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The Poet of Plants

Dale Pendell Has Written Two Books on Botanical Pharmacopeia That Resonate With a Lusty Wit. He May Be America's Answer to Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Right Down to the Opium.

October 19, 2003|Emily Green | Emily Green is a Times staff writer.

The first conversation with Dale Pendell is like an overseas telephone call with a lag on the line. I speak. He listens. He thinks. Then he responds in such perfectly formed sentences that I can almost hear the commas.

The stilted speech is surprising. As a writer, Pendell is so fluent that he can make a list of drug side-effects sound interesting, a feat he routinely performed in his two books. Delve deeper into his work and you find poetry, beautiful poetry.

Pendell, 56, has been writing since the 1960s, but his work is little known. I discovered it last spring while serving as a judge for the 2003 Pen Awards overseeing the "Creative Nonfiction" category. As a case containing 57 books arrived at the office for consideration, two things worried me. The amount of reading and the "creative" part. Nonfiction is hard enough to get right when it's written the old-fashioned way, straight up--who, where, why, when.

As it turned out, the books were at least 50% hard-luck stories, most of them trenchant. There was a war correspondent who got shot, an equestrienne whose leg was crushed by her horse, a profoundly moving brace of Korean stories of search for identity after diaspora. Daniel Ellsberg was there, recounting the events that led to the leaking of the Pentagon papers. There were a couple of biographies, wisecracking sociology from a newspaper columnist and ruminations on the essence of the West.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Name spelling -- An article in the Sunday magazine on author Dale Pendell misspelled the name of the late philosopher Norman O. Brown as Norman O'Brown.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 09, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 14 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on author Dale Pendell ("The Poet of Plants," Oct. 19) misspelled the name of the late philosopher Norman O. Brown as Norman O'Brown.

Then there was Pendell. In his 2002 book "Pharmako/Dynamis," he merrily rolls out the pharmacology, history and botany behind a host of mind-altering drugs, including Psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, coffee, tea, heroin, Ecstasy, wine, tobacco and absinthe. They are classed by the nature of the high: "phantastica," "exitantia," "inebriantia" and others--or, in plain English, tripping, speeding, drunk and so on. Almost every drug is taken back to a plant source, and that plant's trading history.

At the outset of judging, I wondered if Pendell was in the right category. Three months later, as the judging committee argued over finalists, I became convinced that his was the only book that actually met the brief of creative nonfiction. Yet, on the face of it, it was a dictionary, mainly of controlled substances. "A reference," read one judge's comments.

You can certainly look things up in it, including safety measures for taking Ecstasy, or how to score an opium poppy and apply the harvest in interesting places. But it wasn't like any reference I'd ever seen. Pendell borrowed just as freely from pharmaceutical industry texts as medieval herbals. He used poetry, classical plant taxonomy, chemical equations, prose, anecdotes, jokes, slogans--whatever worked. The prose was indecently interesting, angry and eloquent, like that of a young Christopher Hitchens. The poetry was enigmatic one moment, lusty the next, witty, passionate--whatever it felt like.

Structurally, however, it was odd. It was, arguably, half a book, a continuation of Pendell's companion volume, "Pharmako/Poeia." When this appeared in 1995, the good and the great of the Bay Area Beat movement came out in support of it. Allen Ginsberg wrote a review for the jacket, calling it, among a long string of things, "an epic poem on plant humors." Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder supplied the introduction. The synthesizer of Ecstasy, Berkeley scientist Alexander Shulgin, gave his imprimatur to the chemistry. Yet there were no reviews in the major press. It has sold 12,000 copies in eight years, which would be a handsome figure for a Junior League cookbook.

The publication of "Pharmako/Dynamis" last year received slightly more recognition. Richard Gehr of the Village Voice called Pendell "the best writer on drugs to come along since the late Terence McKenna charted the beautiful and terrifying 'invisible landscapes' revealed by DMT and psilocybin mushrooms."

Drug writer. Hard to argue. But what does that make his book? It reads so smoothly, its structure almost escapes notice. Under autopsy, however, there it is. The element that keeps the various information flowing is poetry. There is a narrator, like a Greek chorus, or in this case, a heckler, who prompts the greater text to sing in different voices. How many books manage witty asides that can jump into chemical signatures, then take off into a hallucinatory odyssey about crack cocaine, seamlessly?

The voting was long over, and my argument for Pendell as a finalist had prevailed, before the obvious dawned on me. Ginsberg was right in his volcanic blurb for "Pharmako/Poeia." It was an epic poem. So is the sequel. I went back and pored over the construction of both books. The author of the head shop encyclopedia began to look less like a writer on drugs and more like an original Western Romantic, an American answer to Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, right down to the opium.

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