Wednesday, September 9, 2015


       Reading THE CATACOMBS by William Demby has had a devastating effect on me or rather on my understanding of--- for want of a better phrase--- my literary career, my literary ambition or what I once called rather grandly A Writing Life.
       I have had the hardcover of THE CATACOMBS for many years with its stark black and white dust jacket with only the photo of a black man in profile; a man who I assume is William Demby.  The dust jacket informs the reader of Demby’s  life in Italy where he worked in the film industry with Rossellini and Fellini and  in 1951 he published a novel Beetlecreek after studying at Fisk University on the GI bill following service in the segregated US army during WW2 where he had ended up in Italy. He returned to the US in 1963 and THE CATACOMBS is published and copyrighted in 1965.
       I have often thought THE CATACOMBS was the solitary novel by an American to be compared to the best really modern European or world novels that could only read in translation since American fiction seemed so old-fashioned, so dead in the water as it were:  Julio Cortazar’s HOPSCOTCH or Jean Genet’s OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s IN THE LABYRINTH or THE FLANDERS ROAD by Claude Simon or KAPUTT by Curzio Malaparte or THE MARQUISE WENT OUT AT FIVE by Claude Mauriac and of course finally JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT by Louis Ferdinand Celine and the novels of Samuel Beckett: HOW IT IS and the trilogy, MOLLY, MALONE DIES and THE UNNAMEABLE.   
       A few American books had really been interesting but were never mentioned by professors:  ON THE ROAD, THE NAKED LUNCH, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and CITY OF NIGHT. 
       THE CATACOMBS is: a “Bill Demby” is an American living in Italy working in the film industry, reading both American and European newspapers following as does his reader the Algerian War, the rise and fall of the OAS, the killing of JFK, the Freedom Marches and much else.  The daughter of a college sweetheart is in Rome and Bill Demby announces to her that she is the subject of a novel he is writing which will describe her affair with an Italian Count who works for an airlines.  The girl is an extra in CLEOPATRA , a movie then being made in Rome starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor with a cast of thousands…
       The language of the novel is deliberately flat, matter of fact and by avoiding any convoluted heightened linguistic elaboration Demby is fixing the novel, the narrator, the invented and “real” characters into the 244 pages so we have the most vivid depiction of what it was like to be alive for a brief moment in the early 60s in Europe.. more accurate than just a folder of clippings as he places both “Bill Demby’,  the girl, the Count into arecognizable place and refuses to judge them, yet  gives them sure freedom instead of a defined authorial psychology complete with subtle ironic ambiguities much beloved by academics in the 1960s and forever it sadly seems.
       The novel upon publication was executed by a reviewer in The New York Times who accused it of having no plot, not developing interacting characters, and  refuses to “engage the reader’s sympathy… one simply yawns over.”
       NOW, I will rest my interest on why that reviewer is wrong by quoting from a passage where “Billy Demby” remembers as he is reading in the Italian newspapers of the death of the Pope:
“Never in my life have I seen so many Negroes in one Place.  This Freedom March is a continuous flow of smiling dark faces.  Slowly the clean well-groomed self-conscious well-behaved crowd of marchers shuffles past  the solemn neoclassic government buildings… I think: “Yesterday I was in Rome.  As yet I do not feel  part of this well-groomed well- behaved revolution.  To the contrary I feel cheated.  It all seems like some gigantic hoax, a public relations stunt.  Everything seems false, contrived—the mobile drinking fountains and latrines provided by the Army… And my father says nothing.  He is meditating--- like a cattle merchant—on his pipe, but the pipe is not lit.  We have no tape recorder.  His father sold baked sweet potatoes from a pushcart on the slum streets of Philadelphia.  My son is a Roman schoolboy watching this Freedom March on tomorrow’s TV in Rome…”There ain’t been nothing like this in Washington before!”  a disembodied voice behind me says.  And suddenly it doesn’t seem real, there are too many people.  I haven’t the slightest idea what we are doing here, where we are going. To the tomb?  For a while longer I let myself be swept along with the flow of the mournfully singing crowd.  Now I am hungry.  We hail a taxi.  My mother greets is at the door. She puckers up her lips so that I may bend down and kiss her.  As a child, it always embarrassed me to kiss my mother, but now I do so almost eagerly, as an anchor to fix my position in time and space.  “Welcome, big boy!” my mother says.

                  Yes, a mere  moment  in a book that has a first page, a last page and when closed is put on the shelf mirroring the fate every single human reading this essay.
       However, for this reader it is passages like this which reveal Demby as a great writer, singular, ethical, without guile or cunning… and well knowing why he is to be eventually discarded and forgotten since the whole book does not seem to be in accord with what a Black writer--- to particularize Demby but the same is really true of all writers--- is supposed to be writing according to the demands of the academy and the marketplace:  flattering addictive romances of plotted lives the consumer is supposed to care about and be urged into whatever is the required action of the moment…
       Conscious always of both the long history of Italy and Rome and of the constant demand of public events as depicted in the newspapers William Demby is describing in the immediate his own experiences and as he is so particular they become universe such that I sitting here in a slum room ] on East First Street in what is now called the East Village of Manhattan am aware through the newspaper of hordes of the poorest of the poor descending on Italy from across the Mediterranean as the Chinese economy goes into a terrifying descent and in two days my teaching begins again at Borough of Manhattan Community College where I will walk into a room where the majority of students will be at least 45 years younger than the person here typing this line. 

       Here and then here as is “Bill Demby” bending to kiss his mother allowing me feel and in the final pages of his book which if I was a better typist I would fully reproduce beyond these fragments for why give it all away:  “…Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married today in a simple ceremony in a Montreal hotel room…Today’s surprise ceremony culminated the well-publicized romance that began in Rome two years ago during the filming of CLEOPTARA in which both…”)  (In the restaurant across from the Catacombs, along the ancient Appian way in Rome the waiter is putting the finishing touches to the table.  Doris (the daughter of Bill Demby’s friend) and the Count are still standing before the blazing fireplace.  Doris is saying: “Well. I guess you might call this our Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter coming so early this year…”  The tagliatelle arrive in a big bowl shaped like one half of an egg… [here ensues what will be the end of their friendship]  (And the warm hum of my IBM Executive electric  typewriter  abruptly makes a pocket of silence….) as Doris and the Count go down into the catacombs where an Irish priest is explaining, “The number of separate graves in the Catacombs has been estimated at two million and more, of all races and colors…”… “The count walks with desperate calm down the dark cold corridors shouting silently, his teeth chattering, his fingers clenched, far now from the warm compact circle of English speaking tourists listening to the spiel of the cheerful young Irish priest guide: (“Doris!... Doris!... Where are you, Doris?... Where are you?... Doris! Doris!  Where have you gone?”) 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015





I am not unique in thinking Gertrude Stein’s writings as utterly complicated and utterly simple. The contradiction sends me and most people to the biography, to the anecdotes, to the people who surrounded her, to her life story, to Petain, to Hemingway, to Toklas to… to… a memory of going along to the Paula Cooper Gallery on Wooster Street say sometime between Dec 31, 1979 and mid-afternoon Wednesday January 2 to listen to the reading of THE MAKING OF AMERICANS. According to the card this was the sixth reading.

It seemed so necessary to do this as Ruth and I lived above Milady’s on the corner of Prince and Thompson Street in a small three room apartment that rented for $163.00 a month.  
So, during those days we or I alone or she alone would drop in for a while and listen to the book. 
I would go home and try to find the passages--- in the Something Else Press edition which seemed a required book at that time among---  what was enjoyable and what I thought I followed as I listened was usually not there on the page, even when I found what had been read in the gallery. 
According to the Internet these readings went on for 25 years… in 1996 the gallery moved to Chelsea… and such events became memories of a time that now seems so long ago as to be ancient history. 
On the card back then I had written what I must have heard:
                  he was not very certain in his existence for them. 
                  There isn’t very much existence in them.
                  Hopefully, allowing the colloquial to eat at the book English I could have escaped writing

On my shelf I have always kept two other SOMETHING ELSE PRESS books, both by Daniel Spoerri:  AN ANECDOTED TOPOGRAPHY OF CHANCE  and THE MYTHOLOGICAL TRAVELS…  I have not supplied the complete titles of either book and there is another book by Dick Higgins but that has gone missing… all of which explains in some way the despair that allowed me to write a letter to Jack Shoemaker, an actual letter, as I had found a letter from him turning aside from considering a version of ST PATRICK’S DAY back in 1980  [to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in Spring 2016] when he was running North Point Press… these days he is vice-president and literary director of Counterpoint Press and their website announces that they do not consider fiction unless it comes via a recognized agent…


Back in 2000 and 2002 Barbara Probst Solomon published in the journal she founded and edited THE READING ROON two excerpts from what I called JUST LIKE THAT…  she published the opening and the conclusion of this book  which I thought of as a description of A beginning of the Sixties from what is now the last century.  The book takes place in the German Democratic Republic (DDR).  The first line of the opening, “Are you a Jew?”.  The last line of the ending of the book was longer, “Only, I was held and held in memory by Martin, by my father, by being in Brussels, by Gary poking his finger into a bullet-scarred wall off the Kurfurstendam--- all shaped up into the journey and the  what had happened on my spring holiday that year in Leipzig in the German Democratic Republic when I went over from Dublin to get away from it all, as I had thought, but stocking the future when, dear one, you ask and I begin.”


I wrote later what I thought was a book with the title THEN that was to be of THE end of the Sixties from the previous century.  A piece from it appeared in the Notre Dame Review  revolving about Anthony Burgess when he was at Columbia University in the early 1970s, that time when people seemed to want to live inside the spirit of  Charles Manson.

Of late, the whole manuscript has acquired a new title FORGET THE FUTURE.  At one time I had used that title for a something that pursued James Thomson, the poet who wrote THE CITY OF DREADFUL NIGHT from Scotland to Ireland to London to Spain to New York to London. 

David Rattray caused a long section from it to appear in BOMB… but that is so long ago and I am sure forgotten as sadly David Rattray is forgotten by that magazine which continues… (there are so many worthy writers in Brooklyn that have to be catered to) and  now you know  why I wrote to Jack Shoemaker to see if he might be interested in FORGET THE FUTURE…, a real letter I have written, as slow as a snail… about a book from the Sixties of the previous century in the hope that Shoemaker is not given over to  the amnesia that  is epidemic in what is delusionally called the publishing industry.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

before time passes and things are lost

          I suppose I should be writing about William T. Vollmann’s  THE DYING GRASS or ‘I’ by  Wolfgang Hilbig or again about THE WALL by H.G. Adler but a few weeks ago I was talking with Laurie Callahan at New Directions about the man who owned the red wheel barrow, Thaddeus Marshall.  Of course we all know that red wheelbarrow because of the poem by William Carlos Williams: 
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

besides the white
          I would suggest that you will find out who MICHAEL J. PETERS is by reading these three letters which I have transcribed from his handwritten versions:
Dear Tom
          The fault of not continuing our, at best, broken line of correspondences is entirely mine.  Your letter written in Dublin arrived here some months back.  I shall pledge myself to more discipline in the future and hopefully purge myself of my shortcomings.  Please forgive this horrible red [the letter is written in red ink] but it’s all I have.  Perhaps it’s symbolic of many things--- but that would really be too heavy to write about!!
          I haven’t written anyone since last spring when I wrote a Syrian girl about her body and how much her armpit had meant to me while suffering the adversities of Oriental life.  In that particular letter I overextended myself, totally exceeding my fondest expectations and proving what I’ve always suspected; that words are nearer to me than pubic stubble.  So anyway my letters comes someplace between Theŕeśe’s smooth belly and just plain words
          My family forwarded your letter (I spent the first two months of summer north of Seattle) but I didn’t receive it until after your proposed induction date of 1 June.  However I can vaguely recall being terribly drunk at about that date so I must have communed with you somehow.  I’m confident that you did avoid the messy business in some manner--- hopefully it will end soon and civilization can redeem her soul.
          ‘Merkan’ intelligence is beautifully characterized by Wallace, Nixon, and to a lesser extent H.H.H.  The idea of a national political platform essentially based on beating Black-Americans into submission and giving young people haircuts is particularly appalling in the face the real issues: poverty, capitalist economy , etc. (Before I forget--- I’ve a stack of back issues to the ‘Helix’ Seattle’s underground.  It’s established and heads above most such papers.  Drop a card with your new address and I’ll forward them immediately!!)
          A close friend wrote a few weeks ago from Big Sur about living and dying and he idea of somehow reaching a decision as to the validity of life.  It was really quite abstract.  Implicit was the suggestion that he might die soon by his own hand.  I mention it only because I think about it at times and I’m sure you also do.
          I’ve been reading a lot of late, mostly heavy academic books but some Gíde, Hesse and Greek tragedy too.  In an attempt to make myself more comfortable I’ve change majors again--- transferring to the NEAR EASTERN LANGUAGES & LITERATURE DEPT.  was easy. It seems to be more a challenge.  I think my field may eventually be Islamic art
          At any rate, Tom—write me of your condition and of your wife.  As I proposed--- a simple card with your address would be adequate.  In return I promise a stack of ‘underground’ sheets’ as well as long coherent “think letter.”

                  SEATTLE                                                            November 68
I must say how pleasant it was to receive your letter.  My blatant procrastination had left me worried that Elbie J. and the boys had grabbed you in London and somehow thrust you into the War Machine.  Like all Crusades, ours kills, rapes, pillages and sloganizes in the name Good.  If it weren’t so sad we could chuckle until the piss runs down our legs.  But alas it is most serious and profitable!!  By the way—did you see Chicago (Pig City, USA)??  A totally beautiful and predictable exercise in ‘Merikan’ democracy. Ah, for the good old days when pigs were pigs and not cops.
I’m glad to see you have returned to the States if for no other reason than to fill your belly with unescapable crud of ‘Merikan” civilization and your nostrils with the stench of our hypocrisy.  Beware!!  The spirit of 76 corrupts.
Can your believe Nixon??  Absolutely disgusting!!  The man is a Turkey!!  The imagination can easily see a new era of Brown Shirts and Black Boots.   By the way—did the good people of Wisconsin erect a monument to good old Joe Mc.  They must have; it would be only proper to have done so.
University continues--- it drones on and on with the rhythm of a palpitating whore.  It’s a game that I’ve to pay for a while.  Still I look for the warm lady dressed in brown, cloaked in darkness, but that’s a game I play with myself and hardly as significant as the scholarly thing with books.  A friend who sits on the fence and gets despondent over things like spring mornings at the [Big] Sur and Leningrad snows wrote that but I had to destroy his letter because it caused me to think about things and that’s somewhere near the end.  I like the idea of making love on dirty sheets in your Venetian slum house.  I beg to be your guest paying or otherwise.  Venice is good to those who know her.,  Where else the ecstasy of days measured in the downy armpits and the dry rasps of rending spirits.  Which reminds me--- did you see the latest issue of NOVA? (It’s an English (British) mag.  Of doubtful quality).  It has an etching of Twiggy with an arm extended to God doing her toilette with a trusty Gillette super blue blade.  God was it laughable!!!!  They must have invented that splendid cover for me--- an exclusive thing designed solely to evoke a licentious chuckle from those who care about such trivia.
The sky never seems to be more than pale green, an opaque continuum that leaves some doubt about the exact moment when heaven meets mother earth.  The November sky is for those who think about  communion and black flags and tortured genius of sensitive people—
I hope you find some value in the copies of Helix---it’s our ersatz journalism draped in the filigree of OP-POP culture.
Well at least they try.
About your letters and things--- a catholic school.  Really, Thomas!!  A  bastion of radical, irrational dogma.  Can you make it??  I had hoped you could find something in Europe away from all the hassle of concerned parents.  I’m looking closely at teaching in Roberts College, Istanbul my next trip over. However with an M.A. in NEAR EASTERN LANGUAGES & LITERATURE  it is will be a tight fit to meet their requirements.  I understand they prefer English M.A.’s with teaching experience.
Of course I remain interested in your writing, anxiously awaiting an opportunity to read your work.  What are the chances of publication??  If things get too slow, I could work for a printing at this end. If you’re truly satisfied with your novel, now in London, and assuming it is turned down, you might try Grove Press in NYC or Lighthouse Books in San Francisco.
I’ll shortly begin working for the Post Office in an attempt to work off my indebtedness--- I was forced to buy a car… V.W. and will in the next month rent a beach cottage on the Sound.  I’ve to get away from my family they are stunting my personality.  It will be limited freedom allowing me to be more eccentric in my existence.  Somehow I’ll manage to keep up my studies at [University of] Washington while working.  You should strongly consider visiting me or moving out here.  We have the mountains and the sea and a radical political climate. (We were the only western state to tell Nixon to get screwed).  Because of certain regrettable obligations I can’t truly consider Mexico this spring.  But I’m sure you would find the Northwest rather enjoyable and my cottage would be yours and your wife’s   We are provincial, but nevertheless very good people. The music is sweet as is the beer and the grass is abundant in the children’s pipes.  I can confidently say there would be good times for all.  Consider it, Tom.  We could open a commune in the wastes of eastern Washington or in the nearby mountains.

I couldn’t find the issue of the Evergreen Review that you requested but I did meet an interesting cunt that led me to several café-au-lait in the district and a near fuck.  I’ll keep looking!
When I gather my wits I’ll write you a long ‘think’ letter… Should be around the New Year.  Let me know of your plans, Tom, I want to share conversation and beer with you before time passes and things are lost. As for God’s blessing--- I’m sure he would if he could.,


                                                                             29/11/68 [29/12/68]
Thomas McGonigle:
My bed has been empty for weeks and it’s cold.  God it’s cold—the frost is fixed on the window till well past noon and my feet stay bare through it all  like Ransom’s frozen parsnips in the snow.  The hot bath at 2:00 brings me back; things focus much better with lemon scented suds soaking my crotch. Tom, I’m glad you have at least tenatively agreed to share the northern wilderness this summer—It’ll be good for both of us.  My disordered mind needs company and you need inspiration before returning to ‘academia.’
Through the ordeal of autumn with the death and all I managed to rise above it all be placed on the “President’s List of Scholars” at the University.  Janet said is showed how well adjusted and established I was--- I grabbed her tits in front of her mother, she cried, and now in their minds I’m not nearly as well adjusted as they had contemplated.  An unfortunate outburst for all concerned but it was the easiest way to make my point.  Anyway it’s all returned to the back of  my foggy consciousness and it’ll not return until  I rattle.
I read Donleavy’s Saddest Summer of Samuel S. last evening--- it was naturally impressive but not the same magnitude as The Ginger Man.  Also have a short story copied ifn the bourgeois anti-sexuality monthly Playboy--- The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B. but it is the same Dublin/Trinity thing and it will probably be bit as well received as the others. It seem better suited to those of us for whom the divine light of perversion has long since descended and dimmed.  Anyway my shadow seems larger and my body-mind more lustful.  Read this morning where a G-man (FBI) gunned down a hippie in Istanbul.  Seems be less safe than before.  It all sounds ultra-somthing.
They’ve taken all the plastic Christmas to the rubbish heap thank God.  It becomes unbearable after a while.  I’m always suspicious of prophets and apocalyptic visions anyway, it strikes me as a business man’s hoax.  Can you imagine your wife telling you that your child was conceived in heaven let alone the Immaculate Conception---but I mustn’t offend the R.C.s and the lessers.   Skepticism is my cross!  To bear it on my slightly stopped shoulders for the sake…….?
I don’t feel like continuing , Tom.  An inspiration is about to send me to the Conservatory to look at the tropical flora captive behind steamy windows.   The idea of brightly blooming  things behind and forced birth while even the worms are frozen in their slime is curious.  I’ll post this then write within a few days, enclose any journals I’ve accumulated since the last and if you like talk about Phédra or send some of Doneavys that you’ve not read.
A prosperous new year full of goodies
                                            [I have no further letters from Michael]

In September, 1967 I was in Trieste staying at a youth hostel on the Adriatic with the Castle of Miramare to the right and the city to the left… I met Michael J. Peters there. I remember a drunken evening and being forced to stay during a heavy rainstorm in a seaside cabana with him and two South African girls as we were locked out of hostel which closed at 10PM.  The next day Michael and I went to a hotel in the Via Diaz in Trieste, thinking of Joyce writing Ulysses in this city now hollowed out and no longer important… we took a ferry along to Pula in what was then Yugoslavia and then by  train to Zagreb where I last saw Michael as he was leaving for Athens and on to look at the Cedars of Lebanon as he said while I was going to Belgrade and eventually to Sofia where my life changed when I walked up in the dark Hristo Botev Boulevard to eventually marry Lilia, the first girl I talked to, who was then minding her mother’s kiosk.  We left Sofia just before Easter, 1968 for Dublin by way of Venice, Paris and London.  In October we went to Menasha, Wisconsin where my parents were living in exile from Patchogue.

I have a carbon of a letter I must have sent to Michael during this time written on the back of a mimeo of a history quiz I had given in the 7th grade class I was teaching at St. John’s Polish Catholic School in Menasha, Wisconsin.  I began teaching in November after Lilia and I came from Dublin at the end of October.  The teacher had quit and they needed someone desperately. I was a lousy letter writer but… 

Michael:      Thank you ever so much for the Helixs they are a piece of food in this cold night that is lived through with little sign of the morn… could you send more if possible in fact any you don’t need?
The reverse is a test… it is all arbitrary and that but I had to find out if they knew any facts at all…these poor students already their minds are warped by the American death, they talk with glib fascination of the Vietnam death,, about the orgasm of killing  (we have had deer hunting the last two weeks) have you this great festival?  About the refined brutality of death that is American football American style…the previous teacher used to give them no homework if the Green Bay Packers won also no homework on days they might play. 
About Joe McC  his spirit was exorcised by Allen the G last year…the RCs have a mass over his grave each year hoping to bring back his body from the worms.
From the newspapers I could imagine that you should be able to find some nice pair of breasts to bury your nose in, I wouldn’t want the armpit of American civilization for the stubs might spear your tender,,,
The RCs quite good compared to other places and quite progressive  very little control over what I do no outside exams in the 7th grade  the religion is opening their eyes at least that is what it will be for me…  I also teach American history. Monday they debate  resolved THE AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE WAS NOT JUSTIFIED  perhaps we could go on IT WAS ALL A WASTE OF TIME
You must realize these kids have never seen a slum, they have never seen a Black.  I was going to write negro but that is taboo and I only use the b in class.
Are you able to work and study full time.  I am going to back for night courses at the u in languages as anything serious up here would be a waste of time  I just want the basics and any idiot can teach that
Are you developing the Lowery bit?
I think we will come in June if it is at all possible.  I will get paid for that month and but won’t have to work
Spring in Mexico is impossible anyway there is no holiday given for that
The near fucks  (Evergreen search)  deserve head split open
In fact as I write this letter I have made my mind definite to come  up on the hill with the beautiful  long haired women all mingling and gentle   no news now on novel  but sent it to Hollins College in Virginia in the hopes of a full fellowship to do an MA in creative writing  a nice gentle way of spending a year
Hollins is a girls undergraduate school with an integrated sexually grad school of 30.  The main thing I just do is over awe that them with talent suck’em down socially and then I can sit and type to my heart’s content for a year.
Washington state radical even with Boeing?
You have a nice hand writing  the symbol of good breeding  that is more important in this world gone to seed,  now or a few seconds I shall turn my upper class properly aristocratic
  I might mention in this context  that Mr Donleavy has a new book out
Roberts should not be difficult if you could pick up a methods course in teaching eng. as a foreign language  what about the place in Beirut  also there is an American college for some religion in Alexandria  also working for the oil companies  also the British Council  has good jobs in Saudi Arabia  $7600 plus travel insurance cheap housing etc etc  you would save 5 at least
If you ever want anything from this place I will try and comply  I will send the Milwaukee rad sheet if I can get some copies  a trip to Mil is more than 100 miles
Swimming through the vomit is bad enough
Let me end there
Christmas we realize is coming,,,
I hope you find nice things in stocking but remember it’s what between that counts
And god bless your undertaking to introduce a note of necrophilia into this…

Michael J. Peters is alive in your reading of his letters.  Or have I lurched too far from the example of William's trusting in his red wheelbarrow?  Am I supposed to tell you what I make of Michael J. Peters in these letters.  One last detail  we exchanged books in Zagreb.  I do not  remember which book I gave him but I still have the small Grove Press paperback version of Alain Robbe-Grillet's THE VOYEUR