by ROBERT CREELEY
I've spent all my life with a nagging sense I had somehow the responsibility of that curious fact, that is, a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn't, wanted to or not. This must be what's thought of as Puritanism, a curious split between the physical fact of a person and that thing they otherwise think with, or about, the so-called mind. I kept thinking of possible qualifications therefore, like Duchamp's "Besides, it's always the others who die..." or Wittgenstein's "Tell them it's been wonderful..." Even Goethe's "More light!" seemed a fit echo of what was, presumably, a decent wish to stay with it.
Anyhow I have no reifying memories that tell me this is where I was then and there. They are far more echoes, that came or come to me, a sense of shadow, or the comforting poignancy of old affections. "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces..." like they say. Charles Olson had told me years ago that the first imagined sign for self in such language as had record was a boat, and that made an adamant if harsh sense - much as Noah's Ark did. The great flood of seeming chaos had only one apparent agency for its signifying order, and that was oneself, that verifying agency without equal, because it was the one and only one for each of us. "Mine eyes have seen the glory, etc." Who could argue with that?
Now it is attractive to suspend a life as an afterthought, a well-earned pleasure of discretion and justifiable revision, just that one has lived long enough to see the time precedent as a cause of the present, a reward, as it were, for having lived long enough to know the value of such fact.
One of the songs I can remember my family having, on a player-piano roll as I recall, was "Ah sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you..." But it would be truly a fool who presumed any life to be simple consequence, or earned, or understood. It is the pleasure and authority of writing that it invents a life to live in the first place — as Walt Whitman so made one, or Daniel Defoe, or Samuel Beckett.
My father, a doctor working in the Boston area, having moved us all out to Acton, Massachusetts, died in the early spring of 1930, when I was four. I have very faint memories of him — certain smells of tobacco, whiskey highballs, a curious scale I can no longer identify nor relate as a specific measure. Many years later the son of a close friend of his, who'd been named Creeley Buchanan and was a few years older than my sister and I, told us my father's voice and intonation were very like the actor Pat O'Brien's. The emphasis was on a dry wit, a male, reflective confidence, a quick humor. My mother had told me he could keep attention for hours on end and gave as one instance the night he'd not come home till morning having talked all through it to his patient. Because I didn't know him, I wondered if he might have been fooling her.
But there were nonetheless echoes no other fact of the family had. For example, there was a little street, "Creeley Road," in Belmont, and in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown there was the Creeley family lot with its predominant Lauries close to the Bowditch lot, a patent of some sort, however specious. My mother's family were, in contrast, poor relations and had come to Massachusetts from Stonington, Deer Isle, Maine, when their luck there was exhausted and the young still dependent.
My mother told a story of a working as an all-service maid, when still a teenage, in the household of an invalid woman, and of how she had been impressed that the nurse would eat with the family, whereas she was served in the kitchen. It was that fact, so she said, which determined her to become a nurse, which she did and which was her primary identity for me in every way as her son.
My father's death must have been bitterly hard for her. Not only did she lose his literal company and the income he managed as a successful doctor, but she was lost with property she had little sense of how to deal with. He had invested heavily in a clinic, and all its equipment was sold for the proverbial song within a year.
Our house in Acton was very attractive but huge and impractical to heat. We had an old coal furnace the women, now entirely the resource, struggled over all winter. I remember their trying to mow the vast lawns as well, with an archetypal power mower that, once started, simply shot forward till shut off again. Turning corners with it was an act of great skill and strength. It was cause of my grandfather's heart attack in one real way. Watching the women trying to work with it, he became so exasperated that he finally took it away from them one day, and so was hauled along himself, in his mid-eighties, the one-time cabin boy to a second mate of the last Yankee clipper out of Maine to the Far East, laid low by a lawn mower. I remember his swearing behind the closed door of the bedroom after the doctor had come out with my grandmother.
Both my mother's parents lived with us until they died, another responsibility, as was Theresa Turner, a maid of my father's time whom he had befriended when he found her shocked in a home for the mentally retarded, to which she'd been sent by the immigration authorities. She became our housekeeper, and my mother used to say that the salary she'd been given on Friday was all borrowed back again by Monday. Theresa was particularly dear to me and indulged me, the boy, with awkward and consistent devotion even past my adolescence. Sometime in my early teens I suddenly realized I could utterly baffle her with verbal constructs or numbers, and had that sick, sad recognition of power. It wasn't a fair world that made such people so brutally vulnerable.
In any case, my sister's memories of our father are very different because she could actually remember him whereas I could not, and she had known that time of our family's affluence, with maids and a chauffeur, big houses and cars, and a sense of significant authority. No doubt my curious "poor boy" insistences have been fostered far more by this echo than they have by any factual want. Once, visiting in Hull a graduate seminar of Geoffrey Moore's, I was displaced to hear him tell the company I had a typical middle-class education and was, in some respects, an instance thereof.
He was quite right. I went to a boarding school and then to Harvard, both certainly exceptions provisions for the time and place, and all the more so for someone coming from a small country town in the New England of the '30s. Still I seem to have grown up with an immense sense of my family's particular limits, and it is my luck that has gained me the possibilities I've had, far more than either my company's provisions or my own inherent abilities.
Two instances can make this point clear. When two, seated on the laps of a nurse on the front seat of the car beside my father as he drove through the city of Boston on some errand or other, I was showered with broken glass full in the face when a stray lump of coal shattered the side window. Again I recall nothing of it, and perversely the year that followed must have been a very happy one because I was not allowed to cry for fear of causing the affected left eye further damage.
For some time, then, the eye was left in place, although it seems to have had little function. It began to grow larger, however, and so, when I was just five, just a year after my father's death, the eye was taken out. That I do remember because my mother had told me we were to go to the hospital on some routine business of her own, and once there, she suggested I wait inside, which was common enough. But from there I was taken to the doctor, and so on and so forth, till I came to with a great bandage covering my head and the eye gone. I so wish she had told me, although I rationally understand why she did not, and why also she had not made clear to us our father wasn't coming back after we saw him taken away in the ambulance across our front lawn in the snow. We knew nothing of the funeral, or let me speak for myself. Those tracks fading in the spring thaws mark for me the end of the previous time entirely.
But it is luck, which was the point, and the paradoxical fact that his death and injury had a curious consequence. The company employing the person responsible for the careless shovelful of coal paid damages of some nine thousand dollars, enough to see me through college, toward which I'd been determinedly propelled by my mother's sense of duty to the memory of my father. Neither of my elder half-brothers had gone but neither seemingly wanted to. Our side of the family, which had no such advanced education as immediate habit, valued it far more.
So, as luck would have it, I did get to college, although I fled it in the last half of my senior year, some meager credits short of a degree. Luck had got me to prep school by way of my sister's having a friend at Northfield, to which she went in her senior year, whose brother was at Holderness. The girls thought it would be charming if both brothers were to be at the same school, as they were. My sister secured applications, prodded my mother to arrange for scholarship tests, and shortly thereafter I was admitted with substantial financial provision and was allowed to bring my pigeons with me. A sports coat, as they were called, bought at Grove Cronin's in Waltham, shed its simulated-leather on first cleaning, and my glass eye took getting used to in the new environment. But it was during those years I learned more expansively and intensively than ever before or since, and I have only luck, and my immensely dear sister's imagination to thank for any of it.
Whatever is presumed of a life that designs it as a fixture of social intent, or form of faculty, or the effect of an overwhelming event, has little bearing here, even if one might in comfortable hindsight say it all followed. What else was, in any case, possible? As living, each moment seemed to me utterly impossible to anticipate. Physical love was such — so immensely sweet a human pleasure, who could claim it as determined? Was it simply to follow it forever? That first, effortless ancient depth of feeling, so wisely knowing in such confused participants — it was luck again that got me through all the hostile misunderstanding and distortion of that time, even to the man in the black suit appearing out of nowhere to demand that I "take that girl home," on Belmont Hill as it happened.
I have far more a sense of comfortable wandering, as momently bearings were lost or discarded, and the world occurred with intense particularity. It seems sad that so often the recognition of such presence has to be fact of some overwhelming crisis or despair. I don't know that I had the least intent to be so at sea. My sense of apparent order is irritatingly, almost obsessively neat, so that my very young children often followed me about picking bits of lint off the carpet, "just like Daddy." Both my sister Helen and I had been given, somewhere back there, a habit of cleaning surfaces, tabletops, counters, floors, anyplace that accumulates expectable bits and pieces of whatever. Each of us tidies incessantly, and I have been known to dump an ashtray just after someone had flicked an ash into it.
Yet I could eat off the floor, or finish someone's plate, or wear soiled clothes without concern. But I must have the feel of clean hands, or hair, and recall a long bus trip of years ago whereon I began, it seemed to me, almost to mutate into the filth and odor of myself.
Possibly because of those sudden losses spoken of, my childhood is more a fact of places now than a sense of changing progression. My own favorite was Four Winds Farm, which is where our father had left us and where too I knew my grandfather, who saved me at least from some confusions of maleness. Best were the woods well back of the barn that we'd go off into, with the sense one could go for miles and miles — "all the way to Canada!" — without being bothered by adamant, boxed-in people. There we played endless patterns of Robin Hood (my friend Harry Scribner would be Robin — I was Will Scarlet), and occasionally Tarzan. One time my cousin Laurie, two years older and living then in Stow with my younger cousin Barbara, Uncle Hap, and Aunt Vera (who had come exotically from near Marlborough and was Scandinavian) took my stocking cap right off my head with a spear we commonly fashioned from sumac, alders, or willows. We figured it as consummate marksmanship, rather than imminent disaster. School was two grades to a room, and my mother was the school nurse by the time I got there. Miss Dickenson was a sharp, specific, teacher of the third and fourth grades, was it? Miss Allard, bosomy and young, taught the primary ones. Then Miss Suhusky prepared us for the shift to junior high and the further world.
Just across from the school was a great, steep hill for sliding. I went into a tree at the bottom once without too much damage and walked home. There was much in that way one got up from, like Luxy Davis sticking a pitchfork tine through his palm while playing in our barn. Soak it in hot water and Lysol, and bandage it up. Infections were insistent, I remember, and sulfa drugs finally helped with them, thank god. Things were always draining, or about to. We fished a lot, go hooks caught in our fingers, cut ourselves with jackknives, hatchets, sticks more generally.
Splinters were a persistent curse and I think it was Harry again who managed to slide one up under much of the palm of his hand, so that it had to be cut out. I was fascinated by the hands of elder men, with those scarred knuckles, broken nails, sometimes a finger or more missing altogether. These were farmers and there were so many ways to get caught in that occupation, despite care and competence.
For some time it was my intent to become a veterinarian when I finished school. Probably it was the echo of that initial place though even with my own childhood it seemed to be changing. Still then it was a much more ingenuous and rooted place than it seems to have become. One could skate from West Acton to South Acton on Teel's Brook, having to hop occasionally over branches and whatnot that crossed its small width in places but nonetheless getting there, to end in broad millpond by the railroad bridge. We swam in Teel's Brook in the summer, a comfortable collection of boys and the men who came down after work to rinse off the sweat and hayseed. We contrived mudslides so as to end in a great splash, raced and wrestled, picked off abundant bloodsuckers and watched for the reported water moccasins, whose bite, we believed, would kill us in seconds.
We rehearsed, though not literally, the procedure of making a slash by the bite and sucking out the poison. It sounds awful even now — like sliding down a razor blade on your heels, another childhood proposal we used to scare ourselves. A friend's father showed us how to make willow whistles and a more enduring kind from short lengths of copper or lead pipe we'd cut into with a hacksaw, to make the notch, then plug partially with wood at one end. I recall there being endless things to learn and do of that kind, slingshots, huts (as we called them) in the woods, traps, and a great proliferating lore of rituals and locations, paths through the woods, secret signs, provisions for all manner of imagined possibility including at one point the attempt to make a glider out of bed sheets and poles tied together.
So it's probably that what I most wanted as a world if not of that kind, at least of that place. And while I could not emulate my dead father by becoming a doctor — the thought of being thus responsible for people's lives was terrifying to me — I could be a doctor of sorts for far more tractable and patient beasts.
The year I graduated from school it all got sidetracked by a creeping sophistication, to be sure, gained from the diversity of other boys at Holdness and also the elders' sense of far more various occupation of people's intelligence than had been the case in Acton. It wasn't better or worse. It was simply different, as such things are forever. Years later I had friends in North Lisbon, New Hampshire, who, some of them, had been no more than twenty-five miles from where they were born. One neighbor went away to war, the South Pacific, and on return simply settled in again as though he had never been gone. One time I asked his brother to come with me to Cambridge, where my mother then lived, a drive of some three or four hours. But he chose not to, saying, "I don't know anybody there." It seemed to him absurd to go where one had no relationships.
Whatever prompted me, I think I must have begun moving about the age of fourteen, first to that school, which changed all my sense of things, and then increasingly as I discovered there was, as Thomas Wolfe had said, no returning. A few years ago I counted over forty hours on just one side of the road between the house we then lived in till I was ten and the neighboring farmers, the Lockes', down the way. Across the road, over the field, to the swimming hole, my mother would say, "If there's no one there, come home!" — there is now a large middle school, as they are called, and no trace of the farming is much left at all.
Two summers ago, driving through the town with my friend Warren Talman and slowing to point out this or that place, I soon realized from blasts of horns and cars gunning past me that my world, if that's what it ever was, was altogether gone. The railroad station and the trains, so specific a place then, even Mac's Garage a block back of it, aren't there anymore and haven't been for years. I went into the Acton Center Library, where our mother would take us Saturdays to get books, and, on impulse, checked out the card catalog to see if by any chance a book of mine might be there. All I managed was to spill the cards all over the floor. "Horseman, pass by!"
When I finally got to college, I came by way of Northeast Harbor, Maine, where my mother had taken the job of Red Cross nurse to be closer to my sister Helen, whose first husband, Arthur Reynolds, came from there, person of a classic old-time Maine family. His aunt had lost the fingers of both hands in a mangle but raised a substantial family no matter. They were tough people and had obvious questions about the outlander married to their significant son, who was an extremely sweet man. He had already wandered far afield, by studying philosophy at the University of Maine but even more so by becoming a middleweight boxer, billed as the Mad Greek. He made it all the way to Boston Gardens with his classic but increasingly vulnerable profile. The young couple had been married in the West Acton Baptist Church, which was our place of worship, as they say, and for a time lived with us in the Willow Street house.
There was a great moment when I had first experimented with drinking by going with three friends to a remote river bank whose location now escapes me. Was it the Concord River in some imagination of our significant endeavor? In any case, we drank quickly several quarts of Ballantine's ale, all we could hold, and several of us vomited then and there. Now it was time to go home but the alcohol was just beginning to work. When I came staggering into our house, thankfully I was spotted by my brother-in-law who deftly got me out of there, into the car, and off to some back road where had me trot as best I could after the car until I was back together. It was a delight, even drunk, to be the object of his amused and resourceful affection.
Clearly what I needed, and probably still do, was a sense of what constitutes manhood. I have three sons who can speak for themselves, finally, as to how capable a father I proved for them. It was certainly a broken trip very often, even with years of separation in two relationships. But I feel confident nonetheless. Being a man myself, as one says, has proven something quite otherwise.
The years of college, broken by the war and the endless shifting of our company, were still immensely valuable time. And why shouldn't they be, I suppose. Yet with very few exceptions I can think of little taught me in the fact of courses. F.O. Matthiessen, Harry Levin, Kenneth Murdoch, and Werner Jaeger — with a care indeed for Douglas Bush though he never persuaded me of Milton — and that about does it, though one, Fred McCreary, a writer turned teacher whose daughter Phoebe was a brilliant, beautiful young woman I must have had chance to talk to only a very few times, was the one most crucial. He taught an English A course for students unable to bypass it by scoring well on the qualifying test and one day well into the term he asked that I see him after class. I was expectably scared, confused that I might have done something wrong not knowing it.
When all the others had left, he spoke to me quite sternly, asking if I had thought of what I might like to do after college. It seemed an ironic emphasis upon my uselessness in all respects, but I answered that I hoped to be a writer. I answered that if I kept at it, long enough, I just might make it -—or words to that effect. It was the only literal encouragement of that kind I ever got at Harvard, but it was enough.
Reading some time ago of the various characters of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, I was struck by the point that it was the peer group that made Harvard effective educationally, the literal company one kept. For me that was very much the case, and the relationships, in no clubby sense, often continued for life. It was there I first met Alison Lurie, John Hawkes, Kenneth Koch, and Willy Gaddis — and Seymour Lawrence and Bubsy Zimmerman, as Barbara Epstein was then known. Musicians were crucial and very close friends — Buddy Berlin, Race Newton, and Joe Leach. It was Buddy and Race who first played me Charlie Parker, and Joe had come from Detroit and Wayne State, a transfer student, and actually knew Milt Jackson, Howie McGhee, and many more. There was a note in Downbeat to announce his arrival in Boston.
Academically I floundered at Harvard, or so I felt. My eager thirst for knowledge, almost Jude-the-Obscurian in its innocence, was all but shut down by the sardonic stance of my elders. It was Andrew Wanning, for example, who began a second lecture on Wallace Stevens' poetry with a remark I think I will never forget: "The only thing I can find to say about that later poetry of Wallace Stevens' is that it is very obscure." He then played us a record of Stevens reading. Even Matthiessen was a disappointment, finding the work of Pound too ugly politically and beyond his comprehension in its structure.
He let me give a paper on Hart Crane but it was a lost cause instantly I opened my mouth. In depressing contrast, Richard Wilbur was a graduate student in that same class and gave us a brilliant exegesis, as they say, of Marianne Moore's nifty poem "See in the Midst of Fair Leaves and Much Fruit the Swan..." I must have seen him again at least twenty years later and instantly asked him if she'd ever seen his terrific analysis. He told me he had sent her a copy, shyly, in respect. Next question was obvious: what did she answer? To which he replied, she said she didn't understand it. Wow!
The American sense of education as the filling of a vessel otherwise empty is probably the confusion I, as many others, was facing, both with my teachers in myself. I expected to be taught but whether manners, taste, sophistication, or simply how specifically to do something was never clear to me. I didn't, as one says, know what I wanted to do, despite the hope to be a writer, because I didn't have the faintest sense of who or what a writer was. A classmate, Craig Gilbert, took the classic pose of Hemingway, or tried to, trench coat, hat, the bottle of bourbon. It was a very impressive attempt.
Then there was the character in one of Huxley's novels who did act in every respect the writer so therefore felt no need to write anything. Later Olson quoted the remark of someone apropos the aggressively sexual conduct of some man on the beach with his patient girl. "Getting experience for his nuvvel?" I know I read a lot of writers writing about writing, not really those who were suggesting procedures as those who were bearing witness to their own significant states of mind. André Gide's Journals were heroic instance, and I think I read all three volumes as they appeared.
But the writer who most delighted and saved me was Stendhal, the pronunciation of whose name I still can't manage comfortably. His extraordinary self-perception — at least the person he so presents — is very attractive. His characters are seen with such intimate clarity and yet they are as objective as statistics or phone numbers. Just so, there is a shot in a Fellini film from a helicopter flying over a city. The people, sunning on the roofs, look up, waving, and one sees them from the perspective of the pilot, specific, yet passing and painfully small.
As a parallel instance of sorts, I recall one night in Placitas, New Mexico. Restless, I had stepped just outside the door of our living room into a small courtyard. It must have been fall because there was a sharp odor of burning pinon in the air, and it was one of those magnificent sharp, dry, immensely clear and star-filled nights. Just back of me in the room there was a bleak argument going on, the rehearsal of a very painful and blocked sense of relation, a classic human debate which can never end except in exhaustion. But outside, less than ten feet away, was such a vast and inhuman place, so indifferent to those almost insectlike flailings I'd left. About a mile distant, up in the canyon, there was a cave which dated human habitation here some thirty thousand years into the past. All around us were fossils from the sea which had been here long before that, fish, shells, timeless. The Hopi say, "First came the Navajo, and then the white man." We are a curious fact.
But it's not a diminution of humanness I wish to make, rather a scale for its diverse presence. In all of Stendhal's work there is a lovely measure in such sense, of the significance of actions and of persons, neither sneering nor enlarging. All that would matter to me, finally, as a writer, is that the scale and the place of our common living be recognized, that the mundane in that simple emphasis be acknowledged. Wendell Berry one time said there were two premises people almost always used in their thinking that really terrified him. One was that they knew what was good for themselves, and the other, that what was good for people was good for all the other worlds pertaining. At times our life seems much as if we lived in a terrarium, which we somehow ourselves have got to take care of.
Another friend, John Chamberlain, had a wry qualification apropos babies, i.e. the most complicated artifact possible made by the least-skilled labor. One hardly knows what one's doing, like they say. My own first experience was a terror that I'd drop it, and I felt no capability at all to be a father. I hardly managed as a husband, if I did. When David, my first child, was being born in the hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I kept pestering the nurse at reception for news of my wife's progress. Her humiliating answer was, "Wife? Wife? You're too young to have a wife, much less a baby!"
I was twenty-one and our being on the Cape was consequence of our friendship with (William) Slater Brown, whom I'd met in Cambridge at (the now-gone) McBride's, a tavern right in the square used mostly by the non-college people. I'd gone in to get away from the usual company, and also to drink, and found myself at the far end of the crowded bar with just one older man at the wall beyond me. It was Slater. As we talked, he asked me my interests as a student, and then, as I made clear my reading and hopes to write, he told me in a way I can't now recall, but it must have been decisively self-effacing, that he was the character "B" in Cummings' The Enormous Room.
Amazing that one might meet, that casually, a person so curiously present in two such decisive places, as if he'd stepped from the literal book itself. When he also said he knew Hart Crane, I felt very much like running because it all seemed such a fragile and vulnerable possession that I should so simply meet someone so significant to my own life's need. I guess I love Thomas Hardy because he had such a dogged determination of the world's scale, its presences, an architecture as real as any other he gave attention. Heroes, as they say, are not simply grandiose pretensions of person nor echoes of some lost measure only. They are the imagined possibility of whatever makes the potential of a life seem just that — what Kitaj recalls cannily in his echo of Pound in the series of three prints A Site: "working on the life vouchsafed." How one discovers that "material" is what so-called "heroes" can provide means to know, else reflect as sun on water.
So Slater led me, in a specific way, not only to the Cape but to an increasingly distinct life from that determined by the academic. I recall our going in to see Matthiessen, whom he knew, and my recognizing from that secular vantage of my company the professor's curious absence from the terms of the world I most valued, but had least means then to know. It's ironic that so much of my own life has been spent teaching, uneasily, I suppose, but certainly with commitment. I had no intention, nor training, to be a teacher at all. After the brief time at Black Mountain College in the early '50s, I'd assumed those days were over.
In any case, my life felt a shambles. The marriage, after a year on the Cape, then three in New Hampshire, then France and Spain, had collapsed as I myself did, following the revelation, I want to say, which Black Mountain meant for me, and the parallel recognition of that previous world I had otherwise thought to hide in. It neither would nor could work any longer and my wife fled for her own survival, angered to this day I had seemingly proved so little competent or faithful. In the last days, or hours, I remember asking her what it was she did so want, and her answer, to be right.
In that, of course, I could have no part at all. So I headed west from North Carolina, on a Trailways bus, to Albuquerque where friends from college had settled. I remember getting into the bus station and being met by Race Newton, driven up to Imported Motors, our friends Buddy and Mary Ann's business selling Volkswagens on Central, and then out, in a old, white boatlike Jaguar with open top, across the river to the west mesa, and off on a side road, then a dirt one, into a box canyon, where, with immense blue sky overhead and no end to all that arching space, we stopped. I said some classic American thing like, where are we. His answer, far more memorable, was, here.
What one might now say is that years and years went by, almost overnight. Ed Dorn, first met in Black Mountain and continuingly a measure for all I'd value as poetry or person, thought for some years I'd one day write a narrative of that place, the Southwest. It's extricably a part of my head, like they say, and was a rite of passage even more significant than Black Mountain. It was in Albuquerque that I finally faced unequivocally first terms of my own life, its need for love, dignity, consequence, and responsibility, all equally.
I fell in love again. We thought to marry, and had got a marriage license, but when it came the literal time, neither of us believed in it enough to go through it again. So we made a commitment to stay together for as long as it felt specific, some fact of love. It was probably a far more secular agreement than a society can finally accommodate because it so depends on a singular choice. It can be brutal to those related certainly, thoughtful as it may feel itself to be. Children can hardly know why people start hating one another, and the old have no further choices.
We stayed together for twenty years, and whatever it came to mean, beyond our vulnerable and extraordinary children, the poignance of its clarity often and the risks it could survive seem as much as life can think to depend upon, despite it isn't enough.
I also managed a common qualification to teach by going to the University of New Mexico, while also working days at a newly constituted school for boys, now known as the Albuquerque Academy. The school was three days from opening without a French teacher, I was living in some despair in Ranchos de Taos, the novelist Ramon Sender had somehow heard of both dilemmas, told a mutual friend, Mercedes Garoffalo (first met in Mallorca by direction of Ken Lash, then editor of New Mexico Quarterly), who put me in touch with the school's headmaster. So it was I began teaching again, this time seventh to twelfth graders, French, English, Latin, and other "subjects" I now completely forget. On the books I was a janitor.
No pedagogic presumptions seem to me worth much without an experience at least of common circumstance or world relating. For example, the latter could be helping a child gain control of bowel movements, as my mother would call them, or learning to drive or do an altogether usual human thing. Mark Hopkins's sense of it, of student on one end of log and teacher on the other, always seemed right to me — or Olson's proposal: suggestion/teacher, recognition/student. There seems no static "place" which can permit a containing procedure, no matter the needs or the thing literally to be done are as old as time itself. The initiation, so to speak, is intensely critical for all. I remember, for instance, the doctor who refused my hand, just after telling me our daughter Sarah had been born.
I remember dear Ira Grant, an older greed and breeder of Barred Plymouth Rock chickens in Hanover, New Hampshire, telling me, really as instruction, a lovely story of a crew of painters he was foreman of, sent to some edge of Northern Massachusetts for a job. After work they would go to a local tavern and one, always a bit surly and stand of fish, would never take his turn buying a round for the rest. Of course, he'd always drink what they provided but would never share otherwise. Naturally it got to the others, and Ira sensed a lot of irritation was backing up.
It happened that they crossed over a bridge to get to the bar, and it was late winter. So one early evening, still on the bridge, Ira proposed that he could drop a beer bottle, remnant from the day, down to the ice some twenty or thirty feet below, and have it land upright, unbroken, and stay there. It seemed, if not impossible, highly unlikely, but Ira persisted, challenging all to either agree or contest by betting a round on the loser as the forfeit. He cannily knew who could not let him go unchallenged, and so it was that he and the loner were faced off.
As you'll know, he said, which I didn't, a warm day melts the snow on the ice of the river just enough to make it yielding, and that chilling again at evening firms it up. If you take both your index fingers, putting them on either side of the bottle's neck, and then simultaneously withdraw them, if there is no breeze to disturb the fall, which there wasn't, it seems, the bottle will fall plumb a distance, landing flush on its bottom with sufficient weight to bed in the slush, yet hold there upright and unbroken as that impact dissipates. Whatever he said, that's what happened, and the man bought drinks, was brought to the common table, and that was the end of that.
It was also Ira who could get down on his knees and pray to a radio to catch out of the blotch of conflicting stations the faint signal of the one in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, whereon I spoke weekly for a hysterical half-hour of my literary respects, Joyce, Pound, Williams, Crane. God knows who could have heard me, other than him. I was diligent and ambitious. I was a fifty mile drive one way from where we lived in North Libson, New Hampshire. But it was my own way of being serious — as I read Porter Sargent's extraordinary qualification of secondary private schools in America, sent me by Ezra Pound, who thought he'd be an active addition to a magazine I was trying to get started. His prefaces were bedrock judgments I still believe, and I wonder now if anyone remembers them, or Pound's interest. Certainly we recall John Kasper, and the rest.
I am thinking now of Red Pigmy Pouters, of all things, and Charles Schultz, of Lincolnwood, Illinois, who in 1948 won Grand Champion on a young cock bird exhibited in the major show of that year. There was a picture of the bird in the Pigeon News, and it was a haunting one. All the genetic patterns that qualify this pigeon's required look are recessive, the upright stance, the peculiarly inflated crop, the white crescents on the wings and breast, the feathered feet, even the color red itself. Rightly or wrongly, the fancier holds this bird's very existence as his determination.
I wrote Mr. Schultz in respect, and asked him the breeding involved. He answered in old-fashioned handwriting that, in 1912, he had acquired a pair of a particular strain to line breed with his own, thus to stabilize color and posture, and slowly, in subsequent years, worked on size and markings, ridding the red of smut, gaining adequate scale, and so slowly came to that moment, thirty-six years later, when the bird (a male, which is not the dominant in the process) finally was there.
It was Ira's son Lincoln, who called me years after his father's death, when I thought I'd lost track of him forever, to tell me had finally stabilized the Barred Plymouth Rock bantam, an ambition of his father's, and that his stock was now breeding true. It's curious how this is really as much my life as any books might be. I bought breeding stock, a trio, from Harold Tompkins of Concord, Massachusetts, whose Rhode Island Reds set the standard for that breed with their intense brownish red. The barnyard chicken of that kind was the New Hampshire Red, far more orange and gangly, whereas Tompkins' birds had proportions like a brick, the body well over the legs and rectangular.
Tompkins was a solid, rather quiet man with a son I much liked, thought clearly he drank too much, but that is a professional hazard with poultrymen for whatever reason. I raised chickens myself for a time. Barred Rocks, Dark Brahmas, Rhode Island Reds — and pigeons, ducks, geese and goats. A regular ranch, as they used to say in New Hampshire. The last time I had any was when we were last living in Placitas, and I got some Rollers and a few Fantails, just for the company. Then again in Albuquerque, when Willy was not yet three, we got some white Leghorns, and our friends had left pigeons in the cote attached to the front porch. We used to walk out to the hen coop in the evening, Willy and I, to make sure all was secure for the night, and that sound of chickens going to roost, the clucking sporadic, inevitably comforts and delights me. Chickens are so obviously vulnerable that they present a curious trust, and one feels large, competent, and benign, seeing that they are all right once again.
I should have stayed put much more than I ever managed to, and I am once again, with patient family, weight the choices of here and there. It is really the going that must be the point, and now, increasingly, that movement gets simply hard and distracting. One time in conversation with students at Cortland back in the sixties, Olson emphasized for them how long it took to accomplish "a habit and a haunt," a place so habituated by one's being there that it isn't even thought of as apart. In contrast, I've been such a tourist in the world despite I find a company much as a gypsy might — or so I'd like to think.
Just having been made State Poet of New York for the years 1989-91, I look at what the governor, Mario Cuomo says of me. "With courage and cunning, he has made the discreet loneliness of the solitary individual into a universal experience." People must love me for that. Last night talking to the poet Claes Andersson, who is also a member of the Finnish parliament and a psychologist, he tells us that he had encouraged a young woman, a patient, to look to books for a relieving sense that many feel as threatened as she in the world. The book she randomly finds is Kafka's The Trial.
When did all this displacement first start might be a question, but a far too late one at this point. Still, if one's ever actually witnessed another human altogether at home, entirely present, it's unforgettable. Years ago now, in San Cristobal de las Casas, the self-determined anthropologist Franz Blum asked if we would like to meet a Lacadone Indian from the Yucatan peninsula. It was the fifties as I recall. I was fascinated, particularly because of all Olson had told me, and momently an inexplicably contained person came into the room.
But I mean by "contained" that he was all there, all of him was present, as an intensive animal might be, a tiger, but not the least threatening. All the seeming capacity of his sense was alert to the fact of his existence, not to its projection or recall. I can't now make clear how impressive and how tender that human capacity was. So far beyond thought, or belief, or any eventual abstraction at all, requiring no exercise or intent, no commitment or reason. Paradise must be a faint echo indeed.
But how long could such bittersweet innocence last in this world, as they say. William Burroughs points out the response of the European newcomers to these ultimately indigenous people is to cut off the hands held out to them. Would you then trust such people, he says simply enough.
A meager emphasis, finally, but the world has hardly been a nice place to live in. But that too is indulgent if one has been given as much I have. What I no doubt want is a clearer conscience, so that I can enjoy the privileges without concern that so few others share them. So I attempt, as many in my place, to acknowledge my blessings, my curious success. I wonder that we can look at our lives, any one of us, as if that reflective judgment constituted the point and thereby permitted our uselessness. Now one is so bitterly weary of the self-excuse, the elsewheres of proposed solution. Many times I've found people from my own country, in some corners of the world, in some metaphysical couch, babbling that they have escaped the horror of their origins, and can think, it would seem, of very little else. They've come to nowhere, only gone, and I find their sense of security contemptible. No one gets away anymore.
Most awful is the memory of the death of my daughter Leslie, beyond ability to recall in detail. But as we dug to try to find her body in the vagueness of the sand's dimension at the top of the arroyo — into which they had made a tunnel which had collapsed — a crew of television people, a news team, suddenly were there too, trying to get close in for a shot of our finding her. I threatened one with a shovel, saying that if he didn't get back, I'd smash him to bits. Moments later we found her, but it was too late. She was eight years old, a quirky, brilliant kid with a wry and singular wit.
One time I remember she'd set her older sister Kirsten to a contest of counting telephone poles, and when, miles later, Kirsten said, I've got three thousand four hundred and eighty-six, how many have you got? — Leslie's answer was, oh, I wasn't counting. She had a way with words, like they say.
A year later I had got something or other at the supermarket nearby, and was in the car again, just starting it up, when there was a knock on the car roof, someone trying to get my attention, obviously, despite the rolled-up windows. I opened the window and looked out to see a man beside the car staring at me with an angry face. He said, do you remember what you said to me a year ago, when you were trying to find your daughter? I couldn't at first quite believe he was saying this. I was the man you threatened, he continued, and I would like an apology. I don't now remember what I answered, but something to the effect that if he didn't go away immediately, I'd give him far worse. He left, disgruntled.
Never mind, then, because it seems useless to. Allen Ginsberg had an accurate, early qualification, something like, "So what's the use escaping the cops and dentist's drills? Somebody will invent a Buchenwald next door..." At moments, stopped in traffic I look out to either side to see such packed-in, determinedly depressed faces. I fear for what inept, soft delights might otherwise be. My memory is so flooded with instance, such "fragile, passing pleasure," which was air, sunlight, water, earth - very basic, one wants to say. As a kid I was so pleased one could make fire by rubbing two sticks together, despite it took a long time and often didn't work. Buddy Berlin once spoke of the fact in childhood, of waking up with such a vivid sense of a whole day as prospect, such a space of forward time in which so much could happen. As Simone de Beauvoir well reminds us, that sense fades with youth itself.
Olson — the way I so use him for measure here must emphasize how he was so much a brother to my own ways of thinking — would say that art is the only true twin life has. As I understood him, the point is there isn't any point, more than what being human itself can make. "No further than in itself." I would love to think that living became a progress, a fact of something's having been gained. But Louis Zukofsky serves here to note the problem, just that the singular is (he quotes Wittgenstein) that point in space which is place for an argument. Whatever "it" can ever be known to be, the fact is, "the more so all have it..." In that respect no one goes anywhere alone, and no one survives to get there even. The door is endlessly being opened and closed.
My sister tells a story of me when we still lived in the house on Elm Street in West Acton next to the Lockes' farm. I had one of those flags you get on Memorial Day, and had put a march possibly on our wind-up phonograph, and was going around and around the dining room table, chanting, "The town's all out for Creeley!" I can't have been too young since I knew the idiom of such approval. For someone who has so often sent people up the wall with frustrated, impotent anger, I've a nearly perverse wish to please, or, more truly to be told I do. A character I thought repellent and sinister was Dickens' Uriah Heap, because he is so patently a liar of utter, obvious convenience.
There is an awful, self-consciously recognized limit to what may be called my sincerity. In some curious way, I cannot finally believe anything I think. Only feeling can survive there, and if, as with those obscenely rubbed hands of that malevolent person it's all a calculated intent, then reason itself is only another artifice, artfully employed. I suppose that is as it should be, but it frightens me nonetheless.
Just so I distrusted fiction, feeling the term "something made-up" argued an intentional distortion of the "truth," whatever that proved. I wanted to call such work "prose" simply. No doubt this feeling echoes again the Puritan aura of where I grew up, but also, the fact that being told the truth, as I felt it, was the only location possibly for me. Those crucial lies of my childhood, the one covering my father's death and the other necessary removal of my eye, left truth a particular authority.
But, more to the point, some confusion as to just what the proposals of writing might be underlay all of these terms. Williams notes emphatically, "To tell what subsequently I saw and what heard..." But how answer Olson's equal point in In Cold Hell — "What has he to say?" Then again there was the fact of the words themselves, so that Duncan made playful and exact sense: "To tell the truth the way the words lie." When young, I'd written Olson with almost pious exclamation: "Form is never more than an extension of content." Now I might say equally, "Content is never more than an extension of form." It depends, as they say in New England. Back of it all I hear Williams again, saying all those years ago, "Why don't we tell them that it's fun...." Such fun, such delight, when all possibilities of such act come together in words moving in mind's recognition with body's weight and measure.
Getting the children ready for school this morning, in this still very strange country, Finland, I wonder what will become of them. It's a comfortable thought as I consider it, just that the moment is empty of anything but the two of them, as Hannah attempts to have her older brother accept her saying "goodbye" to him, and he, expectably, wants to be ponderously preoccupied. Fair enough. I've watched both move out from the limits of our own household the past months into physical edges of city here, into social places we can't really follow them, into increasing confidence. On the street as Willy walks to his school tram, there's an early morning collection of men, drinking usually, roughly dressed for this secure neighborhood (though all neighborhoods in Finland seem secure) waiting for whatever. They disperse quite soon as he's left. The Finns tell you Chernobyl had no effect on their country, because it wasn't raining that day, so the radioactive matter didn't fall with the rain to the earth and water.
Duncan told me that during the last painful months before Jaime d'Angulo died, he got paradoxically cheerful letters from Jane Harrison, in which she said things like, "Soon you'll be with them all, Homer, Hesiod, possibly even the gods themselves!" We believe a world or have none.
I can watch, from this window, an insistent height of sky that has been all this past fall and winter a companion to my being here, and a subtle, unaggressive information of where, in fact, it is. It's as if I can't really see ground, but rather, the tops of birches, planted in the back common ground of this large apartment block, which are on eye level. One could reach out, with sufficiently long arms, and pick off twigs from their crowns. Elsewise I look across at the other apartment windows, which are of regular dimensions, set and abstracting, in the flat yellowish-brown stucco. Above there are details of brickwork, the point where an edge of roof meets another. There are galvanized tin roofs, one painted a barn red, another black, both common colors of industrial cover paints. And the sky is another thing entirely, persistently, though it is within a set frame, the window, a place, simply up there. It isn't only its being far, or indeterminant, or just this shifting, massive place of light and weather. It is that it proposes no human convenience, that it isn't simple, that it won't go away. Thus I love Ginsberg's line in Kaddish, "And the sky above, an old blue place."
Zukofsky was shy of such writing as this, because it fouls up the gauges, makes them stick. There is a broken record tone of necessity in it that keeps coming back to the beginning of the proposition, that there was someone to begin with, and that something therefore followed.
Wittgenstein proposes that it is the "I" that is "deeply mysterious," not "you" or "them." What cannot be objectified is oneself. Yet the fiction, finally for real, is attractive — that the Walt Whitman of Song of Myself is, as Borges says, one of the consummate literary fictions of all time.
When Olson was dying in the New York hospital of cancer, and Duncan had come to see him — hoping, I think, in an old-fashioned sense for advice concerning that prospect — their sense of it all was that it had been a great adventure. That would seem the point, echoing Ted Berrigan's "I'd like to take the whole trip." Can I now recall how impressive first sounded "Who dare not share with us the breath released...."
Anchises’ navel, dripping of the sea,—
The hands Erasmus dipped in gleaming tides,
Gathered the voltage of blown blood and vine;
Delve upward for the new and scattered wine,
O brother-thief of time, that we recall.
Laugh out the meager penance of their days
Who dare not share with us the breath released,
The substance drilled and spent beyond repair
For golden, or the shadow of gold hair.
Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.
One had the company.
March 23, 1989
"Dead Moon (live)" - Madeline (mp3)
"In the Direction of the Moon" - Wolf Parade (mp3)
"No Moon" - Iron & Wine (mp3)