“Acetylene Sunsets: Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria” By John Macker


Acetylene Sunsets:

Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria

By John Macker

“In the internal resistance of his thought, Dorn has been able to understand the American Indian more deeply perhaps than any recent writer, scholarly or poetic, who is not himself an Indian. In these works, as in the larger body of his writing, Dorn makes marginal figures, as they resist external authority with an indivisible spirit of self, land and history, morally central to the inner life of American Culture.”

                                                                                                         – Paul Dresman


I dug Ed Dorn because he wd rather
Make you his enemy
Than lie
           – Amiri Baraka


I first encountered Ed Dorn at a reading I did with him and Linda Hogan in Denver in the spring of 1983, at Muddy’s Coffee House in the Slightly Off Center Theatre on 15th street. I was a young, green poet and it was my first major reading with a theatre full of people, most of whom I didn’t know. I remember being anxious, pacing as I read, almost stalking the words as they came from my mouth. In contrast, Dorn was seated for his reading and read from Hello, La Jolla, or, possibly, Yellow Lola, late 1970’s works that, in contrast to the wild-crafted, rhythmic surrealism of his Gunslinger series of books, seemed arrestingly aphoristic. I knew of Ed Dorn — he was teaching at the University of Colorado — but it would be some years before I began reading all of his works and concluding, along with many others, that his was a distinctive, uncompromising and wildly original American voice and, as his friend the late Amiri Baraka described him, “Thin straight blonde Cowboy/movie looking white guy with the mind/of a saw.”

    Fact is, I didn’t appreciate him as much in those days. And that was as much due to my immaturity and insecurity as it was my inability to recognize great writing character when I was in the same room with it. He was particularly generous to my wife and I and after the reading we spent some time together talking about Denver — he was interested in it as a collection of characters in a landscape, its roots as well as its contemporaneous presence as a major metropolis. He was intrigued by its straight, cosmopolitan, newly corporate cow town development vibe verses the academic/counter-culture exoticism of post-hippie mountain town Boulder. At that time, Naropa Institute was sucking much of the literary air out of the room. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman had conceived the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics there, and Trungpa Rimpoche’s hijinks were becoming legend. (I attended the summer poetics program in 1978, so, guilty.)

    After a brief summer teaching stint there in 1977, Dorn evidently wanted no further part of it. In fact, he eschewed the authoritarian implication of all labels and categories: definitions, belonging to a particular school or group of writers. He disdained being classified as Beat, outlaw, academic or avant-garde or belonging to any particular “movement”; as for his primary poetic education with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as Lisa Jarnot put it, “the formidable constellation of Black Mountain poetics”, it was a transformative experience that would transcend all manner of category or label. In fact, his appearance in Donald Allen’s seminal 1960 anthology of non-academic, avant-garde writing, The New American Poetry, where his work appeared with the greatest poetic minds of his generation, would be as close as he came to belonging to any group.

    Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) published Ed’s first two books ( Hands Up! and The Newly Fallen) for his Totem/Corinth Press in the early 1960’s. Geography and The North Atlantic Turbine, published in England during a five year teaching stint, followed. In 1968, at the height of the American counter-culture and the beginning of the rapid decline of American supremacy overseas, Vietnam; before America began to smell the acrid smoke and fresh blood of Kent State and Altamont, Nixon, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch, Ed began Book I of Gunslinger. It is an epic poem that still “stands in excess of its moment” (1.) spread out among five books and seven years. It was praised by Richard Brautigan and Robert Duncan. Novelist Thomas McGuane called it “a fundamental American masterpiece.” It reflected the wide-spectrum of Dorn’s interests in the geographical and philosophical idea of the West, of landscape, of myth, of exploration and exploitation, pre and post-John Ford. Dorn had digested the works of maverick cultural geographer Carl Sauer, whom he discovered via his mentor Charles Olson’s syllabus of books for him to read at Black Mountain College, A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn. Sauer had written, “the natural landscape is of course of fundamental importance for it’s applied to material out of which the cultural landscape is formed. The shaping of it lies in the culture itself.”

    Richard Owens, in the on-line literary journal Big Bridge continues: “Culture shapes the land by drawing from it; the land shapes culture by providing the materials from which culture is fashioned. The relationship between the two is one of reciprocity — culture, or art, leaves its mark in the land by drawing from it just as the land leaves an image of itself in culture.”

    Those years, the early to mid-seventies, were years of intense, blazing clarity for Dorn. Gunslinger and 1974’s lyrical analysis of the Apaches last years of “external resistance”, Recollections of Gran Apacheria, represented the poet writing in such a state of audacious grace,

the upheavals of the time, the drugs, the new post-Vietnam conformities, couldn’t attach themselves to his liberated psyche. He was burning through the era a man on fire. It is barely beneath the surface of the language of these two works and especially in Gran Apacheria where Dorn finally encounters his Spirit of Place.                                      

                                        Their leading ideas
                                       Come directly from the landform (2)

   Recollections of Gran Apacheria came out in two editions in 1974. One was the famous (or infamous) softcover comic book version published by his buddies at the Turtle Island Foundation in San Francisco, cover art by Michael Myers. The other was the hardcover,  more conservative, brown cloth edition with artwork again by Michael Myers with just a trace of the flamboyance and humor of the comic book cover. (On this cover, ping-pong paddles are dubious stand-ins for prickly pear pads). Actually, to the casual observer, Myers’ comic book cover seems to have little to do with the contents, its overall effect being more of anarchy and surrealism than an accurate or thoughtful representation of Dorn’s Apacheria: “a man in bow tie and roller skates sits astride a very strange steer, complete with a gas tank cap on a rear flank; he is loaded down with the detritus of civilization, including golf clubs, a telephone book of greater Chicago, a flashbulb news camera, motel towel for saddle blanket, a canteen case where, in place of a canteen, a clock has been enclosed. Michael Myers, the illustrator who worked with Dorn at this time, presents the white man as a complete ‘other’ against the surrounding desert.” (3)

the land is stained, and it is true
It is stained black, because black is active,
Red, the first color of that stain, before black
Has washed out and sunk into the ground
And now comes up secret, inward, resistance (4)

Dorn had encountered the Native American in his literature previously, in early poems such as “The Land Below”, “Inauguration Poem #2”, his documentary 1966 book The Shoshoneans with photographer Leroy Lucas, a collaboration with lineage going back to James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; his autobiographical novel, By the Sound. He spent two years in Santa Fe, going to Indian dances with Robert Creeley and a visiting Allen Ginsberg. To Dorn, the Native American represented “external resistance”, indigenous culture made outlaw by its historic, decades- long opposition to white authority and hegemony. Gran Apacheria, born of not only library study but visitations at different times to the region, is itself a documentary of sorts; written in a more economic and epigrammatic style than Slinger, it elucidates the struggle of the Apache in the American southwest to ward off white European encroachment onto Native lands during the years prior to and three decades or so after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  

    Throughout the 23 or so poems in the book, Dorn investigates the Apache chiefs as they moved across the landscape in search of some relief from the constant pressure and tenaciousness of advancing white civilization. The violence of these new sets of circumstances  for the Apache, was inherent in their “otherness”.

    “’Otherness’ is ultimately a dialectic between the Apaches and the whites.” (5)

    Dorn’s thesis is illuminated by the differences in religion between the cultures: the Judeo-Christian God represented by the “Alien Church” and two of the creation myths of the Apache: Night Girl and Sky Man; their relationship to the land, their intense and unorthodox responses to the “European Distinction”: wild –crafted mind versus Alien thinking. “Nana and Victorio” is a poem that best illustrates this “otherness”: the Apache’s tenacity in the face of almost constant, brutal conflict; their solidarity with every natural thing in the geography; their antipathy to white institutions, namely, the Church and the military; and their distance from ourselves in space and time. This, from “Nana & Victorio”:

                                     Along this spine of dragoon mountains
                                     the pains in Nanas bit off leg
                                     a wound inflicted by the vicious teeth
                                     of the Alien Church . .

                                     . . . and yet the radiance marks everything
                                     as we unweave this corrupted cloth                        

“They were wired to the desert/and they were invisible/in the mountains.”  

The chiefs Nana, Victorio, Juh, as well as the warrior Geronimo, led their people across the unquenchable terrain, the desert floors, through the endurance and abstinence, “the portable forge of summer . . /once more to the Sierra Madre/once more past the jaws of your hungry god/the frenzy of survival rushing from our pores.” Dorn identifies this struggle as one contained within itself, its era, knowing full well that slavery had been occurring on this continent at roughly the same time; the by-product was the same: subjugation. His notions are confined, as are his subjects, to borders that extend from Chihuahua, Northern Mexico north to eastern Arizona and east to western New Mexico, an area that encompasses the Sierra Madre, the Dragoon and Chiricahua mountain ranges, as well as the Black Range in the Gila Wilderness. The struggle was certainly and mortally, a matter of culture, but also of movement, ritual, invisible and evolving battle lines, landscape, heat and weapons, both silent and not so, and ultimately, imprisonment or confinement on reservations. The Apache was outgunned and eventually, outmanned. They had been fighting the Mexicans to a stand-off for five hundred years, hence, they recognized a good bloody scrimmage when they saw one.   

     “Out of the Sunset movement/out of the Sunrise invasion.”    

In Gran Apacheria, Dorn refers to the Apache in a slightly unconventional manner. In “The Whole European Distinction” he writes:

    The longest continuous run
    of external resistance:
    the Apache Wars.

    Without significant intermission
    from the Seventeenth Century onward
    can only be attributed to
    the superiority of Native
    over Alien thinking.

    Yet they had not invented Mind
    and as we know
    their domain was by Mind over-ridden . . .

     . . . and
    have not yet discovered
    the predictive Mind.

    To Dorn, the Apache were all about “ Mind”. Not “predictive” mind but The Mind of survival in a hostile environment, of landform, of ritual, of little rain. In the poem “Creation” he delves into the beginning of Apache, their creation myths, with the Sky Man, the One: “I am Thinking, thinking/thinking, thinking/I am Thinking Earth”.  Elsewhere: “it is bright to recollect/that the Apaches were noble/not in themselves/so much as in their Ideas.” And much of their knowledge came from the landscape. They were intelligent because they shared Mind with the earth and to the Apache, they were one in the same. All sustenance and meaning came from the ground, Apacheria’s explicit architecture of mesas, arroyos, harsh frying pan deserts and hard-edged peaks. They were as abstemious as they were excessive. They had endured through years of drought, heat, mutual depredations with the Mexicans and whites, broken treaties, loss of habitat, scarcity of resources, starvation and sudden death.. Their significant Others, the dreaded Comanche, were more ferocious but not nearly as famous. After all, Geronimo, after the final surrender, got to ride in a car, posed for his photograph in a pumpkin patch, rode in parades. As Dorn describes him, placing him firmly in the realm of Mind: “Eyes like two bits of obsidian/With a light behind them.”

    A contemporary of Geronimo’s, Mescalero Apache Victorio was considered the greatest war captain. He spent most of his years in and around the Gila. He died in his 50’s in northern Mexico, his bedraggled band of women and children ambushed by the Mexican army. Dorn does him justice as well, “Yet his taste for Death/is the bitterness we find on the tongue/when we consider La Gran Apacheria/He is the most dreaded/the most terrible/the most famous.”

    The Apache held no abstract notions of time and space as the Europeans did. The Apache had no use for clocks. The sun, the night, the desert were significant enough purveyors of distance and time. As Dorn writes in the poem “Creation”: “There was a time/when nothing existed/this time was before form/Time rolled on. And space/which derives its character/from time, was not distinguished.” Much of what is compelling about Recollections of Gran Apacheria is its own notions, as a series of poems, about space and time. The ideas expressed within, as well as the poems’ architecture on the page is fluid, not in any particular chronological order. While reading, you get the impression that all time is simultaneous, much like the feeling you get looking at isolated desert petroglyphs or ancestral Puebloan ruins. The gestural petroglyphs are noted for their presence in an otherwise wilderness setting; that the ancient is somehow alive and accounted for; life could’ve occurred yesterday or a thousand years ago. The idea being, it doesn’t matter. Pretentions about then and now fold into one another like the “corrupted cloth” of fake Indian blankets.

    Gran Apacheria features a series of character profiles, including one on Luzon (Lozen) “The Provoking Figure of the Horsewoman”, warrior and Victorio’s vengeful sister; a loose section on the history of the conflict found in books, creation myths, a section on reservations and other indignities and finally, in the single poem section entitled Immured in Florida, Dorn illuminates the army’s final solution to the Apache problem. One of Dorn’s finest poems, “La Máquina a Houston”, hauntingly recreates the Apaches’ last moments in the Southwest.

    Dorn places us, contemporary America, without flinching, into the documentary tragedy of the situation 128 years ago. We are surrogates for the unnamed photographer who took the famous photograph of several captured Apaches (including Geronimo and Natches) sitting on the ground in front of the boxcar that will take them to the alien land of Florida. They have been taken from Fort Bowie to the railhead in Holbrook, Arizona. These are the days following Geronimo’s final surrender in Skeleton Canyon, in New Mexico’s boot heel. Like the photograph, Dorn’s poem freezes this moment in time. We are there; it becomes our tragedy as well as theirs:

The train has come to rest and ceased its creaking
We hear the heavy breathing of the máquina
a relic in its own time

the heavy breathing of the lonely máquina
stopped in its tracks waiting for the photograph

the Apache are prodded out into the light
remember, there are still dark places then
even in the solar monopoly of Arizona and Tejas

we are with the man with the camera
they step off the train and wait among the weeds
they never take their eyes off of us, wise practice
we motioned the way with our shotguns
they are almost incredibly beautiful

We are struck and thrilled
With the completeness of their smell
To them we are weird while to us
they are not weird, to them we are undeniable
and they stop only before that, they are like us
yet we are not like them

    Here, Dorn uses present tense as he does throughout several of the poems; he wants us to feel our otherness, he wants us to take our place among the conquerors. As we stand behind/become one with the photographer and those menacing the disarmed Apache with American shotguns, we are wired mercilessly to the historical moment. Here, Dorn is revealing a culture “once again at the mercy of fanatical enforcers of the orthodoxy.” (6)  And the “fanatical enforcers” have been with us throughout history.

And this is an important terminal moment
In the Rush Hour begun in this hemisphere

This is the moment before the leg irons
They look Good. They look better than we do.
They will look better than we look forever
We will never really look very good
We are too far gone on thought, and its rejections
The two actions of a Nous.

Dorn arrests us at this junction of the poem with astute philosophical reasoning as well as a sophisticated pun. The root of “Nous” comes from the Greek word, “noos” meaning mind or intellect; a term that goes back to Aristotle. We’ve come full circle from Dorn’s initial speculation on Native Mind to the final stanzas of a poem that deliberates, under the harshest of desert lights, on how the Apaches’ cultural prowess is replaced by the latest of philosophical, not to mention patriotic, imperatives: as a country, we will not be divisible. We will ship those we haven’t exterminated, these others, far away to reservations in order to prove how united our young republic must be in the face of American Rush Hours to come.

    “At the base of it/One finds the Northern Europeans/marked inability/to live on earth with other kinds/and certainly/not with kinds other than themselves.” (7) As Paul Dresman notes in his article, “Internal Resistances, Edward Dorn and the American Indian”, “—hence the whites’ derisive treatment of the thoughtful ethnologists Adolf Bandelier and Frank Cushing during the period of this warfare with the Apaches. Manifest Destiny disallows cultural mingling of the conquerors with the conquered.”

    Also, Dorn shows what a trickster he can be.  Nous, in Dorn’s imagination has also suggested the language of the noose. No matter how far gone on thought we are, we’re still capable of barbarism, in deed as well as symbol.

    The final stanza stands alone in a poem that is a document of tragic futility:

As the train moves off at the first turn of the wheel
With its cargo of florida bound exiles
Most of whom had been put bodily
Into the coaches, their 3000 dogs,
Who had followed them like a grand party
To the railhead at Holbrook
                                            Began to cry
When they saw the smoking creature resonate
With their masters,
And as the máquina acquired speed they howled and moaned
A frightening noise from their great mass
And some of them followed the cars
For forty miles
Before they fell away in exhaustion        

Recollections of Gran Apacheria is Edward Dorn’s elegy to the Native American, to a vanishing way of life; to a vanishing way of being on the earth, of the earth. It is brash, unsentimental, it even contains moments of wit. The space/time imagined by the poem (and in between the lines of the poem) is the American West in its grandest, yet most insidious sense. If his Gunslinger is a rollicking, satirical travelogue across the West, Gran Apacheria transmits the nuances of historic inevitability as American civilization with its armies, churches and orthodoxies, begins to internalize the territory. And Dorn as narrator is not only sympathetic, but as a poet who has eschewed the tyranny of the category himself, who has lived a somewhat nomadic life, beginning with a poverty-stricken hardscrabble youth in Illinois, and as an adult, in pursuit of temporary teaching positions throughout the U.S. and England, he identifies with the rebel, the insurgent, the outlaw. It’s as though he is helping to wire the reader and, by extension, other poets, into a realm of being where he thinks they ought to reside: within the unorthodox, the unpredictable, the great wide open of wild mind.

       Each man permitted/more than a man can bear/against the true and steel/Military Republicanism/of the Norte Americanos.



  1. Eric Steinhoff, Chicago Review, summer, 2004.
  2. Edward Dorn, Recollections of Gran Apacheria, Edward Dorn: Collected Poems Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012
  3. Paul Dresman: “Internal Resistances: Edward Dorn on the American Indian”, Internal Resistances The Poetry of Edward Dorn  Edited by Donald Wesling, Univ. of California Press, 1985
  4. Inauguration Poem #2” – Geography, 1965
  5. Paul Dresman, ibid.
  6. Stephen Fredman, Jacket Magazine
  7. Edward Dorn, “Reservations”, Recollections of Gran Apacheria.


About the Author: John Macker grew up in Colorado and studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He has published 9 full-length books of poetry, 2 audio recordings and several broadsides and chapbooks over 30 years. His most recent are Atlas of Wolves, The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away, Selected Poems 1983-2018, Gorge Songs (with Denver woodblock artist Leon Loughridge)  Blood in the Mix  (with El Paso poet Lawrence Welsh) and part three of his “Badlands” trilogy, Disassembled Badlands published by Colorado’s Turkey Buzzard Press, 2014.  His books were featured in the Colorado State Historical Society exhibit, Mile High and Underground, featuring 30 years of Denver art and poetics. In the mid 1990’s he edited the award-winning HARP Arts Journal in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He has received 2 Pushcart Prize nominations and in 2006 won Mad Blood magazine’s first annual literary prize for the long poem, “Wyoming Arcane.” That same year he edited the Desert Shovel Review. He has received a Colorado Arts (Tombstone) Award for poetry and in 2019, finalist for the Fischer Poetry Prize sponsored by the Telluride Institute. His recent essays on poets and poetry have appeared in Albuquerque’s Malpais Review (where he was contributing editor), Cultural Weekly and Lummox Journal. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  


Image Credit: “Edward Dorn” by Rob Rusk. Fair Use Image

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