On a morning of slow grey drizzle in the southern spring of 1976, at Robert and Cheryl Adamson’s living room table at Lane Cove, Sydney, between bites of a late breakfast and occasional snatches of quiet conversation, Robert Duncan began writing “An Alternate Life,” a poem that evolved from and partly recounts his experiences whilst visiting Australia. He was here on a reading and lecture tour. He’d brought with him the booklets and manuscripts that later became Ground Work: Before the War, his first major collection since Bending the Bow, though it didn’t yet have that title (he referred to its contents generically as “ground work”) and wouldn’t be published until 1984.
Eu son unha forasteira, sempre unha forasteira. I am a foreigner, always foreign. Loito nunha escuridade funxíbel con toda outra escuridade. I struggle in a fungible and obscure darkness alongside every other kind of obscurity. Son unha forasteira con historia, con historias multiples, historias que nunca vivín. I am a foreigner with a history, with multiple histories, histories I never lived. Historias xenéticas, de xenética. Genetic histories, of genetics. Sempre sei que idioma uso. I always know what language I speak in. Imaxino sen imaxes, senón con temperaturas e luz e vagaridades que me pican no pel. I imagine without images, but with temperatures and light and wanderings that prickle and disturb my skin. Indescriptíbeis. Indescriptible. Postures with furniture. And I age, I am aging. Limits of the body and mind.
And the text. It is here before me, in front of me, the text. É e está. It is in itself, and it is sited in time/space. And me, awake. With coffee. Without glasses. Light. The form of the letters in front of me.
A first-time reader of James Schuyler’s poetry could have written my notes for this essay:
Clarity Loves a list Letter / diary Right now, right here Weather and Light Addresses, exact addresses Names of friends
Yet I spent thirteen years editing Schuyler’s letters, years during which I thought of him at least once a day, and at every reading I have given in the past decade or more I read at least one of his poems. Really, I ought to be able to come up with a few new observations about his exceptional poetry.
I’ll begin with a playlist of PennSound recordings having to do with letters. While listening to this playlist on repeat, I was interested in the ways the tracks expanded, derailed, parodied, critiqued, or otherwise complicated the idea of intimate address. The addressees include imagined ancestors, public figures, an owl, various abstractions and inanimate objects, as well as the workings of language itself. Recently I’ve been listening to this playlist on random and I keep noticing new connections and contrasts between tracks.
Here's part of a letter Jose Rodriguez-Feo wrote to Wallace Stevens. The two had not met yet at this point. Their relationship, entirely epistolary except for two brief meetings some years after this, was both extraordinarily intimate and formal--both at once. Stevens loved letters from his young exotic friend "Pepe." Rodriguez-Feo was thrilled to be able to get to know this forbidding-seeming poet, the famously icy Stevens. The talk of Hemingway in this letter might have been a signal that the Cuban was interested in Stevens's views of male sexuality, wondering if indeed that was part of Stevens' attraction to corresponding with "a real blood and bone Latino." But Stevens would never, ever nibble on this bait. Now a self-promotion alert: my book, edited by Beverly Coyle, tells this whole story and presents all the letters between the two. Get a copy here. Or ask me for one. I have a few extras at home. If the title of this post is clickable, click on it for a larger view of the letter excerpt above.