[This essay is being published to commemorate the Notre Dame symposium. You can watch a live webcast here.]
The first time I ever saw Robert, he was reading from a book. He was sitting on a high stool, with a standard mike beside him, just to one side of a busy courtyard outside the Otago University Student Union cafeteria, where hundreds of students were having lunch. It was the first day of classes for the new academic year. March 5th, 1976. There was a feeling of high energy and excitement. People were lounging in the sun, eating, talking, laughing, meeting again after the long summer break, making plenty of noise. Hardly anyone paid attention to the man in the long blue denim duster who was reading aloud. People occasionally glanced in his direction, wondered what he was doing. A few people, maybe eight, sat around on the grass, at his feet. I stopped to listen briefly, as I walked back to class. I registered that he was American, but he was almost inaudible. I walked on.
I saw the same man again the next day. He was sitting at a seminar table, books were spread out in front of him. He was talking, another small group was listening. I was peeking in a window. I had thought to sit in on the seminar, was curious about rumours of a visiting poet, but I was late. I decided not to go in, walked away. Why did I do that, I wonder now? It looked intense in there. I thought I would be interrupting, and although I had enjoyed a class called Contemporary Poetry, I felt ignorant, not one of the cognoscenti, in the tiny world of serious students who ‘really knew’ about poetry and writing. And it was a beautiful sunny afternoon again. So I walked away.
Was it later that same day Robert and I did meet? Probably. Robert’s traveling schedule as the Bicentennial poet to Southeast Asia gave him three weeks to visit every university in New Zealand. He had started in Dunedin, and had only a few days before he was to head north to Christchurch. It must have been the end of his second day there, when we met. Lucky. We almost didn’t. I was up a ladder hanging a picture above a fireplace in my house, getting ready for new friend/tenants to move in, when the phone rang. I wasn’t going to pick up. I’m glad I did. It was a friend asking me to meet her in a pub. She was bored, she explained. Her partner, an American, was talking to another American he had known in the States. They were talking about patterns, numbers, books. Would I keep her company? I went. The ‘boring American’ was the man in the denim duster, the man from the courtyard and the seminar room, the rumoured visiting poet, and he was talking intently. There was a cloth bag full of books hanging over the back of the chair. When we left, a good while later, after some of the most entertaining, exciting, funny, fascinating talking of my life so far, he remembered to pick up the bag of books. But he forgot his pen. It was just an ordinary black biro, but I picked it up, asked him if he wanted it. He did.
The first time I saw Robert in America, he was waiting for me at the arrival gate at Buffalo airport. He was holding under his arm not a book, but what looked to me like a huge roll of comic strips. I registered ‘odd’, but was too excited and nervous to think more of it. We had not seen each other for five months. Life for both of us had undergone seismic shifts. It was my first time ever in the States, I had just flown from New Zealand, impressions were coming at me fast and furious, and I was coming to stay with the man in the denim duster, now with a huge roll of comic strips under his arm. Robert laughed though, explained he too was nervous about my arrival, had not wanted to look as though he was just standing there with his hands empty, nothing to do, so he had bought a newspaper. It was Sunday, so the paper was awkwardly huge, and its colour-printed outer pages were the weekly comics. I do not think we ever read that particular paper.
One of the many things Robert and I had in common was a sense of domesticity. It is interesting to me now to think I was up a ladder hanging a picture, when the call came that changed my life. Robert and I hung pictures together in many, many places, as we moved and moved, made home where we found ourselves. Hanging pictures was one way we did it. Another, equally or more important way was making bookshelves. Robert, it turned out somewhat to my surprise, was a master bookshelf-builder. It came from years of practice, long before I ever showed up, that was driven by a need for order, and a need to keep his beloved books safe, sorted, out of harm’s way. When I first arrived in Buffalo, books were in boxes still, in the unused, unfurnished living room. Robert had a worktable with his typewriter in the kitchen, and a few books in the bedroom. That was in July. By the end of August, as the new semester approached, a tiny, embryonic sense of permanence and potential routine began to enter our lives. It was marked by the building of the bookshelves, followed by the opening of the boxes, and the arranging of the books, the works of Robert’s ‘beloved company’. We had got to know the spaces of the living room by lying on the floor in there, listening to jazz in an attempt to educate me, and imagining the room. The old white VW bug we drove then, came home from a visit to the lumberyard with pine planks sticking out the windows. We lugged them upstairs, Robert set up some chairs as saw horses, and set intently to work. I sat about being, I hoped, helpful, but soon he asked me, reasonably politely, to go for a walk. I went down to the old Armory near the Niagara River, sat on its wide warm sandstone steps and watched the towering spirals of bugs whirl into the soft humid night air above the neighbourhood’s peaked rooftops. When I came home, the bookshelves were finished. Robert was sweeping up the little piles of sawdust, looking triumphant. He had thought he was out of practice, had been anxious to ‘prove himself’. We loved the sense of permanence and place the shelves gave. There was room for the stereo, a tall deep shelf for the LPs, and all the rest for books. The rest of the room soon followed: we used a bed covered by an India print for a sofa, I covered cardboard boxes with corduroy, or spray-painted them, for side-tables, and we painted a variety of found chairs. The bookshelves were the most solid and satisfying thing in the apartment. Life formed around them. Not long after, Robert made me a daybed in the kitchen, so when he woke me up with a cup of coffee at an hour I still considered unthinkable, I would have a place to slowly surface. Soon another bookshelf materialized beside it, so I would have a place to keep the books I was reading safe, not lying around, vulnerable. Really, it meant that I would know where to look for them after Robert had picked them up and put them away. On the end of that bookshelf Robert hung a beautiful little Joe Brainard collage, shining blues and silvers, intricate and dear. I loved it. We were home.
Clearly the question now is, What were the books? Do I remember? I wish I did. If I were a real book person I would know. Some I do know. Olson. It can’t have been the Collected, because George Butterick was working away at all that still. But Robert would read great chunks of Maximus to me, often with tears running down his face. Olson had died in ’70. There was still great missing, confusion, hurt there. But there were the words, the magnificent poems. There were the stories attached, the memories, the love. The admiration, the awe. Robert was teaching me America through his beloved books. Williams. Williams was immediate to me. Straight to the heart, through Robert’s voice. I could get it, I could see Williams’s America out the windows, in the streets of Buffalo’s West side, hear his rhythms and tensions in Robert’s own voice. And there was the complicated relationship with Flossie and the boys. I looked for that behind the words, and was delighted by his novels with the portraits of immigrant families in New York City. In them Williams articulated some of the confusions I was also experiencing as a new immigrant.
Then there were the lyrical mysteries of Robert Duncan. There was Kerouac, exciting and naïve. His boyish eagerness brought Robert to stories of his own boyhood in Acton, not far from Lowell. And there was Ginsberg, great crusading Allen who wanted to change a country I had no idea of yet, but wanted to change too because it had such a huge effect on my little New Zealand. Then the books would lead to music. Robert would read me his own work, and play Charlie Parker, say, or Miles Davis, try to get me to hear the sounds and the pace of his head. Dig it. Dexter Gordon. Sonny Rollins. Sometimes the speed would bounce right off me. I could hear Bill Evans, Chet Baker. I wanted voice. I got the whole lazy river of Lush Life, Johnny Hartman and then Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. And early reggae, from then terrific WBFO. And lots of country music. Hank Williams, and strange things, like The Great Speckled Bird that is the Bible, and Drop Kick Me Jesus. That last one was so funny we could hardly believe we could get so lucky, as we drove to New Mexico from Buffalo, listening to AM radio all the way. Soon Robert would record a lot of radio music, once cassette recorders were available. He delighted in their portability, their discrete size. The little plastic boxes of tapes would soon require their own shelves. Robert would build them their own mini-bookcases, to fit on the shelves among the books themselves. Neat, proper, a little fiddly, but they too were satisfying.
Those very early first days brought another education for me, regarding books. This time it was about the book as a physical object, and about Robert’s friendships and loyalty. Before I left New Zealand, Robert had sent me a beautiful, newly-minted copy of Presences, his book with Marisol. Everything about it delighted him. He told me in detail all about its production, from its elegant design by Bill Katz to negotiations as to who the publishers would be. It had been a harrowing process, but the end-product was entirely satisfying. Bill’s mock-up for the book’s front page was one of the first things we ever framed. I still enjoy its tender presaging of the book-to-be.
In contrast, Robert’s first, greatly anticipated Selected Poems, published by Scribner’s, was a shattering disaster. The hurt, the let-down, the sense of betrayal that Robert felt when he saw the book was appalling. He hated the green and white cover with the gothic script. He hated the fact that Scribner’s had not wanted Bob Grenier to write the introduction, had instead favoured some other, better-known academic personage. He hated the typeface, the spacing, the paper, everything. He knew he had to leave Scribner’s as soon as he saw the book, knew they did not understand him at all, knew that although he had felt so deeply honoured to have been published by them at first, and would gladly have spent the rest of his writing life there, everything had changed as the firm became more corporate instead of remaining the family house it had been for many years. Soon after that Selected Poems came out, Robert’s editor there was fired, almost co-incidentally with his having a heart attack. We went for lunch with him, in his New York apartment. The dismay and disillusionment was shared, although they both had fond memories of Charles Scribner, Jr. Soon after, the editor died. And I can’t even remember his name. When Robert decided to accept an offer from New Directions to be his publisher, the relief was enormous. Although he did not feel their books were exactly beautiful, Robert loved the company of writers they published. He could himself now pay intense attention to spacing, placement, type and cover. He was allowed to speak, and was heard.
Of course I now know about the passionate delight Robert had in the books he himself published in Mallorca with Ann McKinnon, at their Divers Press. The press was the practical expression of the life-force that poetry was for him. In his isolation there it was a way to participate, to find a company beyond the island, but still to be part of the local community by having the books printed by the fine craftsman at Mossen Alcover in Palma de Mallorca. Robert loved the old man who owned the business, had great respect for its cottage industry, handmade integrity. Eventually ownership passed to the son. When we visited Mallorca in 2000, we found the shop again. It had closed down. But a faded sign still hung in the stone wall. The Black Mountain Review had been printed in that workshop. I have some recollection too of Robert’s telling me the first book he ever published was a small volume about poultry, perhaps more specifically about pigeons, which had been his childhood love. (When Robert went to boarding school at 14, he took his pigeons with him). I can see where that book would have been in the shelves in his room here in Maine, can see it small, hardback I think, with a paper cover with a black and white photograph of a strutting pigeon on it. I believe the book was printed at Mossen Alcover, too, and had an article by a friend from New Hampshire, an older man also a pigeon-fancier, for whom Robert had great respect. Another company, another world, and still a book.
How I wish I could ask about all this, hear the stories one more time. I just went upstairs, into the back of Robert’s closet. There, behind the clothes, behind the tattered tweed dressing gown (made by a tailor in Mallorca, kept through so many many many moves, loved for the quality of the cloth, the craftsmanship) are still boxes of books. Among them is a parcel of thick brown paper tied with string. In it are copies of Douglas Woolf’s The Hypocritic Days, with cover by Kitasono Katue, printed at Mossen Alcover in January 1955. There are several layers of address labels on the parcel. The first label, printed in heavy black type, is to Black Mountain College. I think it must have been sent from Mossen Alcover in Palma de Mallorca to Black Mountain, then forwarded to Douglas Woolf, who was then in California. Douglas Woolf then sent it to Robert, who by that time was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The parcel was still sealed, never opened, when I had to make an inventory of Robert’s things after he died. It took me a while to bring myself to cut the string and look inside. I feel that its still being closed after all those years was a completely loving act of Robert’s. To me it speaks of love for Douglas Woolf, for Mossen Alcover, for Kitasono Katue, and for the whole process. By the time Robert received the parcel that turn of the kaleidoscope had gone, shifted to other patterns. Keeping the parcel unopened was a way of remembering the time, keeping it whole.
Sometimes Robert wished he didn’t have to ever open a book at all, even take off its shrink-wrap. He would say so with a laugh and a shrug, but there was truth to it too. He loved the perfect pristine fact of a book, its elegant containedness, its sense of pure potential. Was it like the way my brother and sister would hoard their chocolate Easter eggs, wallowing in the luxury of knowing they were there to be enjoyed eventually? I was always the one to eat my Easter eggs right up, and that attitude often troubled Robert. I had no hesitation in using things, including books. I would read them in ways that were comfortable to me, sometimes bending the spine too far, often laying them face down when I took a break. A bookmark was never at hand, anyway I would be back soon. Oh no! I pretty quickly learnt not to do that. At least not with Robert’s books. And often, if I didn’t get back to them quickly enough, they would have disappeared, been neatly reshelved, put away where they belonged.
Once we had this house here in Maine, many of the books lived here. Robert would refer to coming back, reacquainting ourselves with our stuff after an absence, as being like an archeological dig. For him the books had become a beloved record of his life. They contained the ideas, the thoughts, the speaking breath of his friends. He did not write in books, but he kept things in them. Letters, announcements, tickets, brochures, mementos of contact in the world with increasingly scattered, always dear friends. These were his book marks. These were the books wherein he had found his life. One of them was a copy of Pound’s Cantos. He had taken it with him to the Second World War. To Burma. Another was a book handmade by Robert Duncan and Jess Collins. The tape of the box cover they had made for it was fragile, yellowing, but the handwritten poem inside was unfaded. I understand now why we sometimes had to rush home from the beach if a sudden thunderstorm was threatening and we weren’t sure we had closed the windows before we left. A whole bookcase full of books was ruined one winter when the door adjacent blew open while we were away. They were soaked, warped. Robert was hurt, hurt. But he didn’t fuss. Like when he cut himself, he hated it, would put a bandaid over it as fast as possible, then try to forget about it. This time we dried out the wet books, put them back in the shelves. A book specialist would deem them worthless, but Robert still loved them.
I would be completely untruthful to say that Robert was unconcerned by a book’s ‘value’ as object, however. He grew up with very little money, in a household where every penny counted. He worked hard to support his families, worried about being able to do so to the point of making himself ill with anxiety. He thought of himself as a teacher, which stemmed for him from writing, that core which sustained him through all else. Gradually he became aware that the accumulated artifacts of his life were part of a cultural history. His amazement was overwhelming when one morning he read that a ditto copy of Ginsberg’s Howl, that Robert had typed out and made, then distributed at a reading of the poem in San Francisco, had sold for I think $20,000.00. He could hardly believe it, of course had not kept a copy for himself. The dittos were made ‘to get the word out’, he said. Why would he have kept one? Equally he did not keep copies of magazines. Something’s got to go, he said. He did not make collections or scour bookshops. Books sprang from his life, and came to it, were generated and generative.
Books with artists, the collaborations, were an exceptional source of excitement and energy for Robert. I think the sense of joined envisioning, call it, took him outside himself in a different way. The work of writing the poems, when he was responding to an existing picture, would call up a new concentration, a new way of seeing or thinking, but use his own particular tools too. Once, when he was working on something for Francesco Clemente, he saw the images only as big photographic slides. We were in Helsinki, Finland. Raymond Foye had sent the images in plastic sleeves. Robert kept them propped in the window of his study near the kitchen, using the grey light outside to light the slides. I would see him standing there right up at the window, peering at them intently as I passed by the open door or changed the laundry in the passageway. He was never more thrilled than when Francesco wrote him that he ‘gave his painting a voice’. The link between them was intuitive, a breath.
The first book of fabulous collaboration to be realized, in my time with Robert, was Mabel: A Story, with Jim Dine. We were able to travel from R.B. Kitaj’s house in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, near Barcelona, to Paris, to see a few copies of the book actually being printed. Robert would then sign the colophon pages. Jim had done so a few days earlier. Jim’s and our paths were not able to cross, but we were to be guests of Aldo Crommelynck, revered master-printer who had worked with great artists, apparently among them Pablo Picasso. We were both a little intimidated to be arriving in Paris on a shoestring budget, after four months alone in a very small, quiet Catalan village. Even though we had mailed home several boxes of books already, we still had several suitcases packed with even more books. The excess baggage charges had taken almost all our remaining funds. We lugged the cases onto the train in from Orly, and found ourselves somewhere on the Blvd Saint-Michel, unsure where to find Crommelynck’s place. My job was to find a phone booth, and call the scrawled number. My job, because my French was supposedly better. I tried. The person who answered the somewhat crackly line sounded distraught, but I explained myself as best I could in my rusty French, then listened intently to the response. To my amazement I was told I had no right to be calling at all, how could I do such a thing to her son, let alone his wife, who did I think I was, I should give the ring back immediately, it was a family heirloom, and I was a family-destroyer. Wow. I apologized, made wrong-number apologies, hung up. I could see Robert standing nearby, anchored by our pile of luggage at his feet. He was wearing the new suede jacket we had debated for weeks whether we would be able to afford, I had on my grandmother’s old rabbit-fur coat the dog had chewed at the hem. April in Paris, but it was cold and raining. Nothing to do but try the number again. Same crackly line, this time a new voice: rapid, decisive, I apologise for my mother in law. Get a cab, come to this address, ring the bell, we’ll pay. I was relieved, ran back to Robert full of the story, but with no time to appreciate the weirdness we did as instructed. The address we had been given seemed to be an embassy, or a small palace, with huge elaborate wrought-iron gates. The taxi driver impatiently assured us it was the right place, so I searched for a bell. Someone appeared from behind the vast black front door, came down the grand stairs, swung open the gates at the touch of a button, and paid the cab. Others emerged, hauled our tatty cases up the steps, and we entered a big white marble hall. Robert and I were dumbfounded. Who knew printers lived such a regal life. We were treated with exquisite courtesy, and eventually put up in a luxurious little hotel where Robert swore even the sparrows sang in French. I think he would have been happy to stay there forever. That evening we were taken to dinner at a famous restaurant, where Mme Crommelynck impatiently showed Robert, who was doing his best country-cousin impersonation, how to eat cheese the proper French way, with bread and plenty of butter. I of course asked about the mother-in-law from my exciting phone call. The response was an impeccable French look of utter distain, followed by an assurance that I had called the wrong number. Ah, so curious, to me. Robert only vaguely remembered all that afterwards, as he was so completely enchanted by the beauty and finesse of the book printing, which happened in the basement of the house. Two people in white gloves operated the press. We saw the pages being inked with infinite care in graceful practiced movements, then the drum being turned smoothly by a long crank-handle. The perfect product was then minutely inspected through a jeweller’s loupe, before being laid down to dry. We knew we were seeing the finest of the printer’s craft in practice. No movement was unnecessary, all impatience disappeared, attention was focused, yet there was talk and real humour too. Any sense of arrogance was gone. Art and craftsmanship were the levelers. It was particularity and skill that had given rise to the grandeur. When we left that fine house we were given another heavy square wooden box to take home with the rest of our luggage. It was Robert’s own copy of Mabel: A Story. He carried it all the way back to Buffalo on his lap.
Every book with an artist had its own power. Famous Last Words with John Chamberlain brought a big challenge and a sense of bringing his and Robert’s long, lively friendship into their older, changed work lives. Gnomic Verses came one afternoon with Cletus Johnson. At first Robert had proposed loops of words for Cletus’s beautiful little ‘theatre’ marquees. Later, the Verses streamed out of Robert into his notebook as we drove back to Cletus’s Ellington farmhouse, laughing and playing after lunch at the local Rod and Gun Club. The book Drawn and Quartered with Archie Rand also came in one inspired ninety-minute spree at the Castellani Museum, as Robert and Archie prepared for the ‘Collaborations’ show. There was the mad dash to Germany to meet Georg Baselitz, the fun of the writing despite language barriers, or because of them. Robert wrote funny, playful poems which Rosmarie Waldrop somehow managed to translate to give Baselitz an inkling of what was going on in the originals. The work with Alex Katz came from summer days and summer dinners here in Maine. The field with its edges and paths is still the same, the clump of daylilies Alex and Ada gave us still bloom to mark August’s ease and good talk.
Robert’s particularity about books, all aspects of books, was as remarkable as Aldo Crommelynck about prints, a passionate giving of form to a great love. He would often quote Charles Olson’s ‘Limits are what any of us are inside of’. Robert’s editorial and critical rigour, ferocious as it was, left him free to imagine and then realize beautiful books inside and out, both in form and in content. The idea of book was a limit that both freed him and contained him. Finally they became a part of him, inseparable. He would say ‘I can’t remember whether I read it or wrote it’. During the Iraq War, towards the end of his life, he would often include Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ among his own poems during a reading. Books and poetry, passing life on, teaching and learning, looking in, looking out. Staying open, trying it out.
When Steve Clay and I packed up the books from this house, to be sent to Notre Dame, I felt as though Robert’s brain was leaving the house, his mind. I was bereft again, until I realized it was not gone. I have my own portal to Robert’s mind through my own memories. So many of them are associated with books. And I have his own books. Robert always believed knowledge, wisdom, experience could not be owned, was not something to be kept to oneself like a miser, but to be used and shared, built on and passed on. His way of doing that was through books, both the reading of them and the writing of them. Robert had loved the generosity of his elders to him. If his books can go on being read, can give a picture of his diversity even in some small way, can go on teaching, then he is still alive, will always be alive, among those pages.