Helena Bennett 1963-1990
As you can see from the dates, Helena died far too young. Bill Luoma, her widower, wrote a moving account of dealing with his grief for this loss called My Trip to New York City, which was published in 1994 by Geoff Young’s press The Figures. The entirety of My Trip to New York City (along with other great stuff) is included in Luoma’s Works and Days.
I met Helena Bennett in a beginning poetry workshop at the University of California, San Diego in 1985. We became close. She was my first real “poetry friend.” I’ve written extensively about her and our circle of friends—Bill Luoma, Douglas Rothschild, Steve Evans, Scott Bentley, John Granger, Monique Van Genderen, Brian Tenenbaum, Shelley White, and others—jokingly known as l’école de San Diego, in my memoir The Middle Room. Helena’s influence on my life as a poet, both through her life and her loss, cannot be overestimated. The extent of this influence was brought home to me when Ann Vickery sent me her excellent article, “In/complete: locating origins of the poet in Jennifer Moxley’s ‘in memoriams’ to Helena Bennett,” included in Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry.
My hope is to use this page to post some reminiscences of Helena by those who knew her, as well as to share some of her original works. Stay tuned!
A much-yellowed broadside of Helena’s poem “Exit Jesus.” The colophon at the bottom, too faint to see anymore, reads “by Helena Bennett. Printed by David I. Sheidlower and the author at Coincidence Press. October 1987 Oakland, California.”
The following remembrances were written in 2007 for a special feature I was editing on Helena that was to have run in The Modern Review. Unfortunately, the magazine folded before the feature ran. I am glad to be able to share these now.
Scott Bentley, Bill Luoma, and Steve Evans in San Francisco in the mid 90s
Helena was named Helena Michele Bennett on July 1963 in Elizabeth City, NC. She died December 1990 in San Diego, CA. It’s 17 years later and I can’t remember the days. She was a Cancer and sometimes called herself Helena Handbasket. Cancers and Scorpios are a good match. I am a triple Scorpio. She grew up in various places, starting in North Carolina, going to various rocky mountain towns and ending up in Salt Lake. Her parents divorced early. Helena, her younger brother Alex, and her younger sister Gabrielle moved around with her mother, who was a member of Ekencar. Her father was an architect of Norfolk, Virginia. Helena’s grandmother, ‘Lel, remained in Elizabeth City forever. ‘Lel would call Helena once a week. Yes ma’am, yes ma’am, yes ma’am and it was easy to know ‘Lel was on the other end of the phone. Helena lived with ‘Lel while her mother and father sorted it out. It was clear that ‘Lel was Helena’s mother. In the rocky mountains, Helena assumed the role of mother to the youngsters until she left for college in the early 80s. Tulane -> UCLA -> UCSD. I met her at UCSD in 1984 or 85. I can’t remember how, maybe when she walked into the comp class I was teaching 15 minutes late as the new tutor for the youngsters. She may have been barefoot in jeans with a large beige canvas bag full of books and what not. If she wasn’t barefoot then she was wearing cowboy boots. She didn’t just walk. It was a long bouncy stroll. She was semi-tall so the effect of her appearance was always slightly exaggerated.
WATCHING ORPHÉE WITH HELENA
Helena was typically more advanced than her peers at writing poetry. She seemed to have been seeing the world ‘that way’ longer than most of us. When I say ‘that way’ it probably means nothing more than having a critical eye, being able to analyze the metaphors we live by in order to consider change, as well as finding those spaces other artists have either neglected or refused and find beauty and critique and utopia there too. Putting the gloves on and going thru the mirror, so to speak. I often wonder what kind of writing she would be producing today. What inventions would she have made? In what manner would she be a force of good in the spats against evil? Who would she diss? Who would she love? Who would she tease?
GETTING TOGETHER WITH HELENA
We used to gather at someone’s place and type lines on an old underwood. Sometimes we would bring collage materials and make visual poems. Often we would drink. Jennifer describes this in The Middle Room. This was mostly how I got to know Helena and Jennifer and Scott and Douglas and Chuck and Gary and Shelley and John and Rodefer, etc. Sometimes there would be just a party. Sometimes Helena and I would dance and it would get a little out of hand because I was involved in a relationship with Page, the classicist. Usually Page and I would leave San Diego for the old country in the summer. But in 1988 Helena helped me get a job at Emerald Systems tech writing in the spring. I didn’t leave for the old country that summer. Sometimes Helena and I would go out after work to the elbow room and she would try to beat the old men in stubby hats at pool. Sometimes she would watch me play baseball on the weekends. Sometimes we would make dinner. One night I told her that puttanesca didn’t call for parmesan. It hurt her feelings. After that it didn’t take long for me to become a cheating-on-Page-type-of-guy. I recall the day Page got back into town was the day I pretty much single-handedly blew our playoff game by dropping a popup with a runner on third, grounding out repeatedly with runners in scoring position, and getting thrown out trying to steal third with two outs and the cleanup woman up on deck. In retrospect I began to work full time and stopped going to grad school. Initially, I didn’t know I had hurt Helena’s feelings with the puttanesca comment.
LEARNING VENTURA PUBLISHER WITH HELENA
Helena taught me how to use a computer and write batch files. And use the gem interface. We cranked out technical material at Emerald Systems. Douglas refers to any computer company as Carrot Systems.
GETTING TICKETS WITH HELENA
The Dodgers were at the murph and Hershheiser was on a streak to beat Drysdale’s 58 scoreless innings record at 49. Helena was sick with a mystery ailment. I went to the game alone. Orel gave up 4 hits and 0 runs in 10 innings to break the record. The dodgers lost 2-1 in 16. When I got home, we went to the emergency room at no mercy hospital. Sometimes I say a prayer for demerol and dilaudid and liquid morphine. Douglas has the ticket stub.
GOING TO THE GRAPE FARM WITH HELENA
Selma was Larry’s ranch and we hung out in the grape vines and orchards around the holiday season. The valley is full of ground fog at nite and pool playing at the valley bars. There are no turns in any road. The only color is from the wings of the mountain bluebird that comes down to the vines in the winter. Fruit trees are good for kicking field goals into off the porch. Helena spoke often about Salt Lake. She was friends with Mary Jane Hale in high school and Mary Jane’s mother liked to drink coors and say those girls are ripe. Later in life Helena married me and Mary Jane married Larry. Larry grew up in Selma and met with Phil Levine at Fresno. Mary Jane and Larry came to Helena’s wake and got divorced. Mary Jane is now a successful energy scientist. Larry is currently a deceased poet. You may know him, Larry Levis, the poet who died young.
GOING TO THE GAME WITH HELENA
I received one day a used red satin baseball uniform with the name Omar and the number 25 on the back. I wore it as a halloween costume. Except one year I wore it in a game and played with inspiration because I was part of the all-star team. I got trophy for hitting a double off Valenzuela. Actually, it was a home run but they called it a double because there was a 1-foot gap in the fence and the ball was interpreted to have gone thru the hole in the fence but not to have gone over the fence had one fence piece been there. Helena promptly renamed most valuable player most valuable pants.
GOING TO THE BLUES BAR WITH HELENA
Helena was a good dancer and would often go to the juke joint in Ocean Beach to hear Tomcat Courtney say right on with your right on baby. Sometimes should would kind of slow dance by herself.
GOING TO THE BATTING CAGE WITH HELENA
Helena could hit in the fast cage. I thought that was a little weird.
WATCHING BRIAN ARGUE WITH HELENA
Helena had enough statistical knowledge about baseball that she could often defeat Brian in arguments. That’s what he loved about Helena. True friendship = arguing about sports.
PLAYING THE HOME RUN GAME WITH HELENA
Brian would regularly drive us to the murph to watch the Padres lose. To make the game interesting we would try to predict three players that had hit home runs that day as the scoreboard would periodically display the major hits of the games of the day. One day Helena calls Jose Lind and everyone looks at her with a question mark. When we see the Pirates score Jose Lind has indeed gone i-Jah. Ya. Helena was awarded permanent Jose Lind.
LOVING MAGIC JOHNSON WITH HELENA
Helena would get worked up when the Lakers played the Celtics and the Lakers played the Pistons. She loved Magic Johnson during the playoffs.
GOING TO THE ELBOW ROOM WITH HELENA
Helena played pool in a bar league. I thought it was a difficult thing to play that way beating men in stubby hats twice her age. She could succeed at traditional male spaces.
MOVING IN WITH HELENA
Helena and Jennifer had a number of smallish parties at 4226 Campus Ave whereat everyone seemed to make out with low-level petting. I moved in with Helena around the time Jennifer moved in with Steve. When Brian left San Diego, Helena and I took his place at 430 Brookes. We got to share a balcony with Steve and Jennifer. Across the street was a parking lot that we used for stickball, but Brian’s move was already beginning to signal the end of the stickball era.
RECALLING MY 30TH BIRTHDAY WITH HELENA
We were in bed for three days straight. We were both on narcotics. I was on narcotics because of the head and neck surgeon. Helena was on narcotics because cancer hurts. Jennifer flew out to feed us, while Steve stayed behind in Providence. Jennifer, I want to thank you for taking care of us. And Steve, we all had a fantasy that you were fucking the brains out of communism.
MAPPING A RELATIONSHIP WITH HELENA
Helena died one nite in mid December. Later there was a wake or a party. It was very moving to see all my friends and family. A cold front had descended from the gulf of alaska and the Californians were affected by record lows. Mary Jane and I scattered Helena’s ashes over the pacific by opening the door of a small plane. Then I read a Frank O’Hara poem. We were lucky to get up in the air. By the time we got to Selma, all the pipes had froze. I just sat in the vines waiting for birds to come. One day I raised my left arm up and straightway the gold ring flew off.
…with the blue dress on
—In memory of Helena Bennett
“Now I can fit into all my old dresses,” Helena said to me as she, Bill, my new wife Marta and I all sat at the rented tables doused in white sheets like Halloween ghosts. By then a few late stragglers wandered around that noisy outdoor party thrown by my mother 17 years ago in the warm San Diego night—a celebration of Marta’s and my wedding. I hadn’t seen Bill and Helena in a year or more, having finished up my work at UCSD and fled San Diego with Marta to do my first adjunct gig at Cal Poly SLO. Marta and I had a small wedding in Paso Robles, a not so small anymore town just north of San Luis Obispo, and now this huge affair was the San Diego acknowledgment of our giant leap of faith made square in the center of our twenties.
My mother likes parties, always has. And for this bash she invited, I think, everyone I’d ever known in my entire life. She invited my first grade teacher; Kathy Finley, the cooking teacher from my high school who, despite the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the counter tops from my wheelchair, always gave me something to do each day in class and then took me out one night with my parents’ approval to see Body Heat, one of my first rated R films. But Bill Luoma? Helena Bennett? Had my mother even heard of these people? How’d she pull this off?
I was delighted to see them as Bill and I with firm handshakes made our usual understated exchanges that continue even today, registering our great caring for one another even though we’ll go sometimes half-a-decade without speaking or meeting:
“Hey, what’s up? Y’ all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. You?”
“Well, y’ know…”
I was so overcome and thrown by the night’s events, by the recent turns of good fortune that my life had taken, that I could neither remember Bill’s nor Helena’s nor my own wife’s names so I just let them introduce themselves. Amid the din of clinking glasses, laughter and the low drone of steady conversation in that midnight backyard I started to notice that something was wrong, didn’t look right, as from across the table I came to understand, I thought, that Bill and Helena were married? Bill and Helena? Did Bill even believe in such ceremony? And, no, Helena just didn’t look right. (I still remember the sharp line of Helena’s jaw, the darkness around her eyes.) With my usual disregard of aplomb that I exercise when a little drunk and surrounded by my people I half-shouted across the table, “You go on a diet or something?”
Seconds later a camera flashed from somewhere out of the darkness as Helena told me that she in fact had stomach cancer, had had surgery and been through a round of chemo. Things didn’t look good. (If we go back through the wedding photos we’ll find the one snapped just at that moment when I hear this news. My tie’s undone around my neck, my hair at the end of its day and on my face we see absolute shock and horror: Helena? Cancer? On this day?)
And then she said it: “Now I can fit into all my old dresses.” She laughed a little and Bill smirked the way he does when he hears a good line at a reading and we all stared at our hands. I thought loudly just then in my silent skull of Helena’s wonderful closing lines to her poem (“so what if he has only little verbs”): “look how noon is yellow / in the folds of my skirt.” We continued to talk a little about something and nothing at all and then Helena was tired and had to go home. Bill and I shook hands again. Helena bent down to hug me in my chair and as she kissed me on the mouth and looked me straight in the face. I felt the frailty of her body through her vintage thrift shop dress. In Helena’s ear I recited softly her magnificent little poem, “Ted Williams”:
Helena laughed, half-cried. She grasped my hand, let go. “It’ll be all right,” I said. The night ended.
And then a few months later we got a call. Helena was dead. Bill came to stay with Marta and me in San Luis Obispo sometime after this. He brought me some slides to use for a reading. I don’t think I thanked him. Marta and I stayed at Bill’s house so we could do some apartment hunting before we moved from SLO to Oakland. Once I went over to Bill’s house on a Sunday to watch the game. I brought sandwiches from a deli across the way. Bill didn’t eat his. Things were disintegrating and had been for a while.
“Called back,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousins Louise and Fanny Norcross: “Little Cousins, Called Back.” Then in the evening of May 15th, 1886, Emily Dickinson died. Emily Dickinson and Helena Bennett. Say that aloud. Feel the syllables in your mouth? Hear the drum tap? Emily Dickinson wrote some 1,789 poems, some sewn together in little fascicles and kept in her drawers. Helena made a few broadsides, wrote a single deliberately unbound chapbook with little bits of ephemera glued to the cover: you don’t have to call me Merle Haggard (anymore). For some these few objects are as precious as Dickinson’s fascicles. When I need somewhere to go with my writing I come back to this unbound book, to these minstrel objects of language as to a mistress. I sometimes wonder, and have been wondering with greater frequency since reading that leviathan, Jennifer Moxley’s tome, The Middle Room: What would have happened had Helena lived? What would things have been like today, for us, here? How would the mainsails of the 1990s have unfurled? Would the new century seem quite so desperate if Helena were still aboard?
And once the second tower came down to the administration of this impossible war, how would we by now read the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind differently if Helena were still in country? How many books by now? How long would it take to pass through security at JFK with Helena? What would Helena have had to say about the Clinton Administration? If Helena were here would San Diego have burst horribly aflame that long hot summer?
And yet, if Helena had lived we wouldn’t have the perhaps greatest piece of writing of the latter part of the 20th century, Bill Luoma’s My Trip to New York City. How would Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, Lee Ann Brown and Juliana Spahr be different writers from the ones they have worked to become? Bill’s son, Sasha, may not have been born, born with those deep dark eyes. And what of my boys? Who can say? It seems so sentimental, absurd even to an extreme to wander with wonder into such algebraic territory, with allegiance to such nostalgia. Still, I do. I can’t help it.
I think of you, Helena, of the way you would hold back your hair to drink at a water fountain, or when a handsome man would light your cigarette. That long straight hair an open field of light that made other women tear with envy. I think of Bill, too. For Bill this assembled retrospective must bring a certain formal pain beyond expression, for to lose someone, especially while in the tight grip of love, is unthinkable. (Think about it: What can Sarah Palin ever know of Joe Biden?) Bill though must feel astonished, honored, privileged, lucky even, as do I, to have known Helena Bennett, if even for only a while. The heart makes for a resilient machine and loss leads to discovery—Juliana, Juliana! Say that, aloud. Hear the possibility on your tongue?
There was a short while during those years in San Diego when one could not so easily tell the edges of one’s own self or experience, one’s own small body of work; could not easily know or remember who came up with what line when or at which party or who had read what or where and when. It was an expansive collaboration in process. And yet the Marxist ideals of the Russian Futurists seen in the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky or El Lissitsky, celebrated by our teachers and our selves, somehow conflate and collapsed as in the world walls fall and raise again. Men lead charge for Helena. And then when no one is looking Chuck Cody, my best friend at the time and now infamous San Diego Crystal Meth fiend, had a terrible brush with robbery about which Jennifer writes so surgically in her new book. His understandings having run amok as money was to him just a supposed evil anyway, mean and meaningless capital, he came to believe (as much as Newton’s Law, I suppose) that I surely wouldn’t mind his “appropriation” of $2,000.00 from my bank account up his nose.
Yes, I do believe that this is what he truly believed until, and maybe even after, Bill one late night yanked him from his slumber and hoped to set him right. By the next morning though it was clear the loud confrontation failed, as was the health of the community. Moxley writes:
Scott, the closest to and yet most wronged by him, strongly felt that Chuck had been the central, solidifying figure of our group. His absence, Scott asserted, was the primary reason for our present lack of coherence. (568)
And yet I see now how in some way it was you, Helena, all along. Love. Friends in love—in love with one another, with one another’s work, with the word. I imagine how you must not for quite some time have been feeling your best. I remember in fact you saying so. Cells on a rampage. No one pays much attention until, I guess, there’s but one option, only. Bursts of energy combine and expand, outward: friends come and go. Bodies collide with other histories, other lives. I think of SUNY Buffalo, of Brown University, UC San Diego in those years and now. Helena, I think of Mills College. I think of the journals, the zines, the sites, the blogs. Scenes and enclaves atomize and coalesce. . . . loose, love, and hip to mirror anarchy in the word world that Canon shoots. What pulse beats the next event?
I recall one other late night, Helena, after too many cheap cocktails, long ago, that you stayed over at the house I rented with two other guys and you slept in my bed. Nothing “happened” that night. I tried, sure. You kissed me once, twice. And told me to sleep. I was a boy and you? You smelled like knowledge. You knew better. With that grin how could it have been otherwise? You could fix a truck, thrown rods and brake shoes. Meanwhile, with a cigarette dangling from your lips, smoke in your eyes, you could spin yarn to fashion a quilt, bake a yam to rival a Julia Child Christmas feast on the up-take.
After that night of fitful sleep off frustrated Eros, early the next morning you gathered up your bag and books and barefoot stepped heavily toward home. (I even recall how before you left the house you put on the coffee.) I recall, too, as you shut the door to my room, giggling a little, an expressed glint, gesturing good-bye but never, quite, the way you did this little thing with your fingers. Remember?