THEE OWW OHH MY: An Essay Review of Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras (City Lights Books, 2013) by Maggie Millner

I was in the bathtub when I first opened Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras. The book’s cover features a photo of the poet under a few layers of synthetic fur, looking like a Cro-Magnon facing down a boar, teeth bared and eyes fixed maniacally ahead. I was trying to decide which character from Werewolf he most resembled when I dropped the book in the bath, did a splashy job of retrieving it, and wiped it off on the bathmat, where it acquired a layer of lint and cat-hair. Thus initiated, I began to roar.

Let me explain. Ghost Tantras, which was self-published in 1964 and rereleased from City Lights Books in November, is written mostly in “beast language,” a mix of howls, roars, grunts, and moans rendered phonetically and interspersed with English words and phrases. The poem is segmented into one hundred stanzas, each numbered and presented, center-justified, on its own page. According to McClure’s introduction, all stanzas should be read or sung aloud and words pronounced “as they are spelled.” Like many of his Beat contemporaries, McClure is interested in embodied, nondualistic approaches to intellectual and spiritual experience, and his introduction comprises both quasi-mystical and prescriptive passages to that effect. Among the text’s self-proclaimed projects is the induction of pleasure—corporeal, spontaneous, and preverbal.

After thumbing through the introduction, I sat up in the tub and diligently started reciting from the book, whose cover was warped and ink marbled with bathwater. When I got to the first GRAHHH, I could feel myself settling into a cadence; by the time I was RAHRing, I had dropped into what choral teachers call a “chest voice.” A few brays later my cat ran into the room, lighted on the side of the tub, and took to gazing intently into my wide-open, noisemaking mouth. Sometimes the frequency of my voice matched that of the fan overhead, and the sound would amplify and shiver through the house. The pleasure was intense.

I want to call this pleasure jouissance, in the Barthesian sense of the word, to mean a textual experience that both explodes a reader’s subjecthood and disassembles her cultural/ linguistic/ ideological frameworks, occasioning a blissful, even orgasmic, confrontation with reality. Before I get into it, I’ve reproduced Stanza 53 for reference, which I hope you’ll read aloud:

noor thahln ahh deem err. Droor moveth. . . Aeiiiiiii
naieee ayeii hrahh voh dann wheeesh tonn thoor moobesh
hoh well drann srii weshtoth moshyboth toureee –
drann thy touress. Rohh hyeee gahRAHHRR
sweesly. Wheeyoh ohn ell brezeth porbresh droon.
Broon ah labronteth por esh el moobwath-HAH.
Mah taharoooneii wellstove. Selahh toh nah thoney
wheeer es meesheeress tyeeeth moh eratony –
reflecting beauties
of multitudinous holy sweetlings
tumt harungggggggggggggggggggg

There’s probably some dissonance between the way you say “DROOHN” and the way McClure does, but as he writes in the beginning, “don’t worry about details.” (And if you find yourself inadvertently reading the English in a brogue or patois you don’t actually have, welcome to the club.) Pronunciation aside, what happens when we read a text that defers semantic closure—that presents language as something separate from (or orthogonal to) meaning? Moreover, what happens when we read that text out loud, letting it engage our throats, lips, and tongues? Roland Barthes would say that by inviting us to do the work of allotting sense and breath to its language, Ghost Tantras initiates us into a collaborative performance through which we transform from readers to participants. And, because our expectations are so radically destabilized by these words-that-aren’t-words (what’s a “harungggggggggggggggggggg” anyway?), the poem challenges basic linguistic, symbolic, and narratological value systems into which we’ve been indoctrinated pretty much since birth. In Barthes’ words, the text “brings to a crisis [our] relation with language.” Our collaboration with text allows us momentary, incandescent glimpses of a reality denuded of cultural production.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that, “Poetry is a naked woman, a naked man, and the distance between them.” Disregarding its heteronormativity, the statement speaks to the Beats’ preoccupation with the erotics of text: the tension between language’s material and immaterial properties, which is more libidinal the less it is resolved. This is Barthes’ jouissance: the erotic bliss of deferred closure and explosion of subjecthood we achieve in collaborative textual events. But McClure and his ilk were interested in expediting this process—accessing something corporeal and unconscious from the get-go by appealing to their audience’s senses before their sense-making faculties. Stanza 53 is jouissif partly because most of its language doesn’t signify; it doesn’t point to subjects or predicates or modifiers we can access, tangibly or conceptually, outside language. (In his introduction, McClure writes, “There must be a poetry of pure beauty and energy that does not mimic but joins and exhorts reality and states the daily higher vision.”) Instead of signifying, beast language consists in onomatopoeia, simulating some of our most visceral, preverbal sounds, and performing rather than denominating its referents. Stanza 38, for example, sounds a lot like the noises I make when having sex or eating pizza.

There I was, sounding my barbaric yawp over the bathroom tiles, when I became conscious that Ghost Tantras had produced in me the kind of contemplative state I usually only achieve after exercise or meditation or a satisfying meal. Maybe it was the rhythm of my chants, or the act of vocalizing, or some synergy between the book and the bath. Maybe I had conjured bliss inductively, just by making the sounds I associated with it. While I’ve written about jouissance before, I never really meant it until I read McClure. Before, I’d been appropriating a somatic vocabulary to explain something intellectual; this time, I’m trying to explain intellectually something I felt happen in my body and unconscious. This rapt, yogic-animal effect is what makes these poems tantras, I think; their connection to spirit (German geist) and preoccupation with goddesses, angels, and the “holy eternal nectar honey” makes them ghost tantras.

My own ghost-tantric state began in the middle of the book, around Stanza 69, which includes a lot of English words alongside beast language. Some of these words occur in their dictionary forms, while others appear as beastly analogs (characterized by longer vowels and more laryngeal and guttural phonemes) or as Jabberwockian, slant-rhymed mutations of their English precedents. Further, even the recognizable words draw from diverse registers: the spiritual and anatomical, formal and conversational. Ghost Tantras is also full of archaisms; when he’s not roaring, McClure’s using words like “o’er,” “amidst,” and “thou.”

For me, this mix of languages and lexicons has the effect of defamiliarizing even the most recognizable and correctly spelled words—so “leaf” is as much a truncated shriek as a word for part of a plant, and just as readily calls to mind its homophones (a Norse explorer or a verb for departure, for example). This field of (contrastive) verbal associations, called “paradigmatic relations” by Saussure, is most available when we’re not attending to semantics—when we’re just GROARing our brains out. McClure opens us up to be acted upon by the material (sonic, visual, gustatory, erotic) properties of language. He opens us up to perceive those sensuous, psychedelic topographies usually unavailable to the sober intelligence.

The final stanzas crescendo into denser, louder roars, with more caps-lock and abstract nouns: tranquility, loathing, emptiness, harmony. In his introduction to the new edition, McClure calls his finale, “shouting into the dense mattress-like curtain of material reality, until it begins to lift in tranquility.” By this time, I was exhausted, and the water around me was chilly. I looked down at the cat purring on the bathmat and waited for the mattress-like curtain to drop back down over the room.

How often do we read a book that makes us feel like this? That invites us into “ceremonies to change the nature of reality?” That cuts through the trivia and linguistic effluvia of the first-person poet and delivers something that’s lyric and dissonant, archetypical and original? In a literary culture obsessed with the cultivation and overprotection of idiosyncratic voices, it’s vital to visit and revisit those works that do away with voice altogether. Here, McClure conceives something close to an Adamic language—something we can understand without much reference to the world beyond our basest needs and earthliest desires. Ghost Tantras reminds us how lucky we are to have the chance to roar. How lucky we are it’s back in print.

—Maggie Millner

Maggie Millner
Maggie Millner lives in California. Her poetry and criticism can be found at PhoebeThe Iowa ReviewZyzzyva, and elsewhere.