I continue my reading of cheap novels. It satisfies...my taste for imposture, my taste for the sham, which could very well make me write on my visiting cards: “Jean Genet, bogus Count of Tillancourt.”
I learned only in bits and pieces of that wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers: one was revealed to me by a scrap of newspaper; another was casually alluded to by my lawyer; another was mentioned, almost sung, by the prisoners—their song became fantastic and funereal....
Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
What is a life but stories—stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell others, stories others tell about us? Out of these stories we fashion—what? I am writer, husband, father, poet, teacher, friend, “radio personality,” occasional cook, householder, amateur guitarist, sometime tap dancer, jobless person, performer, student, any number of other things. And now, biographer. How was “he” as a poet? you may ask. How was “he” as a lover? Was his cooking all right? Who is “he” when “I” see “myself” from the objective point of view? Who is doing the seeing? Where did “he” get his lamentable habit of putting words in quotation marks and italics? What are these words anyway? Will they tell me anything real about “him”? —Adrift, to use the title of one of his/my books. But what did “he” mean by that?
A year ago I was told by my doctor that I had diabetes. The doctor told me to read up on the subject but if I saw any references to “blindness, impotence, and death,” not to worry, that wasn’t the kind of diabetes I had. Appropriately enough, my earliest memory is of being fed candy. My mother and I are lying on a bed. I believe we are in a hotel room inPort Chester, New York
, a city in the southeastern part of the state, on Long Island Sound, population approximately 25,000. We have recently moved to Port Chester fromPhiladelphia
. My father is not there. My mother is, if I'm not mistaken, weeping. I am being given candies which were actually named “Chocolate Babies” but which my mother and others regularly referred to offensively as “Nigger Babies.” My mother is making an effort to shut me up. I am probably about three years old and I am “eating babies.” My mother perhaps wishes that real babies could disappear as easily as these babies can. If I remember correctly from later experience, the candies are delicious, but at this moment they are not quite doing the job. My mother is trying to prevent me from asking a question which tears her apart. Where is Daddy? Is Daddy coming back? She doesn’t know, though at some level, I think, she realizes that he will come back. She knows but she does not know, and the uncertainty is tearing her apart. The uncertainty is tearing me apart too, and so I keep asking. I am like an awful witness to the failure of her life.
After that, nothing. I don't know how the story turned out. Perhaps my father walked through the door the next moment and reassured everyone. Certainly we were able at times to maintain the fiction of being a happy family as, here, we were maintaining the fiction of being an unhappy one. Perhaps this is a “screen memory,” standing as an emblem for many individual events. When the pressure of circumstances became too much for him, my father would simply disappear: later I learned that he would go on “binges.” But he would always come back. Perhaps I was reminded of these disappearances when I heard stories of a Christian god who also disappears—disappears for centuries—but who also promises to come back. That god too is frequently represented as a baby, and, under certain circumstances, like the Chocolate Babies, he is “eaten.”
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Much of what I’m writing here is ancient history, stories which people who know me now don’t know. My pattern, in more ways than one, has been that of the shape-shifter: I am fifty-five years old; if you saw a photograph of me at eighteen you would have trouble recognizing me.
My father, John Harold Aloysius (“Jack”) Foley: 1895-1967. Slightly taller than I, thin, jet-black hair (my hair is brown), with a touch of the dandy. People would say, “He reminds me of Fred Astaire.” My mother, Joanna Teriolo (later shortened to Terio): 1898-1964. She hated the name “Joanna” and so called herself “Juana,” shortened to “Juan,” which she pronounced “Ju-an,” with two syllables. Plump, dark, with intense, piercing eyes. He was Irish. She was Italian, with perhaps some Spanish blood. I was their only child: born August 9, 1940 (a Leo),Fitkin
, outside ofAsbury Park
, where my parents were living. A war baby. The Dick Tracy comic strip for that day features an attempt to arrest “Yogee Yamma,” an exotic-looking man wearing a turban. My father, forty-five years old, was working atFort Monmouth
as a telegrapher. I was christened “John Wayne Foley.” Later, the confirmation name “Harold” was added. (My father claimed not to be able to spell his own confirmation name, “Aloysius.”) The naming had nothing to do with the popular movie actor, John Wayne. My father wanted to name me after his brother, but the parish priest convinced him thatWayne
was no proper saint’s name, so I was named John after my father withWayne
as my middle name.
The name was a rare gesture on my father’s part towards his family. There were several Foley children. “We were fairmers”—farmers—my father told me. They were living inElmira, NY
. He was, I believe, the youngest, “the baby of the family,” his sister said. His brother, Wayne, somehow learned to tap dance. He taught the art to my father and helped him to enter the dazzling world of show business. My father performed in vaudeville as well as in one of the last minstrel companies, presided over by George “Honeyboy” Evans. My father’s sister Goldie was part of that world too. She was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, a spectacular beauty, and perhaps in some sense the love of my father's life. “We’d go everywhere together,” he told me, reminiscing. "Everybody thought we were sweethearts." Pause. “But we weren't.” He was hardly a sophisticate. He used to tell the story of being in the subway as a young man and seeing a sign saying “Smoking Prohibited.” He was with a friend who wanted to smoke. My father told his friend the sign meant “you could go ahead and smoke.” He also told me of being with the songwriter Jimmy McHugh. They were passing the poetry section of a library when McHugh turned to my father and, pointing to the section, said, “Jack, it's all in there.” In general my father didn’t tell stories about our family. He told stories about his friends in show business. Later I realized that the friends were almost always Irish. The people he knew in show business became his real family. He married one of them—Laura, one of the dancing Wood Sisters. Evidently, that marriage (about which I knew nothing as a child) was short and disastrous. The lyrics to one of the songs my father wrote go:
They all love my wife
They all love my wife
She makes all of them fall
When I go to bed she's at a dance
When I wake up she’s in a trance
Oh, what a home sweet home I’ve got it!
Or, more poignantly:
Passing my window faces I see
Most of them smiling none smile for me
None know I’m lonely or that I’m alone
Since you have left me home isn’t home
Why weren’t you satisfied
Goldie was the only one of my father’s siblings I actually met, and by the time I met her, her beauty had gone. There was another sister, May, for whom my father wrote a song, and perhaps others. I don't know what became of them. Both my father and Wayne served in World War I, butWayne
died young as a result of the mustard gas he had inhaled. He called for my father on his deathbed but my father couldn't summon the courage to go to him. Naming me afterWayne
was a late—and no doubt rather guilt-ridden—fraternal gesture.
As my father grew older he grew bitter about women. “Put a man in all that make-up, fix his hair, and he’d be just as attractive as any woman.” He was not advocating drag. Women baffled him and, finally, frightened him. He wished at last to keep his distance. Another lyric goes, “I did all I could to make you happy, but still you chose to grow cold and forget. / My pillow’s wet every night, praying you’ll write, goodness only knows why.”
My father left show business when vaudeville, which was his primary bread and butter, gave way to the movies and died. In addition, his great mentor and occasional employer, George M. Cohan, lost interest in musicals and made an ill-fated attempt to establish himself as a “straight” playwright. My father opened a dance studio. He received a telegram from Cohan wishing him luck and tendering “kindest personal regards.” The venture failed. He turned to Postal Union—where he had worked as a telegrapher during the summers—and then to Western Union, which eventually made him manager of thePort Chester
branch. He claimed that the sound of the telegraph key reminded him of tap dancing. Recently I came upon a clipping, a review of one of his performances. It refers to him as a “great” dancer. Since childhood I have collected recordings of vaudevillians: Cohan, Harry Lauder, Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, Gallagher and Shean, many others. All these recordings bring me closer to my father, whose performing days were long past when I knew him. “To Americans,” writes John E. Dimeglio in Vaudeville USA,
the vaudevillian...typified the spirit of liberty. Was he not utterly free? He travelled across the expanses of the great land, and did as he wished on the stage. In the most mobile of all nations, that nation’s most mobile citizen, the vaudevillian, represented something special. Vaudeville entertained the family, the sacred core ofAmerica
’s strength. Yet the nation had been founded by daring adventurers who challenged the unknown. The average American had to remain close to home, but not the vaudevillian. He was heroic in this sense, meeting the challenges of one town after another, one audience after another, his very career at stake each time he mounted the stage. The theatergoer could share in all this. The destiny of the lone figure on stage was in his hands.
I think of my father in his suit, with his black hair slicked back, or in his underwear playing his nightly game of solitaire. “Your father,” one of his drinking companions told me after his death, “was a goodtimer.”
The story of my mother’s life seems to have been the story of the longing to go home. Her home town wasPerth Amboy, New Jersey
, where she met my father. He must have seemed like an embodiment of all the lights of Broadway. She maintained the hope that I would enter show business, and my father did indeed teach me to tap dance. Like my father, my mother came from a large family. When we visitedPerth Amboy
on Memorial Day there seemed to be relatives everywhere. Her brother Panny (“strong as a bull”) was once a wrestler and now called himself an “automobile beautician.” I remember her sister Maggie as immensely fat (“it’s her glands”) and barely able to walk. I was expected to hug Maggie and kiss her, which I did with little enthusiasm. I don’t think the people there liked me very much. I was too bookish, I had little interest in—or capacity for—sports. When I learned to play the guitar my mother would force me to bring it toPerth Amboy
. Everyone would ask me to play. At first I would refuse. Finally, I would comply. Everyone was sitting around me in utter silence. You could hear a pin drop. The moment I began to play, everyone started to talk.
My maternal grandparents, whom I never knew, operated a store which featured delicious Italian cooking, my favorite kind of food. My relatives maintained the tradition of good cooking, but I disliked these trips to see people whom I scarcely knew and who scarcely knew—or wanted to know—me. Yet this was the place for which my mother yearned. Port Chester was quite similar toPerth Amboy
. It too boasted a large Italian population. Yet my mother was never really able to make friends there. She would make a friend, there would be an intensity of communication, then there would be a fierce argument and that would be the end of that. There were fierce arguments at home, too, but that relationship went on. My parents made an attempt to make me happy, and at times I was. But I was also lonely, on my own a lot, given to imaginative play. There was a great mirror on my mother’s dresser. I would play in front of it, watching myself. We listened to the radio (this was “the golden age”) and we went to the movies. If I saw a movie in which I identified with the hero, I became the hero the next day. The “movie” became my image in the mirror. Thirty years later I raised the question, “Is the movie screen a window or a mirror? It appears to be a window, but it turns into a mirror.” I'm sure my childhood experience had something to do with that question, though I believe there is also something in the nature of movies which encourages one to think of mirrors. Criticism as secret—or, as Oscar Wilde said, the only civilized form of—autobiography.
I suspect that my mother would have preferred for me to have been a girl. There are stories of her dressing me in girl’s clothing—my girl ego was named “Geraldine”—but I remember little of this, and I have no temptation to cross dress at this point. When I was in my twenties, my father remarked, in as manly a voice as he could muster, “Well, I thought you were a little, you know, but I guess you're all right.” There’s a story here too. When I was in high school a male teacher took an interest in me. Like Deborah Kerr in the popular movie, he was planning to offer me a little more than “tea and sympathy.” He taught gym and English literature and was responsible for school plays. He knew of my interest in musicals and once hinted that he was planning to cast me in the lead in Carousel, but the production never materialized. I must have led him on unmercifully. He was very popular with “the guys,” and as far as I know no one ever suspected him. My mother in fact decided she wouldn’t believe me when I told her the truth. “Oh, you're lyin’.” He was Italian and rather handsome, so she must have fantasized about him.
The teacher invited me to accompany him to an excellent Broadway musical, The MusicMan.
He was very careful to ask my parents. He explained that he could take me all the way back to Port Chester, but it was a shorter drive toMamaroneck
, where he lived. I could spend the night with him and he could take me to school the next day. He really gave me every consideration. He said I could sleep on the couch or, if I preferred, “bunk in” with him. I chose to “bunk in.” He took me in his arms and kissed me. I still remember his voice as he said, “In a moment our eyes will get used to the light and we'll be able to see each other.” I felt nothing, no fear but no sexual excitement either. That was that. My experiment had come to its conclusion. I mumbled something about having a headache and rolled over to go to sleep. The next morning he was understandably a little panicky: “I hope nothing happened that bothered you....” I reassured him, “No, no.” It was certainly my fault as much as his. I had been experimenting, wondering about my sexuality. The fact that I felt nothing freed me a little. It only occurred to me recently that, had it been a different man, the results might have been different. Gay men have often figured in my responses to art: Noël Coward, Jess, Robert Duncan, James Broughton, Neeli Cherkovski. I hate the concept of the shadowy homosexual figure who haunts—and taunts—the good American hero in so many American films: the Penguin vs. Batman, for example. Yet my sexuality is finally not all that different from such heroes’. John Wayne once said, “I guess I've proven that I’m no pantywaist.” I don’t even know what a pantywaist is. But I suppose my encounter with that teacher was such proof for me. “Don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it,” the “gay” villain says to Clint Eastwood in one of his films. “What makes you think I haven’t,” Eastwood replies. Someone in the audience said “Whoa!” at that remark. I suppose my adventure with the teacher was a way of saying “Whoa” too, of putting the brakes on something. I have no idea what became of him. I hope he found someone better suited to him than I was. I wonder how many other people he may have taken toNew York
Though my high school never put on its production of Carousel,Port Chester
did afford me two moments of stardom. The first of these involved my father. I have some talent for drawing. Since my father worked forWestern Union
, he had the addresses of various famous people. At his suggestion, I drew pictures of President Eisenhower and sports announcer Bill Stern. My father then sent the pictures to the people I had drawn, hoping that they would greet me as a young Picasso. I received a letter from Eisenhower’s press secretary and another from Stern himself. This was written up in the local paper, The Daily Item, as “Local Boy Receives Letter From President.” There was a photograph of me with my easel. I thought it strange that the reporter who wrote the story interviewed only my father, not me. The story rhapsodized, “Who would be next in a boy’s heart to the president—who but a figure from the world of sports?” Who indeed.
I wondered what that reporter would have made of my interest in Bernard Shaw (whose prefaces and plays were actively distancing me from Catholicism) and Noël Coward, whom I had seen with Mary Martin in an amazing television special, Together With Music (1955). I had a record album, Noël and Gertie, with Coward and Lawrence performing the balcony scene from Private Lives. Coward (like Burns and Allen or Lucy and Desi) was demonstrating that the unit was not necessarily the single performer, the “lone vaudevillian,” but the “team,” the man and the woman together. This team was not quite “the family.” It represented something different: the search for that mysterious other for whom one yearned and who arose out of one’s deepest feelings of loneliness. Indeed, the team suggested that the other could not only be found but even presented to the world. That the other was also oneself, something denied or broken off from one’s own psyche, only increased the yearning. Thinking of my poetry presentations—my wife and me reading chorally—James Broughton remarked that he thought I was producing an “androgenous form.” “King Amour,” a poem I wrote in 1986, attempts to deal with such desire:
is it possible to speak to you?
in different dimensions if we stand at all—you
in that darkness on the “other side” (flow into it!) What is it?
“The bareness of the mind the glitter of certain states”—
Dusk. What I can see of the sky is gray. Colors darkening. Everything failing.
Hope is inseparable from Delusion (Love)....
The second instance of stardom is when I appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (then called The Talk of the Town) as a member of The Port Chester Senior High School Choir. This was in June, 1955. Sullivan had been involved somehow with Port Chester Senior High—he may have taught gym—and he decided to do his own biography on television, so he invited the high school choir to perform. We sang “Beyond The Blue Horizon” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was, as Sullivan used to say, “a rilly big shew,” with Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, Smith and Dale (Neil Simon’s “Sunshine Boys”), and others. Everyone looked at least ten years older than they did on tv. I remember having to stand for a long time under the hot, bright lights. More recently (1991), my friend Ishmael Reed generously described me in Time magazine as a “literary luminary” ofCalifornia
. When Ishmael told me what he had done, I was so surprised—flabbergasted—that the only thing I could think of to say in reply was, “In 1955 I was on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ishmael waited a beat and said, “You’ve topped it.”
It was part of my mother’s weirdness that, though she might take a cup of coffee, she would never eat off anyone else’s plates. No one was clean enough for her. Every day she scrubbed away at the house in an effort to keep it clean. Later, when she was ill with cancer, she wrote me telling me how exhausted she was, “and the house is dirty.” The “house” was in fact a three-room apartment on the top floor of an apartment house. The apartment house had been someone's mansion once, but now it was divided up into apartments. There was a marvelous front yard where we could play catch or even baseball. I never felt quite middle class in that situation. My middle-class friends had houses. They often had their own rooms. I had space in the apartment but not my own room. Middle-class people seemed to live a marvelous life. My mother’s urge to clean meant that the house was always in an uproar as she moved furniture around to get at any piece of dirt that might be hidden from her. The houses I visited seemed calm, orderly, like the houses I saw in situation comedies on television. There seemed to be people living the fifties’ version of the American Dream: a house, a television set, reliable plumbing. I just wasn’t one of them. Someone said to me recently, “You were a rebel even then.” But I wasn’t a rebel. I was an outsider. From my position I could watch people, but it was difficult for me to participate. I was in this respect very similar to a moviegoer. I don’t know at what point I began to believe that everything around me was fictional, that people’s lives were a constant invention. But from my outsider position that is the way it seemed. It wasn’t that their lives weren't real. For them, their lives were very real, and many times in my life people have told me their stories. My position as outsider has made me a good listener. But their lives were at a distance from mine. That poor teacher whom I led on—there was an entire drama going on for him. It just wasn't going on for me. Yet I could understand him. I was not “a camera” exactly (in Christopher Isherwood’s famous phrase), but I was a kind of sponge, even (in Shelley’s words) a “sensitive plant”—a nothing, a null space ready to be filled with someone else’s being. “Yah,” said my friend Larry Eigner to me, “Negative Capability.”
Like other women, my mother had been trained to take care of a baby by practicing on dolls. The result of this was not only that the doll “became” a baby; the baby also “became” a doll. My mother selected my clothes and combed my hair for my entire life through high school. I objected at times, but never very strongly. I knew that when I went away to college everything would change. I understood that I needed to please my mother. She was the person with whom I had most daily contact, and she was formidable. Her anger might erupt at any moment. When I was “bad” she would beat me with a special stick. Once, after I had grown and been away to college, she tried to “spank” me again: I grabbed the stick and broke it in front of her. This infuriated her, but it was the end of the spankings. Perhaps most terrifying was the phrase, “Wait till your father gets home,” though I soon learned that my father didn’t share her anger at such moments. I knew from Sunday school that it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, but my mother never went to church. When I asked her about it she said, “Oh, I’ve got nothin’ to wear.” She seemed to feel genuine shame at her position in life. She would occasionally shoplift things. Once, she was caught and brought to the police station. My father had to rescue her. Her embarrassment was tremendous. She was superstitious and would “read cards” for people. I believe she would charge them for this. She would also buy more food than was necessary and sell the extra cans to her friends at a reduced price. It was a way of getting a little more pocket money. She believed she was fooling my father but I discovered that he was quite aware of it. She would say to me, “Someday you’ll know” and “Someday you’ll miss your mother” and “I wish you could always be little.” Any genital exploration by me was strictly “shameful.” Once when she felt I wasn’t being sufficiently sympathetic to her plight she waited till I was alone in the apartment and phoned me. Unfortunately for her, I recognized her voice. She said, “You know your mommy. I'm going to kill her!” I said, “Mommy, stop doing that,” and she hung up. The incident was never mentioned. When, in 1964, she was on her deathbed, groggy with sedatives, she seemed to believe that she was going to hell. It was horrifying. “I'm going down, down,” she muttered. I tried to reassure her, “You're going up, up,” but she would have none of it: “Not after what I’ve done.” I don’t know what terrible guilt was upon her. A few moments before she died, she sat bolt upright in the hospital bed, her eyes tightly closed. She began to whirl her arms in front of her, as if she were warding off some unseen enemy. I ran for the nurse. When we returned, the nurse went in ahead of me. She turned to me and said, “She's gone.”
My mother hoped by her advice, example and bullying to control my life. “Don't get married until you're forty.” (I married at 21.) But in fact I knew that my life was in my own hands. This was the message of the books I was reading. The only problem was that my life was also elsewhere. InPort Chester
I was laying low. I would have to wait until I got away for my life, my true life, to begin.
Black rain falling
and the night endless—
in the darkness—
I think of
the woman who bore me
and the effort her life was
(no one to answer for that)
Dust now she is
only my memory
and that fading—
Did I love her
(love here indistinguishable from need)
(she herself always
“on the edge”)
I lie in a hotel bed
in the city ofSan Francisco
and there is no rain falling
but the words “black rain”
bring her to me—are conjure words—
(beautiful, I realize now)
and her vivid
...at a distance life awoke, and there was a rattle of lean wheels, a slow clangor of shod hoofs. And he heard the whistle wail along the river.
Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say "The town is near," but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
Bios, the Greek word, means life, particularly human life, as opposed to Zoon, a living being, an animal. But we are both “humans” and “animals.” Perhaps I should be writing an autozoography as well as an autobiography: my history as an animal. What I am doing here is nothing but telling stories, often stories I have told friends over the years. How can one break through stories into something like the life I lived?
My father was surprised and delighted when I won scholarship money to go to college. One of the scholarships, the major one, came fromWestern Union
. Western Union provided three prizes for children of its employees: first prize was a full scholarship toCornell
. The other two scholarships were less money, but you could go to any school you wished. I won first prize. “Kid, I didn’t think you’d be able to go,” my father told me, “I didn’t have the money.” With a perhaps misplaced zeal I simply assumed I was going to college and that the money would somehow take care of itself. Amazingly, it did.
I had come toPort Chester
in 1943. When I left in 1958 I understood myself to be a poet. My essay, “Home/Words,” in Exiles (1996) deals with the moment in 1955 at which I discovered poetry. “Someone—probably a teacher, perhaps Angela Kelley, who was Italian but who had married an Irishman—suggested that I read Thomas Gray’s 18th-Century poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ I have no idea why the teacher thought the poem would appeal to me. I thought it very unlikely that I would have much interest in it, but I looked it up in the library and took it home...The poem seemed to me the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. [It] affected me so deeply that I wanted it to have come out of me, not out of Thomas Gray, and I immediately sat down and wrote my own Gray’s ‘Elegy,’ in the same stanzaic form and with the same rhyme scheme as the original:
I see the night—the restless, eager night
That spreads its shadow softly on the day,
And whispers to the sun’s red, burning light
To vanish like a dream and pass away.
I see the nigh--the darkened mist of night—
And feel the velvet sorrows mem’ries bring;
September’s leaves have fallen, old and bright,
And autumn’s winds have blown the dust of spring.
I think of days long past, and gone, and dead,
Of all the ancient, withered hopes I’ve had....
“Etc. Unlike Gray, I took myself as the subject of my elegy. But its mournful tone—and words like ‘mem’ries’—was directly traceable to him. I understood the state of mind named in Gray’s ‘Elegy’ to be the state of mind of poetry itself; and in reacting so deeply to it, I understood myself to be a poet.
“It was by no means a simple state of mind. It had to do with the enormous power of words not merely to reflect but to create a ‘reality,’ a ‘mood’ which moved me away from the daylight world in which I ordinarily functioned and had identity: ‘I see the night....’ In some ways Gray’s lines hinted at sexuality—surely an issue for me at that time. His rose “blushes” and, virginal, “wastes its sweetness on the desert air”; he writes of “the dark, unfathomed caves.” Speaking the words aloud let me experience them physically, with my own breath, coming out of my own body. In this situation, mind and body seemed not to be at odds: Thought seemed sensuous, sensuality seemed thoughtful. Self and other were joined here too. Thomas Gray was a long-dead poet of the 18th Century. It was his mind that was being expressed in his elegy. Yet his poem seemed to be expressing my own inmost thoughts. It was almost as if Gray’s passionate words allowed him to be reincarnated in my body.
“There was of course a ‘real’ Thomas Gray, a man who actually existed and who did a number of things beside write poetry. The Gray I was experiencing was not that person but Gray the poet, the bard. Aspects of both our lives seemed suddenly to fall away, to be of little consequence. What did it matter who the man Thomas Gray was? What did it matter who I was—born inNew Jersey
, growing up inNew York
? My powerful reaction to Gray’s words allowed me to recognize not only who he was but who I was: I ‘was’ a poet. And to ‘be’ a poet meant to be transformed, to move away from the person who lived at 58 Prospect Street and who was 15 years old and who had a mother named Juana and a father named Jack. Poetry offered me another identity, that of the poet; and, in so doing, it offered me another ‘home’—that of words. The life I led ‘at home’—‘in my house’—was one thing; the life of words was another.
“But a person with two homes can be understood as an exile....” (Exiles)
When I arrived at Cornell, one of my poems had been published in my high school yearbook (“We shall return no more, no more, our days....”). Three short pieces had been selected for an anthology of high school poetry. Another poem had been published in a series called “Yale Penny Poets.” (Later I learned that Larry Eigner had a poem in that series as well.) I momentarily considered majoring in math, which I had enjoyed in high school. But I knew that my primary interests lay elsewhere, and I became an English major. My minor was French literature.
To my surprise, my freshman roommate, Richard Giustra, was both Catholic and a wrestler (the Church militant!). He was about my size and was trying to be nice. His brother had attended Cornell and so he knew the campus a little. He showed me around. But we were both a little nervous. When it came time to go to sleep I had some difficulty. Suddenly I heard a favorite piece, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, beautifully played. At first I thought the music was coming from a radio, but in fact it was simply in my head. As I “listened” to it, I fell asleep. I have always been grateful to Gershwin for that moment:
There—on the edge
guiding me into it.
Soon one of my dorm-mates tried to get me together with another English major, Ed Pechter. Ed and I eventually became good friends, but at this point we circled around each other warily. Noticing that it had begun to snow, he smiled and said, quoting Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind,” “If Winter comes....” That settled the matter. The man was at the very least trivializing a great poem; at worst he was committing blasphemy. I recited the entire first stanza of the poem and then, without another word, turned and left. I thought I was punishing Ed for his loose tongue. Ed thought I was trying to impress him!
“After years of continence,” wrote Ezra Pound, “he hurled himself into a sea of six women” (“Moeurs Contemporaines”). That is exactly how I felt afterPort Chester
, though Cornell’s 3 to 1 ratio of men to women made finding the six women a little difficult. “I’m not oversexed,” I used to say, “I’m just undernourished.” In any case, Cornell offered me the opportunity to reinvent myself, and I went about doing that. I was a writer, a poet, no longer a “brain”—some sort of oddity—but an “intellectual,” something which (unlike a “brain”) might have a sex life. Here, writing poetry seemed actually to be an advantage. (I was so out of it in high school that when someone called me a “fag” I had no idea what they were saying. When I looked the word up in the dictionary all I could find was “Slang. A cigarette.” It was some time before I discovered the actual meaning of the word.)
I had brought my Gretsch “Ultra-Modern Twin-Pickup ‘Miracle Neck’ Electric Spanish Guitar” with me to Cornell, but I wasn't sure whether I'd have much occasion to play it. This changed when I met Lou Cataldo, another outsider. Lou was half Italian and half Puerto Rican and called himself a “Ginnyspik.” He called me a “Ginnymick.” He had been raised inGreenwich Village
(of which he spoke with great authority), could play the saxophone and double on bongo drums. He used the word “crazy.” We decided that the best way to meet women was to have a band. (“Crazy!” said Cataldo.) We put up advertisements for a “girl singer” in the women’s dormitories and held auditions. We got a lot of names, addresses and phone numbers and—a girl singer. When I told this story to someone recently she asked, “Which of you had the affair with her?” I said, “He did,” which was true. On the other hand, Cataldo’s girlfriend fromGreenwich Village
arrived at Cornell and made a pass at me: “Oooo you didn't tell me he was so CUTE!” I made a few trips toGreenwich Village
, and that was that.
At the end of freshman year, Cataldo “busted out” and the girl singer was on probation. Our band had been successful enough to make it necessary for me to join the Musicians’Union
. Once we fronted for a showing of “stag movies” at an organization called Young Israel. They couldn’t advertise the movies but they could advertise us. Everyone just walked past us as we played. Eventually we stopped playing and went downstairs to watch the movies ourselves.
The psychological pressures of college life are considerable, and there isn’t space to deal with them here. Cornell had some interesting teachers—including, eventually, Paul de Man, who was a major influence on my understanding of criticism and on my view of Yeats. There was also an excellent course on Dante taught by Robert Durling, and I read James Joyce's Ulysses in Arthur Mizener’s course. I wrote considerably less poetry in college than I had in high school, partly because I was being asked to consider poetry critically, in ways that were not fully familiar to me. What exactly did you mean by that? Was that put in only for the sound? Robert Durling was my freshman English teacher, and I would show him my poetry. I remember his description of my early work as “mellifluous Yeatsian vapidity.” He smiled as he said it. But he said it. (I remember thinking that “Wolfian vapidity” might have been more accurate.)
For me the experience of poetry had been extraordinarily intense but utterly isolating. I had no way of knowing whether my work was any good, whether it “communicated.” I had no one whose opinion I could really trust. To make matters worse, the opinions of most of my professors seemed to reflect those of the then-fashionable New Critics. For the New Critics, Shelley was a terrible poet. For me he was something like a god. (Whenever leaves show up in my poetry, Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind” is present.) One teacher—Robert Durling, I believe—said to me, “Why did Shelley write, ‘I die, I faint, I fail’ in that order? How can you faint and fail after you have died?” I had no way of answering the question, though much later the O.E.D.’s article on “die” provided me with an excellent response. I didn’t find out about the O.E.D., however, until long after I had left Cornell, when I came upon references to it in Robert Duncan’s work. In many subtle ways I was encouraged to write criticism rather than poetry at Cornell, and I discovered that I was good at writing criticism. Like most college programs, Cornell’s English Department tended to produce people who felt comfortable with analysis but uncomfortable with emotion—particularly with personal emotion.
I had hoped that Cornell would give me what I lacked inPort Chester
, an intellectual community. It gave me something, but it didn’t give me that. In my sophomore year I took a great many English courses. I wanted to learn everything at once. What I discovered was that, no matter the period or the writer, Chaucer or T.S. Eliot, the same kinds of questions were being raised, questions of irony, paradox, etc. This discovery made me realize that I wasn’t in school to learn about literature. I was in school to learn a grid which could be applied to almost any piece of writing (though woe to the writer like Shelley to whom it didn’t apply). This was a useful thing to learn, but it lessened the authority of my instructors.
When I read Thomas Gray’s poem I believed (however inaccurately) that I had penetrated to the heart of poetry. I knew that Gray was a great writer because of the way he made me feel. I knew that Shelley was a great writer because of the way he made me feel. If my professors could not account for that feeling, their opinions didn’t have to be taken too seriously. At the same time, however, I knew of no work which could further what I had already done. The poets I was reading were ones my professors approved of—or might approve of: Yeats, Eliot and Pound; Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Robert Lowell. Also Alan Dugan, George Starbuck, Arthur Freeman. John Crowe Ransom gave a charming reading and I acquired his Selected Poems. I missed Charles Olson’s visit. The writers I was reading influenced my verse, surely, but they could not push me forward. I had no sense of direction. The closest I was able to come to such a sense was in something I wrote myself, a poem called “Orpheus” which was eventually published in The Beloit Poetry Journal in 1970, about eight years after it was written. The poem was influenced by Pound—particularly by “Moeurs Contemporaines” and “Mauberly,” with their fragmented sections. Except for the opening lines, written as part of an earlier poem, it came all of a sudden, in a burst. It was as if the original poem suddenly decided to change direction and take on a life of its own. The central sections, including the somewhat homophobic lines about Whitman, were a deliberate echo of Lorca’s Poet in New York and his “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”:
Walt Whitman walks on the harbor, watching
sea-gulls scatter, his beard full of lice.
There he goes, with his body electric,
chanting his chansons in the morning,
Walt eyes the sailors, with their bodies electric,
electric to him, Walt Whitman,
chanting his chants in the morning,
Garcia Lorca chants Walt Whitman
Orpheus in the saddle,
his beautiful eyes are gleaming.
Never will there be an Andalusian
as handsome as he.
Now the worms eat him,
now the worms chew up Garcia Lorca
shot in the head for political reasons.
I realize now that the poem was telling me something about my own death and the death I sensed in my surroundings, but at the time I couldn’t read it.
Here are three more poems from that period: “On The Ultimate Failure of Religiosity,” “Love Song,” and “Before Leaving Atlantic City.” These three poems are more representative of what I was attempting than was “Orpheus.” The first suggests my uneasiness with both mother and mother church. The second suggests my sexual anxieties. (A woman had said to me, “I don’t know whether you know it or not, but you have an absolutely terrific line!”) I’ll discuss the third poem in the next section. These poems show various influences, and they point towards my sense of poetry as something “physical,” something dangerous and erotic.
ON THE ULTIMATE FAILURE OF RELIGIOSITY
The lineal direction of eternity
is not marked clearly.
Hansel-and-Gretel-like, I lose my way
and stumble into the wicked house
in the bewildering wood.
I had supposed that death was an accident,
a deviation from the usual path,
yet these sweet-toothed children
munching their gingerbread crumbs
in evident sensuality
are another matter.
They are content, untrue
to the fairy tale, awaiting
the inevitable movement
to the black pot stirred
by the old hag of the story,
and grateful for the compassionate act
of swift beaks snapping
umbilicus of usual bread.
This delicate piece of thread
proceeding by the longest possible route
from the point of my desire to your awareness—
had you postulated its existence,
I should have drawn it taut,
wound it easily on the spindle of
but, as it is, must toss my line
hoping by some chance
you catch the baited inference.
Shall I remind you of its capacities?
diagrammatical pictures of the heart,
were woven by its ancestors,
and even the white surface of your indifference
might (with a bit of luck)
be rainbowed into passion by its working.
BEFORE LEAVING ATLANTIC CITY
The mother-sea exploded with a roar
before we put the lights out and it vanished.
Not even the ladies marching on the boardwalk
were storm enough to pull us down;
we rode out the daylight, dreaming
of drowsy islands where the water’s calm.
Night was our harbor, when the midwife, love,
folded us in with its impossibilities,
fished out our pieces till the game made sense.
Sweetheart, forgive the liars and the fools
who shipped us to this place: they thought it best.
Sleep will bear you into gentler water
where painted characters of kings and castles
glitter like islands, and I will close your ears
to the disarranged palaver of pawns and landlubbers.
If you catch me stealin’, please don’t tell on me.
The third poem quoted, “Before Leaving Atlantic City,” was written in December, 1961, as a love poem to my wife, Adelle. We had spent our honeymoon, at her parents’ expense, inAtlantic City
. I met Adelle through a complicated series of events.
I mentioned earlier that the pressures of college life are considerable: academic pressures, social pressures, issues of identity, sexuality, self-assertion. One is suddenly, willy nilly, ready or not, an “adult.” In my case, I had never been away from home. I had never gone on a date. I had never received any instruction about sex. I remember my mother remarking to my father, “D”—short for Daddy, something from my infancy which stuck—“you ought to say something to him.” Understanding exactly what she meant, my father parried the attack: “Nah,” he said, “These days they tell them all about that in school.” Then, turning to me, he added: “Don’t they?” What could I say but “Yes”?
As a child I owned very few books (except for comic books, which were a great passion), and there were very few books in my house. If I wanted to read a book I got it out of the library. In my freshman English class at Cornell, I was assigned to do a report on Yeats’ A Vision. I went to the teacher to explain that the book had been taken out of the library and so I couldn’t do the report. He surprised me by saying, “Why don’t you just buy the book?” The possibility of buying a book—any book—hadn’t occurred to me. I bought the Yeats, did the report, and suddenly I was beginning to buy books. Unfortunately, my funds were extremely limited. Looking around me in a bookstore one day, I realized that it would be easy to steal a book. I reasoned that stealing a book or two was really harming no one, and, further, that I would use the books well, better than most of the people who had money to buy them. At that point I began to steal books in earnest, to set about building myself a library. Once, when a friend needed money, I stole a large law book from one book store and sold it at the other. Unfortunately, I didn’t get enough money for it and I had to go back and steal still another law book! My stealing was not only illegal but self-expressive, a mode of subversive self-assertion in a situation in which I was constantly under the scrutiny of authority figures. Friends whom I told about it expressed admiration, though they didn’t take up the trade themselves. Finally I stole books I didn’t really need, would never get around to reading.
Apparently, I was not alone in this activity. There were articles in the Cornell paper about the increase in book-stealing, and the bookstores began to install anti-theft devices. One of the stores featured a “plainclothes” guard, who was supposed to blend in with the students. He didn’t blend in. During one of my expeditions I realized that he was watching me. I decided to give him something to watch. I picked up more and more books and carried them around the store with me. I knew I could put these books on my credit account and get away. It would be expensive, but I wouldn’t be accused of stealing. I remember thinking that the guard was probably wondering whether I would do that. I walked over to the clerk as if I were going to pay for the books, chatted with him for a few moments, and then—walked out the door. As soon as my foot was outside, a hand was on my shoulder. I handed over the books and, later, a few others from my library. I argued that I had read about the increase in stealing and, since I had little money, thought I could steal a few books too. I was put on suspension for a year. Someone remarked, “You seem almost relieved.” Robert Langbaum, one of my teachers, said, “I hope you realize you've done a horrible thing.” “There was,” as the French Lieutenant’s Woman says to her ex-lover in both book and movie, “a wildness in me at that time.” The relief my friend noticed was real. Stealing books was a way of extricating myself from an increasingly unbearable situation, and of doing so without the pain of a direct confrontation. At a certain level, I was proud of it. Did I wish to stay in school? Was Cornell the right place for me? I needed time off but had no way to ask for it. Stealing deflected my attention from those difficult questions and, finally, provided me with time. When my parents learned of my suspension they rose to the occasion admirably—my mother had after all been caught doing the same thing—and I was welcomed home.
Several years earlier, my mother had sued, or threatened to sue, our landlord when I accidentally put my hand through a pane of glass on the front door to the apartment house. The result of the injury was a panicked trip to the hospital and a fairly obvious scar which still remains on my left arm. My mother argued that the scar might mar my career in show business (not that I had a career in show business), and the landlord gave her some money. This money had been put aside for me to use as I wished. I had recently gone toBoston
to see a friend before he went home toItaly
. I decided it might be nice to spend the summer of 1960 inCambridge
. I tried finding jobs in theBoston
area but none of them worked out. Finally, at my mother’s suggestion, I took advantage of my savings. The money allowed me not only to live inCambridge
but to attend Harvard Summer School.
I acquired a whole new set of friends. Moreover, I discovered that it was not unfashionable to be a writer/thief. Jean Genet was at the height of his fame. So my petty thievery tended to work to my advantage. One of the people I met, Lewis H. Rubman, changed the course of my life. Rubman was amazing. He had a mustache, for one thing. For another, he had a car. Furthermore, he was extremely frank about sex—and he had some of those beautiful Henry Miller books published by the Olympia Press inParis
. His parents were well-off (he was an inhabitant of that middle class I both envied and disdained) and he had actually undergone some psychotherapy. He was, I believe, looking for a best friend, a best friend for life, and he sensed that in me. Neither of us was writing very much but there was always a good deal of intellectual excitement. One of the courses I was taking included the magnificent Brecht/Weill opera, Aufstieg Und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City ofMahagonny
). I listened to the record over and over. Brecht’s play, with its self-conscious “bits,” suggested a new and, to me, astonishing direction for vaudeville. Later, I translated Brecht’s lyric, “Surabaya Johnny,” only to discover that the lyric was itself a free translation of Kipling’s poem, “Mary, Pity Women.” It was a marvelous summer.
When the summer wasover, Rubman (our habit was always to call each other by our last names) returned toNew York City
, where he was going to NYU. He had an apartment onEast 11th Street
. I went back toPort Chester
. Arguments with my parents increased. My father was terrified that he would have to support me for life. Finally, over my parents’ fierce objections (my mother writhing on the floor, my father shouting, “You're killing that woman!”), I moved into a rooming house not far away from home. I got a job as a bank teller and, for the first time in my life, was able to support myself. I felt that if my parents were going to make my life miserable, there was no reason I had to stay with them. My bank teller job meant that my father didn’t have to give me any money. What did my parents have to give me if they could no longer give me money? My difficulties with my mother remained unresolved when she died in 1964. I walked out of the hospital and burst into tears. During our deathwatch over her, however, my father and I were able to feel close to one another again. When he died three years later, I felt that we had arrived at some sort of understanding.
Moving out of the house meant I could do what I liked with my time. Every second weekend I visited Rubman inNew York
. The other weekends he drove toGoucher
, where a woman he’d met inCambridge
was going to school. I accompanied him a few times. On one of these trips he introduced me to Adelle Abramowitz, whom he’d known in elementary school. He had been recently re-introduced to her by his girl friend, Ellen, and he'd been very impressed. “She’s read Finnegans Wake,” he told me. The grass is always greener, the ass is always keener, a friend once chanted. There was a Jewish family living in the apartment house where I’d grown up. The father spoke with an attractive, slight Yiddish accent. Their grown daughter seemed to me enormously beautiful, and was the object of one of those immense, all-consuming crushes which animate our childhood. Later, in high school, there was another woman, closer to my own age. Jews seemed attractive, witty, intelligent, and, in a way that I was not, successful. “You only like them,” a Jewish woman told me recently, “because you're not Jewish.” I admitted that that was possible, but I have often found very close friends among Jews. Adelle had not only read Finnegans Wake, she had lived abroad for a year; her French was better than mine. Since she was an economics major and good at math some friends wondered whether we could find anything to talk about. There were no problems.
As my relationship with my own family deteriorated, Adelle’s family welcomed me. I spent the next summer in New York City—my father was able to get me a job in a Western Union office in Bowling Green—and I saw a great deal of Adelle and her parents, Sam and Esther. Adelle and I were almost exactly the same age (I’m 6 days older) but she had skipped a grade, so she was a year ahead of me. After graduation from Goucher, she entered graduate school at Cornell. We lived together for a short time and were married inFoley Square
inNew York City
on December 21, 1961. I cursorily invited my parents to the wedding. My mother, rightly, was insulted, and they didn’t attend. My best man was Lewis Rubman.
My mother would not have been happy had I married anyone, I think, but she was especially unhappy about my marrying a Jewish woman. At the same time she realized that I was threatening to break off relations with her and my father entirely. I had a deep need for family and, at the same time, a deep need to break away from family. But—like my father before me—I was discovering that it was possible, at least in part, to substitute one family for another. Despite my name, many of Adelle’s relatives assumed I was Jewish. Adelle’s parents, who knew better, accepted me without question. Their kindness and understanding are things I will always be grateful for.
At Cornell my writing tended to focus on song lyrics. Warren Wechsler, a classmate, wrote charming songs and played piano. We began to collaborate: I provided lyrics,Warren
provided music. Finally we found people willing to write a libretto and we put on an original musical, Tom Jones. I sang one of the songs and worked out a tap dance. Adelle had a brief role—she played a servant girl who initiates the action by leaving baby Tom at the front door—and she handled the finances. The musical was a success, and we were asked to stage it again for a big weekend at the end of the year. Had I not been suspended, 1962 would have been my senior year. I produced a poem, “Tunnel of Love,” which was at once a love poem and a good-bye to all that:
Hard-put by the weather,
we await the spring
in a ramshackle town,
I love you up to keep the blankets warm.
the foghorns bellow in the dingy harbor
while mother putters at her indoor plants.
They are the household deities:
they flower in a bad season
while the crazy tugs
teeter and totter in a choppy sea.
Broken by winter,
we huddle mole-like in the covers,
two old sailors
blindly anchored in our Tunnel of Love.
In 1963, Adelle and I were heading west, on our way toBerkeley, California
. I had been awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship; Adelle was soon to find a job at the Federal Reserve Bank ofSan Francisco
. Paul de Man good-naturedly told me that I had better get my tennis game together because that’s all anyone did in Berkeley. In 1962 I finally learned to drive. We purchased a 1956 Oldsmobile to make the trip across country. Two close friends, Mike Lurie, whom I had met inCambridge
, and Ed Pechter, were already living inBerkeley
. Then Rubman surprised us by showing up to live there too. We found an apartment without much trouble. The following year we found a place inOakland
; ten years later we bought a house inOakland
. We’re still living in that house.
my writing stopped almost entirely as I concentrated on graduate school or participated in that explosion of energy we call “the sixties.” Rubman knew many of the people involved with the Free Speech Movement, and so I got to meet them early on. I protested the war and experimented with LSD and marijuana. (I deliberately took acid before taking marijuana so that no one would accuse me of “going on to the harder stuff.”) I learned rock songs and played them on my electric guitar. Until that time, my guitar playing had depended entirely on sheet music. I now learned to trust (and develop) my ear.Berkeley
radio station KPFA broadcast an astonishing range of art programming, which I found fascinating. (I first heard Gertrude Stein’s voice on KPFA.) A short poem written in Berkeley, “The Skeleton’s Defense of Carnality,” was published in theBeloit Poetry Journal.
A paper written for Stanley Fish’sMilton
course was published in the journal ELH. But the basic story of my life in the sixties and seventies is my increasing awareness that I could not be a member of the academy. There were constant tensions between my personal vision and what was acceptable in graduate school. At one point I produced a long, complicated paper on Songs of Innocence’s “Holy Thursday” for a seminar on Blake. The paper went over like a lead balloon, but twenty years later a passage from it found its way into my poem, “Fifty”:
We have here—as we have at the conclusion of “The Echoing Green”—a kind of gradual fading of the light in which things are no longer seen clearly and in which the sounds we “hear” tend to become somewhat distant: “all the hills echoéd.” At this point, I think, language becomes something close to pure potentiality, to pure “sound” or “music,” to the “song” that the piper pipes. What Blake is attempting to make us do, I suspect, is to treat all of his words in the same way that we must treat the names of his characters: we must continually recombine them, must turn them around and around in our minds until they become words which, though different, involving other letters, retain in their sounds the echoes of one another. Blake himself used words of the Bible in order to create new harmonies, harmonies which “chimed” with those of the Bible, and I think “Holy Thursday” was meant to serve the same purpose. ’Twas on a, for example, might easily become ’twas honor, hosanna; the seats of heaven, the saints of heaven, the seeds of heaven; beneath them sit, be neath them said; white as snow, why ’tis snow, why ’tis now; till into, tell unto, toll unto; the voice of song, they voice his song, their voice is song, their voice, his song; the flowers of London town, or land atoned, or lenten time; but multitudes of lambs, but multitudes of lands, but multitudes of limbs, bought multitudes of lambs; thousands of little boys, those sands of little boys; O what a, O water; the hum of multitudes, the home of multitudes, the hymn, the ham, the him of multitudes; they like Thames waters flow, they light time’s waters flow, their nighttimes waters flow; radiance all their own, radiance all thereround, radiance all thereon, regents are there crowned; the children walking, the cauldron waking, the called are walking; harmonious thunderings, our moan, his thunderings; the voice, the vows, the joys.
I had hoped that Cornell would provide me with an intellectual community. It did not. My experience atBerkeley
was similar, though again there were moments of excitement. Josephine Miles, Joe Kramer, Paul Alpers and others taught courses which interested me. Henry Nash Smith’s course included Charles Feidelson, Jr.’s excellent book, Symbolism and American Literature, with its intriguing discussions of Melville, Poe and Whitman. A 1971 class taught by James Breslin introduced me to many writers whom I had previously neglected, particularly to William Carlos Williams, whose masterly Spring and All was on the reading list. We also read Robert Duncan’s magnificent Bending the Bow. (I had bought the City Lights edition ofDuncan
’s Selected Poems inIthaca
and had been fascinated by “The Venice Poem” and “Homage to the Brothers Grimm.”)Duncan
lived inSan Francisco
and often gave lectures and readings. I saw him frequently inBerkeley
going to the bookstores or the library. There were also poets in Breslin’s class: Ron Silliman, David Melnick and Rochelle Nameroff had all recently published books through a press called “Ithaca House,” located, ironically enough, at Cornell. Furthermore, James Breslin was the judge ofBerkeley
's Yang Poetry Prize that year, and a little selection of my poems was one of the winners. Still, I could hardly call myself a writer. By 1970 I was really nothing more than a professional graduate student.
On April 5, 1970, at the age of twenty-nine, I gave up smoking. On May 6 of that year I began a journal: “What do I want to come of this? Some self-knowledge. I have been a propagandist for self-knowledge. I really know very little of myself.”
By 1974 I had finally had enough of graduate school. I made a last-ditch effort to write a PhD thesis. A long paper on Shakespeare's Cymbeline, written for Joe Kramer’s class, might be the basis of a thesis. The only problem with the paper was that it didn’t mention a single critic. I set about to remedy that. The books I needed were sometimes taken out of the main library. In the undergraduate library, however, there was a set of stacks which had just about everything. Nobody ever touched it. Unfortunately, as I read the critics I found myself getting angry. Cymbeline was not a play which anyone seemed to have understood very well. Even people whose work I usually liked had little of interest to say about it. Finally, I got up and wandered over to the modern poetry section. There I came upon Charles Olson’s Maximus IV V VI. I found the book amazing. I’m not sure I understood it in the usual sense in which one “understands” things. On the other hand, I understood it. Maximus IV V VI, with its size, its ample white space, its freedom was a revelation, or, as Jake Berry said about another book, a baptism. I went back and forth between the critics and Olson until I realized that I was in fact acting out a little psychodrama. Do you want to be this or do you want to be this? The decision was obvious. I left school. I wanted to be Olson.
Leaving school freed me towards reading again. I plunged into Gertrude Stein and Pound's Cantos. Like Robert Kelly as he tells it in A Controversy of Poets, I felt transformed by Williams’ “astonishing” “Asphodel That Greeny Flower.” I read the Beats with better understanding than ever before. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were just beginning to publish, and I was aware of their work. A KPFA program introduced me to Kerouac’s marvelous reading style. I read all theDuncan
I could find. Michael McClure’s essay, “Phi Upsilon Kappa,” opened his work to me (“Writing this is a kind of pain as well as a joy at the chance to make a new liberty”). KPFA broadcast an amazing production of Antonin Artaud’s radio play Pour En Finir Avec Le Jugement De Dieu (To End God’s Judgment) which included the voice of Artaud himself. I immediately hunted up The Theater and Its Double. I also read Louis Zukofsky, Jack Spicer, Larry Eigner, H.D., Amiri Baraka, Clayton Eshleman, Ishmael Reed, and Adrienne Rich. Through Rich I came upon Judy Grahn’s stunning poem, A Woman Is Talking To Death and then her later poetry and her wonderful essays. Walter J. Ong’s work became an endless source of inspiration and insight. Gregory Bateson taught me a good deal, as did Carl Sauer. I explored the occult: A.E. Waite,Crowley
, Max Heindel, Corinne Heline. (Her little book on the moon in occult lore is masterly.) I finally read Heidegger (to whom Paul de Man was always referring) as well as Wittgenstein, Gurdjieff, Whitehead, Freud, Jung and Foucault. Sein und Zeit, read with great care and amazement, was a life-changing book. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition was read and re-read.
Partly through the good offices of Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA, I was listening to experimental music as well as reading experimental poetry. Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata and his book, Essays Before A Sonata were enormous influences, as were his songs. I first heard Lou Harrison on KPFA and was able to attend several of his concerts at near-byMills College
. I had acquired Kenneth Rexroth’s wonderful edition of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry inIthaca
. Now I was reading Rexroth, who also had a show on KPFA. My friend Ed Michel gave me a collection of records he had produced, so I began to listen seriously to jazz. Eisenstein’s essays were tremendously exciting, as was Abel Gance’s marvelous “polyvision” film, Napoleon, which Adelle and I saw at The Avenue Theater inSan Francisco
. I haunted UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive and published a few essays on film. (Gary Morris, the editor of Bright Lights magazine, supported my work in this area.) I began to think seriously about the art of painting. Clyfford Still’s work fascinated me. A 1977 exhibition of Jess’s work at the UC Berkeley University Art Museum had an enormous impact. I discovered Max Ernst. Kandinsky's paintings and his book, Concerning The Spiritual In Art, were powerful influences. Etc.
My poetry was, however, to use Gertrude Stein’s word, still “struggling.” Under the influence of Breslin’s course and its participants I began to produce a kind of experimental verse. Remembering both Paul Valéry and a brand of candy, I put these poems together in a short sequence called “Charmes.” Each of the poems was an ecstatic, only partially understood experience. Here is the third:
randy belly . look & come . there are clouds in the—
hardly the ice . ends
quiet is the
Such poems were wonderful when they came, but they were few and far between. I think now that, centering in words which were simultaneously nouns and verbs, these poems were a deliberate if only semi-conscious attempt to arrive at a basic mode of poetry—something akin to what Ernest Fenollosa was describing in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry:
A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one...Like nature, the Chinese words are alive and plastic, because thing and action are not formally separated.
Though the poems seemed to celebrate my entrance into the ecstatic state in which poetry was possible (“cross-ing the / crossing toss- / crossed”), I had no idea how that state might be induced or how in fact I had fallen into it.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
T.S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger"
On June 25, 1974 I was utterly depressed about my writing. I had just brought our car in for servicing—never a happy obligation—and taken the bus back home. I was extremely tired and believed at that moment I would never produce anything of any value. Glancing at a collection of Olson's essays—particularly at “Human Universe”—I noticed a sentence which began, “If there is any truth at all to the idea that....” Certain that nothing would come of it, I typed on a piece of paper, “If there is any truth at all” and added, as if in commentary, turning the line into iambic pentameter, “(there is).” I went on to appropriate others of Olson’s phrases, changing them if I felt like it. (Olson actually wrote, “It is not the Greeks I blame.”)
if there is any truth at all (there is)
it is the greeks I blame
the lines in which
speech takes place
& Melville did....
Next I took a recent passage from my journal,
a waking dream.
Someone (me, not me) on a rooftop. Being chased?
Crowds. The man's friends below, holding a
net which looks like an awning, urge him.
The man jumps!—he misses the awning.
I remark (it is remarked to me): he didn't check
which way the wind was blowing,
and retyped it, moving my fingers slightly so I would hit some of the wrong keys and leaving
out some of it, revising as I went along:
a wajubg dreanL
sineibe OOne.bitg neOOib a riiftioOObeubg cgased.
Criwds the man's friends bekiw
gikdubg a bet kiijs kuje ab wawbubg 'greeb
My depression vanished. The poem suddenly came alive. Its seemingly obvious discovery that literature was made out of letters was extraordinarily liberating, and its concluding lines, only half-understood when I wrote them, “the page is not the / natural dividing point,” thrust me into an entirely new direction. A sequence of such poems followed. I called it “Letters” and dedicated it to “the sixth Marx brother: Typo.” (Olson’s praise of the typewriter in his famous essay, “Projective Verse,” was undoubtedly in the back of my mind.) Then a friend, Richard Segasture, sent me his play, Limbo. I thought it might be interesting to include what I called “Choruses”—theater pieces—in his play, and he agreed. The first of these was later published in my book, Adrift. Its opening line is a kind of stage direction:
Darkness. The light comes slowly.
What is it?
It sweetens the circulation of the blood.
My blood is circular enough already.
And your reasoning?
What is it?
The piece goes on to quote from Darwin, Einstein, Hans Christian Andersen, W.H. Prescott, and others. Writing another of these choruses, I decided to involve Adelle in its performance. The first chorus moved through various voices, but I could perform it solo. With two speakers, voices could be thrust against one another, simultaneously. I worked out the poem’s timing by using a tape recording of my own voice, then presented it to Adelle. We became very interested in the possibilities of the form. Thinking partly of its placement in Segasture’s play but also regarding it as a genuine “opening,” I named the poem “Overture.” It became the “Words for Adelle” of my first book, Letters/Lights—Words for Adelle:
that the hummingbird's wings are of a remarkable rapidity he had noted often
nothing could be done the shift of his breathing had to begin
12 o'clock and he still hadn't had a dermal sensation
Such poems were tremendously exciting, but, apart from Adelle, I had no audience and no idea where to present my work. An acquaintance invited me to an open poetry reading inBerkeley
. I didn’t read anything, but he tried to read a long poem which he regarded as the best thing he had ever written. The mc decided he was going on too long and ran him off the stage. “Overture” was performed at someone’s birthday party in 1974. It was well received, but it wasn’t performed again until 1985, when Adelle and I gave our first reading. My isolation had allowed me to develop a kind of poetry which I found immensely satisfying. At the same time, however, there was absolutely no one to validate it. My friend fromCambridge
, Mike Lurie, would make occasional comments about my work. He was hit by an automobile inNew Jersey
and killed. I remember thinking, in the midst of my grief, “Now there is no one to read my work!”
Not that I had much time to mope over the fate of my writing. On February 20, 1974, Adelle gave birth to a son, whom we named Sean Ezra, in part after Adelle’s father, Samuel. (“Sean” = “John” by way of “Jean,” so he was being named after my father and me as well.) Sean, someone quipped, had been exFoliated. The presence of a son was a great joy, the occasion of stories, humor, even of the creation of an imaginary creature named by Sean “The D D D Monster.” Though “The Monst” looked like me, he had a separate history. He sounded a little like Sean as a baby. Later came the arrival of a female creature called “The E E E Monster.” She looked like Adelle and featured speech made up entirely of e’s.
For the next several years I was a househusband, taking care of Sean, bringing him to school, etc. Ed Pechter moved toCanada
to teach and Lewis Rubman and I became utterly estranged. Friends left and new friends appeared. We got to know other parents.
Meeting poet Ivan Argüelles in 1985 changed almost everything.
I had known Ivan's wife, Marilla, because she taught at Sean’s elementary school,Park
. I also knew that Ivan was a widely-published poet, but I hadn’t read much of his poetry. I ran into Marilla at a party given by an old friend of Adelle’s mother. I had recently gotten to know Ishmael Reed, whose daughter,Tennessee
, was attending Park Day. I mentioned Ishmael to Marilla, who told me that Ivan might be interested in meeting him. I said, “Maybe I can arrange that,” and was introduced to Ivan, who gave me two of his books to read. “Let me know what you think of them,” he said. I thought they were wonderful. Here was an extraordinary, wildly visionary, wildly funny work, full of pain yet full of comedy as well. I wrote Ivan a long letter about his poetry. Later he told me the letter came closer to what he felt his poetry was like than anything he’d ever received before. He also said he was going to be reading at the Larry Blake’s series inBerkeley
. “You mention that you write. Why don’t you read with me? If your poetry is even half as good as your criticism, you'll be fine.” I learned later that such generosity was characteristic of this amazing man.
As it happened, Gerald Vizenor, whom I knew through a course sponsored by Ishmael Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation, was also about to do a poetry reading. Gerry’s reading was to be at The California College of Arts and Crafts inOakland
. I told him about my upcoming reading with Ivan and he suggested that I read with him as well. The organizer of Gerry’s reading phoned me asking whether I would like to be on for a half hour. I told her fifteen minutes would be fine. She told me that there would be “other, less well-known people on the bill.” I didn’t tell her that it would be pretty hard to find someone “less well-known” than I was! I suggested that Ivan be included in the reading. My idea was that Ivan could hear me and if he didn’t like what he heard, he could skip the Larry Blake’s reading, no hard feelings.
That fifteen-minute reading re-shaped my life. Ivan loved what he heard and generously encouraged me. It was a pivotal moment. Here was a man whose own work was rich and powerful. I knew no one who even liked my work. At almost every point in my development, someone had told me not to do what I was doing. When I began to write multivoiced poems, a friend wrote me a letter urging me to stop writing them. When I showed another friend my long poems, she announced that long poems were boring. Ivan gave me what I had never been able to find in all my years in the university system: validation, a sympathetic reading. The best poem I had produced at that point was “Turning Forty,” a long collage piece initially influenced by David Bromige’s “One Spring” but later by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. (I had often listened to Joyce’s recording of pages 213-216—the Anna Livia Plurabelle section.) For the reading at Larry Blake’s I wrote a new poem in the style of “Turning Forty.” It was called “Sweeney Adrift,” and it dealt freely with the legend of a mad Irishman. For the first time in my life I asked someone’s opinion of my verse as I was actually composing it. I would write a few lines, phone Ivan, read them to him, and he would say, “Great! Keep it coming!” I did.
The reading at Larry Blake’s (June, 1985) was a great success, and Ivan and I each went on to do many more readings, together or with others. In all this, Adelle has been not only my wife but my performing partner. Her performing skills and her willingness to take the kinds of risks I ask of her have been enormous factors in my success. She has sung, tap danced, made faces and screamed, all in the service of my “art.” She has turned pieces which were at best only vaguely conceived into some sort of recognizable shape. People have said to me, “Well, your performance was all right, but Adelle...!” In the past few years she has begun to write poetry herself, and her haiku have appeared in various magazines. Her book, Along the Bloodline, came out in 2003.
In 1986, I took over the series at Larry Blake’s and then, in 1988, I was offered a radio show on KPFA, where I have been producing programs ever since. I became deeply involved with the community of writers here, organizing, discussing, reading, writing. From 1990 to 1995 I edited an Oakland-based magazine, Poetry USA. Heaven Bone called it “the poetry Bible of the ‘Bay’ area”; The Beatlicks: Nashville’s Poetry Newsletter described its experimental issue as “a wake up call for poetry inAmerica
.” In 1992, Joyce Jenkins named me contributing editor of her wonderful magazine, Poetry Flash. Larry Eigner, James Broughton, Michael McClure, Jess, and Lou Harrison became dear friends, and they have all encouraged my work in various ways.
If in the seventies I was completely unknown, in the past ten years (1986-1996) I have become an extremely public figure. “Sweeney Adrift” became a signature poem, and it was dedicated to Ivan. “Chorus: SON(G),” published along with “Sweeney Adrift” in my book Adrift, is still another signature poem, and it is dedicated to someone I can only barely begin to discuss here: Jake Berry. Jake and I discovered each other’s work in 1985 through a cassette magazine Poets 11, and we have been encouraging and learning from each other ever since. He has been called, rightly, by Harry Polkinhorn, “the preeminent experimentalist of his generation.” (Jake was born in 1959.) I wrote the preface to his Brambu Drezi and the afterword to his Species of Abandoned Light, both marvelous books. More recently, Neeli Cherkovski has joined our group. His lyricism and deep knowledge of poetic history are examples for us all.
Once, Ivan, Neeli and I were to do a reading together. We were listed alphabetically (Argüelles, Cherkovski, Foley). I thought: The Academy of Chicanerous Frumpery! But then I realized that Jake should be included too, so it became The Academy of Chicanerous Frumpery, Boo! For some time now we have been nourishing one another, discussing poetry, acting like Something Is Afoot inCalifornia
THE DIFFICULTY OF CONCLUDING THIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY
What you either come by naturally, or as I suspect have always understood is how to free your mind.
Barbara Guest in a letter to me
Looking back over this short autobiography, I realize how much of my life I’ve been unable to name in it. Even what I have been able to name is problematical. In story our lives tend to take on a coherence and purpose which they may well have lacked in actuality. As circumstances arise we discover/invent selves to deal with them. And the circumstances change in response to those selves. What I wrote in the 70s in a paper on Alfred Hitchcock (“Doubleness in Hitchcock: Seeing the Family Plot”) might apply more generally to my sense of the world: “In the dizzying ramifications of the Oedipal situation the external world and the self are not separate entities but dynamic forces which shift, merge, interrelate, conflict, reverberate, change around—and the very same narcissistic tendencies which give rise to (among other things) fantasies of murder become, in the limitations and intensities of ‘performance,’ a mode of authentic self-disclosure. In the midst of a self-reflective world, a world in which actor and audience tend to merge, and which tends to give back, reflect the ramifications of the self, `action' becomes in effect revelatory.”
“Performance,” “action,” and the “revelatory” have been key factors in my work. Hannah Arendt’s chapter on “Action” in The Human Condition quotes Dante: “For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows...Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.”
One might also cite Baudelaire, whose sonnet, “Correspondences,” I recently translated. (I added a quotation from Swedenborg to Baudelaire’s poem to show Baudelaire’s own source of the word “correspondence.”)
What correspondence is is not known at the present day, for several reasons, the chief of which is that man has withdrawn himself from heaven by the love of self and love of the world...This was not so with the ancient people. To them the knowledge of correspondences was the chief of knowledges. By means of it they acquired intelligence and wisdom; and by means of it those who were of the church had communication with heaven; for the knowledge of correspondences is angelic knowledge. The most ancient people, who were celestial men, thought from correspondence itself, as the angels do. Therefore they talked with angels, and frequently saw the Lord and were taught by Him. But at this day that knowledge has been so completely lost that no one knows what correspondence is.
Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders
and Hell (1758)
Nature is a temple where living statues
At times give out confused words;
Man passes through forests of symbols
That watch him with familiar looks.
Like long echoes that merge from afar
In a shadowy and profound unity,
Vast like the night, like light,
Perfumes, colors and sounds re-sound.
There are perfumes as fresh as the flesh of infants,
Soft, like oboes, green, like fields,
—And others, corrupt, rich and triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things .
Amber, musk, benzoin, incense,
Singing the transports of spirit and sense.
Poetry does not arise out of a part of one's life. It permeates everything, welcomes everything. When Ivan was just beginning to write his great epic poem, Pantograph, he phoned me to talk about it. "No more inhibitions!" he said triumphantly. I remember as well the title of Larry Eigner’s first mature book: From the Sustaining Air. The “airs” a poet puts on sustain him in innumerable ways. These are some lines from a recent piece:
The drowned day
any man of vigorous mind
anticipate his thought
which all ranks pay
I cannot even hear of Vigor of any kind
bread and fire
I know not
Lyre/liar. The thrust of so much current writing involves a redefinition of selfhood. In a little paper on “Hamlet’s ‘Individuality’” I argued that the supposed “individuality” of Shakespeare’s character was in fact “multiplicity.” One might say the same thing of the figure which emerges from autobiography:
Hamlet seems real not because he is a coherent character or “self” or because there is some discoverable “essence” to him but because he actively and amazingly inhabits so many diverse, interconnecting, potentially contradictory contexts. Implicitly promising to tell us all about the interesting “individual” Hamlet, the play Hamlet ends by expressing the possibility that “individuality” (a word derived from the Latin individuus, indivisible) is in fact multiplicity. It is not his separateness but the plenitude of contexts in which Hamlet functions—i.e., his multiplicity—that gives him density, renders him vivid.
We're supposed to be these unities. And we're not.
Jess, in conversation
I was born.
POST SCRIPT, 2010
On June 5, 2010, I received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Berkeley Poetry Festival. As part of that award, June 5, 2010 was designated “Jack Foley Day” inBerkeley
, a day on which the citizens ofBerkeley
were asked “to reflect upon and honor the lifetime achievements of Jack Foley and the impact he has left upon the City ofBerkeley
I wrote this:
It was a beautiful day inBerkeley
in all senses! Adelle and I had a wonderful time, and so many diverse voices (and “background” sounds!) were heard that I can scarcely number them all. I was particularly touched by tributes from dear friends like Ivan Argüelles, Mary-Marcia Casoly, Katherine Hastings and Lucille Lang Day. And among the dear friends in the audience were the wonderful poets Michael McClure, Al Young, and Neeli Cherkovski, the great artist Leonard Breger—source of my Facebook image—Joyce Jenkins of Poetry Flash as well as our amazing son Sean, who came all the way from Tennessee to be present. Of course the people who weren't there—dear friends too, people like Jake Berry and Chris Mansel and Mary Ann Sullivan and others—were there as well. Though my technical know-how is limited, I’ll try to post some photos. And the entire event is YouTube bound. In the meantime, here are some words from yesterday.
This was my acceptance speech:
This award honors my wife Adelle as much as it honors me. She was there for all the Whereas’s.
“The world is all that is the case.” “Thought can be of what is not the case."
(Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published 1921; Philosophical Investigations, published 1952)
They say that every dog has its day. This is definitely mine. The great kindness of Louis Cuneo and the Festival and the wonderful city of
has placed my usually-maintained cynicism in disarray. Louis Cuneo’s Mother’s Hen Press published my first book in 1987. And now this. I feel much in tune, and with good reason, with a place nicknamed “Bezerkley.” DidGloucester
ever have a Charles Olson Day? I remember, years ago, during the “troubles,” riding a bus to the UC campus. The driver looked at all the well-clothed, well-scrubbed, beautiful young men and women carrying protest signs and was utterly amazed. There they were like young gods and goddesses inCalifornia
’s perfect weather. What could there possibly be to protest? I knew, of course, but for him these people were in heaven. Today, I feel a bit like I’m in heaven, too. Imagine: “Jack Foley Day.” Jack Foley dazed. Of course—as everyone knows—whatever I have “achieved” would have been utterly impossible without the support, encouragement, good humor and loving criticism of my wife—and performance partner—Adelle. Couldn’t have done it withoutcha. And without the support and interest of the wonderful community of poets in this highly poetic area—Oz in pentameter. Thank you all.
And this was the last poem I read as part of my presentation:
what was the purpose
if purpose there was?
why all this fury?
did you hope to change
of people at large?
did you believe
that anything you said
could affect the immense
people call “reality”—quelle erreur!
Yes, it was a mistake…
so what did it do?
did you teach anyone
were you able to change
the nature of poetry
even in the smallest
so what reveals itself,
at this difficult point
of your being?
J’aime les nuages, les nuages qui passent…
I love the passing
As for poetry:
ça m’a donné quelque chose à faire…
It gave me something to do…
For me, writing is a joy, even a “refuge,” not a struggle. Perhaps an addiction. I think sometimes that my happiest moments are when I’m writing. At the same time, I don’t think there’s much hope that my writing will survive my death. I’ve written no Waste Land, no Howl, no Coney Island of the Mind—nothing that would thrust me into the consciousness of the literati. I had hoped that my choruses would do that, but they didn’t—partly because poetry as silent reading is imbedded so thoroughly in the consciousness of the “literati” and partly because, though my work is passionately “spoken,” I am no spoken word poet affirming his ego by declamation. I suppose that, coming to the conviction that the work will not last, many people would stop. Why bother? Yet the joy is such that you continue—not in the illusory hope that you will “last” but simply for the pleasure of it. The knowledge of your death and of no more eating doesn’t prevent you from enjoying a good meal now. The immediate response of people at a reading is also a help. You have touched somebody even if your work, like most work, will vanish.
When I began my autobiography, I asked a few people who were close to me to write a few sentences about me. I told them I would not edit what they wrote or respond to it in any way.
Jack's life, like his art, is based in collage. He welcomes unorthodox combinations of everything from food to music, from friends to clothingand urges them enthusiastically on those around him. Living with Jack is a lifelong, year-round course of study with no boundaries and no written exams.
Like nobody else
His passions stretch and challenge
What "everyone knows"
Courage and faith are the two words that come to mind when I think about my father. This may be an odd thing to say about an ex-Catholic, but I don't think I have met a person who is more willing to challenge the assumptions of everyone around him and confident enough to forge his own path. There are four examples in my father's life that illustrate this point: his friendship with Larry Eigner, his poetry, his decision to drop out of graduate school and his kindness to those around him.
FIVE THINGS ABOUT JACK FOLEY
If you can read it I can write it
1. Jack Foley is one of the main hombres for shouldering responsibilities in the Bay Area literary world; whether it's friendship and care-giving for cerebral-palsied poet friends or letting everyone know about an important event that might be missed, Jack is there with his shoulder to the wheel and his hand on the phone.
2. Jack is notable for the specialness of his ear and he's capable of, and likely to, appreciate the most far-flung temperaments from experimental Jake Berry to gay and metaphysical James Broughton.
3. It's as if Jack runs an ever-open service to stick up for the rights of the outcast and the unaligned or invalided writers. He reminds others of their responsibility through his activism.
4. Jack never forgets a birthday whether it's his own or yours. He's right there to celebrate.
5. In roles like public radio reviewermaestroand contributing editor to Poetry Flash, Jack is a deepener; he has a powerful intellect and gives substance to issues under view.
It was reported in the Oakland Daily Tribulation that someone had broken into the First Rational Bank and had made off with quantities of ballpoint pens. Rumors that Jack Foley is the culprit are irresponsible and inaccurate. I was with Jack and Adelle from the beginning of his memorable poetry reading to the wee hours of the morning. Who could forget the guitar-dancing, tap-twanging multisimultaneous poetic cavortings. It was entertaining and affecting. Afterwards we repaired to their house and, surrounded by treasures and artifacts that attest to the Foley passion for the arts, we talked of all shapes of cabbages and all sorts of kings. Jack's breadth of knowledge and depth of insight are impressive. There was laughter too, much nose-clearing, eye-opening, twittering-tittering. Early on it was all poetry and performance, exciting new sounds, voices, ideas and deeply human caring. Later it was sharing and clashing, some sanity and much insanity at the Foley home...a full and remarkable night. So Jack Foley could not have robbed the bank...unless he had an accomplice.
Jack's all right if you like that kind of person.
The D D D Monster
EEEEE. EEEEEE. EEEEEEEEEE. EEEEEE. E.
The E E E Monster
Apart from anything else, he's an extremely kind man, who's loaned me money on several occasions to help me feed people dependent on me, without ever asking for it back - lord, I still owe him that $100! My mother - gone a year now - loved him; my girlfriend thinks he's the funniest man in the world, since he explained to her that he was "half-Irish, half-Italian, and all Jewish." Weirdly enough, it's somehow quite true.
The last time I saw the Wizard of Oakland he was fresh in from New York City where he’d been doing readings and writing yet another volume of classic literature, his Oz Journal. We were at a Thai restaurant in Berkeley. I introduced Jack to Wendy, the woman who’d agreed to marry me. She and Jack fell into a discussion of honesty that carried us through the evening. Neeli Cherkovski was there adding more literary depth to the evening. Two producers of documentaries were sifting their way through the beat magic of Jack and Neeli and the numerous plates of delicious Thai food that were compliments of Jack and Adelle. Discussions of literature and documentaries were tossed into the honesty discussion that had escalated into a full blown argument. One that held Jack and Wendy smiling through snarls, delighting in the intellect they were engaging. Laughter and beauty in a variety of forms whirled around the table that evening two years ago and left Jack dancing on the streets of Berkeley. Guaranteed he’s still there dancing today, spouting Yeats, and arguing about honesty and the truth of lies with anyone that passes by.
Early in 2006, Jack gave my name to the organizers of the Crossroads Irish American Festival as someone who might be appropriate to read for the 2006 Festival. I was thrilled—until I realized I needed “Irish” poems and didn’t have any. Sharing my plight with Jack led to what might be called my signature poem. Knowing that I have O'Shay's in the family, he asked if I was familiar with the word "sidhe," pronounced "she." I wasn't. Between the introduction of that word and the conversations we had about the mind being multiple, mythic awareness, etc, Sidhe, a sequence poem, was born -- full of personal history, Irish blessings, Irish curses, etc. Jack had kicked me out of the land of boredom and energized my writing in a way I never would have dreamed of. I will always be grateful to him for this. Sidhe was published by dPress and is dedicated to Jack.
Jack is not only a good friend and a great teacher; he is first and foremost one of the more interesting poets of our time. The first morning I played one of his CD's, a chorus performed with Adelle, I literally jumped out of my chair in amazement. "He can't do that!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I've seen them perform many times now and I am constantly astonished, inspired and deeply moved by what I hear. I pity those who don't live in Northern California-- the weather, the beauty, the great food, and readings by the Foley's!
Here is a paragraph I included in an email to Jack not too long ago:
My thought on why people respond so strongly to much of your work: You don't tell them how to feel in a poem as many poems do. Instead, you offer tension—the reader/audience responds because they feel so many things at once. And they're not sure they should be feeling so much—but they do, they just can’t help it. Then they’re left with their own questions. How can I feel disgust and compassion for Father O'Fondle (“Eli, Eli”) all at once? “Etc.” Reading “Eli, Eli”…on the page creates a strong reaction; hearing you read it makes some people lose their sense of balance because you are such an amazing reader of your work—you write it perfectly, you deliver the work perfectly and there everyone is wondering what the hell just happened! Some will love and admire you for doing this, some will despise it. What more could anyone ask? People are reacting, but not with a nap!
You meet people, sometimes you get a chance to know them better, but I had no idea that Jack Foley would come to mean so much to me, be an important guiding force and incredible friend as well as devil’s advocate.
I’d ventured again to Watershed Poetry Environmental Fair in Berkeley. Must have been about seven years ago. I’d just finished reading in the morning “lottery” open reading. It was a poem called “Australia Dreaming.” After I’d finished, I went carefully and settled down on the grass. First a tall man in silver pants and yellow t-shirt approached. He wondered if I’d submit poems to his Space Alien Nation newsletter. So the next moment didn’t seem so strange, when a balding man with long thin strands of hair, some impish hippy in a Hawaiian shirt, came to me out of breath and obviously pleased. He said he liked my poem; send me the poem and a few others. He gave me his card and dashed back to the stage. I hardly had time to think when he and his wife Adelle began to read. The poem they launched into, “Chorus: SON(G)” stunned me. I held my breath. They were both speaking simultaneously. One stopped and the other started. Their words collided and bounced off each other, making me hear different things, question what I heard, and kept me listening in wonder. Words broke and reunited. I felt myself shaking with the effort. I’ve heard it many times over now and the way it collides reveals something of the whole. And definitely without realizing it, I heard exactly what I had been seeking.
Who was that guy? I’d heard of KPFA, I’d even heard the show once or twice but I hadn’t registered the name. I walked up to him shyly, afraid of all the power I’d heard in his voice, and uncertain just what to say. He made it easy to talk to him. His eyes met mine, equally interested in what I thought about poetry as what he might share about it with me. He seemed to know something about all the poets and poetry that had been glossed over during my college years. I was surprised to find someone willing to talk about Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Kerouac, Yeats and Pound, and other poets I didn’t quite know anything about, all nearly in the same breath and sentence. He was really listening to me, considering my thoughts. I hardly realized as we walked together that he was leading me to his car, where he opened the trunk and insisted I buy both volumes of his book, companion volumes. He convinced me “Foley’s Books” couldn’t do without ” Powerful Western Star.” And sometime later I wrote him a letter with some of my poetry and a correspondence developed. Where did I fit, how could I fit in the poetry community even as I balked at the way publishing and poetry groups and workshops were conducted, as if they were an end in themselves flat as a moving sidewalk. But I also worried that my work was too much all over the place, without cohesion, I tried on too many directions. I was lost.
First thing he wrote to me was:
I should warn you that I’m trying to redefine “poetry. “
Next thing: When are you going to do a book? I will, I replied, sometime. He raised his eyebrows. How old will you be? What a nag! So I gathered up my poems and my first book emerged and he insisted on writing the introduction.
Jack has offered some astute insight, sometimes handing me the exact perfect word, but from the beginning he agreed with my judgments. What? I didn’t have to constantly bow down to fixes unless that was what I really required. He didn’t interpret or encourage me to make my poems more comprehensible. He accepted mystery or things not yet understood. He wasn’t upset to look up a word in the dictionary. This was very different from the reactions I’d been hearing for so many years in workshops or groups. Instead he wrote and talked about poetry in ways which shook me, awakened me, and affirmed similar ideas.
The recording microphone seems to suit you and your voice very well. The multi-voice work is not a problem for me with regards to this recording [of “Chorus: Cancer”]. In fact, one can hear clearly the multi-chorus effect of the second "singer" simply being delayed one line. When I converted to Evangelicalism for a while, this was a common technique. The song leader would divide the room into thirds, or more, then start a chorus or verse, then one line into it, start the next section into the same part. After three or more variants got going at once, the effect was just heavenly…I see how your poetry could be problematic for a lot of people because it exists within the question and gives no reassurances of any answer’s certainty. It is a poetry that does not shrink from doubt and a possibly empty universe. It is not that you actually declare allegiance to nihilism, but that you state certain facts, and then refuse to “sum them up” safely. They are brought up, displayed and then no “closure” is offered and nothing is “finalized once and for all.” Your work is not, in that sense, safe for all listeners.
Mel C. Thompson