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Kevin Killian

Don Allen (1912–2004)

This piece is 1,500 words or about four printed pages long. It was first published, in a shorter form, in the Poetry Project Newsletter. The poem ‘A Season on the Mesa’ has been added since. It was discovered in 2005 among Jack Spicer’s papers at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Photos by the author.

Donald M. Allen died August 29, 2004, here in San Francisco, at the age of 92. He was the editor of The New American Poetry 1945-1960, and of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. He discovered, promoted, translated many US and international writers, from Ionesco to Ed Dorn to John Rechy; his work on “The San Francisco Scene” issue of Evergreen Review (1957) would alone have made his name in literary history. Being with him was like being with some odd, totemic figure from another place and time. He was a little spooky, but I learned to love even his elusiveness. Since his death I keep thinking of him, seeing him lumber toward me, a smile on his august face.

Kevin Killian, left, and Donald Allen

Kevin Killian and Donald Allen,
handheld photo, Kevin Killian (left) holding the camera.

    I remember goggling when introduced to him at a party, at Bob Glück’s house. Seated next to Ellen Tallman on one of Bob’s long, low elegant chaises, they looked like the emperor and empress of some mythical nation of poetry. Later on he worked it out. “You didn’t believe I was really alive,” he said, accusingly. As I began to assist Lew Ellingham with his life of Jack Spicer, I asked Don for more and more help; my cluelessness must have amused him, for he saw me through many difficulties, first in his stylish cottage on Grandview in the Castro, then in his apartment on Diamond Heights Boulevard, above Market Street, in what I took to be an “old people’s building.” In later years he had been fading. We would plan to have lunch and then, the morning of the day, he would call and cancel, complaining that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. “OK, Don,” I would say, adding a few more words in the midst of which he would hang up on me. His curt ways I came to enjoy. They betokened an era when people had “character,” (by which I suppose I meant “eccentricity”) like figures in Dickens. One time we had driven up to Marin County and had stopped off at a bookstore on the way home. I was browsing idly though the aisles, the way you do when the other person is intent on buying something specific, and after a bit I realized he had driven off without me. Always impatient. Luckily I know the bus routes pretty well. I got home just fine. And he was a hermit, a recluse or what have you, or something like it. He didn’t like being interviewed per se, but if I had specific questions and wanted specific answers, he would type them all out and hand them back to me. Ben Friedlander, who edited Charles Olson’s Collected Prose with Don (1998), never met him face to face.

L to r: Benihana Chef, Donald M. Allen, and Ray Poulin his companion
    L to r: Benihana Chef, Donald M. Allen, and Ray Poulin his companion.

    I used to ask Don about the role of the editor but after a while I stopped asking, for he would make me gifts to illustrate his answers. We would tease him about sex. He had never put any of his authors on the casting couch, he said, denying indignantly the rumors that had gathered around him for years. Yes, he’d had sex with one of the “New Americans,” one only, that’s all, only one. (Jack Kerouac.) He had, of course, been fond of many others, among them John Wieners, LeRoi Jones, Philip Whalen. I always thought he’d been at least a little in love with Barbara Guest, back in the 1950s — if he was ever down, you could ask him to tell you the story of meeting Barbara Guest in Yaddo or wherever and he would pick right up. I imagine that his closest friend was Robin Blaser, in Vancouver: the two spoke often on the phone and visited when they could. Most of all, when you visited with Don, you learned a lot about Frank O’Hara. Until right before his last illness Don had the most beautiful Joan Mitchell painting, a square of glowing rose and orange. It would sit in a chair as though it were a person. The poet I now call “Frank” had taken him to meet all the artists during one week in 1958 and Don had bought everything “Frank” told him to, and had spent under 900 dollars I think for 12 or 15 great paintings.
    I asked him what he thought of Joe LeSueur’s book, Joe’s account of the wild wake for Frank O’Hara in their apartment in New York, when Kenneth Koch came bounding up the stairs with two suitcases to take away all the O’Hara manuscripts with him, protecting them for posterity. Don brought me to his back room and kicked a suitcase with his toe. “There’s one of them.” The suitcase, with its label, “Hold for Donald Allen,” lies beneath my desk now, empty of course, the oddest conversation piece in the room. He was generous to Small Press Traffic, the experimental poetry center in San Francisco, and it was at Small Press Traffic that he made his last public appearance in 1999, to launch the Cal [University of California Press] reprint of The New American Poetry.
    Don was fond of Marjorie Perloff, whose book on O’Hara he loved, and of Maureen O’Hara Smith, Frank’s surviving sister. I call him “Frank” as though I knew him, but it was only from listening to Donald Allen speak of him that he came to seem palpable to me, a real person. I hope when I’m in my 70s, 80s, 90s, I’ll be able to fill the room with my ghosts, the men and women I knew and loved and lost to a death that seems more and more like a mere strip of cellophane, a formality, that’s all.

Don Allen, Cantu portrait

After he died I went back to his apartment one last time. One picture was hanging on the wall, a pastel head on a reddish paper, a very young man’s head. It’s him, Don Allen, rendered by the Mexican modernist Federico Cantu (1907–1989). He has that saturnine look that scared so many people but here he looks softer, younger; it must have been done at a time (late 1930s? early 1940s?) when Leslie Howard’s look was still popular? This picture was willed to the Aschenbach Foundation, San Francisco’s premier repository for works on paper.


Then nearby was a table with all his little ashtrays on it. Or are they sushi trays? So many little things, each perfect in its own way. Don spent so much time in Japan it was almost as though he had decided to bring it all home with him. See the little statue of Quan Yin, that’s going to the Asian Art Museum here.
    Don gave up writing poetry sometime in the early 60s, as far as I’ve been able to piece together. Many of his friends didn’t realize he wrote. One of his poems, “For Barbara,” appeared in the mimeo magazine “J,” edited by Jack Spicer; the other two poems will be new, I think, to all but a few. They are printed here in Jacket through the courtesy of Michael Williams, Don Allen’s literary executor.

For Barbara

The light on the lawn begins a green sound
but indoors all noise is muffled
                                              even a paper
napkin rustles at a breakfast stolen
in this deaf chateau. What words get spoken
they’re subdued and dull: hoary Aristotle
invoked, or some other bust — the lady in the portrait
has sick eyes, they click, dead as her rich
consort’s foot     poised for a provincial gavotte
(music dribbled by the fountain).
the sun at noon shouts down the desperate —
there’s no ear to hear     blind confessions:
each roars with its own

A Season on the Mesa

Silence     .
          even a paper napkin rustles loud
at a break
             fast broken in this forest without
ears. If speech is spoken, then subdued
and tense: an Aristotle bespoke
or some other sphinx — the lady in the portrait
has sick eyes, they click, silent as her consort’s
foot poised for this ballet of quietness — music
plashed by the fountain. All this indoors.
the desperate may hazard blind confession
against the clamor of the sun.
But there’s no one to play the priest:
each ear sounds with its own roaring
silence     .
          this quiet deafens me
Yaddo, June 5, 1957

A Poem for a Blind Man

                    (Balthus’ Cherry Trees)

Although it must feel dark to you
here where we stand in the long shadow of the house,
the sun still shines warm and bright on the grass
all along the upward slope of the orchard
and on the green and brown hills beyond,
thickening their contours and colors with golden light.

And here in the orchard the light lies heavy on the lawn,
heavy with the great warmth of summer.
The cherries glow cherry red between their leaves —
a high, sharp red, the way they taste on the tongue —
and their leaves are a dark green where less light touches

It is the green of the grass I wish you could know —
all the greens dissolved there in the thick sunlight
running on the lawn, almost lemon yellow where the slope rises,
lower down cloudy jade (and touching the eye as coolly),
and there, curving in the hollows, it is dark,
as dark as the leaves of the cherry,
and tasting almost bitter to the sight.

This is that very time when all things swim in green,
when the light itself feels moist green,
thick with radiance on bushes and trees, on leaves and grass,
this, this is the greenest green we know.

In this moment between day and dusk
there is no wind, no movement,
nor any other sound comes to us here in the orchard
save the sound of my voice trying to give you the taste of green.
You know how softly grass speaks to the fingers;
I wonder — can you hear the sounds of this color —
the shrill vibrance of yellow green
the clear resonance of emerald green,
the cool timbre of green darkening in the shadows?
These are the tones of the voice of the sun:
it is speaking to us in this one color:
Green, green, green, green.

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