I TURN ONTO Hartford Street in the Castro District of San Francisco. There is a man asleep on the sidewalk under a blanket against a tree, an empty wine bottle by his head, a metal shopping cart at his feet filled with clothes and books. He looks comfortable.
57 Hartford is a house like the other houses with which it makes a row. It is also the Buddhist Zen Center of the Soto Zen tradition. I pause at the door and pick up a newsletter from a holder on the wall. While doing so a man opens the door. It's Philip Whalen.
He stares at me with sharp blue eyes behind eyeglasses. I did not ring.
"Is it possible to see Philip Whalen?"
He stares. I begin: "My name is Dan Bouchard. I'm a poet from Boston. I know Bill Corbett . . ."
"Bill Corbett is a good poet," he says, flatly.
He motions for me to come inside. We sit in the dining room, he facing the window across the long table. There are linen placemats out, a bottle of Tabasco, a pepper shaker. I tell him I admire his poetry very much. He says, "That's very kind of you."
I tell him we have begun a journal in Boston, would like poems from him if available.
"I haven't written in years," he says.
There is silence. Tension? I try to create conversation. I ask him about Kenneth Rexroth.
Any special reminiscences? He smiles. He begins to speak and suddenly I feel as if he's warmed to having a visitor this morning. He talks about the Friday night salons Rexroth held in his apartment on Scott Street "where there would always be a musician or artist. Kenneth was a fabulous cook and I was invited to dinner on different occasions. But people in New York didn't like Kenneth. They thought he was a bore."
But to Philip Whalen he was not a bore. Whalen liked his wide reading and erudition. He says his favorite poems of Rexroth's are the long philosophical narratives: "The Phoenix and the Tortoise," and "The Dragon and the Unicorn"; my favorites also.
Is there a character in either of your novels modeled on Rexroth? "No," he says.
There is a pill holder on the table, very large, with separate containers to hold pills for each day of the month. There is a metal cube near my elbow, 3 by 3 inches. It has a button on the top and "Voxclock" printed on the side. "Try it" Whalen says. I press the button and a voice - it could be the sister of the electronic telephone operator - says "eleven forty-two a.m."
He's pleased at having a Penguin edition of his selected poems appear recently even tho the poems have appeared so often before. He's surprised, he says, at how quickly the book came out. Michael Rothenberg edited it and sat with Whalen as they picked poems out. They went thru Whalen's complete works - no small amount of material - and Whalen said yea or nay to each poem.
Philip Whalen is wearing black trousers, the kind that go with a suit. The trousers have an enormous waistline that is loose around him and rise up to his chest when he sits. A red shirt is tucked into them. The shirt is open three or so buttons down revealing a lengthy vertical surgical scar. He wears a knit green cap which he lifts once or twice to scratch his shaved head. A gray scarf is wrapped loosely around his neck. His voice is low, steady, and he pauses sometimes before speaking unless I have made him smile with a comment to which he has a ready reply.
There is construction being done in the basement, a new floor going in. Great cacophonies of hammer and drill for which we brake conversation and wonder aloud once or twice just what they are using down there that could cause so much noise.
He asks what I do in Boston. Academic journals at the MIT Press I say, most of which I don't understand, like cognitive neuroscience. Another smile. He was in Boston once, he says, for some readings, and stayed with friends in Arlington. He liked the city, its restaurants and museums.
There is not much poetry business on his desk nowadays but he receives many books and magazines in the mail. If he knows the sender or knows of them thru someone else he will have a portion read to him to see what the work is like. But having books read to him is unsatisfactory because his readers are not readers themselves. And the commercial books-on-tape do not suit him because they sound like they are read by professional actors or out-of-work professors.
"What would you like to hear again if you could choose?"
He pauses. He pauses for several minutes. I fear I've lost him, that my question has annoyed him or he did not hear it. He is staring ahead, toward the window. Then he turns, wets his lips. "Persuasion by Jane Austen," he says. "Or Emma." Silence again. "Or parts of Ulysses, if it could be done with clarity. There's so much Irish slang in it; I don't understand most of it."
Of his own books he says he has no favorite.
"I am legally blind." But he bends to pet the cat as he comes and goes in the room. I tell him my grandmother is also legally blind and she too has gadgets like the Voxclock to help her, mostly in the form of my grandfather. This wins a laugh from him.
Is it impertinent to ask him to sign my book? "Not at all," he says and leans toward the table. Under his name he prints the date: Arabic numeral for the day, colon, Roman numeral for the month, colon, 2000. Finishing, he uncrosses his legs. "I seem to have gotten my foot stuck in the wastebasket," he says, and I help free his foot from it.
His caretaker is on the way over. He wishes me an enjoyable stay. "Drive down Geary Street on your way out of town and go to the Cliff House. Look at the ocean and sunset. I haven't had the food there but the bar is nice."
I pick the mail up from the floor that has been dropped thru the slot in the past hour and place it on the table in the reception area. We walk to the door and he offers his hand. Shaking hands, he says, "I don't mean to be salty, but you might call before dropping in on someone."