever the sprits brought at that time and place. In his own words from the opening “Prefatory notations”:

                the shapeliness of form worn as sound cloak;
                poet-sound as raiment visibly effecting, with residues that,
                despite being transitory & palpably temporary, do yet glow
                invitational & embracingly inclusive, at least for the duration
                of the given stand & deliver performative engagement

Poetry in performance is elusive, regardless of the form or the poet. But with his emphasis on openness, musicality and the visual it is difficult to dispute La Charity’s embracingly inclusive raiment of sound. Most writing that calls itself jazz poetry is actually poetry about jazz. The poet attends a jazz show, or listens to favorite records and is inspired to write a homage to the musicians and the music. What we read in these litanies is more like jazz itself — born of improvisation, but including ideas and phrases that catch the ear and draw us into the unexpected cadences and transformations of image and idea that inform and re-form us as the poetry unfolds. This poet is indeed

                a man pregnant
                with poetry carrying
                the poem to term
                                                   same way

But what that term may be remains indefinite because in these poems we have poetry com-posed by field, a movement of energy as proscribed by Charles Olson’s concept of projective verse.

                and the Music’s where things are hidden
                Poetry’s where things are revealed

                composition & performance blend the two

It is a kind of elixir then. On the stage before you, on the page before you, the apothecary is mixing the chemicals he has discovered in every dark night of the soul struggling with the voices inside, rising out of the mind’s well from often unknown and timeless sources as well as the voices outside, overheard at readings, in late night cafes on the road in a new city or between cities surrounded by the overwhelming darkness of the vast American countryside — the poet gleaning the sounds and images of unsuspecting dreamers he will never meet, the glimmer in the eye of the waitress, the headlights, the radio static and asphalt, a cacophony of sounds spilling into his consciousness as night fades into another dawn where a new poem will arrive out of this cauldron.

It is impossible to bring the full power of La Charity’s poetry to the reader in a few words of prose. Nonetheless, a few samples might sufficiently seduce the reader.

One can’t help but be captivated by the possibilities, on the page and in imagined performance, of “16thal y RUPANDEMOTIC”, a poem whose lines are so long they have to be written vertically and the book turned sideways to read. What natures are these?

        re-mawsoundingly echoeth’g ankh-rancorously, admitteth’g spookily of shroud brevity,
                                                       aka pellucidly reeketh’g omni-flummoxedly;
    pipe-organically vacant churpews blood-lustily broodful y brow-brandish, drag-crossedly
                                                           dress-gropish y Latin-eschewably bereft y sooted
            scram-beggary lamp-streetlightedly bench-bound
The maw in “re-mawsounidngly” is the mouth of a beast, probably roaring, shouting or wailing. The music it makes echoes into ankh space — that Egyptian sigil of eternity. Yet its spooky shroud is not eternal but brief. Is this the body? What manner of body? Pellucid perhaps. But reeking and “bloodlusity broodful.” We collect through these lines a definite spirit at work, a clear character, but one who is not committed to his own shape, submitting to the transformations all incoming data might make of him/her/it. Is this the poet or a creature he is manifesting by way of words? Can we, can he, even make that distinction?

Amid this wild amalgam of surrealism, Beat poetry, blues and jazz improvisation La Charity brings his muse to bear on a moral and political climate that fosters the hellish obsessions of grotesque materialism. Here are a few choice lines from “A Habit About”:

                being kept’s what America’s about
                every bit as much as being kept from is
                being bought’s just a habit, too
                & I got a habit about all of that

Intoxicated by its shallowest compulsions America has reduced itself to little more than the rituals of avarice. What was once the dignity of the work ethic has been subsumed by receptive, empty consumption. For many that ethic is still very much a vital component of their lives, but it is overshadowed and inundated by the negentropic “ideal” of consumerism. Capitalism draws upon our most basic survival instincts and exploits them to extremes beyond anything Adam Smith or Karl Marx might have imagined. We have been reduced to a “kept” society — maintained, diagnosed and treated (not cured, for the cured no longer have the habit), catalogued, reproduced and sold back to us as ourselves. These are selves that never existed as anything other than the byproduct of the habit. We are imprisoned in passionate hunger for things we don’t actually require. One remembers William Burroughs saying, “Evil is the face of total need.”

There are also segments that would not be out of place in modernist poetry. Consider this excerpt from “Tonguing Crooked Ample”:

                flagged on high, drenched to the pole, so many infirm
                machines huddled above where fog at dusk rises
                beneath a bridge above a Gorge one can
                climb down to, where the Falls are…

and the powerful closing sequence:

                & anglers reel in talking fish this day, & fish that
                can’t talk or talk duplicitously or talk sans having
                heard our ridiculous gesture & are thus just
                blowing per usual, get heaved back. & the ruled
                some roust along beneath the pole & we’re lower
                than they are, we’re under a river aflame, raw
                throats fundamentally sounding, singing in
                               & below
                                              whatever weather rages

This is the poetry of lived experience, of the witness and the participant. We hear echoes of Whitman yes, but also William Carlos Williams. As in the latter’s Paterson, the land and the people and their paraphernalia as well as other species, in this case fish, utilizing the poet as vehicle, the catalyst for their own lives as interdependent bond, rising into form as a single multi numinous flesh “blowing per usual”, “under a river aflame…fundamentally sounding” in “whatever weather rages.” It isn’t just the content that connects so well, but the way the content is sung, brought forth and made real for us, out of our own memory and imagining — those two capacities are forever flowing in and out of one another.

Nor do these litanies lack passages that are tender, beautiful, even transcendent. Consider these lines from “Song of Mourning and Celebration”:

                Our sleep has been and will be long
                the theft total when it comes

                Slowly our eyes focus
                the subtle colors of the field
                how the lover’s face dims & brightens

                We choose from what comes closest
                & what comes closest chooses from us
                & we are not afraid so much as
                quickened by the shade

The act of love, sex, or any physical communion brings us back around to a sleep, a long total theft. The lovers merging in the “subtle colors of the field” become not lovers, not selves, but are so lost in the act that they become another, something other than either of them. This is a kind of death, and may be death itself, but if it is it is nothing to fear because there is no loss of activity, but instead a vitalizing encounter that does not vanish into the shades but is quickened by it.

To understand the breadth and dynamics of La Charity’s poetry it is important to remember his connection to music, especially jazz improvisation and the blues. He is a percussionist as well as a poet. The Appendices at the close of Litanies help bring this into focus, sometimes by scattering our ability to focus on any singularity. La Charity is forever multiplying, veering in all direc-tions. As he says in the ‘b’ section:

                We are exploring Elsewhere. Our compass is rhythmic.
                We wear leggings of actual flesh. Lung and heart comprise
                the terrible horizon.

His poetics is simultaneously de-structive and liberating, but not liberating because of the destruction. A paradox, yes, but truth beyond what can be obviously declared is always paradoxical.

Like the poems the collages are multisourced, magical and evocative. Drawn from magazines, prints of masterpieces of art, advertisements, etc. But few of those sources would compare favorably to the enchantment in color and form their combination weaves. La Charity truly manages to create visual work as compelling as his poetry. No description will suffice. They must be seen first hand (first eyed?). The press and printers have done an excellent job presenting all the work. This volume is a pleasure to see and read.

The book concludes with the URLs for two of his extraordinary performances. To fully appreciate the poems in the book and La Charity’s work in general one must actually hear and see them. Here are the links: “Said Handedly”: https://youtu.be/C-xSNw8N4ZI and Ohio Drum Poet: https://youtu.be/wbczisy5JxQ.


Ultimately, every review fails because it is at best a re-viewing of the work by someone who did not create it. In an effort to ameliorate this failure I am including a Facebook messenger conversation between Ralph and myself discussing the book and his work in general. Nothing can replace actually experiencing any work of art first hand, but reading the poet’s take on his own work will undoubtedly bring aspects of the work to light that the review has missed.

JB: Incredible collection here. The title describes the content perfectly — including those intensely vivid collages. My first impression is that this may be the best of your work that I have seen.

RLC: probably downhill from there, Jake... been getting more & more difficult to maintain perfect speed & specific gravity vis a vis open poetry readings, which are themselves becoming harder & harder to get to — not really sure if they're evaporating or I am, but at least the book is loose in the whirl... and by the way, the trick with those collages is that all the imagery is pre-published, in mass circulation magazinia hither & yon, which accounts for the intense vividity — great fun to piggyback along that techne way, spell binding thru the night, scissoring & exulting, each of them on 8 1/2 X 14 legal size sheets of paper which the publishing of reduced to the pages you see in the book... I think of them as graphic poetry stewing forth from the Mass. The other poetry ie the 'written' all got forged & refined via open readings thru the years, so the book as a whole amounts to a selected of That — the proof was in that aloud pudding. Of best charm for me now is how the book frames its contents — the pre-text commentary, and the two appendicular reveries . . .

JB: Thanks for this. It helps to have some context. And all the more fascinating that most of it appeared as the result of open readings. I imagine you creating much of it on the spot, improvising. Much of the poetry has that feel of the convergence of musicality and meaning. A mass on the wing. The source of the collages doesn't matter to me as much as what you've done with the pieces, brought that color and form into a new field. One much more evocative than the original context I am sure.

RLC: as far as original context, not much of that mattered, it was always those separate pieces reaching out as if to say "save me!" yea, find new visional mycelia from out of the potpourri of clipped oddments once they reach some intuitive critical mass that says "go with THIS — make the new Now!" and it would be off on an hours long wee hour trek of following thru, till the turned page finished ITSELF — very much the way most of the book's poems got writ, too, threads of sound vs threads of image, the synasthetic trade-off of the whole being the soul of what the book proposes. What's the equivalent word for "echo," when what's being seen is image echo? After the fact, what engaged me most was how the discrete parts of each collage conspired a range of visual echoes, those echoes being the profoundly thrilling parts of each sheet... the way a poet's personal vocabulary, the words that specifically identify one poet from another, keeps getting re-contextualized, be that reconfiguration verbal OR visual — they are so similar, yet so specifically varied as well, eh? So that it is the modalities of process that make of the two verbal/visual impacts a breadthful unity . . . not that any of that was immediately apparent while the making was going on — it took the book project, spanning as it does decades of tinkering, to make of all that a Grand Collage of sorts, derivative yet wholly Otherwise as well. As for the convergence of musicality & meaning in the poetry per se, "written on the wind" was always my sense of it — the only thing that made the poetry coalesce on the page was the repeated sallies into the aural arena that the open readings provided — a memory base for each composition gradually bodied forth as each poem became more & more palpable in its delivery. Whereas each collage was the product of a single night's rapture, the poems achieved themselves over protracted periods of time. . . that Time itself came to play a riverine part in the whole is another secret engine the book, as book, sleights & slights obliquely . . .

JB: And despite it being an obvious choice, I'll have to dabble in a verse from one of the longline sideways poems. But it wasn't the shift that caught me, it was what happens as the longer lines uncoil. The additional space seems to give you more room to run.

RLC: yeah those sinuous breathy streams that just refused to be broken to the book's vertical axis... the saying of those kinds of lines defies pagination anyway, so to usurp the verticality seemed totally right... as I've aged and my breath has become shorter I find long-line poems don't come to me anymore, alas

to give you an idea of how the breath thing has diminished, check out the book's 1st section of poems, the "splash research" part -- every other poem is a 14-liner in that section, and there are 12 of those 14-liners in that section... the thing is, each one of those 14-line poems is meant to be delivered on a single breath... ideally, the 12-poem dialectic would be delivered while the poet restricts himself to 12 discreet breaths over the course of the complete 12 ... now THAT's a test ! I never attempted it in public, and I really only managed to do half a dozen of ‘em at my best, in private, usually laying on my back in bed ... what would happen would be I'd get both exhausted AND psychically blitzed along the way... but those sideways-printed poems are so much more sculpted in their musicality, the breathing kind of takes dictation from the poem, which is kind of luxurious feeling — it's like the poem takes charge of me rather than the other way 'round.

Jake Berry is a widely published poet, musician and visual artist. He is the author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 30 years. His solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Shadow Resolve and Mystery Songs. He lives with his wife and four cats in Florence, AL, USA.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home