American Smoke

Journeys to the End of the Light

Iain Sinclair

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Two Men Smoking


 
and sees all things and to him
are presented at night
the whispers of the most flung shores
from Gloucester out
– Ed Dorn
 
 
It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. 2011 and London had lost its savour. A good step beyond midway through my dark wood of the world, I came to America, hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth. The largest, the most light-occulting of all the giants, that earlier race, was Charles Olson: poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College. This establishment, a scatter of buildings beside a lake in North Carolina, now imploded, bankrupt, seemed to us a Valhalla of all the talents: Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn. Pick up the traces anywhere you choose, through fugitive magazines or literary gossip, and they lead back to one man. Olson knew, better than most, that his chosen territory, the Eastern Seaboard, the whaling ports, was once connected to Scotland. And long before Prince Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, crossed the Atlantic, island-hopping in 1398, to bring back stories of infinite forests and their natives, and to leave his mark stamped on a rock. The native Micmac Indians, according to some authorities, recognized the tall voyager as their man-god, Glooscap. ‘Kulóskap was the first, first and greatest, to come into our land,’ sang the tribal poet. He was ‘sober, grave, and good’. The big man walked on the backs of whales. One of Olson’s youthful disciples, Peter Anastas, carried out proper research into Glooscap; his heritage, the archaeological scratchings, the subsistence life in shack and trailer park endured by the last of the first people in this unyielding place.
Glooscap the man becomes Gloucester the town. By sound, by sonar echo, by necessity. Olson, writing about his childhood and his father, the Worcester mailman, calls the story ‘Stocking Cap’. With some hope of payment, he sent it to The New Yorker in February 1948. It was rejected. Glooscap, Stocking Cap. A nod to elective Swedish ancestors, to Vikings. Cutting holes in the ice, winter fishing: father and son. I loved the old photograph used on the cover of Olson’s memoir, The Post Office: that stern, bulb-headed baby emerging from a sack of letters, hard against his father’s pounding heart. Two figures from a race of huge, raw-boned immigrants, studio-captured against a painted pond, a forest clearing. I wanted it to be so. I needed a new mythology to shield against the sense of loss and hanging dread inherent in the invasion and dissolution of my familiar London ground; forty years learning where to walk and a few months to lose it all. Go back then into uncertainty, ocean-venturing exchanges. Ed Dorn, one of the sharpest and most independent of Olson’s Black Mountain students, and just about the only one who bothered to graduate, characterized Gloucester as somewhere settled by people from remote islands who knew how to build fences and stone walls. ‘That’s one reason why New England is really there,’ he said.
‘It’s a tough one,’ Olson replied, laying out the American West as Dorn’s field of study. ‘One thing’s sure: economics as politics as money is a gone bird.’
All poetry, a now-obsolete (and stronger for that) form, Dorn suggested, derived from The Iliad or The Odyssey. Either we stay put, dig in, battle with our gods, or we move, drift, detour: move for the sake of moving. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is precisely what it says: it goes on as long as the roll of paper lasts. Olson was formidable in combining the two archetypal sources: he excavated the particulars of his adopted town and he contemplated the restless sea. Without leaving his high window, he would drive off spleen by charting the madness of those who ventured on the watery part of the world. He began with Herman Melville. Curse me with truth. Call me Ishmael.
*   *   *
Today, quite suddenly, the sun breaks through; I follow Olson’s obliterated footprints. There is the long shadow of a drowned man on the beach. And he is walking, rolling heavy shoulders. You have to be dead yourself, more than a little, to register him. The Atlantic, on this precious morning, is blameless; every pebble visible, an invitation to stripping off and striking out. But it won’t happen, not now. Not ever.
I come along the curve of the esplanade they call ‘boulevard’, from Fort Point, tramping in suspended excitement, with watering eyes, above a beach I know so well; this place I have never been, even in sleep: Gloucester, Massachusetts. Late October, season of perfect storms. Even the houses of the wealthy, set back from the shore, are not immune. Buffalo waves break free of the jet stream; steepling rollers, in a shatter of wet glass, spout and smash, upturning cars, rearing over breakfast bars, their panoramic windows crusted with salt, rattled by scouring grains of sand. You are embedded here, at a small table, with your squirting egg and crisped bacon, your coffee refill. A few, mid-morning, comfortably fleshed, warm-shirted citizens stare out on the rain, the road, the shore, making desultory conversation. Some do not turn their heads. More politics, another dying year. The decline of the fishing fleet. Boarded-up computer-repair shops. Banks like temples from an earlier granite era. Barriers erected around City Hall, the civic centre. Tactful marine presentations in Cape Ann Museum. Safe rocks and secure objects: rescued boats, fading portraits. The original statue of Our Lady of Good Voyage, that draped and crowned votive figure brought in from the church roof, now shockingly out of scale in a dim chamber. Huge hands, this woman of wood: a fish-gutter supporting a model twin-masted vessel.
*   *   *
Olson’s car didn’t do reverse. When a friend, sent out from the upstairs apartment with the great view, on the point, right over the Inner Harbor, to fetch cigarettes and whisky for another all-night session, sandwiches even, asked, with some trepidation, how Charles managed this thing, navigating the icy streets in a defective motor, the poet said: ‘Never go backwards.’ Arm raised – so! – gloved fist clamped to fence, Russian cap and trailing coat. ‘That way. Always that way now.’ Inland, brother. At the end of the poem, of the long emphysemic drag of breath and tumult, the headaches, bunker fevers, heartsick losses, he turned away from the sea. Found a nest in which to die. They carried him, complaining, head first, to the ambulance; crabbed, harpooned. Strike out, stride forward. Then, over Brooklyn Bridge, quoting Lear until the hurt was too much and he gripped his companion’s arm, white, asking for painkillers, and they gave him water. The words on the wall of the hut, the Gloucester Writers Center, where I was now lodged: my wife my car my colour my self. Precisely scored gaps for taking breath.
*   *   *
In the town museum I discovered a painting, studio-posed, reconfiguring some forgotten classical tableau. Rocks. The virgin New England shore of green scrub, grey clouds. Three people: two women and a man. I don’t want to know who painted it. A clothed girl, dark hair depending from a summer hat, props herself on her left arm; she sprawls, shoes off, confronting the bathing-suited figure of a conspicuously fit young man with rather effeminate tresses and supplicant lips. At the edge of the composition, clutching a thick black branch, is another woman, a little older perhaps, more obviously mythological; smooth, bare leg emerging from a long white wrap. Sexual tension, subdued but palpable, plays across the interval between the solitary standing figure and the transfixed couple. The gash dividing the spread of rocks is matted with pubic moss. The couple facing us, recovered from their swim, near-naked but bone dry, make-up intact, confront the clothed girl, whose elbow is scabbed and raw: an orgy postponed. And hung in a corner of a museum nobody visits. As competent and pointless as Augustus John.
*   *   *
Olson’s wife, Betty, found the apartment. And fell in love, at once, with what she saw, inside and out. Romanticizing inconvenience, cold water, cold season, she wrote to Charles, summoning up, across hard-driven distance, his comforting bulk and warmth. 28 Fort Square. They were set down, mature orphans, among the Sicilian community, the working fishermen. And it did play, this fortunate accident. The opening of the poem, after false starts elsewhere, was brought home, earthed. The thrust of Fort Point, lighthouse blinking in the fog on Ten Pound Island. The Inner Harbor. Longline swordfish boats setting out. Olson had tried it, by way of research: crewing. With his size he was awkward. The sea was not, finally, so he said, his trade. Making a lovely phrase, as poets do, out of getting it all wrong. His trade was the sea. And looking at it. Marine charts curling on a clapboard wall. What that early apprenticeship gave him, way short of the reach of a Melville or Conrad, was archive; photographs of a big man in old light, on deck, beside a gaffed swordfish. He knew it was a lie, he was watching the watching. Learning the simplest things last, the jolt of pain going over the bridge. The thickening silence.
*   *   *
When we drove into Gloucester at night, in the rain, Henry Ferrini, Vincent’s nephew, made a little detour to point out Fort Square. Vincent Ferrini had been Olson’s first Gloucester correspondent: the argument, the male rutting in those letters, fired the opening of The Maximus Poems. Buildings torn down. History trashed. ‘I liked him right off,’ Ferrini said. Vincent was the town character, feisty and fast. The poet in the leather hat. ‘Write to me,’ Olson ordered, ‘and tell me how my streets are.’ Already he is laying claim to the territory, the reek of the fish-processing plants.
Damp fog, like a residue of H. P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, coated everything outside the immediate warmth of the hut and seeped into my skin. I dodged busy traffic – gas tankers, red-and-white Coca-Cola rigs longer than my London street, muddy station wagons – and scuttled down to the harbour. Boat buildings. A chained fleet waiting on the weather. CATERINA GLOU MA. JANAYA JOSEPH GLOU MA. Crosstree masts. Spars. Cables. Fishing lines spooled on giant thimbles at the stern. Impossible, when I try the roadside convenience store, to find fresh fruit or breakfast cereal. Profusion of jumbo crunch, biscuits and pillows of crisps. Racks of root beer. Coke ordnance. Toothpaste-bright sweeties. Local news is the only news. The habit of newsprint dirties the eye.
NAMING OF BULGER TIPSTER WORRIES FBI OBSERVER
A newspaper’s revelation that the tipster who led the FBI to notorious gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a former Miss Iceland is raising concerns about her safety. Gloucester Times. Thursday, October 13, 2011.
REVISITING OLSON’S LEGACY
The authenticity of this small gritty city and its residents inspired Olson, like an intellectual fountain of youth. Olson left behind his Gloucester epic titled ‘The Maximus Poems’ as well as tens of thousands of scraps of paper and letters filled with his thoughts.
5-DAY FORECAST
Today: Cloudy with rain tapering off. Friday: Periods of rain, some heavy.
Melville’s Ishmael, contemplating a whaling voyage, and the dark Fates who have him under ‘constant surveillance’, imagines newspaper headlines much like the ones I inscribe in my new notebook. GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES. BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN. 1851. Nothing changes. Inky-fingered printers’ devils hit the same buttons. Metaphysical weather systems punctuate the centuries with indifferent rigour.
I explore the hill, noting the vodka bottles and crumpled beer cans arranged on the steps in the gaps between neat clapboard houses. I witness the only black man in town enter the Crow’s Nest, the authentic set for the inauthentic fiction of The Perfect Storm; when George Clooney and the Hollywood caravan rolled into town. Sebastian Junger, who wrote the original story, settled here as a ‘high climber’ for a tree company. He spent many hours in the fishermen’s bar, listening. There was one black sailor on the fated crew. Swordfishing is harsh labour, nobody but the skipper has any relish for the sea. On the morning of their departure, the boys take a pickup truck to one of those big sheds, hypermarkets, out by the highway. They spend $5,000 on steaks, cigarettes, chicken, booze. Anything but fish. Ten thousand Gloucester men, Junger wrote, have been lost to the sea. Names on church wall, year by year. I stop to read the sepulchral memorial on the boulevard, as I pass, following Olson’s evening stroll along the shoreline. Comfortable buses decant sober American tourists. A war that will never be won. But witnessed, with bowed heads, and raised cameras.
Mediterranean Catholicism, in this place I had previously imagined as puritanical and dark, is a rush of colour. Our Lady of Good Voyage, the replica now, is perched on her pedestal, by the blue onion dome, behind a complexity of telegraph wires. Upraised arm, open hand. Halo welded to her shrouded head like a steering wheel. Blood-red candles glow beside the small shrine like Thermos flasks. Or stacked shells in a trench. Blue and gold: the dome, the cross.
Olson, like his fellow Massachusetts author Jack Kerouac, was a Catholic from a working family. His father a delivery man for the mail service in Worcester. Kerouac’s father, in Lowell, ran a print shop. When I walked the beach in Sandymount, Dublin, as a twenty-year-old student, Kerouac was my main man: those bad journeys, the questing, the tedium, and the mortal tremor beneath the surface, which I had not then identified. My companion, Christopher Bamford, who would, after Ireland, take the boat to Boston, and not come back, was peddling Beckett and Genet, all those lettuce-green Olympia Press paperbacks. Footmarks tramped a noose in the grey sand, a prison circuit, as we conjured plays written in a single night and floated magazines that never got beyond the proof stage, the abandoned dummy. As we received our airmail correspondence from William Burroughs in Tangier.
By some weird serendipity, we both returned, the same afternoon, with a slim blue-green Grove Press publication, acquired from a department store on O’Connell Street. The Distances: Poems by Charles Olson. By that evening this poet, new and difficult, was an obsession. ‘What does not change/is the will to change.’ The markers and references and processed autobiographical fragments floated over us, attractive in their obscurity. The man as we learnt a little of him from magazines and visiting American professors became a mythological presence. ‘Ego like a lantern,’ said a pompous fellow, a Restoration drama specialist on tweedy sabbatical, when questioned about why he’d left Olson out of his summary of the landscape of contemporary US poetics. And that seemed to me just what we were looking for: a dark lantern against prejudice and lazy conformity.
Hearing Olson talk, years later, in archive film sampled by Henry Ferrini for his portrait Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, you got the excitement of the expanding moment; a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows emphatic as that other alpha male Robert Maxwell (press baron, litigant, whale-corpse found floating). The suffering blackboard, a negative window, slashed by chalk prompts, a blizzard of names and dates. Wild, punching semaphore. And the gleaming melon dome of that glistening skull. To surf all those lines of energy and catch it up, almost, in feverish talk, struggling for breath, dark patches on white shirt. A fresh cigarette, a Camel, fired from the stub of the last. ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’
*   *   *
The Sicilian quarter, the tight community on Fort Square, where Charles Olson found a safe branch on which to perch, with Betty, in August 1957, was still very much present when I walked there from my roadside hut in October 2011. First floor, balcony on the side, new names on mailboxes: Frontiero, Sova, Borichevsky. And a harbour view that hits home, both directions in time and space: the workaday shacks, rust running from metal fence into stone wall, fishing boats putting out, seasonal pleasure boats at anchor. In the last years, when the task went sour on him, and Olson was alone, it was an exile interrupted by visitors, New York poets or Warhol’s acolyte Gerard Malanga with a thirsty camera.
Olson’s son, another Charles, a Gloucester carpenter who shunned literary events and tributes, was proud to put his hand to the simple memorial plaque, pressing it into wet cement: CHARLES OLSON POET 1910–1970. He said a few words to the gathering of enthusiasts.
Below the apartments, in their brightly painted nonconformity, up against the fence, on the edge of the sea, was an abandoned blockhouse, a whitewashed post-industrial Alamo. The former packing plant of Clarence Birdseye, pioneer of the global frozen-food operation. So Olson becomes an alternative Captain Birdseye, commander of a ghost fleet, wacky admiral on the hill. Or Captain Iglo, neighbourhood eccentric, pipe and flapped Russian cap, sliding down steep steps in the snow, a foot and more taller than the men of the interlinked Sicilian families. Cold cartons of fish fingers no longer thump from the assembly line. There is talk of converting Clarence Birdseye’s plant into a smart hotel. Even Gorton’s, the big Gloucester employer, is cutting back. The paying product these days is cat food. Canned mush for America’s kept-at-home pets. The pampered muses of writers.
*   *   *
At the end of the curve of the gracious marine boulevard, after crossing the bridge over Annisquam River, I arrive at Stage Fort Park. It is no difficult matter to identify the gap in the trees at Half Moon Beach, the bench where the young Olson stood listening to the two old men, as they smoked and talked. This is the pivotal point where, feeling the immense weight of the land behind you, the overriding impulse is to turn and face the sea. The boy, whose wrists were already too much for the sleeves of his tight jacket, said that he was spellbound by what he heard: that male need to talk the day down. He knew their names, Lou Douglas and Frank Miles. A lazy, companionable exchange, in the face of lengthening shadows, as they draw on pipe or cigarette. For Charles Olson, this is where it all begins. Unnoticed, he listens. Then he turns back, up through the deserted park, where earlier he had played baseball with his friends, and across Hough Avenue to the holiday cottage. To his family, the summer community.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Iain Sinclair