There is supposed to be a sense of completion to memoirs. Three parts: Life lived, the effects that linger now X is over, and the it’s-never-over part. Maybe three parts more: Lessons learned. Burdens still carried. Clarity sought. And the coda of forgiveness, of self and of others. That’s the most common form. Sometimes the coda is revenge or denunciation.
The problem with these conventions is that the jury is still out on a fundamental assumption firmly believed by the main character, Martha King, about her partner, Basil King. Who is Basil King? How important is his art? What happens to a memoir when the conclusion is still so open? How are you to read it? For that matter, who is Martha? Why, in defiance of all the tropes of male-female relationships in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has she lived her life in the context of his? And beyond that, it’s quite possible that you don’t know who most of the people she writes about are. So you’ll have little outside confirmation of her assertions, something firm, on which accepting her descriptions might depend.
I’d like to invite you to a new proposition then: Don’t worry. Don’t worry if you do recognize names and don’t worry if all of them are from out of the blue. Just trust the tale, because in a tale, real events occur and so do inventions.
San Francisco. 1957. I was just shy of twenty. Basil King, or Baz as everyone calls him, was twenty-two. It was just after Black Mountain College had closed forever.
That finality had come a year earlier for me when my father, Lambert, had threatened Charles Olson, the school’s rector, if he permitted me to return for my first full year. Olson wrote and promised to fight for me if I came back—I’m not sure he believed Lambert would actually take the school to court, but I had no doubt of it. Authority was behind him and swelled him with pleasure.
Black Mountain was scrambling for the money to buy coal for the coming winter. The faculty was being paid in scrip if they were paid at all. Robert Creeley, who was teaching there at the time, later said they were given baskets of vegetables instead of cash, which sounds almost Victorian, and far cuter than anything I observed. I thought Olson’s offer was majestically hopeless. I threw his letter away.
Instead, that fall I rode a bus from Chapel Hill to Durham every weekday for a course at a business school for poor white working girls who hoped to stay off the floors of Liggett & Myers’ cigarette factories. The goal was clean white-collar office work. We all typed in unison while the instructor timed us. Starting in January, I had a job as the junior subscriptions clerk in the library of the medical school.
I had no idea how much money it took to leave home. It seemed so big an undertaking. But by the summer of 1957, I was on a bus to San Francisco, settled into a basement apartment on Filmore Street, and free.
I knew that Black Mountain had collapsed and the last people there had dispersed. I knew that a troupe had followed poet Robert Duncan to San Francisco. I knew other people had gone to New York or Chicago. And some had gone on the road. But I’d lost touch. I was so angry. The Black Mountain student I’d slept with that summer had dumped me for a woman with money; he wrote me a letter about how beautiful her pubic hair was, but I knew what he loved. He would have been perilously like my father and a personal disaster had we stayed together. But back then I’d have followed him wherever he asked. Instead he dumped me.
So I was on my way to Australia. I was not thinking of art or poetry or theater—I wanted the otherworldly, upsidedownness of a foreign continent. I wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef. (I’ve still not been to Australia. I still want to go.) I was not in San Francisco to find lost Black Mountain. It was lost to me anyway. I was in San Francisco because it was on the way west.
Until I saw a sign pointing east. A poster in the window of City Lights Bookshop advertised a poetry reading the next night at a branch library. Among the names I did not know were two from Black Mountain I knew very well: John Wieners and Joe Dunn.
Most of the library was dark, and there were only a few people sitting among the empty chairs. It was after seven-thirty, when the reading was meant to begin, and the librarian looked a bit green. Then it was seven-forty. Then it was going on eight. Two carloads of people burst in, in the kind of manic haze only days of drinking will create. Joe Dunn was among them, sly, flat-footed, voluble, and glad to see me. As he had done my first week at Black Mountain, he quickly took on the role of guide and introduced me to the others. Among them was a young man with a pale skinny face and a mop of dark frizzy hair, wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses with one lens missing. A very bloodshot brown eye looked out through the empty frame. When he heard my name he said I should hang out after. He said they were all going to eat Chinese food and I should come along. He said he wanted to look me up that weekend. I tried to put him off, but he persisted.
We didn’t mean to go for so long, Bob Creeley and I just wanted to get away from the Black Mountain campus for a bit, get away from the ugly aftermath of a car wreck that was itself an explosion. Tom Field had gunned his car into a stone chimneypiece to end a protracted session of needling teasing that had been going on for hours over beers at Ma Peeks’ bar and had continued as Tom drove his tormenters down the highway back up to the school.
I don’t remember how the two of us left the lighted rooms together, but there we were, walking down the hill past the lake. It wasn’t one of those pitch-black nights. It was starry, and half-lit. It was easy walking in the wet mountain cool, lit by mildly phosphorescent gravel. Twice that night, Bob suggested we sit down, and he smoked a cigarette and leaned back on one elbow. Bob had been in the hospital with a wrenched shoulder, and was probably in some pain, but he didn’t say. I had no fear of getting lost but it seemed to me Bob didn’t know any more than I did exactly where the roads went. We walked and talked all night. We were hungry and pink cheeked when we got back to campus, and everybody assumed we’d been fucking. It seems to me I didn’t see Bob after that. I had to go back to Chapel Hill. Or he left for New York. Or both. It was break time, of course. It was the end of summer.
“Why ever did you ask me for my phone number that night,” I asked Baz a long time afterwards. “I was really annoyed.”
“Oh, you were a long way from being pleasant.”
“Well, yeah, you can’t imagine how you looked. And later I looked in your address book where you supposedly wrote down my phone number and all it said was Martha Walnut. Martha Walnut!”
Walnut was my phone exchange.
“How’d ja find me?”
“Yeah, but how did you know my name? You wrote down Walnut.”
“Bob Creeley told me your name. Creeley and I took a couple of very long walks together that last year at school. He told me one night if I ever came across Martha Davis I should be sure to spend some time with you. He said a whole bunch of things about you. He sure was glad you didn’t marry that jerk. He told me he was afraid you would, and if you did you’d marry five more guys before you were through, and it wouldn’t do you any good at all. He said I should find you, and stick around.”
If I had not been. If I had not been always in transition, always the new girl, the one no one knows, the one with the Southern accent, the one with the Yankee accent, the rich or the not-really-rich one, the one from the house with all those books, on East Eighty-Sixth Street and then in Chapel Hill. If I had not been the faculty brat. If I had not had such comfort with poverty, which gave me a feeling of calm and normalcy. If I had not been any of those things I would still have been just as desperate to leave home the summer I was eighteen. And I would have found a bohemia somewhere, a gang of people at odds. All runaways know this. Black Mountain was accidental. I was passing through my days without deep attachments. I felt everything could be exchanged. Everything almost was.
I bought a copy of the Black Mountain Review at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in the basement of the university library. The issue with a portfolio of Franz Kline’s black and white paintings, and a two-page essay by Robert Creeley in a language and tone I had never encountered in my life. What was this art?
It was only three hundred miles west of Chapel Hill—I could get there on a bus. I asked my parents if they’d ever heard of Black Mountain College.
“Ar-rumph,” Lambert said. “Eric Bentley went there.” Radical theater was his image.
“Black Mountain girls do post-graduate work at the abortionist,” said Isabella. Sexual liberties was her image. Though my mother was also the one who had taken thirteen-year-old me to foreign movies, to La Ronde, Le Diable au Corps.
I wrote to the school for a catalog. More correspondence followed. Was there a work-study program or could I get a part-time job in the town? Not feasible, too far. Finally I got a postcard, on which was typed: “Come with what money you have in hand and what you are used to for cooking. —Charles Olson, Rector.”
What I was used to for cooking was my mother. I wrapped up an old hotplate, two saucepans, some picnic cutlery, some clothes and stuffed my duffle bag. Thus, Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955. The summer before the very last summer.
There was no Black Mountain of legend, when everyone present was famous and glamorous. But my Black Mountain, like everyone’s from the beginning to the end, had students and teachers who later made amazing contributions. Here is my roster:
There were thirty-one souls in all, without counting a small tribe of children. Katie Olson, at three, had a fatally predictive cry as her ultimatum: “My big papa says!” Freddy Dorn, age six, strung together rhythmic sentences, employing fuck in all kinds of combinations. (I had read the word in books but had never heard it said.)
No gifts, some, or gone to ground in public memory. Amazing gifts, some. And subtle influences continue. Black Mountain leaves traces, maybe even a reservoir, but never a resurrection. The college was a piece of its time.
Almost everything was battered. A gut-busted ruin. The lower campus, with those ample buildings that figure in so many of the photographs—the Adirondack-style lodges with porches, beamed ceilings, fieldstone fireplaces—was closed. I peered through the glass doors. We were asked to please stay out.
My Black Mountain started further up the hill, just past the swampy upper edge of Lake Eden. There was a turnaround by the Studies Building, and a concrete pit, empty, for storing coal. There were large common rooms on the ground floor, plus classrooms and a few faculty apartments at the back end. The rest of the building was taken up by individual student studios. “People have fucked in every one of them,” Gerry van der Weile said admiringly. I picked out one that had been completely upholstered in wholesale egg-crate dividers, painted rose red on one wall and left as is elsewhere.
On the hill above the Studies Building were the scattered summer cottages where we all lived. Other buildings were student-built experiments. Plywood, cinderblock, corrugated metal, transparent plastic, plasterboard. The builders were long gone and the materials they used were not new anymore—minimalism doesn’t do dirty very well. The pot shop and the print shop were closed and padlocked. I had to walk through neck-high weeds to get to the library. The librarian was gone, for at least a year, and the door was warped and leaking, but it was not padlocked. Dissent. Origin. Black Sun. Carl Jung. Jane Harrison. Books from Black Mountain’s own print shop: The Double-Backed Beast, The Dutiful Son. Pages in beautifully made books, shining in the sunlight.
Except for Rockwell Kent, I had never seen or read these books or magazines. Child of a bookman, from a household that had thousands of volumes. Child of a bookman, an editor, who cherished his friendships with American visionaries like Louis Mumford and Stringfellow Barr. I knew a lot about what he thought and I had roamed the stacks of Chapel Hill’s university library, discovering only far away radicals, French anarchists, Italian surrealists, Russian nihilists. What was this other dissident American world that shadowed—that might be able to overwhelm—the liberal world of Lambert?
“What do you mean?” “Do you mean it?” These two demands circled like twin lenses. Black Mountain meant you to prepare yourself to mean something and then to challenge or defend it. They meant you to think of art or poetry or even politics as more important than the indexes of your personal importance. They believed the outside world was real and could be affected by things you did, things you thought. As for the obvious poverty, it didn’t automatically mean powerlessness. It did not mean meaninglessness. It did not give a person a pass from obligations.
I was at odds with the school’s ethic. I was supposed to have a weekly painting critique with Joe Fiore but when it was time for our session I went on long walks and hid in the bushes. It wasn’t him, personally. I was afraid my ideas were childish or, worse, that they were on a forbidden list, which I recognized but didn’t understand. Oh, there was a forbidden list. Had I been more equipped, I might have explored and defended myself per the demands of the Black Mountain ethic. Instead, I was simply frightened.
I knew I didn’t understand abstraction, although I responded viscerally to it. I knew surrealism was distained for its adherence to system, and system was suspect wherever it could be discerned, as a trap, a cutoff, a bulwark against the awesome realm of the imagination. That resolution—or (worse) epiphany—was more than boring, it was propagandist and wrong. But my inclination was always to the narrative, and I was overcome that I couldn’t support my weak convictions. It seemed once again proof that girls were not capable.
And yet, Black Mountain was also a gust of profound expressively female freedom for me. Babies didn’t mean exile in a suburban kitchen. Today paying attention to one’s children is no longer proof that intellectual, aesthetic, or business pursuits have been abandoned. But not then. Not 1955! Not only did women do nursing and childcare and household management exclusively, but beyond Black Mountain, middle-class women did most of these things out of the sight of men.
That summer, Black Mountain left me alone, which I seemed to ask for, and so I was without feedback, without the exchange of teacher and student, or student and classmates. I have missed out on that my whole life—both deliberate choice and unhappy accident. At Black Mountain I was private, reading and writing but only for myself; I was passive, soaking up as much as I could of what passed around me.
Perhaps it’s not the question of who, finally, rises to a place of respect and visibility, or should rise, or should never have risen. Who are these people probably isn’t the important question. Process, my dictionary proposes, means a set of facts, circumstances, or experiences that are observed and described or that can be observed and described throughout each of a series of changes continuously succeeding each other. Passing through, it goes on. A continued onward flow.
THE INFLUENCE OF BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE TODAY
I was at Black Mountain for three months in the summer of 1955 when I was eighteen. The school was near the end of its run. Everything was down. Maintenance, finances, enrollment, and especially influence.
Even so, from my three months, I got a texture, an imprint, a kind of map. It stamped me so hard because I so wanted to be stamped. In the late 1950s, my generation was called the Silent Generation by mainstream press, and berated for conformity; we were living in a country as locked into resistance to any kind of change as it ever is today.
But up in the North Carolina hills, Black Mountain was saying things I craved to hear. The usual litany about the college is a kind of list poem: a recitation of the famous artists, poets, potters, dancers, scholars, musicians improbably working there, sometimes followed by another list of what, where, when, and by whom this or that surprising thing was done.
But in 1955, Merce Cunningham and John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg were a long way from becoming cultural presences. Arthur Penn had yet to make a movie. Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson were known to a truly specialized few. Ed Dorn, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners had barely begun writing. Some of the abstract expressionist painters were beginning to surface but it was a recent turn. In fact, the campus was a colony of refusés as well as refugees, of unknowns, of people struggling to come into new ideas.
Famous students and famous faculty could be the reason for the college’s celebrity, but I believe its influence today involves a search for the qualities, ideas, and values that animated the work people did there. One’s life is one’s own, and education develops out of becoming responsible for it. And it’s not easy.
People who meet old Black Mountain students, especially if they are not the famous ones, have often remarked on a quality of bravery. Freedom doesn’t actually feel all that wonderful. Most people don’t really like being without the support of rules and requirements. Or investing themselves without a guarantee of reward. Doing independent work is lonely and scary. But people at Black Mountain were willing to or impelled to find their own course. Their own Black Mountain.
And here’s another value… I heard it in music and painting and theater while I was there—that words are intrinsically connected to one’s body, the whole human mess of it.
Although the school’s history is hardly exemplary. There were some nasty political fights about homosexuality as Martin Duberman recounts; Paul Goodman had to test the school’s tolerance by taking a public shit on the baseball field; and anti-Communism was stridently promulgated by some of the European refugees. Just the same, that idea about the incorporation of body and language can make a space where a range of issues gather: gender, identity, race, sexuality, local history, personal history, and out to the wider general history. And it seems to me that this in turn leads to a search for the forgotten soul. Not religion! But a recognition that the whole is not all known, is not all comprehendible by the conventional five senses or by a collection of acquired knowledge no matter how extensive. The body—organs, muscles, bones, guts, hormones, nerves, yes the breath, the rhythms of digestion, the flow of fluids—and the soul are always in play.
One final idea: generosity. Black Mountain was never a warm and supportive community. There were cliques, violent political fights, even feuds. More constant than the periodic explosions was the struggle for attention—the sheer naked competition the college unleashed in people. You stayed up all night to have something to show or to say. But having gone out on a limb that way also bred a generous spirit, maybe simply an appreciation of what goes into making any real piece of art. And thus your personal obligation to take it in, to take your time with it.
The poet George Quasha’s description of the work of Basil King, poet and painter, and my partner of more than fifty years, can stand in for what Black Mountain’s concepts might mean to anyone going forward:
He’s hardly indifferent to recognition and acknowledgment (who is? It would be unhealthy) but his work… is in no way dependent on the judgment or acceptance or purchase–power of others. It simply has to be, it just goes on, and you can feel that necessity throughout.
—adapted from Martha King’s talk at a panel on Black Mountain College at the 2015 AWP Conference
Why did we do it?
I wanted to say we are married. The public claim of it. I’m not sure why it was so important to Basil. Stability perhaps? He’s only said it seemed childish not to. That we were in love was overwhelmingly true. We didn’t want to spend a day apart. But getting married was one of the very few public positions the two of us were to take for a very long time.
Our premarital counseling is provided by John Wieners as we three stand on California Street. He will write all the work in The Hotel Wentley Poems three months from now. The book will be published a little later in the year. But we already know what a poet he is. And we’re excited. We tell John we’re getting married. But instead of smiling he looks worried. Then asks us each for our place and date of birth, which we give him. The time of day? We both guess. He pulls a pocket-sized astrology reference book from his inside jacket pocket.
“You’ll be fine,” he says after ruffling some pages. “It works.” He wreathes in smiles and kisses us solemnly on our foreheads.
Ferret-faced, and then elegant; loving, then haughtily disapproving; runty and ill complected; and then, on some days, as beautiful as a young John Gielgud—the chameleon survival of homosexuality. When I met him, John was a virgin as far as women were concerned but wanted desperately to be in love with one of us. He wanted desperately to have a woman love him, more perfectly to be a woman himself. This would have been a part of the alchemy, the reorganization that poetry could give him, and that he could give to poems.
“Does it hurt you?” he asked me.
“No. It feels great!”
“I can’t imagine how, going in that way!”
I was too shy to reverse the question. “I don’t explain it well,” I said. That was lame.
San Francisco was a fine town for writers, but a painter needed to be in New York, Baz explained. In 1959, we came to the big art world and then we moved to the far edge, the very end of the earth, the bottom of Manhattan Island. How is easier to say than why.
Dirtie Gertie was the owner of 33 Whitehall Street, a three-story office building near Wall Street. Mr. Kaplan’s menswear occupied the street level. Upstairs, long linoleum covered hallways, pebbled glass doors with faded gold lettering, globe-ceiling fixtures with 25-watt light bulbs. You’ve seen it in old Sam Spade movies. We were to be caretakers—sweep the halls, keep the lights in working order, look out for the one remaining upstairs tenant, Mrs. Ferguson, who came by once or twice a week and drank down a pint of bourbon under the fading cruise-ship posters of the travel agency she used to run with her husband. Baz would help her into a cab when she was ready to go home. For these responsibilities, we had the whole third floor for fifty dollars a month.
Maybe a hundred people lived below City Hall—a handful of drifters, feral cats, an old poet named Oscar Williams, and a small knot of artists who had colonized some older, more picturesque buildings on Coenties Slip, just around the corner. Those buildings were so old they had sail-making lofts. They had pitched roofs and fireplaces. The Coenties Slip group knew each other: Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly. We sometimes saw each other on the street. But even when I was in an acting class with Delphine Seyrig (who starred in Last Year at Marienbad when she went back to France) and rode home with her on the back of her Lambretta, we never established real friendships. They were older; to me they were adults. People knew their names. I thought the reason for our avoidance lay there. Now I think that Baz sent out his potent don’t-bother-me vibes because he didn’t need yet another tribe of bohemians offering to accept him. We were present but we were not.
Nights we were all to ourselves in the middle of an enormous city, silent and windswept. We might have been living on the floor of the Grand Canyon, I used to say, as we walked among the towers. We were in other far less pleasant places in our hearts and minds while we lived on Whitehall, but we lived sequestered, even privileged by the weird terrain. Our empty building creaked and released nineteenth-century dust. Our romance blew around our building like the sea breeze. Because we went to the Staten Island Ferry terminal shops so often the staff got to know us, and waved us to duck under the turnstiles. A free boat ride was our summer night cool-off. We’d sit on the open end with our feet up on the railing, listening to the dark hiss of bubbles, watching bits of the city dance on their own reflections, and eating Frosty Freezes from the terminal’s ice cream store. On the other side, we’d walk around, back up the ramp and be waved under the turnstile for our trip home. A free life could be scavenged from the city’s excess, from the edges, the ignored, the overlooked, in the middle of our life in the city where we found so much confusion.
I had come to town married to a very young man, a twenty-three-year-old who nevertheless had years of a past—all the way back to an earlier era, already the stuff of legend, when sixteen-year-old Baz first hitchhiked up to New York City from North Carolina.
I never knew that young man. He was part of a Black Mountain invasion, a small shock troop of older but also still young men most of whom believed that Black Mountain, particularly in the person of Charles Olson, possessed the vision for a whole new world.
“Olson says,” Joel Oppenheimer or Fielding Dawson would intone, with all the certainty of converts. Have you listened to Ives, to Cage? Do you understand what William Carlos Williams has really done for prosody? Are you following Zukofsky? The social reforms of Dennison and Goodman? The American focus of Perry Smith? Don’t talk to me about Paris! Fuck France and all European perspectives. Black Mountain has the inside edge.
But, as Frank O’Hara said to me and Baz a bit later, “We were already here. We didn’t need to be told.”
During that past, the equivocally credentialed teenage Baz had become a pet. Grace Hartigan liked him. Willem DeKooning befriended him. Even crazed Jackson Pollock talked to him. Joan Mitchell bought him beer. They had treated him with affection and familiarity in the Cedars of seven years before, and the rest of the bar, the striving wannabes and neverbeens, the starstruck, and the discouraged, all held this image of him.
The Bar. The Cedars. Technically, of course, the Cedar Street Tavern. Stock exchange, pawnshop, rental office, squat, and psycho ward. Village post office. The Cedars was a small-town city hall where reputations could be created and destroyed in a day’s time.
In 1959, the former climate of powerful protection and tolerance for Baz, which would have covered me as well, was now absent. Instead, I too was glared at and insulted by people I didn’t know. Baz was rejected and rejecting. I was his silent sidekick. Baz lived in a state of anxious energy always close to spinning out of control, and it never took much to provoke him. A careless word, a lazy assumption, and Baz would launch one of his furious condemnations. A defense or request for restraint based on the offender’s status only upped his stake in the contest. Baz would be off. Hot coals. High winds. A crown fire.
Baz knew what matters in debate from his British schooling. Even so, and all too often, emotions would overwhelm him and he’d grow inarticulate with passion. He’d tangle syntax, garble references, fly into nonsense. His pupils would expand until his eyes sprayed black light. Even in that state he was likely to hurl at least one unforgivably accurate insight. This delicate young man of 135 pounds, with his spastic right hand, his half-paralyzed right leg: there were people in the art world who acted as if he could or would or actually had physically beaten them up.
“You back?” a man said to Baz on a typical night in the Cedars. “I thought you were dead.”
Baz and I had Fame and Rejection. We lived in a flow of contradiction.
Everyone who asked to stay at 33 Whitehall wanted the same things: succor, harbor, asylum; the people we rejected never forgave us for saying no. We must have looked very competent, incredibly sure of ourselves. I was that year twenty-one; Baz, twenty-three. Most of the people we knew were five to fifteen years older, but no one appeared to think of us as young and poor. Only Max Finstein, a poet, former jazz musician, the prince of thieves I called him, was offered hospitality and never came back. I fed him a cabbage sandwich on a thin Thursday-before-payday night. It was all I had and he was too good a con to waste any more time at such a dry fountain.
Why did Dan Rice seek us out? He was beautiful, tiny and large-headed, translucent, strong but not muscular—California’s golden Celt, a cool jazzman with sea-blue battle eyes. Back in 1959, Dan’s approval meant a share of his golden aura, a share of the blessing Charles Olson had bestowed when he declared Rice to be “the finest painter of his generation.” Dan received Olson’s adoration smoothly, as if it were his natural right. He never (before alcohol destroyed his nerves) made an awkward move. No one could see the delicate web Dan wove for himself. He was a master at hiding.
Dan stayed with us often, and for days. He needed meals and we usually had food; he often needed a place to stay, and we had a living room furnished with several mattresses. He needed a loan. So did we. A hundred dollars passed back and forth between him and us so many times, we finally lost track of who owed whom. We needed conversation, and Dan sharpened his wits with Baz, always a fountain of the bent and unexpected. Oh we needed talk. We needed acceptance. Dan accepted us. He did better than that. Dan could see worth in what Baz struggled for in his studio. Dan loved Baz for being an artist, around, beyond, and through the competition for dominance that always rocked between two of them. And we both loved him back.
John Wieners arrived, another young man living on wits, engaged in the systematic ruination of his senses, in derangement of everyday life, in a determined romantic quest for poetry’s authenticity. As seemed utterly reasonable to me and Baz. Destroy to make a world. Destroy to make a self. How else? Brilliant John, a poet of crazed lyricism, invention, and song. Baz loved him. He’d known him since they were both students at Black Mountain. Baz said he’d never seen a person work so hard to make his art, or worked so hard to make himself a master.
John had a woman with him. And her friends, two other guys and one more woman. He had left San Francisco and returned to his home turf in Boston, and in this woman had found, he told us, a refuge, a family, a place to spring from. He was on the mend, John said. He had a chance, again, he said. How our friend John loved her, that she sucked his dick, that she held his dick and guided it for him, that she needed him and whatever he promised her, that she promised him peterpanhood. There was some reason they’d all left Boston. Some problem, some scam unglued. Not the point. John offered us to his friends. We were the bent home, the warm nonjudgmental haven. We could take them all in and offer shelter. It would be our gang against the world.
The group was mammal-friendly, easy, but without much conversation. Whoever was there squidged over to make room whenever someone else entered the room; and sprawled to take up the vacant space whenever someone left. I sat with the two women while all the men were out one night and watched as they lovingly, sexually, shot up together. One of them used a vein above her eyelid.
Days went by. Slowly. Was it a week? Two? More? Baz and I had day jobs we had to go to. We had to arrive more or less on time, in clothing more or less clean and appropriate. We were fraying. Finally, Baz came out with it: it was time for the group to move on. “You’re making her turn tricks again! What else can she do?” John screamed at Baz. You of all people, said his eyes.
Tears, a scuffle. The lumbering men friends made a flailing attack and not so ineffectually. An arc of nose blood spotted the Chinese newspaper we’d pasted on our windows, for a modicum of daytime privacy. Weekdays the printers in the shop directly across the street, legs over the wide windowsills, smoking or eating chips and drinking coffee while their machines clattered through a run.
One of the men howled, “Fucking squares!” Flared at John, “Why’ja bring us here!”
The eyelid woman demanded money from me. In exchange for her derision. You hopeless bourgeoisie, her face said. Baz gave her some. We left. They left. He left. She left. They left and did not stay. Then they were gone, we cleaned up, and John didn’t forgive us.
Baz and I moved uptown—to Delancey Street, subletting the top floor of a building while the regular tenants—Robert Beauchamp, painter, and Jackie Farrara, sculptor—went to Europe. Bob had a face marked by Oklahoma poverty and squinty with desire. A scrawny body, a delicate feminine voice. He worked in the same frame shop Basil did. At that time, Walter P. Chrysler had an agent named Al who visited studios and bought art by truckload for the Chrysler collection. The prices were pretty low—Bob may have sold twenty or thirty canvases to Chrysler for the six-thousand dollars he was paid. And then a fellowship came through for him. However it was managed, it seemed unreal to me. I expected very little. They had money in hand and were simply going to wander—to France, Spain, Italy. They didn’t have to do anything or go anywhere in particular. They were just going to take it in.
We sublet part of Jackie and Bob’s social life too. Bob Thompson was a condition of our sublease. He lived and painted two blocks away, and we were to permit him access to our shower, the only one in the building, and to Bill and Sven, artists living on the third and fourth floors. Bob was a regular presence at our big round table, bringing gossip and dope, bottles of beer, and stories of his childhood in the racial interstices of St. Louis. He had learned to slide along the margins of many intersecting worlds long before he came to live in the New York art world; and slid into our lives too, toting his bathrobe, clean clothes, soaps and combs over from Clinton Street in a brown paper shopping bag.
When we moved in, a forest of houseplants lived around the left-hand front window, including Jackie’s giant avocado. Our instructions were to try to keep the plants alive. We were generously forgiven in advance if we could not, Jackie told me, woman to woman, so of course it was a challenge I took very hard. I was desperate in February when the avocado began to yellow and drop leaves. None of the plants looked good by then.
“My great-aunt grew the best house plants in Seattle,” Dan Rice said one night when he was over. All her friends were terribly envious, he told us, and nagged for her secret. Finally she confessed—water once a week with three parts water, one part urine. Then he unzipped, wavered to the plant corner, and let fly.
“This is three parts beer, one part urine, but it oughta work,” he said, basting everything, as our door opened and in walked Avery, my friend from back home in Chapel Hill. I got a glimpse of her shocked moon-white face as she closed the door and went away. I suppose she heard me yelling down the stairs to come on back, but she didn’t. Everyone around the table was roaring.
The treatment worked. The plants recovered.
For years I believed what Avery did: that I was defying my parents’ expectations. But obedience was my problem, not defiance. I am here on this page as I was then: smudged, out of focus, aided by thick glasses in transparent pink plastic frames. At twenty-three, I was an observer waiting to see the next scene unfold. I was in a species of shock, a low-keyed, long-term condition like someone who can’t recover from the war but can accommodate to altering circumstance and move along as long as you could stay on the surface.
At a noisy loft party on Canal Street, someone Baz knew from high school in Detroit introduced us to James Rosenquist, who was working in a loft on Coenties Slip, around the corner from where we had lived on Whitehall Street.
Jim was exactly, authentically, what he showed in his work back then: a Midwestern American, proud of his family, of having a Jewish grandmother, of his father’s success in business, of his own practical approach to the business of being an artist. His was not the America of Charles Olson, that wild amalgam of clan pride, agrarian ethics, and millennial vision. Jim was the American mercantile middle. He was a modern man. His work offered everyone optimism again. A beautiful good time could be had in our rich, rich country. And a life in art could be had by clean-cut normal Americans if they were willing to work hard.
Jim and Mary Lou worked hard; they had a budget, and savings. They had a tiny apartment way uptown on East 96th Street. They kept a little Volkswagen on the strict condition that they use it for absolutely every trip they took unless they walked. Thus Jim drove Mary Lou every morning to her job as a textile designer somewhere in Queens and left his studio promptly every afternoon in time to pick her up again. With her salary, which was far better than what I earned in offices, and their prudent management, Jim didn’t have to work at anything but his art.
They did supplement themselves with an odd enterprise. The old Lower Manhattan was being dismantled, and the Rosenquists scoped out buildings marked for demolition to retrieve cornices and figureheads and decorative moldings—all of which could be sold to decorators, garden designers, and, for really choice pieces, to specialized collectors. They were scavengers, and they invited us to come along.
Henry Geldzahler was one of the partners. Another principal was Ivan Karp. They were raiders in the night, with gunnysacks heavy with loot. Jim was athletic and fearless of heights. Plump Henry played lookout. Mary Lou was sometimes Jim’s assistant up on the scaffold. They were also forging alliances. Baz didn’t join in.
Geldzahler and Karp, along with Dick Bellamy, were working together by day as well. Ivan was Leo Castelli’s top assistant; Henry had acquired a junior curatorship at the Metropolitan Museum; and the two of them were putting the backers together who would soon underwrite the Green, Dick’s Fifty-Seventh Street gallery. They were making a space for themselves, their friends, their ideas.
Jim thought Baz declined to scavenge because of moral rectitude. I thought Baz was afraid. But Baz never explained, even in private. He just said no.
“What do you want?” John Chamberlain demanded, perhaps on behest of the Karp, Geldzahler, Bellamy triumvirate or maybe because the question was in the air. “What do you want, Baz?”
We were spending the weekend at John’s house in the country. He was probably seeking allies. The hardline Black Mountain people were shunning him as he moved purposefully into the uptown art world. There was a kind of sniff campaign: lax, hasty, pandering to fashion was the orthodox Black Mountain view of his sculpture back then.
Out in the country that Saturday afternoon, Baz couldn’t answer when John pressed: “Is it Fame? Money? Influence? What do you want?” I burst into tears because I thought Baz was being picked on and John’s wife, Elaine, dragged me into the kitchen. But it was a fair question. What did he want?
For years Baz and I talked around these questions or left them unsaid. You could say we both shrugged. I wasn’t sure enough of myself to go public with my ideas about him. Baz wasn’t able to say to me what he knew. Life in public as an artist is a rickety proposition. He wasn’t ready.
Bob Beauchamp and Jackie Ferrara were tan and full of stories. Italy was the best they said. They had traveled in Spain and France as well, slept in youth hostels and once in a whorehouse. They had had encounters with other roaming eccentrics. Now they were back, to digest, to settle in, to change their work.
Baz and I were pale, short of money, paranoid—and we had to move quickly. The painter Jay Milder wanted a couple hundred bucks for a loft he had down on Ferry Street. His wife was pregnant and they were moving to a more residential part of town. The huge stone base of the Brooklyn Bridge formed the uptown side of the street, but number 48, a three-story building with a steeply pitched roof, was far enough up the hill to have beautiful light and low enough for the bridge noise to float away far above.
Just do the next thing. And then the next. So we did. We threw a couple of epic parties on Ferry Street that winter, and crowds trouped in, liquored up, smoked, danced in their coats, filled the dark ceiling with puffs of warm breath. But Basil’s temper was bad. He worked and worked. I went to my office job on weekdays, and Baz painted. Work filled up the studio. Night and day he fought with people. He fought with himself. He argued with the walls, the floor and the ceilings.
We lived through a long winter there without any heat. No pot-bellied stove. Nothing. Tenement tricks like running the oven with the door open, or keeping two or three pots of water boiling on the stove, had no effect on that great high space. We chopped the Christmas tree up and burned it little bit by little bit, right on the floor in the middle of the room. There was a storm the night we did it, and the wind was rattling steel shutters and howling up Pearl Street. Later I was oddly proud of the dark scorched spot on the floor.
We warmed up some evenings at the Cedars but I had come to dread being there. Money and fame were pooling into a place that had once been a kind of refuge. Almost without our noticing it, making it wasn’t about making one’s art do something, or even about finding someone exciting to sleep with. It was money and it was stars. Movie stars came there to be around art stars. Tourists came to say they’d been there.
One night we were at a big party where Allen Ginsberg told Baz he’d just received a check, a windfall from the outer blue. Came home and found a grant or gift or whatever it was, in an envelope in his mailbox. A thousand dollars. It was beginning to be clear that Allen’s life would be different. Baz promptly asked him to lend us some money. He gave Baz cash the next day. Baz went to LeeSam, purveyor of secondhand everything, and shortly we could snap on the switch for a huge space heater and the shiny pipes would pulse out a strong warm breeze.
Remember me? I didn’t remember myself back then. I worked at a series of office jobs in a detached frame of mind. I worked at a club that sold blocks of tickets for Broadway shows, often those in trouble; at a knitting-yarn company writing letters refusing to help customers who complained about their products; at a Madison Avenue agency that sold advertising space in out-of-town newspapers to national advertisers. I remained detached even when in 1961 I ended up at Random House, where aspirants for mainstream cultural power jockeyed.
I lived a life rather like that of women who have domestic abuse at home. When they show up at work their haircuts and makeup are perfect. Their clothing is cared for. They leave unspeakable chaos at home and go to jobs where no one knows about their other life. I left the place we lived every weekday with my lunch in a paper bag, and went to work uptown. I wore no makeup and my clothes were passable, barely. My husband never hit me so I never had bruises to hide. He had the bruises. He had the fights with other men, shouting or shoving matches mostly, but sometimes punches were thrown. He was an artist with no art he wanted to show; he was systematically tearing away the labels of promise and expectation that had been given him. And what replaced those labels? He was handing vindication aplenty to the envy-bitten people he had eclipsed during his reign as the Cedars’s very own rebel teenager. He had less and less to say for himself and he wanted it that way.
I, on the other hand, had fallen accidentally into socially approved employment, if not by downtown’s standards. In smaller rooms on the second or third floors of the Villard Mansion on Madison Avenue, Random House’s young Turks had space; I passed their offices, where telephones were always ringing and sometimes laughter was loud, but I never met any of them. I didn’t think of any these people as stars. I thought of them as hacks. Their skill lay in extracting the easy stuff, in knowing what to take, and how to make it palatable so it could be furnished as embellishment for the comfort of the educated. Perhaps my father was right not to pave a way for me (although he was very wrong). I didn’t want these people. Not even if I had been able to compete in their do-you-know-this-person-do-you-know-that-person world. After all if I had wanted to be part of it, I would have worked full tilt to get it. I would have mined my father ruthlessly and gotten out of him what little he had to give. Women with far fewer advantages than mine have done this ever, especially in New York City.
Instead, I worked at Random House as an alien. My job was silly, it gave me a paycheck every month, and beyond that I didn’t really care.
Remember Paul Blackburn? Paul should be remembered. He was always on the telephone playing tapes of poetry readings for Baz. Beautiful bandy-legged Paul, with his dark hair and his white skin. Paul was no flaneur, despite his city ease: he was vying for the Socialist dream, trying to invent a public culture—oral, aural, for everybody. A coffeehouse culture where high poetry would make a direct appeal to open ears, barriers removed. He imagined poetry flying free of class or cultural constraints. A poetry as direct as song. He would ride the subway and read aloud to his car’s occupants. Sometimes people clapped.
Baz would meet Paul on the street, cowboy hat, squinty eyes, maybe half-toked, almost always brandy-breathed, and sometimes they would talk, and sometimes they would walk, the day open before them—a city of bars, bookstores, lunch counters, park benches, chance encounters. Manhattan. Endless home. I would hear the epics later.
A walk with Paul Blackburn in New York City was like a walk in a North Florida palmetto swamp with John James Audubon or a daytrip up Mt. Katahdin with Marsden Hartley. There’s a pace to this kind of hanging out that I admire. It rings in my imagination but in practice it eludes me—and maybe most women? An actual day dripped out this way makes me deeply nervous. I keep needing the next thing. Come on let’s go, I’m always thinking.
This was a bad time for Paul. He was drinking heavily, philandering everywhere, and his marriage to Sara, a junior editor at Knopf, was going, going, gone. Like me, Sara left a bohemian apartment every weekday to work among the people who steered New York’s public literary life. She was not anonymous and aloof as I was. Her editorial acumen was respected and her colleagues knew of Paul Blackburn: they knew of him as “promising poet,” “brilliant translator” “isn’t he one of M. L. Rosenthal’s protégés?”
Sara’s suffering seemed endless. Then she and Paul ended it. I remember feeling relieved. I suspected then that she felt the same pressure about me, that my situation, married to “deadbeat,” “self-destructive” Basil seemed just as endless to her, and she would have been relieved to hear that Baz and I had split, and I didn’t want to talk to her.
Remember me? People who met me and Baz in those years actually don’t. I must have been faceless, totally withdrawn.
In the spring, we were evicted from Ferry Street in a citywide hunt for artists living in illegal factory spaces. Uniformed police accompanied the building inspectors. We were given seventy-two hours to clear out. No appeal.
We ended up on foul Avenue D, in a cat-piss and cabbage-smelling tenement, miles from our friends in the civilized Lower East Side, watching bags of garbage tumble down the airshaft. That was the view from our living room window. It was dangerous and bleak. It was slums unredeemed by any hint of bohemian presence. The apartment itself was the smallest, foulest place I ever lived. Meanwhile, we heard that artists were squatting at 48 Ferry. Using that beautiful huge space free. Sunlight poured through the two huge skylights for them.
When Baz was sixteen, he had hitchhiked to New York from Black Mountain to look up his heroes. And just knocked on studio doors. It was like that then.
“I’m Basil King. I have greetings from Black Mountain,” he’d say.
He found Franz Kline on the curb of Tenth Street just off Third Avenue, with boxes and possessions tossed out on the street. Paintings, the black and white Klines that Baz had come to see, were leaning against the walls. Evicted. This would have been 1952. Kline didn’t bother to sit up on a chair all night to guard his work. He left the pile as it was and walked Baz over to the Cedars, where beer was still a nickel.
Don’t worry about it, kid, he’d said. He had a friend who was coming with money. He’d get everything inside before the next day. Tossed out on the street isn’t the worst thing that can happen.
So it gnawed on me. If getting tossed out isn’t so bad, why didn’t we risk it? Why were we always so legal, so rent-paying? I wailed. Baz could have, should have, stayed on and just not paid! He was stern: I can’t handle a sudden eviction. I could get tossed out on my ass, with no notice at all! Then what would happen to my work?
Years later, I saw our place on Ferry Street as it was after we left. My mother gave me a book of photographs by Danny Lyon called The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and there it is—the photograph shows just the back part, the jerry-built chest-high partition between what had been our kitchen and where we’d had our big round table. I’d have turned the camera around to take in the beautiful slant-ceilinged painting space, fourteen feet high at the peak, nine at the low end, with its two great skylights and twelve little windows, six on each side. There were huge wooden crossbeams and angular rabbiting to support the roof slats. It was built like the hull of a ship. When we first moved in we’d paid a guy with a commercial paint sprayer fifty dollars to make the whole place white, and even at winter’s worst it had been like living inside a giant Louise Nevelson.
Beautiful Ferry Street. I was right. The squatters had had everything. Until everything reversed again.
Here is an anxious, overweight, carefully coiffed daughter and wife of Jewish millionaires. Money gleams on her skin but it never gives her leave. She radiates unease. Does she know that twenty-five-year-old me, with no assets and no social support, can walk into her giant Park Avenue apartment and feel a small twinge of pity for her?
Lita Hornick had a doctorate in contemporary literature. She wasn’t dumb. It must have been a battle to get her dissertation accepted, to get herself all the way through the academic hurdles in those hostile days. She’d had epic family fights just to go to Columbia, she told me. But then she went to her interview for a teaching assistantship in glitter-green eye shadow, wearing a cocktail dress, a full-length mink, and carrying a designer handbag. In 1954. This regalia would probably work just fine today. By 1960 she has begun acquiring an entourage of gay men who recognize her desperation. She has money to purchase top adult playthings, and she chooses paintings, sculptures, and a literary magazine. Her family believes indulgence will cheer her up.
Today, a bright warm day in early fall, 1961, she is going to give some money to a young artist for two of his abstract paintings. To her great surprise, her husband actually likes these pictures and has taken one of them to hang in his company’s boardroom. She asks the artist to meet her at a private-banking firm, and he stands alone on the wide marble floor in his corduroy jacket and khakis while she is given new one hundred dollar bills. She doesn’t give them to him. They are to eat lunch at the Carlyle, she says. After their first martini, she pulls bills out of her bag and counts them out to him, watching him turn pink over his ears and down into his shirt collar. Other diners conceal their delight. The lunch drags on until it’s after three.
It’s four when the young man reaches Random House. Half a year’s worth of cash is in his inside jacket pocket beating away over his heart, with the knowledge that he was exactly what the Carlyle diners saw, because his person had been purchased for performance value, and money had bought it.
Money! A sale. A reprieve. A taste of fame. Money! A rising tide. This will make Baz more at ease with himself, more sure. I was sure. Not a one-time thing, that sale. I was sure. It was shocking how quickly things could change. Jim Rosenquist and his wife were already moving to a house in East Hampton, building a studio in the side yard, putting a nursery together. Mary Lou had quit her day job at the textile firm.
I thought we might join the people who were organizing to make loft living legal—artists were already forming themselves up to rent collectively or even to buy loft buildings. Could we join something like that? But Baz didn’t want to live in a loft again. He wanted to live away from his workplace. To leave it and come home at the end of a day. “Domesticity is the wildest,” he said, as he’d once said to Charles Olson at Black Mountain, who had pounded on the table and roared, “Where do you get these things, boy?”
Which is how we came to live at 57-59 Second Avenue, in the heart of what had become our world. We could reach everything we used and find everyone we knew on foot. The building was nine stories high. The apartment we took was on the eighth floor, in the back. Never mind that all the windows rattled when wind blew. Pretty French doors separated the living and dining rooms and two big back windows had a view over rooftops all the way west to Broadway. Sky. Sunshine.
John was one of the two owners of the Cedars. He was the city’s World War II generation, looking out with threatened eyes at who was coming next. Everyone knew he was never quite able to keep up with the city-sophisticate working-class pizzazz of his partner, Sam, but it was the style of the place to put up with him. John worked the bar most weekend evenings. His dour humor and hangdog resentment were expected by the evening regulars, but Baz couldn’t stop himself from taking the bait. Fuck you, said his body and his eyes, even when his mouth did not. An explosion was inevitable, and one night I saw John grab Baz and pull him through the crowd toward the street door.
When I reached the sidewalk, Baz’s arms were pinned and John was throwing punches at him. Baz had both feet off the ground to kick off the haymakers. I was probably yelling. I know I was knocked to the side, my glasses flew off, and then I was on all fours patting the sidewalk to find them. Finally, other people in the bar streamed out onto the sidewalk and stopped John and his ally.
My eyeglasses were miraculously unbroken. Baz’s shirt was not ripped. In fact, not a punch had landed. But he and I were humiliated beyond comfort. We refused several suggestions that we come back in for a drink and a cool off. We couldn’t. It seemed to us both that no one was sufficiently outraged on our behalf. We both understood that the regulars were not outraged at all: The conflict was not unexpected. Baz should have known how to control John. And himself.
He should have. That made our feelings all the more raw. We walked away down University Place, and made our way across Cooper Square to Second Avenue. We needed some way to recuperate in our own eyes. The Cedars was still the hub of the art world’s social network but after that night in 1962, neither Baz nor I stepped into the bar again. We chose exile. Self-imposed. Baz continued as a regular in the men-only McSorley’s during our years on Second Avenue, but a bar scene with a social art-world function was over for us.
At a time when Baz was throwing everything he had in the art world overboard, he wanted domesticity: an apartment and a wife and children in a little boat with him. We became parents, and we were making up a new way to do it. I was intent on making a new way. I had all that. Baz had all that and more. He had babies and he had a breakdown. He lived in love and fear. His work was in tatters, his motivations shredded. But he stayed. Baz stayed in place. He provided baby care, cooking, housework along with the proceeds of a whole string of little jobs. Our friends, both male and female, our bohemian radical friends, were horrified.
Hubert Selby’s first wife had decamped to somewhere New Jersey, taking kids he never spoke of, some time before his book Last Exit to Brooklyn was published. But he hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be young parents with no money. He often volunteered to be our free babysitter. “Just go on out, take a walk or something. Have a beer.” Wonderful Cubby. I remember coming home one night to find him on the couch with both kids; wrestling on our tv as loud as it would go, and Cubby screaming “Kill the mothafucker, kick ‘im in the nuts!” his blue eyes snapping and his wan wasted face a mask of murderous enthusiasm. There was a little girl on each side leaning up against him, watching half asleep, rosy and perfectly happy.
By now we were profoundly out of the scene. Baz was thought of as a brilliant has-been if he was thought of at all. The phone hardly rang. We lived in a permanent winter. Gil Sorrentino’s term was neverbeen. The neverbeen shown, neverbeen published, neverbeen understood. I was now an at-home typist, scrounging for work.
In between baby chores, I typed lengthy legal descriptions of cigarette filters for a low-rent patent lawyer. I typed lengthy descriptions of Catskill real estate for a low-rent real-estate agent. For LeRoi Jones’s friend, the poet A. B. Spellman, I typed speeches by Malcolm X, recorded by him on reel-to-reel tapes—riveting and the very devil to transcribe as I had to stop and start the tape by hand. For Eila Kokkenin, an art historian who was a friend of Allen Ginsberg’s and who, at Allen’s insistence, had volunteered as Hubert Huncke’s editor, I worked my way though Huncke’s journal, a sprawling mass of half-typed, half handwritten pages, covered with Eila’s attempted editorial corrections. It took months. Far worse for my sense of self, I typed manuscripts for three or four downtown poets who had grants or money from home.
I had become the typist who lives around the corner. The one who’ll type your poems without messing up your spacing. But I was not a person in their world. So they spoke to me, and so I answered. It was shocking. I had become completely invisible. If I ever mentioned this to Baz, I don’t remember it. I probably did not.
One day Baz walked down the hallway into our Second Avenue living room carrying two reams of 8x10 sixty-pound bond paper.
“Picked it up at the stationery store,” he said. “She’s having a sale. A thousand sheets for less than a buck.” He sat on the daybed and put a stack of paper on the coffee table, got out a brush, a glass of water, and a bottle of black Higgins ink. He drew a circle. One circle a page, circle after circle. Thick black ink. There were no grays, no drips, no deliberate variation. He did this that day. He did it the next. He did it while the kids were sleeping, and during the hours when I was out with them. He did it at night, even ignoring the barrage of TV programs we drugged ourselves with night after night.
Now he’s really lost it, I thought. Was I too frightened to think? I just waited. I would have been a proper creature of my time if I’d packed up the kids and split—then or during all the months earlier when he did almost nothing day after day. I didn’t. I just watched, wondering what would happen next.
Then one day a circle grew two small triangular wings. Wings move. Wings insist on it. Then they were birds, they were eye shapes, they were cunts, they were leaves. The circles were smaller and supported large and larger petals. They were man-flowers, black ink on white paper. The trap Baz had been in was sprung. Now he simply needed some bigger paper. Some more. Would he soon need paint?
I never knew Frank O’Hara as well as I wanted. Baz had known him since his first stays in New York. How could he not? Baz was everywhere then, and so was Frank. Frank knew everyone so Frank knew Baz. By the time I met him, we were living on Second Avenue, and Frank was a rising staff member at the Museum of Modern Art who had curated exhibitions and a published poet with a coterie of followers. Monster of prodigious talent, our urban dancer, man about our town, a wreck and a maker. He lived in the glamorous swirl the gifted lonely can invent in a great city. With no sentiment whatsoever he arranged for people to meet simply in pursuit of what might happen. He simply liked things to happen—could it have been that direct?
In the early sixties, Frank visited Baz’s studio, at first occasionally and as Baz’s work picked up, more and more often. Or Baz would go up to MOMA and they would eat lunch together. Two or three times, while I was still working at Random House, I’d come along too. Frank’s favorite place for this was Larre’s, a cheap white-tablecloth French restaurant serving mostly organ meat entrees for just a few dollars. I liked Frank’s smarts, his agile talk, and I loved his interest in Baz.
But Baz was cautious. We’d get a late-night phone call from Frank, an invitation to come over to his place, to meet these people, to do that thing, and Baz would almost never go. He was wary, he said, of “entanglements.” I was ticked off by his reticence. Frank wasn’t putting moves on him, it wasn’t that at all. It was Baz, fearing exposure.
In the pits of 1964, we were paying eighty-four dollars a month for our eighth-floor place on Second Avenue, and we were two months behind in the rent. Our apartment windows cleared the rooftops of the surrounding walkups. Dramatic sunsets sent long angled shadows across their tarred tops. You could watch clouds. Our landlord wanted us to move to an apartment on the fourth floor where every window looked onto brick-wall airshafts, except the rear ones, which had a view of another building’s windows six or seven feet away. We could have this one for forty-one dollars a month. Or, as I saw it, horrified, for lack of forty-three dollars a month we would live with no sun. If we refused, we should expect to pay him what we owed on Monday. Or we’d see the marshal’s notice at our door on Tuesday.
Baz went to see Frank. Could someone float a loan? The next day, Frank called, met Baz downtown, and gave him cash. Not a loan. A gift. Frank told Basil: “Larry Rivers wrote a check for me. He said you’re not supposed to know where this came from. Larry knows you’re a proud man. Of course I’m telling because I think you should know. But don’t ever let on.”
G. R. Swenson burst into Gavin Douglas’s apartment and announced breathlessly he’d just taken his very first tab of LSD. Gavin said, “Oh, you’ve been there before.” G. R. said, “You’re right. I’m disappointed.”
Baz and I were introduced. G. R. and Gavin had met at the Yale Institute for Better Living. Thorazine had turned G. R.’s skin yellow, and he had added to his personal decor by dying his hair bright orange. Naturally Gavin befriended him.
Gavin was the child of Lord Douglas and Jeanne, a middle-class Scot with ambition. Father Douglas was an art historian, and silent partner to the gallerist Joe Duveen. Gavin’s great uncle Boysie had been the downfall of Oscar Wilde. Gavin’s little sister was a model for Phoebe in The Catcher in the Rye, and grew up to marry J. D. Salinger. G. R., on the other hand, was a gawky effeminate midwestern schoolboy, a child of Topeka, Kansas. He was the kind of boy praised for handsomeness by all the women in his mother’s church. His father was a gas-station attendant, patient, quiet, almost inert in G. R.’s telling. A noble boob, whom G. R. adored.
G. R. was a rising art critic, a promoter of our old friend James Rosenquist. Gavin was enthusiastically working for his mother in what was by then called the Duveen Brothers Gallery. It was housed in a large limestone townhouse on East 79th Street right off the park. Gavin took the two of us on a tour of the building one day. When the gallery was finally, formally his, he would focus on the new surrealism. And in the dark English basement, Gavin planned to sell books, fine rare editions, and small press poetry. Eventually, Gavin said, he’d start publishing.
There was a future after all. A Douglas art empire, in which Baz was promised a fiefdom.
Life was beginning to look up financially. When Baz was excited about a new group of work, he’d call and Frank would be over. One summer weekend we invited Frank for supper at our apartment. He and Joe LeSueur, no longer lovers but close friends, lounged together on our India print daybed. Joe said to Frank that I reminded him of Patsy Southgate, which to Baz was a huge compliment—she was a loved and protected figure in their circle—but the comment rankled me. Was I being asked to follow yet another impossible model? Don’t take an interest in me in order to change me, I thought. But I probably didn’t look as suspicious as I felt. I was pleased because I’d made cassoulet. We had a cheap slightly vinegary white wine, which set off the sweetness of the beans, and I could tell Joe and Frank hadn’t expected to be so well fed.
I was clearing the dishes away, and heard from Baz after they’d gone what else Frank had said. “Baz, there are times when a person just needs money. You need to paint and not worry about Martha and the kids. When I get back from Fire Island, give me a call. We’ve got to do something to get you some money.”
In truth, I had trouble imagining acceptance; it was something that happened to other people. Baz, on the other hand, believed Frank could do exactly what he said.
We spent weekends the summer of 1966 going up to Connecticut with Gavin. He had a dark green MG and a Saturday morning appointment at Better Living in New Haven. He and his wife would swing by early and pick the four of us up out on Second Avenue. Baz and I, knees to chins, fitted into the MG’s half-size back seat. Mallory (aged three) and Hetty (two) were wedged into the storage hole right behind the back seat, along with all the beach bags and towels.
Two or three times, we stopped in Westchester County for an overnight with Gavin’s mother. The cool tall rooms were filled with books to the ceiling. There were big leather sofas, beautiful old cabinets and sideboards, deep Persian rugs. There was a Bosch hanging in one of the living rooms; and a Stubbs in another. Not bad free digs. Another summer of poverty.
We were back at Second Avenue after one of our beach weekends, waiting in our oven-hot hallway, hanging onto beach gear, each holding a sleeping child, and listening to the elevator slowly clanking its way down the big shaftway. I was bracing myself for our apartment—dingy walls, peeling woodwork, crumbly floors—when the door opened on three people: Joe LeSueur, with our downstairs neighbors Frank Lima and tall beautiful Sheila Baikul, at the time a sought-after Vogue model—all of them in tears.
“Frank is dying,” Sheila said.
“Frank was run over on Fire Island.” Was Joe really saying that? They were running somewhere.
The next day Frank was gone, vanished, dissolving the connections he had spun all through the downtown world in poetry, art, dance, theater—leaving us, leaving many people, unmoored, disbelieving. Dissolving all the futures he didn’t live to see.
Sometime in the fall of 1966, Gavin Douglas’s mother sold the gallery: the building, the name, the Old Master inventory, possibly even her address book. She did it without telling Gavin. By winter, the doors of the townhouse were padlocked. Gavin began to take a lot of Seconal, washed down with vodka.
“My mother wants me to show her I can make a million dollars,” he told Baz. “Why should I make a million dollars when I’m going to inherit more than four?” Then his mother cut off his salary and told him he would have to get a job. He faked a working-class resume and was hired as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum. His wife and their son moved away. Soon so did Gavin.
We had sporadic reports, and were sad but not shocked to hear of his death in Mexico some ten years later.
G. R. wanted to organize a show. Right away, he said. Other artists of Baz’s generation were chaffing at the narrow choices acceptable uptown. How many others? G. R. proposed a search, conducted by a committee of one, himself, to find them. One by one, he identified people and set up meetings with Baz.
Somehow he got permission to mount a group show in the main floor exhibition space at New York University’s Loeb Student Center. We were to pay all the promotion and publicity costs. But Loeb Center would supply a respectable location. Eventually, five artists took part. When G. R. became too ill, too crazy, to continue—messages from the cosmic computer were streaming into his brain through the fillings in his teeth—the group continued without him. They came up with the mythopoeic name “Origins and Cycles” and wrote a mini-manifesto. Opening night was crowded. The group waited for reviews, for calls from critics, for inquiries left at the information desk. Nothing happened.
Was it anti G. R. or anti the work? Was it something else? How could we know? But I saw for myself one afternoon as I waited for Baz just outside the exhibition room. The two men who strolled in had clearly come prepared to laugh—and laugh they did. Elegant conspiratorial snickers. I didn’t recognize them, but they carried themselves in that knowing, uptown way. They saw me look at them. They looked right through me.
One night a month or so after “Origins & Cycles” had ended, G. R. appeared in our apartment, white-faced and shaking. The essay he’d written for the catalog of a big MOMA exhibition of James Rosenquist spoke “off the party line,” he said. “They offered me the moon to make changes,” G. R. raged. “All yesterday. Last night. Not just money offers. When Jim called me he was nearly in tears. I don’t know what pressure was on him, but I got threats I don’t want to tell you. I got a call from Time magazine. They’ll give me a guest column if I just adjust the catalog.”
The essay is titled “James Rosenquist: The Figure a Man Makes.” What’s in there? G. R. was always rather flowery. But flowery or not, the writing is personal, well reasoned, persuasive, making a case for a midwestern capacity for faith. Poor brilliant schizophrenic G. R. was bucking a galactic conspiracy—a conspiracy opposed to anyone interested in un-ironic ideas about truth or morality.
G. R. struggled to handle a real-world craziness that painfully magnified his own. He was arrested one night on his roof throwing raw eggs down on Fourth Street. He was wearing a white sash. He had a white plume. He had five-dozen eggs to do battle for honor. The cops took him to Bellevue. G. R. did try to cure himself. He tried activism. His own. He carried a large blue plastic question mark and picketed artists he felt had betrayed art’s mission. Then he picketed MOMA, carrying that big blue plastic question mark. He was rewarded with some snickering coverage on local TV news and in some tabloids. Soon after, he took some small Basil King paintings under his arm, and walked them into the galleries. Baz let him do it, too. G. R. would make the rounds of key uptown establishments and if he got into an office, he’d unwrap and lean the paintings against any wall and talk. He never told me or Baz what he said, let alone what he was told in response.
Finally, he challenged Henry Geldzahler, who was by now a full curator at the Metropolitan Museum, to a bloodless duel. A battle of wits, G. R. called it. He outlined elaborate rules in lengthy letters. He read the letters to us in our apartment, and wasn’t offended when we laughed. He meant them to be as loony as they sounded, he claimed, “But serious!” He insisted the people who received them would know what was meant. I forget who were to be the judges. Leading formalist critics, minimalists, establishment stalwarts. This had to be fair, it had to be grounded, it was to be about wit in the most serious sense, he declared. It would puncture pomposity on multiple fronts!
To our total non-surprise, Henry didn’t respond. After the barrage of letters, G. R. switched to telegrams. First one. Then another. Henry still didn’t respond. Then one morning, a Park Avenue florist arrived at the Metropolitan with a funeral wreath. The traditional purple ribbon was labeled simply Henry. The deliveryman had instructions to lay it at the base of a particular Roman statue—we had all remarked on how much it looked like Henry. Of course, the would-be delivery was stopped at the door by security.
A friend of Henry’s phoned Baz. Henry just wanted a sane solution, the friend said over the phone. Could G. R. be calmed down? Whisked out of town maybe? If money’s a problem, just tell us. We’ll fund what’s needed. Henry also wanted to find out, just how crazy is G. R.? Baz said that G. R. wasn’t violent. Never that. But Baz was wrong.
By the end of the sixties, the sense of craziness careened around every corner. No, Baz said to peace-march invitations. He feared mobs of any stripe; he feared fantasies, and predicted disaster. In my world, I felt viewed with suspicion. Our friends, to an extraordinary degree, were heterosexual couples. It was almost suburban. And then the couples began to fray and split. I was with a man. I didn’t want to be called on to defend that.
On Second Avenue, Baz and I stayed home. We went on, guarded. We went on, half-shut down each of us in two very different ways; we went on for some long time only for the sake of going on, only because—don’t stop me—because for Baz, once he recovered from his breakdown, not to work would be not to breathe. And we went on because we grew fierce to remember what our children needed. To see them grow up to hate the world because of what we had chosen would be unbearable.
“Hello, goils,” said toothless Mrs. Kalamanowitz every morning. She was one of the last of the tenants for whom living at 57 Second Avenue meant living in the heart of the Yiddish theater district and hobnobbing with its stars in Max Thau’s restaurant on the ground floor of our building. But now the Yiddish theaters and their denizens were ancient history, and Thau’s was a filthy ghost of its past. On weekends, Mrs. Kalamanowitz’s suburban children visited; you could hear it through the walls: “Ma, how can you go on living in this dump! Will ya move to the Island!”
Mrs. Kalamanowitz hung on.
“Hello, Mrs. Kalamanowitz,” our children would reply, seeing charm and fearlessness in her wrinkled face.
It’s 1968, summer at the Cape, and we are guests of a patron, I’ll call him Tanner, at his family’s summerhouse. Three young stockbrokers come up from New York one Friday night at the invitation or our host, and with their arrival Tanner hoods himself and blends in just as he did during his working hours on Wall Street. In the Old Chatham house, there weren’t any jarring details, no watercolors by Basil King, no copies of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.
A weekend at the Cape with Tanner meant poker, lobster, sailing. His friends had effortless good manners. Poker got started early. Baz had been introduced as an artist. It was even explained that Tanner and his wife, Susan, had purchased some of his work because they thought it was so fine. Susan and I sat outside and watched the moonlight for a while. Soon the sea breeze died and the bugs came up, so we headed off to our beds to read. It was predawn blue when Baz woke me up.
“I’m in trouble,” he said. He was pulling bills out of his pockets and throwing them on the bed. “I took all their money.” I sat up in a fog.
“They were so sure I was some delicate flower,” he said. “The more I kept winning, the worse it got. Tanner kept saying ‘I told you about him, I told you.’”
“I’ve even got some I.O.U.s,” he showed me. “Tanner had to stop the game.”
We talked about Baz giving the money back but we both knew better, just as we knew we needed to stifle our fits of giggles with the pillows. Hundreds of dollars on the blanket. We decided to treat everyone to lobsters and champagne—Baz could buy out the town. He finally cooled out enough to get some sleep.
The next afternoon, a dozen lobsters. We ate for hours, washing down butter and lobster juice with cool bubbly. No one mentioned cards. When it was over, the three young men and our host switched from champagne to scotch and began talking business to Baz. They were in the know on an upcoming coup—could they put Baz in on the tail end of a deal? He’s cash short? Understood. One of them will buy, sight unseen, a large charcoal drawing that Tanner will pick out. That will hold Baz in the deal for six hundred dollars. They have to work fast because the company is going public the next week. (Is the statute of limitations exhausted?)
It was a plastics processing method with a name like a Hollywood stripper. It meant one could manufacture plastic forms that were smooth and tough and extraordinarily lightweight—the process would be used for everything from toys to advertising displays.
The men talked into the night, and once again Susan and I sat in the dark garden watching fireflies and stars.
G. R. came up to our apartment one afternoon when he was so out of control he frightened me. I asked him to leave, which he did. Then I was so worried about the state he was in that I put the children into the stroller and followed after him. We walked for hours. I pushed my way along a half block behind him as he rushed, stopped, changed direction, rushed again. We went around and around the Lower East Side.
A few days later G. R. came over again, unannounced, and at night, when he said he knew the girls would be asleep. His long hair was gone, all cut off. He gotten himself a farm-boy buzz cut, shaved up the sides, flat on top. He’d shed the knotted string necklace Ann Wilson had given him. He was wearing a provincial necktie and a old dark blue suit. He was carrying his cherished collection of 45 records in a box, a gift for Mallory and Hetty, he said. All his Beatles songs, all the Broadway show tunes he loved. I know now what it means when someone gives away important personal possessions. Then I was just baffled. “It’s a part of my life that I’m through with,” he said. He told me and Baz how sorry he was for scaring the girls and promised he’d never visit us in the daytime again. We both protested, and I reminded him the kids adored him, would miss him and ask after him if he did that.
He said everything would be okay, and we weren’t to worry. First of all, he was going to Topeka to see his mother for a few days. He was going to take care of a lot of things. He was leaving tomorrow; he already had his ticket. He was very composed and calmer than he’d been for half a year but he looked so completely wrong in that suit, with that haircut.
Paul Yakovenko, a friend who didn’t know G. R. at all but who happened to be at our house that evening, couldn’t hold back: “Man, don’t go home till your hair has grown back,” Yako said. “This is a bad thing to do, man. Trust me!”
“Can’t you stop him?” Yako said after G. R. left. “You shouldn’t let him go.”
In the late summer of 1969, just a few days after that evening, in a fiery crash on a Kansas highway, G. R. Swenson died along with his mother and the driver of the oil truck into which he had ploughed his mother’s car head-on. Our passionately idealistic friend was a stone-cold multiple murderer.
Not quite six months after the poker game on the Cape, just before some tax bite would kick in, Tanner’s friends sold the stock, and sent us a check for almost eight times Baz’s make-believe investment. It was enough for us to live well for a year, maybe longer if we went to Portugal or Puerto Rico. Or, I said, coming back to earth, to fund a permanent change of housing.
It was no coup to buy a house in Brooklyn back then. Certainly Park Slope was not much of a deal. Never mind that the house had been chopped into SRO units. Never mind the stink of cockroaches, anger, and poverty. Never mind that as homeowners we had become capitalists. Certainly when he heard what we had done, Baz’s father reminded us that property is theft. At the very least, he predicted, we were on the way to supporting right-wing politicians. On the other hand, when the kids heard that a whole house was to be ours, their expectations escalated in a heartbeat: “Can we have a swimming pool?”
And when the painter Michael Goldberg heard Baz say, “We’re moving to Brooklyn,” he blurted out “Are things that bad?”
Under the twinkly black winter sky of Grand Haven, Michigan, Baz called me on a payphone to say he had secured Paul Blackburn’s gift, an academic time-out in Dutchman country, a piece of Dick and Jane Land for our daughters; a loopy, as it turned out mercifully brief marriage to the great middle way.
In the summer of 1971, his last summer on earth, Paul had flown out to attend a national poetry festival underwritten by his friend Dan Gerber at Thomas Jefferson College. A local boy with maverick tastes, heir to the Gerber baby food fortune, Dan was inventing himself as a poet and had designs on the new college down the road, a school for self-directed education reminiscent of Black Mountain. Prompted by Paul, he told the school administrators, who were eager to ingratiate their new college with a major north Michigan millionaire, to seek out Basil King as the lynchpin of a new art department for the school.
Dan Gerber lived on a private island. Robert vas Dias, the poet-in-residence who organized the festival, lived near the golf course in a well-appointed suburban house with his wife, Susan, who made it very clear to us that her husband was a big frog out here only because this was a very tiny puddle. Susan had her work cut out for her, to dominate a society she actually scorned. Robert mostly hid out behind his mustache.
The land of poetry. Empty western Michigan. Baz and I have bought a house here. We hadn’t meant to. We don’t cut our grass much. We don’t wash our car. But in Grand Haven, we’re normal no matter what we do because it’s unthinkable that we would not be. And this is where I am. I don’t have a money job. The house is empty from 8:45 to 3:15, and I stare at my big electric typewriter on a worktable at the end of our bedroom. I pace. I smoke cigarettes and examine the view from every window. Can I justify my time being unpaid for? What do I think this is worth?
Among the people not invited to participate in the second National Poetry Festival in 1973 was Basil King. Why isn’t Baz scheduled to do something? Robert van Dias was asked. And worse, because people thought the reason was his reluctance: Why can’t you get Baz to do something?
Baz was simply Odd Man. My place was clearer and more conventional. I was Guest-Student. At last at first. I signed up for and attended a poetry workshop, my first and only experience as a student in a writing class. The workshop I chose was with George Oppen, stooping, pensive, and glamorously haggard with his seamed face and thatch of white hair. I had liked Of Being Numerous beforehand; hearing him speak and read at the festival, I was hooked. Baz listened to my rhapsodizing with thin enthusiasm.
“You’re frightening us,” Oppen told the workshop group after I volunteered to read a poem. He had started out by telling the class he’d never taught writing and was totally flummoxed. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here,” he said. Understandable, I thought, but I was baffled and diminished by his response to my work. Then, later that night, at the vas Dias’s house, Oppen told others standing near me that his class had started out with “someone” reading a poem so good he suspected the reader wasn’t a real student but a plant. Diane di Prima stroked my arm and said I didn’t look like a plant to her.
I settled it all in my head by deciding the classroom setting was as wrong for him as it seemed to be for me. Shortly after the festival, I sent him a poem and a letter asking for his critique. I’ve made up so much of my life by myself: I wanted to find out what a teacher could do for me. Was it a good poem? Good has a slippery side. Let’s say just I really wanted it to be read.
Oppen wrote me back. He had rewritten the poem on his own typewriter, removing two thirds of it. In the deletions he typed in … and inserted empty lines of space. He returned me a minimal shell, with all conflicts, and almost all the content, excised. The only line still holding substance was a politically correct assertion at the end: “allow, allow, what has become mine.” He sent no explanation for this radical surgery. Just a piece of paper with his signature and something like “sincerely” or “very best,” I don’t remember. I tore it up in a fury, letter, envelope, poem, the works. I had trouble later on telling other people what had happened. I wasn’t believed, except by Baz. Oppen was a saintly personage. And the evidence was gone.
By the final days, the festival had acquired a powerful dynamic of its own. Impromptu sit downs, campfires, spontaneous performances, readings and gatherings swept up all of us.
Kenneth Rexroth, who was to give the closing reading, arrived late, expecting to be a deus ex machina, perhaps. He was overweight and clearly not in good shape, whether from age, illness, marital tragedy, alcohol, or everything. All too soon he was clearly humiliated by the pervasive sense that his appearance was irrelevant. It was cruel and crueler still that no one really cared.
Rexroth was not the only poet in trouble. David Meltzer had a death in the family and left a day or two after the start. Ed Dorn stayed the course, and got through whatever he’d been charged to do, but he was in stark need of money, place, and some sense of possibility, some indication that he was loved and loving. The world was offering very little to him and he was deeply rattled. Robert Duncan, who loftily ignored both Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg, was clearly concerned about Ed’s state and, as Duncan’s position as the true kingpin of the festival solidified, he was more and more generous toward him.
At the festival Duncan was on a roll. He was to give a solo reading at the end of the third full day, but he was already blowing an audience many of whom had streamed in intent on basking in Allen Ginsberg’s presence. Duncan had started off Wednesday morning with the first of a three-part lecture called “Ideas of the Meaning of Form.” He was in glory, his hand beating rhythms while his whiney voice soared through ideas, ideas, ideas, absolutely intent on competing with all the other poets. My most vivid memory of his lectures is the second morning as he was speaking about the unexpected in poetry and a white goat appeared on the ledge outside the lecture hall window. The window was a story and a half over the woods below; the goat calmly walked the ledge around the outside of the building and disappeared from view.
I also remember:
Diane di Prima’s play about the creation of Frankenstein. In the middle of the performance, her eight-year-old daughter, with long light brown hair and a white nightgown, came out of her bed to ask the grownups to be quiet, or came out of her bed to lead them into spirit where imagination fosters.
Ginsberg’s reading of anti-Vietnam poems with chants and harmonium. The biggest auditorium on campus was packed to the rafters. I was sitting next to Duncan who was sitting on the aisle. When Allen came up the aisle by us Robert shook Allen’s hand off his arm saying, “Get away from me!”
A lecture on homeopathy by Diane di Prima and Ted Enslin. In the midst of the festival Baz had gone down into his underground studio to work on his small sculptures, not noticing that he was sitting in a puddle of turpentine, which he’d somehow spilled on his chair. He did know he was sitting on something, he said, but he was concentrating. The result was grim: the skin on his balls was seared. It was so painful he had to walk bowlegged and thus had to say why. “Baz, how are your balls,” a faculty member bellowed across the quad. There was some variation of hilarity everywhere he went that day. Diane had spoken at length on the thirty-eight flowers to remedy moods discovered by Dr. Edward Bach, and afterwards gave me a tube of his rescue ointment. She said it wouldn’t cure anything but would remove impediments to healing. In two more days new skin was forming.
And a photograph. We have this on a wall in our kitchen: Baz, Ted Enslin, Carl Rakosi, and Robert Duncan are walking across one of the campus bridges. For years I thought the paper bag Baz is looking down at was lunch, and why had he not looked up at the photographer. “That was our stash,” Baz finally told me. Bourbon and beer. They were headed into one of the ever-handy ravines for a bit of respite.
And then they were gone, as completely as a revival tent show or a county circus, leaving behind scattered stories, lost underwear and rain hats, paper wrappers, mashed grass, dust.
In Grand Haven we all watched a TV bio-drama on the Strauss family. A lavish public-television costume saga, with scores of extras playing the waltzing haute bourgeoisie. We watched our children running difficult calculations in their heads—the program reflected what they had already observed and pondered in our lives: competition for dominance, for the authority to be a maker of manners. Winners. Losers.
Our daughters had been four, five, six years old when Basil was exhibited at Judson Church and panned in ArtNews. When the show Baz planned with G. R. Swenson was not reviewed by anyone, they had been seven, eight, nine. Now Mallory was ten. It was natural for them to think that lack of control on our part was our fault. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, they’d had school friends whose parents’ art was shown in galleries, reviewed in glossy magazines, photographed in the Village Voice. They had already felt the sting of superior sympathy from these children, whose mothers or fathers won fellowships and arts council money. Their parents didn’t know Baz’s name. But they generally knew of each other.
One little girl’s father made sealed Plexiglas boxes in which old bits of bread slowly decomposed and grew spectacular molds. Baz told Hetty this work was just as creepy as her instinct told her it was. Still, Freya’s father was “famous,” and Freya’s mother didn’t have to have a job. Anna’s dad installed strings in huge SoHo loft spaces. The photographs in art magazines were austere and glamorous, accompanied by long articles.
The four of us watched the Strauss story from the safety of Grand Haven, on the eastern shore of great Lake Michigan, where our daughters were protected by their father’s status, a college professor, for the first time in their lives.
“What are you doing here?” The voice was sculptor Ronnie Bladen’s coming over the balcony railing at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts.
Baz stumbled for an answer. What indeed?
“If you don’t get out of here, they’ll carry you out on stretcher.” Ted Enslin’s voice was wry and gravelly but he wasn’t kidding. Baz tried to explain. But Ted just shook his head. There wasn’t a good enough reason for him.
And the end of our second year, there was a dinner party at the dean’s fancy home. After the meal, the men repaired to a large sun porch for drinks. The women stayed in the kitchen. A recipe for making a super-moist cake using Campbell’s Tomato Soup was the topic of conversation. An offer of a vice presidency was the topic out on the sun porch.
“They want me to start an arts school. They want me to hit up the legislators in Lansing and the donors in Grand Rapids. I can raise the funds, they say. They want me to design the program. They want this to become the Yale Art School of the Midwest. They want us to move to bigger house in Grand Rapids so we can give parties. Oh yeah, a raise. We didn’t discuss numbers. They said the school will underwrite a mortgage for a new house. The dean even promised they’d get me a motorcycle as a bonus.” Baz squinted into the darkness following the white line west. I was speechless, trying to take this in.
“You gotta write me a resignation letter. You gotta do it tonight, as soon as we get home,” he said.
Baz wasn’t drunk. Not a bit. He’d been empting his glass into a potted plant on the porch for last hour of this encounter. Out we were going to get, he insisted, and out we got. I wasn’t sorry at all.
If you look for Basil King in the 1950s, 1960s, even the 1970s, you won’t find him. Records of Black Mountain College, San Francisco Renaissance, Cedar Street Tavern, the Beat world? No Baz. Though he was there and contributed to and was formed by all of it.
Not a single photograph by Fred McDarrah, the tireless chronicler of the Cedars, shows Baz in the middle 1950s. “I ran into the bathroom whenever he came in with that camera.” Baz isn’t in the annals of The Club if there are any annals, though certain meetings are vivid in his recollections. As for the Olson archives, apparently Black Mountain faculty reports on him are cryptic and inconclusive. To a person, the faculty responded to the puzzle he presented by refraining from committing to opinions.
You might encounter him in print in 1971, when he, David Glotzer, and Harry Lewis, began publishing Mulch magazine. The cover of the first issue was his charcoal portrait of William Carlos Blackburn, at age eighteen months, son of Paul and Joan. It also has Baz’s essay on the common pigeon. He got an appointment at the Museum of Natural History and spoke to an ornithologist—he wanted to find out why his research turned up so little about the European rock dove once it became the whole world’s city pigeon. (Politics, the ornithologist told him, had squashed research. Pigeons have powerful partisans.)
But at the magazine’s editorial meetings, Harry and David would argue for hours, outdoing each other with outrageous positions. Baz would let them. After hours and hours, the two would think they had discovered what to do, and Baz would let them—even at his own magazine, editorially he was often the man who wasn’t there.
“Untranslatable. Missing section,” as Armand Schwerner liked to put it.
Nevertheless, Baz and I are here, and we are not missing. And there are public and visible traces of our passage.
True, I had no public identity; I was not from a school or a group. I was not burning with ambition and I failed to persist. I didn’t play well with others. Instead I played on my own. I created Giants Play Well in the Drizzle. The Drizzle, the little Giant—three pieces of paper, printed on both sides, folded into thirds—was what could be mailed for the price of one first-class stamp, and mail it I did to a list of people I put together. In many issues, but not all, I included work by me and by Baz, both his poetry and his black and white line drawings.
When Baz and I went to a reading in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in celebration of the Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko, we said hello to Anselm Hollo, who had done the English translations, in the hallway. He was glad to see us. I introduced myself to Anselm’s wife, Jane Dalrymple. “Oh,” she said in her deeply charming Southern accent, “aren’t you the woman who sends us that newsletter, ‘Worms Turning in the Mud’?”
There were thirty-one irregularly spaced issues of the Drizzle. And an eventual, but very casual, connection with 132 writers. A lovely cacophony. Only one person ever explicitly objected. Hilda Morley, the composer Stefan Wolpe’s widow, was the writer of elegant and sensitive verse, fully supported by her formidable classical education. She wrote me, “I can’t see why you want to publish my work when you publish these other things.” I suppose this meant I didn’t know what she was really doing, or she felt her work would be compromised by unseemly company. I didn’t answer her. I kept my own counsel and never acted as if I were one of them.
“Why did Lucia die on her birthday?” Bob Holman was drinking a large Bloody Mary, very spicy. The Bowery Poetry Club has installed a new bar since we were last there. A bit high for the old red vinyl barstools.
“I think she wanted it that way,” Baz said. “Lucia was a witch, you know. A lot of power that woman.”
Baz and I had arrived early; the bar was empty: “Come celebrate Lucia Berlin’s life and work. Bring a favorite piece of hers to read.”
All the way over from the Second Avenue subway stop, Baz had been prepping me not to expect many people. Cold? Christmas season? Gray? Not exactly, he said. “She was a very private person,” Baz said. “She used her life for her fiction and you think you know her from reading it, but you don’t. It’s all been transformed. You think you see it, but you don’t. Which she wanted.”
“She really was a witch,” I said to Bob. “She nearly killed our relationship before it began.” I told him that Paul Metcalf had given me a copy of her short story “My Jockey” and her address and said I should get in touch. I did. I was publishing Giants Play Well in the Drizzle then, and I asked her to send me work. She wrote back that she didn’t have anything ready, so I reprinted “The Pony Bar, Oakland,” just out in a collection from Tombouctou Books. It was 1984.
She and I wrote back and forth after that. But she resisted my mention of Basil, which I couldn’t quite figure: Was this feminism? Don’t talk about yourself in terms of a man? It was more than a whiff; it was total dismissal. And then came a letter in which she referred to him directly. She called him Brian.
Basil flipped. “She’s a witch! Where’d she get that name? I’m sorry—she knows exactly what she’s saying!” Brian was the word that had been carved into a wooden banister at the boarding school where Baz was sent the year he was seven. The headmistress had blamed him. When he wouldn’t confess, he was locked in a closet; he wasn’t let out until the next day. Baz was adamant that Lucia had picked the name by picking up the vibe.
“I had to ask Metcalf to intervene,” I told Bob. “Baz didn’t want another letter from her coming into his house.” After some time passed, after Metcalf wrote to Baz, Baz agreed that I could try again.
Hettie Jones came into the bar. Bob said something fond and rude about her size, and kissed her. He and Baz helped her up onto the barstool. Soon all three of us were talking about the little we each really knew about Lucia. Two video people came into the Bowery and sat at our end of the bar. They were working with each other on a project, and Bob was somehow involved. We told them we were together to celebrate Lucia Berlin’s life—in a fitting way, in a bar, as alcohol had been her nemesis. Lucia’s name meant nothing to them.
Lucia, who had nursed people dear to her to their ends, woke up alone on her birthday in November. It came to me: She woke up dead that day.
Bob asked the three of us to read the things we’d brought. The two video people talked loudly while Hettie read. Bob, Baz, and I laughed.
“Who is Mrs. Booth?” Lucia had emailed in September, after Baz sent her this poem:
J.M.W. TURNER: SUNRISE WITH SEA MONSTER, 1845
She told me
I don’t sleep
She told me
The sea corrupts
Frogs and men with
I told her
I was going fishing.
She told me
To wear my old boots
And not to forget
Its many teeth
I am going
While Baz read, Bob closed his eyes. He’s a fine listener. I read a poem I wrote for Lucia and Laurie Duggan last year, when both had sent me work to read and I’d left the texts on my desk for months, unanswered. “Bless every dirty breath I take,” is the opening line—guilt breeding sentiment, but it’s not so bad. I’m sure it’s not. Just asthma. “Working Backward” the poem is called.
A young woman is holding one of those large fake-leather portfolios, zippered all around, and Bob wants to put something together because introducing this one to that one is one of his pleasures. Baz goes off with the artist and her clique, Bob ambling behind them. They occupy the edge of the stage, where she can spread her work out.
Hettie and I stay on our barstools and talk family. We talk intensely and don’t pay attention to anything else. The life of the Bowery Poetry Club goes on. Lucia Berlin’s memorial is over.
“It was what she wanted,” Baz said to me out on the street. “Lucia didn’t really want anyone to come.” We headed to the subway. To follow his logic, she chose just us to be there.
Martha King’s books include the story collection North & South (Spuyten Duyvil), Imperfect Fit: Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk), and Little Tales of Family and War (Spuyten Duyvil). Her zine, Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, which published from 1983 to 1993, is part of the Rare Books collection at SUNY Buffalo.The piece in this issue is edited and condensed from a book-length memoir also titled Outside Inside. She lives in Brooklyn.
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