THE FRIENDS OF LUIS GARCIA
by Belle Randall
from Berkeley Daze
* * *
Please leave the room,
if you think
you are going to be frightened
when my words become mirrors
or exploding flowers
(from "Monday" by Luis Garcia)
Richard Denner has often acknowledged the influence of Luis Garcia on his poetry, and I want to do the same. Although our friendships with Lu are uniquely our own, the fact of his influence is not. Considering that Luis' work is relatively unknown, the sphere of his influence is surprising. I met Robert Creeley only once, and, knowing we had a mutual friend, mentioned Luis's name—quite unprepared for the glad recognition it elicited—with Creeley, who had been seated, springing to his feet to pump my hand, and insisting, even as I launched into a declaration of his influence upon Lu, that, between he and Luis, influence was a two way street. Clemens Starck is another poet with whom I have swapped tales of Luis's importance as a soul mate, and I know that the painters Ciel Bergman, Larry Melnick and Erik d'Azevedo would join their voices in the chorus. If Luis' work were better known, one might assume his influence spread via the printed word, but since it is not, one is forced to recognize that the bredth of his influence is a testiment largely to the vibrancy of individual friendships.
The hours I spent with Luis still seem to me as valuable as they did back then, circa 1969, in the days when I made a conscious decision to put much of my life on hold in order to make myself available to his friendship, including his beguiling lectures on Olson, Creeley and Levertov, Robert Duncan, Sir Francis Bacon, and class mobility, delivered mainly while he drove, usually on some errand or another for himself or his mother. He had been a delivery boy in a previous incarnation ("Mr. Menu"), and talking while driving suited him. When not behind the wheel of a car, in those days Lu had so much excess energy that he would pace from room to room, sometimes pacing the length of my small house and back again, while we talked. He was too nervous to sit down for a meal. Driving absorbed this excess energy and helped him relax. He was graceful at the wheel, dancing in and out of traffic, all the while, his hand in its fingerless leather glove restlessly tuning the radio, searching for jazz, settling for rock 'n roll.
Sometimes he drove past places I had lived in childhood, seeming to know my past life—no, this was fantasy of mine, sitting in the carriage, "having put away/my labor and my leisure too, /for his Civility." Careful to distinguish what was real from what was not, I was ready to believe he could read my mind. It was Luis who taught me that friendship and poetry could have this kind of power. Although perhaps it was I who endowed him with charisma, it was he who unveiled to me the magical properties of language. In his instruction, the word "water" accumulated meanings as various as the color white in Moby Dick. Names revealed an unaccountable rightness. The name Levertov yielded "lever/ ever/ love". Denise herself responded that this was the method of ancient rabbinical scholars. When not with Lu, I spent my time dismantling words. The word "belief" unpacked a series of Edenic echoes and allusions (be, Eli, lie, elle, Eve, life, lief, leave, on leave, leaf, leaves), not because of etymology, but by pure chance. Poetry, in the context of Luis' friendship, was a revelation.
Luis talks about "the words inside the words" in the poem "No Kidding":
I bent toward the grass
—one of my favorite poems, all the way to its non sequitur end:
listening for the voices
someone had hidden there.
I laughed when I discovered
the words inside the words
I had already discovered—
I guess I too must borrow
the theme—how else
can I report the sadness
when there was none?
For me in those years, puns—words inside of words—offered a running commentary, winking and latent in the content of almost any printed matter. The voice of the collective—for language is a collective creation—was surprisingly familiar: the voice of Groucho Marx delivering a series of wise cracks pseudo vox. If you said "embarrass," it said "bare ass," if you said "therapist," it echoed, "the rapist." True, such puns make us groan, yet if the words on the page had turned into fairy dust and blown away, it would not have seemed more improbable than the existence of this continuous, gratuitous commentary. Remembering that bad puns are the province of fatherhood, I wondered if poetry is the working out of something in our DNA.
Rhyme too yielded inexplicable congruities: "death/breath" with "earth/birth" and "womb/tomb"—the run of coincidental pairings is all but inescapable to any poet who rhymes. But if I succumbed to exactly the kind of magical thinking poet and translator Dick Davis dismisses as "unreflective":
Like the use of puns, rhyme too is a device that depends on accidents of sound: that "breath" and "death" rhyme in English can seem somehow cosmically right to the unreflective English poet, but of course words for the concepts they express don't rhyme in other languages.
("On Not Translating Hafez")
Luis should not be held accountable. Luis's touch is lighter than mine; he does not insist on bringing closure to the "discoveries" of which he writes. Besides, even granting that the word "magical" is too insistent, I think perhaps Dick Davis misses the point. To find accidental rightnesses in one language is not to claim that these same rightnesses exist in all languages. In other languages, surely, are other "accidents of sound," equally rich. The puns and chimings a person hears are as much his own projection, as they are inherent in the language. Yet such "accidents of sound," potential in all languages, are "magical" because they are gifts, full of poetic possibility.
Luis' "Ribbons," a later poem, echoes "No Kidding," but here the discoveries do not arise from language:
Coarse grass bent
toward the old man's imagination,
wind opened his eyes
with what he called nature—
grass, wind, sunlight,
and the thoughts of an old man
hoisting themselves into the air.
In this more mature poem, the poet has abandoned the pronoun "I" in favor of "the old man," a figure less assertive than the former speaker, and more receptive. He no longer takes credit for the discovery nor attempts to pin it down ("I laughed when I discovered/ the words inside the words/I had already discovered"), instead, the discovery and discoverer have both become part of "what he called nature."
In those days Luis wore a hat with a feather in the band like Holden Caulfield. He was Mr. Poetry Man (how corny, I never liked the song, but it was apt). In his company, I felt a great sense of imminence, as if something wonderful was about to be revealed. At Berkeley High School, where we were in the same class ('57) but not the same classes, Luis had been a skinny, hyperactive kid. Now, in his early 30's, he had been physically transformed by weight lifting and running—activities much less popular than now—indeed, Luis was the first person I heard express the idea that physical exercise was good for one's psychic health. Throughout all these years, his appearance was charmed for me, and so expressive that it took on a million aspects; one moment I would be seeing him as a dowager empress, the next as a Hindu beggar, the next as Zapata. Nowadays this effect can be reproduced digitally on film, with one face morphing from moment to moment into faces of every age, race, and gender. If they ever make a movie about Luis they should use this effect, rather than any specific actor, to portray his character, so that the story unfolds with a kind of Everyman walking through its center.
park your bird,
in the yard,
bird's eye view
of inside out
For Luis, in those days, the poet was a jazz musician, the poem an improvisation. One began with a handful of words (of sounds, of syllables), flung out like a melody. These words could come from the heart or from a passing billboard—they could be almost anything—impassioned, amusing, arbitrary—the poet played with those words, finding in them music, puns, delight, surprise, resolution. A modest riff. A harbinger of "language" poetry way back in the sixties, Luis was playing with words as words, not with the things they represent, pulling meaning out from under you like a rug ("This much I know: There's a rat in the pack, and a ship in the deck"). So much for certain knowledge. The result of Lu's word play was a transformation of the random thing, whatever it was, into art. Early on he wrote many poems that stand for me with my favorites of all time. As soon as I started looking, I found 80. Reading him now I have the feeling that I have underestimated him, even while praising him, his poems are still so alive, so fresh and strange.
He finds himself beside himself,
beside a dog filled with lilies,
a horse with angels.
He is not beautiful
but he is as the storm is not
what he thinks he is.
As the mountains occur
in the dream of his mother, he finds
there is certainly nothing
moreover than that.
Luis and I grew up in Berkeley. We were children of the 60's. Psychedelic drugs opened up realms of experience beyond anything we had previously deemed possible. I lived in a continuous state of expectation. Now that the language had started talking, who knew what it would say? Serious about writing, conscientious in teaching, I never crossed the border into certifiable insanity, but I lived on the brink of some nameless, hopeful transformation, some apogee of poetry. Meanwhile, family and friends attempted intervention, making it clear that I looked like a dunce, following Luis around, hanging on his every word—many of which were inane and nonsensical. For a brief time, Luis and I actually did talk nonsense to one another, much to the annoyance, understandably, of others present. But this "nonsense" was a language I had spoken since adolescence. It recalled long, melancholy walks at dusk, when, feeling a poem coming on, I would hear rhythms, but not distinct words, and would find myself muttering incantations in what sounded as foreign to my ear as Old Norse—in a kind of inexpressible groping toward articulation.
Borges, Williams, Olson, Creeley, Levertov and Duncan were some of the poets whose books Lu gave me, and they were all writers who would be important to me—Olson immediately, as, for a season or two, I became hyper aware of my breath in relation to the line, and I listened for the pattern of "heart to breath to ear" (if I have the order right) as I began to experiment with free verse. Luis and I read our poetry out loud to one another and to friends, a thing I had never done before. Imagine! I was thirty and had been writing poetry for over fifteen years, but had never read in public. My few publications were a terrible secret on account of which, at the same time, I felt absurdly proud. I was teaching at Stanford, but it was Luis who had a community of friends among poets and artists; moreover, he was a poet 24/7, whereas I was still wondering what costume to wear. Luis helped me to be a poet in public. After my book (101 Different Ways of Playing Solitaire University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973) came out, he invited me to read with him at The Comet, a bar in the Marina district; Cabrillo Community College; the Encore, a small theater in downtown San Francisco, and other venues. In those days, I read with a great intensity—inspired by stage fright, more than the content of the poems—thumping out the rhythms like Yeats on those early recordings that nowadays make my students snicker at old-fashioned notions of the prophetic bard.
The name which occurs most frequently among poets in the English canon is William. It was Luis who pointed out to me that William Carlos Williams proclaimed his Spanish roots by retaining his middle name "Carlos"—a flash of Spanish color like a red hibiscus blooming between two staid columns of Wm/Wms. Bringing together the Anglo and Latin traditions that are his own heritage in poetry, Luis braided imagism and surrealism—which does not enter the English tradition until Eliot, but throughout the history of the Spanish tradition, I'm told, is not merely present but prominent. In his early twenties, Luis lived in Chile and immersed himself in Latin culture and the poetry of Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and others. The poems Luis wrote in his twenties are surreal, but, at the same time, unexpectedly contemporary and American:
A coffin with the mouth of a fish
Is talking to the lady in black
who has hidden his mind
in a box created by distance.
That's me they're discussing,
he screams, here's my I.D. to prove it.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your attention please.
This is your driver, Luis Garcia.
(from "Friday, October 13th, 1967")
Imagism focuses on the literal thing, the very thing which, for a surrealist, is insufficient. Luis finds a middle ground which is both real and surreal:
suddenly I could see
the branches made of blood
in the eye of some strange deity.
Influenced by Williams and Levertov, as well as Neruda, Luis's images arise from the natural, physical world, as well as "the imagination," as we have seen in the poem "Ribbons" (quoted above).
For Luis, unlike Williams, there is no distinction between the thoughts of the old man (in "Ribbons") and palpable things. The reality of thoughts is comparable to that of the "grass, wind, sunlight," not merely an intangible "correlative." "What he called nature," is a line perfectly placed to complicate our understanding of the dichotomy—so assiduously maintained by the English tradition—between physical and mental images.
One can't date Luis's poems from his books, for he often combines revisions of earlier poems with new, but after "Ribbons"—after, say, about 1973—the language of his poems, for a decade or so, becomes opaque, as if the words on the page were shapes cut out of construction paper and the poem a collage. (The fact that Luis makes Kurt Schwitters-like collages cannot be irrelevant). Many poems of this period seem to be made out of a single reserve of words, almost like refrigerator magnet poetry, but with a vocabulary less self-consciously "poetic." Like certain musical forms, the poems in Two Pears proceed by repetition and variation. In its second stanza, the small, odd poem "Prisoners" seems to describe its own method:
Prisoners of water,
bars of water,
as a reminder.
A place of minutes,
ours, he said,
Although the formula "Mind repeats/one thought/twice" describes the stanzas that follow—and, indeed, many other poems in the collection—the results, far from formulaic, are continually surprising.
The spring of 1972, Luis drove me past a house where I used to live in childhood in the north Oakland hills, on Merriwood Drive. For the first time that year, I noticed and named the pale blaze of the tulip magnolias. Could it really be I had never noticed them before? I was thirty three and had never noticed spring? It was a time of new beginnings. The life whose claims I neglected for Lu's company was behind me now. At Stanford, where I'd remained as a Lecturer three years after receiving my MA, I was about to be shoved out of the nest and would soon accept full time employment as a writer-in-residence on the East coast. It was time to say goodbye to Luis. I had become a poet 24/7.
Now in his late sixties, Luis is still writing and giving readings in the Bay Area. The most recent of his poems I have seen is this one:
A MESSAGE FROM GARCISMO
A voice mail poem for Gail and Alan
You have not reached me.
You have not reached me today.
No. You have reached the beach
of your own desolate dreams
where the scream of your last phone call
is lost in the wide tide
of no answering.
No one is available. Now.
The fever of your call
a single calorie
to the cool chill
of my unresponsive instument.
Let it be noted that the original "Message from Garcismo" is an actual historical document, a war report sent by Major General Calixto Ramon Garcia Iniguez to his Superior, the Commander in Chief of the Cuban Armies in 1898, providing an account of the conflict leading up to the surrender of the city of Santiago and the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule. Among the legendary incidents in General Garcia's life, according to the biography posted on the centennial website of the Spanish American War, is this:
In September 1872, surprised with sixteen men by five hundred, seeing that there was no chance to get away, and unwilling to be captured alive, Garcia put the muzzle of his .45 caliber pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Instead of going through his brain, the ball come out his forehead between his eyes, and he recovered.
Such an incongruous twining of good news and bad may help us understand the tone of the poem; what on first hearing is greeted by audiences as an hilarious send-up of answering machine etiquette, on subsequent reading becomes the inexorable communique of a dead man. So any poet's work must one day sound in the ears of those readers who are perhaps his closest friends.
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