Hello, I Must Be Going
Thanks For Asking: The Whalen Journal
by Steve Silberman .
In May of 1993, Michael Wenger at the San Francisco Zen Center contacted Steve and asked him if he would be interested in helping Philip Whalen, whose macular degeneration was quite advanced, perform daily tasks, answer mail, take him shopping, and act essentially as in-home support and companion. During a brief period, from May to Sept of that year, Silberman kept a journal of his interactions with a significant American poet and Roshi at the Hartford Street Zen Center. As Steve states in his introduction to the journal, “I will try to remember here vivid things that Whalen says in the coming weeks of historical and personal interest, anything that strikes me. I will not attempt to make a complete record, but a graph of two minds moving, and rescue quanta of literary history that might otherwise slip away.”
“Notice what you notice”
May 14, 1993
There are signs on the front door of the Hartford Street Zen Center, asking visitors to be patient after ringing, and the handwriting is slightly familiar: I wonder if Philip has inscribed them and the feeling of familiarity is due to the grace of his calligraphy showing through the utilitarian messages.
You get to Philip’s rooms by going down a narrow staircase into the basement. There are bookshelves in a suite of outer rooms–although “suite” doesn’t communicate the feeling of damp underground office like matter-of-factness about the rooms—loaded with Philip’s books, and Philip’s room is behind a curtain. I notice a copy of the SF Oracle reprint, some Olson books and many Buddhist texts.
The TV is on loudly when I come in. Philip looks thinner than the last time I saw him, but my first impression is of whiteness—he appears like an undifferentiated lump of white on the bed, which sits up, peering at me with oddly bright small eyes through plastic-rimmed glasses, a belt fastening his pants around his “mountaine” belly. He asks me to turn off the TV with the remote control, pick up an envelope, a letter from his doctor, and read: instructions for some kind of heart test. Another letter is from an old friend up North, who asks Philip to excuse his “oldfartedness.” (Philip uses the word later in conversation.)
Philip tells me a story about Jack Spicer: “Spicer used to sit around in Gino and Carlo’s—one of those old bars in North Beach with two names—drinking some godforsaken thing, brandy with an Italian liqueur in it as a float, playing pinball. He was surrounded by young men who would’ve practically kissed his hand, who wanted him to be their guru of Poetry. And you know what he’d tell ‘em about? Baseball.”
When I tell Philip that I travel a lot and might need frequent days off, Philip whines “Oh I can’t stand it!” in a high feminine cranky voice. At first I think he’s kidding, but then he hesitates to offer me the job and I realize he’s serious. We talk further, and both of us realize that I am the most suitable person for the job who is sitting in the room at this moment.
When our conversation is over I press my palms together to make a ragged gassho, and he says:
“You put your hands together in front of you and say, ‘O Boobus, what is the meaning of Prajnaparamita (Highest Perfect Wisdom)?’ and Boobus says, ‘Nicely said—thanks for asking’—and that’s all.”
I read Philip a letter from Albert Saijo. Saijo’s letter contains a long rant about the Iraq War, and also says twice, in reference to growing older, “It is our duty to die.” (I am disturbed by this, but Philip dismisses it as Saijo’s “clownishness.”) Philip dictates an answer that contains the following:
I am still engaged in some manifestation of the Zen trip. Don’t ask. Technically, I am the abbot of this temple, called Issanji, alias the Hartford Street Zen Center, which is legally a non-profit religious organization incorporated under the laws of the state of California. Except for a few hours a day, the outfit is invisible, very much like me. Nevertheless we must believe that it is all taking place in the Dharmakaya twenty-four hours a day.
Philip—who tells Saijo he is “shy of writing down anything but a grocery list”—ends the letter with “I bow nine times” when I run out of paper in the stack he has given me. I promise myself to always have more than enough paper at hand.
Philip tells me Saijo’s mother used to write haiku all the time. I ask Philip what his favorite haiku is:
Climb Mt. Fuji—
but slowly, slowly
As he has a very acute nose, I entertain Philip with smells. One day I bring a sprig of rose geranium, another day I hold a plump freshly-picked green marijuana flower up to his nostrils.
“The best marijuana I ever smoked was from Laos or somewhere in the Vietnam ambit. Three of us shared one joint. It put you into the straight psychedelic swamp, overloaded your synapses. Quite wonderful.”
“Philip—Arshile magazine wants you to send them something.”
“All I got is a limp dick.”
With Philip in Sweet Inspiration, a sterile ’80s-ish bakery-cafe (though you can be sure there is no baking there) on Market Street. We walk in on one of the hottest days of the year, because Philip wants iced tea, and there are tables so Philip can sit down. The staff is all good-looking and young—they will ice any tea you want from various bags of Twining’s (Philip bets the China Black tea is “really whoo-lung“) giving us each a pot and a tumbler of ice, which promptly melts in the hot water.
“My life is drawing to its close, and not a moment too soon,.” says Philip, and I see why he could care less about following the macrobiotic diet that Allen has laid out for him: Philip is a scholar who can’t read, a poet who is unable to write, a delector of exquisite and simple savors who is supposed to be on a restricted diet in order to lengthen his stay in this realm of round pills, square pills, curbs that trip up and bruise, as the world in front of his eyes blurs.
“Philip, I can’t say that it’s worth it for you, but I’m really glad we’ve had our time together.”
Lately I’ve been thinking of my Grandpa Bob, who died 15 years ago. He sipped liquor while he wasn’t supposed to because of his heart, winking at me as he took a quick snort from the liquor cabinet, all the while making inane conversation with my grandmother in the next room; he taught me to play gin; he tied my tie (which I hated wearing, but the act of him tying it—his fingers touching my ears, his breath in my face as he sang little tunes under his breath—I loved); he seemed hidden in the same way Philip is hidden. Having Philip in my life has released memories of him, like an old scent wherein is comfort smelled, of men & boys, together in that “hiddenness.” Of—no time for anything but—what is real.
“I don’t know, Philip, it was like I fell off the path, or I’m still on the path, after all, if Buddhism is about the deep truths of life, life will teach me its deep truths—I’m not saying practice is the same as not practicing, I know it isn’t—but all that stuff about impermanence, how what sees is changing as much as what is seen, I know is true now in a way I didn’t when I was a young Zen student, because I’ve seen it.”
Phil laughing: “What makes you think Buddhism is about something other than disillusionment?”
We come in from shopping, Phil bellowing “Wood-worth” to a country & western tune:
“Oh I’d a-rather be a pagan
suckled in a creed outworn
Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!
And hear ol’ Triton
blow his wreathèd horn
Honk! Honk! Honk!
“In Japan it isn’t unfashionable & disgraceful to be an old man or an old woman. ‘Old Lady Ma’m’—’oba-san’ is a conventional term of respect. I expect Japan would fall to pieces if it weren’t for the hours of hard labor expended by old Japanese ladies.”
from “Apologies, Glossary &c.”
probably written XII : 66
deleted from On Bear’s Head
“Philip—do you feel famous?”
“I feel vaguely historical, but not famous. As Don Carpenter once explained to me, ‘Phil—you’re a name, but not a face.’
“Or as Aaron Copeland told Paul Bowles, who started out wanting to be a composer, ‘You must be very busy when you’re 20, so that people will love you when you’re 40.’“
I read to Phil Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly.” I tell Phil I think he should dictate poems to me, a means of enabling him to resume writing poetry that I have brought up before. I feel his tension when I mention it. He avoids the subject. I press further.
“No,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about that. I want to be entertained.”
“But you’re a poet too (as Yeats was a poet.)”
“It’s like that Johnny Mathis song, horrible—’It’s not for me to saaayyy…’“
I also read more of Neuromancer. When we come across a mention of Linda Lee—lover of Case, the central character—who is murdered offstage before the book begins, I say, “She’s Case’s lost anima.”
“You know—the great love of one’s life, the woman you had and lost and can’t get over. Did you have one?”
Phil laughs. “My mother.”
I ask him if intimate relationships have been very important to him.
“Oh, most of the time I was doing other things: reading and writing. Sometimes I’d notice that something or someone was becoming addictive, and I didn’t want to be addicted, so I’d go back to reading and writing.”
“I like that psilocybe—it makes me happy when skies are gray. And that hash stuff is good for my nerves.”
Phil stops in front of a lighted billboard advertising Tanqueray gin with a lime splashing in a digitized whirlpool of gin.
“Oh! my favorite fruit. I always keep an ample supply on hand—for snakebite.”
I eat terrible noodles at “the Chinaman’s” with Phil. Over plates of scorched cabbage and garlic syrup and hacked chicken we talk about Williams’ Paterson.
“I don’t think he did what he thought he was going to do,” Phil says, “but at least he got out of the way and let it happen.”
Phil delivers a cranky history of American literature starting with Whitman and Dickinson, then Hart Crane and Jeffers, both of whom “had something going,” but very different somethings, continuing with Dylan Thomas, Stevens, Pound “grindling along with his Cantos” (Philip hardly talks about the Cantos with any of the respect Duncan had of the book, whom I saw cry once considering Pound’s sense of failure at the poem’s close)–up to but not including himself and his friends. The mention of each poet is accompanied by some devastating precis or dismissal, as when he quotes Rexroth’s appraisal of Thomas as “writing poems for college professors to decipher,” though he credits Thomas with “authentic and serious poetic bent.”
Yesterday, I interviewed Phil for liner notes for Allen’s boxed CD set of readings to be titled Recording History. A form letter from Allen’s office solicited “elegant or idiomatic literary notes by poets and scholars regarding the texts as literature, historical artifacts, or especially specimens of vocalization of poetry depending on what one might flash on first… any illumined matter that’ll educate and encourage present and future youths & intelligentsia.”
Phil was recalcitrant during the interview, and didn’t remember much about the Berkeley reading following the Six Gallery premiere of “Howl,” that Allen was especially interested to have Phil talk about.
Steve Silberman: Not yet—pretty soon. The story is, Allen wants to—
PW: Yes, he told me on the telephone. He wants me to remember about something that happened in 1956. About the reading at the Berkeley Little Theater, what I remember about it was a big banner, very long, not terribly wide banner that Bob LaVigne painted of a naked lady throwing her arms about, announcing the poetry reading at the Berkeley Little Theater, and listing all the people who were going to be there. There was an enormous audience, and there were a great many poets to read on that occasion. I can’t remember who-all was there, besides Allen and Gary and Mike McClure and me; I don’t know whether Philip (Lamantia) was there or not. The other thing I remember is Michael reading his one-word poem “Light.” And afterwards, meeting various people in the audience who I didn’t expect to see, I thought it was quite interesting that they had come. That Alan Watts, for example, and various other people from the City had showed up in Berkeley for this occasion…
I had been up on the lookout that summer and Gary had written to me, saying there was going to be this poetry reading, and they wanted me to come and be in it, and that he had met Allen, and that it all looked like it was going to be quite wonderful, so hurry on down. So I came down to Berkeley, and stayed with Gary, if I remember right, and stayed at his place temporarily, until Will Petersen cleared out of the place where he was living, and I took it over.
That was the year before, come to think of it—it was ‘55 that I came down out of the Forest Service. I was living in town, I was living in Berkeley, by that time, in ‘56. I forget whether Allen had given me that cottage or not yet. I’m not sure. Maybe I was living in the place where Gary used to live–but he hadn’t gone off yet, no. So, where was I living? I was in Berkeley someplace, I guess, in 19 and 56.
SS: So when you came down the first time you had not yet met Allen?
PW: In 1955, I had, yeah.
SS: And you met Allen through Gary?
PW: Yeah. They had set up a dinner engagement. Jack was in town, and Jack and Allen were going to meet us at the Key Station at First and Mission Street where the trains would come in from Berkeley, and we came in and met ‘em down on the corner of First and Mission. And then we all went off to North Beach and had dinner. I forget whether we ate dinner in North Beach or Chinatown. Anyway, it was a very pleasant occasion.
SS: Was that the first time you had met Jack?
SS: So you met Jack and Allen the same night?
SS: What was your impression of them?
PW: That they were nervous and funny.
SS: Did you consider yourself a poet at that point?
PW: Yeah, I think so. I had started working on a long poem that summer, “The Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” It was that summer—55—that I was staying with some friends in Seattle, and they had some friends who had got on to a whole box full of peyote buttons, actually fresh peyote plants that you could plant in your garden, that came from El Paso or some such place, in a big cardboard box. They paid a dollar or five dollars and they all came by mail or UPS. They had heard that it would make you hallucinate. And they had heard that you were supposed to pull the fuzz out of all the little pockets of fuzz in them, and sort of slice it up and eat it, and ideally eating it with soda crackers took away some of the evil taste, but it’s not really true. It tastes quite like eating mouthfuls of earth with soap in it.
At some point—either while I was still in Seattle or when I had just gotten up to the lookout—I wrote some poem that was different from stuff I had done before, and then I started writing pieces of what was going to be “The Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”
to be continued. . . .
Steve Silberman is an award-winning science writer whose NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery 2015), which Oliver Sacks called a “sweeping and penetrating history…presented with a rare sympathy and sensitivity.” became a much acclaimed bestseller in the United States and the United Kingdom. As a young man, with an avid interest in Buddhism and Beat literature, Silberman was Allen Ginsberg’s teaching assistant at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He lives with his husband Keith in San Francisco.
Many thanks and appreciations to Steve Silberman for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to post excerpts from Thanks For Asking, The Whalen Journal, a 41 page unpublished manuscript.