From the late 1930s until his death in 1972—and certainly as much of his behemoth bibliography has come to light in the decades since—Kenneth Patchen perplexed and enchanted readers with “novels” that refused to do what’s allowed on the page. A sometime collaborator of John Cage and Charles Mingus and lifelong friend of E.E. Cummings, his smashing together of the visual and written and bold negotiation with narrative landed his pacifist mysticism at a singular aesthetic—one that the whole of literature seems to have forgotten less than it has processed it.
In The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Patchen’s overwhelming and seminal 1941 literary mess recently reissued by New Directions, time, space, sequence, and subtlety don’t seem to exist. Patchen’s sprawling poetic exposition is hard after the heart of American story and microscoped in on the blurriness of the border between human love and human hate, with little regard for logic in its hunt of these themes. It’s Patchen’s ambition to make us all look like animals, and disarming the semblance of any known structure of narrative is an essential part of this dizzying quest. “What we did not know was how near madness we would be,” the titular Moonlight warns on the second page.
What follows is 313 pages that vacillate between an almost impossible to follow narrative, long detached passages about the general nature of everything, and graphic art eruptions. “Why the large, messy rebellion against form?” Moonlight at one point asks of himself. Patchen’s jumbled and relentless poetics make for an awesome authorial assault, even if he can’t always hold the line between text and reader taut throughout his unflinching frontier into the possibilities of the page. For every delightful Whitman diss track (“Walt Whitman did not want to touch people; he wanted to paw over them…He spent his time putting soap on the backs of schoolboys but he did not rub them clean”), direct challenge to God, declaration of extra-planetary love, and hard truism about prose (“Literature is what you write when you think you should be saying something”), there is an incoherent anecdote (“is not the desire for a logic a form of madness?”) about violence toward women and the innocent.
It’s in the the more grounded, physically imaginable scenework of his story that Patchen most leans on said violence, like a firework he needs to explode himself out of self-created frames. Moonlight’s countrywide roving and collecting of victims and lovers with increasingly fictional names (Beth, Carol, Jetter, Thomas Honey, Jackeen, and Roivas among them) is the closest thing to a traditional story here—though the realer story of course is Patchen mapping out his wild mind for us. Set against the backdrop of World War II and host to many a mention of Adolf Hitler, Moonlight leans into the inhumanity of the Holocaust and erosions of large European cities and believes, as many texts then did, that from the spectacle of it all could be pulled the inspiration for hunting a Great Grand Truth. In his immersion, Patchen flashes a beautiful hubris that embodies American exceptionalism (“I am an event among men…I can refuse all your institutions…I am outside the law”) while warning of its bloody obsession with scale—“the pattern did not end with peace or love or dignity, instead it forked through the weave where there was only pain and blood-rooted fear.”
The book displays an untethered drive toward beauty better on display in Patchen’s previous “transliterary” novel Sleepers Awake, a later work much more indifferent to characters, occurrences, and plot. In Moonlight Patchen includes standard storytelling methods just often enough to show that he can, and to dismiss them (“The thread-bare and ridiculous plots aren’t enough”) as part of his sumptuous joust in the direction of all literary history. He throws so many kitchen sinks at his audience, destroys any trace of linearity or morality so often that his clearest, most consistent theme is a hostility toward analytic readings, and toward the limits of established literature. “Books,” he writes, “all those big, fat-bottomed ashcans where men empty their lives.”
The leaps Patchen makes in his effort to jump beyond the confines of his chosen form, here and elsewhere, are among the most memorable, transformative shows in American letters. He is at his very best when his subject is Everything, and when his motivation is to use his powers of language to pulverize the expected methods of meaning and forging new ones. Journal predates the unadulterated exploration of Sleepers and work like the ethereal collection of poems and drawings Because It Is, holding within its streams of ecstasy a creeping doubt about the efficacy of a form it still seeks to revolutionize. Patchen hasn’t yet learned to more freely shed the audience’s expectations. In this, one of his earlier works, he still takes on the day’s standard moral-cultural challenge of the novel, wrestling with a politics he later insulates himself more away from.
Before he decided to fly fully toward apolitical love and his own rococo, mystical version of God in his work, Patchen showed scared skepticism about the possibility of our species to make something gorgeous happen without also somehow killing someone. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is a book written by a man killing his darling hope for a loving world, breaking away from and saying goodbye to its conventions of value. At a time today, when our country’s mechanics and ideologies seem even less feasible than usual—76 years after the book faced industry difficulty for its criticism of America’s involvement in the war—Patchen’s attempted exorcism-on-the-page of all our nation’s sloppiest truths, in all their messy splendor, is worth a proper second look.