KR Reviews

Marvelous Esoterica: On Preserving Fire: Selected Prose by Philip Lamantia

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2018. 216 pages. $25.00.

The crash of your heart
beating its way through a fever of fish
is heard in every crowd of that thirsty tomorrow
and your trip ends in the mask of my candle-lit hair.
     —from “There Are Many Pathways to the Garden”

In her 1966 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag dismissed interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon the world.” She wrote that to “interpret is to impoverish, deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’”

Which seems an appropriate place to begin a review of Philip Lamantia’s Preserving Fire: Selected Prose, recently published by Wave Books. A firm believer in and adherent to Surrealism for much of his life—Lamantia first corresponded with André Breton when Lamantia was only fifteen—Lamantia believed that poetry should express “a longing for the unreal, the marvelous,” as he wrote Charles Henri Ford in 1943. Or, as he noted thirty years later in his short essay “Vital Conflagrations”:

For it is only in sight of the most extravagant utopias (well-seasoned by the repeated claw-marks of potential power splashing on a pinch of high voltage momentarily negating the daily horrors of attempted life) and only by absolute confidence in the surpassing fire love shall not fail to collectively materialize in the carbonization of the libertines of liberty, that I dream of the living emancipation, kindled from a preserving fire of which the surpassing conflagration is the permanent, generating agent.

Such concerns are not only opposed to interpretation: they resist it. And Preserving Fire is a book filled with writing like this; with few exceptions, Lamantia’s prose doesn’t serve as a sober (ahem, prosaic) companion to his frequently abstruse and dizzying poetry, as prose does for many poets. Instead, Lamantia’s scant prose output is best read as a companion to his poetry. It is of a piece.

Born in San Francisco in 1927, Philip Lamantia was a major if somewhat unsung American poet, and an overview of his life reads like a guide to twentieth century avant-garde. Lamantia lived among the Surrealist elite before he was sixteen; Breton praised him as “a voice that rises once in a hundred years”; he took part in, but did not read his own work at, the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, when Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl”; Lamantia may have single-handedly introduced peyote to San Francisco, and he published a collection titled Narcotica, the cover of which showed him shooting heroin; and despite periods of silence (brought on by his lifelong struggle with manic depression), he published continuously for more than fifty years. Last but not least, in Desolation Angels, Kerouac described him as having “perfect features, like Tyrone Power, yet more subtle and esoteric, and that accent he talks in I do not know where he picked it up. . . .”

Comprising correspondence, introductions, and manifestos, Preserving Fire is the first published collection of Philip Lamantia’s prose. The book is, per its introduction, “a thumbnail intellectual biography of one of the major American poets of the twentieth century.” If nothing else, the book is a valuable archive.

Of the forty pieces collected in Preserving Fire, nine are being published for the first time; the book rescues the rest from obscurity or university archives. Examples of pieces being published for the first time are the intense 1961 essay “Vision and Instigation of Mescaline in 1961” (“all at once! USA TURNED ON TO MESCALINE! God Who is Poetry Poetry / Who is God”) and the somewhat more staid “The Beat Generation,” also written in 1961. The latter is a sort of manifesto, written in recognizably Beat language, and shows the disdain Lamantia exhibits across Preserving Fire for American culture at large. To wit:

We were so frantic to live in certitude of sudden death that we laid, like pale kings and queens, our hands on all that was around us—to MAKE IT!!! “IT” meaning anything that was not identifiable with the stupid, synthetic half/life of postAtomicBomb man, his exploded cities, literature, art, his corny mis/education, his phantom governments, his corny reasoning, sick politics. . . .

The pieces included in Preserving Fire cover an array of topics, which is as much a product of Lamantia having written very little prose—Lamantia’s prose has, to quote the book’s editor Garrett Caples, an “occasional quality”—as it is a product of, to quote Caples again, “the vast extent of his erudition.” Lamantia “was quite possibly the most educated person I’ve ever encountered and could discourse freely on a bewildering variety of subjects, for hours at a stretch,” notes Caples.

For example, the book includes two letters Lamantia sent to Selective Service headquarters in 1945 and 1949, outlining his opposition to military service. Befitting Lamantia’s precociousness (he was eighteen and twenty-one when the first and second letters were sent, respectively) and the floridity typical of much of his prose, rather than short statements, both letters are ruminations on “the imperfection of man”—of which War is the culmination—and Lamantia’s belief that “war and militarism, which exists ultimately for war, are the most blatant violation of the creative principle in the universe.”

And the book includes several pieces outlining Lamantia’s belief in and breaks with Surrealism over the years. To name a few, there is the aforementioned 1943 letter to Henri Charles Ford that signaled the beginning of his association with the Surrealists, a letter Lamantia sent to Andre Breton that same year, and a biographical note Lamantia wrote for The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 in which he notes that he’d broken “with surrealism by 1946. Since then mostly underground, and traveling.”

Then there is the 1981 essay “The Future of Surrealism,” by Lamantia and his wife Nancy Joyce Peters. In this piece, originally published in Cultural Correspondence, Lamantia and Peters assert that “surrealism, like viable socialism, is in an embryonic stage. It is not dead; it has yet to achieve conditions in which it can live for the first time.” Watching Lamantia define, grapple with, and stubbornly defend Surrealism—which Clement Greenberg criticized as a “form of vicarious wish-fulfillment”—over the years is a chief pleasure of Preserving Fire. It is interesting, to say the least, to experience a movement’s major figure’s thoughts about his movement.

But to return to Susan Sontag and interpretation, the quote that begins this essay of course continues. After decrying interpretation, Sontag notes that the “world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” This—experiencing immediately what we have, and being open to that experience—strikes me as the broad point of Lamantia’s work. It also seems a sound approach to reading Lamantia’s extensive body of poetry, and now his prose too. Which I recommend you do.


The epigraph is from Lamantia’s “There Are Many Pathways to the Garden,” published in Touch of the Marvelous. Berkeley: Oyez, 1966.

Kevin O'Rourke
Originally from Philadelphia, Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works in publishing. He studied art at Kenyon College and writing at the University of Minnesota. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions. He is an active book and cultural critic, and his writing is currently supported by a grant from 4Culture. Learn more at or on Twitter @shillies.