In 1969, July or August, Charles Olson visited Cranberry Island, likely to help his daughter Kate prepare for her first year at Sarah Lawrence. In the transcript, of a conversation with Herbert Kenny, Olson mentions this visit and shows his familiarity with the history of the region. He comments on the dividing line where Somes Sound once separated Loyalist America from the rebelling colonies. On either shore of the sound (a fjord or deep-water inlet) are multiple small mountains with exposed dome-like summits, hence the name given to the region by Samuel de Champlain in 1604, Ile des monts déserts. The Cranberry Islands sit in the Great Harbor of Mount Desert, facing the mouth of the Sound. In his conversation with Kenny, Olson also comments wryly that the work of bringing Christianity to the fisherman, which was important to John Winthrop, is an enterprise that has had continuing importance on the coast of Maine, citing the work of the Sea Coast Mission. You will find references to Edith Drury and the Seacoast Mission in my “Cranberry Island: Remembered Histories.” You will also find a perspective on the dividing line between loyalists and rebels in my “Witness for Elsie.” Of note is the apparent fact that the Bunkers (my mother’s family) who had settled on the hill which bears their name in Charleston, Massachusetts, yielded their property to the Puritans out of disdain for religious intolerance. Two generations after the arrival of Winthrop in Boston, the Bunkers were in Machias, Maine. Soon after, John and Joseph Bunker had settled on Great Cranberry Island.
In 1969, the year of Olson’s visit, I was in Germany, having been drafted into the U.S. Army for Vietnam Era duty and then enlisting for a choice of assignments in order to avoid the jungle and the violence of combat. My son, Tadhgh (Gaelic for poet) was born on July 7th (which is also my birthday), the hospital where Paula delivered him being in plain view of Plymouth Rock. One day that July, I was reading The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound in a snack bar in the casern at Bad Kreuznach. Noting my choice of reading matter, another soldier approached my table. Evan Jones, recently arrived in Germany himself, was a true aficionado, as it turned out, of such poets as Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky and Olson. He had met Bunting in Santa Barbara and felt particularly close to him. Evan had taken classes with Hugh Kenner. Evan’s BFA project in photography was a portrait of Bunting. This friendship is the earliest tangent actually inscribed with the name of Charles Olson. There were others of which I was then unaware.
Klaeber’s Beowulf in my kit, Evan had his Olson, Bunting, and Zukofsky. I was reading Pound because I intended, after service, to return to graduate school. Of this first encounter with Olson’s poetry, I remember the sense of place, the relation of the USCGS map on the cover of the Jargon Corinth edition of The Maximus Poems to maps that I had studied of the waters around the Cranberry Islands. Those maps were associated both with local lore and the desire for a captain’s license. I had worked as a deckhand for Wilfred Bunker and Clarence Beal at various times since my thirteenth birthday. In my first love poetry, to a personally intoxicating degree, the relation of landscape and the human body served as a primal trope. I could identify with Olson’s project as I understood it then. I did not realize that Olson’s daughter Kate Bunker was a childhood playmate and young woman friend of my younger brother William and my sister Margaret, a child and woman who was often in our house on Cranberry. In 1969, my brother, who served in Vietnam, suffered exposure to agent orange when assigned to clear debris from exfoliated areas. His life since has been marked by multiple forms of pathos and a sweet lovability, persistent in his current grin.
Olson’s remark in the Kenny interview about Mr. Richman’s “competent” Christian poetry, imitative of T.S. Eliot, strikes a personally difficult note. Michael Richman, near my age, tormented me as a child, sport to him of no great malignity. Remember, I was the freaky kid with one eye, the other bandaged at that time of pre-adolescent angst. In 1969, I was less insecure. To my mind there was a connection between Richman Senior and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where they have the magnificent Open Window by Bonnard, radiant in its orange and blue light. Duncan Phillips was a grandson of James Laughlin, same family as the James Laughlin of New directions. Mr. Richman was a founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington D.C. His wife Maida is mentioned in Connie’s letters to Kate. Maida was a friend of Stephen Spender. One copy of The Edge of Being (Random House 1949) is inscribed ‘“For Maida without the veil or the vale from Stephen without the Spender” / Washington DC June 4, 1953.’ In 1969, Michael was studying American monumental sculpture (Daniel Chester French).
1962-68: Once when drinking from my mug of beer, the foam ran down my chin. I was 17, sitting in a bierstube somewhere in Heilbronn, searching for a father to whom I gave the magical name Sgt. Gott (Great Gotts being an island near Cranberry). It was 1962. I resolved then to become at least a minor poet in my own right. I had discovered Percy Bysshe Shelley and was under the sway of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Spender, with his prophetic pylons, Shelley and Hardy was all that I knew of poetry before attending the University of New Hampshire. In those six years at UNH, I worked with Lawson Fusao Inada and Tom Williams. John Irving, Lynn Chong and Marcia Peterson Carsey were friends and classmates.Facts:
Oregon, 1971-75: In August of 1971, after 2 years and 8 months of military service, I entered the Ph. D. program in English literature at the University of Oregon. Paula and I drove from the coast of Maine to Oregon in a Ford Econoline van that smelled of fish if the engine ran too hot. We had very little time on the east coast. Her family was in Scituate, Mass., mine on Cranberry. It is unlikely that I would have seen Kate at this time. My sister Margaret was in Boston. In the spring of 1972, I completed the second of two seminars in Modern Poetry with A. Kingsley Weatherhead. His interests were in Williams, Pound and Eliot and that allowed me to gain some background in the area in which I have since concentrated. Weatherhead did not understand my attempts to reconcile Pound’s ideogrammic method with Olson’s method of composition by field, a project that absorbed me for the1973-74 academic year. No doubt my effort was opaque and confusing, suffering from a lack of katholu (to cite a proscription, originating with Aristotle, against the study of philosophy by young men that, in turn, Pound cites in Guide to Kulchur).
1972: Returning from Oregon for a visit to Cranberry, Connie Wilcock Bunker and I had one of those random chats that occur on the main road, on the way down to the town dock. I made my first and only queries concerning her relation to Charles Olson. Her responses, brief as they were, spoke to his size, warmth and energy. She had been with him at his death and felt his loss deeply. In years after Connie had passed, Kate shared with me, on several occasions, details concerning her father’s death. My mind often turns to the image of the shrunken body of Charles Olson being embraced by his friend, the poet Robert Duncan, who wept and rocked the frail form of her father as if to mother his spirit back to life, an image that possibly represents wish fulfillment on Kate’s part, an image to which her mind often returned.
In conversation the night before that brief meeting with Connie and Kate, Jeanne Cumming, wife of Robert Denoon Cumming (Phenomenology and Deconstruction), asked me about my studies. I indicated my interest in the work of Charles Olson, and she responded that she had met Olson herself on Islesford in 1967 at a supper hosted by the anthropologists Harvey Pitkin and Sally McClendon. Pitkin is a linguist, specializing in the languages of Northern California indigenous peoples. Ashley Bryan who joined the dinner party had known Robert Creeley from early on in Aix-en-Provence. Ashley is a remarkable visual artist, deeply devoted to living traditions of African folklore and musical heritage. In his house on Little Cranberry, the visitor will find shelves of books, photographs and games in every cranny, mobiles, a mix of ingeniously crafted toys from all over the world. Ritual items, masks and miniature airplanes hang from the ceiling beams. Ashley’s paintings are luminous yellow, blues and oranges. In studies of friends and family members, his grandmother, mother, and himself, Ashanti patterns mix with flora from the garden outside, mystical animals in the foliage. Ashley was a loving mentor and source of strength for Kate. Jeanne remembers, that as she and her husband walked up the road that night, she observed an extremely tall man and a young woman ahead of her. She was intrigued by the disparity. The couple turned out to be Kate and her dad. Kate was 15.
Robert and Helen Hellman also had a house on Little Cranberry or Islesford as it is called because of the village and post office there. Robert Hellman was an instructor of languages at Black Mountain College and a contributing editor to the Black Mountain Review (1954-57). Ashley Bryan illustrated Robert Hellman’s Fabliaux: Ribald Tales from the Old French. Olson and Kate spent some weeks on Islesford with the Hellmans in 1957. A letter to Connie mentions trips to the Post Office and the search for a bicycle for Kate. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Olson describes reading parts of Howl to a writer and a painter on Little Cranberry (Hellman and Bryan). Olson seems to have visited the Cranberry Islands three times: first in 1957 because of the connection with the Hellmans and then again in 1967 and in 1969, to spend time with Kate.
Until the night when Jeanne shared her memories with me, I had been unaware of the connection between Olson and the girl who was a close friend of my sister and brother. Jeanne spoke of the relationship as if it were a widely known fact. Her solicitude was also partially and deeply directed toward the welfare of my younger brother, Willie, her son Charlie’s close playmate and friend. In the following year, Charlie would suffer a seizure while traveling in Europe. Jeanne at different times had helped my brother with studies for his high school equivalency and had earlier counseled him on steps he might take to avoid the draft. Willie, instead, compelled to become an emancipated person, enlisted before his 18th birthday. In 1977, the doctors discovered a tumor in Charlie’s brain and removed it. Charlie died in 1982. In Willie’s case, agent orange is the source of severe boils and migraines that have made it difficult for him to perform prolonged manual labor in the sun. As recently as the summer of 2004, Willie expressed an interest in living in Charlie’s tree house, wondering if anyone had used it since Charlie’s death.
In August of 1972, my life was oddly tangent to that of Olson and his daughter. Olson began to assume the role of an absent father. My shadow sister, Kate, my brother’s age, walked beside her mom in a quiet sadness. She had only begun to mourn the loss of her dad. She told me as much later, remembering the same walk to the town dock. Connie was forthcoming, inviting me to follow up on our conversation at the nearest opportunity. In the fall of 1974, I finished my thesis and prepared to leave Oregon behind. In January 1975, Constance Wilcock Bunker passed. The death of her mother triggered a resurgence of Kate’s grief for her father. Now a completely vulnerable person, she was no longer the vibrant girl that her father and others have described. Ashley Bryan, Helen Hellman and Jeanne Cumming offered counsel and support. She was not always responsive. Clinically depressed, she self-medicated by abusing alcohol. I talked with her about her anger and melancholy, her prized painting from Josef Albers’s series, Homage to the Square, on the wall behind her. Often she evoked her father’s death, reliving different nuances and expressing herself tenderly, tentatively. She recalled Connie at her father’s bedside, as well as the many poets: Harvey Brown, Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. Kate’s companion at the time listened to our conversation from the adjacent kitchen where he sat cleaning gun barrels and bayonets from his collection of military artifacts.
Constance Wilcock Bunker
July 6, 1919 – January 10, 1975
In older arms than hers
In the Spring of 1973, I met Robert Creeley and helped him navigate the state of Oregon as he was on a reading tour and, drinking heavily, plainly incapable of safely managing travel on his own. Two all night sessions of story telling followed, reminiscences of the sort that in themselves are often purely tiring, because the obsessions of the sot occlude real communication. At the time, Bob’s mother had recently passed and he was quarreling with his second wife, Bobbie Louise Hawkins. Interrupting interminable monologues, when various people sought his attention or an autograph, his mind became briefly present and alert to each, for a flash, and then returned to some difficult, obsessive thread in his narration. I shared my one-eyed stories with him and asked if he had visited Robert Hellman on Little Cranberry. He replied that he had not.
Tangents and sub-tangents: Later (1981) Bob agreed to be on the masthead of O.ARS (along with Fanny Howe and Charles Bernstein). He wrote a letter that helped me secure my teaching position at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire. In October of 1985, his jeans out at the knees, to the chagrin of the College Secretary, Bob read at the College. In 1995, he wrote a blurb for my collection of poetry Fields (1995). I last saw Bob in Orono in June of 2004 where I also had conversations with Ted Enslin, himself a poet with a career tangent to the Olson circle. We also talked at LZ 100, a celebration at Columbia University on what would have been Louis Zukofsky’s one hundredth birthday. Olson, Creeley, and Enslin were important collaborators with Cid Corman and supporters of his publication, Origin. Enslin and Corman also were early supporters of my journal O.ARS. Enslin read his poetry on Cranberry in 1981 (shortly after the publication of O.ARS 1: Coherence). George Butterick, to whom all readers of Olson are indebted for his editing of the Maximus Poems and of the correspondence with Creeley, wrote of the “optimism and resiliency” with which I addressed the difficulties of postmodernism in Coherence. For a reading on Cranberry in 1981, William Goldberg set several of Enslin’s poems to music. Bill also created an electronic composition based on samples of my voice as I read a poem called “Thrumcap.” Food for poets: raw oysters from Robert Bundy’s effort in Preble Cove, shared with Ted and sweet gingery noodles prepared by Cid’s wife and served in the ice cream and Japanese noodle shop that he kept on Newbury Street for a short time in 1982. Cid would later return to Osaka and run a similar business until he passed. Contrary to his deep desire, only a few volumes of Cid’s poetry have been presented on rice paper in elegant black cloth boards similar to those in which his translations from Basho occur. Olson’s “Letters to Origin” and his “Mayan Letters” are crucial documents for postmodern poetry. “O.ARS,” among other associations leading to the choice of the word for the title of the journal, deliberately echoes “origin.” It also directly evokes the figure of “forward” with which Olson begins the Maximus Poems, nodding to the inspirational role that the younger Creeley played in the older poet’s development. To me, the use of oars, as in a punt, allows forward motion while the eyes remain trained on landmarks in the past.
Upon learning of Creeley’s death, March 31, 2005, for the Conjunctions Memorial site, I wrote:
We were drinking. It was Oregon. Eugene in the mid 70s. He wasn't one of those ugly drunks filled with hatred and disappointments. Still the stories were endless and circular. He was Creeley. I didn't know what that meant then, what it meant to be Creeley. In some sad way appropriate to the time, we threw references to Bunting and Pound and Ginsberg around the table. I knew it was important to be Creeley. I felt responsible. I began to feel that I was with someone who had a dead aim on what mattered most. Later when I wanted to start a magazine, I wrote to him for help. When I was looking for work in academia, he offered to be helpful. When I wanted a sense of some one whose ears were trued to the language that I heard and spoke and dreamed and sang in, he was there with words and understanding. Bob met my son at some early point in our friendship. Maybe somewhere in Maine, possibly for a fleeting five minutes in Harvard Square, or one evening in Henniker with Joel Oppenheimer. Always it startled me in a beautiful way, the mindful query and familial interest that he expressed in the health and happiness of a child who could only have made the briefest impression on the poet. That profoundly human generosity of concern is Creeley for me. Conjunctions: The Web Forum of Innovative Writing, Tribute. http://www.conjunctions.com/creeleytribute.htm.
Creeley embodies my feeling for the Pound-Olson connection. Today I am remembering his voice most strongly in the context of a memorial reading for the poet Joel Oppenheimer in Henniker, a few years ago. It is through Joel, Bob and Harvey Brown (as well as Kate) that I feel marked by Olson as a person in my life. There is irony in that not far off in the woods from me, Olson’s poetic rival, Robert Lowell, lies wedged in his grave between the graves of his mother and father in the ancient Dunbarton cemetery, with the four granite stiles, where lie the Starks and Pages of early New Hampshire and War of Independence importance.
Newburyport, Cambridge and Saint Croix, 1975-78: When Paula and I returned from Oregon, we first set up housekeeping on Titcomb Street in Newburyport. This choice was due to my close friendship with Ruth and Arthur Rigor da Eva, echoes of New England’s Portuguese heritage, so important to Olson’s sense of seafaring and the North Atlantic voyages of discover that lead to the founding of a “polis” on Cape Anne. To my personal sense a polis is a community in which the actions of each person work for the good of the whole. History and ritual shape future prospects. I attempt to evoke such histories here, even if in a haphazard and incantatory way. In the fall of 1975, I had few employment prospects. There was an offer from a University in Algeria that I declined. We attempted to winterize the Titcomb Street house (which needed extensive renovations, both to the plumbing and the heating systems, an endeavor beyond our means), to survive on food-stamps, and odd bits of cash income such as what could be secured harvesting apples. At an orchard in West Newbury, I met Harvey Brown, I was familiar with aspects of his story in relation to the publication of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger by Brown’s Frontier Press. Harvey was methodical about the work of packing apples which was our job, the picking in the orchard being done by immigrants from Jamaica. I would meet Harvey once more, close to his death and learn that he had devoted the intervening years to the maintenance of antique varieties of apples in the area of Cummington, Mass.
There is a an overlay of associations in my mind between Dorn’s North Atlantic Turbine and Richard Grossinger’s North Atlantic Books. I had written to Grossinger that summer (1975), asserting that I felt doubly dispossessed by his Book of the Cranberry Islands, especially by the title. I presented myself as, in some senses, a legitimate heir to the Pound/Olson poetic heritage and an obscure, but legitimate native son of the island, descended from Bunkers and native American ancestors. Grossinger’s work on the history and anthropology of the Cranberry Islands had appropriated both mantles. His response acknowledged my work in a way deeply important to me then, establishing a minor bibliographical adjacency of my name alongside Olson’s. The poems of mine that appear in The Olson-Melville Sourcebook, express a double negative of identity, history and myth masking pathos. North Atlantic Books was for many years the leading publisher of works by Ted Enslin and Robert Kelley.
One day, my young son, Tad came back from the Kelly School in Newburyport distraught. He was in the first grade, and Paula had learned from him that he had been threatened with isolation for peeing on the floor. Was it an accident in the classroom or the boys’ bathroom? Was someone watching? I can’t remember. Sister Victorine punished me for a similar infraction when I was in the first grade, Sacred Heart School, Nashua, NH. That moment of Victorian horror, reek of urine and stale milk on oiled floorboards, triggered our flight from Newburyport to Cambridge, where we joined a housing cooperative in the home of McGeorge Bundy (on leave from Harvard for some presidential reason or was it a connection with the Ford Foundation). A cousin of my brother-in-law, Robert Bundy, McGeorge also had a home in Manchester, Mass. (whiffs of the cellar level kitchen of Mrs. Edsel Ford’s residence at Seal Harbor). One member of that collective household on Berkeley St., Stephanie, was the mother of a boy with whom Tad shared a room, Sasha (Alexander Von Bismarck). Sometimes Siegfried Pound, who was preparing for a community service project by taking courses in urban planning at Harvard, would visit Stephanie in our cooperative home. On several mornings in1985 in Orono (ten years later), Irene, my second wife, and I shared breakfast with Olga Rudge. Charmed by Rose, our daughter, then only two, Olga proposed a betrothal with a young son of Siegfried Pound.
Aside: My translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” appears on pages next to poetry by Pound’s daughter Marie de Rachelwiltz in an issue of The Puckerbrush Review. No one has remarked on that juxtaposition; but I have received compliments on the prosodic quirks of my translations from Old English Poetry from Karl Young and Charles Bernstein, both with their own tangents to the gyres I describe here. A poem of mine in the Olson-Melville Source Book reworks the famous simile from Beowulf where an antlered stag (haethstapa) seeks to drink from a frozen spring. Images of this order, discovering information in old sources that is of use today, is a hallmark of Olson’s work and a debt that many owe his example.
Polis: I am an island person, dwelling in a dark and winding river valley here in the mountains. I am a person of big and deep skies and winds over exposed meadows. Islands are mountains in the sea. I am a mountain climber. In 1976, Paula, Tad and I relocated to a goat farm on the island of St. Croix, USVI. I taught English in a school that prided itself on its experiments with intensive education and its commitment to serve multiracial populations. My landlady spoke a Danish creole that very few living today understand. Tom Reeves, the dean, was aware of Olson’s work at Black Mountain College and was himself a member of the community of poets that produced the literary magazine Fag Rag. Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners, Freddy Greenberg, Charley Shively, Jonathan Williams, and Ron Bayes have played different roles in my personal and literary life. I have experienced the beauties and agonies of homoerotic love shared by this community. When I had the opportunity to introduce Tom to Jack Heliker on Cranberry, their embrace spoke volumes of expressive fellowship. Jack had traveled for some months in Europe with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Sitting on the stairs leading to the organ loft at La Sainte Trinité in Paris, guided there by Pierre Boulez, they had listened to Olivier Messiaen play—multiple tangents here to Black Mountain College and the Olson circle. Among contemporary composers, Jack was particularly close to Lou Harrison. Olson “had a high regard and jocular affection for Lou,” writes Michael Rumaker (29). Sexuality was a difficult issue for Olson. He wrote Frances Boldereff about learning to masturbate with pleasure only late in life. Olson was loved as a friend and mentor by many gay men. In the Maximus Poems, on the page that begins “[to get the rituals straight I have / been a tireless Intichiuma” (556), he cites his friendships with Ginsberg and Weiners. He imagines the founding of a community and associates this fellowship with the presence of Kate (then 15) and Pana Grady’s daughter Ella (then 3), the children enjoying the swing ride. An Intichiuma is a member of an aboriginal Australian cult of motherly men. Prosperity is dependent on a form of “participation mystique,” in this case, rituals that “induce the multiplication of the totem” or animal species with which the community identifies (Harrison 124, 273-74).
Kate’s conversations with respect to that summer in 1966, when she first entered boarding school in Cambridge, reference a daughter’s fantasy of polis, shared with her dad. My sister Margaret remembers seeing Kate, in the rocker on the porch of her house with a copy of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Kate, often with her Lhasa Apso in her lap, and Margaret at the oars rowed around the harbor in a beautiful wooden skiff, teal blue hull, eggshell interior. Connie writes to Kate in 1966, saying oddly that the daughter has developed motherly feelings for the father. In the correspondence between Kate and Connie, Connie often counsels Kate about her seriousness in regards to her relation to her dad. For instance, she writes, “Don’t assume that because you had a bad summer it should be a mark of your fate.” A letter from the same sequence from the summer of 1967 states, “I am sure Charles felt good to be able to blow up at you, and is a sign of how secure he does feel with you.” That winter Connie writes to Kate, having spoken to Charles on the phone, “He says if you will just knock on the door, not try to plan to far ahead, he loves it” (Letter, March 26, 1968). Here are glimpses of a passionate intensity shared by father and daughter, a shared proclivity to become absorbed and frustrated by deep personal needs.
In the summer of 1967, I was in Durham, performing in the repertory theater, minor parts in The Tempest and in Androcles and the Lion. On Cranberry, Kate and Connie were a friendly presence in the white clapboard house above the tennis courts, the Romes across the street. David Rome has been close to Chögyam Trungpa, who is known for his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (1973) and for the founding of the Naropa Institute (1974). Naropa is the home of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (also founded in 1974), a school closely identified with Olson’s projective and proprioceptive poetics as well as the mind-breath poetics of Kerouac and Ginsberg, another polis, where ideas are put into action. In 1966 and 1967, many children of families that spent summers on the island discovered both LSD and marijuana. Some of these lost their lives because of overdoses. One of the Murray twins, diagnosed to be schizophrenic, suffered tragically. Survivors of that time have impaired minds today and children with impaired minds. I see the blond hair and sylph-like form of a very young Amy Richardson balancing on the corner post of the second story balustrade over the front porch of the Rome’s house. An angelic vision. The Romes’ house is on the opposite side of the bend in the road from Connie’s and Kate’s. Charles Olson knew Timothy Leary and is reported to have popped tablets of acid like candy corns. Olson was an immense man. He suffered. Schizophrenia and depression stimulate self-medication, drugs and alcohol. John Weiners was schizophrenic, especially close to Charles in many ways, further damaged by drugs and the consumption of alcohol. He was a frail man whose fantasies merged scenes from film noire with his personal memories. There was a time when I visited John in a gloomy room over the Harvard Garden off Cambridge Street in Boston. The bedding smelled of urine. At another time (Orono 2000), largely incomprehensible in his ability to present himself, he seemed to me more lucid than earlier. We talked. His memories were quicker in his eyes than his ability to express them. Weiners passed soon after that visit to Orono. Traits that in another world might be thought of as gifts, healing or visionary, American culture treats as diseases.
I stayed in Durham for two years after graduation, 1966-68, scheming to avoid Vietnam era military service. In 1968, I married Paula Westberg, just prior to being inescapably drafted. In the spring of 1966, thanks to Erwin and Marianne Jaffe, to whom many UNH students are deeply indebted because of their commitment to social justice, I had the opportunity to work as student director with Paul Goodman, another individual associated with Black Mountain College. Today I am aware of the ill-feelings that marred Goodman’s and Olson’s personal encounters, as I am also aware of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ accounts of Olson’s domineering and intransigent sexism, an insecurity that at the time also led to conflicts with Robert Duncan. Olson qualified his insistence on a phallic muscularity as a straining after lost essences from which man in modern times had become alienated. Bullishly that alienation served precisely as source and justification of his bluster. I am relieved to find that he also writes of “the uncertainties of sex” in the Maximus Poems, but I am troubled by the intransigence that he affects for purposes of camaraderie. Goodman’s friendly demeanor made me self-conscious. I was 22 and profoundly apprehensive concerning my own masculinity, but also in love with several of my male classmates. Jealousies and unrequited love included a passionate stalking with one young friend of Rudolph Nureyev who at the time danced with Dame Margot Fonteyn in Boston. I have written about Olson with respect to the uncertainties of sexuality in “Olson and Subjectivity.”
Conclusions: The enduring importance of Olson’s work lies in how it opens America so as to engage the world differently than it has done historically (a lesson not yet learned). Olson, employing the term “postmodern” in correspondence with Creeley as early as 1951, implies that there are archaic sources of human knowledge, antecedent to Western civilization. In this spirit, world history, reaches so far back, as Olson says of Melville’s epic vision, that time becomes space. In that space different peoples migrate and interact. There is a memorable passage in Grossinger’s Book of the Cranberry Islands to the effect that first people are always a dawn people, emerging on the islands and peninsulas and then establishing the cities of the mainland. The argument here like that of the Mayan Letters is that human traits persist when life is lived close to the land. Consumerist modernity threatens such native health. So anthropology and poetry connect us with knowledges from which we have become estranged, to summarize Olson’s poetic insistencies. It is this mindset that led to the friendship between Olson and Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones. In Orono in 2000, I had the occasion to discuss this topic with Baraka and with Barrett Watten, who, for his own political reasons, rejects Olson’s essentially mystical faith in human possibility, while struggling, as I do, to address the practical social purpose of a language-based poetry. Olson is Janus-faced here, addressing the actual limits of lived language and the ways in which a spiritual life can assert itself within the figure of such limits. Olson’s reading of sacred Persian texts and Andalusian Sufism, via Henri Corbin, influenced Baraka deeply. Responding to these currents, Nathaniel Mackey maps the sources of emerging world poetries in Discrepant Engagement. In his Songs of the Andoumboulou, for instance School of Udhra, Mackey enacts a deeply mesmerizing synthesis of polyrhythmic measures and ritual, weaving anthropology and poetics.
Writing on emerging world poetries, I have expressed my indebtedness to a lineage of transformative poetries represented by Olson, Duncan, Mackey ... Ezra Pound, it seems, found a similar interactive world vision in Dante whose Convivio celebrates the poetry of Ibn Arabi. My essay, “Emergent Subjectivity and the Transgressive Text,” traces the formative importance of Olson’s push with respect to world literature, joining Olson’s vision to that of Wilson Harris, the Guyanese novelist and hydrologist. My poetry too traces trajectories through both abstract fields and the landscapes of first hand travel, seeking like Olson to measure vectors and tangents that shape those realities to which a peoples’ expression of their own identity gives best voice.
Sorting through files related to the editing and publication of O.ARS, from 1980-1995, I find multiple additional tangents to the Olson circle. In the litany of names that I bring forward now, each expresses several tangents to the Olson circle. Poets with whom I corresponded and with whom I frequently met for a drink or with whom I shared the hospitality of their homes include Paul Metcalf, Jerome Rothenberg, George Quasha and Dick Higgins, from the inception of the project. Soon, in different ways, some more deeply personal than others, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout, among others associated with the emergence of “language-centered poetry” joined the circle. Dennis Tedlock and I presented a joint reading sponsored by the Grolier in Cambridge. His reading of poems based on associations with the Mayan calendar, puzzling to me in 1990, seems to me crucial now for understanding emerging world poetries. Olson’s projective method, on both the verbal and spiritual planes, situates the reader so as to be able to grasp unfolding and infolded realities.
I have also felt like an interloper. Contact brief and fleeting: a hand shake with Peter Anastas or Vincent Ferrini; a night on the floor at Charles Stein’s in Barrytown; a quick visit with Jean Day at the Quaker Seed House in Tyringham; a glance into Olson apartment on the Fort when the owner’s daughter seeing us on the stairs asked if she could help and kindly let me and Irene into the flat which seemed yet to contain Olson’s living presence, maps tacked to one wall, papers on a table; at another time, dinner on a deck in the marshlands off the Annisquam with Don Byrd and Gerrit Lansing when everyone seemed distracted or preoccupied.
For many years, Joel Oppenheimer, one of Olson’s closest students lived near me and Irene in the next town north, Henniker. Joel had also been a student of Paul Goodman’s. We had first met in Bar Harbor in 1976. He died of lung cancer in October 1988. Rose, five years old at the time of his death, saw a rainbow in the sky over the Uncanoonook Mountains as we left Eliot Hospital to return to Weare. Theresa later informed us that Joel had passed that afternoon. Joel loved women, it is said, that was the theme of the memorial service and kaddish held when he passed. A white dove entered the old white walled congregational church where the service was held. As the ram’s horn shofar sounded, the bird perched in the rafters above the coffin. I have been the observer of magical realities. I have seemed an interloper in my own life, sitting near a window and catching a reflection of some one watching me as I read and search for meaning or direction: that watcher, I know, is a version of myself, as I once existed, equally a self that might yet materialize. Part of that entity is in these notes. The trope of the observer in gyres of a time-funnel is the organizing figure of my long poem, “The House in the Fields.”
Islands breed a clutching insecurity, possibly a trait of isolatoes in general. This brooding paranoia is a symptom shared by the children of alcoholics. Like her dad, Kate abused alcohol, seeking relief from bouts of elegant madness. My mother fled from the ravages of my father’s alcoholism to the peaceful refuge of her island home, engendering suspicion and resentment in her children, pitting us, as it were, against an abusive world, symbolized by my father. Her father had been alcoholic. Near her death Kate began to suspect that she had been a victim of robbery. Brooding on the matter for hours, from her bed, she harangued her visitors. Once redecorating a room with a wallpaper in the style of the English Arts and Crafts movement, she broke down publicly in tears because of the disapproval expressed by her stepfather, George Bunker. Childhood insecurities, aspirations too, are never far below the surface.
From the slightest of tangents to weave the filmy likeness of a life. What that life whispers, always a day later, in some retrospect, as insubstantial and poorly imagined as it may have been at different times, begs acknowledgement. How life submerges in the irrealities of half-claims and half-truths, cheek-to-cheek with personified terror and paranoia. He held Kate and he cried, “if I had only known, if I had only known.” Yes, the vodka bottle was empty, having rolled under the bed, tawdry detail, and the children (Audra, Angela and Andrew) huddled in the room nearby when the revolving red ambulance lights filled the night sky. Willie, my brother, how sweet and loving you have often been! How much we have suffered! So much to learn!
Works Cited (partial list)