Time of Useful Consciousness by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias

When you think of a 93-year-old poet, maybe vivaciousness, constant movement, and strength are not the first words that come to mind. However, that vibrant combination is exactly what poet, publisher, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s new book, Time of Useful Consciousness, exudes.

The poems in Time of Useful Consciousness are a celebration of America and Americana, but one that keeps its finger pointed at the country’s absurdities, flaws and racism. Westward motion and dreams that don’t wilt despite the presence of great truths are the fuel that Ferlinghetti uses to drag readers through the entire nation at breakneck speed. From Route 66 to seedy Las Vegas and from Iowa to rest of the states kissed by the Mississippi, the “jugular vein of America,” the poet manages to cram the stories and history of the 20th century into less than 100 pages. The densely-packed fragments are eloquent narratives that go beyond their length and somehow summarize the crucial points in U.S. history:

After World War II
it was as if the whole continent tilted westward
and the population shifted with it
and it took almost a decade
for all the elements of a changed America
to come together
to coalesce
in a radically new post-war culture
And it happened in San Francisco

Just like a John Coltrane melody or one of Dave Foster Wallace’s seemingly interminable sentences, Ferlinghetti’s poems rush forward with a self-generated kinetic force that makes the stream-of-consciousness writing flow with the ease of your own thoughts. The result is a collection in which this country’s cultural fabric can be seen taking shape in fast-forward.

Along with events, important people are also present here. Ayn Rand, Muhammad Ali, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Twain, and Timothy Leary are just some of the figures who find themselves in Ferlinghetti’s work. However, people are not always named. Instead, the poet elegantly and seamlessly interweaves borrowed phrases, titles, and quotes into his work. The resulting tributes are sweet literary morsels that reward the attentive reader.

Good poetry paints a picture, but only great poetry can paint a picture that draws you in. In Time of Useful Consciousness, Ferlinghetti achieves this with almost every poem:

Outside, a light rain descends on the city, silencing everything.
It is as if silence itself were contained in the soft rain. Umbrellas
blossom in it. There is a hush along the boulevards as it comes
down. At the Chicago Art Institute silent couples under black um-
brellas stroll out of Caillebotte’s Paris and out onto the boulevard.
They disappear in the rain sweeping in off Lake Michigan. The city
sits silent, rooted, stretched like a huge octopus on the shores of the
lake, its myriad eyes blinking, speechless. Its tentacles railroads…

Beautiful, poignant, and full of sharp honesty, the poems in this collection cut to the heart of what we are. This is a festive narrative, but one that leaves no space for deceit or unfair historical revisions. Time of Useful Consciousness is Ferlinghetti at his best; a definite must-read for anyone who cares about meaningful poetry.

Time of Useful Consciousness
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
New Directions

90 pp., $14.41 print / $94.50 deluxe edition

 

Gabino Iglesias is a writer and journalist currently living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Austin Post, Business Today, San Antonio Magazine, Bizarro Central, Paragraph Line, Surreal Grotesque, CultureMap Austin, Divergent Magazine, MicroHorror, El Nuevo Dia and a few anthologies. He’s also a book reviewer for HorrorTalk, Horrorphilia, Zouch Magazine, Buzzy Mag, Verbicide, the Lovecraft eZine and most recently joined Black Heart Magazine as its new Poetry Editor. He can be reached at gabinoiglesias@gmail.com or via Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.