As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
In 1953, or early 1954, Dan Burke was seeing, as they used to say, Claire Walsh, who was pregnant by another man, a lummox known as “Swede” to his lummox friends. Dan had recently been discharged from the Navy, and while he and Claire had been amorous companions during his rare shore leaves, she was far from averse to impromptu sexual adventures with congenial civilians while Dan was at sea. Thus, her dalliance with “Swede,” who was, incidentally, a reinsurance clerk on Maiden Lane: this permitted him to tell the occasional citizen who asked about his job that he was “on Wall Street.” He enters our story as a catalyst.
Dan didn’t know that Claire was pregnant, but since he and she had never engaged in anything more than what was called—and still may be, for all I know—“heavy petting,” he assumed that she was a virgin. Who knows why? When she told Dan that she was going to have a baby, he was, sequentially, astonished, hurt, disgusted, and angry. Then he asked her to “go down on” him, which she did. He felt, in some clouded, blurred way, even with “Swede,” whom he did not know at all. Then he asked her to marry him and she consented, with much blubbering, snot, and tears. He didn’t love her, nor she him, and nothing that they did at the outset of their marriage allowed love to establish itself and stagger free of the grim truth of their situation, as love, despite the long odds, may occasionally do. So their marriage began, not utterly bleak, but surely not aglow. It should be said immediately, I believe, that their marriage did not succeed, and was over some eight or nine years later. Not bad, considering.
Dan began working at a bookstore in the Village, Marboro, to be precise, on 8th Street, home of the authentic bullfight poster from colorful Méjico! (It gives me pause—what a comfortable phrase—when I recall that the bullfight poster was once virtually epidemic in the apartments of the hip and chosen, and then the latter and the posters suddenly vanished.) One of Dan’s coworkers was a man by the name of James Fremont, a poet who had been published in Zero, Neurótica, and Prairie Schooner and had a handwritten rejection note from an editor, or somebody, at Poetry, suggesting that he “try us again.” Which he did and did again, never managing to make further human contact, however contemptuous, with the famous magazine. In the meantime, Claire had begun to read this and that and have opinions on this and that as well. The plot, as you may discern, is not truly thickening, but it might be jelling a little. These people seem as if they’re about to “take a step,” probably into disaster.
The serendipitous conjunction of the well-read and, in the best tradition of the Village of those days, slightly shaggy, tweedy, and insufferably superior published poet, and the unhappy, directionless Dan and Claire, created the perfect climate for emotional calamities of many sorts and sizes. Dan began to write poetry (“of course!,” I hear you say) under the condescending tutelage of James, and Claire began to go to bed with him on those evenings when she was supposed to be seeing old “girlfriends,” attending suddenly fashionable poetry readings at any number of bohemian traps, or going to see “films” at the New Yorker or Thalia. Dan would stay home in their one-bedroom apartment on Blake Avenue in East New York—at that time, not yet the sister neighborhood of 1945 Stalingrad—and dream his old dream of playing jazz trumpet, another enthusiasm that had hysterically played itself out at the New York School of Music (Sunset Park branch) over a little less than eight months.
There had been another “student of trumpet” whose lessons were scheduled on Dan’s night, a nervous 40-year-old homosexual virgin who often talked of Charlie Spivak’s “golden horn,” and of a photograph—which he would soon bring in—of Joan Crawford “eating pussy,” as he put it, his eyes crazed and shining and unfocused, as if he were the “pussy” to which Miss Crawford addressed her perverse attentions. Dan got bored by the scale book and spooked by his fellow student, who began alternating his tales of Joan Crawford’s adventures with questions as to Dan’s toilet paper preferences. And his lips hurt after a half hour or so of practice: this would not do. He wanted to play and show them what he was made of, what was in his heart. Oh well.
But soon, literature, as noted, became his passion, and James guided him into the strange world of Eliot and Pound and Stevens, Dylan Thomas and Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden, the world of art and life! And life! So he and Claire had found a way to be. The trumpet was one thing, but this was quite another. And where James guided Dan, so too he guided Claire. She gradually acquired a slight lisp and a choppy laugh that was meant to be cold and worldly, as in: “Dan and James are actually working at the Marboro supermarket (hak hak hak)! It’s too much!”
Where, you may ask, was the child in this turmoil of art and love and life? As well you might. Growing up as best he could, which, as it turned out, was none too well. He became dyslexic—known in those days as “dumb,” hyperactive—known in those days as “dumb,” truant and antisocial—“dumb” and “bad.” It’s of sad moment, perhaps, to note that he would one day murder rhythm guitar and sing spectacularly off-key in a dreadful rock band, The Unbearables, before leaving for someplace Sunny and Sunny, to be with others of his kind. Heavy! But this is incidental to the story, so-called, and I add it because I know, courtesy of my magical authorial powers, what the kid’s future will be, or in this case, was. I could, as I don’t have to tell you, have made him into a solid citizen rather than a lout. Since his status is peripheral to everything, I offer him as a bonus, an embellishment, a fillip. A tip.
James Fremont let Dan and Claire know that he was soon going to move to San Francisco, where, he said, “real poetry” was still being written in a city long dedicated to the arts, one far removed from the commercial whoredom of New York, hey nonny no! Although the Beats were much in the ascendance there, a group of poets was working seriously at their “craft,” and a friend of his had begun a magazine that published authentic poetry. The magazine, Lux, called for a “return to the abiding truths of the vision of America set forth in the thought of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.” Oh boy. The poets published therein wrote poems that displayed lines like “Emerging lust that closely binds us all / In contrapuntal swells of love’s dark sea.” It need not be said, I’m sure, that the morose hacks who contributed to Lux were enraptured by fixed forms, and trafficked in infirm quatrains and sonnets and sestinas, all viciously rhymed to a fare-thee-well. Their vocation kept them off the streets, as they say, and the sacred fire burned bright.
So it was off to happy Frisco for James, and he was soon followed by Dan, Claire, and Justin, the latter slowly sinking into frantic misery under the assaults of Claire’s daily readings from the Bible, the Odyssey, and Shakespeare. “Today, honey, we’re going to find out what Odysseus did when he went to Hades. Say ‘O-diss-ee-uss.’” Their rusty Nash, a king of lemons, broke down for the fourth and final time of their hejira outside Bakersfield, and they arrived in The City by piss-redolent Greyhound. How they’d laugh in years to come, etc., etc. Right. They rented an apartment on Gough Street, which, like most residential streets of the town, even in those days—before the hordes of émigrés from the Midwest had stormed the place—was weirdly deserted day and night: in brilliant sun, torrential rains, and freezing fog.
Dan got a septic job working in the classifieds section of the Examiner and attempted to dedicate himself to a study of quantitative verse and, God help us, Latin, and bought himself a secondhand trumpet with a leaky spit valve that gurgled on C. He fitfully practiced his scales from his old NYSM practice book, and, although half-drunk much of the time on the red wine that was wondrously available by the cheap gallon, got to page 12, after which he set the absurd horn aside and wondered about the ablative. Claire resumed her ramshackle affair with James and began what she called a “systematic reading” of “the Russians,” e.g. some of The Brothers Karamazov and 213 pages of War and Peace; and Justin worked out his destiny as an emotional gimp.
One night, when Dan, James, and two other poets of the Grail met to read and critique their latest poems, James attacked Dan’s foray into the thickets of a Sapphic stanza by asserting that quantity is not for modern Americans. “You’ve got to count, man! Not sing! Marianne Moore!” Dan laughed even harder than Claire, although neither of them knew what their pal was talking about. Sing? And all they knew of Miss Moore was a poem about a fish. Dan’s poem began, “In my living room in blue San Francisco.” James remarked that “blue” was extraneous, but without it, “you’ve got no meter, man.” So the mentor said, his thigh next to Claire’s. He had brought over a copy of the Colorado Review, which contained his translation of one of Lorca’s poems, further to put Dan in his place. Claire’s hand caressed the magazine, which lay among the beer bottles and ashtrays on the kitchen table. Despite all, Dan felt like socking her one. James pulled the bill of his cap over his eyes and rolled, badly, I’m constrained to say, a cigarette. Take him all in all, he was a bad hat. Meanwhile, Justin could be heard in his room, smashing toys against the wall. “Must be a critique, Dan,” one of the other poets said, and general hilarity reigned. The evening ended when Dan’s beer ran out.
Here is a photograph of Dan, Claire, and Justin, taken on a Sunday afternoon in a little park off Dolores Street. The year is 1956. It’s hard to pinpoint the desolation that is enclosed in this image, since it is an almost intolerably bright Bay Area day, “some weather,” as the natives like to say and say again. Claire is in a brown suit that is out of fashion, and holds a book in her right hand: it looks like Ulysses, and may well be. Dan looks drunk, and probably is, and presents to the world a sour smile that appears to have been cemented to his face, and Justin murderously aims a toy pistol at the photographer, Claire’s current lover, a jazz pianist by avocation, a marijuana smoker by trade. The little family is right on the edge of wholesale wretchedness, or so the photograph would seem to proclaim. Herb Caen can’t save them, nor Dixie Belle gin, nor the gallons of California red that have become Dan’s faithful buddies. His leaky trumpet lies, wrapped in a T-shirt, at the bottom of a closet, in classic style: out of sight, etc. The horn can’t save them either. There is a tide in the affairs of men that sweeps them out to sea.
It is the Christmas season, and in the inside breast pocket of Dan’s worn covert topcoat is a photograph of Justin on the lap of Emporium-Capwell’s Santa Claus. They are both scowling. Claire’s expression, slightly demented with thoughts of her current amour, reveals “the lineaments of gratified desire,” more or, most probably, less. It is quite possible that the photograph, on closer scrutiny, would reveal that the family has already plunged into wretchedness. I am not the man to scrutinize it.
Claire’s Sentimental Education
Poundian; sonnet sequence; extended metaphor; hypallage; great poem; James’s villanelle in the Hudson Review, marvelous; negative capability; Justin’s color sense; Howl?; Westian; Proustian; Kafkaesque; Williams?; Ark II Moby I; the New Criticism; Rothko and Kline; Pollock and Guston; Jack Kerouac?; Dave Brubeck; objective correlative; Four Quartets; Dylan Thomas; pantoum, sestina, ballade, canzone, triolet; show don’t tell; O’Connor and Cheever; Herb Gold; timbre; Paul Desmond; Warne Marsh; Brecht; Ransom and Blackmuir and Jarrell; the Wake; the mind like a dying flame or something; epiphany; daubs; organic form; the Golden Triangle; existentialism; surrealism; Dada; Lowell and Viereck and Eberhart and Wilbur; Poetry; Le Sacre du Printemps; Lotte Lenya; structurally calligraphic; the San Remo; Gino and Carlo’s; the Place; the Cedar; The ABC of Reading; Jacques Brel; Edith Piaf; Dan’s smoky tone; Whitmanesque; The City’s Mediterranean quality; Kenneth Rexroth; City Lights; bop prosody?; Sonny Rollins?; Herbert Huncke; Naked Lunch; horse, H, smack, schmeck, shit; pot, grass, gage, weed, maryjane; the Magic Workshop; “The Venice Poem”; Don Allen; Projective Verse; Black Mountain; Blind Lemon; Robert Johnson; Gerry Mulligan; Sonny Boy Williamson; Snooks Eaglin; Chet Baker, quidditas; fuck me, James; fuck me, Bob; fuck me, Si; the Ninth; fuck me, Jack; fuck me, Bruce; fuck me, Eddie; Three Places in New England; fuck me, Richard; fuck me, Ron; fuck me, Bill; Transfigured Night; fuck me, Jon; fuck me, Charlie; fuck me, Sam; Clancy Sigal; fuck me, Joe; fuck me, Michael; fuck me, Dick; Lee Konitz; fuck me, Whitey; fuck me, Harry; fuck me, LeRoy; Laura Riding; fuck me, Al; fuck me, Boris; fuck me, Brad; The White Goddess; fuck me, Jerry. Please, Dan! I’m trying to read.
That Dan began an affair soon after Claire had begun to capitalize on her sexual chances, let’s call them, is predictable enough to make grown men howl and rend their garments. To call it an affair, however, is to distinguish it with a modicum of glamour and adventure that it did not possess. Then he had another, and then another, all of them the same in their dismal contours. They were mostly drunken, partially satisfactory stabs at abandoned carnality, amateurish, if the word has any sexual meaning, so much so that they seemed as if inflicted on Dan and his what-the-hell partners, most of whom were unhappy wives caught in marriages to men somewhat like Dan, although he would have been insulted to know this. He, it will not surprise you, thought that none of these women was good enough for him, and his gluey, sweaty spasms with them in divers motels did not soften his contempt for them. They were, my God, unaware of the “scene” all around them in the new Florence, and wished, more often than not, for their husbands to make enough money that they could move to a house in Belmont and spend a few weeks each summer near the Russian River. They were, that is to say, just folks.
Claire found out about one of these affairs, threatened to leave the apartment, leave The City, take Justin away, to do all those things that she should do to be free, did Dan not stop seeing the bitch, bimbo, whore, slut, tramp. Suicide was threatened once or twice. This was all a play that humanity has acted in for centuries, of course, but it was no less painful for being so sublimely banal. So Dan broke off the arrangement, as he thought of it, and was faithful for a month or so; then it was back to the adultery follies. Claire, rescued from emotional collapse, briskly punished Dan by taking up with a marvelous painter, a friend of a friend of her last lover’s wife. He painted the crystalline exhalations of the Bay and sky and so on and so forth, and suggested to Claire that James Fremont was, well, how to put it? unimportant. As was Dan, his bad poems and his bad job and his drunken crap about his trumpet, Jesus, that trumpet. After a month with the adoring Claire, the painter told her that he “found it difficult” to work and continue to see her; he was “into” a collage triptych that was, well, “draining.” Claire cried and cried and, two nights later, bashed Dan on the head with a Revere Ware pot. “You!” she yelled. “You! You! You!”
I don’t know what happened over the next few years, but Dan and Claire must have reached some sort of accommodation, a grim marital dance of necessary exchanges, with no questions asked about late nights out, unexplained absences, missing articles of clothing, whispered telephone conversations, and the like. Occasionally there must have occurred a vicious and mean-spirited quarrel over a lover who appeared to exist, for one or the other of them, on a plane slightly higher than the merely sexual, or, to put it in Dan’s polished words, “I know the fuck is more than just a quick fuck to you!” But by and large they just grew older.
Claire made occasional trips back to Brooklyn to see Dot, her “mommy,” and her two brothers, both of whom still lived with “mommy,” and, it pleases me to think, were still virgins. There they are, coming out of eleven o’clock Mass. “Lookit her,” Brian says to Mickey, of a comely young woman, “what a fuckin’ dog.” “A dog is right,” Mickey snarls. So they diluted their rabid lusts. Let’s imagine that on one of these trips Claire ran into “Swede,” and after a night of joyous dancing and drinking in a little joint in Bayside, the two old pals went to bed together. “Swede” confessed that he was married, but that he thought of Claire all the time. None of this probably happened, for I understand that “Swede” had fallen off a roof about a year after he and Claire had indulged in their initial dalliance. He had been trying to adjust a television antenna so that he wouldn’t have to watch the Yankees play in blurry snowstorms. Of course he was a Yankee fan.
In time, the accommodation mentioned became too boring, too burdensome, so Claire took Justin, by now an NCO in the army of sociopaths forever garrisoned in the Republic, and they went to—oh, I don’t know, Lawton, perhaps, or Saint Louis. No, Seattle! That’s where they went, Seattle. Even then, a great place to live. It was just great. Or maybe Dan left Claire after another sour argument, complete with tears and rage as decorations to his insistence that neither Claire nor anybody else would keep him from seeing Justin, by Jesus Christ! Of course, Dan would have been pleased never to look upon his berserk son’s face again. In any event, they separated. Some thought it touching that Dan took his trumpet with him, along with his NYSM scales book. Others, infected with reality, laughed.
Five or six years after Dan and Claire divorced, we discover, as they say, Dan in a Greenwich Village bar. He’s in town to bury his mother, and has accepted an old neighborhood friend’s invitation to have a drink on the last night of the wake. He is dressed in a gray sharkskin suit, white shirt, dark blue tie whose Windsor knot is too big for his shirt collar, a gray raincoat with raglan sleeves, and a dark brown porkpie hat. He looks, not to be harsh, the perfect rube. He lives in Vacaville, which may account for the figure he cuts.
He is being contemptuously superior with his old friend, who, to Dan’s patronizing amusement, is an insurance underwriter. Dan, you may be interested to know, works as a clerk in the main branch of the Sacramento Public Library, but has told his friend that he runs a small literary agency in San Francisco—“so much fresh talent there,” he says. Why he lives so far from the oven of creativity is not brought up. Dan sneers at the friend, the bar, the Village, at poor old New York itself, bastion of all that is wrong with everything. Then, suddenly, and, one might say, belligerently, he begins to recite a rigid poem by James Fremont. When he finishes, he looks smugly at his old friend. “I still write the occasional poem,” he says. The old friend is happily impressed, and they order another round. “How’s Claire, by the way?” the friend asks. “You ever see her?” Dan looks at him, his face rotten with disgust. “Claire?” he says. “Fuck Claire! You know she won’t,” and tears come to his eyes, “she won’t let me see Justin?” He takes out a handkerchief and pokes at his eyes. “That boy was my whole life.”
I have no idea what happened to Dan or Claire as the years passed, although somebody told me that he’d heard that Claire married an ex-priest who wasn’t quite sure he was heterosexual; he also had a limp. This seems much too plausible to be true. Justin, as you know, became a musician, so to speak. But Dan more or less just disappeared into one of many California towns, most of them in the desolate miles of woods between the North Bay and the Oregon border, a land that bursts into flames each fall, to the residents’ enduring surprise.
I have, I’m sorry to say, no nice conclusion to this story, which is, I admit, not much of a story after all. But concerning Dan, at least, I can, and will, borrow a few words from Scott Fitzgerald’s chronicle of another splintered and self-deluded man as coda: “In any case, he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”
—Gilbert Sorrentino has published more than 25 books of fiction and poetry. His latest novel, Little Casino (Coffee House Press, 2002), was a finalist for the 2003 PEN/Faulkner Award. After two decades on the faculty at Stanford University, Sorrentino has recently returned to his native Brooklyn.
“Perdido” is from Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Moon in Its Flight, a collection of stories that spans 35 years of his writing career, forthcoming in April, 2004 from Coffee House Press. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.