A James Broughton Reader
edited by Jack Foley
(White Crane Books, 2007)
Review by Katherine Hastings
Can you accept yourself, in every part and particular? Specifically, tenderly and humbly? Can you learn to love yourself with gusto?...Will I ever accept that I am many men and many women trying to live together?
In the spring of 2007, White Crane Books released ALL: A James Broughton Reader edited by Jack Foley. The book was part of the press's Wisdom Series. Editor Foley is a poet and critic and—most importantly—was a close friend of James Broughton's. His love and respect for the man are evident in the careful attention he paid to structuring ALL in a way that expresses fully the importance of this poet, writer, filmmaker, gay icon (living a deeply satisfactory, romantic life with his partner, Joel Singer), wildly imaginative, shape-shifting man. "Imagine Thoreau," Foley says in his introduction, "with an obstreperous, widely-responsive body and a wicked sense of humor; and then imagine him a world traveler, a particularly individualistic Jungian and Zen Buddhist—and a filmmaker."
— James Broughton, "The Androgyne Journal"
James Broughton lived from 1913 to 1999—most of the twentieth century. As an artist he repeatedly declared boundaries—male/female, self/other, body/no body—and then joyously erased them. In his poetry, journals and films, we are treated again and again to his vivid imagination, profound insights, rollicking joy ("Big Joy" was the moniker given to him by poet and publisher Jonathan Williams) and visions. The themes that ran throughout his life include creativity ("Your business is to make something that neither you nor I have ever seen before"), sexuality, mystical religious feelings, the play of opposites, homoeroticism and the "Divine Androgyne," Broughton's Jungian mythological creature that represents the whole of consciousness in all its contradictory complexity. These themes are well represented in All through the carefully-chosen selections from Coming Unbuttoned, Broughton's autobiographical memoir; The Androgyne Journal, a startling and immensely gorgeous book of self-discovery; and two chapters on Broughton's films—a medium, Foley says, that was "never separate in his mind from poetry, sexuality, etc." ALL also contains a delightful presentation of Broughton's Zen Buddhism—the "superior wackiness" which includes the haiku-like "High Kukus" and "Forget-Me-Nots For Alan Watts." (One High Kuku goes, "I'm madly in love with a frog, / said the Goat, / but she has a crazy idea that it won't work out." Another: "Don't fall asleep at the wheel of fortune." Broughton's skill as a maker of aphorisms never deserted him.) The book also presents many poems—Broughton was after all primarily a poet—and serves as a companion to the last poetry collection published during Broughton's lifetime, Packing Up For Paradise: Selected Poems 1946—1996 (Black Sparrow Press, 1997). Some of the selections in ALL—including some fascinating excerpts from a 1979 journal—have never before appeared in print.
In his Introduction, Foley asserts that the films and poetry Broughton created are all versions of a primary experience he claims to have had as a child. Reading Broughton's account of this experience alongside his work makes it easy to agree. The year was 1916. Baby James awoke in the dark to his parents arguing in the next room:
But a more persistent sound, a kind of whirring whistle, spun a light across the ceiling. I stood up in my crib and looked into the backyard. Over the neighbor's palm tree a pulsing headlamp came whistling directly toward me. When it had whirled right up to my window, out of its radiance stepped a naked boy. He was at least three years older than I but he looked all ages at once. He had no wings, but I knew he was angel-sent: his laughing beauty illuminated the night and his melodious voice enraptured my ears.
This magical, sexual figure—a version of the Greek god, Hermes—told Broughton that he would be a poet, always, even if he chose not to be.
As he spoke he drew forth from the glow between his legs a pulsing hot sparkler, which laughed the way he did. Raising it like a wand, he circled my head with stars, then spilled them on my brow, my throat, my chest, all the way down to my peepee. The hot sparks made me giggle. When he blessed me that way I knew I would always belong to himů
Creativity. Homoeroticism. Magic. Joy.
Suddenly Hermy blew out his throbbing wand, spun back into his searchlight and zoomed out of sight over the palm tree just as I heard my mother enter from her bedroom: "Good Lord, baby! Why are you standing up? Are you sick? Heavens, you've wet your jammies again!"
But as Foley points out, Broughton had a dark side, too. There are few positive depictions of women in his work, though he deliberately emphasizes both the masculine and feminine aspects of the male personality. Broughton's film Mother's Day depicts "Mother" as an "indifferent goddess disapproving of romp and spoof." She tries to keep everything "lovely," turning people into still pictures for her scrapbook when the children would rather be in motion, like characters in a film. Mother's Day, along with other early works such as The Playground and Musical Chairs, brought Broughton to full awareness of his childhood, and it wasn't all frolic and light. Death was constantly on the sidelines of his consciousness and remained with him in various guises throughout his life. (In Broughton's last works death becomes a lover—the poet's last, joyous experience of "consummation.") For Broughton's readers, these various shifts and metamorphoses—fully apparent in ALL—allow us to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. The man and his work were full of energy—luminous, comical and disturbing.
ALL: A James Broughton Reader is an important book and offers us a unique experience, for it is, as Foley claims, "the very first book to allow the various aspects of Broughton's complex personality to 'sing' to one another." James Broughton was so vastly talented and led such an extraordinarily interesting life that one comes away from this gorgeous and excellently structured book wondering how we did without it. If you are familiar with James Broughton's work, you already know you must have this book. If you have not experienced Broughton's poetry, film or journals, treat yourself—you're in for "Big Joy."
for Big Bridge