Monday, September 20, 2010

Allen Ginsberg, Julie & me

(originally posted at

As I left the Union Theatre the other night after the LGBT Film Festival's presentation of "Howl," the mesmerizing love letter to poetry, free speech and Allen Ginsberg, I remembered that I'd once seen the man himself a few hundred yards away in the Union Ballroom.

He'd been invited to speak at Marquette, but at the last minute the invitation was pulled after pressure from philistines, so the reading was moved to UWM. Defiantly, hundreds of MU students marched up to the East Side to hear him, along with legions of UWM students and a scattering of high school hipsters.

It was 1967 and I was a junior at Riverside High School. Back then "East" was mainly a neighborhood school. Geography determined where you went, and the Riverside demographic pie split three ways:

1. Working class Black kids who generally lived east of 7th Street.
2. Working class white kids who generally lived east of the river to Maryland, and in what we later called Riverwest.
3. Middle (and higher) class kids, sons and daughters of professionals and intellectuals, who generally lived east of Maryland to the lake.

I was fairly anti-social in high school and I may not be the most reliable historian, but I believe these groups all got along reasonably well, with a fair amount of social leakage between them. In fact, Riverside in the late '60s was an excellent place to practice social mobility and to try on new identities. I was desperately sick of my given one.

Though I was solidly working class, my weird obsession with books and reading alienated me from my family at a young age. By 16, I aspired to brainy, more interesting "east of Maryland" status. But we lived in a flat on Bartlett, my father worked at Briggs & Stratton and there were no books or ideas in our home except the ones I smuggled in. I had a Milwaukee Sentinel paper route from age 12 and this gave me enough income to purchase a few accessories for my new avant garde life.

The antiwar and civil rights wave that was sweeping the nation also passed through Riverside. The epicenter was Julie Gibson, with whom I was deeply, secretly and hopelessly in love. Julie’s parents were English professors and published poets. They seemed caught between being outdated beatniks and premature hippies. At the time, I just thought of them as by far the most fascinating people in Milwaukee. Especially in comparison with my own parents.

Their home on the corner of Park and Maryland was a magnet for anarchists, writers, communists, activists and left-bankers of every sort. Julie’s mother Barbara was the opposite of my mother Betty in just about every way imaginable.

When called to the school because we refused to stop selling the underground newspaper, Kaleidoscope, on school grounds, or for passing out flyers accusing a despised gym teacher of being
a racist fascist or for a number of more Dadaist pranks, Mrs. Gibson would invariably side with us, and lecture the principal about the constitutional rights of students.

Mrs. Eklund, on the other hand, who had to take time off from her job at the La Rosa noodle factory on Holton Street, saw only incomprehensible mischief on the part of her son, and no violation of his rights. She was mystified by my new friends; to her it was as if I’d been invaded by body snatchers. The principal advised her that I had fallen under the influence of some bad actors. True, these were not juvenile delinquents, but the smartest kids in the school. It made no difference, they were troublemakers.

I shadowed Julie like a lovesick puppy, but I was always an extra in her show. Fiercely individual, she was in frequent hot water for her appearance -- one day a scandalously short skirt; the next, elaborately patterned old-womanish scarves and shawls covered with political buttons and armbands. Her tinkling chains, bells and rings made a little Julie soundtrack as she flowed through the halls between classes trailing clouds of patchouli.

She was passionate and political, and picked fights with teachers at every opportunity. The Vietnam War was a personal affront to Julie. A book had just been published by Doubleday called "Where is Vietnam: American Poets Respond," that included a grim entry from "Julie Gibson, age 14." It was
called "Typical Eve-of-Destruction-Type Poem Written by a Typically Frightened and Disgusted Person-to Him, to You, to Me and to Us." On the facing page was a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

Despite my somewhat marginal relationship to Julie-world, I spent a lot of time in it. There were afternoons we played hooky, hanging out in the Gibson’s living room, listening to Jefferson Airplane while her mother practiced yoga. There were lunch hours with fish sandwiches from East Side Foods or
French fries from Francesca’s. On one hilarious occasion Mrs. Gibson pretended to be my mother and called in sick for me so we could all attend an open housing rally.

Somehow the idea of asking Julie out on a date seemed too square, even if I hadn’t been shy to the point of catatonia. But there were times together that felt like dates, or potential ones. She’d say "You’re going to that be-in at Lake Park Sunday, right? Please say yes." I’d imagine us sort of floating through the park in a little private bubble, but instead we were quickly swarmed by the usual crowd of her other admirers.

Once we went to hear some folk singer she was excited about at the Avant Garde on Prospect. I ordered a plate of potato chips and two coffees but by the time they arrived we’d been joined by some college students she knew -- glib, smart, intimidating.

But despite all that, when she asked me one morning whether I wanted to go with her to hear Allen Ginsberg read at UWM, I agreed instantly. And imagined that this time it would be a date. "He’s staying at our house!" she noted. That should have been a warning. If the choice later that evening was to be between being entertained by Allen Ginsberg or John Eklund, I was in trouble.

I realized that I had nothing to wear to an Allen Ginsberg reading. Luckily, I had just done a round of collections from my paper route customers and had $30 in my pocket. I took a bus to Johnnie Walker’s on 3rd Street and selected a dark, oversize dress shirt with enormous white polka dots to go
with my burgundy bell bottoms and brown corduroy jacket. My parents were aghast as I left the house on the evening of the reading but my younger sister thought I looked cool.

We met at Julie’s house and waited for the Marquette marchers to come up Maryland. As they passed, we joined. We were alone for the rest of the walk, and when we got to the Ballroom the UWM students who were already seated gave the Marquette arrivals a rousing ovation. It seemed personal, like they were applauding Julie and me.

And Ginsberg? Oddly enough I barely remember anything about him. He looked a bit creepy. James Franco’s Ginsberg was a lot more adorable than Ginsberg’s Ginsberg. There were long poems that angrily bashed Lyndon Johnson. There were lots of theatrics -- incense, candles and chanting. There may
have been a squeezebox involved but I don’t remember whether Ginsberg played it. Julie watched it all in a kind of rapture. I watched her.

Afterward, as we stood outside the Union, friends of Julie and her parents gathered to talk. I tried to stay near her, which was easy at first when the interlopers were people I knew. But gradually the spreading cluster of grad students, professors and bohemians became mainly strangers, and somehow Julie slipped away. I was left standing with a group of people I didn’t know. Because I hadn’t really said hello I was too self-conscious to risk attention by saying goodbye and walking away. So I just
stood there silently for a very long time, listening to clever talk while becoming increasingly invisible.

Eventually, Allen Ginsberg emerged surrounded by an entourage, and our group drifted over to join that one. I turned west on Kenwood to walk home. It was nearly midnight and I had to do my route at 5 a.m.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robert Walser on expectations

As for me, I'm valiantly studying French, go to work each morning, come home insane in the evening, expect letters, don't write any myself but still expect, every evening, at the very least three letters. They should be lying there when I open the door, white, dazzlingly white, with the dear stamps upon them, the sweet postmarks and all the rest. And when there aren't any, I get perfectly stupid and can't work, and then I say to myself quite sensibly: you never write any letters, but you expect them! You blockhead!

It isn't precisely that I expect letters, but now I'm always expecting something as dear, as tender as a letter. Every evening there ought to be some uplifting little surprise for me, just like a letter.

But one can live quite well without excitements, can't one, only one ought to be endowed with a bit less poesie and the like, should one not? What a babbler I am, am I not, am I not?

- Robert Walser, a letter to his sister, 1898, from Microscripts.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Act of Kindness

One blustery night during the winter of 1973 I was leaving a meeting at the Party office on W 26th street. This was during the time in which the Communist Party was under siege by Lyndon Larouche’s “Labor Committees.” They had singled out the Party for annihilation and suspected members were being assaulted on the street with baseball bats and numchucks.

In the tiny vestibule, one of the elderly volunteers who haunted the building was in the latter stages of steeling herself against the bitter wind. She had wrapped herself in several layers of clothing, and was struggling to tie a scarf around her neck. She moved slowly and with difficulty.

I didn’t recognize her, and I didn’t know whether she was one of the volunteers who actually worked- answering phones, stuffing envelopes, operating the mimeograph machine- or one of the legion of Party veterans who just enjoyed a chance to hang out all day in a comradely atmosphere. The latter would sit outside offices, trying to engage busy functionaries in conversation, like the old guys who hung around in barbershops without ever getting a haircut. But the Party always honored its own, and Gus Hall would never have stood for turning away these beloved old-timers.

“Would you walk this comrade to the bus stop?” someone asked me. I would. Her name was Rose and she said she’d been ‘working at the Center” since her husband died eight years ago. She took a bus down from the Bronx (why not the subway, I wondered) and left for the day only after being convinced that she wouldn’t be needed any more. She walked very slowly, and as we crept down 26th street toward 6th avenue I realized that she couldn’t see very well. I suddenly grasped how frail and vulnerable she was, and I wondered what I would do if we were jumped by Larouche thugs.

But the walk was uneventful. She talked about her work in the garment industry, and told a complicated story about how the union had once made a big mistake by electing a red-baiting secretary who “wrecked the Local.” I couldn’t tell whether these events had taken place recently, or decades ago, but the bitter injustice was vividly alive to her.

From time to time she asked me a question, mundane things along the lines of “What time is it?” The circumstances surrounding the comings and goings from the Center, even something as innocuous as “What brings you to New York?” or “Where are you from?” was not something into which a volunteer would inquire. And old timers, for all their insatiable quest for conversation, had little patience for idle chatter and social niceties. They had one big topical preoccupation: Their Story. And as far as Rose could tell I was just one more interchangeable young comrade who had kindly walked her to the bus stop.

I waited with her until the bus came. Once she was safely aboard, I walked uptown toward 43rd street, where I was to meet my friend Liz before another meeting. Snow was collecting in skittish little eddies, the cold was bone-chilling, and Rose had left my revolutionary credentials in tatters. I felt like a lame imposter.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Good Dog, Anne Carson

I was waiting for you to get to work
‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’
Frank O’Hara

1 You know the second person in the history of the world
the Sun chose to speak to personally was Frank O’Hara, the
first was Orpheus [me]. You are my Sweetheart said the
Sun. He was sitting on the hood of his truck. Somehow it
was menacing. I hardly knew what to say. I got into the
truck that strange autumn light sharpening all glass and
harm my hands fell off. The Sun got in beside me took my
hands one by one blew into each finger filling it with a
kind of sound. Gave my hands back to me. That was the
beginning of my being interesting

2 I had originally an idea to record the sound of skirts
moving on legs on the runway this blank verse. She was a
model when I first of course no one runs on a runway
but the skirts the legs are like pumas. Desire she said is not
harmful til lips spill it then be careful

3 Tell you a story about the best poem I ever wrote the one I
lost. That page was terrific it slid out of a dream about the
littorals above Europe and me looking down as. As on oh
oceans I had all the answers I was an answer! I was high as
day arising and truth shot out of me like a lark. Years ago.
These are tears I do not use. I lost the page again and again
found it again and again every time I moved finally
captured it in a plastic sleeve put it on top of the TV. A
scrap of paper torn and brownish now some words just
stain. What does it mean the littorals above Europe I never
found out. I look at it fast sometimes Hoping

4 Like any couple we’d sat silent in restaurants staring
opposite ways our pockets stuffed with useless summer
money doesn’t mean we were a pissed palindrome

5 Like any couple don’t whistle I’m not your good dog she’d
say I’d say swimming at this hour you must be mad

6 My fifteen minutes in hell I scarcely remember. I know it
was cold. I saw uncreated things seeping here and there
with roots for ears they hadn’t heard a voice in centuries. I
sang a bit. The very ghosts shed tears (Daily Mirror). Eurydice
limped over. Lawyers arrived reciting conditions. Soon
we were off down the hall me admiring the acoustics
wondering could I get a gig and What’s the phone number
down here I said starting to turn poof shall we say a sad
mischance. All my skin cried back all my wings beat once
and that was that. The story that she said nothing but Who?
is a lie

7 One thing about hell is the echo is fabulous. No sound
studio on earth can give you a transverse magnetisation
leak of less than zero. I stood in the black trees transfixed
and pulsing and her stroking off down the lake so strangely

8 I was. I lost. I sang. I knew. I ever hope for that strange
autumn light again with the good dog again with the
thousands of years. Scrap of [me] off Eurydice torn. Her
number I lost her lark I shot and she a pulse. History never
looks so possible as when leaving a heart spilt among the
stones crying Don’t read it again it was perfect

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Bus Driver-- Hedi Kaddour

What has gotten into the bus driver
Who has left his bus, who has sat down
On a curb on the Place de l'Opera
Where he slips into the ease of being
Nothing more than his own tears? The passersby
Who bend over such a shared and
Presentable sorrow would like him
To tell them that the wind used to know
How to come out of the woods toward a woman's dress,
Or that one day his brother said to him,
Even your shadow wants nothing to do with you.
His feet in a puddle, the bus driver
Can only repeat, This work is hard
And people aren't kind.

-- from A Walk in the City,
Treason (YUP 2010)
translated by Marilyn Hacker

Monday, January 11, 2010

A model short story sentence

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.

from "Nawabin Electrician" by Daniyal Mueenuddin
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Making Scenes, Rachel Wetzsteon (1967-2009)


Each view is threefold. There is the topmost
layer of things unequivocally seen: the man
in loud pants, the forlorn sidewalk cafe, and the
ever-present pigeon who gnaws a wrapper.
There is, beneath these things but glaring
as black at a wedding, a list of what they are not:
not a loved one spotted, not the locus
of a tryst, not a rare, significant seabird.
And onto these two pictures clamps a troublesome
third, through whose distorting surface
birds are half swan, half sparrow, and slumming kings
and their well-dressed subjects eat lunch together.
This last layer, a patchwork of givens and
engineering, shakes the first two until nothing is solid.