Articles

"To find out for yourself"

Maximus at Gloucester High School

Eyes in the polis

Where are you from? Where do you live now? What are your haunts? And what do people say about those places? Does it depend on who you ask? What’s their agenda? Who tells you what it means to be from your hometown or to live where you do? What do you know about these places? And how do you know? And what do you have to say about it?

These questions motivate the Gloucester Project, a multi-genre exploration of Cape Ann art and culture that concludes the junior year for my students at Gloucester High School. Each year during fourth quarter students immerse themselves in a piece of the local artistic and cultural environment for five to ten weeks.

Charles Olson is the project’s presiding spirit, haunting it from beginning to end. Students encounter — sometimes sympathetically, sometimes skeptically — Olson’s attitudes, depictions, and uses of Gloucester. More importantly Olson, as a powerful, persistent, and imaginative reader, researcher, walker, and observer, points the way toward the students’ own explorations.

There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
(Olson’s “Letter 6”)

… a verb, to find out for yourself:
’istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self …
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

Following Olson’s lead students read widely about Cape Ann culture, producing reader-response notes and an annotated bibliography. Further, they follow his lead by investigating on foot, walking around and paying attention. They also investigate memory, their own and others’ through oral history. (A great deal of Olson’s own memories and others’ stories find their way into the Maximus Poems, especially but not exclusively in the early poems written when he was away from Gloucester and unable to observe it directly when composing.) Students synthesize reading, on-foot observations, and memory into a researched argument, a personal experience essay, poems, and a short play. I won’t pretend that all students embrace the project. I also won’t pretend that there’s nothing artificial about how the project plays out in an institutional setting. I will claim, however, that most students exhibit a higher degree of engagement, attention, and care during the project than at any other time during the year.

Eyes,
& polis,
fishermen,
& poets
                or in every human head I’ve known is
 
               busy
both:
the attention, and
the care
                however much each of us
                chooses our own
                kin and
                concentration
(“Letter 6”)

Students, indeed, choose their concentration. Over the last eight years, students have chosen a range of topics: from Olson himself, to his friends (Jonathan Bayliss, Peter Anastas, Vincent Ferrini), to subjects of his writing (Fitz Lane, Marsden Hartley, Dogtown, Stage Fort Park, the Fort), to his nemeses (T. S. Eliot, Winslow Homer, and occasional nemesis, historian Joseph Garland), to topics that at least seem not to intersect with Olson in any way. The most popular topic, by far, is St. Peter’s Fiesta, the annual Sicilian American celebration of the patron saint of fishing that has grown into a citywide demonstration of civic pride, debauchery, piety, and machismo. Most years Fiesta begins just days after the students complete their last assignments — so it is at the forefront of many minds as school days dwindle.

Ed Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out” and Olson’s “Letter 3” offer depictions of Fiesta that my students find recognizable but strange:

But never to forget
                                    that moment

when we came out of the tavern
and wandered through the carnival.
They were playing the Washington post march
but I mistook it for manhattan beach
for all around were the colored lights
of delirium
                      to the left the boats
of Italians
and ahead of us, past the shoulders
of St. Peter the magician of those fishermen

the bay
stood, and immediately in it the silent
inclined pole where tomorrow the young men
of this colony
so dangerous on the street
will fall harmlessly
into the water.
(Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out”) 

*

I was not born there, came, as so many of the people came,
from elsewhere. That is, my father did. And not from the Provinces,
not from Newfoundland. But we came early enough. When he came,
there were three hundred sail could fill the harbor,
if they were all in, as for the Races, say
Or as now the Italians are in, for San Pietro
and the way it is from Town Landing, all band-concert,
and fireworks
(Olson’s “Letter 3”)

A young person in Gloucester might have a strong feeling that others have gotten there before her and that her own perceptions (and imaginative uses of those perceptions) are impeded, distorted, invalidated by prior commercial and artistic representations hovering between the student and the city like a haze.

colored pictures
of all things to eat: dirty
postcards
                   And words, words, words
all over everything
                                    No eyes or ears left
to do their own doings (all

invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses

including the mind, that worker on what is
(“The Songs of the Maximus, Song 1”)

Some students, of course, really like the picture postcard, Chamber of Commerce, Team Gloucester depiction of the city — and believe such depictions convey the truth of the place. Other students see the local reality as irredeemably tawdry and backward — “sketchy” and “lame” — compared with the possibilities for better living promised elsewhere. There are often socioeconomic and cultural insider/outsider dynamics at work in the students’ attitudes toward this place but, whatever the reasons and wherever a student falls on the “Three cheers for Gloucester” / “Gloucester sucks” spectrum, the Gloucester Project resists easy navigation but offers ample rewards to those who complete the journey.


The mu-sick of localism

Students on the cheerleading end of the spectrum tend to be excited about the project but then frustrated that I keep prodding them to do more investigative reading, to do more listening and looking, and to render their own characterizations and evaluations instead of merely repeating the ones they’ve received from sources promoting an easy, unproblematic, romanticized Gloucester exceptionalism. Examples of such sources are legion in official Gloucester literature and in a good deal of the artistic output inspired by the city. “An Heroic City,” an 1892 text found in Memorial of the celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Gloucester, Mass., includes the following passage:

This gray old city by the sea has an individuality as rugged and picturesque as the granite cliffs which hedge its outer harbor. Its existence has been a perpetual struggle in which the courage and the cunning of the man have been pitted against the mighty power of the elements. The town is strong and prosperous now. It is a seat of wealth and culture. But the stranger sailing in from the ocean and catching his first glimpse of the long line of wharves and warehouses, with the trees and roofs and steeples rising behind them, somehow cannot get it out of his fancy that Gloucester is clinging to its rocky hillsides as her sailors cling to their reeling decks.

Seeming to pick up this sentiment more than a century later, “Good Harbor, Home,” written by the poet John Ronan for the 2002 inauguration of Mayor John Bell (while Vincent Ferrini was still the city’s Poet Laureate) begins:

Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,
fire-formed and hard, headland granite -
no coddled cape, no sandbar,
and nothing soft in her city, no knickknack,
Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.

The 1892 celebratory text continues:

Gloucester, we have said, has a strong individuality. There are many small towns, but no other large city like it on our Atlantic coast. It lives by and from the sea. Its chief industries are such as to nurture manliness. For generations it has been drawing to it bold spirits from all over the world. It is by no chance of blind fortune that Gloucester has added to its fleets and wealth, while the fleets of its competitors have dwindled. Its safe and capacious harbor is one factor in its prosperity; its nearness to great markets another. But something more than that was needed, and it was found in the skill and indomitable perseverance, pluck, and energy of its citizens.

These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy in one of the most arduous and hazardous callings in which men are anywhere engaged.

And here I quote a review of Mark Kurlansky’s book The Last Fish Tale by San Diego-based writer Richard Amero, a 1942 graduate of Gloucester High School, to suggest how the heroic image might persist but evolve when the industries that “nurture manliness” fade:

As in so many towns in the United States, the "Gloucester spirit" had a lot to do with the feats of local high school football, baseball, and basketball players. (In the 1940's it was mainly football.) It was these players who were, for a season at least, the city's heroes. But regardless of whatever was first in public conversation or in newspapers, the fickle and haunting presence of the sea was always in people’s minds, shaping their thoughts and fears and hopes.

Football remains first in the newspaper at least during the fall and in many conversations throughout the year, especially around the corner from me at George’s Coffee Shop. (Briefly, in the autumns of ’06 and ’07, my soccer teams grabbed a share of the press and the chatter by winning the program’s first two conference championships.) My students readily see the link between the idea of Gloucester as presented by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous or by the “Man at the Wheel” statue, on the one hand, and gridiron glory on the other. My students also readily see the gender implications. A heroism of endurance – not action – is shown in the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial by Morgan Faulds Pike dedicated in 2001. And when women display athletic valor during the Fiesta seine boat races, they’re consigned to a second-tier; both the men and the boys are given priority. (A few young women have used the Gloucester Project to propose counter-narratives of female agency in Gloucester beginning with proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, author of the 1790 essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”.)

High school students live and interact with many projections of masculine heroism: the aforementioned “Man at the Wheel” statue by Leonard Craske, located along Stacy Boulevard five minutes from the high school; the plaque on Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park (in foul territory down the leftfield line of Sam Parisi Field where the high school baseball team plays its home games), which reads in part, “On this site in 1623, a company of fishermen and farmers from Dorchester, England, under the direction of Rev. John White, founded THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY”; a sign at the entrance to the downtown area after one has crossed the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge (which Olson characterized as “a mole/to get at Tyre”) announcing Gloucester as America’s oldest fishing port; in the high school’s nickname, the Fishermen or, informally, the Fighting Fishermen, the ubiquitous logo for which is a simplified version of the “Man at the Wheel”; “greasy pole” winners being carried on the shoulders of fellow competitors through the dense crowds at Pavillion Beach, up Beach Court, and over to the St. Peter’s Club every June during Fiesta; tragic heroism in the 1997 book and 2000 film The Perfect Storm; the 2007 “Gloucester reads Lone Voyager” initiative to get the city to read Joseph Garland’s account of Howard Blackburn’s life, beginning with an account of how he froze his hands to his oars after his dory was separated from its mothership during a snow squall; stories about neighbors, relatives, fathers of friends, fathers of relatives of friends, fathers of friends of friends, etc. Manifestations of heroism abound but what do they mean to a young person forging an identity?

The romantically heroic image (and language) of the city motivated Olson’s imagination, but his insistence on particulars – particular documents, particular memories, and the particular movement of projected utterance in response to a particular occasion – engenders more complex, more challenging depictions of heroism. (A desire to look more closely at Olson and the manly hero led me into a consideration of his childhood summers in Gloucester, his letters with Frances Boldereff, and Charles Stein’s take on the matter in The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum. What I found is too multifaceted to be dealt with sufficiently here; I’ll have to save those notes for another project.) During his summers in Gloucester Olson was physically at the epicenter of several heroic projections. The area around Tablet Rock – which included his family’s summer dwelling, Oceanwood – must have seemed (especially in memory) hallowed ground of the American epic. The plaque commemorating the original farmers and fishermen was affixed to the rock when Olson was twelve. When he was fourteen, the Man at the Wheel appeared on the Boulevard, a short walk away. Later he deepened his engagement through research and his own judgments (“that bad sculpture of a fisherman”). I encourage my students who are proud of Gloucester to avoid received generalities and boosterism – “These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy” – in favor of particulars harvested from their own reading and experience and in favor of a more complex understanding of the place and their relationship to it that makes use of those particulars. To this end students are encouraged to interrogate the characterizations that have come down to them from locals and outsiders alike. Peter Anastas, explicating a portion of Charles Olson’s December 22, 1962 letter to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times in his book Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, writes, “To Olson, [Winslow] Homer, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and [Rudyard] Kipling were examples of artists and writers who, while having popular ‘international’ reputations, nevertheless sentimentalized Gloucester subjects, thereby depriving them of local specificity and power and, consequently of authenticity.” (Art critic Greg Cook has pointed out to me that it is precisely the lure of the authentic – however constructed – that has drawn most of Gloucester’s significant artists and writers.)

Romanticized constructions of Gloucester’s identity – official, semi-official, and popular – become dangerous when we use them to police what Gloucester is and what it isn’t. While the interlopers Homer, Longfellow, and Kipling may have distorted Gloucester though sentimentality, locals will sometimes distort Gloucester though exclusion. I’ve already mentioned how in the dominant narrative women are permitted a Penelope-like heroism of endurance but not of agency and action. Exclusion, in Gloucester as elsewhere, takes many forms. A friend tells the story of organizing a lunchtime gathering for a colleague moving out of town. When my friend suggested Thai Choice, a favorite downtown lunchtime venue, others dissented saying the restaurant wasn’t “Gloucester” enough – despite the relationships that many of the workers there have developed with patrons over the years. At the high school I heard a couple of students mocking Brazilian-Americans for venerating the Black Madonna during the St. Peter’s Fiesta religious procession, though to the credit of Fiesta organizers the group is included, as are Portuguese groups despite the Sicilian-American origins of the event. (As Olson put it “Gloucester/is heterogeneous, and so can know polis/not as localism, that mu-sick….”) Gloucester’s participation with Dutch Suriname in the triangle trade has been more successfully excluded from the city’s understanding of itself. Though, as my friend David Rich points out, Olson alludes to the trade in the Maximus Poems, most Gloucester citizens are blithely ignorant – as I was until a year ago – that a significant amount of Gloucester’s nineteenth century wealth was gained through an economic enterprise underwritten by slavery.

In the last several paragraphs I’ve taken pains to show that at its best the Gloucester Project pushes students toward discoveries that render preconceptions – and any single narrative – inadequate to characterize or explain the realities they encountered. Even when the gist of a student’s prior conception – Gloucester is a city of heroes, for example – is unchanged by his explorations, the prior understanding is fleshed out, given another dimension. A student has thought, for example, about legendary shipwreck survivor Howard Blackburn, the crew of the We’re Here in Captains Courageous, Olson’s Maximus persona, & contemporary figures (a fishermen/activist, a local football star, a greasy pole champion, etc.) all as related but distinct projections of the heroic masculinity common in depictions of the city. Let me offer another example, one more related to romantic sentimentality than to romantic heroism. A student writing about the experiences of Sicilian-Americans in Gloucester began his project portraying immigrant life as a strife-free, idyllic scene (described to him by his grandmother) of unlocked houses, food sharing, and general neighborliness. He made little mention of the rigors of labor or of clashes between ethnic groups. When a guest speaker complicated the student’s understanding of Gloucester’s downtown neighborhoods in the early and mid-twentieth century by talking about the conditions in fish processing plants and fights between neighborhood and ethnic gangs, the student thought the speaker was guilty of mischaracterization and hyperbole. After some additional research the student revised his stance, but never changed his view that his grandmother was essentially right and that the speaker’s experiences and observations were unrepresentative outliers. However, for his short play set on the Fort, a Sicilian-American neighborhood where Olson rented an apartment at 28 Fort Square, the student created a sympathetic character based on the speaker’s views and other new information. The student’s depiction of the Fort remained romantic at its core – many would say some of Olson’s depictions are romantic too – but at least the play captured some of the complexity of immigrant experiences in twentieth-century Gloucester even if conflicts were confined to the periphery.


Going contrary and singing

Students who’d rather have nothing to do with Gloucester – who already reject heroic depictions of its past and present, who see little of value in their surroundings, who fear being trapped here forever, who are plotting their escape (as I plotted my escape from my hometown), who want to know more about other places, about the world-at-large, about anything else – tend to be annoyed by the project until, as often happens, they discover something of interest hidden beneath the city’s surface or sometimes hiding in plain sight, something they hadn’t heard of before, something that cracks Gloucester open so it stands more revealed or something that opens a portal between Gloucester and the world beyond. Students have researched Maakies cartoonist Tony Millionaire and the rock musician Willie Alexander, both subcultural icons; some have investigated Magnolia’s now gone giant hotel, a thriving playland for the rich, the famous, and the pretenders; a few have immersed themselves in Peter Anastas’ Broken Trip, connected stories about people living with brutality and hope in the margins of Gloucester’s more tourist-friendly narratives; several have looked into Dogtown, a source of inspiration and mystery; etc. Sometimes these discoveries excite a student because they intersect with a pre-existing area of interest (comics, say, or music) or with a student’s experience (a depiction of the socioeconomic reality in his neighborhood or a response to the sexism she’s endured). Sometimes these discoveries explode the static tropes about what Gloucester – or some part of Gloucester – is and isn’t, tropes which exclude many of the students and their experiences and which, therefore, these students resent and reject. The project can help students discover space for their experiences and burgeoning identities.

Though not always successful, the project encourages students to discover that the portion of reality that surrounds them – its present and antecedent existence – matters, something is at stake here in our wards and precincts, in the geography of our being. Fueled by the sense that the polis matters, that it’s not all happening somewhere else, students might persist in their reading, listening, looking, caring, struggling, and resisting; they might continue to find out for themselves, and so oppose the drift Olson observed: “Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surface so attractive to all.”


The geography of what we find out we are

The particular Scylla and Charybdis – or Norman’s Woe – of sentimental enthusiasm and foreclosed cynicism are both transformed by “attention and care” – attention and care toward one’s reading, one’s listening, one’s direct observation. In The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum Charles Stein writes that as a reader Olson “interpolates, quotes, abuses, converses with, corrects, supplies addenda to, ridicules, annotates, or other wise interacts with” the texts he encounters. On Olson as a listener Gerrit Lansing reports “one of Charles’s most common expressions was ‘I hear you’ when the quality of your own articulated attention matched his and the sound was true” (Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester); “Later,” Lansing writes, “in the course of frequently walking the streets of Gloucester with Charles, along the bank of the Annisquam River by the high school, paths of Dogtown, I became aware how thorough was the attention he gave to whatever object we stopped to look at.” Olson provides a model for the mindfulness I expect from my students.

An intensely open engagement with objects, language, and people leads on not to mastery but to mystery – “secrets objects share,” as Olson has it in “Projective Verse” – a dwelling within the manifest traum of being:

… to find out for yourself
‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere

at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

– live television or what – is a lie

as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being
self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary: that no event

is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal
event
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

The pro-Gloucester enthusiasts and anti-Gloucester skeptics among my students need not disavow their predilections or cast away their lenses in order to take another look around, to read widely and interactively in the Gloucester shelf and active storage of the Sawyer Free Library, to get one’s feet on the ground and to put an ear to the ground, to open oneself with bristling attentiveness to imaginative acts of reading and sensing. Olson’s own explorations led him both into sacramental enthusiasm – he writes in a letter to the historian Joseph Garland, “The nature of my involvement in the subject of Gloucester keeps me always in Ward 4 and in Heaven simultaneously” – and into bitter skepticism – he writes in a “Scream” to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, “oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition destroying/its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.…” I hear these tones (and others) jangle in student work, too – work informed by each student’s own forms of finding out.

I tell my students explicitly that Gloucester is not the only ground for such finding out. Wherever they travel, wherever they’ll live, there will be opportunities for exploration of those places too. I often draw their attention to Robin Blaser in Henry Ferrini’s film Polis Is This; Blaser reports that when he told Olson he’d been looking into Gloucester’s history Olson responded, “Oh, don’t do that. This is my place. Go do it for yours.” We might investigate whatever places are ours. Places we’re born in. Places we come to during the summers of our childhood and later live in. Places we move to when we graduate from college, as I did, following my then girlfriend, now wife back to her hometown. Places we’re driven to understand no matter why. I didn’t create the project to inculcate my students with civic pride but rather to give them a chance to find out for themselves and to project an understanding of the geography of their being.

'The most beautiful and truest'

Collecting the letters of John Wieners

Like many (most?) of us, I fell in love with the poetry of John Wieners the minute I plunged into The Hotel Wentley Poems, its palpable ache and epic scope — I was knocked out by this twenty-four-year-old lyric poet in a rundown hotel making the beyond-audacious declaration that he was “taking away / from God his sound.” I read the poems in rapid succession, then again and again, slower each time. I’d entered my doctoral program — entered the room — intending to focus on nineteenth-century American fiction, but by the time I went home I’d blown through Wentley and Ace of Pentacles and I knew that whatever my dissertation wound up being, it was going to be centered on the work of John Wieners.

After a brief flash of anger — how did I go thirty-four years (at the time) and not hear about John Wieners? Who failed to tell me? Who can I blame? — I got to work, continually shocked at the dearth of critical attention and available material. I read all the books of poetry and journals — the twisted lyricism of 707 Scott Street, Bootstrap Press’s amazing Book of Prophecies and Kidnap Notes Next — but from there, if I wanted more of John Wieners I had to go into the Special Collections at the million libraries where his letters and journals are scattered. His own papers are held in several different collections — most notably at Boston College, the University of Delaware, Syracuse University, and the University of Connecticut — but the real corpus of his writing, the letters he sent out constantly, are dispersed far beyond those libraries, hidden in other writers’ papers and private collections.

I started with the easiest and, in many ways, most central correspondence for my research, that between Wieners and his mentor Charles Olson. Their letters are split between two collections — Wieners’s letters to Olson are in the latter’s papers at Connecticut, and Olson’s own letters are in Wieners’s papers at Boston College — and so gathering them was no problem (my friend and college Robert Dewhurst, who’s currently gathering Wieners poems for a Collected Poems, helped me with reproductions from Boston that I was unable to get) — the only real trouble was Olson’s notoriously cryptic handwriting. It took a crew of readers and code-breakers to help me transcribe those letters, a process less akin to transcription than to argument-based graphomancy. We preserved one postcard of Olson’s handwriting in the chapbook,[1] when he replied to Wieners immediately after reading “Acts of Youth” to say that it was “one of the most beautiful and finest of poems I have ever read.” Well, that’s what we thought it said; I got a letter from Ralph Maud after he got the chapbooks, telling me, based on the facsimile of the postcard, that he was certain Olson had written not “finest” but “truest.” I looked at it again and he was of course correct — it should read “Ages of Youth” (Olson misremembered the title, and Wieners preserved the mistake as the poem’s section title in Ace of Pentacles) “is one of the most beautiful and truest of poems I have ever read.”

There are two moments in the Wieners-Olson letters that really stand out for me. The first concerns that tour de force, “Acts of Youth,” and the circumstances of its creation. Wieners writes on December 5, 1961, anxious about traveling to New York to see a play of his performed (he hadn’t traveled in a year, after a cross-country road trip from San Francisco to Boston ended with his forced institutionalization); a few weeks later he writes Olson again, saying that all went well, and that he’d written a poem (dated at the bottom, December 5, 1961) that he said “had merit in places.” This was “Acts of Youth,” and Olson’s reply was the postcard quoted above.

The second is from a few years before, before San Francisco and Wentley, when twenty-three-year-old Wieners was staying briefly in New York with Frank O’Hara and his longtime friend and roommate Joe LeSueur in 1957. O’Hara and Wieners had met the prior year, when they both worked on the same play at the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, and became fast friends. LeSueur recounted their visit from the colorful young poet, quoted in Brad Gooch’s excellent O’Hara biography City Poet:

John went to do some sort of research at the Forty-Second Street public library while we went to see The Curse of Frankenstein at Loew’s Sheridan. That evening John, high on Benzedrine, came home and told us about the horrifying, hallucinatory experience he’d had at the library. Later I said to Frank, “Isn’t it funny, we go to a horror movie and don’t feel a thing and John goes to the library and is scared out of his wits.”[2]

O’Hara commemorated that visit from twenty-three-year-old Wieners in “To a Young Poet,” in which he recounts that “while we are seeing The Curse of Frankenstein he / sits in / the 42nd Street Library, reading about Sumerians.”

The day after the epic trip to the library, Wieners wrote to Olson to report back on his research, a spiral out from Sumerian, Egyptian, and Tinguian mythology to astrological formations and out to the streets of New York beyond the library, the patterns of jewels in the windows at Tiffany’s, the calls of random passers-by. It’s a dizzying letter, and in the context of the Wieners-Olson letters the letter can be seen for what it is: a scene of pedagogy, of the eager student back to the teacher, expanding on the work of the classroom. In this case, the classroom was the one that gave birth to “The Special View of History” and “The Curriculum of the Soul,” and so it is natural — thrilling, really — to see the student taking the lessons in such reckless, amphetamine-fueled, brilliant webs of meaning. It is, in my opinion, the greatest term paper ever submitted:

[New York City]
Sept 22 & 23 1957[3]

Dear Charles:

Just back from 8 hrs with near every book S Noah-Kramer[4] ever wrote, at NY PLib. Except he aint no noah. I cant understand why the Sumerians did so little for him, that he can impose on them : find as fault their lack of ‘epistemology’ cause & effect, ‘logic’. Of course, this is mainly From the Tablets of Sumer (Falcon’s Wing Press 1956) & it is a write down. The one done 12 yrs earlier, which I hope I’ll get tomorrow, for the texts (translations alone), better. that’s the only value of his labor, what he makes available. Not one phrase from the man himself. Which is harsh, but 8 solid hours, is too long to be kept waiting. When I should have looked only for their words.

                                                                                                                                             I remember some of the loveliest poems being told by you before. When Inanna lost it in the garden.

The main purpose of this is to serve as cover for the enclosed, which is the prize. They told me you wouldnt have reproductions in the house, but I want you to see this anyway. So lucky to have it at all. The original is possibly a 1/5th larger. Beside it/ the only other of his I could find:  THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE.  Would you say that is a capella in the upper left corner of PARADISE?

I spent last night again on da capo & it is much better. But still want to wait a few days before sending.  I want you to know how much I feel you laid on me (out for me) last Tuesday & Wednesday. The Rimbaud of mine is not improved turning into paragraphs, form like Illum. but da capo has come full swerve from this that’s it’s more packed/ but no immediate hooks for any reader, I fear.

I have thgt. too along the way, that Orion: O’Ryan is of the secret of secrets. I want you to know this, that whatever I might stumble on shall not be revealed. I agree, you pass it through the work, until someone else makes breaks its surface or // thru their work // then no one [arrow from “thru their work” to:] into the source. else shall be turned on the stars [arrow down to bottom of page, where he’s handwritten: until then no one else shall be turned your stars (i.e. per me)]. Ican find nothing encouraging out about Capricorn, & wonder how I should have adopted him, so strong. Only the horn, and the Blood that breaks thru. Like Dionysius’. No ATTENTION AT ALL TO RITE IN Kramer! Which is what I want. Dates, and objects, and how often and many. Like we have it so clear from the Indians, the little I know. Orion can lead you. (I only read #2); leads you into as much field … “Capricorn is part of the earthly triad; it is the place of the creation of Saturn (with Aquarius); it governs the thighs and knees.” I wd rather be under Aries’ horn,

(OH YES: it is covered wagon:)    Perseus and mother put into chest and thrown into the sea, the children (Zeus, etc) of Uranus imprisoned in the body of their mother, the earth. That is an actual:chronos
                                                                                          reverse
-apochtastasis (?) fact
                                                                                                                      (happening).
Or am I taking it wrong. That being locked
up with them, does not prove they are carried
in us. Except we know they are. I wrote something
long time ago, (12 mos.) about the way I hold my cigarette like She does. over to Page II

And I will send that. Once I can get a corner out there. Also on the Boston train from Gloucester, I wrote like crazy, which I’ll send. Maybe the cigarette one tonight. Just throw it away afterwards.

Did you know this? I dont see how so confidently now but it does bring Pharmakos: Fool together, a little.

“Hebrews knew him as Kesil, the Foolish or Self-Confident, or as Gibbor, the Giant, identified with Nimrod and tied to the heavens for impiety.”

And “Peruvians believe a criminal held in by two condors”

This morning with the dawn I went out and begin walking up
Fifth Avenue from Washington Square, where they yelled at me: “ Oh Ham-let!
                                                                                                                         Oh phelia  ”

but I went on from one window to the next, passed along. Until I came to Tiffany’s #727, and they have a relatively small window for jewels, etc. Only each one had every detail like an undeveloped negative drops OF THE ZODIAC. It filled six windows. It is simply that, I think. A process used on an some original MAP, but I am going back tomorrow, Monday. And try to talk me into one, which I will send to you. It was as laid / more than eye wants / out like Roxbury-Malden in Earth’s orbit, eclipitica, and precise drawings of every constellation, the 1st and 2nd magnitudes carried jewels (well, the first one of any sort of the sky I have ever seen.) That the face on the prow of ARGOS is you! The mouth no, not as much.

The sun does enter the world again under our sign, but Aries it says ‘early mythologies identify the Ram with Zeus, with AMMON, the ram god of Egypt.’

And look, why RA died. But you told us that before. I have my parents, both kinds.  It’s the Grand ones I’m looking for, that it is the time now for them to begin to hide or as Miss Stein:

“When I grow up, you can be the old Grandfather and come live with us!”

 

This is all there is on alan as I first got it. But I find now: the Hebrew means (tho out of use): small-eared dog.
                                       “alan Tinguian  (Philippine Islands)”
“Spirits, half-human, half-bird with toes and fingers reversed. They are sometimes mischievous or hostile, but are usually friendly.(?) They are described as hanging, bat-like from trees and as living in forests. In Tinguian mythology and folk tales they appear as foster-mothers of the leading characters and are pictured frequently as living in houses of gold.”

Also now that I think of it, that our goat must come in with some blood on his hoof or horn from the sacrifice of the king → of Saturn the very day same day → or one before. Again, tho, I mix the movement of the stars, with myths surrounding them. That the bird alan might have something hidden in the salaman-der “sometimes a bird, living in fire”

And Rigel (you again must know) sometimes is The Foot in the Mud also known as The Double Axe. That I just see this: “In astrology, Capricorn {→ I somehow see him (Le Fou) as unable to fall — unless he cuts his own foot off} is a feminine nocturnal sign, movable, cardinal, and melancholy, and in nature, cold, dry and earthy. The mansion of Saturn and the exaltation of Mars” (All those adjectives, I mistrust it.) Plus I don’t like “her” clothes. But there are leads.

[…]

Please pardon the mess — it is such a displeasure to read. But I am in PO across from Penn Sta. On the way out.

Last night the living nightmare, so today trembles.
from Union Square, the rain on the newspaper stand
we sat in it.

There was a stakeout to bag junkys. And, I amble in after typing this. Alan’s red shirt was my banner. I joined the confederates again. No one was busted. // Much love

 


 

1. “the sea under the house:” The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson, ed. Michael Seth Stewart, 2 vols., Lost & Found Series III, May 2012.

2. Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 301.

3. Series II, Folder 220, Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. Reprinted by permission of the Charles Olson Estate.

4. Samuel Noah Kramer (1897–1990), Ukrainian-born American scholar whose work in Sumerian mythology was integral to Olson’s sense of history.

Beginzone: 'There's Ridgeway Lane forever' (the message)

Before our January 6 interview with poet John Wieners on Beacon Hill, I called up an old friend, Bill Wellington, the night librarian and all around nice guy of the UMass–Dartmouth Library, to find out if he had a message to relay to poet Wieners … the connection is that of two young Beantown beatniks.

Bill playing his jazz up and down the coast, backing Billie and Bird, eventually having to give up the horn because of personal and medical reasons. The other, a shy young poet with a circle of dear friends in Beacon Hill, and Bill was one of them, scripting down and out scene-verse that caught the spirit of youth, the flailing passionate heartache of it all, moments of time strung together with words like pearls on string.

After the years have rolled into each other, the magical nights on the Hill become these stories, tales told to an attentive English Lit undergrad by a cool and raspy-voiced jazzman-turned-librarian, who returns to the poems of an old friend as evidence of the magic, the time gone by.

(BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MESSAGE?)

It’s a message of creativity, youth, of the human capacity to care deeply about the quality of another’s life, why some still hold the word, the idea — as sacred. Enjoy.

"Nor … ever some place else": Wieners in Boston

John Wieners at his last public reading in February 2002 (still from a video by Derek Fenner).

To backtrack to the beginning of Robert Creeley’s preface to John Wieners’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston,” which about sums it up:

If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: “How is it far if you think it?” I don’t truly know. It doesn’t seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either feeling or thinking. They’re here, as we are — certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?

Wieners makes an absence horribly or heartbreakingly present:
 
“The walls are alive with pictures.
Faces haunt the dark.”
(from Wieners’s “A Series, 5.8,” Ace of Pentacles)
 
“Poetry is a trance
of make-believe.”
(“Concentration,” Nerves)
 
“The man I’m kissing
lives right here
despite all odds
 
on my lips”
(“Osterreich,” Nerves)
 
“and the gossamer twilights on Boston Common, and Arlington Street
adrift in the mind”
(After Symond’s “Venice,” Nerves)
 
And from “5.9”:
“Dread night is gone,
you see suspended in a bar against the blackness
the mighty lord, who makes his way
Love in his eyes as a bride might say
To put away all fear.”
 
Is it Duncan’s open field Wieners refers to in “The Meadow Where All Things Grow According to Their Own Design”?
 
“Destiny lies behind our forces
and what lives in the soul
dies not. It inhabits our dreams
as perpetual as light.”
 
Am I stretching the point to suggest that though Wieners often writes in form and sometimes in rather formal language there is an organic aspect of his poetry, that his belief that all forms are organic pervades his poetry?
 
If as Creeley delineates, the poem is there because of the intensity of Wieners’s thought and feeling, so Gerrit Lansing’s elegant restraint gives us poetry that is always there, meditative, in a world un-fragmented, distilled, accepting: “guiltless I milked the cow, / slaughtered chicken, / swam with snakes” (“How We Sizzled in the Pasture,” Working in the Lower Red Field).
 
To both, the world is filled with myriad creatures not only from written traditions but from lived experience. Gerrit ends his poem “For John
Wieners, 1934–2002” (Poems Uncollected, Old and New):
 
“the sound of drums in early afternoon, the poems
echoing our marvelous faults, their fruits.”
 
The marvelous, the human, the humane, the ambiguous “their fruits,” everything is taken in, dealt with.
 
What else do the two share? Gentleness, constant devotion to craft. Massachusetts. Each underrated though those who know their writing feel immensely appreciative and are aware of its worth. I recall Creeley reading at Stone Soup in Boston eons ago & dedicating his reading to Wieners, who listened happily in the audience. Gerrit always precise, at times understated, loving but with clear boundaries. What little I knew of Wieners makes me feel he was endlessly openhearted, despairing, enthusiastic, wild. Gerrit knows his place, meaning he is in himself, self-contained, knowing his place is everywhere.
 
Have visited Gerrit several times & each time he has commented on my aura, which apparently fluctuates or at least varies. He has one of the fullest libraries I know of & seems to have read most everything in it, retaining most of that, I hear.
 
Having been subjected to quadruple bypass heart surgery recently, Gerrit (looking ruddy) still seems undaunted by death. Where has his meditation taken him — certainly to equanimity. Wieners was elsewhere, looking for love.
 
When I moved to Cambridge in 1971, I saw Wieners in Temple Bar Bookstore on Massachusetts Ave. Excited and nervous, I approached him, and he asked, “Do I know you from Georgia O’Keefe’s house?” No. “Are you a Medici?” Heading back to my apartment, where a poem of Wieners hung on my wall, I glowed.
 
Gerrit offers OJ or booze, seems willing to discuss Vedanta with my Vedantic friend, happy to hang out with Simon Pettit to talk about the paranormal (he’s an encyclopedia, according to Simon), calm in disagreeing with a relative of mine about haiku, and indulgent when asked over-general questions about the spiritual life.
 
His house is a treasure, up the hill and across the divided highway from the ocean, in down-home Gloucester. The rooms are large and packed and his intriguing housemate John can sometimes be seen moving books up to the top floor, even more books hiding there, waiting to spill over into the living room. He collects mushrooms, meditates, plays classical piano. One can imagine him living the aesthetic life in New York though he now finds comfort at the seaside: “Old and new dependencies, good harbor, deserted beach of seaweed brown” (“XVIII, The Soluble Forest”).
 
The younger poets in his area adore him and care for him and hang at his house. Amanda Cook, he tells me, waited five hours at the hospital with Gerrit’s nephew until his operation was over. He gives parties, still. Such friends as Ken Irby stay in his guesthouse out back in summer.
 
He combines traditions, high and low culture, sex and spirit, all is one:
 
Thomas Burnet, in The Sacred Theory of the Earth, posited that the earth had formed as a smooth, regular sphere with a thin surface, below which was a vast ocean. The Great Flood, he believed, had occurred when the surface of the earth broke open, for God had willed it so, and fell down into that ocean.
 
Here is the fourth section of Gerrit’s “In Erasmus Darwin’s Generous Light”:
 
Telluris sacra theoria [The Sacred Theory of the Earth]
 
If you consider the sacred theory of the earth,
water below and water above,
the egg cracked and split, the spirit spurting out
flood and ark of sacred origin, waterfall of starry jism
the milk of the stars from her paps
on uplifted ecstatic faces and lovers locked in happy freedom in their crucible …
 
in my garden, Erasmus Darwin said, blooms
bright surprise galore on bright surprise
and from their volant passion splurge cataracts of eyes.
 
In the tulgey wood the light consoles
and in the generous light of Erasmus Darwin’s ripe exuberance
(and he knew the caves below where sun at midnight shone)
the fields, his very strawberry fields, are Eleusinian.
 
Genesis and Alice in Wonderland in the mix. The sublimity and chaos of nature. Charles Darwin’s poet grandfather (whom Gerrit described in his reading at the Boston Athaeneum in June as a poet of sexuality and plant life) and God. Jism and the sacred natural world. Contradictions and acceptance. The Beatles and the Eleusinian fields, the dwelling of the blessed, in the stream of Okeanos, the Ocean. And the caves below where sun at midnight shone? Jesus, born in a cave, brings the world light at the solstice? Coleridge, who was influenced by Burnet? For Gerrit, as for his friend Robert Duncan, these are not simply allusions, they are lived places of the mind.
 
The Ace of Pentacles, in the Tarot, is apparently about making one’s dreams come to pass. The Empress is the womb where the idea gestates. And so goes Wieners’s “The Imperatrice.”
 
The Empress is an extreme card — one minute things are wonderful, the next, horrible. One’s labors may come to fruition, so it seems Wieners is carrying forward The Ace of Pentacles’ hope. Wieners’s The Imperatrice sits on the left page; on the right, a poem I have long remembered, for “My Mother,” “talking to strange men on the subway,”
 
“‘But I love her in the underground
        and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
        talking together between the wire grates of a cage.”
 
The Imperatrice, “who sits supreme above all human ecstasy,” “Lady of the blue / robe. Scent of sperm / a cloud of devotion to her nostrils,”
 
“Or with the objects of eternity
        about her and
           on display
for our eyes worn out with love.”
 
These two tasters of life have in common their absorption in nontraditional as well as traditional spiritual ways of seeing and experiencing the world, their acceptance of seeming opposites, their love of life, as intense as any despair, finally. Hallucinations of truth. Intimations of … Expecting/hoping for a new time to come; in Gerrit’s belief system, that is a non-persona, universal world. As Gerrit knows the world as real and unreal, so too does Wieners, despite his attachment to it:
 
From Wieners’s “Dreams of the Day”:
 
There are other realities
   besides those existing before
        your eyes.
 
   Secrets of the mind
   where phantoms dwell
   and people pass who never
              lived
   on the face of the earth.
 
   Dark veils cover their faces.
 

 
    causes high tides
 
    To roar upon the shore
 
    That is the mind.
 
    Where no one ever is
      But those who never were.
 
Yet Wieners, filled with spirits, longing, agony, IS there; Gerrit all the while in equipoise; both seers and lovers. Both having dived into the occult: From Wieners’s “Le Chariot” (Ace of Pentacles):
 
“To ride in your heart instead of heaven.
This is the card that reads as seven.”
 
If Gerrit knows it in a more spiritual sense, Wieners is familiar with the emotional ride of what we can’t know intellectually yet which can dominate the senses and feelings. To continue with Creeley: “The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptional human beauty — as if there were ever any other. There is in it such commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us.”

There you have it from the mouth of Black Mountain that Wieners is not only a lyric poet and a sonneteer, a troubadour and the tenor in the opera, he is a poet of daily life, including the bizarre daily life under all our covers.
 
As is Gerrit — connected to the earth, the ocean, New York, he flies upward and outward and inside to realms just as intimate and interconnected as anything more mundane. As Gerrit says of Thoreau (“Henry Thoreau and Cosmic Concord”), [he] “made of his daily and local experiences a rich mythological fabric … He feels along his nerves the reflections of all things in all things …” How could I neglect to mention Wieners’s book Nerves in this context, though admittedly it is often horrific in its imagery — yet full of beauty still.
 
In 1965, Wieners wrote a subjective, insightful preface to Gerrit’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (a Motto Book, New York, 1966). In it, he gives us hints as to what they share by letting us know what he reacts to & feels: “The title is ‘wrong’: alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards towards heaven.” Self-deprecating, he makes me laugh when he claims: “For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit to write without it is even more difficult.”

While Gerrit’s work reveals an enormous vocabulary, sense of history and the paranormal throughout it, clearly Wieners — even in his talking of the alchemical — unravels his knowledge of the arcane throughout his own writing. “The discontinuity of image, the ‘confused’ mind you will think you will find there. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.” Wieners might as well be talking about himself. His critics be damned, he is coherent emotionally, in the way of Baudelaire and with sometimes equally strong conceits, metaphors that are in a visceral way images, they live so fully on the page.
“Rhythm is that elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards.” And this is Wieners’s line as well as Gerrit’s phrasing — elegance, even for Wieners amidst all the devastation. “No, the wild tulip shall outlast the prison wall / no matter what grows within” (“Private Estate,” Asylum Poems).
 
“Now I have to learn to carry them [Gerrit’s poems] with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.” Those who imagine Wieners’s poetry “limited” to the personal would do well to look again; he was all too well aware of the injustices and distortions of our “society” that Gerrit’s words would wipe away and transform, magically.
 
And sound, Wieners and sound, my God. Even in his sweet autograph to me in 1998 in my old Ace of Pentacles, he was concerned with lining up similar sounds:
 
                “Just To A Fan
                 John Wieners Fondly
                [@ John Wieners 1964 was printed here]
Offered to Ruth Epson
                  Exeter Street”
 
Sometimes Gerrit writes a gorgeous lyrical line: “The night is warm he walks the mountain road” (“Melanthus in the Mountains,” Working in the Lower Red Field). When mellifluous sounds are apt, he is the sorcerer who can create that spell.
 
Gerrit played tennis with John Ashbery weekly at Harvard. Once I saw Wieners, dressed as a woman, lying along the Charles River, cops questioning him. Tonight there will be a meteor shower, visible if the clouds dissipate. This, then, is what the two gentlemen have in common — a glimpse of the inexorable, the glorious and the beautiful, the terrible and the grand, the numinous. Or the knowledge of what Gerrit describes in his Thoreau essay, “the universe as a net of glittering jewels.” (A February Sheaf).
 
The differences:
 
Words and thoughts that come to mind when hearing Wieners: acute, raw, dissipated, aching, howling, feverish, clamoring, nocturnal, blindfolded with his eyes open, his colors red, purple, and black, like a glimpse of a peacock in the dead of night. Did he have to strain to see? An open question. Erotic yet with a tone more of longing then of titillation. Felt the pull of fate and destiny.
 
Gerrit’s language gives a sense of repose, spice, effervescence, concord, brightness, effulgence, sometimes seems crystalline, is balanced and proportionate. The erotic in him is high-toned in that it is one with all of life, alchemical: “We flow together like molten gold and molten gold” (“Alba” Working in the Lower Red Field); “This sex is more than sex, under the will of the God of sex” (“A Poem of Love in Eleven Lines,” Inscriptions). He adds grace notes, sings hymns, plays the flute. Sometimes the sax: “Whose joint? Pass me one, please” puns on the title “The Joint is Jumping” (Working in the Lower Red Field).
 
Admittedly, Gerrit lives in a world of magic, contentment, intellectual history, spirituality, and even publishing that Wieners when distraught may not have had access to. Like Blake, he knows that “The word of Sin was always Restriction” (“La p(l)age poetique”) and lives an unrestricted life to the degree one can in “the Vulgar Advent,” as he calls it in “Statement: How Set Was Conceived.” He locates his essay: “Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the Equinox of Fall,” noting that “To discover our spacetime address we must fix our position in time as well as in space” (“The Burden of Set #1”).

(And as with Louis Zukofsky, for Gerrit numbers have connections to the macrocosmic world: “is the number 18 / the tablets are empty / everybody’s crossed over / and no one has ever gone over” (“XVIII”) plays with the Hebrew chai, good fortune.)
 
Yet in the same essay, quoting Stevens, he reminds us that “poetry increases the feeling for reality” and in “La p(l)age poetique” that “Making the soul is always particular” and in these ways is in unity again with Wieners.
 
Yet neither is didactic. Both have the feel of flickers of the absolute, of visions obscured and sometimes revealed. Both are link-boys, who could be dangerous. Many couldn’t hold a candle to them.

The old brick city by the Atlantic

John Wieners's Boston haunts

John Wieners at the Beacon Hill Burger King, 1997. Photo by Jim Dunn.

For almost thirty years, John Wieners lived meagerly and humbly in the same apartment in Beacon Hill; 44 Joy Street, Suite 10 as he called it. Joy Street, originally called Belknap Lane, named after the Colonial Apothecary, Dr. John Joy, with its history of livery stables, was his home. Wieners became somewhat more reclusive in his later years, but he was still a fixture on the streets of Beacon Hill, seen often trudging tragic-comically through the streets with his bag draped around his shoulder, and a cigarette in his hand, carrying himself with a certain muted elegance. The sad fact of these last eight years is that chance sightings and encounters with the man in his world, in this world, can never happen again. Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that has changed drastically since his death, seems not to notice or to care that a great poet was ever among them or even more poignantly that he has left.

Like a ghost, Wieners can be glimpsed in the emptiness of specific places left behind. There are many places to me where I can conjure up a spark of his spirit just by walking his Beacon Hill streets.

One of the first places Wieners and I met for lunch was at the John W. McCormack Federal building cafeteria at One Ashburton Place across from the State Capitol at the top of Bowdoin Street. The cafeteria was on one of the higher floors of the building and was easy to access by elevator. In the ten years I knew Wieners, we only visited it a few times, but the memory of that lunch is very clear. I asked him if he missed Black Mountain College and North Carolina. He casually remarked, “One does not fully appreciate the landscape of a place until they have long left it.” That line has stayed with me particularly through the years. He also maintained that he once worked at the McCormack Cafeteria bussing the tables. Whether it was true or metaphoric never mattered to me. He wistfully remarked “They don’t bus these tables anymore.” There were other cafeterias where we would lunch; a state administration building in Government Center, and the Massachusetts General Hospital cafeteria to name a few.

After lunch we stood on the landing behind the McCormack building where Federal Employees stood blankly around us enjoying cigarettes in the afternoon sun. I made a comment that amused him and he casually remarked, “My cheekbones get high from you.” I told him that was such a great line I would like to use it in a poem. He dismissively changed his tone, replying “Oh, I wish I never said that.”

Once a week we would meet together to share the same routine. First, we would visit the lobby of Massachusetts General Hospital. Wieners’s cousin Walter had set up a disbursement plan for a stipend of cash to be delivered by a male nurse, Brian, who was close friends with Walter. Wieners and I would wait patiently each week in the busy lobby of MGH amidst the flow of humanity, for Brian to arrive with an envelope. Often we’d have lunch in the hospital cafeteria. A few times we would walk up the steps of the original MGH building to visit the Ether Dome.

The Charles Plaza located at the bottom of Joy Street was Wieners’s lifeline to his weekly goods; cigarettes, percogesic pills, and his meager supply of weekly groceries. At that time, the Plaza had a Burger King, a CVS drugstore, a Brigham’s, and a Stop & Shop supermarket. We would walk across Blossom Street to Charles Plaza to have lunch at the Burger King. Wieners would always order the same thing — a plain hamburger, french fries and a coke. On the hamburger he would put nothing except multiple packets of salt. We’d sit down to a fine Burger King meal amidst the lunchtime crowd of Beacon Hill. Once, a publisher and admirer of Wieners planned on meeting him for lunch. The publisher showed up on Joy Street with a single rose as a gift and offered to take Wieners anywhere in the city for lunch. He suggested Harvard Gardens. Harvard Gardens, which figured prominently in Wieners’s poem “Chophouse Memories,” where he sat reading poetry in the humid summer evening of Beacon Hill, as Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer wept in the “incipient rain and electric-charged air.” It has been a Beacon Hill institution for over forty years. Wieners had gone there many times throughout the years, but he never went there in the time I knew him. Wieners thought about the publisher’s offer for a moment and deferred making a decision until we crossed over Cambridge Street. Wieners suggested since we were so close to Charles Plaza we should just go to Burger King. The publisher was deflated. He insistently reiterated his intention to buy lunch anywhere Wieners desired in the city. I knew where we were going from the moment we stepped out onto the street. The three of us sat in the Burger King. The publisher was baffled and mortified that his date with Wieners’s was less than he dreamed it would be. I sat there next to Wieners, the awkward third wheel of the date. Wieners presided over the impaired proceedings, answering questions courteously, completely content to be exactly where he was.

We’d also visit the CVS pharmacy for three specific items that were more important to him than sustenance. He would pick up, religiously every week, a pack of Kool cigarettes, a box of Percogesic pills, and a Primatene Mist inhaler. The Percogesic pills were over-the-counter pain relievers. For some reason Wieners had to have a refill of that specific brand every week. The Primatene Mist inhaler helped him breathe but it probably gave him a kick as well. He would stand outside the drugstore with a cigarette in one hand and the Primatene Mist inhaler in the other. After each drag on his cigarette, he’d immediately take two puffs on the inhaler, which would always make me laugh. “They kind of cancel each other out, don’t they?” I asked him. “No, not all.” was his curt response. If the store was out of Percogesic pills or Primatene Mist, we would walk down Cambridge Street to the “Phillips” as John called it. It was another CVS pharmacy on Charles Circle across from the Old Charles Street Prison. Before it was a CVS it was a local independent drugstore and Wieners continued to refer to it by its former name. The Phillips CVS, in particular, played a vital role in Wieners being properly identified after his death. Wieners had no identification on him when he suffered his debilitating stroke in the Blossom Street parking lot located right behind the hospital. What he did have in his pocket was a receipt for his weekly purchases. Through the dogged pursuit of a social worker at the hospital, she was able to trace Wieners CVS savings card number on the receipt back to his apartment, and ultimately to his cousin Walter, whose name was on Wieners’s apartment lease. Luckily, his family and friends were notified just in time to say goodbye before he passed away. But, not before he laid unidentified for five days in the intensive care unit in a coma, assumed indigent and homeless by the hospital staff.

Just around the corner from the Phillips CVS, is the Phillips playground. Along with the Myrtle Street Playground, this was Wieners’s favorite place to stop off and enjoy a cigarette. Phillips playground is a two level playground on the north slope of the Hill surrounded by a metal fence, somewhat hidden between buildings. Wieners would sit on the bench with his head cocked, smoke slowly escaping his lips as Beacon Hill nannies ushered children to the lower level structure. We’d sit in silence for thirty minutes or more sometimes until I’d have to make the move and break the spell. Close to the Myrtle Street playground, Rollins Place was another secret location John liked to duck into for a smoke and some afternoon meditation. Rollins Place is one of the most interesting courtyards in Beacon Hill. It is a hidden cul-de-sac with a garden and paved courtyard consisting of six single-family townhouses with a unique faux Greek Style white mansion at the end of the alley. Wieners loved to linger in the cool shadows of the courtyard on a summer day.

Wieners favorite window in the back room of his apartment overlooked the rooftop of the African Meeting House, located on a dead end off Joy Street called Smith Court. This street had been the epicenter of Black culture in the 1800s. Wieners knew well the secret alley behind the Meeting House that lead up the hill and out onto Russell Street. The alley was rumored to have been part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Nearby, Wieners participated in Steve Jonas’s poetry magic evenings in the sixties with poets Joe Dunn, Carol Weston, Rafael Gruttola, and others.

Down the hill on Joy Street towards Cambridge Street is 78 Joy Street, the home for many years of poet and Wieners supporter Jack Powers. Wieners would rely heavily on Jack’s good graces throughout his life on Beacon Hill. Jack would always feed Wieners or give him smoke money while persuading Wieners to read at some Powers sponsored reading in return. Jack was a conduit for reunions with old friends such as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Sanders, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Herbert Huncke; when they were in town. Powers also worked tirelessly to book paid readings for Wieners, often paying him out of his own pocket. Powers was a lifeline for Wieners on the Hill. It was through Jack that I first got to know Wieners.

A particular venue for many Wieners readings in the nineties was the Old West Church on Cambridge Street. The historic church dates back to the Revolutionary War and is where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined. Sadly, many of Wieners’s readings there were sparsely attended but he would always read diligently whether there were ten people or 100 people present, some readings much more compelling than others.

Another notable church in Wieners lore is the Charles Street Meeting House on 73 Charles Street. The church was known in pre–Civil War times as a stronghold of the anti-slavery movement where Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Tubman gave fiery speeches. In 1953, during Hurricane Hazel, Wieners happened upon a reading by Charles Olson at the Meeting House where he was so taken with Olson’s reading he soon followed Olson to Black Mountain College. The modern day Meeting House is a disappointment to those who go there to see the church where this historic reading took place. The church was sold in 1979 and was renovated into a flower shop on the first floor and office space on the upper floor. It stands next to the firehouse made famous in the TV series, Spencer for Hire. Wieners and I visited the Meetinghouse only once, standing at the elevator bank momentarily then we were gone.

Driving through Boston I’d often catch a glimpse of Wieners in front of the Boston Public Library. As I got to know Wieners, I realized why I’d always see him outside the library. The Glad Day bookstore was a long-standing gay bookstore right across the street from the BPL. Whenever Wieners would get paid by check for a reading or for residuals from a publisher, he’s go to the Glad Day to get his checks cashed. The owner of the Glad Day, John Mitzel, was an old friend of Wieners who would always front Wieners money without any expectation of restitution.

Once, while driving Wieners back from the Glad Day bookstore en route to the supermarket, we averted a near tragedy on Bowdoin Street; right next to the State Capitol and the McCormack Building. As we drove down the Hill, I signaled to proceed to the right to grab an open parking spot. As I cruised over to the spot, I heard a crash and saw a biker come hurtling over the hood of my VW. Wieners put his hand over his mouth and let out an “Ooooh.” I maintained my cool and got out to see if the biker was all right. The biker was laid out in front of the car, sprawled on the street. I asked him if he was hurt and if he needed an ambulance. He cursed and told me to turn around and put my hands on the car. I first thought he was a bike messenger but then noticed his blue shorts and shirt and realized that I had hit a Boston Police Officer on bike patrol. Wieners and I sat in the car as three cop cars came and went. Each cop glared at us with angry disgust. After waiting nearly an hour I asked the officer if they could at least let Wieners go. They reluctantly released him when they realized he would not be a reliable witness. He draped his bag around his shoulder, took his rubber band from his ponytail, put it around his wrist, and went ambling down the hill to the Stop & Shop. After two hours of being held and questioned, I was finally, miraculously let go without even a ticket. I caught up to Wieners at the Stop & Shop, pushing his cart down the aisle as if nothing happened.

The one time we actually went inside the Boston Public Library together was to see the original version of A Star Is Born. We sat in the darkened basement of the BPL watching James Mason and Judy Garland. Wieners was rapt and attentive during the entire movie. I was less so. I dozed off several times during the movie, once even jarring myself awake from my own snoring. As we walked out, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. I half apologized for going catatonic during a movie that obviously meant a lot to him. “That’s alright” he said, “Jimmy Mason makes you groggy.”

There are a few places I never visited with Wieners although I tried to persuade him to go with me. The first place was the Boston Athenaeum. I was a member in the late 1990s and I thought he would enjoy going back there since he had told me stories of going there years prior. I often tried to cajole and persuade him into going to the Athenaeum with me. He would initially agree and then subtly his enthusiasm would dissipate until he was resolute in his decision not to go. In fact, I rarely ever saw Wieners on the Robert Lowell/General Hooker/Boston Brahmin/Boston Common south slope side of Beacon Hill unless we were driving through the neighborhood.

I also tried to get him to visit the Common Fountain with me, since his “Ode to a Common Fountain” was among my favorite poems of his. But I couldn’t even get him to stroll the Common with me, let alone get him to stand before the great fountain of his youthful dreams. The other place that he was interested in visiting with me was Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church off Summer Street near Downtown Crossing. I worked near the church and we had made grand plans to attend the Sunday Service but we were not able to make it happen, for whatever reason. Sadly, the only time Wieners and I were in church together was at Saint Gregory’s in Dorchester at his funeral, which was more poignant and touching than I could have imagined.

I am often referred to as Wieners informal caregiver in the later years of his life. The truth is I gave him no more care than any friend would have. If anything, he showed as much or even greater care for me than I for him. Robert Creeley echoed this feeling: “We are not taking care of John any more than he is taking care of us, if you hear me. We need him very much. We need what his poems can say.” Towards the end of his life, his world and the neighborhood he lived in became a place where it was increasingly harder for Wieners to have an independent life on his own terms, given the challenges of mental illness and poverty he had to manage every day. Beacon Hill is no longer a place where a poet such as Wieners can live independently. Every time I walk the streets of his neighborhood, I am reminded of him, and of his generosity, his grace, his indomitable spirit, and his love for his hometown of Boston. Although we no longer have Wieners, we have his poems. His voice echoes and his spirit remains alive to me in the streets that ribbon behind the state capitol on the bohemian side of Beacon Hill, where so much has changed.