Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Book of Prophecies, the latest posthumous publication by John Wieners, is a very beautiful & very strange book, a combination that it shares with quite a bit of the late Boston poet’s oeuvre. Like 707 Scott Street, the 1958-59 journal published by Sun & Moon eleven years ago, Prophecies is a journal, this time from 1970-72. Chronologically, this places the work here between Nerves & Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike. The John Wieners of that period appears to have been a far cry from the very young man who wrote Scott Street during a time when he was living in San Francisco, hanging out with Joanne Kyger & other members of the Spicer Circle.

Wieners had gotten into college at 16 and already graduated by the age of 20 when a chance hearing of Charles Olson – Wieners had come in just to get out of the rain – caused him to enroll at Black Mountain College, then in its final throes as a financial basket case that just happened also to be the best arts college in American history. By the time he reached San Francisco, Wieners was not just one of the finest lyric talents in American poetry, he was one of the most out-of-the-closet gay poets anyone had ever seen. The Hotel Wentley Poems, written in the same residential hotel (now the Polk-Sutter Apartments) where Spicer lived, simply took the gay demimonde for granted. “A poem for cocksuckers” – one edition omitted the first four letters of that last word – goes well beyond anything Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara or Robert Duncan were writing at the time:

    Well we can go
in the queer bars w/
our long hair reaching
down to the ground and
we can sing our songs
of love like the black mama
on the juke box after all
what have we got left.

    On our right the fairies
giggle in their lacquered
voice & blow
smoke inn your eyes let them
it’s a nigger’s world
and we retain strength.
The gifts do not desert us,
the fountains do not dry,
there are mountains
swelling for spring to cascade.

    It is all here between
the powdered legs & painted
eyes of the fairy
Friends who do not fail us
Mary in our hour of
    despair. Take not
away from the small fires
I burn in the memory of love.

I read all this politically incorrect language as an index of just how pre-Stonewall this poem is. Like characters in the fiction of John Rechy or Hubert Selby, Jr., gay life is figured here as part of a larger outlaw culture. Everyone – no exceptions – is characterized negatively & yet the use of the first person plural lends it all a tragically dignified air. The great twist of the final line is nothing more than speaking in the first person singular, owning the language of what’s come before, owning his role in this world.

By 1970, John Wieners was fully engulfed by the twin demons of heroin & schizophrenia. Even in The Hotel Wentley Poems Wieners had written “A poem for tea heads” (slang for mary jane to you kiddies) & “A poem for the insane.” (Wieners was institutionalized in 1961 & again in 1969.) One result is that the careful diarist of Scott Street – the full title is The Journal of John Wieners is to be Called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959 – is nowhere evident in A Book of Prophecies. But it hardly is any less of a book for that absence, tragic tho that almost certainly is.

Prophecies, if anything, is a far more personal book. In fact, you could honestly characterize it as two books, the first being a 93-page journal that mixes poetry with critical writing (including a mad essay contrasting Wieners’ father with Charles Olson, which tells you exactly what kind of surrogate the big O was in Wieners’ life) with some fairly cryptic journal entries. The second, tho, is briefer, darker & stranger. A note presumably by editor Michael Carr introduces the section:

The following poems, lists and notes begin at the back of the journal and run counter to the main body of the text from back to front. They were written upside down and mostly on the verso page, usually left blank elsewhere in the notebook.

The poems are often quite short:


They must let us know you
I am the chase and you are pursuit.

The different ways the ear hears pursued under pursuit gives this poem a vibrancy that never quite stops, just as the unspecified They carries with it a sense of paranoia and dread. Many of Wieners’ best poems – most of which are quite a bit longer than this – use these same kinds of shifts & tactics.

But it’s the lists – long rosters of names only some of which have titles such as “Poets I Have Met” – that attest to Wieners’ sense of anxiety. On that list of poets there are 233 names, the final four being Clayton Eshleman, Basil Bunting, Rafael Alberti & Pier Paolo Pasolini. One double list chronicles “Presents My Mother Gave Me,” one column for 1969, the other for 1970. Cash, pills and driving lessons appear in both columns. One 11-page list of years runs with each year presented as a separate column, tho most are blank and the chronicle starts 13 years before Wieners was born. These snatches are infinitely more personal than the outward looking diary notes of the 1950s and I came away from this section sensing that I was being a voyeur here more than I was a reader.

But I don’t think Carr could have edited this any other way. Wieners finally was not the crafter of distinct texts. A little like Larry Eigner – who often offered multiple variations of the same core poem (sometimes typed and handwritten one atop the other) – there isn’t a fixed border where the poem ends & “the real world” begins for Wieners. The fluidity of this, in fact, is an important part of the experience. So it’s not excessively unrealistic to hope that we are going to be in for discovering other notebooks that will, like Scott Street and Prophecies, make more sense to present in their entirety than selecting out a few greatest hits. In his introduction, Jim Dunn recounts the history of this volume as follows.

Wieners gave the journal directly to Louisa Solano, friend and former proprietor of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The dedication to her is the last entry in the journal. Louisa passed the journal to Robert Wilson of the Phoenix Book Shop. The journal was then in a private collection for a number of years before it was sold by Christie’s in May, 1991 to Thomas Goldwasser Rare Books. Goldwasser sold the journal to the Kent State University Department of Special Collections and Archives in December, 1991, where it has remained ever since. The poet, Michael Carr, discovered the journal listed online in 2005 while searching for Wieners’ archived papers. He wrote to Kent State for a copy. Cara Gilgenbach of the Special Collections and Archives Department delivered a full photocopy of the journal to Mick in August, 2005.

Just how many other such manuscripts may exist, probably in private hands, is anybody’s guess. The forthcoming edition of My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poems of Jack Spicer has quite a bit more material, for example, than the Collected Books published ten years after his death in 1965. Like Spicer, Wieners is a writer who might not be able to have a true collected for several decades yet. Which is to say that we may still find more poems every bit as wonderful as

After Reading Words

What can I, may I, can I say to you,
the competition of one man against another.

Your impeccable ear will never die
on the page. Your ear for phrase –

and let the mind drop off to
another concern. It will never return

without concentration, your self
awareness of the process happening

drowns in the flood of my own nature,
rising to express feeling for you,

the music of wholeness through having
something to say, strong examination

of person, situation and return;
inventive, intense and interior