I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In the spring of 1957, some cronies and I had a supper club in the dining room of the Green Lantern, an inn on the edge of Hanover, New Hampshire, where I was a student in my senior year at Dartmouth. One evening I had drunk a lot of wine over my meal when someone began telling about a new member of the ski team who was presently holed up in a sleeping bag on a mattress, sick with flu, in the team’s sleeping quarters on the top floor of College Hall. It would seem that this 19-year-old Naval ROTC scholarship jock was actually a poet.
I got up and went straight over to College Hall.
The object of my curiosity was dead to the world when I arrived. I turned on the light, a bare bulb in the ceiling, and shook him, asking him what he had done with the church key.
I opened a couple of aged-in-the-wood India pale ales, which in those days came in a tall, thin, green bottle, and assured my new acquaintance, Alden Van Buskirk, or Van, for short—he was still blinking and rubbing his eyes in bewilderment—that the strong ale was bound to bring relief. I was only sorry not to have been able to mull it for him, with cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns, sugar, rum—the sovereign grippe remedy.
I noticed Van was reading Whitman, Eliot, Hart Crane. Also Dylan Thomas. Had he read Pound or Rilke or Mallarme? He shook his head. Nope. Homer? Yeah. Virgil? Mmm … a mellifluous bore. One ancient that he really dug was Ovid. Talk about a Book of Changes, we have one: Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Van sat up cross-legged on the floor, shedding the sleeping bag, and lit a Camel. I noticed his fingertips, like my own, were both tobacco and ink-stained. He had nothing on his pale, skinny, hairless body, but a pair of also ink-stained jockey shorts. Although the room was warm, there were goose pimples on his arms. He tried to blow a smoke ring, but sneezed. “Bless you,” I intoned.
“Fountain pens leak,” he informed me.
That summer I went abroad, and for the next three years we did not communicate. Early in the spring of 1960, when Van was about to graduate, I returned to Dartmouth, and we met again, this time, thanks to a reading of works by Rilke and John Wieners that been organized by Jack Hirschman, then an instructor in the English Department, whose first book of poems, A Correspondence of Americans, was at the printer’s when we met. From him, Van first learned of the new poets who were springing up in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, outside Academe and in opposition to all that Eisenhower America stood for.
The almost slight teenager that Van had been when we first met had filled out to a not quite stocky yet powerfully built man. There was a jaundiced pallor to his face whose formerly prominent cheekbones were lost in an unhealthy puffiness, a moon-faced look quite out of character. His pale blue eyes were bloodshot. He had been sick for about a year. His mother had bone cancer. When she died, he had a dream that he would go next and, soon after, the first in a series of spells in which the urine darkened from mahogany to black, or “Coca Cola,” as he put it, while he suffered paroxysms of vomiting till there was nothing left to bring up but bile. After a day or two in the hospital, with transfusions and IV feeding, he would return to normal. It had happened several times. The black urine contained blood that had broken down and passed through the kidneys. His doctors had put him on high doses of cortisone steroids, which seemed to hold off the crises and speed recovery from them, but, he told me, the side effects were rugged. At one point, the “little green pills” made him see spaghetti-like worms coming out of the walls. They lowered the dosage after that. Now he was ok, but the doctors still had no idea what was wrong. Although unable to confirm any of their speculations, they still inclined to a “pre-leukemia” hypothesis. He shrugged. Maybe some weirdly toxic ski wax had gotten onto the sheath knife he had used to cut salami.
This conversation took place on a warm afternoon in early spring, as Van and I were climbing from the still-frozen river at the foot of West Wheelock Street, along sidewalks rutted with thawing mud and slush, to a stone tower, at the top of which, in a corner out of the wind, we paused in a sudden dazzle of raw sunlight. In his wrap-around sunglasses, my companion looked like a racing car driver. The world has been under an evil spell for centuries, I explained. It was a revelation that I owed to a recent discovery of Antonin Artaud, who had died only a dozen years earlier. Reality, I assured Van, had nothing to do with the real world, which was, in any case, about to go up in flames. It turned out that he shared my apocalyptic expectations, except to him, it seemed the world was already on fire. The Book of Revelations, Blake, Artaud, Jean Genet had all come down the chimney and were dancing in our heads.
The illness had caused Van to drop out of the NROTC. Great, I said. That made both of us draft-exempt. A year before, in Paris, I confided, the daylight hours at the winter solstice had seemed to dwindle to no more than a couple in every 24. It was a delusion, but I thought I was witnessing a final blackout. The sun would never return. Life would cease. Night after night, I awoke choking with asthma in the wee hours, and burned mounds of Vesuvius Powder, a nostrum purchased from the pharmacy two doors away, inhaling the smoke through a paper funnel, which set off fits of sneezing and cleared the bronchial tubes. Then I would drink a cup of brandy and lie there, waiting for the world to end. Early one morning, I awoke on the floor with the feeling that I had died. I had had a grand mal seizure. They put me on anti-convulsant medications. My draft status would have to be changed from 1-A to 4-F.
“Well, they won’t be giving us any grief as draft dodgers,” Van rejoined. “I was just getting ready to leave the NROTC anyhow. No one in their right mind would be willing to fire shots in anger to defend this.” With a sweeping gesture, he took in the surrounding treetops and nearby clocktower of Baker Library gleaming golden in the late afternoon sun. To casual observer, we might, at that moment, have looked like nothing more than a couple of college boys sharing a cigarette.
We were fit for only one thing on the job market, teaching. Yet we recoiled from the prospect of joining a profession that seemed no better than a guild for the transmission of established values. The poetic vocation was a horse of another color. It was the call to a new, different way of seeing, of being, the call of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life” …
Meanwhile, Van had accepted a fellowship at Washington U. in St. Louis as a means of postponing his entry onto the job market. I also was stalling. I had decided to spend a few months with my piano teacher at Dartmouth and immerse myself in a work that I believed held a key to the universe tucked away inside its dense and enigmatic fabric, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.
I was able to do this thanks to my mother, who had agreed to give me $100.00 a month until I became self-supporting. Although unhappy with the arrangement, she had acquiesced to it when I pointed out that her father had helped her when she was beginning as a writer in the early 1920s. He had paid her bills all the way to outer Mongolia and back.
Nonetheless, I told people that I was living on income inherited from whaling ancestors. The latter were real enough; only the inheritance was imaginary. To Van, however, I admitted the truth. It came as no surprise. His own situation, vis-a-vis Robert Van Buskirk, Sr. was similar. Both recently bereaved, our respective parents were terrified lest we end up as burdens to them, disgraceful failures. We resented their Philistine views and decided to ignore the old folks’ existence, except when it became necessary to block their oppressive, if well-meant, schemes.
After graduation, Van stayed on in Hanover so as to be within reach of the hospital. The home of a mutual friend happened to be vacant, and Van was invited to house-sit. I had a similar situation across the river in Norwich, where I had installed a piano. From his home in Rutland, Van fetched an old car, a 1941 Buick convertible. He started dropping by in mid-afternoon, to improvise at the keyboard. He was a good musician. At the time, I didn’t give a hoot about jazz. He pretended to think I loved it.
On nice days, we went to a swimming hole. Sunbathing on its margin, we read Nightwood out loud. We talked about drugs, which neither of us had taken.
I took a furlough from Beethoven. We went hiking in the White Mountains, wandering along ridges high above tree line, from peak to peak, for several days. One afternoon, Van plunged naked into an icy pond from which one could see all the way from Maine in one direction to Lake Champlain in the other. He jumped up and down, shouting at me to come in. I shouted back that I’d rather stay dry.
Almost next door to where I was staying in Norwich was the 20-year-old Lisa Yeoman’s house. Van and Lisa had met as teenagers while skiing at Pico and had been seeing each other on and off ever since. Tall, fine-featured, blond, awkward, yet radiating adolescent grace, Lisa had a soft voice, observant eyes, sudden laughter. Van loved her and was always giving her advice.
One night, he and I drove over to the Rutland State Fair. I was still young enough to see something like poetry in blue-collar America at play on a summer evening. Swarms of insects circled the arc lights. Van’s dark-goggled face took on an eerie glow. From his full, pale lips came a stream of sarcastic invective against the wasteful, exploitative, murderously hypocritical, witless, Leave-It-To-Beaver, Dairy Queen-slurping American way of life.
A week later, Van lent me his Buick, and I went down to East Hampton for a few days at the beach. While I was there, he got deathly sick. Lisa phoned, saying he might not live.
Van had just been moved from the recovery room to a private room when I arrived. Barely conscious, he asked me to read from John Wieners’s Hotel Wentley Poems—the book was on the bedside table. His fingers a waxy, yellowish gray, he fiddled with an ice sliver, touching it to his lips. The sky outside the window was bright blue. I paused. “Don’t stop,” he urged.
A few days later, Van was out of the hospital. Soon the only memento of the operation was a scar over his solar plexus. He groused some about an inability to concentrate or think clearly enough to write. I did not sympathize, but told how Sinclair Lewis had once been invited to look in on a creative writing workshop. He was smashed, and boiled his exhortation down to one sentence. It went something like this: “You folks want to write, get out there and write.”
One morning in early September, we took off in the Buick. We buttoned the canvas top down and played the radio into the wind. Crossing the mountains, Van told of trout fishing with his dad when very young.
Over in New York State, I dropped him off at a Thruway entrance and turned back to Saratoga Springs, where I was to spend the next two months at Yaddo, hard at work on a series of long poems that were as bad as they were ambitious.
Arriving in St. Louis, Van found himself a furnished room on Waterman Street and registered for school. The student body consisted of several thousand airline stewardesses and crewcut types in shirts and ties. Van sauntered in, in ink-stained khakis, a t-shirt full of holes, and bare feet in the filthiest tennis shoes west of the Bowery. Some were drawn to him; others found him disturbing. He started writing me letters. (There was never a phone, so we never had a long-distance conversation).
Checking in at the university clinic on September 20th, Van met a medical student named Jim Gaither, who was to solve the mystery of his disease. Gaither was not much older than Van, and the two hit it off. Like their colleagues back East, the specialists at Washington University School of Medicine had posited an idiosyncratic pre-leukemia. Gaither was assigned to analyze test data and research the literature. Lacking background in hematology, he quailed at the prospect of the sophisticated blood work and decided to start with urine, a simpler, more old-fashioned point of departure. The approach paid off. A finding of numerous fine, dark granules that stained blue in a potassium ferrocyanide solution sent Gaither to a recently devised diagnostic test for paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, a blood disorder that had been observed in fewer than 200 cases since it was first described by the German hematologist Paul Strubing in 1882. The test turned out positive. A second acid hemolysis test using a normal person’s serum was also positive. The diagnosis was established. From Gaither, Van learned that his prospects were not too good. One patient had survived with the disease for 20 years, however.
A few days after learning his diagnosis, Van wrote saying that he was glad to know what he was up against inside himself. In the place where, as he put it, “all pursuits end …”
A letter written soon after, hints at a feeling that something extraordinary would happen on Halloween. Van had been staying up all night writing for several days. On the evening of October 31st, he went out for a drink and met a 30-year-old ex-convict named Johnny Sherrill, who was on parole and earning his living as a worker in a machine shop. The son of migrant fruit-pickers—his part American Indian mother also worked for a time as an artist for Disney studios—Van’s new acquaintance had spent the years since his teens drifting from state to state, scamming, jamming, pimping, gambling, doing time both for things he had done and things he hadn’t. Johnny got along with the black guys in jail better than the whites. He identified with everything that had soul—gospel music, the blues, jazz, the rhythms of black speech, the witty verbal style, the subtleties and flourishes generally lacking in the language of their putative superiors on Tobacco Road.
Van had read Mezz Mezzrow, yet nothing could have prepared him for Johnny. The previous summer, Van had reveled in Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal. Now he was meeting someone who could have stepped straight out of its pages.
Van and Johnny left the bar and drove across the Mississippi to East Saint Louis, where at 4:00 AM in the riverbottom enclave of Brooklyn, Illinois, they stepped into a labyrinth of pink and blue neon, the Harlem Club, a palace of iniquity that might as well have sprung full-armed (indeed, bristling with weaponry) from the brow of Chester Himes.
The kid from Rutland had never seen anything like it. Here was a crowd of well-dressed, well-heeled, mainly black, pleasure-seekers belonging to a culture having few points of contact with Middle America outside the used-car lot, the police station, and the hospital. Everywhere was a smell of strong spirits, perfume, marijuana and tobacco, the strident beat of rhythm ’n’ blues numbers such as Quicksand and Soul Food.
Inside were several bars where you got your set-up by the half-pint bottle, with the mixer in a paper cup, and rooms where various legal and illegal games were in progress, as well as a little striptease theater, and yet another room with dancing. It was to this room that Johnny led the way, through the crowd of drug dealers, pimps, hookers, and drag queens prowling the floor. Shortly before daybreak, they were joined at their table by a red-haired transvestite who flirted shyly with Van.
By this time, Van was quite stoned. The idea of having sex with a boy was out of the question. However, what blew Van’s mind was that he could not only sit still for such a flirtation, but open his heart to it and be deeply moved by what he saw and felt in the stranger’s eyes, a love that, to his amazement, he found himself wholeheartedly accepting.
“I have seen a god,” he wrote the next day. Johnny had invited the transvestite to come with them, but was softly rebuffed. She kissed Van goodbye, her lips barely touching his.
Upon reading his letter, I was put in mind of the lines from Hermaphroditus by Swinburne:
Whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire:
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire …
It seemed as though fearing for his life had opened Van to love, any love, and maybe at this point, the most impossible could be felt as the highest, and, because accepted though never consummated, as the love that casts out fear. The god he had glimpsed was none other than Eros, I supposed.
Van made plans to move in with Johnny, to buy a motorcycle. Christmas came. He spent part of the holidays with me in New York City, staying in an artist’s loft on Second Avenue. One night, I left him alone in the loft smoking some strong weed. I came back to find him all shook up. He had been crying, he wouldn’t say why. Months later, the experience was evoked in a poem:
Last will and
If I die in sleep it will be in a convulsion whose “terror”
and “beauty” proved irresistible at last. I rise, the
quivering bud afraid to blossom.
It comes out of dreams where music,
color and objects interchange
but for their continual flame. It is within this flame-
flower I am drawn up sweating half awake and
horizontal. Spine arches in short
spasms. I see nothing above.
Darkness everywhere or are my eyes gone out?
Before now: I gave in to life and awoke
But every time more rigid,
every time more pull, I
hurt with desire to
explode and vow no more retreats.
God wants to fuck me too.
and death will be my final lover.
I give her all.
With the New Year, Van returned to Saint Louis and the apartment he intended to share with Johnny. There was a newcomer in Johnny’s life, a 19-year-old prostitute named Carol. Carol and Van fell for each other, and the two moved out, to a vast and decrepit biracial hotel on Cabanne Street.
Here for a short time Carol’s way of moving, talking, dancing, making love became Van’s. Carol referred to him as the professor she was married to. One day they were chased by a gang of black teenagers. This fit in with our mystique of the coming bloodbath. To me he wrote:
“Young Negroes could purge the city here by bloodshed. That I was almost victim I applaud no less. Let all of it explode.”
From my room in Hanover I also applauded.
Carol was eager to support him, Van said. He didn’t want that; he just wanted her to quit turning tricks:
“I hurt to see her in black tights and leather jacket dancing out. I feel as if she is lost in some world of shining sewage, silver and gold, in a night I cannot enter or see …”
Carol became in his words “the hieroglyph of my suffering.” Then he was back in the hospital, this time with a hemolytic crisis precipitated by a bad dose of the clap. Upon leaving the hospital, he moved back to the white rooming house on Waterman Street where he had been in the fall. Carol begged him to come home to Cabanne Street. He refused.
While all this was going on, John F. Kennedy had been elected President and inaugurated, a development that meant nothing to any of us. Writing me soon after JFK’s New Frontier speech, Van quoted a verse from a recently discovered Gnostic book:
Jesus said: “I have cast fire upon the world …”
His old room on Waterman Street was occupied by a young woman student. A Florence Nightingale type, she took to waiting on Van. They were soon sleeping together, although he didn’t really like her. He was now intensely aware of his deteriorating health. At times it filled him with rage, and he projected his nightmares onto the new housemate. Eventually she decamped.
Far from these upheavals in Hanover, I continued to prepare my Beethoven recital. We made a plan. In June, after the recital, I would drive out to Saint Louis in the Buick. We would proceed from there to Mexico.
While our letter discussed the coming trip, Van fell in love again. This time it was neither a transcendent vision as the divine stranger in the Harlem Club had been, nor a pink-heeled figment of the light fantastic, nor a nightmare phantom, but a reserved, extremely intelligent, ethereally pale, and entirely willing 19-year-old woman, Martha Muhs, a student at Washington U. Their love coincided with the coming of spring and was to continue for the rest of Van’s life.
From a mail-order nursery in Texas I had obtained a boxful of peyote buttons and sent some to Van. A hilarious and touching letter reports on the rainy April day Van, Martha, and Johnny communed over the peyote.
On June 16th I drove west. Saint Louis was laid out flat in a heat wave when I got there. Van had moved into a huge new apartment with Johnny. Inside, Martha and her friend Jim Bryan were sitting fully clothed in a cold bath for relief from the heat, reading out loud from a story by Edgar Allan Poe. A horn honking in the street outside announced the coming of Johnny, who within moments was sharing a six-pack with Van and me. I was impressed. I found Johnny every bit as electrifying as Van had cracked him up to be.
My big moment came the next day, when someone wangled access to the university chapel organ. Pulling out all the stops for Van and his friends, I played the Hammerklavier finale.
Soon after that, Martha went home to Chicago. The two lovers took leave, promising to meet up in the fall. Van and I sat up all night reading Kerouac’s Dr. Sax out loud. We began to prepare for Mexico.
Worried about the effect the trip was likely to have on Van’s health, Johnny urged him not to go. I quoted Beckett: “What is it to go abroad? It is suicide to go abroad. But what is it to stay at home? It is a lingering dissolution.”
One morning toward the end of June we stepped over the border, having left the Buick in an El Paso parking lot. As we ground our teeth from the amphetamine we had been ingesting ever since Saint Louis, the bus rattled over the sierras of Chihuahua heading south. Little did we know that we were passing through the very same region where a quarter-century earlier Antonin Artaud had witnessed the peyote dance.
A week later, we found ourselves facing the Pacific just north of the Guatemala frontier, outside a fishing port Van had chosen for its name: Puerto Angel. He had seen it on a map and said, “Let’s go to Angel Port, man.”
We had rented two open-air huts made of palm leaves on a hillside over the beach. From here Van wrote to Martha:
In the trees overhead vultures alight & sail off on black wings; jungle insects make electronic sounds and tiny lizards run around everywhere. The sea itself is the blue center of all this; its transparent azure shows thousands of strange fish drifting about—bright blue tiny fish, bigger black ones, gold-tailed fish, barracuda; and even, ten yards from shore, we saw an enormous shark once, about ten feet long. The water is slightly cooler than body temperature, the most delightful for swimming I’ve ever found …
Our landlord was the police commander. The commander had a safe full of narcotics given him in part payment for allowing the CIA to use the port for mysterious operations a few months earlier, during the Bay of Pigs adventure, according to a local schoolteacher, a Castro sympathizer. I had no idea whether there was any truth in the story, but did think the teacher somewhat nuts to be saying such things to me, a stranger, and a gringo to boot, in spite of my indiscreetly expressed opinion that Mao and Fidel were the great men of the century. I had also chatted up the postmaster on our arrival, telling him of our desire to stay for a time at Puerto Angel and write; he had taken us to call on the commander. Van’s letter to Martha describes the scene:
El Señor Commandante (highest functionary in the town, who is sheriff, etc., but, most important, the Rent Collector) lives in the best house & has a moth-like servant or lackey who hovers at his shoulder. He looks like a William Burroughs figure—old, gray-haired, with those transparent green glasses, a pistol in his belt, high on junk all the time, very formal, reserved, but junky-like in silences & gaze. The postmaster explains that we are writers “with a great poetic mission to fulfill here” and want a house at a precio modesto.The Commander nods gravely at the former statement as if he were accustomed to meeting such personages, and brightens at the latter statement. Dave & I look serious & poetical.
Actually, our tanned, beat appearance had led one new acquaintance to ask if we were merchant sailors. We hoped to make some kind of a drug deal that would permit us to live off the proceeds for a year or so. We were also hoping to write wonderful stuff right there in Puerto Angel.
One evening we saw what looked like a bright star moving in a steady straight line across the twilight sky over the ocean. Van pointed it out and informed me it was Sputnik. He went on to say that he liked the idea of metamorphosis because change is the law of life, whereas permanence suggests spiritual as well as physical death, both of which are also strongly suggested by the idea of closeness with another person.
Bored and peevish, we got new clothes and took to visiting a bordello owned by the commander. Van had been warned by his doctors not to get the clap, so he outfitted himself with condoms, setting off a minor stir.
The commander had a treasure that fascinated us, an ancient Mixtec jade statuette of a seated figure with a human face surmounted by a jaguar mask. This, the commander said, related to the teaching that each person’s soul splits off amoeba-like into two souls at a key moment during the as-yet-unborn individual’s earthward descent from the stars, and that the duplicate thus produced comes in the shape of an animal, bird, insect, or plant spirit that accompanies one throughout life like a twin. Van remarked on the similarity between this teaching and a certain Gnostic doctrine.
“I see my Twin with my eyes of light,” the commander quoted.
“The last words of Mani,” Van exclaimed.
“Indeed,” the commander answered. “Spoken while he was being flayed alive by the King of Persia.”
I became fearful. According to an entry in my notebook:
Van gets skinnier and skinnier, yet it’s impossible to think of him as being sick with a fatal illness. I doubt that any of the locals suspect. As we stepped out of the commander’s doorway earlier today, I got a glimpse of him framed in pale afternoon sky, the rainbow-striped blazer loose about his shoulders, arms out because of the heat, his brown neck and thin shoulders forming an improbably jaunty angle, an effect completed by pegged slacks of olive-colored silk and a brand-new pair of dark brown ankle-strapped Argentino boots.
One day we helped the commander perform an experiment on his mozo, the “mothlike” retainer Van had spoken of to Martha. The commander had found out that we had brought a few tabs of acid with us. He had two girls from the casino pin the little fellow while I dropped a tab in his mouth and poured in some tequila to wash it down. The commander was eager to observe the effects of lysergic acid first-hand. Later that afternoon he made a speech to us about Heaven and its impossibly desirable blue body, the sky.
Van began to wonder what sort of experiments might be in store for us, if we were lucky enough not to get ambushed by the mozo with a machete.
At length we bought a handgun from the commander and embarked on a hare-brained scheme to hijack a small cache of high-grade bricks that I had gotten a line on in Nochistlan, a pueblo 50 miles north of Oaxaca, where there had been an earthquake weeks before, and people were crossing the still-open fissures on planks thrown casually across.
Here we hit a snag. In Van’s words to Martha: “We broke into the biggest narcotics ring in Mexico by mistake and were nearly murdered.”
We managed to escape in a rented truck we had left near the highway outside Nochistlan. One week later we smuggled a pound and a half of marijuana into the United States taped to our torsos and legs.
We recovered the Buick and started for California. En route Van got sick. We just made it to San Francisco General Emergency. After a few days he was better, but I had become terrified he would die, and wanted to hang onto him so he wouldn’t vanish. This infuriated him. “Dave’s suddenly following me everywhere in San Francisco, feeling put down every time I go out alone, adopting my ideas,” he wrote to Martha. I began to imagine that an act of concentrated willpower might bring him back. My presence became insufferable.
Bad things kept happening. One day we were out driving in the Buick with the top down. Van’s college friend John Ceely, who had just moved to the Bay area, was at the wheel. We’d been smoking some of the Mexican grass back at the apartment where Larry, another college friend of Van’s, was putting him up temporarily. (I’d just settled in a Chinese boarding house on the edge of North Beach and was stoned all the time on paregoric I had gotten a doctor to prescribe for the dysentery that had followed me back from Mexico.) Van was in the front seat, next to John. I was alone in the back. As we swung onto the approach to a bridge, I hunched over and lit a joint I had brought with me. After a deep drag which I held in as long as possible before letting it out in a paroxysm of coughing, I stood up in the wind, toking at the joint held between my thumb and forefinger, flaunting it. Then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
“Be cool! Sit down!” Van shouted, glaring angrily, adding in a stage whisper loud enough not to be lost in the airstream: “I’m holding!” I kept on yelling. I can’t remember what the words were, if any. After a few seconds I sat back down, my face covered with tears. When I woke up I was alone in the car, its canvas top up, parked outside Larry’s house. I had passed out and slept I had no idea how long. I wanted to go straight back to my Chinese boarding house, but instead trudged to the door and rang the bell to be let in. Climbing the stairs, I realized I hated Van.
A week later, walking through North Beach, we encountered posters reproducing a painting of a little girl ragamuffin with huge eyes, in a gloomy landscape like a bad children’s book illustration. There was something irritating about those big dark eyes. You just knew the emotion they were supposed to convey was fake. There was a gratuitous perversity as well that repelled me.
“What on earth are they?” I exclaimed as we passed a cluster of them around a boarded-up doorway.
“They’re Keanes,” Van replied in an acid drawl.
“Oh no!” I said.
“Oh yes!” he replied.
“No,” I insisted. “There’s nothing keen about it, it’s kitsch …”
This led to another bad moment. Van told me he welcomed Keanes as one more ingredient, like Dairy Queens and Montovani records, of the coming, in fact already arriving, Garbage Apocalypse. He said my European esthetic standards simply didn’t apply to the reality of America. As he droned on about Apocalypse and American reality, another sad-eyed waif loomed up at arm’s length. I reached out to rip it down.
“For Christ’s sake,” he interjected. “Let it alone!” We walked on in silence.
A few days after that we exchanged some more bitter words. I decided to leave.
I hitchhiked to Saint Louis and moved in with Johnny. Johnny now had a steady named Freddie Quinn. Freddie’s girlfriend Nackie and I got together briefly. Van’s letters to me resumed. Freddie was pregnant. (Six months later, when the baby was born, it was a boy; they named him Alden, after Van.)
In September, during the Cuban missile crisis, we read about ourselves in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch as unidentified “marijuana operators” on whose trail the police were in hot pursuit. I grew uneasy and hitchhiked back to New York.
In between ever-lengthening hospital stays, now at the U. Cal Medical Center, Van took an apartment in Oakland with John Ceely. Here he wrote poems representing in his words, “the last vision, the last light & my last body consumed.”
Toward the end of November, after Van had been in the hospital for a month or more, John informed me that Van was running dangerously high fevers and because of clots in the extremities his toes were gray and there were red splotches on his arms, neck, and face. “Probably you’ve wondered,” John wrote, “if you ought to come out and see him. What good would it do?”
I took peyote and had a vision of Van with tubes in him on a hospital bed, yet somehow also outside time in a heightened, eternal here-and-now state that the peyote made me feel was one in which everything in the universe past, present, and future is alive and simultaneous. From the experience I made a poem and sent it to Van. It now seemed to me that every word we exchanged had a special weight, and the power to cross immeasurable distance.
Postcards from him came every few days. He was going to be out soon. We were going to share a place in Hoboken. He had heard from Dave Haselwood of Auerhahn Press that John Wieners was in New York, writing great things. He was reading Melville’s Pierre. He had a reservation for a flight arriving December 18th at Newark Airport.
On the morning of December 11th, my sister knocked at the door where I was staying to tell me someone had phoned with the news that Van had died the night before.
David Rattray is editing 90 letters written to him by his friend the poet Alden Van Buskirk, who died in 1961 at age 23. He also plans an expanded reprint of his edition of Van Buskirk’s poems, Lami, first published by Auerhahn Press, San Francisco, in 1965.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee