About Elio Emiliano Ligi

From the Introduction to Disturbances (Ahsahta, 1991)

by Paul Fericano

While most of the similar and important trends in American Poetry today symbolize a confident return to traditional credentials, it is very often the singular adornments of these trends that have a more profound effect on the genre. While this is not necessarily a detriment. it should be noted that such movements are usually possessed by a body of ideology undergoing a literary exorcism and tend to serve as a powerful and exuberant reflection of our national distrust for all art.

In truth, much of our poetry today attempts to reassert Carl Sandburg's phlegmatic dictum of a "conditionless condition of the condition," in which the aesthetic notion of poetry's future rests firmly in the jaws of those who are capable of saying all the right things with astonishing regularity, and usually more than once. This shift is further directed by some of America's more prominently fixtured poets who appear obligated, willing, and even eager to embrace a kinder and gentler poetry that communicates less about itself than it does about the infestation of its own image.

Such a shameless sameness of literary trends has generated a great deal of serious confusion in the main. But in the end, it all appears to be in good fun. As prizewinning poet Galway Kinnell so keenly observed recently. "Poetry helps those who help themselves, especially to all the awards." Kinnell, who, in recent years, has been at the forefront of a growing movement that advocates for a renewed interest in his poetry, continues to be a strong voice for the varied and inconsequential issues of our time.

Fortunately, Elio Ligi’s poetry has nothing to do with any of this. In fact, his poetry sometimes seems difficult to pin down. Like his music, (Ligi is an accomplished composer and featured trombonist with the Portland Philharmonic), his poetry is likely to be noted for a certain special riff, an extra glide, a kick where none is expected, and a beat for which there is no notation. It follows the literary traditions of the language it uses, but it does not hold them sacred. As a result, there has been a tendency for critics to put his work in a category by itself, outside the main body of American verse, in much the same manner as early Negro Poetry.

Ligi first attracted the attention of the Beats in the early Sixties, garnering bemused and scattered praise from Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Bob Kaufman, who once referred to Ligi as "an Italian-American Rimbaud." But it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti who recognized his peculiar talent for obscuring and elucidating with a mix of passion and apathy, remarking once that his poetry was "like a dead bird 1 held in my hands and wished to fly once more, breathing life into its tiny lungs that I might elevate such a limp hope to wing again." Ferlinghetti was speaking of his own poetry here, but the point is well taken.

Critical acceptance of Ligi's first book of poems, Stinking and Full of Eels (1967).,was sparse, contrived, and mostly non-existent. Mark Van Doren's weekly column in the London Literary Times commented briefly enough on the book to win Ligi a letter of support on Stephen Spender's personal stationery, but this later proved to be a forgery. However, in his column notes on the book, Van Doren wrote: "The cacophony of noise and nonsense that retreats and advances and retreats on the bloodless battlefields of American academia is a far cry from Elio Ligi's poetry, which, if given the opportunity under similar warlike conditions, would probably ignore the screams of the wounded and shoot all prisoners. Ligi’s poetry is a reminder to his peers and a testament to the ideal that, no matter the cause or influence, poetry is, after all, a losing proposition.[1]”

In 1970 his breakthrough book was published, Song of the Turkey Hangers, and he was immediately courted by William Everson and Kenneth Patchen, who would later invite Ligi to join them in a series of readings for the 1971 Breadloaf Conference, affectionately billing themselves as “Two Old Goats and a Kid.” "He [Ligi] was as unpredictable as a summer storm when he stepped in front of a microphone," Patchen would later recall in a Paris Review interview. "He gave [the students] both a feeling of wild hopelessness and fierce futility,” Bill [Everson] and I were as mesmerized as anyone by his work, no question, but there was strong resistance from some as to where his work was corning from, where it was going, and where it ultimately stood in relation to his contemporaries. To this day, I still can't tell you"

It wasn’t until publication of Some Accident Between the Grass and My Feet (1977), and Kenneth Rexroth’s blistering endorsement of it in the New York Review of Books, that the controversy surrounding the poet’s apocalyptic vision andblack humor brought him the national attention he deserved, if only for that particular issue. Wrote Rexroth, “For some, Elio Ligi can be a disturbing poet. For others, he is simply disturbed, though I suspect the pox of such a judgment is rendered by those victimized by his argument and not his verse. Disturbed or not, it is not for me to decide if others are correct on this point. On the other hand, I often fin myself quoting Plutarch, who, upon hearing rumors of Demosthenes' great mental anguish, said: ‘I suspect as much.’[2]”

This presents us with yet another challenge in Ligi's latest collection, Disturbances, which echoes much of what IS disturbed and disturbing in a dying world that continually mistakes disease for good health. The book offers itself as a metaphor for trouble, and it succeeds. The confused and confounded brilliance of such poems as “Military Time," "That There Is No Justice," "The Landlady's Lampwhite Hands," and "Dreaming the Suislaw,” cleverly relay a kind of crisis of representation: that particular situation (some call it "post-stoogism") in which signs start to outnumber and eventually replace the very things they signify, setting the table for an almost futile, incessant and empty crossfire of reference that never hits the mark in reality. And reality is one of Ligi's determined pursuers,

As one might expect, there is a theoretical bent here. Much of Ligi's work is predicated on the notion that all experience is structured in advance by dual systems of information control and disinformation revolt, so the experience it offers is usually up/downbeat to the point of animation on the one handand anesthesia on the other. In Disturbances, a paradox is created when the work reaches back into itself, riding an undertow of art fully disguised satire, claiming the dark and doomed violence of its own absurd voice. This is an essential and powerful cornerstone of Ligi's edifice, and it is here that he has no equal. His poem, "Another Maniac,” is an excellent example of this creative process, as are the poems, “How We Lived And Let Live,” “The Times You Kill Yourself,” “How Long Have I Got Here,” and the excessively brilliant, “I Am Dying,” which is not included in this collection or any other, but is worth mentioning just the same.

Disturbances is a triumph of style over fashion, and Elio Ligi is dressed to kill. Though the reader may run of the risk of perceptive seeing as a process of paranoid reading, the book’s effectiveness comes from realizing that you simply can’t tell what it’s about until you’ve read it completely at least once. A mean task for some, but for others, it offers the view that it is the joke, after, and not the violence that caused the hair on the back of the neck to rise.

And for Elio Ligi’s money, the joke may very well be on us.

[1] One of Ligi’s early influences reveals a fascinating connection to the poet Wallace Stevens. It was the poet’s grandfather, Emiliano Ligi, who, at the turn of the century, became one of the first to purchase a life insurance policy from the then young and struggling insurance salesman from Hartford, Connecticut. Lifelong friends until the policy was inexplicably cancelled by Stevens’ company two days before Emiliano Ligi’s death, their fondness for one another was manifested in Stevens’ famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” a playful tribute to the elder Ligi’s ice cream cone and container business located on Emperor Avenue in Stamford, Connecticut. In fact, it was many years before it was revealed that the initials “E. L.,” to whom the poem was dedicated, did not refer to Stevens’ sweetheart, Eleanor Lake.

[2] *Ligi’s almost Swiftian dislike for his fellow man prompted him to march in a “save the Earth” demonstration in Los Angeles in 1988 carrying a placard that read “Bring On The Bomb.” Some of the more radical elements in the moverment assaulted him at one point, failing to recognize even the slightest iriony of their actions. As one enraged environmentalist justified later on national television: “He started it!"