On Bob Kaufman, 'Does the Secret Mind Whisper?'

Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (City Lights, 1960) a folding, five-panel broadside by Bob Kaufman, appeared on the heels of his much better-known Abomunist Manifesto (City Lights, 1959), which was later collected in Kaufman’s first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965).  Secret Mind remained uncollected and out of print until Coffee House Press reissued, under the title Cranial Guitar (1995), Kaufman’s second book, Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967), along with a sampling of poems from Solitudes and his third and final book, The Ancient Rain: Poems 19561978 (New Directions, 1981), as well as previously uncollected work. Comprising a single unpunctuated sentence, Secret Mind rushes headlong through a murky and harrowing inner landscape that New World surrealists of African descent (Aimé Césaire, Kaufman himself, Will Alexander, Wilson Harris et al.) have made us somewhat cognizant of, if not familiar or comfortable with; but it also critically engages an external world of sterile information factories and sexualized commercial spectacle that nonetheless derives from an indigenous if not hybrid and murderous creative wellspring:

parker who begat morpheus who begat farnsworth who begat starkweather who begat geronimo who begat whitman who begat hymened women with moist tongues following chinese funerals […] hard breasted adding machine girls in store bought curls wallowing in sipped coffee talking of last night’s copulations with certified public computers and itinerant umbrella peddlers lost in rainless fogs heel and toe and breast and buttock and crooked neck ballet dancers seducing male nymphs under cover of secret blankets of brilliant dust blindly flying through terrified streets of ruined limping vehicles filled with shaggy mouth youthful gangers hunting the human dog with stilettos of fear and dreams of money sex money cars money suits money shoes money muscles money houses money hair money pearly teeth month pointed shoes money hats money brains money hate money love twisted into pimp patterns of money success … [1]

Recognizable are the echoes, both s(ard)onically and thematically, of Ginsberg’s Moloch. But while this litany of desirable status commodities is a typical Beat rant against materialism, Kaufman’s critique is doubled in that the fetish objects shrugged off by counterculturals were also for the most part inaccessible to Black people (houses, success, cars) except in the form of minor accessories (hair, shoes, hats).

Like Kaufman himself, an apocryphally Jewish and Martiniquan African American Catholic from New Orleans, the “secret mind” represents the convergence of multiple cultural trajectories. It is the political unconscious of the US, which registers all the “secret, terrible hurts” (Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz”) visited upon people who belong to an “America not on any map” (Will Alexander), the disenfranchised who may ruminate silently on these social, spiritual and bodily injuries but who may speak of them openly only at their peril. [2] The “secret mind” is also a psychoanalytic concept; the Freudian unconscious, and its putative liberation through uninhibited narrative or Beat logorrhea, were objects of the US counterculture’s infatuation, popularized, along with a street version of French existentialism, by European war refugees of the intellectual classes.

However, Kaufman has also indicated an apprehension of an intuited but ultimately unreachable

silent beat in between the drums.
Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween its sound is
        Bob Kaufman, poet [3]

This silent prima causa is another candidate for the secret mind, the mind behind the mind, between the worded spaces that crowd the mind as lonelinesses crowd solitudes. In yet another riff around secrets/silence, Kaufman writes of “a place called loneliness,”

I know of a place in between between, behind behind, in front of front, below below, above above, inside inside, outside outside, close to close, far from far, much farther than far, much closer than close, another side of an other side … [4]

Kaufman spatializes the uninhabitable, ineffable “real.” Is this an expression of the “yearning” that O’Hara derides in “Personism, A Manifesto” — the structure of addiction spiritualized? Or does it simply point to its own existence as precondition for all else, as a horizon of permission? The secret mind whispers a song like the dead Lady Day along the keyboard while O’Hara (and everybody) stops breathing as he leans against the door of the john.

What does whispering mean in 1960? For O’Hara, it is a skillful and flirtatious way of managing the illegality and mandated social invisibility of his desires. In McCarthy’s Cold War, whispering meant snitching but also attempting to keep one’s leftist activities or queer affections underground, in a nuclear containment unit behind the door of the john. War and rumors of war, countervailing but inarticulable intuitions of something better, and a need to withdraw inward in a depoliticized reaction to a menacing social climate: secret, etymologically, is separate and set apart on one’s own, related through its roots to the word “idiom” — speech particular to a people or a place.  But any containment eventually secretes its holdings, and in Secret Mind the floodgates open. Here is where jazz comes in, a specialized language that nonetheless has a popular and populist urgency. Does the Secret Mind Whisper?, more Coltrane than Parker in its relentlessly tumbling concatenations of words and phrases, broadsides us with its public and private language. Indeed, it seems to scream rather than whisper; but Kaufman, given his racialized subject position in 1960, could scream as loud as he wanted to — he could scream, in Danny Snelson’s resonant words about Cage’s cartridge music, his “objecthood” — with no guarantee of being heard. [5]

[1] Bob Kaufman, Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (San Francisco: City Lights, 1960).
[2] Bob Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz,” in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions, 1965), 14-15; Will Alexander, remarks made during “Modern Poets: The Political Line” (Q&A session following reading, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 2, 2011).
[3] Bob Kaufman, “October 5, 1963, Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle,” in Golden Sardine (San Francisco: City Lights, 1967), 80–81.
[4] Bob Kaufman, “All Hallows, Jack O’Lantern Weather, North of Time,” in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New York: New Directions, 1981), 48.
[5] Danny Snelson, “Cartridge Music by John Cage,” (lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010).