(submitted by Anne Waldman)
The Relentless Role of Being Born Human
How, he wonders, watching the apple blossoms
drift across his path, can one ever repay
all this grandmotherly love?
I met Joanne in North Beach in the spring 0f ‘64. Nothing really changed between us when she died, and if I’d opened my gate in the dark this morning and she’d been standing across the street I’d have felt nothing but recognition and a deep, unsurprising reinforcement.
I’d have said ‘Hi Joanne,’ and put up a hand, palm out.
The way it’s always been, I sometimes meet someone I know, immediately. We look at each other and there’s nothing in particular said, just the sudden and overwhelming sense of ‘Oh, there you are.’
I think it happened more in North Beach than anywhere else, and my first day there I met Joanne and Jack Spicer.
The events have the edge of what happens when you catch the eye of a meadow-cow by a fence. You look at each other steadily and there’s a deeply moving sense of ‘She sees me exactly as I am, and it doesn’t matter.’
From the moment we said ‘Hello,’ up in Nemi Frost’s apartment on Telegraph Hill, some things were understood. There were ripples over and under the table and a certain blankness of knowing, a kind of nod to how things are, when you notice.
Through all the years I knew her there were always four of us―in the company of others there’d be one of each, brittle and a little tentative, sometimes on the edge of irritation. When it was just the two of us, walking here or there, alone, as simply the people we knew ourselves to be, aspirants to an impossible understanding and moving through talk and presence with a minimum of strain and that occasional, seamless sense of allowed to be.
It was quite lovely.
The problem with the poetry has always been that we’re not quite up to hearing because that’s how we’re put together―of consciousness, the required unknowability of the universe, and the haunt that comes with it.
Joanne was a master to the degree that’s possible.
We had different obsessions and different dictions and saw the real arriving differently, but one thing was constant―the outside, right over there, and whether it was perceived phenomenologically (Joanne, mostly), or phantasmagorically (Spicer, mostly), it was the real, here and there and whispering in the rooms in the head marked ‘Open.’
I think there are only a few things worth saying about the outside’s willful poem and the first and most generative for me is that we need to be able and willing to write down what the poem wants to say when it wants to say it.
And Joanne was a master at making the necessary space for her floating, creeping, settling-in information. The only description I have for that is The Real Thing.
Getting old can open up the haunt a bit, and while it still won’t declare itself now, it clearly owns the mumbling-light landscape that says ‘Hey, yeah, I’m talking to you.’
Joanne listened and looked and heard and saw and did it in the fugitive ways that come with allowing oneself.
In North Beach, tough as it was, I found more of that outside, between and attentive that I’d find anywhere else. Sequentially, I met Joanne, Jack Spicer, Jamie MacInnis, George Stanley, Richard Duerden and Richard Brautigan. There were others, too.
In Bolinas―Terry Bell, Duncan McNaughton, Shao Thorpe, Bob Creeley.
Some would become close and some not, but what was always there was the recognition, the clear understanding that could run back and forth silently under a five chair bar table in the light from a neon waterfall―Hamm’s beer, from ‘the land of sky blue waters.’
Between those who were what?
Over the years what I’ve come to believe (not really―belief signifies a judgment I don’t honor) that those who, for whatever reason, had appeared with a premature and sort-of conscious sense of the womb itself. Of the previous, too, the particularities, the thrum―a shared a way of observing and staying private that let us know each other unspokenly, at a distance.
Joanne broke open in my head immediately. She listened. Her whole body showed it, posture and movement and a tremulous, tight-rope balancing of eye and mouth.
At Nemi’s, Joanne was sitting at the kitchen table in a morning wrap kind of thing. Coming in the front door the first thing noticed in Nemi’s apartment had been her enormous painting of Fred Astaire in mid-leap.
The second had been Joanne.
She was newly back from Japan where she’d been traveling with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, and she was living in a very small apartment on the back-stair landing just off Nemi’s kitchen.
God she was alert. Hungover but there, and for me the focus of the room. I was just off the plane from Brooklyn and I was babbling a little but Joanne as focus point had a serious talent for babble and time passed in an okay fashion. At one point Nemi said, ‘Larry’s in from Brook-lyn,’ with that slightly mocking Santa Barbara drawl she had. ‘He writes po-e-try.’
Nothing much happened.
‘Really,’ Joanne said to her cigarette and asked me to read something. Which I did. She said ‘Oh my,’ whatever the hell that meant. I didn’t much care because I’d been able to see her listening, and that was something to appreciate, and remember.
Later, I’d think I could tell when a poem had come in her head. There was a stillness and a little parting of the lips, a shift of attention from where to somewhere. It was deeply interesting. As she was, almost always.
The day wound around to afternoon when we all retired for what Nemi would call ‘trick naps.’ Then we had dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and headed to The Bars. Nemi liked to say that, ‘Hey kids, let’s go to the bars.’
Gino & Carlo’s which was the bar, really, was full but not crowded, long and not very wide. There were pinball machines flanking the door, and pool tables in back.
There were two tables against the wall on the right and one of them had two guys sitting at it, observant maybe, maybe just bored. They were Jack Spicer and Graham Mackintosh. Again, I knew Jack right away. The feeling was ‘Looks like I’ve done something right.’ I was introduced and sat down.
Joanne was at the bar ordering and her head was like a searchlight. She was self-possessed and what? Maybe just possessed. I watched closely.
‘I see you’ve met Joanne,’ Spicer said, and I smiled and he smiled back. It was all okay though I was scared to death. My good luck was that I’d spent my teenage years drinking in Brooklyn and had my defenses in place.
Joanne was odd around Jack. She seemed almost afraid of him and spent a lot of time tapping her cigarette and looking up blankly before quickly turning her head.
Bright as a penny they used to say when I was a kid. Flippable might have been added to that, with some accuracy.
Joanne, I knew, was apprehensive, a bit distraught. She’d split from Gary Snyder in Japan, I think it was, and he was due back any day.
It all gets a little blurry, but every time I saw Joanne over the next few months I watched her intently. I read her book The Tapestry and the Web, and bits and pieces stuck in my head though I had the feeling that it was kind of a blue book handed in to god knows which teacher.
It wasn’t Jack, at least not on the surface.
Jack had died after falling in ‘66―one of the very few times I’ve cried as an adult. There’d been someone with him at the hospital most of the time.
I wasn’t there when Joanne came, but I was told that when Jack had started to raise his arm in greeting, Joanne had flinched and stepped back, as if he’d been about to hit her.
I don’t know what it was between them but it was deep and there’s no question in my mind that it probably involved Jack pontificating, being helpful, He had an acute eye and I always figured he’d found something in Tapestry in the Web that he’d thought was the poem, and had got buried.
Joanne had more than a passing familiarity with the terrors of Spicer’s rooms in the dark, and when his name would come up her voice would change, just slightly, as if a changed chemistry of air were affecting vocal chords.
They knew each other well, Joanne and Jack, but she was a bit afraid.
Gino & Carlo’s started to fade and sometime in the very early ‘70s a lot of us would end up in Bolinas, a town up the coast with a population of 400. Five years later there’d be seventy or so poets.
Joanne lived in a few places but finally got a cottage about two-and-a-half blocks from me and when I got up and the morning opened in a particularly blank way, I could walk over to her place and sit.
The things we talked about involved two very different transcribers―who we were, where we were and what the hell our obligations might be to poetry, to the poem.
There were four of us, as I’ve said, two in social settings, brittle and occasionally sharp tongued, and two by themselves, perfectly at ease and talking about where we were, what we were attempting, and how it was arriving.
Joanne didn’t belong to any clubs.
She had protective coloration, my god did she, but it was all bullshit―defensive flicks and jumps verbal and otherwise, occasional bits of Ginsbergian dogma, opinions so little real or central that sometimes I could just sit with my mouth open.
But none of it mattered and god knows she’d earned the right to any evasion she needed. The last time I saw her I was back in Bolinas, can’t remember the occasion.
I went to see her and she dressed a bit and off we went on the walk, the long hello/goodbye with the secret smile ending. We traced old paths on the mesa and went downtown on the steps by the tennis court and walked to the beach and headed out toward Duxbury. We must have been out for a couple of hours but there wasn’t a single piece of difficult time. Nothing but the real thing, the special knowledge of process, the flooding incoming, the threatening presences and the grace in crocuses and time itself, fictional and not.
She was kind and honest and a poet.
It was like having an invisible friend with an infinitely surprising mind and a deep, reflexive and embracing compassion. When the alcohol was almost finished eating me, she was the one place I could turn for the news of things as they were, had been, and might be. She kept me alive a few times, and she helped my twelve year old son, too. Because she could, because she chose.
I remember one afternoon when we were living in Duerden’s garage, waiting for the
house on Birch Road we’d just bought to let us move in, and I was out in the backyard with my son when Joanne and Lew Warsh came down the side-path and Joanne saw us and smiled and I swear she lit up the whole yard, the whole of the day.
It was like that with her, always―her eyes and mouth conjoining in their own bright secrets. It was a foodstuff. It was the poem in waiting and the willingness to wait, the information about to happen. Joanne at rest electrically.
During my early years in Amsterdam she sent me a copy of a new book, and when I opened it what I found on the title page was the most perfect inscription with which I’d ever been graced. It just said ‘Oh Larry, remember?’
Sitting with Don Guravich after her death, I was trying to describe how she’d helped keep me alive in the dark, and found my eyes filling up with an enormous pressure. Stupidly, I was embarrassed and hoping it went unnoticed. I should have rung the Bolinas school bell. I should have stood on the corner of Birch and Alder and said to anyone passing, ‘I loved that woman in every particular.’
Last night she was present all through my half sleep and, as I was waking, halfway out of the screen, the line that came was,
‘in the drawn-on gloves of the dead
are the re-membered hands.’
‘it’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me.’
Translation and calligraphy of Joanne Kyger’s poem ‘Night Palace’
The World of Transformation is Real
The Goddess Never Dies either…
(…she rides off into the sunset in a red Mercedes convertible, a Janis Joplin song on her lips)
It was at a workshop during the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam 1978 with Franco Beltrametti (South), Reidar Ekner (North), and Nanao Sakaki (East) that i met Joanne Kyger for the first time where she personified the West with all the wisdom and humour she cud display so effortlessly.
The last time i saw her was in April of 2016 at a party at Jim Nisbet’s home after the reading at the Green Arcade Bookstore in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of Franco Beltrametti’s Collected English poems.
In between lay 38 years of friendship marked by a sympathy for nothingness that didn’t exclude anything and where manners made all the difference, manners and the white table linen, for the private was public and the public where we behave. It was pea stew from a light blue enamel pot with a hint of curry and instant pickled cucumber with sesame seeds. We almost got busted at the Austrian border and when the excitement had just ebbed away got caught in a snow storm crossing the San Bernadino Pass. In Riva S.V. she stayed up all night and cleaned the apartment of her host and back at the Boat we let Ting’s hamster escape while we sampled the local Riesling.
There was a roof to be shingled, and a fleeing porch to be reattached to the house, a kitchen counter to be refinished and all the while i was sleeping in the skew whiff shed struggling with a runaway blanket while the fog moved in thru the open door. Not just that roof beam set on the new addition wud have made J.D. Salinger blush, there was this taste of New York Zen, as in Bill Berkson, a sharp witted elegance, like the Tapestry which covers the chairs at Circe’s home and there was always the chance that one woke up in very different shape, not necessarily a pig, tho waddling off into the sunset definitely ranges among the higher teachings and always a cup of tea and always a stick of incense lit now to remember again my four bears and how one of them went thru the cabin when nobody was home …
Not as to put Decartes before de Horse, but that bear appeared again 1998 at the dinner after reading at the Lyrik Kabinett in Munich, when Michael Köhler, who raised a monument to the international poetry Avantgarde with his audio-edition S-Press, asked Joanne who’d taken that photo of Snyder, Ginsberg and Orlovsky in the Himalayas. Joanne looked at him with a squinting eye and asked, “Who do you think, the bear?“
The world as seen from Joanne’s kitchen window
A butterfly flutters by on a column of light.
It’s almost night.
The mud puddles on Evergreen Road reflect the sky at sunset.
The great work will never be complete or left undone;
The puddles on the path will neither be empty or filled.
The night is so dark you can’t even see your reflection on Evergreen Road
turning into a path.
What can I tell you?
(transcribed by Phoebe MacAdams)
Happy Birthday Bolinas
for Joanne Kyger
Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old.
One green car. One white car. One convertible.
The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.
Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.
Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first. A death’s head.
Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits handing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.
O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference. All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit. The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length. The song is resilient. The song is a muscle. Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze. Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching where the door is open and the view is clear.
Tombouctou Press 1983
the chemistry changes
the black chemical earth
becomes yellow earth
the old sky, ethereal grey
ethereal infinite grey
through this hallway of infinite depth
one wanders errant like they say
so many doors gleaming white
so many rooms
it’s a bit like a hotel’s hallway on an upper floor
seemingly but perhaps the only floor
if not, how does it communicate above or below
one never reaches a stairwell
though occasionally the hallway turns
it never ends
now and then one tries a door there are people in the rooms
some familiar alive or not others not who don’t mind that I come in
in that way like a dream
everybody looks okay especially the dead
although not as I remember them
they look better healthier
no one expresses surprise that I am there they hardly notice
I guess they grow older dead though they don’t appear older
until finally it’s enough and they
lose the appearance of body
what happens then is beyond me
this hallway which is so like that of an old hotel
in the States or Canada
has its romance too its unaccountably
erotic episodes or rooms
one is suddenly in the arms of a total stranger
however one knows by the quality of kiss
that each lover knows you inside out
this is a fantastic relief
one’s embarrassment finally as it’s meant to be
this hallway of infinite timeless ethereal grey
shining white doors
must be emblematic of an innocence
so vast one can only conclude that
the sweetness of life is more real than
all the illusions of bitter disappointment
personally I’ve never encountered anything but extraordinary pleasure
in those rooms
while to walk alone through that ethereal hallway
is never sad
meanwhile in the usual world the black earth
has become yellow
THE REAL THING CAME ALONG
I’ll explain everything.
Though I had heard about her and read her work, I didn’t meet Joanne until we moved to Bolinas in 1973. It was a wonderful time, full of listening, learning, becoming part of the community, of poets, painters, musicians, environmentalists, and long-time Bolinas folks. We did party quite a bit, though I was very often home early to relieve our babysitters of the care of our three pre-school and elementary school children. Once in a while, I was envious of the life that Joanne was leading, a full-time poet with a well-deserved reputation and no kids.
Joanne and my son, Dan, were born on the same day, which brought us somewhat closer in the circle of friends, though a double-birthday party at our house on November 19, 1977, left Dan a little put out. The perceived slight was overcome in time, and she officiated at his marriage.
Joanne did work, giving poetry readings nationally and internationally, producing wonderful volumes of poetry, teaching in the summer at Naropa and editing the Bolinas Hearsay News, the local, informal three-day-a-week newspaper, for many years. She also gave what she called journal classes, and I was lucky enough to be able to take one in the fall of 1993.
We met at Joanne’s house on Evergreen. I think it was either outside or in the main house, as this was before the shed behind the house was torn down and a new shed, more like a living room, was added to the property. There were twelve of us, some of whom were published writers, others who were interested in writing and were curious to take a class with Joanne.
She was an excellent teacher. She gave us reading and writing assignments. I probably have some notes somewhere, but I didn’t really want to recapitulate the six-week session. I remember that we read our writing assignments out loud and that some of us were praised, but not by Joanne. There was no sense from her as to what she thought of our writing, just a seriousness in teaching that made it a thought-provoking, pleasure to be there.
I have the compilation of our writings, that contains a list of contributors in order, but no one’s name is found on the pages of writing, which is mostly prose. And there’s a mysterious “she” at the end, after a page of gertrude stein demonstrating the difference between narrative and diary. Sarah’s pages are slipped in, unbound, at the end, the only one that is signed. It was very satisfying to have something to take away, the “Journal Class fall 1993,” purple cover copied from one of those black-and-white composition books from our school days. It is one of those curious items that the children will be glad to read when I, too, am gone.
I think of Joanne often, and I miss her.
February 14, 2021
Three For Miss Kidz
Joanne would say
just put your hand to the
paper and write the date &
the time 5:55 PM
03/30/18 Good Friday
Turkey Buzzards riding
Joanne Kyger I am thinking about you
about Greg Hewlett
about Russ Rivière
“you got to give it up”
bring it good
just regular bombs
good & funky
to the Sewer Ponds
Joanne’s dark grey turtleneck cashmere sweater
two sizes too big
freebox sweater I sleep in
she left us left us left us
…….what time is it?