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THE POET OF MY DREAMS
I would tell the tale of my days in Berkeley when I was the "poet of my dreams," but every day seems, now, to flow into every other day until there is nothing left but a massive impression that is difficult to pull apart. So the story will be haphazard. It will be the dear myth it was and is, even at this late and sobering date. Today I drove through the city and though nothing seems to have changed, everything seems to have changed. The cars are bigger, the people sloppier.
Driving up Solano Avenue I noticed the great bowl of houses up in the hills and lovely it all seemed. Back there I thought are the forests and parks, the golf course and merry go round and the little farm that had the cow with a tear seemingly fixed under its eye. I see some of the old rascals and cringe. They lived as though there were no consequences. It was a good time. The people now gather under umbrellas and have lunch along the streets and avenues. It has become a gluttonous city. And the dogs remain fed on more than the scraps.
My first impression of the city of Berkeley was not a pretty one. "This is a burnt out refugee camp," was the first entry in a journal I decided to keep in the mid-70's. I had actually been born in the city but moved after a few years over the hills and into the valley. I moved back as if I were on an ancestral hunt.
To me it was always the City of Dogs.
It was fitting that a distressed young man would come to a distressed city, one that was ruled by the bums and dogs. It was a shoddy little place;
The infamous riots and goings on from the 60's were gone. A few nutty radicals dotted the little side streets and their 1910 Victorian houses but everything else receded behind the privacy of private aspirations. There was something visceral about the renunciation that went on in Berkeley in those years. No one wanted to admit that they had been part of something they thought was so large but was, in reality, rather small and stupid. A huge prank fueled by dope and loud music. Be that as it may, it was a strange place in 1975.
I lived briefly in a transient hotel on Shattack Avenue; the piss of which I can still smell. It was run by a frightened looking German lady who was always aware that the next guy to register at the hotel may be a parole violator hungry for some sex or money. She didn't know. She thought I was a runaway and, in a way she was certainly correct about that.
Below the hotel was an adult book store and a little pizza joint that smelled fat. Paper was always blowing up and around the streets, the noise was constant. I didn't not solicit noise, it was always there. At first I thought to myself, "ah, noise, you must have noise to make it a real city." Within several years I was trying to escape all noise and found it to be the most corrosive of modern phenomena.
Berkeley taught me early that walking is a good thing if one can put up with the exhaust of cars and trucks.
I had a car for awhile and a bicycle. The car was an old Volvo and I had driven up into the mountains with it to dry out from the divorce. When I came back I lived in it for a month or so on a pretty tree-lined street around the Claremont section. I had tried to stay in Tilden Park but the first night a Berkeley policeman woke me at 2am and chased me out. That's when I drove half asleep down the hill to the place near Claremont, parked, and did not drive the car again for a year. I slept in it for a month and then moved into the transient hotel and finally found a place in west Berkeley. I sold the car off after a year, checking it out occasionally to make sure they hadn't towed it away. And when I sold the car neighbors did come out and look at me, look at the guy who had the Volvo that had sat there for a year collecting bird shit and dirt.
And so the center stood where the trains ran underground and the people walked, rather silently, over the personal streets they had made their own by walking constantly over them to the shops, the restuarants, the big department store, the library, the train station, up to the university, a small seethe in and out of people and cars. They sold donuts from trailers and pork bows from trucks. The sky was open and the ocean waited. A big black guy sat on the wall and critiqued the passer-byes. "Oh, fast man!" "Look at your shoes bad guy." "Oh sweet cakes!" They came from everywhere and ended up here and then back to everywhere. Influx. Along with the colored wrapping paper and throw away newspapers printed by cults and advocates of a cause.
There were three people in particular who I saw quite a bit of, who came in and out of the picture no matter where I happened to live. And Berkeley allows for that generosity of spirit that permits one person to live everywhere or, at least, walk the city up and down and across in a very short time.
There was Fid, the poet or he said he was. He didn't believe too much in the art but he talked a lot about it and, to be truthful about it, I could stand to be around him for only short periods of time. He made demands. I'm not sure he was conscious of them but I always felt obligated to do something for him. "I need a book can you buy it for me while I'm at work?" "I need ten bucks to buy some food." Things of that nature.
There was Ull, the philosopher who I suspected was a bit crazy but who spouted off some opinions based on his readings in Heidegger and Schopenhauer. He had low tolerance for anything he deemed trivial.
There was Bor, the wannabe saint who tried to practice every sacred mission he came across. He was always high strung, never settled or content but always talking about peace.
I realized at that time it is more provident to surrender to knowledge and curiosity than it is to movies or a novel. That escapism was the great drug of the age and I didn't want it and didn't want to produce it. "Give me a knowledge of society and my experience in it and then I will write through what I know and experience." That was the real source of epic poetry. It was not escape and blathering entertainment for 500 pages but a blasting voice through the world the poet knew. That is the thing. That is the only thing in the long run.
Berkeley taught this more than any other area I've lived in.
When young, at this time, I studied organizations; the organization of life. This was central and probably changed the direction of my writing from novel writing to poetry and philosophy. Novel writing was the study of human society for the most part. But society was only one sort of organization and had been studied to death.
What I learned, finally, from all this study, random as it was, profound as it was at times, is that the two greatest values to have are boundless curiosity and "learned ignorance." Christ is absolutely true: What benefit is there for a man to conquer the world and yet lose his soul? Which I take to mean, what matters if you know everything but don't have an inner core of "stuff" that allows for compassion, tolerance, pity, and the rest of it. Well, it's obvious what you have: Sick intelligent people running things.
To study something is not to kill it. And there is an art to it. As life, itself, is a kind of harsh art. This was a lesson I did not learn until the next phase of development.
Berkeley taught me that the pursuit of power without discovery of soul is a dangerous proposition.
I was never certain whether the openness in Berkeley was evidence of a dysfunctional breakdown or some new opening arising in the possibility of the new world.
I owe Fid the Poet, Ull the philospher, and Bor, the Saint all of my stretches, as I called them. They showed me the resources and introduced me to people that were mind-boggling to say the least. I met Fid at a wild party that was attended by whatever refugees were left of the infamous period. The atmosphere was husky with pot and songs. I felt completely out of place and told myself, "you are a writer, you are here to observe." But the trouble started when people figured out you were observing and not participating. Then they started to get on you and put pressure on you to do something they were doing. Fid pulled me aside and introduced himself and asked me about my writings. He mentioned a few local poets I had heard of and told me he would introduce them to me if I came to one of his readings. "Yes, I will go to your readings," but I lied because, frankly, I never wanted to see any of those people again, including Fid the Poet. I didn't even care about poetry at that time. I had heard some of the readings and they were bad; bad poets, bad poetry which equaled a bad atmosphere. But then, it was a very bad time so maybe it made sense and all. I couldn't shake Fid the Poet and finally we went outside and we smoked our cigarettes. The night was wet and cool. I suddenly felt elated for some reason and told Fid that I wrote poetry once in a while but I was mostly a prose guy. "The rutting season, I get that." I asked him to explain. "You learn after a time that poetry is written during specific times of the year. I call them the rutting times. All life stops. It's as though someone close has died or you've been diagnoses with a terrible disease. It all stops and then you devote this rutting time to conceive of, write, and then shape some poems. If you get fifteen or twenty during that time you're doing well." I nodded my head and said I understood. That night what he said stuck with me for some reason. I hadn't thought of it in those terms. Writing was something you did every day. It was the will of life.
Ull the Philospher came into the picture because of mutual friends. I had worked on a newspaper a few years before moving to Berkeley and kept in touch with the editor. The paper was an "alternative" paper that flourished during those times. It had been whisked away by the times like most everything else but he knew I had read philosophy and wanted me to meet his son-in-law. I didn't trust any philosopher who was married but I needed to stay in contact with the editor and so agreed to go to his house, high in the Berkeley Hills to have dinner and meet this Ull.
Seedy, disjointed avenue! Sometimes the spirit thirsts for it for here are the innocents who come to be slaughtered in blighted motels smelling of urine and bad coffee. Here are the old hotels owned by east asians with their turbans and unspeakable English. Rows of non description sliced in two by a poisonous snake of metal and glass. It glides past the dark people and their shopping carts and sleeping souls at the bus stop.
A certain outrage kicks in when you realize the world you despise cares not a bit about you and it wins out.
"Ah, you damn factories, railroads, jets, ships, fast-food restaurants, houses, apartment's mobile homes, cars, service stations, general stores, busses, glass buildings, trucks, street lights, avenues, freeways! Be gone! Vanish from my sight! Every day I get up, eat something, go to work, eat, leave and watch them either try to screw someone other or make a million dollars during the day. In the case of bureaucrats, making sure things move as roughly as possible.
Buildings! Phalluses stuffed with bindu but the seed is sterile."
"It isn't dear friend, science against religion," Ull was telling me. "That argument is a dead one. It is the creative power of human beings against the management/organization of modern states." He wasinterested in where I was working now and looked at me while smoking a cigarette, his legs crossed on a ratty chair some relative had given me.
I told him about the hospital and how it was a looming concrete non-profit that survived off of pregnant women and recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. "There are, hidden as it were, fascinating conversations in the bowels of the Hospital or, as we call it, the Hotel. In the business office of the Hotel are proud fundamentalists like James who calls himself a preacher of the Baptist Church and claims he has great powers of his own including speed reading, mind reading and other powers conferred on him by his faith in the Holy Spirit. He speaks of Jesus and claims that Jesus, before he taught, collected the apostles around him to protect Him from what James calls, "the interference." Ull seemed non-plussed about it. I always figured a smart layabout like Ull was culling out stories from me for his own use, to cover the fact he had no context and so was open to anyone's vicitimization.
I always tried talking philosophy with Ull but he would brush me off either because he was trying to make it a profession and my opinion didn't count or he was studying me and to talk about philosophy would crack the illusion that he was better than I was. And when I thought about it, philosophy was a lonely practice, done in empty rooms, in brains that wanted to build things without resistance. I knew the condition well and tried to signal to Ull that, I too, was a head-monk.
I did notice women were kept out of the conversation. "Oh, of course she should be free, why not? What's the big problem?" And then he'd veer off into some gossip about a person we knew.
I had met a woman at work though I didn't mention it to him. She was gentler in her religion than James the Baptist. She heard voices in the back of her mind which was God telling her what to do as a 7th Day Adventist. The woman, Tanya, read the Iliad and asked me "Have you read this book?" "Yes." "Ull, she is the only person I ever heard disparaging the book. She is fascinated about the oral story telling aspects of the Iliad, amazed at how one could hold all that information in their head at one time. She says she once went to plays but not too often now. "One play, Caesar and Cleopatra, made me laugh."
I had given the Greeks some thought, along that learning curve the swept me during those times. Despite the apparent foolishness of their gods they certainly had several advantages the present world lacked. Their gods were not ideals but patterns one could extend if a guy had the courage to do so; even though fate would eventually defeat him. "Perhaps," I thought, at my desk late at night listening to the whir of the copy-machine, "there was more freedom under such patterns." Several days later I heard myself say down the bright-lit street roaring with cars, "push through form the shared complain of the world and the shared joy of the world."
Women at the Hospital got me fascinated in the creature again. There was the attractive and sweet Tanya half black, half Filipina. The women loved to talk to each other. Anne, too, the long haired, long-legged daughter of a famous chemist who had been on the run for two years from the East Coast but I didn't know why. I felt close to her but something held me back. And then the Parisian entered the picture and I fell apart and agreed to show her all around San Francisco. I studied French in a two-day session to say something to her. She peed in the bushes behind Coit Tower.
Ignorance of passion teaches best what it is!
A new woman. There was always one and she was before me, a shy, awkward guy who didn't know what she wanted, not knowing the secrets she contained; living in a state of exquisite psychology.
Oh chain of disastrous women: little conversations in little cafes in lost little curls of smoke. New York woman. Pregnant, six months. Boyfriend is thinking of leaving her. Ah, the beautiful philosophy student who didn't want to talk about philosophy or Heraclitus or any of them. Ah, the one with the butterfly tattoo. The useless excursions with women. Nil. They were reminders of the state of my writing; they were in correspondence somehow. The expressive eyes of the woman, how she would attempt to coax information out of me, always a bit alienated as though she knew she would never quite be accepted the way she wanted to be and her imagination working furiously to ether cover up this fact or to figure out why this was so. And I would know this and make a remark of some kind which they probably took the wrong way. Yes, how one sees women is how one sees the work. This is why I've sometimes been harsh on women I've known and the same time feel rejected by them.
The old wise guy kept telling me, "Separate what is mainly political from what is mainly artistic in your own efforts." That got me thinking about history and what, if anything, it contained. It can jump up and snag you in listless days because an act that is committed in the present day that we think is so great always has a complement act in some previous time and when a man sees that; that is, nothing can occur without its past and future being known at the same moment the act occurs, he is no longer the same. It's left to clever people to go around and discover common connections that become grains in the belly of what-goes-on. Tragedies happen but only against a larger circle of farce. They want to go forward, to discover, to make way as the future chokes in the absurd.
"Oh, the boy has challenged all his assumptions," the wise guy would taunt me. He knew what I was thinking and knew I thought I was a pretty clever guy.
We were not born there but pulled ourselves up like a guy who is asked to climb up a knotted rope and touch an ibeam in a gym filled with sweat and young women. "come on, don't be a day late, dollar shot," the coach shouted.
We were expected to fight for survival and if we lost, ah well, that was life and nature. What did we know? This was in many way contradicted by the wonderful idiocy Berkeley was at the time. It rationally fashioned a pyramid as the model for the larger culture and then abruptly turned it up side down with a laughing gesture like a college prank by drunken students.
My first impression of the place was as a kid when my dad took my brothers and I too the great old stadium to watch the University play football games. What an adventure! Always the long, deliberate walk from the car to the vast arches of the stadium, the fraternities partying along Piedmont Avenue, crowds of people, frat boys throwing footballs in the autumn morning, black boys selling programs, beautiful coeds everywhere, there was little conversation as we headed for the stadium and the anticipation of games.
And when the crowds gathered even a little boy knew an event was happening. It was the sense of an event taking place that brought up the sense of something important going on .
In the same streets I had seen the riots. Those too, events of high intention but always destined, like the football team, to lose and be decimated by the cops; the superior team in this case.
"Beautiful, lovely town full of reds and old rich people."
When I came there to live the riots were over and little attention was paid to the sports scene. A vast depression swept through the city, a deflation as though a rubber band has snapped and shriveled to nothing.
Bums were the heroes and pissed all over everything. The only energy came from a clot of nerds who were into computers and such. They kept raving about the future and, in retrospect, they were right but at the time I dismissed them as nerds who shouldn't have smoked pot.
So I was wandering the streets like a lost, stray dog as the times passed; the only times for youth in that brief moment when the young around the world are connected and know they will succeed to power and remake everything in their image.
It was a dirty city and didn't seem to mind. Paper flurries were an on-going thing. Garbage was heaped in piles.
Old clothes were put in boxes and deposited in one of the many parks. Old, dried pizza's were spattered on the sidewalks. Dog shit was everywhere. It was one of those periods of time when it was hip to be barbaric. To be civilized was not looked upon kindly. It was seen as a mask for slave owners and killers of other people in wars no one benefited from.
Perhaps the secret to Berkeley was that it believed that "madness was the 13th Muse." There were more than a few Andre Breton's in Berkeley, certainly Artuad's. They were not idealists. The idealists, suprisingly, existed in that technical/nerd community that had the grand idea of putting computing power in small, accessible boxes.
This group was infamous for their naivete. And yet they brought something Berkeley was void of which was practical sense.
Berkeley was like a body with the lower parts down in the flats, the belly and chest in the student area and the head up in the hills. Assuming the head was the stabilizing aspect of the body at least people stayed around in the hills. In the hills and down below in the flats people took root. In the middle their was constant movement in and out of streets, cars, apartments, and houses.
Berkeley was infected with that kind of European intellectual flavor that is so suave in its nihilism. A brain that thinks is as apt to try and revenge itself on the world as a person who is abused. And if no one thinks and one group thinks then what is a young person to do?
There were excellent questions raised at that time and when questions appear, when cracks open up from the way in which one has always viewed the world, when the establishment is no longer the fount of authority, then all kinds of things come rushing into play. That moment is a crucial one as the writer wrestles with these questions, more questions, all questions, no questions just the putrid universe and its odd creatures. It was no mystery why science fiction was the genre of choice in those days.
Berkeley always denied the massification of the larger world. That was its essential charm. Every individual would count in Berkeley. A kind of perfect democracy would exist. And at times it approached that point. It had a very salutary effect on people who were used to "just living" and not worrying about these things. Not worrying about how the world takes for granted the integrity of self and democracy. On either side of this were cults and political ideology. It was, in some sense, a testing ground for the American soul.
There was not a part of Berkeley that I did not know fairly well. I lived in the Rockridge area, west Berkeley, up on Oxford Street, on Telegraph Avenue. I loved College Avenue, Solano, and Shattuck. Parts of Telegraph still retained the aura it had in the 60's but by the time I moved there it had decayed quite a bit.
One of the secrets of Berkeley: the young, on the street or in the campus, martyr themselves to the sins of the society. In fact, one could say Berkeley was a fight against the fathers.
The pyramid flipped. It was no different than tribes of pre-Columbia who ritually assisted the young to dis the old and all they hold sacred. It created new vitality. But it also created the shame that made the kids, eventually, just like the fathers. And it did a third thing. It showed the kids, after awhile, exactly why the fathers did what they did.
The radicalism that had marked Berkeley in the 60's and early 70's had petered out to a few crazed gangs like the ones who had shot and killed the Superintendent of schools and kidnapped Patty Hearst. Or the People's Temple.
By this time anything with "Peoples" in it rang rather hollow. The radicals had all gone back to school or lived sullen lives down in the flats. When they got together they would drink and laugh loudly. They were still alive they reasoned and proved to themselves they were better than anyone else. Or, at least, smarter than anyone else.
There was an unmistakable aura of craziness in Berkeley. It was not a simple and empty thing. It was a real atmosphere, a charged atmosphere you would not get in a large city. And I had felt this aura three distinct times.
Once had been in the mid-60's as a teen-ager and sensing great momentous things happening and feeling that Berkeley was the center of the universe. So clean, ideal, and perfect! And then when I moved there a terrible disillusionment that made everything sickly and driven down. It was the feeling of being driven down which was so startling and it was pervasive. And then feeling immersed in it so that the pyramid was flipped.
The self soon takes on the problems of the environment it moves in day after day. In Berkeley were cosmic, macro, personal, social problems that had an amazing structure to them. Some of the problems were dictated and formed out of ideology, some of them were formed out of great idealism after reading Ghandi or Thoreau. The ideologists tried to make cynicism into a hip thing so that people, wanting more in life than what the establishment gave, would turn to the ideological solution. On the other hand there was great "going inward," in the mid-70's. The cults were just the tip of the iceberg. Great restlessness took over the city. Jung and mythology came into vogue.
There is a hill and out of the hill grows a building and from the building came the end. And there was no mistaking the hill and its building. They were the end. One imagined a sucking noise to one day leave a large black hole where the hill and building were; all the instruments, people, files gone- perhaps to an undiscovered dimension but safely away from the living.
The poet didn't have an ounce of fat on him. He claimed it was because he didn't own a car and walked everywhere. He always appeared on edge because he felt that the hammer could be lowered at any time. "Life was always lived this way because the hammer always came down. Now we have all these protections." I had a feeling he wanted to live in this intense place as long as he could and then nature, perhaps, would tell him to move on. He said the edge sharpened his thoughts and sliced off the trivia of life like a scalpal.
"Doom played a role," the poet said, "that goes without saying. There are all kinds of doom scenarios, some of them quite bizarre. It looked probable some type of nuclear war was going to be fought among nations. It threw everything off kilter. A friend of mine had said perhaps it wasn't so bad. "What it does, the mushroom cloud, has not destroyed anything but history. Everything is turned back to the eternal present and all we can snatch from the cinders of the past are a few instances of inspired thought or spirit."
"Perhaps but that was only one of the doom scenarios.
"This scenario always came popping up: extraction from earth, constant transformation of resources into products, products supporting larger and larger populations, increased populations demanding more and more resources.
"This scenario cut down my need for goods", the poet said, "Ah, they do not know yet we are doomed at this pace." This was the only solcace during bleak times.
It alarmed me but I also knew that our minds are tricksters. Most importantly I countered the doom with an attempt to understand these things. It was heroic in my own mind, I studied the cold war and war in general; geo politics, trying to find "an answer" for the nuclear problem. Where was the future with the nuclear dilemma there? And if there is no future, where does that lead us?
"This had an enormous impact that was only mollified when the earth and life seemed much more solid. Sometimes it happens. Rarely but a few precious times.
"When I think about it that was my initiation into the present day world. Taking on these problems and the fears they created took me out of my college days and put me at the center of something exciting. I did follow a great many leads and learned a lot of intricate, eccentric stuff. Much of it has slithered away.
"At that time I felt that novels were not going to solve any problem. The novel became a frivolous item.
"And I think I switched to poetry precisely because the novel failed to address my concerns.
"The counter acts to this sort of doom is beauty and wisdom.
"My friend, there is something stimulating about contemplating the death of the planet. It is one side of a huge mythology.
"It's not shocking to me either that during this time I absolutely connected with history, with the historic imagination, with great spirits, with common spirits, with the acts, with the existential history that can be a powerful thing."
"Berkeley was very amenable to all of this. It had its on-edge doom characters but it also had great knowledge resources. It had a very active environmental community. I can remember a spate of time when people were thinking about the future, future space colonies and so on and I was interested in that. Berkeley of course blamed everyone. I took it more as an alarming fact and tried to track it all down. Blame seems to cut off the sources of enlightenment or, at least, constricts the ability to find out and keep curious.
So the poet regaled me long into the night about his experience wrangling with annhiliation.
We were up in the oily jungle of Eucylaptus trees that huddled together like foreign spies. They had been imported from Australia a century earlier and now taken over the hillsides. Oily, tall trees waiting for a sign.
Berkeley was like a woman who you believe holds the secret to life. You practically worship her. And then you realize, no, she just wants something from you, even as innocuous a thing as to live through you. There is a panic of realization. And then you step away and watch her as she lives out every odd, bad thing you perceived was there in her moment of mystery.
A provincial woman, then, who could not see the forest for the trees and yet had great inner beauty still lodged in her, somewhere in the folds of her hills and bad streets and run-down Victorians.
Intelligent women with long strides and absolutely non-receptive souls could dominate downtown around Shattack and Center. Manipulators but who later would feel , if not sorry, resigned to the fact they couldn't manipulate anyone.
If nothing else the city had vision. I saw the computer revolution, Internet, and solar power all in Berkeley. I discovered the difference between imagination and fantasy in Berkeley. Imagination was substance, it was something that had legs and could walk around the real people but that fantasy was something that belonged to boys rather than men. And for all of that reality counted. Reality was a big luscious thing filled with boats in the Marina and angry women, paper flying along the wonderful avenues, people pretending to be someone they were not and so on. It was the charm and aspect that one adapted to.
It nearly burnt down twice. Reagan sent old helicopters over it to bomb and chase out the young rebels. "Full of boring smart people who say the same things and have the same outlook on everything imaginable."
I discovered that the communists and socialists drink good wine and come from wealthy families. Their idealism is disguised hatred for the privilege they were born into and it destroyed more than a few. Well what is a world without a few drunken, idealistic communists? Those, in other words, who have never grown up because their mothers paid them off not to enter the real world. This was plenty afoot in Berkeley.
They drank good wines and lived in houses that looked out over the whole Bay Area as though they were pro counselors in Rome and the Empire was at their feet. But they had nothing to do but prostelize on behalf of the poor and left-out; people they never associated with and whose lives had more meaning and fiber than their own.
Yet even the communist knew that money counts. Money had the ability to produce any sort of life the imagination conjured up.
Generations of students passed through the town. The scholarly types were usually ashamed of their passions and kept them hidden behind either activism or parties. "It's amazing to me how the smart guys denounce everything that is smart in favor of things that are purely dumb," said the bum.
piedmont ave. by international house]]
"Coeds gazing out on the concrete, iron balcony toward the islands in the bay, smoking, heads going nuts, zigging and zagging trying to physically remove themselves from the very spot where they smoked and gazed, petrified of where they had ended up and wanting to get out; either through a career or a man. They were undecided by it all." Ull was telling me what he saw when he first came to the city.
"The students were, generally, arrogant and full of themselves. Life was their oyster. They were going to cook in its pulp and come out smelling like a rose. Nothing seemed to bother the students; they laughed uproariously at any suggestion that life was not what it appeared to be; a vast moveable feast of good liquor, dope, sex, a kind of nutty world performing in front of them for their amusement."
I didn't know many students. Bookstores, restaurants, clubs, and apartments. These seemed to be the venues for myself. The chicken and pork bows from the Chinese food truck on Shattuck Avenue by the BART station. I lived a few blocks from Chez Panisse and frequented more than few of the excellent restaurants that Berkeley seemed to thrive on in the 70's and early 80's. That and coffee shops. There was Peet's and one up along College Avenue I used to go to quite a bit.
It was a town of resources. I read books when many thought, even in Berkeley, that reading was passe. I always questioned this: "Do you mean that thought and knowledge are passe?" Those who downgraded reading usually went into money and wanted money more than anything and didn't relent until they had it. I read and researched all the bookstores and libraries of Berkeley because I was curious and I was angry at the state of the world, which, to a mind, seemed easy to figure out. The more complicated it got the more I read to try and figure it out.
I read anything that struck me as interesting, studious, or forbidden. It was a great joy. Many days and nights I spent at the university libraries reading on one, two, three levels of the building, going outside to smoke occasionally, sometimes the only person in the library. The books I read became a part of me, no question about it.
I was terrified often of the split between nihilistic types and stone-frightened types. It dominated everything. I didn't think anything generous would appear between these clashing rocks. The nihilist types were smart but empty; intelligent but superstitious and wanted nothing to do with the real world. They would destroy the real world given half the chance. The frightened types didn't recognize the historical changes going on, didn't move in the pathway of historic reality, couldn't control the vast fear of change and distance that permeated the culture at that time.
So the poet of his dreams, named Fid, wanders around and thinks he's a wise guy: He cuts epitaphs into the trunks of huge oak trees: "Quickest way to Hell is to destroy Memory" "Life sad, short, and tragic for all the kind and masterful rationalizations" "Trust the soul, question the nation" "Theories only explain their existence as theories" "Who did I invite?" "What good is it to leave the misery of one circle and enter the misery of another?"
"So Fid, why do you destroy trees?"
"I have learned a great skill in carving and want to master it."
He showed me the trees he had defaced. It was ugly and unsettling to see the crude letters etched into the bark. But I did notice as he took me from venue to venue that his phrases of outrage got smaller and more precise; they were a wonderful art like an oak scrimshaw.
This Fid was so ugly and bent up that I won't even describe it. He was so frightful most people jumped a little bit when they were introduced to him. And his poetry was not very good. He wanted to say everything all at once, put the universe in a poem, even a word, and it came out flat and meaningless. He needed to take a few breaths and relax. His shoulders, especially, kept leaping up and down like something ferocious was trying to escape the confines of his body. But then again, Fid was generous. And with nothing to do I would go with him to a little club that had poetry readings
I began to realize that a Puritan guilt overtakes the writer who writes primarily "on himself." But it is simply an aspect of self not yet known, struggling to be known. A voice, then, as authentic, perhaps more authentic as the minister I listened to on TV. "This novel I thought. This novel, now, is a kind of novel of manners depicting a variety of levels abundant and mingling in good old American style." "Let them see who they live with!" That is one spirit in youth. Maybe it is the story of development with idea counterpoised against idea or, at least, a spiritual opening.
A decent writer starts off wanting to write novels in the way that Hugo, Steinbeck, and Zola did; huge sociological tracts of criticism that writers are sometimes weaned on. They could cut their teeth on lesser things. Then comes the psychological novel where each scene is constructed as a psychological state of mind and where action and thought try to fuse.
Bor says, "There is no static in youth. There are things all around one. The present as present and nothing else; things without association, things as things; physical things like buildings, planes, roads, bridges, houses, streetlights. Things. Objects. Common things. And then they worm through necessity, imagination, or, even desire. One object is in relation to an empty, littered lot and another in relation to hills filled with trees and birds. One sees through the eye, smells through the nose. But there is more. There's that inner fluid that comes up and meets things with its imperative and the things change. They can wither and die. Or, they can live forever." And I thought of what Bor had said and had a dream about it that night. A monstrous giant had taken out his erection and pissed on where we were and everyone was frightened and running helter skelter and the saintly Bor was drowned in it and I only escaped because of a princess who had a bicycle that could fly.
Pain and gentleness Under the eyes of the Wayward Girl lost in what all lose prominent in her awareness ah, where have you come from- Where?
It was ironic that in a town full of intellectuals the intellect suddenly appears as grinding away with no pretense to the truth. It needs a conscience which says, "ah, you are only after power, enthralled by the obligatory anti-truths and anti-life sentiments of the day."
"Yet, when the intellect is conned away from itself to let in other, lesser selves to walk out in the daylight aren't they revealed as horrible things? And who else to cauterize the wound but the old grinder itself? There is utter nihilism and around the corner is complete doubt; fast down the street comes slimy desires and then those small and petty conclusions that fret this way and that like a bug under a hot light.
"Sometimes my brain feels like an elephant wandering off toward the high grass of the plains, full of muddy water in its belly. It pauses at times to trumpet at some fleeing Mastodon or Tigress. Isn't the bloated feeling symptom of shadows trying to fill themselves? There is reat danger in wrapping oneself in shadows disguised as artificial light." So said Fid who, unlike the philosopher talked about women all the time.
"A woman always embodies something; what is it now? Perhaps it is the personality of history itself; the contradiction between power and responsibility. A woman as an ideal type would be difficult when the whole mind is concerned with exposure." And when he said "exposure," he drew it out and flattened it, eyeing me like there was an oracular meaning in the way he'd expressed it. He wanted to impress me with his experience with women. That had come to be a way among the footless young who hung out in the urban parks smoking and playing guitars, flashing smiles and nodding heads as people went by, inconscipuously, headed for their important meetings in life.
I saw him with one woman who walked all disjointed with a pained expression on her face. It was disconcerting listening to her. She was always making pronouncements as if she were the smartest person in the world, yet, when one looked closely she lived like a gypsy and probably knew how to throw knives against trees.
The city made him a storyteller because even knowledge was only participating in a good tale. Tales enter other realms where we can not participate. Vanity kills the effort. The storyteller goes out and asks simple questions: "What creative principle are the living people dependent on?" "Have you recognized yet that separation from this principle is death, the center of it life?"
"Every shitty thing," Fid was saying, "has tried to knock me off some perceived pedestal. I laugh at the effort and commend the shits for trying but, eventually, it applies a few drags on things. The shits don't want to see. College, family, clowns, actresses, bosses, lovers, it doesn't matter. I just make 'em into characters. You want to hear my list of characters?" He was in an old bakery turned into a cafe and had a binder in front of him. A man had just entered the bakery and declared he was a god and they chased him out. "Well, there was the wicked, half-crazed drug dealer; a big talkin', cigar smoking contractor and his daughter addicted to something harmful; the big talking, big dreaming, little talented rock musician, the old, bitter professor "against the war,", the macho primitive working for the utility company; the jazz guitarist who works blue-collar during the day; the neurotic, suicidal woman who suffered in childhood and read Hesse novels; the left-liberal professor and his wife running an alternative newspaper; a lonely Marine in his apartment watching TV while his ex-wife throws a brick through his doors; pot smokers a plenty; loud, dark-spirited Trotskytes; the blonde, neurotic rich guy; Judge, the ganja smoker; golfing bureaucrats; bubbly, nubile innocents; parents of the middle, upper-middle class; young toughs who carry knives into bars; a young counselor training to be a minister who rides a bicycle; young Jewish writers on the make; a mother with her young children in the lonesome mountains; loud talking, smart-ass bureaucrat who drink too much; a New York exploiter of college students; lonely and rootless fellows suffering the bowels of the city; Nigerian student wanting to be "apart of the action:' astrologer healing woman; the steel-eyed stentorian librarian; a bookseller balding on top; loose women sitting in the saloons and clubs, pregnant and just in from the eastcoast; the computer company owner; Filipina nurse working full-time to support musician husband; single women in mid-20's roaming the land; an ex-Peace Corps worker desperate to find someone and build her career; the Greek girl who bragged that her boyfriend was in the Mafia; an effeminate ship steward trying to pick up middle-aged women on trains; the crazy Finn who belongs to the communist party or brags she does; a professor and his peccadilloes; a rich jewess who threatened suicide for 15 years and finally does it; a middle-aged lush who sleeps with stranger black men; kindly women lawyers, tough as balls feminist/lesbian lawyers; quiet, suspicious librarian; the ne'er-do-well relative that floats endlessly from the east coast to the west coast; the doctor and his huge stone castle in the crevice of some obscure mountain; and more, brother, and more."
"A job is the cowards Army; responsibility is transferred from brute authority to financial-economic authority to produce a very facile freedom that everyone struggles to maintain. My relations with those working here are not bad by any means. I've known these people for years; they've crossed my eyes and imprinted themselves on my sensibility for so long all I can do now is breathe with them. There is something to be said for learning through new experiences, pride notwithstanding. The only thing I don't stand for is the horrible pressure to remake myself in the image of a slave. These people are so nice, accommodating, ineffectual, rather bumbling like myself and yet exert a force by their presence that is difficult to shake. One smells not fear but with fear I suppose."
"My relations with co-workers is always poor. I've known these people for years; they've crossed my eyes and imprinted themselves on me, somewhere, for so long that all I can do is breathe with them. There is something to learn everywhere, under all circumstances, pride notwithstanding. One wishes they could dismiss folk as in the old days but it is not au couture these days. Yes, my pride is bruised. I will not relent to the horrible pressure to re-make myself in the image of a slave. A nice, accommodating, ineffectual, rather buumbling slave."
"Let me tell you about conversations I've had: There were all those talks with R----, existential talks without an ounce of grace in them; then the kind couple who engaged me in talk about child-rearing and jobs no one liked having; there was the good guy M---- full of bluster and ego when filled up with good drink, swaggering, blustering kind of conversations; or MS and her conversations of the inner self, artistic talk; with D it was history and experience, practical matters of one sort or another; cocky banter with my brothers; that guy I worked with out in construction, B, who talked with me for hours about work, life, and society as we worked on the house; crazy H monologues on why he carried a knife with him into the city and how he'd eaten the aborted fetus of a doe in the woods; convicts I worked with out on the Straights demolishing a company town; the guy who smoked a pipe in the warehouse and Klaus, the German shipping clerk; the fine, neurotic women of the hospital, how I loved their sweet conversations, talking out dreams with my friend by the fence when we were kids; tales of Gummy the wonder pisser flying over the city of drunks to old Pat the Irish warrior; I used to tell my buddies that my dad had won the war, single-handed, and they quizzed him about it next time they had a chance; oh an endless diarrhea of conversations with the good, bad, and the ugly."
Today I gathered a satchel of faces; a long, skeletal face, "pale unto death," sunken as one from the dead with long, lanky hair, dark peerful glasses; sitting with his body rocking back and forth in strict, taut rhythm to some invisible exigency. Confused, dark Chicano man. Beautiful black woman with hair braided thinly and wrapped with turquoise beads. Scabbed, forlorn face of one not impressed by it all.
For So Long:
he continued, "For so long I was driven by a restless vanity that reached its dutiful conclusion in apocalyptic visions. For so long I have been roaming the fields and boroughs of the imagination. The people suspect the worst but then they should be ashamed of themselves and when I think on it they have sold their shame to the most absurd temptations so the back of my hand to them."
"For so long oppressed by a kind of telepathy! For so long unable to understand myself buried under the thoughts of others! I have only recently understood the way voices organize themselves. For so long believing I was relating to the world when I was actually relating to my self-consciousness, to my "impositions." So said Fid the poet. He was a sad man in many ways, a creature caught in time but out of time as well. He had asked me to buy him a book on the occult from the dingy new age hole-in-the-wall in Oakland. It was there. Much was there. While I made the transaction I questioned to myself why I was doing favors for another person, one I didn't like all that much but hung around as if he were a secret I needed to know.
"Language, my friend David, is a strip eternally moving through the body and soul. What the poet does is heighten its appearance. A language formed out of the spirit. A kind of false pride will try and manipulate itself to spirit through the manipulation of sentences. First, the spirit and its experiences through life. Then language that comes brave and beautiful from the heart.
"The difference between "ornate" and "hard, common language" that the poets of a previous generation struggled with, William Carlos Williams and so on. A man who says chair and think they have said a great deal are either laughed at or provide the greatest opportunity to succeed."
(Reach the truth through the shortest distance.)
Here. This place. Living in this particular place, this part of the country, this astounding vitality that breaks here, always signaling for a new man or new woman to arise although it is a place where men and women become disembodied before anyone else. All myths have a grain of truth in them. The people live horizontal to expectation. They dream in other words and even if the dreams are vulgar they are dreams and the fact the dreams are innate gives impetus to the more profound and real dream one finds in the ancient world or at the tail end of some golden age. Slowly but surely the dreams take on the character of tribal dreams of vanquished nations. Two worlds lower on each other, plus the Spanish. The mansion of the Emperor turned into hacienda spreads. Catholic missions. The Spanish is old, noble Spain and god-dark Aztec. Two dark bloods. Ancient dreams! Representations you have, here, in this place. The dreams of youth sadly flag in the mind. The dreams of manhood gain strength.
The Stuttering Utterances of a Cosmological View:
"I love reading about the stars but I love looking up at them even more. And if it were a choice between the two I would choose the second without regret."
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