Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



Yvonne Jacquette Burckhardt

Edwin Denby



About 1961, thru Rudy Burckhardt, I met Edwin and saw him frequently at the New York City Ballet. In the summer of 1962, Rudy and I trekked across the dunes outside of Provincetown to visit him in a dune shack he had been renting for many summers. It was a tiny spare cabin high above the ocean, surrounded by gnarled and bent pines, making it very private.
      With Red and Mimi Grooms, in 1964, Edwin, Rudy, and I, summered in Lincolnville, Me., close to Alex and Ada Katz. This year it was a blacksmith’s shack that Edwin stayed in, coming to our rented and crowded cottage for dinner and for the frequent filmings of ‘Lurk’. A Frankenstein story, Edwin wrote a sophisticated narration and the speeches for his part as Professor Borealis.
      We all liked Maine so much that Rudy and Edwin bought a house in Searsmont the next year, and soon ‘Money’ was the film project. Edwin played a rich man who steals coins from a derelict and a child, when he wasn’t driving the stock market upwards. As well as writing poetry, Edwin was drawing and painting. Small ball-point drawings of an apple tree have the use of a squiggly line that suggested the sense of light among branches. The first few summers many dancers and writer friends came by for visits. Edwin did most of his work on poems very late at night, following his New York habit. Some years he suffered from writer’s block, so turned then to drawing and small paintings. He asked me for technical advice. In N.Y., many of his friends came to dinner with him at our loft. Once when I complained about doing the cooking, Edwin told me how much his single friends loved to be invited to dinner. Then I realized I was getting to meet some very interesting people and I was lucky to be able to do that. Among them; Paul Taylor, Ron Padgett, Frank O’Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, George and Kate Schneeman, Alex Katz, Rackstraw Downes, Alice Notley, Douglas Dunn, and Bill Berkson.
      In our house in Maine, Edwin wished to be helpful. He paid for our Artesian well, and installed himself as the daily dishwasher. He had an elaborate system for the dishes, which no one could assist with, presumably to save water. He peeled vegetables and helped pick some in the garden till the paths allowed no room for his large feet. In cold weather, Edwin wore two or three sweaters over each other. Curiously, there was often a hole or two at the front waistline, reminding me of Mickey Mouse’s outfit. He took daily walks to the pond through the woods, sometimes catching his feet on the roots of pine trees. Once in his late years, he fell several times. When he came up to the house, he was enraged, the only time I saw him angry.
      After three major illnesses, his mind became easily confused, mostly about practical matters. He struggled to become even more helpful in the household, but sometimes kitchen tools were found in the refrigerator or in the oven. With many people he could discern that they might need money, or encouragement, and he certainly worked very hard writing Guggenheim recommendations. By the time he was seventy-seven or seventy-eight, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease probably was occuring, although his doctor didn’t use diagnostic terms to us. He kept writing.
      I have never met such a combination of brilliance and empathy for others, a true Bodhisatva, a pleasure to be with. In the later poems, metaphors inspired by his walks in Maine as well as Rudy’s photographs, could be found. One, ‘straw coins’ referred to sun patches on dried pine needles on the forest floor.  



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