Dear Kevin

Kevin in Maine, 2003

I have this memory of what I believe was the first letter you wrote to me. Technically, I think it was to me and Steve. It was after we had sent you the Dictionary of Received Ideas (December 1997) the last issue of our short-lived Impercipient Lecture Series. Our entry on “KILLIAN, KEVIN” read as follows: “Nervously wonder if he really does all the things he writes about. Married to Dodie Bellamy, ‘but wait…’” 

In response to this, you directed us to turn to our entry on “ALCOHOL”: “Blame your sexual adventures and moments of candor on it.” You also appeared in the entry on “soda”: “Have a Coke with O’Hara, a Pepsi with Berrigan, a Fresca with Schuyler and a Tab with Kevin Killian.” I wonder what compelled us to make an entry for soda? It seems rather odd now. But, the thing is, I can’t find your letter. The first letter in my bulging KK files is dated “January 29, 1999.” About a year after the Dictionary came out.

You’ve been dead for a week now, and I’ve been seized by a kind of mania in trying to track down that original letter. Like that scene in the movie Holding the Man when Timothy Conigrave can’t remember where his lover John sat at the first dinner they shared together. A desperate need for a detail. This happens after the person who could corroborate that detail is gone. You are that person now, Kevin. You’re dead, and I’m a wreck. 

I know I have no right to be. What Dodie is going through is unimaginable. Though I’ve tried to imagine it. My worst fear. Losing the one person you can confide in, without judgement or worry about being rejectedSomeone with whom you can be your flawed and complex self. Steve is my “one person.” I cannot contemplate his loss calmly. Nor what Dodie must be going through. I imagine you’re the one person who could comfort her for your loss. That’s the paradox.  

But you were my beloved literary correspondent for twenty years. I shared with you, and you alone, a very particular facet of my aesthetic make-up, a part that Steve was indulgent of (and even charmed by?) but perhaps didn’t feel as connected to as you did. Doris Day, Noël Coward, John Cowper Powys . . . I’m crying. And yes, I’ll admit it, I’m alone in my Maine bungalow drinking wine in the afternoon and feeling very self-indulgent. As Amy says, in the Winona Ryder version of Little Women, “I’m a selfish girl.” Just as “Kevin Killian’s Jennifer Moxley” was a unique creature (how will she live now?), so too was Jennifer Moxley’s Kevin Killian. What I’m trying to say is that everyone seems to have had their own special version of you. And you were so capacious, like Whitman, you contained multitudes! I never knew, for example, artworld Kevin. Or the Kevin you must have been when alone with other men. Or the multifarious and complex version of you that only Dodie knew. I narrowed you to what I could see.

It has been a little over a month since Doris Day died, and now you. “First Doris, then this . . .” I thought. But of course there’s no comparison. I loved Doris as an icon, I loved you as a flesh and blood person, with singular vision and a unique intellect. In one of your letters you called Doris “chipmunk face”—or something like that. I love that you loved her, but were also critical. This is what I keep returning to when I think about you. All the tributes (there are hundreds!) on social media stress your kindness and generosity, especially to young and up-and coming-writers. I agree, I agree! But what I keep thinking about is your critical acumen and sharp wit. You had the capacity to be critical, and yet allowed people their foibles and limits. Times are such that it seems the options are to be 1) overly positive and fake 2) completely censoring for the smallest slip up. Or both! A strange time.

As I mentioned, a lot of people on Facebook have been paying tribute to you. They tell the story of how they first met you, and then, inevitably, how you supported and encouraged them and most of all believed in them. They post pictures of you with your arm around them. Star shots. You made everyone feel special, it seems. I know you did that for me, especially in letters. Here’s where I perform a little Doris-Day-mad-at-Rock-Hudson “harrumph” and blow my bangs up (though I don’t have bangs because Steve is 100% opposed to them!). The source of my exasperation? While I loved seeing your life on social media, I am convinced that these “platforms” destroyed our correspondence. We went great gang busters until around 2007, then we slowed down to a once-a-year crawl . . . Can you give your Facebook posts to an archive? Did Yale download them? Or does Mark Zuckerberg take a cut? 

I miss your letters. I’ve been rereading them, alternately laughing and sobbing. When you sent me Eric Braun’s Day bio you wrote: “He’s like this chatty British queen who knows everything and is whispering it into your ear . . . . But what you will especially enjoy is Braun’s canny use of French. My favorite bits are when she was a girl and she was on crutches and she used to listen to the radio and so ‘With time on her hands, faute de mieux, Doris became a radio aficionado.’ It’s not easy getting English, French and Spanish all into one sentence, but there you go.”

Next to your trenchant cultural observations, charming poetry-world gossip, and near-constant support of my endeavors, however, you risked sharing with me some darker confidences: Frustration over never having a stable publisher (you called me a Flood “house” author, and gently pined over how nice that would be), worries about retirement money (especially after 2008), the stress of the myriad projects you were inevitably juggling. This, from 2009, felled me: “I’m writing a blog for 4 month for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they offered me a fee of $1,000 and I told them I would spend 1,000 in a minute, and I would prefer if they could instead give me (and Dodie) a lifetime membership! I guess that’s betting I will live a long time.” Oh Kevin. Dodie just announced on FB that your memorial will be in August at, you guessed it, SF MOMA. 

KK’s Birthday Chapbooks

Even though I felt so close to you in letters, did you know that, in person, I still sometimes feared your judgment? Is that ridiculous? Our friendship mattered to me and I didn’t want to fuck it up. Also, there was that particular way you held your tongue in perfect check right up until the moment you’d crack a smile and say something astonishing. Sometimes when you and Dodie were staying with us, I’d wonder if you were perturbed, or if your mind had wandered. But then you’d suddenly chime in, giving evidence to the fact that you’d been listening all along. Very astutely. I loved your voice. The way you could shade a judgement through intonation to be both devastating and forgiving. And your laughter. It was always at the ready, as if you were just longing for any excuse to be amused. As you often were. 

Some memories: you, sitting in a particularly uncomfortable chair in our living room, telling us that when you were younger a kind woman explained to you that if you washed just the crown of your head with shampoo, your hair would get clean. “It was so nice of her to teach me that,” you said. Did she notice that your hair was greasy and that you needed guidance? Did you struggle with this basic skill? It struck me. 

The first time I heard you read. 1987? With Dodie. She read from the Letters of Mina Harker, which was still in draft form then, and which I instantly loved. You read a piece which had the image of a man putting a bloody maxi-pad into another man’s anus in a public restroom. I was both riveted and scandalized by this image (see our Dictionary entry on you above). It suggested a reality beyond my imagination. Remember, this was the 1980s and one couldn’t Google outlandish things and then—god help us—see them. Your work continued to do this. I remember getting to the end of “White Rose,” and seeing “after Flannery O’Connor,” and thinking, “whoah.”

The writing of both you and Dodie lodged itself in my psyche that day. As did your coupledom. I sometimes wondered what would have become of Dodie’s genius if you hadn’t agreed to work the “straight job.” I admired your support of her (later, I would come to appreciate how much she supported you as well). I believed myself a sophisticate, I learned I was a naif. It wasn’t too long after that I bought your novel Shy at Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle. In Shy you use pop songs to underscore the characters’ emotions. A move Dodie would perfect in her story “Can You Hear Me Major Tom.” I blushed at the gilding scene. I remember feeling a little thrill seeing it there on the bookshelf in a real bookstore: “I know this author,” I thought. Though really, I didn’t. 

The gifts: a framed copy of John Cowper Powys autograph with the Welsh motto “All our fate’s in our head.” “A Welsh motto that fits every occasion, don’t you think?” you wroteand then: “How strange and weird are the Welsh, anyway!” A boxed set of Noël Coward dramas; a hardcopy of his “Pretty Polly and Other Stories”; a DVD of Caprice; Elaine Stritch’s At Liberty . . . and so on.

But I loved your letters most. You were an epistolary genius. Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 letter, a candid, honest moment about being in a long marriage: 

“I actually don’t know what I would do if I were suddenly single, and I expect you feel the same for the truth is, we’ve been married so long, you and I, that the single part of our lives is way at the very beginning of the rainbow. I suppose all marriages call for constant negotiation of boundaries, and issues of dependence and independence, but wouldn’t you hate to be alone?”

The answer is yes! 

Another excerpt. You were gently poking fun at my fits of enthusiasm about The Ring Cycle (why would I have thought you’d be interested? You were never an opera queen): 

“I don’t know how I feel about Wagner. Sometime when I consider all the time I’ve spent trying to get into him—fully—the way Wayne Koestenbaum does—I wonder if I couldn’t have done something extraordinary in that time, like building a shack.” 

A sudden rain storm has come up. Odette runs, tail low, to the back bedroom, the room that Steve and I have called, ever since the 90s conference, “Kevin and Dodie’s room.” You two were the first to stay in it, after we refurbished it as a guest room. I remember one afternoon during that June (2017) when you were both lying in bed, resting. I came in for some reason and you said: “It’s so comfortable!” 

In Paris, at the Duncan Centennial conference, I met a nice young man named Eric who is writing a dissertation on the New Narrative. He told me that he had helped you and Dodie prepare your papers for the archive at Yale. He said he’d read some of my letters to you (or was it just one?). He gave me a full-face wink, as if my letter had been very juicy. Did I blush? I did have a moment of trepidation. Good god, I thought. What might I have said? I always wanted to amuse and please you in our correspondence. There was another young man there, a Buffalo graduate student, who presented on Dante, Duncan, and your Argento Series. You came off best of the three! Though it is not typically part of my modus operandi, I took a picture of him afterward, all the while thinking: “I’m channeling my inner Kevin Killian!” Several of the gay male scholars seemed conflicted or unhappy about Duncan’s 1944 essay, “The Homosexual in Society.” They thought it might be homophobic (or self-hating?). They were uncomfortable with Duncan’s critique of the so-called “cult” of homosexuality. I couldn’t help wondering, would they have had the courage to write that essay? When Steve and I discussed it, he taught me about Frantz Fanon’s idea of the “good enough ancestor” (which is like Winnicott’s idea of the “good enough mother”). Must we put our forebears on trial in order to forgive ourselves? Will the future find us “good enough”? 

I remember during one of the first Orono conferences you and Dodie came to (it was in the 1990s, before I lived here) when Stephen King was the guest of honor at the lobster dinner. All the too-cool-for-school academics acted above it all, but you marched right up and got his autograph. I was impressed. I remember how brilliant you were at memorializing the dead. Which conference was it that we ran out to Aubuchon Hardware to buy boxes and boxes of emergency candles? Then, in a room with disco music and mirrors (it must have been the 70s conference!) everyone lit candles for Carl Rakosi. People had lost track of Rakosi at that moment—some didn’t even know who he was—but you knew what counted.

It was in Paris that I learned you were about to die. I was in an almost empty stuffy lecture hall with Steve and Norma Cole and the archivist from Buffalo, Jim Maynard (who has an amazing radio voice, btw). Norma wanted to learn the name of the graduate student who would be presenting on your work, so she could let him know you were on life support. I just happened to be there when she said those words: “life support.” I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I excused myself and went to the restrooms (which are mixed gender at the Sorbonne). There were no towels (only air dryers). I had to go into a stall and get some toilet paper. I regretted my mascara. 

Later that afternoon I found the Caring Bridge site and posted something stupidly generic like “sending love.” The language of grief is so codified. I understand why, but it still makes me feel like all my years of poetic apprenticeship have come to naught. Dodie saw my post and emailed me. I was so grateful that she took the time (at your sickbed) to let me know what was going on. You were under sedation. She was positive and kind. It sounded like she was dealing with a lot of conflicting messages from the doctors. It reminded me of something you once said in a letter: “nurses are awful people.” Was it after your heart attack? I remember being shocked by that statement. “Nurses are awful people.” I’m paraphrasing from memory. Then I thought: he’s speaking from experience. From the AIDS 80s, when nurses wouldn’t touch or treat men with AIDS. 

Kevin, this letter is getting long and ponderous, for which I apologize. I just got up to pee and saw, in the bathroom literature, the cover of the New Yorker with a black silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral. It was the issue that came out after that old lady forgot to put out her cigarette and caught her bed on fire. She had been drinking sherry and reading old love letters from Quasimodo. I thought: I want to see a New Yorker cover with a Victorian-style silhouette of Kevin Killian. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Or perhaps the New Yorker is the last place you’d want to be (even though poets who’ve been “alternative” their whole lives get all mushy and proud when they end up in the New Yorker. I can’t honestly say I’d be “above” it!). 

But really, Kevin, what I really want is what none of us can have. I want you to still be alive. I want another envelope to arrive in my Maine mailbox and to see, in the upper left-hand corner, in your unique hand: “Minna Street, San Francisco.” I would not rip into it. I would set the envelope aside until such time as I could sit down and savor the contents. I would read slowly, sharing the choice bits with Steve, as I know you shared my letters with Dodie. I would feel so happy. But you’re gone and, I fear, a big part of what I understood to be the world has gone with you. 

Service Economy

George Herbert

“You must sit down and taste my meat,” says Love to his guest in the penultimate line of the final poem of seventeenth-century British poet George Herbert’s collection, The Temple “I don’t think there could be a less polite way of saying that,” writes Aaron Kunin in his little brick of a book concerning this poem, titled, after its subject, Love Three (Wave 2019)“What Love says could be written in a toilet stall,” Kunin notes, yet because of Herbert’s consistency of style, it strikes many readers as sweet. Sweetness “overpowers every other suggestion” (5). It was just about here, five pages in, that I began to feel a desire to write about this extraordinary book. Something about Kunin’s framing of the poem’s underlying aggression got to me. That’s the magic of Love Three. It sneaks up on you, then overpowers you. The relentless, titillating, intellectual pleasure of it. Of candor, of clear, unfashionable, insight, Kunin’s Love Three is a masterpiece. 

The title, Love Three, refers to Herbert’s poem, “Love (3).” The parenthetically caged Arabic numeral in the poem’s title distinguishes it from Herbert’s “Love I” and “Love II,” which come earlier in The Temple. In addition to Herbert’s poem, Kunin’s title also refers to a “third kind of love.” The kind Kunin likes best: neither nice nor nasty, but “nice because it’s nasty” (1). More on that to follow. He opens with a short preface outlining the book’s methodology, which though meant to be helpful I didn’t find particularly descriptive of my reading experience. And it’s kind of bossy. 

A 322-page prose book about an 18-line poem, Love Three moves with a circular logic and strategically uses repetition. Like a lyric poem. Like desire. In patterned echoes earlier quadrants are illuminated in sections to come. Catlike, Love Three worries and toys with its topic. It makes you feel lost and located at once. For this and for so much else, I love it. 

According to Love Three, love is a calculation of domination and submission. Master and servant. These are not social categories but unstable and relational positions between persons (or persons and their personified gods). Or persons and literature (Kunin might say “rhetoric”). Because Herbert’s poem knows this, it becomes for Kunin a key (his word) to understanding his own sexual history. It also illuminates what was misleading in his education about power. “No one ever showed me a way to talk about what was attractive in power,” he writes. “My teachers and friends, who made power seem unsexy, I assume were not into it” (115). Herbert’s “Love (3)” teaches Kunin a truth about power, which is often mystified by being mixed up with ideology. Kunin eroticizes power. Especially, but not only, rhetorical power. Yet, as he states in one of the many assertions that punctuate Love Three: “No human being eroticizes ideology” (115). True. Yet ideologically circumscribed figures most certainly can be and are eroticized. A person may metonymically stand in for power; a person, or a personified emotion, like Love in Herbert’s poem. 

Herbert’s poem helps Kunin think about power. Yet “Herbert’s thing with power is not exactly the same as my thing,” he writes, rejecting, rather unconvincingly, any simple identification with his subject matter. What is this “thing” that is his? Kunin clarifies, “when I put my thing, my human possibility, alongside Herbert’s, I can see a little better. Standing next to each other, we disclose our interests clearly” (308). Not a mirror, but corrective lenses: “[M]y human possibility.” Not what is, but what might be. Not what I know, but what I don’t yet know. Not what I thought I was doing, but what I was actually doing. 

Thinking about the eroticization of power is a central project of Love Three, fulfilled in great measure by an examination of servitude. Upon my second reading I started to count the instances of the word “serve” or “service,” but not being of a systematic character I forgot I was doing this and eventually lost track. I am nevertheless confident in asserting that service comes up a lot. Kunin sees servitude as a kind of power (a Hegelian shadow here, never alluded to). The servant in Herbert’s “Love (3)” doggedly clings to the power of his servitude, his unworthiness, and his degradation, which Kunin interprets this way: “My inferiority is more powerful than your superiority” (57). The disingenuous innocence of the poem’s speaker combines with his final humiliation by Love (denying him his servitude) to rhetorically mirror a catalog of Buster Keatonesque sexual experiments with various forms of humiliation (bondage, pain, golden showers, etc.) in Kunin’s own life. The most satisfying are those that deny Kunin what he most desires: rhetorical power.The powerful erotic experience of being shut up, of having his voice taken away. Given the centrality of the voice to the poet, this is indeed a high order cruelty.[1]Herbert’s poem also fetishizes the denial of other senses: sight in particular: “I cannot look on thee,” or, in Kunin’s critical rephrasing: “my most perverse, inexplicable desire, to be forbidden the sight of your face, the face I most want to see” (271). The face of Love, the face of your Lord and Master. 

Kunin constrasts Herbert’s devotion to serving with John Donne’s competitiveness. Herbert’s speaker wishes to be “as skilled at submitting as [Love] is at dominating,” while Donne “tops from the bottom” (13; 16). He is a “do-me princess” who “tells God how to dominate him” (16). Herbert is content, even pleased, to serve and wait for orders from his master, Love. In several sections of Love Three, Kunin translates the servant’s experience of Love’s mastery as one of being relieved of the responsibility of desire: “You express desire but allow me to remain untainted by desire. You indulge my fear of rejection. You express desire so that I don’t have to” (24). I have no voice, therefore I cannot express anything. “The only one who talks about enjoying this scene is you. Thus you leave me the protection of not wanting you” (43). I keep my distance, both from you and from my own desire. Love takes the rap. The servant gets off. 

T. S. Eliot writes that at “university Herbert was . . . sober and staid in his conduct and diligent in his studies, he was given particular attention by the Master. It was said of him, however, that he was careful to be well, even expensively dressed; and that his attitude toward his fellow undergraduates of a lower social position was distant, if not supercilious” (56). Slight adjective changes could make this a portrait of the Aaron Kunin I met in the 1990s, when he was an undergraduate at Brown University. Herbert’s sense of superiority, according to Eliot, came from his noble family, whereas Kunin’s source was confidence in his intellect as well as a passionate dedication to his own peculiarities. In Love Three he tells a story about how half the kids in his fourth-grade class, when asked to write an essay about “the most interesting person you know,” wrote about him. He attributes this not to his superiority, but to his eccentricity, describing himself as “[a] strange kid who wears a bowler hat and other old-fashioned clothes, isn’t interested in computers, and likes to read out loud and sing” (264). He “recognized no peer” and therefore felt no pressure, nor apparently was he ever bullied, despite being a fine-boned kinky-haired redhead, the weakling-type boy bullies like. I believe him. 

Both George Herbert and Aaron Kunin resemble their mothers. “In George,” Eliot writes, contrasting the poet to his older brother, “of frailer constitution and contemplative mind we seem to find more Magdalen [Herbert].” “We look very much alike,” Kunin tells us of his mother. We are “close in temperament.” And though in his reading of Elias Canetti Kunin writes that “Maternity is the closest thing to absolute power in human experience,” his relationship with his own mother “does not appear to be one of domination and submission” (122; 98). Not like the one between Love and the guest in “Love (3).” 

Kunin’s literary critical voice in Love Three wears the mask of the speaker in Herbert’s poem. A doubling. This first happens when Kunin asks, eleven pages in, “What am I like?” Answer: “I am brutally honest. / I think I am brutally honest. / I think I know what I deserve.” This query is a confession, but also a critical observation: what is the “I” of Herbert’s poem like? What is Aaron Kunin like? At the end of the book this same pronominal doppëlganger tells the reader, “You shouldn’t trust me.” Who is this me? Why shouldn’t we trust him? Well, because he admits that he is “given to complaining about folks called Love.” That sounds like Herbert, a poet who wrote several poems about right and wrong kinds of love, including two early sonnets. And it sounds like Kunin, who uses colloquialisms like “folks,” or “[g]et it while it’s hot,” or “is there a fucking problem,” in exploring the tonal range of Herbert’s poem (3; 31). Caught in this clever conflation I, as reader, feel rhetorically dominated, though I probably would never have used the word “domination” to describe this experience before reading this book. I would have spoken of interest, curiosity, mystery. I might have even spoken of love. 

In this effect, I recognize that Kunin has done something remarkable: he has written a critical work that acts a lot like a lyric poem. Kunin puzzles over who Herbert imagines as the audience for the conversation reported in “Love (3).” “To whom am I telling my story?” he asks in the voice of the poem’s speaker (85). He speculates it could be Herbert’s mother. But why can’t it just be the reader of the poem? Lyric’s triangulated address performs this magic: we read an intimate conversation between an “I” and a “you” and though we are neither the poem allows us to be both. No need for names. The sense that what’s being spoken is happening in real time is another lyric effect. “Sometimes Love speaks in the present,” Kunin asserts, immediately following “Today I seem to be writing ‘Love’ rather than ‘you’” (59; 58). This “I” who is writing “Love” could be Herbert, but reads more compellingly as Kunin. Though we are reading a printed book, the writing is happening “today.” Right now. In the present.  

Another of the delights of Love Three is Kunin’s respectful disagreement with the established critical canon regarding the interpretation of “Love (3).” T. S. Eliot describes the poem as a document of “serenity finally attained” by a “proud and humble man” (82). Ann Pasternak Slater says “Love (3)” is Herbert’s “best poem” at which “Christ serves and man is the undeserving, beloved guest” at the “mystical repast” which is Heaven (xv-vi). Helen Vendler calls it “the most exquisite poem in English expressing the time when faith and hope . . . are dissolved, and pure sweetness returns forever” (24). Stanley Fish says it’s about God and Man being of a single substance (Kunin, 211). It is difficult to accept the deep-breath, I’ve-finally-made-it-to-heaven, ambiance of “Love (3)” implied in these readings after journeying through Kunin’s book. In his hands the poem reveals itself as an erotically-charged intricate calculus of rhetorical domination and submission. The experience described in “Love (3)” bears more resemblance to a very tense first date between two figures who have up to this point only known each other virtually than to a gentle (or gentile) welcoming of a humble servant to the house of his Lord.  

“We don’t need a lot of equipment. Only your body, my body, your imagination, and my fantasy,” Kunin writes, contrasting the economy of Herbert’s poem with the more typical props associated with sexualized power play: “A throne, a crown, collars, cuffs, gags, hoods, frames, cages, devices, pieces of furniture, costumes, leather, metal” (45). Such an exhausting catalog! But in Herbert’s poem, “You and I make power together.” With words. 

There’s also an elegant simplicity to Kunin’s critical method, no need for a fancy theoretical framework: “my secret is that what the poem says is what it’s about,” he writes, dismissing the critics who look for what isn’t there: such as a dormant pun on the word “host” (Stephen Booth) or historically coded sexual meanings (Schoenfeldt). But wait, isn’t Kunin’s reading participating in an “excavation of codes of sex”—in this case contemporary codes—in “Love (3)”? Maybe. But Kunin makes no claims about secondary or hidden meanings to support his interpretation. He never writes: “Love (3)” is a poem about BDSM sex. Because that would be ridiculous. What the poem says is what it’s about: love. And love, according to Kunin, is about domination and submission. But then how does Kunin get from love to sex (the latter of which he excludes from Herbert’s meaning)? “Mainly Love dominates me verbally,” he notes, ventriloquizing Herbert’s speaker. The verbal mastery of the figure of Love in Herbert’s poem equates to Kunin’s sexual triggers. “I find rhetorical power interesting, and even sexually exciting, no matter where it appears,” he admits. 

That love, at least in the tradition of lyric poetry, is about domination and submission, is hard to refute. It’s there in Sapphofor if she flees, soon she will follow . . . even unwilling. “Maybe if critics were honest they would say that they don’t like love; they like equality,” writes Kunin. He wonders whether our culture, and its literary tradition, hates women, and therefore “no matter how the poet feels, the tradition has only tools of hate.” I hear in these words echoes of Audre Lorde: The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Should we, therefore, torch the library? If “love is to be salvaged,” Kunin wonders, then perhaps “its tradition might have to be cut loose” (100-101). That might be a solution. Though poems about equality may serve utopian visions, they will not be an honest account of desire. I like Kunin’s approach better: let’s quit lying to ourselves about love. 

Though Herbert’s “Love (3)” is a seventeenth-century poem, the kind of love it describes was invented in eleventh-century Provence. An erotic love modelled on the economic relationship between a vassal and his lord: “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly,” says the narrator in Chrétien de Troyes’s the Knight of the Cart, a twelfth-century tale which stars the tradition’s greatest adherent to this, as C. S. Lewis called it, “religion” of love: Lancelot of the Lake. In the Knight of the Cart he slices his hands and feet to bits crossing the sword bridge to reach an imprisoned queen Guinevere, after which she upbraids him for having hesitated for two seconds before humiliating himself for her sake by climbing into a cart used to transport the lowest scum of the town. When the queen orders Lancelot to “halt” in the midst of a sword fight, even when his opponent strikes him with “all his force,” “Lancelot [does] not stir” (216). At the behest of the queen he becomes an object, a piece of furniture. The young Kunin displayed something like Lancelot’s indifference to his physical well-being in an invented game: lying under a pile of bean bags “so that I couldn’t see, breathe, or move,” while his sisters “tried to balance on top, until they slid off” (52). A game which he finds “disturbingly close to fantasies about human furniture that [he] entertained later in life” (53). 

This Medieval love tradition is filled with blood-letting and humiliation. The feminization of the male body. It was so powerful a cultural force that the author of the thirteen-century Queste del Saint Graal transferred this secular love into a sacred quest. That book recounts many acts of extreme male masochism in the search for God’s grace and forgiveness. The feudalization of love turned what had been in the classical world a “madness” into an intricate game of domination and submission. This is what is often sanitized into the mannerly rituals of what we call “courtly love,” which has been critiqued for putting women on a pedestal. It may also have been a highly elaborate and erotically compelling way to experiment with desecrating the male body. At least in books. 

Power play is usually represented as humorless, but the absurd extremes in these medieval tales can often be quite funny. That may be the historical distance. In Love Three Kunin creates a similar paradox. Even when he’s writing about deadly sexual experiments, there’s humor. It’s the deadpan humor of socially inappropriate honesty. Kunin’s trial-and-error quest to enact his sexual fantasies can serve to illustrate, by analogy, the refinements of non-erotic aesthetic taste. If there is such a thing. He tells us that his first experiences with masturbation, for example, were not “as the literature described” (referring to a book on sexual development his parent’s owned). He shares with us his unique pornography: personal ads, a French magazine, the Marquis de Sade. “The parts about bondage and torture were interesting to me but I was indifferent to the vanilla sex acts, disturbed by the mutilation, confused by the emphasis on blasphemy, and turned off by the scenes with shit” (145). This frank catalog illustrates the dangers of unedited aesthetic terrain. De Sade’s catholic inclusion of every perversion, while intended to leave no reader unoffended, is tedious and flattening in extremis. Such are the dangers of porn: in those woods you are as likely to stumble upon scenes that destroy your excitement as those that serve it. The same may be said of anthologies of poems. 

Elsewhere Kunin calls himself “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” (74). A childhood memory about unthinkingly stripping off his bathing suit in view of “other kids” after swimming in a creek at day camp seems to affirm this self-characterization. The natural thing to do, to remove the wet suit, was socially inappropriate. He exposed himself. It was humiliating. But Kunin is grateful that, as an adult, he has “learned to eroticize humiliation.” This ability, he writes, “has enriched [his] life” (200). This “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” writer complains that he’s “never learned to achieve” a consistency of style (273). Perhaps he doesn’t want to, liking the “effects made possible by inconsistency” (5). A consistency of style such as Herbert’s “can accommodate basically any material,” Kunin claims. Given the breadth of material Kunin accommodates in Love Three, I cannot take this plaint too seriously. 

Kunin’s book has led me to realize how extraordinarily ill-served George Herbert has been by poetry anthologies. “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” That is usually it. To my delight, Kunin includes readings of several Herbert poems in addition to “Love (3),” including “The Quidditie,” “The Agonie,” “The Flower,” “Superliminare,” “Longing,” “Dialogue,” “Rest,” “The Forerunners,” “The Sacrifice,”  “The Glance,” “Thanksgiving,” “The Quip,” and “Vertue.” Many of his readings, such as that of “The Flower,” provide evidence that Herbert viewed love and power as one and the same, supporting Kunin’s central thesis about “Love (3).” But some are used to make other points. For example, Kunin shows how “The Quidditie” uses a series of negations to define poetry. It is not “the world,” but rather, “makes a hole in the world through which you go somewhere else” (275). For Herbert, that “somewhere else” is with his God (277). This concept of a “hole in the world” is one of the finest descriptions I’ve read of what great poems do. Though I might describe the “somewhere else” differently than Herbert, I recognize the experience of going there in both the writing and reading of poems. 

In Herbert as a devotional Christian poet, Love Three isn’t particularly interested. Though a Christian reading of “Love (3)” is hard to ignore, Kunin manages it, and even pushes against it. “You know, it just occurred to me,” he tells us in another fine instance of lyric presentness, “what’s great about calling Herbert’s book The Temple is that the temple in question could be a place of worship for practically any religion,” he writes. “If anything, ‘temple’ has a slightly Jewish flavor” (188). Kunin asserts that in “Love (3)” Herbert’s language “doesn’t tend to make biblical or ecclesiastical allusions” (189). “[D]oesn’t tend” is very hedgy. As Kunin well knows, because Vendler points it out, a passage from Luke 13:37 is the biblical source: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching . . . he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Invisible 86n11). But Kunin insists, as if defending the honor of his subject, that Herbert didn’t want to make his poem “too Christian.” Not even the obvious equation, God is Love, is at work here according to Kunin, who facetiously asks, “But where is god in this poem?” No matter. There are plenty of strictly Christian readings of “Love (3)” out there for those who need them. Kunin is doing something else. 

Love Three is a book that only he could have written. It is the book he was born to write. A book about a seventeenth-century poem in which the personification of Love commands a poet who feels “guiltie of dust and sinne” to “taste” his meat. A book about a poem in which Kunin sees a list of his own “sexual preferences, interests, fantasies, and limits,” as if Herbert had “plagiarized by anticipation” Kunin’s “defense of desiring humiliation.” A poem which aids Kunin in making the argument that his particular sexual preference is not only a choice, but the “best choice” (158). A poem in which, Kunin finishes by pointing out, somewhat cagily, “No one says love . . .” and “No one says, ‘I love you’” (166). Kunin also uses the occasion of writing about “Love (3)” to insert piquant micro essays on other topics: such as the humanities (a treasure no one wants), politics (not interesting), Canetti (swaps sex for food), and courtesy manuals (wrong but better than nothing). 

George Herbert’s poem is for Kunin what Roland Barthes called a texte d’appui. One of those “texts we always seem to be in conversation with, whether directly or indirectly; the texts that enable us to say or write anything at all” (Briggs, This Little Art 38). As my thoughts were provoked and my desires coaxed from what I read in Love Three, Kunin’s book started to become such a text for me. I’ve been reading Kunin’s writing with admiration for a long time now, but this is the first book of his that’s done that to me. 


[1]  For a different, albeit still sexualized, take on the voice and the poet see my essay “A Deeper Older O: The Oral (Sex) Tradition (in Poetry).”

Works Cited

Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.  

Eliot, T. S. George Herbert. In British Writers and Their Work No. 4. Eds. Dobrée and Robinson. U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Herbert, George. The Complete English Works. Ed. Ann Pasternak Slater. Knopf, 1995.

Kunin, Aaron: Love Three. Wave, 2019.

The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes.Translated by David Stains. Indiana UP, 1990.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford Up, 1958.

Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery. Princeton UP, 2005.

Vendler, Helen. The Poetry of George Herbert. Harvard UP, 1975.

R. I. P. Emmanuel Hocquard, 1940-2019

I am very saddened to learn that French poet Emmanuel Hocquard, a singular poet, a singular person, has died. I knew he was ailing, but I had hoped I might see him one more time. 

He is another elder from whom I took so much guidance and solace, especially about how to live one’s life in poetry. Some things I learned from Emmanuel: 

It’s okay if you do not live at the center (New York, Paris).

Small, independently-made poetic objects are more meaningful and honest. See the “Afterword” to my Fragments.

Group translation builds community and changes the language. 

It takes a good sense of humor to be serious about poetry. 

The first time I met him was in May of 1987, when he and Claude Royet-Journoud came to the University of California, San Diego to give a reading. I was a student at the time and attended the after party at the home of professor Michael Davidson. In my memoir, The Middle RoomI wrote about standing on the sidelines with Emmanuel while other party members—notably Claude and my poet friend Helena—danced with abandon:

from The Middle Room:

Given my difficulties around the issue of dancing in even the most anonymous venues there was no way that I was going to throw off my inhibitions in the dining room of him who had thought it fit to call my verses “interesting” and “good.” I found a fellow nay-sayer in Emmanuel Hocquard, and together we watched the dancing from the other side of the kitchen bar where, after I tried to engage him in some light repartee and received but a scowl and one-word responses, I remained by his side, unrebuffed, enjoying the decadent spectacle of Helena and Claude. I know Emmanuel much better now and have learned that behind that “cultivated scowl” he is brilliant, funny, and extraordinarily kind, but at that time I was absolutely petrified by the impassivity he affected in response to my charging confidently forth with my conversational French! Perhaps he declined further transports of pleasure in light of the fact that his visit had already reached its apex. Earlier that day John Granger had taken him to see Raymond Chandler’s house, the address of which a very pleased Hocquard had found in the Collected Letters. Both these French poets had a mania for “noir” and from the moment they landed they had joyfully demanded “take us to the house of Raymond Chandler”!

Emmanuel was a talented photographer. I’ve always loved this picture he took of Jacqueline Risset reading, with me beside her as translator. That was in Providence in 1996. 

Emmanuel Hocquard and Juliette Valéry in Orono 2006

The last time I saw Emmanuel was when he and his long-time collaborator Juliette Valéry came to give a reading at the University of Maine in 2006. The day after the reading, Steve and I took our French guests around to antique shops in quest of Depression-Era glass, which they collected. One piece he found was salmon pink and looked sort of like a soap dish—but not quite. The tag said only “Crystal Stropper.” What is a “crystal stropper” we wondered? Much silliness about this mysterious stropper and its apparent uses followed.

Crystal Stropper

In 1998 Steve and I were living in France and, at the invitation of Emmanuel and Juliette, we spent several days just outside of Bordeaux at the home of Alexander Delay. It was only last fall that I finished a draft of an essay about this idyllic visit as part of a book of essays I am writing on birds and poetry. I had hoped to send a polished version of “Bordeaux Colloquy” to Emmanuel. Though he plays but a small role in the piece, it is my hope that it captures something about his sense of humor and quiet presence. 

Bordeaux Colloquy 

From a work in progress.

Was that a member of Jacques Derrida’s colloquium being eaten with relish at my feet? Or had I, finally, drank too much wine? I was sitting at the left-most corner of a long farm table with my back to open glass doors that gave onto a large grassy field. Disturbed by an unholy crunching sound, my eyes dropped from my dinner plate to the foot of my chair. There beside my sandaled foot was the farm’s Tom cat, the feathers of a dead grackle-sized bird splayed out beneath his head like a halo. Being a French cat—or at the very least, a cat in France, as I was a poet in France—he was having his dinner at the appropriate time and at table. Despite having lived my life in the company of cats, I had never before seen one eat a bird. Tom did not pluck, dress, or truss. He bit and gnawed, swallowed and digested, “beak to tail,” feathers and all. I was both mortified and fascinated. My Bordeaux hosts and their French guests were amused when I alerted them, in a tone of concern, that a cat was casually eating a whole bird at my feet.  

I recall another instance of my “American supermarket naiveté.” France had a way of poking a hole in it. 1973. At nine years of age I am given a taste of warm milk fresh from a cow on a farm in the Loire Valley. My family was camped there for the night and the large frightening farmer brought my brothers and I this special treat. Having grown up on Carnation pasteurized, we couldn’t palate it. This amused my mother, a one-time farm girl herself, no end. Though I rarely questioned her omnipotence, her insistence that this warm grassy beverage was superior to the chilled white watery 2% product we were accustomed to was difficult to square. 

Now in my early thirties I was the guest of poet Emmanuel Hocquard and artist/translator Juliette Valéry, lodgers on painter Alexander Delay’s small farm located in the Bordeaux region of France.  S. and I had been invited to stay a week. The stated purpose was the completion and polishing of a French version of my serial poem “Enlightenment Evidence,” the group translation of which had begun during a magical residency at the Fondation Royaumontearlier that summer. In Delay’s home S. and I were given a spare, clean, second-floor bedroom with crisp linen sheets and a window overlooking the grassy field. There was a large, beautiful bathroom and a small separate toilet at the end of the hall. Several of Delay’s art students from Dijon were also in residence: young beautiful French people with good manners and radical ideas. On the night that tom cat joined the feast, they had prepared the meal: a vegetarian pasta, which may have accounted for kitty’s decision to fend for himself. It was nearing the end of the week and everyone felt, as people do when brought together in a temporary, yet exceedingly pleasurable living arrangement, an especial fondness for each other. We drank so much red wine our teeth were stained pink. 

Jacques Derrida’s colloquium was held every evening at dusk, precisely when S. and I would sit down with Juliette and Emmanuel in the cool air at a round table to drink white Bordeaux and delicately peel hard-boiled quail eggs to eat with our apéritif. Separating Delay’s property on one side was a stand of gigantic trees that wove together into what appeared to be a great hedge. It must have been at least 45-feet high. As we sat and sipped and waited for dinner this hedge would fill with birds. Starlings, perhaps. A great racket would ensue. The din of hundreds, maybe thousands of birds. “C’est le colloque de Derrida,” Emmanuel would say, gesturing in the direction of the hedge with his head. Each night on cue they’d come together to argue, this Bordeaux conference of the birds. Their colloquy well-nigh drowned out our badinage, but because of the density of the foliage, we never saw the distinct outline of a single one of these voluble debaters. 

There were also three chickens. Often clustered at the edge of the property next to a small fish-filled pond constructed sometime in the past by Emmanuel, these seemingly hysterical hens would bolt toward the cocktail table looking for handouts. Clucking excitedly all the way, their puffy bodies wobbled precariously above their thin legs. Did I give a bite of quail egg to a chicken? I hope not. I was fond of these three squabbling hens, but as S. remembers it, I was much more preoccupied by the farm’s billy goat, who would climb atop the chicken coop to survey his realm. Of the goat I merely recall a lesson in “tail semiotics” solemnly given me by Alexander Delay: straight up and the goat is happy and alert, down means worried, angry, or fearful; a tail moving slowly side-to-side means the goat is in a state of contemplation, attempting to make up his mind. 

Playful poets taking potshots at post-structuralist philosophers. Perhaps not part of the rules of the game, but it fed our spirits well. Each day we feasted, drank, translated. One lunch we all gathered in the kitchen so that we could follow the tour de France on the radio. “Ça a le gout du frigo,” Emmanuel said, rejecting the butter at hand. It tasted as if it has been taken out and put back into the fridge over and over again. Fresh butter procured we spread copious amounts on baguette and topped it with delicious greasy rounds of saucisson sec. There was cantaloupe too, and the lovely dirt-rich house wine, filled in reusable bottles by area vineyards the way when I was little we’d put out the used bottles for the Carnation milk man. Through the wide-open door of the kitchen I could see the interlocked rings of the farm’s large metal bottle rack. A commonplace French object which I’d only ever seen in a Duchamp exhibit.

The Tom cat, siding with the poets, finished off the philosopher’s bird. I went back to my vegetarian pasta. I was trying to grok why the Dijon art students kept referring to their “potlatch,” a term that interrupted their French articulations like a fish bone in the mouth. Apparently, they borrowed the idea of the Native American festival as a frame for some sort of spontaneous and collaborative artmaking. Hmmm, I thought, I wonder which Native term was shaped into that strange word, “potlatch,” so like “pot luck,” or, for that matter . . .pot shotShooting the bird outside the spirit of the hunt merely to put in a pot and eat! Crunch, crunch. I had learned quickly the meaning of that sound. I looked down. I should, I think, feel honored. Tom has brought me yet another member of Derrida’s colloquium, whom he is presently and with great relish settling into the fixed meaning of his maw. 


Petit Tonnerre / 3 poules blanche

The Makers’ Spell

I treated myself in the final days of 2018 to a reading of Ann Lauterbach’s book of poems, SpellIt’s an amazing book. Passing my eyes over its pages provoked in me singular journeys down enticing mental avenues until I’d look up from the page in a swoon of contemplation. In other words, the poems in Spell excited me, as the Physics metaphor would have it: they stimulated my intellectual energy above ground level, into a state of motion and response, entangled with Lauterbach’s own. In “Intent, Intend”—one of the several prose dialogues the author holds with a personification of Evening throughout the book—Lauterbach defines my experience as one of the things art can do. It can create an affinity between “two subjectivities,” and, as she puts it: “This affinity is a form of desire, an arousal of admiration and curiosity . . . as we come to know the work, we are changed; our sense of our world is altered.”

That such a desire has moved Lauterbach countless times is evident in the many poems in Spellthat are dedicated to or in dialogue with artists and poets and their works (including the cover image, an inky bird silhouette painted over dictionary pages by William Kentridge). The book as a whole is dedicated to “JA”—whom I take to be John Ashberyand to Anselm Berrigan and Nancy Shaver (poet, artist). 

The “JA” dedication cues us to understand that Spell is in dialogue with the dead. It looks back in elegy and forward to the author’s own death. “No one wakes without loss” Lauterbach writes in the beautiful “Value,” which ends with a litany: “My cousin Douglas / with one / died when he was twelve / of cystic fibrosis.  / Liz, Katie, and Matthew / followed suit.” Because the poems in Spell are often followed with dictionary-formatted etymologies of key words, Lauterbach prompts her reader to think about word origins and meanings. I click over to the OED to research the idiom “followed suit.” After considerable astonishment at the various meanings of “suit” (from “attendance by a tenant at the court” to “bathing”) I find what I am looking for: 

b.  to follow suit (earlier †to follow in suit): to play a card of the same suit as the leading card; hence often fig., to do the same thing as somebody or something else. (Cf. 13c.) 

Earliest citation 1680: “The elder begins and younger follows in suit as at Whisk.” So according to the poem, “Liz, Katie, and Matthew” played the same hand as “Douglas / with on s.” Shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal . . . death as a game we are all in the midst of . . . what’s in your hand? What’s in mine?

Death and loss are everywhere present in Spell. Lauterbach ritualistically arranges objects that belonged to dead loved ones in her rooms and then imagines these same things being “tossed into the trash” once she’s gone. “I’m having another one of those episodes in which dying seems very near,” she writes in “Earth,” just before mentioning that she’s reading a book I love, Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the DeadLearning that our eyes have shared Harrison’s pages, I feel a little joy. Maybe she and I can have a conversation about the ideas put forth in this book!? The thought is cut short by panic. How much longer will I have the privilege of responding, not just to Lauterbach’s work, but to the living breathing poet herself? It is then I realize that all the while I have been reading Spell, I have also been composing a letter to Lauterbach in my head. I have been formulating sentences to show her how much I admire her poems. I have been preparing my own thinking as a thank you. I love Spell’s Orphic avenues. I love Spell’s embrace of the erring quest of the intellectual poem. I love her description of lying awake “in the small hours” terrorized by “Night’s Ambassador of the List.” I don’t feel so much inspired to write my own poems, as I do to write to Lauterbach about hers.

This happens often. Books I admire by living authors activate my epistolary impulse. If I know the author, as I do Lauterbach, chances are I’ll finish by actually writing and sending a letter (paper or email). If I do not know the author, I may also send a letter—as I did with Pogue Harrison—though it takes a bit more courage, for I worry such missives will be received as a burden, an unwelcome debt, or that the author will think me facile. Because it isn’t “fan mail” that I’m sending. One-way admiration. And there is a demand in my letters. A demand and a hunger. A hunger for meaningful exchange with writers who have managed to puncture the hubris of the contemporary. Writers who remind me of the long game, the existential urgency, the humanistic enterprise of letters . . .  “Art helps us to recognize and celebrate our differences within some fundamental likeness,” Lauterbach writes in “Think.” Yes.

Yes, but it also occurs to me that, as art has the capacity to alter our sense of the world, so too do our interlocutors. And their loss. Lauterbach knows something about this. In her introduction to Joe Brainard’s Nancy Book, her missing of the living, breathing Brainard is palpable. John Ashbery was a close friend with whom I imagine she shared many piquant and allusion-rich conversations. His passing in 2017 changed the landscape of American poetry, but I suspect this change felt different to Lauterbach, closer and more personal. When the poets who have shaped both our work and our sense of the world die, something profound shifts within us as well. 
          
Robert Creeley’s death did this to me. I tried to explain the feeling in my 2005 essay “Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life”: “Never before had the death of someone I knew so little affected me so much . . . . Creeley stood for something that was important to me. A kind of person-to-person communication, a kind of attention to your surroundings. A kind of lyric practice. Without ever asking anything of me he supported my work. I was not his student, he owed me nothing.” 
            
No matter our age, none of us know when we’re going to die. Nevertheless, we tacitly operate under the assumption that those who are older will go first. In the poem “Fact,” Lauterbach surprises me: “[s]haring the same death day is not something we think about, the way we think about sharing the same birthday.” We’ve all heard those tales about a good, but perhaps only minorly famous person’s death being overshadowed in the obituaries because they had the ill-fortune to share a death day with someone of great infamy or notoriety. And we’ve just begun to appreciate how, historically, many amazing women artists received no obit at all, at least not in the Times
            
I feel compelled to stop here and address something untoward about this essay: though in Spell Lauterbach admits to thinking about her own deathfor me to admit that am thinking about it seems ill-mannered, or the violation of some unspoken taboo. “Dear Ann, I’m in a panic because I fear you may die and I will no longer have access to the progress of your amazing mind!” We may think such thoughts, but should we utter or write them?
            
And isn’t equating access to Lauterbach’s person with access to her mind a fantastical optimism concerning the possibilities of the dialogic? If I were to travel to Germantown posthaste and, if Ann would have me, sit in her lovely company, what conditions would need to be present to have a really meaningful conversation about the aesthetic and political questions she raises in Spell? Wouldn’t the needs of our bodies intervene? Might she not feel a slight dyspepsia, or I have a hot flash? Might she be anxious about adequately representing the thought in her poems, and I be anxious about the awkward unfolding of my enthusiasm? Maybe it is better to write a letter after all . . .

A letter allows itself to be read in solitude and with contemplation. A letter is quiet, slow, analog. The body can be relaxed and unselfconscious when reading a letter. I would say it is generous way to respond to a book were it not that so many poets have told to me that receiving a letter also instills guilt. The assumption that one must write back. Perhaps we would prefer thoughtful public reviews to private individualized responses to our books? Do either alleviate the fear that much of what do is invisible? 
           
“Now we are faced with a present that seems stripped of embodied presence, much less knowledge of the past,” Lauterbach writes in “Phenomenon.” “We seem to be living in a steady stream of nows.” If she’s thinking about the digital experience of time, which I posit she is, I might add that these “nows” lack space, they are virtual and as such do not exist in the physical world. Somewhat like language, with the major difference that the feel of language is the feeling of something that is physically inside of us. Something we can hold and shape with our minds. Something with which we can leave a trace in the physical world, like a book. Though after we’re gone our books may be “tossed into the trash,” might they not just as likely be opened and read? 
           
The panic of allowing myself to think: Ann could be close to death. As are so many poets without whose work I would not have been able to imagine my own. I could make a list, but that would be a macabre exercise and likely danger courting. Let’s just say that there are more than I can calmly contemplate. The panic is real. But it does not wholly stem from the ongoing need to accessand to talk to these poets—however desirable and pleasurable that would certainly be. As a source of the panic that is a mistake. “[W]e need to make mistakes; it’s the way of evolution,” Lauterbach writes in “Sublime, Full.” The panic stems, rather, from a ground of long contentedness in knowing that poets such as Lauterbach are sharing the planet with me in this particular “now,” and that the “embodied presence” of their minds and work have made the world habitable. I feel bereft at the thought of what’s lost when a poet’s hard-acquired experience and intellectual energy returns to ground.
            
There is also the responsibility. Poets I have known and know who were born in the 1930s and 40s have a high serious sense of vocation. They embraced Pound’s notion of the poet’s art as the work of a lifetime. Over the years, when I have cast my eyes up ahead, they have inspired and set a bar. A welcome challenge. At the end of Spell, Lauterbach includes two pages of definitions of her title. One from the 1620s reads: “a turn of work in place of another,” which evolved to mean a continuous line of work, “where one man or crew regularly ‘spelled’ another.” I ask myself, am I ready to “spell” such poets at their level when the time comes for them to leave off their labors?

In Memoriam

How dreamlike on this quiet, cloudy Friday to realize that it was but a week ago that I was surrounded by very dear and talented friends—a warm gathering of writers—many of whom I have been in dialogue with for over twenty years. It was the midpoint of the National Poetry Foundation’s conference on Poetry and Poetics of the 1990s. It was time for our famous lobster banquet. I was giddy with the company, exhausted, happy. As the banquet wound down, but before the evening readings, I shared the Power Point presentation that I, with the help and support of Kevin Killian, had been rushing to finish before everyone showed up in Orono. Steve helped as well, playing the role of sound engineer, clipping and fading the songs I had chosen as accompaniment.

You’re not coming to Orono?

Once I had the idea to do an Oscars-style In Memoriam to honor the poets we had lost, I couldn’t let go of it. I also knew that I needed Kevin Killian to help me. But when I called him to discuss it, he said that due to another commitment, he wasn’t coming to Orono. This news made me quite hysterical. I burst into tears and exclaimed, “but I wanted to do an Oscar-style In Memoriam slideshow with you!” Luckily Dodie came home later that evening, and though I don’t know exactly what transpired, Kevin called back to say “we’re coming.” Now everything was in place to make my dream a reality. At the start of the work, I sent Kevin about nine names to honor. Can you think of others, I asked? He sent me back a list of what seemed like hundreds! Kevin had the idea to represent the interim since the last NPF conference in June of 2012. He also suggested that I sometimes show the image of a writer as older first, younger second.

We’ve lost so many over this past five years. Yet I knew, for all the care, we would overlook someone. We did. I was grateful when, after the presentation, Jonathan Skinner said, “Dennis Tedlock,” and Miriam Nichols, “Benjamin Hollander.” Hollander had even come to Orono to read his work in the early aughts. Then there was the embarrassing realization that I had made a slide for Bill Knott but forgot to include it! How was it possible to be so careless? The rush, the flurry of work. I learned from Juliette Valéry that Joseph Gugliemi had died. That I hadn’t known. There are no doubt countless others. Any such memorial is instantly dated. Jack Collom died just as our conference was coming to an end. Neither Kevin nor I meant any disrespect toward those not represented here. All the makers are missed.

This tribute was shared with over a hundred poets and scholars in Orono, Maine during the NPF’s 1990s conference lobster banquet on Friday, June 30, 2017.

Thirty Years Ago Today

Steve, New Year’s Day breakfast 2017

As 2016 turned into 2017 my husband Steve Evans reminded me that this night was in fact the thirty year anniversary of the New Year’s Eve that could, from a certain perspective, be said to be the beginning of our relationship. In honor of which I decided I would share an edited excerpt from my memoir, pulled from the chapter titled “New Year’s Eve,” and describing real events that took place at a party I threw in my San Diego apartment on the last night of 1986, the first morning of 1987.

from The Middle Room

Rodefer, accompanied by two friends from Berkeley, was one of the first to arrive. In the presence of these out-of-towners he augmented his nonchalance and increased his poetic asides such that, where on a normal night he might mention “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” and move on, tonight he threw in several passing references to “Jack” Donne and “Andy” Marvell, as though he had just downed a few scotch and sodas with them at some mid-priced hotel bar. He prodded me on the issue of Steve, demanding: “Where’s Evans?” “Why isn’t Evans here?” holding his cigarette between his middle and fourth fingers and up by his face like a girl. I was relieved of this taunting by the arrival of Helena, attired in a perfectly fitted black rayon dress and black seamed stockings, her golden hair, smelling of the rose-hip conditioner she used, neatly parted in the middle and brushed straight over each shoulder.

Chuck and Scott came next, and then Jack, followed by a bohemian cortège, four or five boys who brought their own beer, ignored the central group, and instantly set about rifling through my albums and commenting on their relative merits as though customers in a record shop.

Flushed with alcohol and the swish of my black taffeta, I remained undaunted when Steve showed up in the company of Marianne Binken. [Read more…]

Stephen Rodefer, November 20, 1940 — August 22, 2015

In our Providence apartment, 1992
In our Providence apartment, 1992

I feel a mix of nostalgia and melancholy today, occasioned by the news that my old teacher and sometime friend, poet Stephen Rodefer, has died in Paris. He played a significant role in my chronicle of what I jokingly called l’école de San Diego—The Middle Roomand a significant role in my poetic formation. But he was not a mentor. That word, originating from the name of the sage advisor in The Odyssey, doesn’t fit Rodefer. He was more like Odysseus, many minded, wiley, attractive, a “resort darling.”* In The Middle Room I compared him to a god: “his air was aristocratic, and when he walked he surveyed the landscape before him like a man who is certain that he has, like Apollo, left in the wake of his golden form a comet’s tail of glowing light . . .” And later, “He was dedicated to the old-fashioned image of the poet whose only master is truth and only mistress beauty . . . .” Many today might find the way he played the poet role old fashioned, but when I was young I found the romance he brought to it both silly and intoxicating. Anyone who spent any time in his company has an anecdote to tell.

During the years Steve and I lived in Providence (1989—1998) he visited often. An especially memorable time was in May of ’94, right after I had graduated from Brown. Following a stint in Cambridge, England he showed up carrying a battered leather suitcase that had supposedly belonged to I. A. Richards (it was monogrammed). Inside was one of the largest bottles of Vodka I’d ever seen. Taking all the new poetry anthologies that had appeared during his time abroad, he proceeded to set up camp in our backyard, drinking and leafing through volumes, out of which he composed a poem.

He had a fondness for feminine things. Two tableaux: Rodefer in a skimpy silk robe sitting at our Providence kitchen table polishing his toes with my nail polish. Rodefer at my vanity table in Maine, in front of the lighted mirror, putting on mascara before being filmed.

Rodefer_BooksConsensus among poets tends to be that though a complicated, self-destructive, and often infuriating person, Rodefer was a great poet. His tastes shaped mine: O’Hara, Villon, Williams, to name a few. He had only to mention a writer for me to seek that writer out, in part because he spoke his aesthetic opinions as though they were obvious and irrefutable. Consensus also holds that his book Four Lectures is his masterpiece. But personally, I’ve always had a fondness for his O’Hara influenced volumes, The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing, and One or Two Love Poems from the White World.

 

Rodefer_Relics_2015Rodefer_dedication_dictionarySteve and I have two Rodefer relics, now deepened by the pathos things take on when their former owners die: The first is a monogrammed edition of his battered old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, with a touching dedication to me. The second is a flowery scarf he lost after a particularly wild party at our home in Orono (the festivities went until 4AM). Though he surrendered the dictionary willingly, Rodefer was very upset about the loss of the scarf. We searched the house high and low, but couldn’t find it. After he left town, Steve and I were walking through the village center when we espied the missing scarf tied to a lamppost. How it got there is a mystery to this day. Rest in peace, poet.

Rodefers_Websters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Jack Gilbert, “The Plundering of Circe”

Naropa Summer Writing Program

Other Cultures Panel  (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)
Other Cultures Panel (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)

Just catching my breath following a stint (June 21-28) at the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The week’s theme, inspired by Kyoo Lee, was “Whom Am I When I Dream?: Philo-poetics.” Stressing the “philo-poetics,” more than the dream, Steve Evans and I co-taught a course titled, “I Never Said I Loved You: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Language of the Break Up.” With a motivated and sharp group of about eight students we read and discussed works by Emily Dickinson, Plato, Robert Creeley, Christina Davis, Roland Barthes, Alain Badiou, and others. This was my third time as a visiting faculty member (previous years: 2007; 2010). In addition to teaching, I spoke about my interest in Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Herrick, and the “Other Culture” that is the past during a panel discussion. I also debuted several new poems during my evening reading. I shared the stage that night with James Sherry, Eleni Sikelianos, and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.

Being at the  The Summer Writing Program is like suddenly waking up in a magical place where poets and poetry matter, and one can speak candidly about literary passions without raising suspicions. Anne Waldman, as guiding spirit, inspires with her energy, enthusiasm, and warmth. The summer-camp-like atmosphere of a group of visiting faculty, light-headed from the thin Boulder air and joyously exhausted by a dense schedule of teaching, panels, and readings, makes for an easy and memorable camaraderie. The interesting conversations I had with my students and fellow faculty members—including Vincent KatzSarah Riggs, Omar Berrada, C. S. Giscombe, Janet Hamill, Joanne Kyger, and Eileen Myles) will sustain me for a long while.

At the Podium
At the Podium

A Friend in Boston

Me and Dan in front of his new home in Arlington
Me and Dan in front of his old place in Somerville

How stunning to realize, as I begin to think about the poetic company that Dan Bouchard has afforded me, that he and I have been writing to each other for twenty years! When we began our correspondence, I was living in Providence, he in Boston. Lee Ann Brown, whom he had looked up following a tip from Lyn Hejinian, introduced us. A little while later we met for a second time at an after-poetry-reading party at Peter (Gizzi) and Liz’s (Willis). Because they lived across the street from Steve and me, it was easy to invite Dan up to our apartment and give him a bunch of Impercipients. I had put together six issues to date; Dan’s work would appear in the seventh.

The oldest letter I can find from Dan is dated May 15, 1995. “It’s been nearly a month since we spoke on the phone,” he says, “I wanted (finally) to write something to let you know I was serious in suggesting a correspondence.” This was the pre-Social Media equivalent of a “friend request.” (At the time, most of us didn’t even have email.) That first letter also mentions that “a year ago to the week” he had finished his MA at Temple and left Philadelphia. I too had finished a graduate degree the previous year, my MFA from Brown. We were in that precarious post-graduate-school phase, trying to figure out how to be poets and continue to participate in a dialogue about poetry. I had resolved to stop writing for a solid year and concentrate on reading instead. Starting a correspondence with Dan was propitious, for if his letters to me were various in material and method—typed, handwritten, on anything from fine stationery to lined notebook paper—they were consistent in their record of Dan’s passion for reading. In that first letter he wrote that, due to moving apartments, his “Tenuous (indeed, strenuous!) reading habits” had been “shattered.” Despite which fact he includes a lengthy discussion of Oppen’s work and mentions reading Silliman’s New Sentence, in addition to autobiographies of “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. These last choices attest to Dan’s interest in American labor history. This interest led him to interrogate something he’d just heard about in reference to writers like Philip Levine called “work poetry”: “I was in Philadelphia last weekend and had the chance to see many students from the Temple program. Two talked with me about what they called “work poetry . . . [t]he inflection of their voice[s] when saying “work poetry” made it sound like a genre, if not a movement, and I was hesitant to suggest that maybe it’s poetry with ‘work’ as a subject matter.” I love the clarity of this insight. It is the sort of “emperor’s new clothes” observation that Dan excels at. I can’t say how many times I’ve been agonizing over some poetry-world kerfuffle only to have Dan cut right through the nonsense.

Though I didn’t often make copies of my letters, [Read more…]

Rituals and Respects

Tucked among my juvenilia is a poem titled “Leave Me Alone with This Dead Man.” It recounts an unfortunate bit of policing I was subjected to while I was sitting on the clean grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Cimetière Montparnasse. The gendarme disrupted my two-fold aim: to pay my respects to a poet I loved, and to place myself in a propitious setting in the hopes of receiving a bit of poetic genius “by osmosis.” A recent return to this, my favorite Parisian cemetery, along with my upcoming appearance in Jason Mitchell’s reading series, Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover, got me to thinking about the rituals and respects some of us practice around the accoutrements, objects, birthplaces, and death sites of the poets we love. The liturgies of poetry, one might call them: pilgrimages, offerings, silence, ceremonious readings in significant places, benedictions and genuflections. The material book, from codex to paperback, seems to encourage ritualistic behavior: the slow unrolling or turning of pages, a treasure of magical knowledge waiting to be released.

5044697587_8e1ca4f054_b
Jason Mitchell

When Jason Mitchell arrived at the University of Maine to do graduate study he was already possessed of a reverential, though not obsequious, relationship to poetry. I learned quickly of his value for literary ephemera: limited edition chapbooks and broadsides. Before moving away, Jason helped Steve and I bring some order to our overflowing chapbook collection. Watching him hold little stapled nothings I had all but forgotten about as if they were precious gems I felt I’d grown callous, no longer able to see their true value amidst the glut. On the fortieth anniversary of Paul Blackburn’s death Jason organized a living-room reading of that neglected poet’s works. A small group sipped wine and read from the Collected. The poems sounded especially good that night. Jason continues to remind me of things I have forgotten, and he always does so by going back to the poems. In a recent letter he wrote: [Read more…]