Monday, August 21, 2006

DAVID IGNATOW and ARMAND SCHWERNER

SANDY MCINTOSH Offers a memoir with reviews of

Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems by David Ignatow
(BOA Editions, Rochester, 1999)

Selected Shorter Poems by Armand Schwerner
(Junction Press, San Diego, 1999)
and
The Tablets by Armand Schwerner
(The National Poetry Foundation, Orono, 1999)

[First published in CONFRONTATION, No. 70/71 Winter/Spring 2000, Editor Martin Tucker]

Hamptons Found and Lost: A Memoir with Reviews

Everyone knows about the Hamptons--summer home of the rich, year-round community of painters (de Kooning, Pollock) and writers (Steinbeck, Albee)--and, lately, of Hollywood people (Spielberg, Baldwin) and rappers (Puff Daddy). Recent visitors in search of the idyllic summer life supposed to be lived there are inevitably disappointed by what they find: a relentless, choking, funeral procession of cars dragging its way between Westhampton and Montauk, crowded sidewalks and intersections filled with irate drivers and pedestrians. A photograph of Saturday evening along Main Street in East Hampton and one of Monday morning along 42nd St. and Broadway would be identical. And why not? Both would picture the same cars, the same people. And in both photographs, everyone would be pissed-off. This is a testament to the predatory real estate and tourist industries and to the greed of local governments that have never known when to say when.

However, there was a time when this was not the case. At Canio's bookstore in Sag Harbor last spring, the poet Harvey Shapiro, a long-time Hamptons familiar, read a poem called "For Armand and David" that touched on feelings shared by those of us who have considered the Hamptons a refuge for our poetic selves. "When we were young," Shapiro's poem begins:

And our children were young--
the water was such a mystery,
the sky so blue. Everything
breathed promise. The language
would blaze forth,
did blaze forth…


I came to the Hamptons in the late nineteen sixties to attend Southampton College. In its early years the college enjoyed the enthusiasm of the local arts community, and some notable artists and writers volunteered to teach. Out of the formative chaos of the early curriculum some odd teaching assignments were made. For instance, my freshman English literature instructor was Ilya Bolotowsky, the Neo-plasticist painter and disciple of Kandinsky. In his thick Slavic accent, filtered through a massive, drooping mustache, Bolotowsky led us into the mysteries of James Joyce, beginning with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and coming back full circle to an earlier version of the same book, Stephen Hero. These were works I reveled in, but that I now know after teaching English myself, would not be applauded as appropriate in the modern remedial freshman curriculum. In turn, Bolotowsky introduced me to his friend Willem de Kooning, who was visiting the college. Later, when I lived in the Springs, I would ferry de Kooning between his studio and his farmhouse when he was unable to bicycle between them.

David Ignatow came to the college after a teaching stint at the University of Kentucky. I took his poetry writing classes in both semesters and was lucky enough to get to know him and his family, who had recently moved to the Springs. Ignatow offered me his friendship and we remained friends until his death.

I met Armand Schwerner at a poetry reading at H. R. Hays’ home in East Hampton. Hays, the pioneering translator of Spanish-American poetry and of Brecht’s poems, occupied a central position in the Hampton’s literary scene. He made his large, modern home, built deep in the woods, a venue for readings and parties. Hays had invited me to this particular reading in order to introduce me to his friends.

During my final years in military school I had been writing poetry and compiling it in a thick loose-leaf notebook. I had shown some of my poetry to Hays and he had been encouraging. I arrived at his home for the reading and was immediately daunted by the size of the crowd. Certainly I was the youngest. Several poets preceded me, and when it was my turn I read the poem of mine that Hays had selected. Afterwards, the applause surprised and pleased me. Before I could sit down, someone asked me to read another. Others in the audience applauded. Flattered, I reopened my notebook looking for an appropriate encore. Time passed; the audience grew restive. As I flipped to the end of the notebook I panicked. I had seen an ugly, looming truth. Not one of those poems was any good!--a devastating realization that I had been deceiving myself all along, carrying around an impressive folder filled with what I now realized was self-indulgent crap. Nevertheless, I couldn't let the audience know about this. Thinking hard, I remembered I had recently written something that was more promising than my usual. I laboriously turned the pages searching for it, even though I sensed I was losing the audience. In the end, refusing to admit a truth that was nobody's business but mine, I took the chance and recited the poem from memory. The response amazed me. Everyone seemed to be laughing and applauding. Later, Hays introduced me to Allen Planz, who was then Poetry Editor of the Nation. He invited me to submit the poem to that magazine. It was only after I was back in the anonymity of the audience that I realized I had omitted to recite most of the poem's lines. Somehow, panic had edited me, cutting the inferior lines and leaving only the poem’s true heart. It was a strict lesson.

Hays introduced me to other poets at the reading. One group I was to make friends with and see frequently during the next twenty years included Harvey Shapiro, Si Perchick, Michael Heller, Michael Braude, as well as Ignatow, Planz and Schwerner. For the next five or ten years, many of us would be occupied teaching under wealthy federal and state arts programs, and this temporary public largess created the illusion (at least for me) that it was reasonable to call oneself a poet when asked to state one’s profession.

***

Posthumous poetry collections of David Ignatow and Armand Schwerner were published during the last year. Ignatow died in November 1997; Schwerner in February 1999. In the case of Schwerner’s poetry, two collections were brought out—a complete set of his well-known Tablets, including a CD of their live performance, and a volume of his lesser-known shorter poems. In the case of Ignatow’s poetry, a collection of last poems was notably edited by three people who were close to him: his daughter, Yaedi, Virginia Terris, and Jeannette Hopkins, who long-ago shaped the seminal collections of his work originally published by Wesleyn University Press.

Ignatow and Schwerner shared little of poetic method. Their cultural and religious backgrounds were similar—both grew up in New York City and both credited Walt Whitman as their literary forbear—but Schwerner was a poet who rejoiced in an abundance, often a manic torrent of language, while Ignatow frugally pared his words to a pointed minimum. Yet, in the company of other poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers and sculptors who spent summers together in the wooded community of East Hampton known as the Springs from the middle-1960’s, these two became great friends.

ARMAND SCHWERNER

Armand and his family lived in a small house off Fireplace Road. Armand’s wife, Dolores, was an artist whose work anticipated Performance art. Their two boys, Ari and Adam were blondes like their mother but had their father’s exuberant personality. When I first visited their home Ari, who was six, and Adam, who was eight, delighted in scandalizing me with a nursery rhyme written by their father:

Muck the Fuck

One room of the grey rat
two room for the cowlick
seven room for moose
and Muck the Fuck to celebrate;

he says: I fuck the moose
with cowlick; the grey rat
bears the urine
from room to room for the proper dance,
slippery floor for the moose-mad;

Room for the real.
Kitchen of shadows, bing.
If you don’t sing
what’s out there?

Rat moose cowlick prick
open your mouth a little bit
drapes are falling everywhere.
Foot in your ears.


Armand, aware that I was made uncomfortable by such things, made a point of instructing me in his version of a less WASPish life. Among several of his lessons I recall arriving home with him one late night and watching him demonstrate what he declared in his booming voice to be the best part of capitalism: the freedom to piss all over your own front lawn with impunity.

At the time Armand had published a small collection of poetry, The Lightfall. The Junction Press has included six of the best from this rare, early book in the Selected Shorter Poems. It is usually a mistake to look backwards at a series of poems and point out how they presaged a poet's later writing interests. It is, as the historian Herbert Butterfield has said, the equivalent of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. However, in these six representative poems one can find the poetic approaches and methods that occupied Armand’s attention throughout much of his life. A poem like “where the boat passes, improvise,” with lines such as “he sits with Stone the Death/ and munches by the Door// will he eat papyrus in the drummer’s hallway?” sounds right out of his later Tablets; in “the Other” lines such as “we are two bodies, a comb,/ hatband, brush, a mouth moving” suggest his later meditations of Sounds of the River Naranjana…; and so on. Of this first volume, only “the red horses of the sun” represents a kind of formality I don’t believe he ever sought again: “red is the color of spring/ it feeds that pattern of her flesh// it stutters in its course under the rare earth”—a poet’s student work.

In any case, I think Schwerner’s best poetic urges were realized in the hilarious and above all, loving poems inspired by his children and by that part of him that was childlike. Wonderful examples of these—such as “Muck the Fuck,” “poem at the bathroom door, by Adam,” and “what Ari says when he’s five”—are reprinted from his first two books. In his third book, he again realizes these antic urges, this time in his selection and translation of Eskimo poems. This infectious humor, I think, has been Schwerner’s saving grace (at least for lyric pleasure-seekers like me), for as he continued to write he became preoccupied with weightier subjects that he believed he must present with due, unsmiling seriousness. I’m not convinced that his rendering of Buddhist themes, for example, shows a lessening of his personal self-importance, of his intrusive presence in the poems—rather the opposite. However, despite this, these poems show him to be a poet of dedication and great, if naïve, ability—his naiveté demonstrated by the partial title of one book The Triumph of the Will. (When I asked him didn’t he know that this had been the title of Leni Riefenstahl's famous 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Armand protested that he had never heard of it.)

Although Junction Press' edition of Armand’s Selected Shorter Poems does not include some of my favorites, it does feature some of his most moving. We happened to be together in the Springs when David Ignatow gave us the news that Paul Blackburn had died. One of us—probably H.R. Hays—organized a memorial reading for Paul at the Old Post Office Theater in East Hampton. Armand’s poem was especially poignant. Its title describes it well: “a letter to Paul Blackburn preceded by a letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote 13 days before his death in 1826 to Rudolph Kassner.” The poignancy of these lines continues fresh, and could serve as Armand’s own epitaph.

Sections of The Tablets have appeared in several publications over the years, but it is only the present collection that includes all twenty seven of them, along with copious notes and appendices. The Tablets are Schwerner’s best known work, mainly because he promoted them in a great number of live performances (at which he was an expert—the CD attests to this) and in print. Consequently, they have and continue to receive a good deal of critical attention. They represent supposed remnants of Sumero-Akkadian clay tablets as interpreted by Armand’s alter-ego, the Scholar-Translator. These poems embody the full range of Armand’s poetic power, as well as his great strengths and fallibilities as a person. Thus, the Scholar-Translator begins as a figure of fun—a pompous academic bumbling through his misinterpretations of the meaning of his translations—but later changes into an unsmiling authority—a man demanding, as Armand seemed to demand, that people take him seriously.

Armand was often as delightful a companion as his friends found him difficult to abide. In his later years, his incessant preoccupation with himself was only made tolerable by his ever-sharpening, ever-darker, explosive wit. During the last years of his life, Armand and I saw little of each other. Part of this is because, following his divorce from Delores (who owned the Springs house), Armand no longer had a base on Long Island. But much of our alienation had to do with our competing Buddhist philosophies. Even after his guru was exposed as a drunk and lecher—and mine as a womanizing thief—we rarely saw each other. I think we spoke only once or twice in his last two years. I had published an account of my Buddhist experience in a magazine to which he subscribed. He called to let me know how delighted he was to discover that I had made him a character in the story, identified only as “A.” I was thrilled to hear from him, and had indeed written him into the story, hoping it would break the ice between us. Our conversation that time embodied the warmth that had been missing between us for years.

DAVID IGNATOW

Reading this original, final collection of David Ignatow’s poetry two years after his death is a wonderful surprise. There he is, speaking to me again, not in the tired voice of an opera singer who has made one-too-many farewell appearances, but in the voice of Ignatow-the-Poet (as his wife, Rose, used to snidely call him), with his well-remembered Ignatow-voice, and inimitable Ignatow-preoccupations and ironies. At first the voice is quiet, abstract: “Fear is of the universe,/as is death,/ as is love, pleasure,/ intimacy and cruelty.” But then it picks up its familiar sonority: “Interesting that I have to live with my skeleton./ It stands, prepared to emerge, and I carry it/ with me—this other thing I will become at death.”

In the first section of poems in this book (which I take to be genuinely “last poems;” the rest, though previously unpublished, I suspect to have been written some time earlier), I visualize Ignatow coming to the screen door of his study, answering my tentative knock, his voice, thinner in his last years, and his movements slower, but his eyes demanding directness and honesty. I’ve told the story elsewhere about my early experience with him when, after I’d bragged of reading an unbelievably large number of books during a short period of time, Ignatow reacted as if truly hurt by my exaggeration. “You must use language responsibly,” he admonished me then. This directness is mirrored in the sobriety of these poems.

David, like Armand, could frustrate his friends by his obtrusive self-involvement. Harvey Shapiro tells the story of how one day David telephoned to announce “I’ve got wonderful news for you, Harvey!” Since Harvey was then in contention for an important poetry prize that David might know about he was thrilled by David’s call. However, it proved to be disappointing when David revealed that the “wonderful news” was, of course, about David, not Harvey. It probably never occurred to David that Harvey would be expecting to hear something else.

While their approach to writing differed greatly, Armand and David shared preoccupations in common, notably with personal mortality. Between David’s and Armand’s rendering of this theme, I believe David had the advantage, since his poetic postmortem was not burdened with the formality of some a priori philosophy or religion—whereas Armand’s was. The “last poems” in Ignatow’s collection testify to his unblinking examination of his own mortality that he began in Shadowing the Ground several years earlier. Armand’s “last poems” (which I suppose to be those recent ones in his Selected collection under the heading “uncollected”), while passionate and intellectually rigorous, still carry the unopened baggage of religious aspiration: “but this blood, which transforms/ the five poisons into the five knowledges, this blood/ of great passion, passionless, free of passion,/ this secret great blood, free of clinging…” (“blood”). These images are specifically Buddhist shorthand; readers not familiar with them may enjoy their exotic mystery but are not helped to face, along with the poet, the reality of Death Itself. In terms of a winning strategy, I give the laurels to Ignatow:

What I thought I was writing—
for the social good—turns out to be
for my own enlightenment;
no one is listening.

(“How I learned to be with others”)


***

I graduated from Southampton College in the spring of 1970 and that summer, as I had done for the previous three summers, shared a rental cottage in the Springs. One early evening, after my shift pumping gas, I was driving home along Springs Fireplace Road when I had to brake my car suddenly in order to avoid hitting an elderly man on a bicycle. He had swerved out of a side road, and crossed in front of me without looking. I pulled over to catch my breath. As I drew closer I recognized de Kooning, whom I had first met at the college in my Freshman year. I watched as he rode away, pedaling uncertainly, his bike weaving figure eights from left to right. At one point he seemed to lose interest in pedaling. The bike came to a stop, stayed motionless for a moment, then pitched over to the right, its rider falling gently into the thick, uncut brush and rolling two or three times until coming to rest near the trees. I shut off my car and ran over to him. He didn't seem hurt; in fact, he was smiling pleasantly, his eyes closed as if dreaming. I touched his arm and he looked up. He was okay, he told me, but could I give him a ride home? It was getting dark and he had no light on his bike.

I helped him into my car and loaded his bike into the back seat. He told me to continue east, then take the right fork before Barnes grocery store. He was living in a farmhouse opposite the Green River cemetery, he said, but this was only temporary, until they finished building his new studio. "I don't want them to finish the damn thing," he said with some bitterness. I asked why not? "Because when it's finished, I think I will be finished, too."

We drove on for a few minutes until he told me to stop. "I live right here," he said. He looked over at the cemetery and pointed: "All my friends are buried there."

I was curious. I helped him out of the car and to his front door, and when he was safely inside, I crossed the road to the cemetery.

It seemed a conventional graveyard with moldering tombstones. But then I caught sight of a grave marker that was odd. It was an obsidian monolith standing about four feet high. Engraved on its face was a man's signature: the painter Stuart Davis. Looking around in that section of the cemetery, I found other oddly shaped stones, each with the name of an artist or a writer I had heard of. In front of Stuart Davis' grave was a white marble square that marked the grave of Ad Reinhardt. I discovered the flat slate grave maker of Frank O'Hara, the New York School poet who had been killed by the only vehicle on Fire Island. Inscribed on it was his quotation: "Grace to be born and live / as variously as possible." Just north of O'Hara's grave was that of the writer A. J. Liebling, the war correspondent, boxing expert, world-class eater, and, for many years at The New Yorker, a critic of the press. Finally, at the end of the cemetery, almost in the woods, a great boulder with a bronze plaque marked Jackson Pollock's grave. I continued on, following the horseshoe road until I came to a fence. On the other side were objects--gravestones, I thought--that were extremely weird, even grotesque, resembling Native totem poles. I wondered about that section of the cemetery for a long time. (In fact, I learned eventually, the odd objects were not grave markers but rough carvings in the side yard of the sculptor Albert Price's house.) Later I described the little graveyard to my friends as a place "with dead people on one side and artists on the other." I visited the place often, even picnicking and napping on an artist's plot that was behind some trees, out of public view.

In December last year I visited the cemetery again. It has been expanded by at least a half acre behind Pollock's boulder. Artists and writers continue to be buried there, and who they were and what they are famous for reflects something of the upscale attraction of the modern Hamptons. Filmmakers such as Stan Vanderbeek and producer Alan Pakula are buried there, as is the celebrated French chef, Pierre Franey, to name three. The cost of graves, I understand, is prohibitively expensive, except for the very wealthy--as is everything else thereabouts. Even so, the cemetery was silent at my visit as all of the Springs had once been, even at the height of summer. I reflected on my encounter with de Kooning long before, and had the sobering thought that in subsequent summers an elderly artist wobbling on his bicycle in a Hampton's road would have little chance of surviving the tourist traffic, which is grim, relentless and unforgiving. In fact, I realized, the easy access I had in my time to the wonderful artists and writers living there is no longer possible. These days they all seem to remain cloistered in their compounds, their public appearances protected by bodyguards. "To the rich vacationers," Harvey Shapiro writes:

our lives meant nothing.
We kept investing them with meaning
until the enterprise broke us.

I see these same sights,
bleared now. Words
broken into stony syllables,
blackened in remembrance.


I thought of Armand, who died of cancer after losing his younger son, Ari, in a car accident. I thought of David, also, two years dead now. On a couple of occasions back in the 'seventies, Armand, David, Harvey, Alan, and others of us gathered during November or December to celebrate some last event before winter. A few times I remember Armand grunting a kind of benediction to end the season. "And now," he pronounced in his ominous tones, "for four months of shit." We'd look up into the grey sky, and that would be it till we met again next summer.

*****

Sandy McIntosh’s collections of poetry include The After-Death History of My Mother, Between Earth and Sky (Marsh Hawk Press), Endless Staircase (Street Press), Earth Works (Long Island University), Which Way to the Egress? (Garfield Publishers), and two chapbooks: Obsessional (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry) and Monsters of the Antipodes (Survivors Manual Books). His prose includes Firing Back, with Jodie-Beth Galos (John Wiley & Sons), From A Chinese Kitchen (American Cooking Guild), and The Poets In the Poets-In-The-Schools (Minnesota Center for Social Research, University of Minnesota. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. His original poetry in a film script won the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. He has been Managing Editor of Confrontation magazine published by Long Island University, and is Managing Editor of Marsh Hawk Press.

2 Comments:

At 12:06 AM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Testing.

Oh.."testing"? How boring. Sandy, let me say instead that I found this essay very moving. Thanks for sharing,
Eileen

 
At 5:41 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Intresting article. It helped me understand Ignatow better. :)

 

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