Saturday, November 13, 2010

Readings: Just Beautiful

I have taken great pleasure over the past week in reading Patti Smith’s memoir of her early days in New York City, Just Kids. Much of my enjoyment in reading this book has been the discovery of many parallels between Patti Smith’s experience of those years in the late 1960s and the 1970s and my own. She listened to much of the same music, read many of the same books, and visited many of the same places that defined my experience of that era. I will use excerpts from her book to provide examples of just a few of the many such correspondences which so affected me as I read.

Patti Smith is just a few months older than I am. She left her home in south Jersey to move to New York City in 1967, a few years before I left Ann Arbor for Brooklyn. Patti Smith also charted her first course for Brooklyn, and the neighborhood of the Pratt Institute; the very neighborhood in which is to be found my first Brooklyn address, 109 Greene Avenue. Here, she describes the same subway route that I would be taking to travel from my job in Manhattan to my Brooklyn apartment:

xxxAt twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.
xxxI immediately took the subway from Port Authority to Jay Street and Borough Hall, then to Hoyt-Schermerhorn and DeKalb Avenue.

I was also carrying a copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations when I arrived in Brooklyn. Patti was almost certainly carrying the same paperback edition that I still have on my shelf to this day:

The next correspondence is not historical in nature. Keeping in mind that the greater context in each instance was a consideration of the nature of art, I was struck by this insight of Patti Smith’s as it parallels the ideas in my poem, “Adam,” which was written in the 1970s:

In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.

The next correspondence, as recalled by Patti Smith, is another historical one:

Gregory [Corso] took me to the St. Mark’s Poetry project, which was a poet’s collective at the historic church on East Tenth Street. When we went to listen to the poets read, Gregory would heckle them, punctuating the mundane with cries of Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!

I, too, was taken to St. Mark’s to hear a poet read. My guide was the woman to whom I refer in this poem as “Leah.” The poet reading that night was Robert Lowell. And, yes, Gregory Corso was in attendance. And he heckled the great Lowell throughout the reading.

Compare Patti’s dream of Arthur Rimbaud as she depicts it here to my poem “Song for Rimbaud (on my 29th Birthday)”, written in 1976:

xxxOne afternoon I fell asleep on the floor amid my piles of books and papers, reentering the familiar terrain of a recurring apocalyptic dream. Tanks were draped in spangled cloth and hung with camel bells. Muslim and Christian angels were at one another’s throats, their feathers littering the surface of the shifting dunes. I plowed through revolution and despair and found, rooted in the treachery of the withered trees, a rolled leather case. And in that deteriorating case, in his own hand, the great lost work of Arthur Rimbaud.
xxxOne could imagine him strolling the banana gardens, ruminating in the language of science. In the hellhole of Harar, he manned the coffee fields and scaled the high Abyssinian plateau on horseback. In the deep night he lay beneath a moon perfectly ringed, like a majestic eye that saw him and presided over his sleep.

After Robert Mapplethorpe had acquired a male patron/lover and Patti had moved on to other men, they visited again:

On the surface, Robert [Mapplethorpe] seemed to have everything he had wished for. One after noon we sat in his loft, surrounded by the proofs of his burgeoning success. …He was now a man; yet in his presence I still felt like a girl. He gave me a length of Indian linen, a notebook, and a papier-mâché crow. The small things he had gathered during our long separation. We tried to fill in the spaces: “I played Tim Hardin songs for my lovers and told them of you. I took photographs for a translation of Season in Hell for you.”

I purchased that very edition of Season in Hell, on a whim, from a mail order house, some years ago. It now represents for me something like the completion of a circle.